Beyond Majority Rule

Voteless Decision Making in the Religious Society of Friends
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting


Michael Sheeran, a Jesuit scholar, spent two years visiting monthly meetings and observing annual sessions within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting studying the actual decision making process used among Friends. This book is the result of his study and he includes detailed descriptions of the process at work and draws conclusions about what works well and what does not. Also included is a history of Quaker process. "Earlier Sheeran had written, `Quakers do not begin with a theory. they begin with an event.' this event, this knowing at first hand that the continuous revelation is still at work is, in his judgement, what really matters." -Douglas Steere, from the foreword

Our Reviews

Martin Kelley - from

A review of Michael Sheeran’s book Twenty years later, do Friends need to expe­ri­ence the gath­ered condition?

Beyond Major­ity Rule has got to have one of the most unique

sto­ries in Quaker writ­ings. Michael Sheeran is a Jesuit priest who went
to sem­i­nary in the years right after the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil. Forged
by great changes tak­ing place in the church, he took seri­ously the
Council’s man­date for Roman Catholics to get “in touch with their
roots.” He became inter­ested in a long-forgotten process of “Com­mu­nal
Dis­cern­ment” used by the Jesuit order in when it was founded in the
mid-sixteenth cen­tury. His search led him to study groups out­side
Catholi­cism that had sim­i­lar decision-making struc­tures. The Reli­gious
Soci­ety of Friends should con­sider itself lucky that he found us. His
book often explains our ways bet­ter than any­thing we’ve written.

Sheeran’s advan­tage comes from being an out­sider firmly rooted in
his own faith. He’s not afraid to share obser­va­tions and to make
com­par­isons. He started his research with a rather for­mal study of
Friends, con­duc­ing many inter­views and attend­ing about ten monthly
meet­ings in Philadel­phia Yearly Meet­ing. There are sec­tions of the book
that are dry expo­si­tions of Quaker process, sprin­kled by inter­views.
There are times where Sheeran starts say­ing some­thing really insight­ful
about early or con­tem­po­rary Friends, but then backs off to repeat some
out­dated Quaker cliche (he relies a bit too heav­ily on the group of
mid-century Haverford-based aca­d­e­mics whose his­to­ries often pro­jected
their own the­ol­ogy of mod­ern lib­eral mys­ti­cism onto the early Friends).
These sec­tions aren’t always very enlightening–too many Philadel­phia
Friends are uncon­scious of their cher­ished myths and their inbed­ded
incon­sis­ten­cies. On page 85, he expresses the conun­drum quite

bq. If the researcher was to suc­cumb to the all too typ­i­cal canons
of social sci­ence, he would prob­a­bly scratch his head a few times at
just this point, note that the ambi­gu­ity of Quaker expres­sion makes
accu­rate sta­tis­ti­cal eval­u­a­tion of Quaker beliefs almost impos­si­ble
with­out invest­ment of untold time and effort, and move on to analy­sis
of some less inter­est­ing but more man­age­able object of study.

For­tu­nately for us, Sheeran does not suc­cumb. The book shines when
Sheeran steps away from the aca­d­e­mic role and offers us his sub­jec­tive

There are six pages in Beyond Major­ity Rule that com­prise
its main con­tri­bu­tion to Quak­erism. Almost every time I’ve heard
some­one refer to this book in con­ver­sa­tion, it’s been to share the
obser­va­tions of these six pages. Over the years I’ve often casu­ally
browsed through the book and it’s these six pages that I’ve always
stopped to read. The pas­sage is called “Con­flict­ing Myths and
Fun­da­men­tal Cleav­ages” and it begins on page 84. Sheeran begins by
relat­ing the obvi­ous observation:

When Friends reflect upon their beliefs, they often focus upon
the obvi­ous con­flict between Chris­to­cen­tric and uni­ver­sal­ist
approaches. Peo­ple who feel strongly drawn to either camp often see the
other posi­tion as a threat to Quak­erism itself.

As a Gen-X’er I’ve often been bored by this debate. It often breaks
down into empty lan­guage and the desire to feel self-righteous about
one’s beliefs. It’s the MacGuf­fin of con­tem­po­rary lib­eral Quak­erism. (A
MacGuf­fin is a film plot device that dri­ves the action but is
in itself never explained and doesn’t really mat­ter: if the spies have
to get the secret plans across the bor­der by mid­night, those plans are
the MacGuf­fin and the chase the real action.) Today’s debates about
Chris­to­cen­trism ver­sus Uni­ver­sal­ism ignore the real issues of
faith­less­ness we need to address.

Sheeran sees the real cleav­age between Friends as those who have
expe­ri­enced the divine and those who haven’t. I’d extend the for­mer
just a bit to include those who have faith that the expe­ri­ence of the
divine is pos­si­ble. When we sit in wor­ship do we really believe that we
might be vis­ited by Christ (how­ever named, how­ever defined)? When we
cen­ter our­selves for Meet­ing for Busi­ness do we expect to be guided by
the Great Teacher?

Sheeran found that a num­ber of Friends didn’t believe in a divine visitation:

Fur­ther ques­tions some­times led to the para­dox­i­cal dis­cov­ery
that, for some of these Friends, the expe­ri­ence of being gath­ered even
in meet­ing for wor­ship was more of a for­mal rather than an expe­ri­en­tial
real­ity. For some, the fact that the group had sat qui­ety for
twenty-five min­utes was itself iden­ti­fied as being gathered.

There are many clerks that call for a “moment of silence” to begin
and end business–five min­utes of for­mal silence to prove that we’re
Quak­ers and maybe to gather our argu­ments together. Meet­ings for
busi­ness are con­ducted by smart peo­ple with smart ideas and effi­ciency
is prized. Sit­ting in wor­ship is seen a med­i­ta­tive oasis if not a
com­plete waste of time. For these Friends, Quak­erism is a soci­ety of
strong lead­er­ship com­bined with intel­lec­tual vigor. Good deci­sions are
made using good process. If some Friends choose to describe their own
guid­ance as com­ing from “God,” that their indi­vid­ual choice but it is
cer­tainly not an imper­a­tive for all.

Maybe it’s Sheeran’s Catholi­cism that makes him aware of these
issues. Both Catholics and Friends tra­di­tion­ally believe in the real
pres­ence of Christ dur­ing wor­ship. When a Friend stands to speak in
meet­ing, they do so out of obe­di­ence, to be a mes­sen­ger and ser­vant of
the Holy Spirit. That Friends might speak ‘beyond their Guide’ does not
betray the fact that it’s God’s mes­sage we are try­ing to relay. Our
under­stand­ing of Christ’s pres­ence is really quite rad­i­cal: “Jesus has
come to teach the peo­ple him­self,” as Fox put it, it’s the idea that
God will speak to us as He did to the Apos­tles and as He did to the
ancient prophets of Israel. The his­tory of God being actively involved
with His peo­ple continues.

Why does this mat­ter? Because as a reli­gious body it is sim­ply our
duty to fol­low God and because new­com­ers can tell when we’re fak­ing it.
I’ve known self-described athe­ists who get it and who I
con­sider broth­ers and sis­ters in faith and I’ve known peo­ple who can
quote the bible inside and out yet know noth­ing about love (haven’t we
all known some of these, even in Quak­erism?). How do we get past the
MacGuf­fin debates of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions to dis­till the core of the
Quaker message?

Not all Friends will agree with Sheeran’s point of cleav­age. None
other than the acclaimed Haver­for­dian Dou­glas V Steere wrote the
intro­duc­tion to Beyond Major­ity Rule and he used it to
dis­miss the core six pages as “mod­est but not espe­cially con­vinc­ing“
(page x). The unstated con­di­tion behind the great Quaker reuni­fi­ca­tions
of the mid-twentieth cen­tury was a taboo against talk­ing about what we
believe as a peo­ple. Quak­erism became an indi­vid­ual mys­ti­cism
cou­pled with a world-focused social activism–to talk about the area in
between was to threaten the new unity.

Times have changed and gen­er­a­tions have shifted. It is this very
in-between-ness that first attracted me to Friends. As a nascent peace
activist, I met Friends whose deep faith allowed them to keep going
past the despair of the world. I didn’t come to Friends to learn how to
pray or how to be a lefty activist (most Quaker activists now
are too self-absorbed to be really effec­tive). What I want to know is
how Friends relate to one another and to God in order to tran­scend
them­selves. How do we work together to dis­cern our divine lead­ings? How
do we come together to be a faith­ful peo­ple of the Spirit?

I find I’m not alone in my inter­est in Sheeran’s six pages. The
fifty-somethings I know in lead­er­ship posi­tions in Quak­erism also seem
more ten­der to Sheeran’s obser­va­tions than Dou­glas Steere was.
Twenty-five years after sub­mit­ting his dis­ser­ta­tion, Friends are
per­haps ready to be con­vinced by our Friend, Michael J. Sheeran.