By Oliver Robertson
This talk boils down to three basic questions: Which parts of our life bring us closer to God? Which parts are spiritually deadening? And how can we change the second type into the first?
For me, one of the crowning geniuses of the early Quakers was the Meeting for Worship for Business, because it brought God into administration. It turned something that is normally dull, a chore, into a spiritual activity. It turned it into worship. We shouldn’t underestimate the magnitude of that achievement, but nor should we underestimate its simplicity, because at its core it just needs us to look differently at the issue and think not “we have this business that we must do” but “how can we make this welcoming enough for God?” If we approach things differently, it can completely transform our understanding of the situation.
But, of course, Business Meeting as spiritual activity doesn’t always happen in practice. One of the reasons I go to ‘normal’ Meeting regularly is because I very rarely come out feeling worse than I went in. I don’t always come out better or more grounded or connected, but almost without exception it is not a negative experience. But when I think about Meeting for Worship for Business, Meeting for Worship for Business, it is very different. I can get bored, frustrated, irritated with the indiscipline of the other members of the Meeting and angry that it’s not working properly at least as often as I find it good.
I do think that at base, if a part of our Quaker activity is not a spiritually uplifting experience, we’re not doing it right. And with this, like with anything else, we get better with practice. My best experience of Quaker Business Method is with Young Friends General Meeting (YFGM), the national gathering of 18-30ish Quakers. There, they don’t just do business, they also teach us how to do business every time we meet. They really practise it. These regular introductions to Quaker Business Method are helpful both for newcomers unfamiliar with the process and for old-timers who are too familiar with it and can get sloppy. To help keep it fresh, they deliver it in different ways – though straight talking, through song, through pictures or through role-playing a really really bad Business Meeting – but the most important bit, the core, which in this case is the information – that stays the same.
I think we should always be asking ourselves: what is at the core of whatever we’re doing? Which parts of it are necessary? What is needed? For me, the core of Quakers is very simple. It’s about people worshipping their God, and then following whatever promptings emerge from that. I think that Quakers is a basically apocalypse-proof religion, because for it to work you need a) some people [in the same place]. That’s it – that’s all! And if that’s all we need at heart, we should ask ourselves why have we got everything else? How do our committees, our Quaker libraries, our post-worship tea and coffee, our recording clerk help us to lead lives that are close to God? Some or all of these do work for some or all of us, at least now, but we could be much more rigorous in testing and re-testing this, and then jettisoning the things that are pulling us down so that we can rise up and go Whoosh!
My personal experience of doing this comes again from YFGM, when I convened the Nominations Committee. I don’t understand why there are allegedly so many vacancies on Nominations Committees because it’s a wonderful job, which is basically about finding ways for people to flourish. It’s about nurturing people and encouraging them to use existing skills, and develop new ones, in the service of God and the community. That, I believe, is the core of nominations. Unfortunately, too often people can get caught on the periphery, of thinking: “We have these jobs, and they must be filled”. I heard a brilliant example of this earlier this month when I was speaking to a Young Friend who recalled how excited she was to be nominated to one of the [Steering Committee] roles at Junior Yearly Meeting, but that at her Local Meeting her parents were very much “oh well, I’ve got to be elder again”. What are we doing wrong if our roles are seen as a chore rather than a joy?
When I joined Noms, YFGM was a lot smaller than it had been five or ten years previously, but the number of jobs had not gone down accordingly. So we did a ‘spring clean’, speaking to all the current post holders about what they did, what changes would benefit it, whether it needed a different number of people to do it and whether it should be abolished entirely. Then we took the findings and recommendations to Business Meeting, explained what we wanted to do and why, and ended up removing about one in seven of our nominated positions. I don’t know how much it helped YFGM to flourish, but I do know that it is not a wise action, still less a loving one, to make people do jobs that neither they nor anyone else care much about.
Whenever I think about community I remember and struggle with the words of George Gorman in Quaker Faith & Practice 10.20, where he says: ‘One of the unexpected things I have learnt in my life as a Quaker is that religion is basically about relationships between people. This was an unexpected discovery, because I had been brought up to believe that religion was essentially about our relationship with God.’ I still can’t quite bring myself to believe this, but I do know that the Meetings where I have consistently felt the greatest spiritual depth have also been the ones where I am closest to my fellow worshippers, and the ones where I have felt closest to my fellow worshippers have been ones where I don’t just worship and drink tea. I wasn’t planning for every example in this talk to be about YFGM, but I am going to mention it again as one of the strongest Quaker communities I have found.
A Quaker who just goes to YFGM gatherings and a Quaker who just goes to their Local Meeting on a Sunday will probably spend a comparable amount of time among Friends each year (a bit over 100 hours in each case). But the experience can be very different. At ‘normal’ Meeting I get the regularity of contact but often not the same depth. What works to stop that? What role do notices play and the fact that they are the last thing we hear in Meeting? What role does tea and coffee play, and the fact that we usually drink it standing up, which can encourage shorter conversations? Perhaps we’re not together long enough for the ebb and flow of conversation to wash us back towards the shores of deep sharing.
At Young Friends’ weekends, participants worship together, but they also do Quaker business together, play together, clean together and, perhaps most importantly, eat together. All these things are important in building relationships and developing a rounded understanding of each other. Members of a community need to know one another in the things that are ephemeral as well as eternal.
I am not suggesting that every Meeting starts doing things the same way as YFGM. Clearly Sunday worship works well enough for tens of thousands of people across Britain to attend, and in any case we’d have difficulty finding enough Meeting Houses floors to sleep on if everyone started copying Young Friends. But it does show, I hope, that we can be more varied in how we worship and practice without losing the core of our Quakerism, and we should be more imaginative in what we try. Whooshing is about doing more of the good stuff, which is not necessarily the same as doing more of the existing stuff.