What is “Clerking Consciousness”?

by Jeffrey Aaron
New Brunswick Meeting


What is the first responsibility of a “clerk”? Many Friends might say to facilitate decisions by the body through sense of the meeting. We use the humble term “clerk” because decisions are not the clerk’s; in fact, the clerk is the one person whose opinion does not usually count in the decision of the gathered body of Friends. His or her opinion is often not even known or asked or expressed. This practice is totally radical and entirely different from other usual decision-making practices because it is meant to value everyone’s view. It is not consensus, which is a secular practice of finding a way forward that everyone can buy into, even if the consensus means significant compromise or is not what any given member of the body may think is best. Consensus is a practice that encourages positive interactions among people. It is a good thing, better than voting, which can leave 49% of the voters as losers. Any other form of decision making is usually based on hierarchy. Designated or self-designated individuals are in control. Our American representative form of government is hierarchical. If those voted into power make a decision that we do not like, we have little power other than our next opportunity to vote for a new representative. We can express our opinions about decisions to our representatives through the media and “on the streets” for what that may be worth, which may sometimes be a lot, often not so much. But unlike our Quaker practice, those voted into power can ignore the concerns of their constituents.


If all the world interacted on the basis of consensus, the world would be a far better place. But if all the world functioned on the basis of sense of the meeting, as Friends do, the world would be a very different place altogether. Everyone would have full responsibility to find the best way forward for everyone. Society would be on its way toward resolving its most pressing problems because people would look for what is best for everyone. Decision making would often be difficult, as our business meetings can be, but the process would be everyone’s responsibility: either accept the responsibility to labor together in peace and compassion, or do not participate. If these Quaker ideas were understood and used by humanity, it would make for a brave new world requiring that we all value everyone. Unfortunately, our Quaker business practices are unknown to most people and are often misunderstood even by many Friends. Some even refer to “seeking consensus” in our meetings.


So, if it is the clerk’s responsibility to help the body find the best way forward—sometimes referred to as “the third way” or “God’s way”—what is the responsibility of the individuals who make up the body? I would say it is exactly the same responsibility as the clerk’s, despite the clerk’s specific role: it is the responsibility to find the best way forward for everyone. What does this mean in practice? I would suggest that it means that everyone is responsible to be the best possible listener s/he can be during business discernment, if not at all times. It also means that any spoken contribution reflecting the opinion of the speaker should be as concise as possible and presented as humbly as possible. If one Friend speaks too often or too long, s/he may be preventing others from speaking or making the work together harder for everyone. Angry opposition or placing blame, right or wrong, is counter to good practice. The presentation of an opinion with an air of “I have the obvious answer” is counter to good practice. Presenting points contrary to what was presented for consideration for approval is good practice, but is better if it is presented with a suggestion how to get around the problem that the speaker is concerned about. Outright rejection of a valid proposal can be simply counterproductive. “I think there is a problem with the proposal,” a Friend may offer, “which I feel led to point out, but perhaps there is a way around this problem. Here is my suggestion” (if I have one) or “I am hoping someone is able to suggest a way to get around the problem I am concerned about.” 


A problem-solving attitude and approach, with consideration of others, is what some Friends refer to as clerking consciousness. As we proceed with our deliberations, we are likely to find the best ways forward if all Friends function in our gathered body with full and loving clerking consciousness. If there is any body of people that is likely to succeed in this kind of stressful situation, it is Friends, because basic Quaker principles teach us to value everyone. I am grateful to labor together in love with those who understand that our way of doing business, when we do it right, is an amazing gift that we give ourselves, whether or not the rest of the world is aware of it and of its enormous spiritual value.