Unity, the idea that we should seek consensus in our collective decisions, is a central testimony of the Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). In this fractious time, however, it often seems the goal of unity has been nearly forgotten. Everyone seems to have differing views and fears and concerns, many of them deeply held. The anxieties of our age have taken a toll on our ability to talk with each other. In such a climate, unity feels nearly impossible to achieve. If so, does unity still matter?
I believe it does; in fact, I would argue that unity could be the antidote to our societal divisions. Faith and Practice, the Pacific Yearly Meeting’s guidebook, says this about unity: “Friends believe that it is possible for the human spirit to be in direct communion with the Divine. Seeking God’s will together, we believe (the) way will open and unity will emerge. Working together to discern and serve God’s will both nourishes and benefits from unity. This unity grows from trust in one another and readiness to speak out, confident that together, Friends will find the truth.”
It is clear, then, that unity is as much a process as a goal. One of the qualities I find most compelling about Friends is that every advice and testimony rests on the fundamental principle that actions matter most. When Quaker founder George Fox said “Let your lives speak,” he meant that beliefs and convictions can only be communicated through action. It is what you do that matters, not what you say or profess.
In the case of unity, it is the process of seeking unity together through thoughtful listening and discerning of God’s will that is paramount. That’s why unity is most valuable when we disagree.
According to Os Cresson, an Iowa Quaker, “For Friends, unity is not usually unanimity, which is agreement without dissent. Unity is more often agreement that acknowledges dissent, staying together despite differences, and moving forward with guidance from our common values.”
Seeking unity can be a challenge, as Quakers often hold disparate views of God and God’s will. Because Friends believe that each person is on her or his own spiritual path, it is more important that we are seekers of the truth than that we have all arrived at an agreed-upon destination of spiritual perfection. And this, says Cresson, is what we can model for the larger community. “The embrace of religious diversity in our midst can be our gift to the world…. Let us be patterns of living together and loving each other, differences and all. Let us openly and joyfully celebrate our peculiar combination of Quaker diversity and Quaker unity.”
That is why we must continue to seek unity with all around us. Unity matters because it requires listening with an open heart, and honoring what others bring to a discussion. It requires us to respect and love those who think differently than we do.
As the contemporary Quaker Parker Palmer has said, “Friends are most in the Spirit when they stand at the crossing point of the inward and outward life. And that is the intersection at which we find community. Community is a place where the connections felt in the heart make themselves known in bonds between people, and where tuggings and pullings of those bonds keep opening up our hearts.”
Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting, firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting