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outdated Quaker cliché (he relies a bit too heavily on the group of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
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
issues in the Catholic
Church and serves as president of Regis
University in Denver.