Introducing Quakers: Meetings for Business
Local Meetings meet approximately monthly to transact whatever business must be undertaken. ‘Concerns’ are brought forward by members, shared with those present at the business meeting, and decisions are made about whether and how to take the matter forwards. Quaker business meetings start in silence. Area Meetings, groupings of Local Meetings, also meet for business every month or two. Britain Yearly Meeting is the grouping of all Area Meetings in Britain, and meets annually. Meeting for Sufferings transacts Yearly Meeting level business during the period between two Yearly Meetings.
Local Meetings, Business Methods and Concerns
Whilst Quakers meet regularly for Meeting for Worship, having no clergy as paid organisational staff (at least, that is the case within Britain Yearly Meeting) means that all the business of running the organisation, other than at a national level, must be carried out by its members. Local meetings meet approximately monthly to transact whatever business must be undertaken. At the most mundane level, this business concerns activities such as buying supplies for hot drinks, ordering books for the library, organising repairs to the Meeting House, and arranging to have the accounts audited. Less prosaically, decisions are made about which charities to support, and, significantly, ‘concerns’ are brought forward by members, shared with those present at the business meeting, and decisions are made about whether and how to take the matter forwards. Example of concerns might include, say, unease about growing financial inequality in British society; outrage that welfare benefit claimants are being penalised for spurious reasons; compassion for people in Canterbury who have no overnight accommodation and are forced to live in the streets. Those present at the business meeting might decide to schedule some action, for example, holding a silent vigil in a public place in order to highlight growing financial inequality. It might be decided to support a local charity for homeless people, such as Catching Lives. It might be decided that the concern should be presented to Area Meeting, which might then decide to present the concern to Meeting for Sufferings. Alternatively, the business meeting might decide that the Meeting does not share the concern, and the matter is not pursued further.
Quaker business meetings are held in a manner not wholly dissimilar to that of Meeting for Worship. They start in silence. The Clerk reads out the Minutes of the previous business meeting, and addresses any matters arising from these. An agenda will already have been drawn up. The purpose of the meeting is to attempt to discern ‘the will of God’ regarding whatever matter is being addressed. Decisions are made not by voting, nor by consensus, but by agreement that the correct way forward has been found. Sometimes this can be easy, on other occasions it can be very difficult. The process requires, amongst other things, self-discipline, mutual respect, and a willingness to recognise that one’s own preferences may not be the best way forwards. Only one person may speak at a time, and the Clerk may ask that the meeting spends further short periods of time in silence to allow ‘the sense of the meeting’ to become clear. When the Clerk feels able to do so, a draft Minute regarding that agenda item will be written by the Clerk (who may be assisted by the Assistant Clerk), and Friends are asked whether the Minute accurately reflects the will of the meeting, and ‘the will of God’. Amendments to the Minute may be proposed and discussed. This process helps to refine the issue. The amendments may be made incorporated into the Minute until eventually the Clerk asks “Friends, is this Minute acceptable?” to which, if the Minute is acceptable, the answer is “I hope so” meaning ‘I hope that this is the will of God.’ Any member of the Local Meeting may attend the business meeting, and anyone not in membership can ask permission to attend
Whilst Local Meetings are primarily about religious observance and fellowship, with monthly business meetings to take care of business and to address concerns, Area Meetings on the other hand are primarily about business and addressing concerns. Agenda items may come from a Local Meeting, such as to bring forward a concern; or may be associated with Area Meeting business, such as making appointments to specific roles, and appointing representatives to attend a specific conference; or may originate from Meeting for Sufferings, or some part of the administrative core of the Yearly Meeting based in Friends’ House, London. Concerns that have been brought to Area Meeting from a Local Meeting may subsequently be forwarded to Meeting for Sufferings.
The same business methods that are used in the business meetings of Local Meetings are employed. Maybe meeting monthly, Area Meetings also involve both fellowship and Meeting for Worship. A shared lunch or tea is quite common. Any member of a constituent Local Meeting may attend the Area Meeting, and anyone not in membership can ask permission to attend. However, occasionally a person not in membership may be asked to leave the meeting temporarily while confidential matters, particularly regarding membership, are discussed.
Meeting for Sufferings
Each Area Meeting appoints one or more Friends to represent the Area Meeting at Meeting for Sufferings. Meeting monthly in London, Meeting for Sufferings addresses the concerns brought to it from the Area Meetings. The same business methods that are used in the business meetings of Local Meetings are employed. With so many Friends present, this requires great discipline, as well as discernment on the part of the Clerks.