"It is this belief that God’s will can be through the discipline of silent waiting which distinguishes our decision-making process from the secular idea of consensus. We have a common purpose in seeking God’s will through waiting and listening, believing that every activity of life should be subject to divine guidance."
A Quaker community is not just a collection of individuals who come together for common activities, like a social club or campaigning group. What distinguishes Quaker community from a purely secular is the experience of being a 'gathered people'. We have been brought together by a common call; a leading of the Spirit within each person that is drawing us together for a purpose that is not our own.
Our Quaker communities are grounded in the practice of spiritual discernment. Quaker discernment is not consensus. It is a form of perception - of insight into a depth of reality that we can trust to guide us, and that is wider and deeper than whatever attitudes and values we bring individually or collectively to the occasion. This practice relies on a shared trust that there is a reliable source of guidance and authority to be found, that is not simply a projection of our own wishes and values. This does not assume any particular theology; it is compatible with many kinds of religious belief and even with a thorough-going agnosticism. All that is essential is our practical willingness to listen for, and to follow the leadings of the 'Inward Guide'. This is not so much a matter of 'belief' as an inner attitude of openness to the possibility of guidance, and trusting sufficiently in it to follow in the way we are led.
One traditional Quaker formulation for this experience of inward guidance is 'God's will'. This expression may be understood in many ways; as the intentions of a divine personality, in a more impersonal sense such as the character of ultimate reality, or simply as a 'marker' for an experience that transcends rational explanation. The experience itself is common to people of many religious traditions; including those that do not have a concept of a personal God.
Our collective experience is that access to this inward guidance is not limited to a special few, but is potentially available to the whole community that practices 'the discipline of silent waiting' together. Our non-hierarchical forms of and decision-making are grounded in this historical experience, rather than any abstract principle of equality. If discernment were restricted to only a few people with special insight or advanced training, we would have been right to adopt a hierarchical form of church government, as have most Catholic and Buddhist . But the Spirit can, and does, speak through even the least confident or experienced Friend, if they are willing to follow the discipline of Quaker practices.
How have you experienced the discernment of 'God's will' in your own life or in a Quaker community?
This post is a response to the Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.