The creative and destructive tensions between individual and corporate discernment among Friends have long interested me. It seems to me that the successful process of corporate discernment involves the act of deep listening, both to each other and to the Presence that moves among us.
Deep listening is an art. It involves the ability to honor one's principles without shutting oneself off to new evidence or to new possibilities. It requires tenderness but not capitulation. It requires firmness but not rigidity. It involves applying enough compassion and imagination to allow us to stand outside of our own sense of attachment to our own subjective realities. It requires patience to stay grounded long enough to transcend the personal and cultural differences that obscure our spiritual kinship.
Corporate discernment requires this deep, loving listening to our brothers and sisters so that we can remain in good and righteous relationship to them even as our individual ideas seem to struggle and strain for consideration. But corporate discernment, as much as it relies on our abilities to engage in loving dialogue with each other, is not, in the end, about you and me trying to get along. It is about you and me reaching out together to better understand the will of the Divine Presence.
It is a remarkable thing, and one I would not have considered possible if I had not witnessed it myself. A room full of unique individuals could transcend their individuality to become a vehicle of adoration and obedience to a Holiness that embraces them all. Both silent worship and worshipful meetings with attention to the business of Friends require a discipline of hearing each other with love while keeping one ear tuned in toward the Divine Presence. In this way, what each of us may know of the Divine is magnified in a room full of other Friends tapping into that same Present Energy.
In holding each other in this Light, we have the power to sit with the anger, the pain, the bitterness, the exuberance, the hopefulness of each of our individual human messages until such transitory things pass away and The Message, howevery stumbingly and imperfectly articulated, remains. There can be an exhilaration translated into solemn quiet tears in such moments. I have seen this many times among Friends as the room seems to collectively acknowledge that Something Good Has Happened Here. But from then, we come to the real human work of responding to that Message. Our relationship to the Spirit that moves us so powerfully and tenderly in a gathered meeting for worship does not end when we stand and shake one another's hands. At every step of action and reflection, we repeat our process. Slowly, deliberately, passionately...
But sometimes it seems to go wrong. We make corporate decisions that can't possibly be a reflection of Divine Will (unless Divine Will calls us toward apathy, prejudice, power-mongering, greed, and a slothful service of convenience and convention). So how does that happen? Why do we crucify our prophets?
I believe it is because in those times we are not faithful to our process but merely to maintaining the appearance of the process. Discerning the will of the Presence is not the same as discerning the will of the group. There are times when the group leans away from prophetic voices called to move us closer to the Divine will in favor of voices that call us to lean toward that which is comfortable, profitable, popular, or conventional. In these cases, the prophetic voices that arise in our midst are received not by a corporate body but by a room full of individuals who are choosing to be drawn toward the message, to remain neutral to it, or to resist it based on personal motivation. Those who resist it provide a counter-leadership even if their resistance to the prophetic message is silent.
I do not condemn Friends for this. We are imperfect creatures, but our stumbling does not make us less beloved. I think that it is natural and normal for us to pass through this very limited human response to messages. It is perhaps even necessary for those of us who sit in the process of corporate discernment to allow ourselves to pass through our individual emotions and thoughts before we are able to draw more deeply into the Presence. There is nothing inherently wrong with our individual perspectives, for they too are given to us as a tool for helping us understand the will of GOD. Our problem lies not in our individuality nor in unity with the group. Our problem lies when individuality or community are no longer the servants, but rather the masters of our understanding. Revelation does not always arrive with a clap of thunder. More often, perhaps, we may expect it after long and dull conversations, repetitions, emotional anxieties, and hard, hard work.
I'd like to hold up the psychological and emotional components of corporate discernment. It seems to me that while we may be more skilled at acknowledging the spoken conflicts and compromises Friends engage in during the process of corporate discernment, we are not always aware of the underlying and unspoken emotional conversations that define our relationships to each other and to our Source. Even in silence we often project our intentions (so often personal and selfish) to our brothers and sisters even as we pay lip service to the process of corporate discernment.
So much of communication is non-verbal. We read each other's faces and bodies. We can sense emotion. When we speak of the sense of the meeting, I believe we are often really speaking of sensitivity to the subtle, emotional feelings in a room. Many of us are weighing (albeit often subconsciously) the unspoken response of our neighbors to the messages we hear and speak. Even still bodies and faces speak loudly to those who have ears. They cast their disapproval into the energy of the room whether or not they say a word.
I have wondered why we do not talk much about this. We seem to be aware that while our vocal and written conversations are helpful and community-building, they are also notional and therefore not a true substitute for relationship with the Divine. We know that we must be mindful of mistaking our words for the Word. We acknowledge that the sound and fury of human language may distract us from a truer Message.
Well, there is fury in silence too.
Why do we not also acknowledge that many of our silent, emotional interactions are also notional, arising out of collective fear and insecurity far more than out of tenderness toward the Divine Presence? Why do we not acknowledge that we are picking up on our f/Friends' feelings and attempting either to resist them or to make it right with them (even if that means turning away from what we are called to do?)
That prickle of disapproval one feels in a room after a discomforting witness is as real a response as any angry speech. One feels if the silence that greets one's words is a welcoming and thoughtful silence or if it is icy and disapproving. The exchange of glances, the set of a jaw, a hardening distance in the eyes-- these things alarm us and distract us.
Perhaps we mistake the desire to bury that angry human subtext as corporate discernment. I have seen the angry, although subtle energies of one person poison "corporate discernment" as Friends scrambled to balance their desire for friendship (with a small f) with their desire to serve a greater Ministry. In these cases, Friends seem to be saying, "God forbid we offend this man! (and too bad if we offended God in the process.)" We make idols of each other. One has money we cannot afford to lose. One has influence we do not dare challenge. Another pouts and makes us all feel lousy when she doesn't get her way. Still another launches into speeches we would rather not hear. How much easier it is to become people-pleasers rather than Truth Publishers.
Quaker history is full of examples of prophets whose ideas were met only with scorn. It is full of examples of "corporate discernment" that claimed that God called not for equality, nor for peace, nor justice, nor love, nor integrity. Quaker history is full of examples of Friends declaring their loyalty to the status quo rather than to the Almighty. We have not always followed our Guide.
I think, maybe, it all comes down to Integrity. We cannot be anything other than human, and therefore, we must be imperfect. But as imperfect as our faithful translations of the Living Word may be, they will so much more so if we are not honest with ourselves about our limitations. Do we believe that, of all human beings, Friends alone are capable of corporate discernment of the will of the Divine will without falling prey to our own unspoken dialogue of pride, pain, and foolishness? I believe that until we acknowledge that our words are not alone the vehicles of our voices, we will remain out of tune, and discord rather than harmony, will mark our community.