Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Meeting for Business -- Why Is It the BEST Part of Being a Quaker?

I've heard it said that Business Meeting is one of the best, if not the best, aspects of a Monthly Meeting, and that most people connected with Quaker Meetings do not have an understanding of this. Are you familiar with this line of thinking? Do you agree? I'm one of those who think it might be true, but I'm at a loss when it comes to articulating this sense. Please address this issue. Thank you. Tina Hallidy

Dear Tina,

Well, I'm definitely one of those Friends who say that “meeting for business is the best part of being a Quaker,” so I'll tell you my own thoughts on the matter. I should warn you, though, that five other Friends who make the same claim might give you five completely different reasons for explaining it.

Very often, I hear Friends say that meeting for worship is the essential core of what makes us Friends and of what sustains us as a community. Many Friends—including me—agree with that statement. But our ideas diverge about how we see business meeting fitting into that belief. Some Friends see meeting for business as a different kind of animal from meeting for worship, something ancillary or secondary to “real” worship. Others—myself among them—see meeting for worship for business as a special kind of meeting for worship, a deeper, more highly distilled worship that challenges us and requires us to fish or cut bait when it comes to the outward expression of the truths that we enjoy inwardly during worship. It is good to seek to know and follow God in worship. It is a harder but more rigorous kind of worship to seek to know and follow God while we are simultaneously deciding how to balance the budget or whether we must lay down the peace and concerns committee.

In meeting for business we are spiritually exercised. We have to decide when to insist on what we are sure is right, and when to submit to another's discernment; we have to be flexible yet strong, gentle yet plain speaking . . . and then, after our stumbling efforts, we have to walk out of the room and live with ourselves, each other, and the Spirit.

Meeting for business is where it gets real. It's where we succeed or fail at practicing what we believe. It's where we work together or where we fall apart. And it's where we shoulder the load of our shared responsibilities as a covenant community. We all have an ideal image of how wonderful such a functioning community should be. Meeting for business is where we discover who we really are in the ways that we respond to the disappointment of being a mismatched team, pulling the yoke at different speeds, and not always in the same direction. In business meeting we are required to forgive, to be teachable, to care, to take responsibility—both in the large matters of principle and in the tediously mundane details of life.

Like "regular worship," meeting for business can be deeply rewarding or frustrating, and most often it is a mixture of both. It feels great when we find ourselves being led by the Spirit as a whole community, when we find ourselves called to more creative and loving responses than we knew we were capable of, or when we look around the room in amazement and gratitude to be with such wise, bighearted, trustworthy servants of the Spirit. But let's face it, for every one of those really delicious moments, there are others where our desire to get some boring agenda item over with is thwarted by a discussion that just will not end, or when we are annoyed by other Friends' petty judgmentalism, their droning repetitions, their knee-jerk reactions, or their passive mannerliness. And just when we are about to offer a suggestive hint about the mote in their eye, we become aware of the beam that needs plucking from our own. Can we hear and follow our Guide in these circumstances? And if not then, when?

I have been blessed to take part in meetings for business where long, divisive, complicated disputes were finally resolved after years of struggle. These were hard decisions to make, and the topics were painful to some of the participants. But the best spoken ministry I have ever heard, the words that have most deeply moved me and called me closer to God, were delivered during these wrenching discussions that forced us to go deep.

Recently in my own meeting, as we concluded a decision that addressed complex, competing needs from different groups, a member of our meeting said, “Let’s reflect on whether we are being clear about our limits, and whether we are also being generous.” After some reflection—and a little tweaking of our conclusions—this member remarked that we had just completed a piece of work we could not have done in the same way a year earlier. When asked to explain, she used herself as an example, noting how she had become more flexible and more willing to be open minded. Meeting for business not only offers us the opportunity for such growth, but it allows our increasing spiritual maturity an opportunity to be expressed and to be celebrated.

I am one of those people who believe that you cannot be a Quaker alone. Silent worship by ourselves or with others is one way to encounter Truth—but outside of the context of a Friends community, it is too easy for Truth to be a solitary abstraction. It is in making decisions, in putting our limited resources to use, and in working together toward common and competing ends that we are called to make that Truth part of our lives on a minute-by-minute basis, not in ideal form, but in the reality of this flawed world filled with imperfect people such as ourselves. If being a Quaker is “real,” it is real in meeting for worship for business.

With love to the presiding co-clerk from the recording co-clerk of Goshen Meeting,

Monday, August 17, 2009

Why no caps and gowns at Friends school graduation?

I am trying to find information/explanation on why Quaker school students do not wear caps and gowns to graduation.

Dear [friend],

Each Friends school is independent from every other Friends school. Each school community discerns for itself how to interpret Friends testimonies and traditions, so our schools do not all develop the same practices. I have attended a high school graduation at a Friends school where caps and gowns were worn, so I know it is not a uniform determination among all the schools to do without them. I can make some guesses that could explain why some Friends schools have not adopted caps and gowns for graduation, but the only truly accurate explanation for a particular school would have to come from the school itself.

My first guess relates to the Friends testimony of simplicity, which has evolved from the historic tradition of plainness. Material simplicity has to do with not owning or using things that are unnecessary, including items of apparel that encourage pride of appearance or are dictated by changing fashions. Students, families, and teachers may feel that it is a frivolity, or a waste of resources, to spend money on ceremonial attire.

Another tradition that may explain such a practice goes back to the beginnings of the Quaker faith: rejection of ceremony, symbolism, and formal ritual. This is why Quakers do not perform outward sacraments (such as water baptism), and why you will not see symbols, such as crosses, in a Friends meeting house. Friends traditionally avoid the outward forms that may distract us from the inward experience those forms are meant to signify. So again, ceremonial attire may be seen as going against Quaker culture.

My final guess has to do with the emphasis on each person's uniqueness. When Quaker educators get together and discuss what our schools do have in common, one principle that invariably comes up is an emphasis on the special individuality of each student -- the importance of honoring each child's special gifts and appreciating differences. So it may simply be that the idea of having every student appear in identical costume goes against the values and spirit of the school's community.

I am copying my response to Sarah Sweeney-Denham at the Friends Council on Education. She may be able to add to or clarify what I have suggested.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery

Sarah's comment:

I agree with you. Of the reasons you explore, I believe the practice that some Friends schools have of not wearing cap and gowns is most strongly felt and linked with Friends schools' essential belief in that of God in each person, which leads to an appreciation for diversity and individuality, as well as celebrating that which connects us all. Many Friends schools design "Meetings for Graduation," giving every person in attendance (students, parents, grandparents, teachers) a chance to be part of the occasion, by speaking from the heart and spirit within. In some Friends schools each member of the graduating class makes a speech, further celebrating each student's perspective while also celebrating the group as a whole. These practices seem aligned with these ideas as well.

Thanks for asking,

Sarah Sweeney-Denham

Monday, August 3, 2009

Do Quakers believe in the bible?

Do Quakers believe in the Bible?
(Received August 3, 2009, and many other times as well.)

Do Quakers believe in the bible? I guess the short answer is yes, but the Religious Society of Friends is a made up of several diverse branches with diverse memberships, and what one person means when she says “I believe in the bible” can be very different from what another person means by the same statement, and I don’t know whether either of them would be identical to what you mean when you ask that question.

Generally, Friends believe that the people who wrote down the words in the bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and so the bible is evidence (if not a perfect record) of the Word. Friends have also believed historically, and a great many still believe, that God speaks to us directly through a deep connection that every person has with the Divine. Sometimes that connection is called the Inward Light or Christ Within or the Seed or many other names. Different branches of Friends place different emphasis on the authority of the bible versus the authority of direct revelation.

In today’s mail I received the most recent edition of the magazine Quaker Life, and this issue is entirely devoted to the topic “Friends and the Bible.” You can access a couple of the articles at:

Here are two different statements about the bible that come out of important documents from different branches of the Society of Friends (and which I am copying from the magazine I just mentioned):

The Richmond Declaration of Faith: “It [is] the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other authority whatsoever.”

Baltimore Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice: Many differing attitudes toward the Bible can be found among Friends, but a few statements find general acceptance:

  • In the experience of Friends, the Bible can be rightly understood only in the light of the Spirit which inspired it; the same Holy Spirit which is available to all.

  • Although the word of God can be found in the Bible, inspiration may also be found elsewhere. The closing of the canon of Scripture did not signal the end of Divine inspiration.

  • Any part, any verse of the Bible can best be understood in the light of the whole, so that care should be taken in the use of passages removed from their contexts.

  • Detailed understanding of the Bible can be reached only through study of the times and circumstances of the writing, in the light of various commentaries and translations.

I am afraid this response is both too long for your simple question, and way too short to capture a fair representation of the breadth of Friends’ relationship with scripture. I hope it is at least a little bit helpful.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery