I wrote a guest post for Inclusive Church: you can read it here.
Last weekend was Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, held at Friends House in London from Friday afternoon (24/5) to Monday afternoon (27/5).
During a Yearly Meeting “we aim to create a truly gathered community who can go to the heart of who we are and what the world needs of us”. Our discernment and time together should be
“an inspiring event which takes us into and out beyond ourselves, and also carries us back, strengthened and grounded, to our local meetings and daily lives”.
[from minutes of Yearly Meeting Gathering 2009 Planning Committee]
Some of the business of the meeting is to make administrative and procedural decisions, but lots of it is “seeing one another’s faces” – meeting together as a national community.
This year’s meeting didn’t make any big, outward-facing decisions. It felt like an opportunity to pause; to spend quality time together; to concentrate on who we are together and how our relationships work as an organisation and as a community; to consolidate our Quakerness. It felt like an opportunity for me to do some of that as an individual too.
I made some new friends and spent time with old friends, without some of the intense kaboom friendships that sometimes happen at these things – interactions at this BYM felt gentle and comfortable. A couple of the new friends introduced themselves to me because I looked like familiar sort of people. Some of my friends from my old meeting in Sheffield introduced me to people I’d met but not got to know from my new meeting in Wanstead; I chatted a bit more with some other Wanstead people and feel like it’s time to let go of some of my reservations (and shyness and homesickness) and get to know people there better.
Yearly Meeting prompted me to think about some aspects of the way my life’s been arranged that have been sitting uncomfortably with me (mostly relating to how I go about activism; a bit about social stuff and scheduling) and to make some adjustments so things fit better with what I think is right and with what I think is sustainable. (Nothing big! Just small-scale life-changing.)
This year’s Swarthmore Lecture (on the Saturday evening of Yearly Meeting) was one person talking about their own life and personal experience – rather than big philosophy or politics. I appreciated that, this year, and it prompted me to read the Testimonies published for this Yearly Meeting (short Quaker biographies of people who’ve died recently). I’ve enjoyed hearing and reading about a huge variety of ways of living as a Quaker, especially when it’s clear that all these people are/were fallible humans. I like fallible humans.
On Sunday evening my friend Mark led a singing session and I enjoyed being part of it. [Here are Mark’s own thoughts from Yearly Meeting.]
I’m still feeling quiet and gently introspective, and starting to get to grips with the next things on my to-do list (and looking forward to summer holidays).
This weekend, I was asked twice by different people to explain the Quaker business method/Quaker decision-making, and I thought the written version of my response might interest some folks here, so here it is, copied and pasted from a comment I made elsewhere.
The Quaker business method is an example of compassionate, co-operative discernment.
Quaker decision-making usually happens with people meeting in person, but most of the principles can be transferred to an online context and some decisions are made this way.
Essentially, it’s based on an intention to find the best way forward, rather than the way I prefer or the way you prefer; in traditional Quaker language it is ‘seeking the will of God’, but some non-theist Quakers prefer to describe it in different ways.
A clerk (kind of secretary-cum-chair) introduces the agenda item to be discussed, giving as much information as they can either in writing in advance or in a spoken introduction (or often both).
There is a period of silent consideration, and then people can add information or thoughts that might bring the meeting closer to a decision. One person speaks at a time, and there’s a period of silent consideration after each contribution. It’s not adversarial: if I disagree with something a previous contributor has said, I will structure my contribution around what I feel is the right way forward, not what’s wrong with what the previous person said.
Contributions are addressed to the clerk rather than to other people present.
Participants are encouraged to try to find the truth in each other’s words and to trust in each other’s good intentions even when there is disagreement.
When it seems as though there may have been enough contributions, the clerk (usually with at least one assistant clerk) writes a draft minute to record ‘the sense of the meeting’ – jargon term – the jist of what’s been said and the decision that the contributions have moved towards, if that has happened. The minute might record that the meeting has been unable to find unity on the decision. The clerk reads the draft minute, and there may be further contributions to refine what has been recorded, after which a revised draft would be read. The clerk asks ‘is this minute acceptable’, and when it is, the people present say ‘I hope so’ (because any one individual can’t speak for the whole meeting).
There’s no voting, and it’s not exactly consensus decision-making either.
The aim is to write a minute that records what the meeting has discerned in relation to the agenda item, rather than the aim being to reach a decision no matter who gets hurt along the way.
I’ve experienced this method in meetings ranging from five people to a thousand people, and seen decisions made on big and controversial topics. It works as long as those present are willing to approach the process in a spirit of co-operation and compassion, and to trust the meeting as a whole to make a good decision, even if it isn’t the one they would have preferred.
One of my friends from Meeting has just posted a link to this article on Quaker decision-making, which is interesting to me partly because it’s written by a non-Quaker.
[Originally posted on the Sheffield Quaker blog, 7 August 2009]
During the last week of July, God was pushing British Quakers around further and faster than (I think) any of us expected was possible.
I’m really not used to talking in these terms. I’m trying to overcome embarrassment around talking openly about God and about my faith, because one of the big lessons of Yearly Meeting Gathering for me was about honesty, integrity and communication.
My beliefs haven’t changed noticeably, but I want to talk about them and to use language that feels right, despite the best efforts of both ends of the religious spectrum (fundamentalist atheist to ‘fundamentalist’ religious) to restrict their meanings.
God is love. God is truth. God is faithfulness and integrity and simplicity and that inexplicable something that makes us do things that might not make evolutionary sense but seem like the right thing to do.
Committed relationships were definitely on the agenda for our Yearly Meeting sessions. Meeting for Sufferings (the representative body that keeps the national Society in touch with itself between Yearly Meetings, had done lots of consultation and recommended that we should add procedures for supporting, celebrating and recording same-sex partnerships to Quaker Faith and Practice. MfS said that now was not the time to lobby for a change in the law. No recommendation was made either way about whether or not these partnerships could be called ‘marriage’, but I thought that enough people had reservations about it that we would probably stick with ‘committed partnerships’.
The first session introducing the subject was on Monday, when Colin Billett spoke. The text of his introduction is available online, and I highly recommend it (see the links below). After that session, there were response groups, and informal discussions, and I started to get the feeling, probably on Tuesday, that we might, after all, begin to officially call all marriages ‘marriage’, rather than having separate terminology for same-sex couples.
There was a ‘talking wall’ in one of the central buildings, where people could contribute their ideas by writing on post-it notes. Part of the purpose of this was to allow people who had reservations about the direction of the meeting to express them anonymously, in case they felt unable to do so publicly. There were a couple of notes expressing worry or fear or the thought that we were doing the wrong thing, and a hundred or so saying we were going in the right direction.
On Thursday afternoon, there was a Yearly Meeting session to consider the subject. There was a lot of spoken ministry. Again, there were three or four contributions expressing discomfort with what was happening, or the speed of it, but even they seemed to feel that the outcome was inevitable. By the end of the session the clerks were able to begin a draft Minute, and it looked as though we were quite likely to call for a change in the law, to ask governments in the UK to recognise same-sex marriages that take place in a religious context. (The law currently allow civil partnerships, but it’s illegal for them to have religious content.)
On Friday morning, we continued to consider the matter carefully, and then… well, we changed the world. Or rather, God changed the world. It was noticeable to me that God was mentioned more in the ministry that led to our conclusion than sometimes happens in Quaker decision-making. It was also noticeable that the hearts and minds of those present were being changed at a speed that was almost visible. Many who arrived at the gathering fearful of what would happen or wouldn’t left it proud to have been part of such an historic Meeting and hopeful that the God who is love is really at work to change the world.
At the beginning of the week, when we first started talking and thinking about it, it was clear that we needed to make progress because Quakers have a strong testimony to equality. By the end of the week, when the decision was made, it was still about equality, yes – but we’d twigged that it was also, very importantly, about our testimony to truth and integrity. We (a worshipping community) don’t make a marriage: that happens between the people involved and God (whatever God means). We just witness it. To witness a marriage and call it anything but a marriage is untruthful.
Interwoven with all this, throughout the week, was the ‘official’ theme of the Gathering: Creating Communities; Creating Connections. I only participated in a couple of sessions that explicitly linked to the theme, but it was present throughout the Gathering anyway. I think the fact that we had plenty of time just to be together, to see one another’s faces, between the sessions, helped enormously with the sense of community. With my (self-selected) home group, I appreciated silence, conversation, quiet worship, eye contact, hugs and just sitting together. Deep connections of friendship were established or strengthened, and I think these will be a source of courage and support back in our daily lives.
Very sad news from our Meeting back home about the unexpected death of our Friend Robert Clement drew those of us who’d gone from Sheffield to the Gathering together, reminded us of the local community of Quakers that we’d come from and would return to, and quietened our celebration.
My week at Yearly Meeting Gathering ended quietly and gradually. On Friday evening, hundreds of Friends gathered around the lake in the centre of the campus, to sing and to watch paper lanterns fly away into the sky. After Epilogue, my friends and I talked about our experience of the week over a pint or two of very good ale, then sat by the lake chatting until the early hours.
Saturday morning was Meeting for Worship, followed, for me and a friend, by feeding the ducks and talking quietly until it was time to travel home with an ever-decreasing bunch of Quakers.