Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Simplified Meeting

In too many Quaker Meetings, spiritual vitality is being stifled by the excessive demands of church government. Struggling to meet the ever-growing requirements of administration can take up so much of Friends’ time and energy that there is little left over to devote to the practice of the Quaker way itself.

Bureaucratic overload subverts the ministry of nominations to discern Friends’ gifts and leadings, turning it into a weary necessity of ‘filling jobs’. Committees and roles are readily set up but very rarely laid down, even where they are clearly no longer serving the life of the Spirit. But as long as we keep on devoting most of our energies to simply keeping the structures going, we only postpone the profound changes that are actually needed.

Instead of continually working harder just to keep going, the renewal of our Quaker practice asks us to refocus on what is essential – serving the leadings of the Spirit rather than the demands of property and administration. Quaker organisation is not an end in itself. All of our structures, committees, roles and property exist for just one purpose – to help us to attend to the Inward Guide and to follow it. All other functions are secondary to these, and wherever administrative tasks interfere with Friends’ capacity to practise the Quaker way, they need to be reduced, shared with other Meetings or eliminated altogether. Instead of allowing ourselves to become societies for the preservation of historic buildings, we need to recall our vocation as communities of faithful discernment and testimony to divine leadings.

The essential responsibilities of a Quaker Meeting are those that enable our core practices of worship, discernment and testimony. Our Meetings for Worship and for Business are essential for our formation as a community that is responsive to divine guidance. Friends’ leadings need the discernment of the Meeting, so that they can be recognised and supported by the community and lived out as our testimony to the world. For these spiritual practices, we need the service of Friends who, between them, can offer the ministries of clerking and pastoral care that enable our Meetings to be rightly ordered. All other roles and responsibilities, including for legal and financial matters, are entirely secondary.

Perhaps we should support our nominations committees in resisting the pressure to treat Quaker roles as jobs that must be filled. Instead we could encourage them to concentrate on recognising Friends’ gifts and providing opportunities to exercise them. We might consider adopting a new discipline of no longer expect anyone to fulfil more than one significant Quaker responsibility at a time, reducing the number of roles to suit the Friends available. In this way each of us might be able to concentrate on undertaking one Quaker ministry wholeheartedly, instead of continuing to spread ourselves ever more thinly across too many tasks.

Perhaps we also need to discern the particular ministry of our Local or Area Meeting - what are we called to as a local community of Friends? Is it to build an inclusive and caring local community, to offer our testimony by challenging social injustices, to engage in interfaith learning and dialogue, or something else? By focussing on the particular ministry that our Meeting has to offer at this time, and letting go of other responsibilities that have become burdens, we might rediscover the vitality of the 'concern-orientated life' described by Thomas Kelly, as our lives and our Meetings become simplified by 'faithfulness to a few concerns’:
"I wish I might emphasise how a life becomes simplified when dominated by faithfulness to a few concerns. Too many of us have too many irons in the fire. We get distracted by the intellectual claim to our interest in a thousand and one good things, and before we know it we are pulled and hauled breathlessly along by an over-burdened programme of good committees and good undertakings. I am persuaded that this fevered life of church workers is not wholesome. Undertakings get plastered on from the outside because we can’t turn down a friend. Acceptance of service on a weighty committee should really depend upon an answering imperative within us, not merely upon a rational calculation of the factors involved. The concern-orientated life is ordered and organised from within. And we learn to say No as well as Yes by attending to the guidance of inner responsibility. Quaker simplicity needs to be expressed not merely in dress and architecture and height of tombstones but also in the structure of a relatively simplified and co-ordinated life-programme of social responsibilities." 
(Thomas R Kelly, 1941, Quaker faith & practice 20.36)
Has your Meeting found ways to simplify its structures or processes? How can we restore attention to our spiritual practices rather than the demands of administration?


  1. A New Culture – Doing Things Together.

    We are passing through a period of darkness. Although this is certainly not pleasant, it can be an opportunity to break out of our patterns and our habits which are stuck in individualism and materialism. What would a different macro-economic model look like ?

    I am suggesting new directions in our cultural thinking: What would a different culture in our Society of Friends look like ? A good way would be to look at our system of nominations. Up and down the country, nomination committees in Quaker Meetings are finding it more and more difficult to fill vacancies. Our traditional way consists of having a small group of Friends doing a lot, - as overseers or elders, or on the Finance and Property Committee or in the clerk's team. What would a culture of real community look like? Weird as it sounds, the Society of Friends needs a new culture of friendship. The question of seeking a new culture of friendship is as difficult as finding an alternative between market economics and state collectivism.

    The direction is to move from a small group of Friends doing a lot, to everyone doing a little. How do we start? I suggest the three beautiful insights of 17th Century Friends, centring down, discernment, meeting and doing things together.
    Centring down; paying attention to the “present sense” (as Isaac Penington wrote) of the Holy Spirit (or the promptings of love and truth or the flow of love, or your own expression,) working through our lives.
    Discernment. We need to be open in order to see our tendency to follow the “normal” model. We allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our conditioning and run the Society more and more like a private company, leaving things to the directors. A Friend in another Meeting spoke of “at times the overwhelming inertia and self-satisfaction” within the Society of Friends. Discernment allows us to see some of this in ourselves. It is not a question of blaming ourselves, just seeing.
    Meeting and doing things together. We need not only to share our views, our hopes and fears for the future of the Quaker movement, but to come out of being in the head, sharing simple activities, eating, a bit of T'ai Chi, learning of the hobbies of other Friends. In other words, to share the “aliveness” discovered in the first two insights.

    Fortunately, we already have two examples within the British Quaker movement, the John Macmurray Fellowship and Quaker Voluntary Action. The JMF holds central that thinking can be wonderful but it has to lead to action or activities. The vision and practice of QVA is that doing things together can bring nurture a sense of aliveness, foster a sense of social responsibility and provide a seed of learning that can be shared.

    Here are a few examples of little steps.

    1. Our notices after Meeting would be a way to resonate with a new emerging culture of community. I can imagine us making frequent references to the positive feelings involved in belonging to a community of friends.
    2. We could extend the “Bring & Share” lunch to every Sunday, even if it is just for a different small group each week.
    3. We could try the “Circles” project. Imagine everyone in, say a Meeting of 72, in a large circle. No.1 links up with no.72 and no.2. No.2 with no.1 and no.3, etc.. “Links up” means contacting the two Friends/Attenders on each side once a month – a telephone call or an email. The overseers team would nurture the Circle rather than looking after a larger number of Friends and Attenders. Each group could consist of five, rather than three.
    4. The Quaker Way and Fun. One evening a month, on a Friday or Saturday, between October and March, everyone comes with something to offer, a poem, a story, a song. Someone might teach me some simple tango movements. When we allow ourselves to relax, we have a huge amount of talent to share. The French call it “convivialité”. One can then include a favourite piece of writing which is moving but not amusing.

  2. Thank you for your interesting posts, Craig. I have just been studying Simplicity as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke and this really speaks to me. Also, being part of a small but growing meeting that is beginning to add in business meetings for the first time in many years, these issues are really 'live' for us. I will be running some workshops on Simplicity, including one at Mansfield FMH on 25 February 2017 which may be accessible to Sheffield Friends. If you would like details do email me at:


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)