miriam berg
circa 1992
Published in Friends Bulletin, circa 1995

Friends, I think that we have gotten off the track as far as our understanding of our method of reaching decisions is concerned. When i first began attending Friends' meetings in 1956, i was taught that Friends only took action when we were all in agreement on that action, and that this meant that if even one Friend objected to a proposed action, we would not proceed. I observed this happening in our meetings, and at Pacific Yearly Meeting where there were more than 300 Friends in a plenary session. Sometimes some of us were pretty impatient with other Friends, but we followed this principle. There was a holiness in this process, that we recognized the Light in the objector as well as in ourselves and in the rest of us, and that only when we were really all in agreement could a decision be said to be divinely made.

However, we seem to have come to believe that the objection of a single Friend can be overridden, and that the meeting can take action in spite of such a single objection. This is explained nowadays as, unity does not mean unanimity, nor does it mean consensus, which to me is mere word play. What is the difference between "consensus" and unity, or between majority vote and taking action over the objection of a single Friend (or more than one Friend)? Why do we feel that we can take action, if there is a Friend who is not in agreement with that action? It seems as if we have come to believe that it is more important to make decisions than to be united, rather than as early Friends believed, that it is more important to be united than it is to make decisions.

To me this is a watering down of our testimony on unity, and arises out of a fear that a single Friend's objection may be mere obstructionism or recalcitrance, or slowness of comprehension. But how can we say or believe that? It amounts to saying that the objecting Friend is lacking in the Light. Do we really believe that? It is sad if we do, and is a denial of our most fundamental Quaker teaching. It also seems to amount to a belief that a large majority of Friends is enough to make a decision, even if there are some who are opposed. But is that really "unity"?

I call upon us to go back to our primitive practice of acting only when we are all in agreement, and that if there is an objection which has not been satisfied in a way such that the objecting Friend can say, I approve of our proceeding with this action, or at least, I do not object to this action, then we should lay the matter over for further seasoning and consideration.

Perhaps it is actually the case that meetings and our meeting have frequently taken action when there were some members or a single member in objection, and that this is why we have evolved the customs of saying, "I will not stand in the way of the meeting if it wants to proceed with this action", or, "I wish to stand aside from this action", or, "I wish to BE RECORDED AS standing aside from this action." Because it is a weighty thing to stand in the way of the meeting if all other members are in agreement. But i have seen it happen, where one member declared that they could not approve of something, and we have labored with that person, and in the end took no action. This seems to be a more harmonious and holy way of acting than by taking action over the objection of a single Friend, or by pressuring that Friend into standing aside reluctantly or when they were not really ready to stand aside.