14 September 2023

Yearly meetings, myth and reality, part two

Yearly Meeting: a definition
(adapted from quakerinfo.org)

Yearly Meeting refers to a larger body of Friends, consisting of monthly meetings (or local congregations) in a general geographic area connected with the same branch of Friends. This body holds decision making sessions annually. The term "yearly meeting" may refer to the annual sessions, to the body of members, or to the organizational entity that serves the body of members. For most purposes, a yearly meeting is as high as Quaker organizational structure goes. Each of the 30+ yearly meetings in the U.S. has its own Faith and Practice, and there is no higher authority in the structure of the Religious Society of Friends, although yearly meetings network with each other through branch associations and other Friends organizations.

[Also see Margery Post Abbott's definition in The Historical Dictionary of the Friends (Quakers).]

Once upon a time, I was a Quaker denominational leader, emotionally invested in our structures and their missions. One weekend, I was visiting a Friends church in an evangelical yearly meeting. I stayed with a delightful family in the city where the yearly meeting's office was located, and I went with them to their Sunday morning meeting for worship.

The church was impressive, both in the size of its building and the breadth of its programming. Aside from the variety of Sunday morning options for all ages, there were programs for every day of the week, ranging from Bible studies to family finance seminars to Christian aerobics.

My hosts were very knowledgeable about these programs, which clearly had become a social and spiritual base for their family. They gently let me know, however, that they had never heard of my organization. As it turned out, they also knew nothing about their own yearly meeting or any of its wider affiliations, even though the yearly meeting office was in their own city. The word "Friends" meant little to them beyond the fact that it was in their church's name, and the word "Quaker" even less.

However, their Friends church gave substantial resources to that yearly meeting and its affiliates, in both money and people.

I thought about this visit, now a quarter century ago, during a recent committee meeting. We were considering how our own yearly meeting, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, could be of greater service to local Friends and their churches. In particular, how can we encourage the gifts of ministry among those local Friends emerge and flourish and be recognized?

There is arguably nothing wrong or "incomplete" about an individual Friend or family that finds all the spiritual resources that they need in their local church and their local community, just as that host family did during my visit years ago. But I still can't shake off some of that emotional investment in our wider structures and missions.

Source: masthead of our yearly meeting's Bulletin.

I wish I had asked my hosts at the time how they pictured their place in their world faith family. They would probably have said that their church was simply a local group of believers in the worldwide evangelical Christian movement. In my institutional tendencies, I might have felt a bit wistful about the specifically Quaker emphasis in our part of that movement, but who am I to question their identity and enthusiasm? Or, for that matter, in their apparent lack of interest in the intermediary structures for which their church was paying?

Now I'm thinking about the differences between the church I was visiting at the time, and the typical churches of our own yearly meeting. None of them have the resources of that seven-day-a-week church. Few if any are equipped to surround attenders and their families with such full-service programming. What can or should we as a yearly meeting do to strengthen our local congregations in their capacity to meet needs? Can we in fact affirm the advantages of a small-scale model of church (with its simplicity, intimacy, lack of hierarchy) by supplementing its programs, providing low-key mutual accountability, and helping identify potential leaders?

More than that: is it a legitimate aspiration for a Quaker yearly meeting to encourage Friends to say something like this...?

My Friends church is a local expression of something larger, a worldwide Quaker movement with a particular experience of Christian discipleship.

Furthermore, by belonging to this movement through my participation in this local church, I'm contributing toward this movement at a time in world history when this discipleship—with its practices of peace, equality, simplicity, and decisionmaking based on the discernment of the community—is needed to create hope and break bondages.

Does such a statement makes sense? Why or why not? (Or is it the wishful thinking of someone who yearns for the traditional structures and missions?)

If so, could it be affirmed by those who are eager to give their time to these wider relationships, such as the yearly meeting and its committees and affiliations, and equally to those whose focus remains local but whose awareness may, at one and the same time, be wider?

As I reflected on all these questions, I thought about my own history with Friends. As a college student who'd recently experienced a Christian conversion, I looked for Friends because I already knew that, with my inherited distrust of the religion industry, the simplicity of Friends as I'd read about them would be the most direct way for me to build upon my new faith. So, when I first stepped into Ottawa Friends Meeting in 1974, I already had that wider context, however superficially I might have understood it.

To my great fortune, Ottawa Friends had a wealth of mentors who were able to feed my hunger and my curiosity. Within months I was on a local committee; within two years I was sent to an international Friends conference with life-changing consequences for me. Around the same time I was appointed to a Canadian Yearly Meeting board that gave out grants from an endowment. Five years after that I was appointed as a Canadian member of the governing body of Friends United Meeting.

Shortly after the international conference, in that summer of 1976, I attended Canadian Yearly Meeting sessions for the first time. The presiding clerk of Canadian Yearly Meeting, Philip Martin, was a member of Ottawa Friends Meeting and was, therefore, someone I already knew and respected. One of the discussions at the center of the business meeting that year was about the formal importance of membership in Friends—a question that continues to arise among us to this day.

Given these early experiences that came to me through the care and mentorship of my meeting, without effort of my own, it's no coincidence that I see my membership at Camas Friends Church as being linked to a whole concentric series of wider Quaker networks, all supporting me as I try to work out the consequences of Christian faith in these times. It's my story, but it's not everyone's story, and so I continue to wonder: how will these wider engagements earn the attention of new and young Friends whose stories differ from mine, and whose lives are already full and demanding?

Some background from earlier posts:

Yearly meeting, myth and reality

Does the theory of the concentric Friends structure, with its simplicity and lack of hierarchy, still have power for Friends? In this structure, the local Friends meeting or church is the inner circle. It is where we know each other best, exercise hospitality to newcomers, and learn to ask, "What does God want to do or say through us?" It's where people are born, marry, die; it's where we witness new believers crossing the threshold into the household of faith.

By appointment or interest or both (depending in part on the local culture), some of those local Friends report to and from the next concentric circle, traditionally the monthly or quarterly meeting, then the yearly meeting, then the larger associations to which this yearly meeting is affiliated. Most local Friends probably won't be interested or called to serve in these wider circles, and that's no problem as long as the connections are rotated and renewed often enough to keep the relationships real.

"Becoming the church we dreamed of" part two

In some cases, maybe we've over-bureaucratized yearly meetings and routinized business rather than expecting our gatherings to serve as the forum where we ask each other whether Truth is prospering in each of our local settings, and how we need to coordinate with each other to meet the needs in places where our testimonies are being challenged. As we consider a world full of spiritual, social, and economic bondage, are we too busy maintaining our systems to consider these challenges creatively? Can we make room for new partnerships between the old yearly meeting-as-forum and new initiatives? Two generations ago, such partnerships included the New Call to Peacemaking and Right Sharing of World Resources. What are today's experiments in partnership?

I have heard of a couple of yearly meetings that have experimented with a radically simplified agenda—if only for one annual session. How did it go? I was present for one such experiment, a carefully planned session of Iowa Yearly Meeting FUM at which most routine business was set aside to consider whether to remain in Friends United Meeting. This example was a response to a specific crisis, but maybe at another time and place, the sheer urgency of focusing on the needs of people who have never heard of us would be "crisis" enough.

The Iowa example brings up another huge problem: local Friends have come to associate "yearly meeting" (the annual gathering as well as the ongoing structure) with conflict and church politics. I've heard this complaint in many places. We might be too busy arguing instead of figuring out together how to build our prophetic and healing presence in the world. We desperately need to restore the ability to extract value from conflicts and diversity instead of hiding or suppressing them.


I'm not ready to give up on the yearly meeting as an institution worth preserving and re-energizing. The simplicity of the concentric structure has a huge advantage, as long as its processes are prayer-driven and transparent. A yearly meeting serves as a clear and constant and public access point into the web of relationships that is the Quaker family beyond the local church.

Friends World Committee for Consultation offers World Quaker Day (October 1) as one way to spotlight our global family.

Judy Maurer's interview with Jamiann S’eiltin Hasselquist of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. "My story is not unique. It can be told all across Indian country...."

One of the rabbit trails I happily hopped along while writing this post: a history of Grindstone Island, a Canadian experiment in training for nonviolence.

Stan Cox at Tomdispatch: Young Montanans fight climate change for all of us. (Also see Tom Engelhardt on a global Maui moment.)

Pyotr Sauer in The GuardianKonstantin Dobrovolski has spent decades locating bodies of Soviet soldiers who died in World War II, and attempting to ensure their proper identification and burial.

“Every day I am confronted with the grim consequences of war. But it seems like our nation didn’t learn the right lesson from history,” [Dobrovolski] said as the conversation quickly turned to the war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, on the home front, some Russian parents try to shield their schoolchildren from pro-war propaganda.

Friends Committee on National Legislation offers an online program on September 21: Repairing the wounds of war: Nonviolent Peaceforce in Ukraine.

Dusty Brown plays Jimmy Reed's "Honest I Do."

1 comment:

Tom Smith said...

50+ years ago I wrote a an article "The Myth of Midwestern Quakerism" which I read as Clerk at the last session of a Quarterly Meeting in Indiana Yearly Meeting. Quarterly Meetings were being laid down across Indiana YM. Although some parts are outdated, the major thrust of the article was that the movement of much of Midwestern Friends was away from my understanding of Friends Faith and Practice. I confess that my understanding seemed/seems out of step of much of "Friends since the latter half of the twentieth century. However, the schisms, expulsions, withdrawals, etc. in Friends throughout the USA in the last few decades indicate an "abandonment" of Friends for a broader identification with "Evangelical Christians" with a definite "cultural nationalization" bent. (I will leave this comment here knowing that necessary descriptions and evidence is left unsaid.)