The Quaker way is both radically individualist and radically communitarian. We like to say that “there is that of God in everyone,” meaning that each one of us can encounter God directly, without relying on intermediaries or outward authorities of any kind. This puts responsibility squarely on the individual. No one else can give you the answers— you have to find them for yourself. The truth lies within. Our way of worship is intended to provide space for an inward journey in search of the divine. The most important thing any of us can do is develop our relationship with the divine, wherever and however we experience it.
On the other hand, undertaking the inward journey in search of truth invariably brings us into community with each other. Mystics in all religious traditions have described the experience of becoming one with the universe, of feeling connected to everyone and everything. Not all Quakers are mystics, but all have come to know that the divine is found not in isolation and separateness, but in our relationships with each other and with the world around us. Its essence is love. It connects us with each other.
“Friends, meet together and know each other in that which is eternal.”
– George Fox
The Quaker way of making decisions is grounded in this experience of community. We are each responsible for our own decisions, but we listen to the counsel of others because they are important to us and we are important to them. Quakers have developed practices like “worship-sharing” and “clearness committees” to support community involvement in individual decision-making.
Spiritual community is also the foundation of Quaker decision making in what we call our “meetings for worship with a concern for business.” Our business process does not rely on voting—we have found through long experience that the majority is not always right. Nor does it involve what is commonly called consensus—a kind of negotiated compromise to which everyone can agree. Instead we make decisions based on “the sense of the meeting”. We give everyone a chance to speak, and try to listen deeply to what everyone has to say. We listen for what God is telling us, in our own hearts and through each other. We look for a way forward that is loving, honest, respectful, and creative. We each try to let go of our own agenda and objectives, and look for how Spirit is leading the community as a whole. If there is deep disagreement, we do not take action. Only when the meeting reaches a “sense of unity” do we feel free to proceed.
Unity does not mean unanimity. There are always people who might personally have preferred a different course of action. Unity means that we are willing to support a decision that seems right to the community as a whole at the present time. Decisions can always be revisited. The “sense of the meeting” changes over time in response to new information, new conditions, and new concerns.