Beyond the MacGuffins: Sheeran’s Beyond Majority Rule

A review of Michael Sheeran’s “Beyond Major­i­ty Rule”. 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 cliché (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 believes 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.

Post­script: Michael J Sheer­an con­tin­ues to be an inter­est­ing and active fig­ure. He con­tin­ues to write about governance
in the Catholic
Church and serves as pres­i­dent of Reg­is
in Denver.

  • Melyn­da Huskey

    I’ve enjoyed your work for sev­er­al months – large­ly because we share some of the same exas­per­a­tions and affec­tions for our Quak­er faith. But since we’re all Ranters now, I’d like to do a lit­tle rant­i­ng about what the lat­est issue of *Friends Jour­nal* seems to say about the state of Quak­er­dom. My part­ner wish­es we’d stop sub­scrib­ing to *FJ,* since every issue sets me off. But the lat­est (geese on the cov­er) was just about more than I could bear.
    Was it the let­ter from the med­i­ta­tion cir­cle which likes to call one med­i­ta­tion time a month “Quak­er Meet­ing,” but which elects not to be “bur­dened” by any of the Quak­er testimonies?
    How about the long essay on the unQuak­er­li­ness of say­ing mean things about Pres­i­dent Bush, which adduced as rea­sons that equal­i­ty is a Quak­er tes­ti­mo­ny, and rich peo­ple are just as equal as poor peo­ple – and let’s not for­get that a child­hood of wealth and priv­i­lege can be just as hard on a per­son as pover­ty; and any­way, a pres­i­dent who tried to gov­ern based on Quak­er prin­ci­ples would be a noble fail­ure, since those crazy ideas could nev­er work in the real world!
    Or maybe it was just the gen­er­al whiff of the tomb – a real­ly old tomb, all scent of decay long gone, and noth­ing left but dust and dead air. No Quak­ers here, pal. No George Fox rebuk­ing priests from the narthex aisle. No Isaac Pen­ning­ton seiz­ing the moment of the Restora­tion to make Quak­ers as unpop­u­lar with the King and Court as they had been with the Pro­tec­tor and the Com­mon­wealth. No Mary Dyer ready to swing off the gal­lows and into Glo­ry for the sake of Light. Not even an Eliz­a­beth Fry down in the dun­geons. Just a bunch of skele­tons in bulky Andean hand­knits and Birken­stocks, a dry wind whistling round their bones, as if they were moan­ing soft­ly, “Imag­ine there’s no Heav­en … Imag­ine no pos­ses­sions … All we are say­ing … Ah, those were the bright days of hope.”

  • Dear Melyn­da,
    I’m a bit sur­prised how many peo­ple are relat­ing to these “rants.” I have to won­der if there’s a crit­i­cal mass to turn this all into a group pub­li­ca­tion at some point…
    As you might have seen if you had digged down to my resume, I worked for Friends Jour­nal for almost two years recent­ly, very part-time, as web­mas­ter. I like the Jour­nal staff but cer­tain­ly under­stand and share many of your frus­tra­tions. A good bit of the con­tent is made up of lifestyle arti­cles for a cer­tain kind of read­er – over fifty, a half-committed lib­er­al with a self-focused gener­ic spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. They did a big sur­vey or read­ers a few years ago and that’s their tar­get read­er. It’s a chicken/egg conun­drum of course and I wish they’d do more to court a wider range of read­ers. Much of the con­tent would be equal­ly at home in a gen­er­al inter­est mag­a­zine like Utne Read­er. I find there’s usu­al­ly about one good arti­cle an issue and this is what I always look for.
    Inter­est­ing, many of the ref­er­ences that Thomas Hamm’s “Quak­ers in Amer­i­ca” uses for FGC Friends come from Friends Jour­nal arti­cles. His foot­notes are sort of a “best of” col­lec­tion from the past ten years and as soon as I’ve fin­ished the book I’m going to have to go over to the FJ office and pho­to­copy all of Hamm’s ref­er­ences. One of the things I plan to talk about when I review his book are the foot­notes, since I find his choic­es quite interesting.
    If you’re look­ing to real­lo­cate a lim­it­ed mag­a­zine bud­get, you might take a look at Quak­er Life. I’ve been reg­u­lar­ly sur­prised and chal­lenged by it since Trish Edwards-Konic became edi­tor. It has its own frus­tra­tions (they’ve made an edi­to­r­i­al deci­sion to keep all the arti­cles short) but they draw from a much wider swath of Quak­erism and have less lifestyle arti­cles per issue.
    Then there’s always the web. I’m not sure why there’s such a mys­tique to print but I know many Friends who were more impressed to see my name print­ed in ten-point type on the FJ mast­head than they were with my own Non​vi​o​lence​.org, which reach­es an audi­ence five to ten times larg­er than the Journal’s… I won­der if there might be a larg­er phe­nom­e­non under­way, in which old-media com­pa­nies agres­sive­ly court their aging audi­ences so much that younger audi­ences turn to the inter­net instead. This is cer­tain­ly hap­pen­ing in the music indus­try, where the pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies have giv­en up younger lis­ten­ers to MP3s and online ser­vices, and thrown the mar­ket­ing mon­ey into new albums by aging rock stars aimed at baby-boomers.

  • Fran­cis Drake

    I’ve no idea if you take any note of com­ments to old posts (I became aware of this thread only yes­ter­day [Dec 10 ’06] cour­tesy of http://​gnoscast​.blogspot​.com/) but assum­ing you do…
    fwiw, I’m the newest record­ed mem­ber of Tam­pa (FL) Friends. While still an atten­der some­one put Sheeran’s book in my hand, and just read­ing on my own, the pas­sages you cite jumped out at me in exact­ly the same way.
    Anoth­er cita­tion that has stayed with me comes a few pages back:
    … One evening, the writer was shar­ing sup­per with two friends in their late sev­en­ties. He men­tioned he was curi­ous how Friends under­stood God. One of his com­pan­ions paused and remarked: “Well now, I guess I don’t real­ly know. I know what I think.” Then, turn­ing to his com­rade, he said: “Thee and I have been wor­ship­ing togeth­er for almost fifty years. I don’t know what thee thinks about God. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it.” The oth­er grave Friend agreed, adding: “I real­ly don’t think it mat­ters much, either. If thee shares the expe­ri­ence in the wor­ship, it doesn’t much mat­ter how thee puts it into words.”
    Or, as Angelus Sile­sius would say,
    God whose love and joy are everywhere
    can’t come to visit
    unless you aren’t there.
    Go well.