Comments on Friends’ Practice Prompted by PYM Annual Sessions

August 2, 2011 § 7 Comments

Part One — Acclamation of Friends’ Service

Background

Annual sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting opened last Wednesday night, July 27, and ended Sunday, July 31. I attended the plenary sessions in the morning and workshops and interest groups in the afternoon on Thursday and Friday, and the experience prompted some thoughts.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is going through hard times. As is often the case, in the Yearly Meeting as in the United States government, budget woes have precipitated a deeper searching about mission and priorities. On Thursday morning the YM treasurer, TylaAnn Burger, gave an extremely well-designed presentation on the YM’s finances, budget, the issues driving the crisis, and the issues revealed by the crisis. And crisis it is: the approved budget calls for drastic cuts in staff, and more will probably be needed next year, as well. Sessions considered and approved the proposed budget on Friday morning.

The problems are systemic. Steady, unavoidable increases in fixed costs like healthcare for staff and upkeep for buildings are colliding with decreases in investment income and contributions, both covenant giving from monthly meetings and individual giving to the Annual Fund. Some of the deeper issues involve disconnects between individual Friends and their local meetings and the yearly meeting and its staff and services; a disconnect in the way the budget is developed between who develops it and who spends it; widespread ignorance and misinformation about the yearly meeting’s finances and financial and accounting terms and practices; and the sheer complexity of the yearly meeting’s financial operations.

My observations cover the general conduct of the sessions as well as some of these issues related to yearly meeting organization and finance. First, on the practice of clapping and including thanks for service in our minutes.

Acclamation of Friends and Friends’ service

At times, Friends did or contemplated doing a couple of things that I thought contrary to our tradition: they clapped and they considered including thanks for service to individual Friends in the minutes. For hundreds of years, we did neither of these things because we believed that service was prompted by God and given to God as a form of ministry, and so God deserved the thanks and the acclamation. We were glad that the individuals were faithful to their call to service, but for a number of reasons, we did not divert our thanks and praise from the Caller.

Both practices are so common nowadays that I suppose we have to consider that we are laying down our tradition in these areas. Both reflect the inroads that the “ways of the world” have made in our practice. They also reflect a corresponding abandonment of the original Quaker understanding of service as a form of ministry, as service to God prompted by the Holy Spirit, rather than as service to the community prompted by—what? community spirit? a spirit of responsibility? I’m not sure that we have really thought much about where service comes from, now that we no longer think it comes from God. I suppose that it comes from “that of God” within us or from the Inner Light. But both practices seem to me to redefine religious service as community service, to relocate its source in the individual and the community rather than in a divine Source, and to accept the world’s ways of acknowledging such service accordingly.

It’s natural for us to appreciate the work that Friends do, especially when they do it so well. And, believing as we do in ‘continuing revelation’, it’s natural for our practice to evolve and take on new forms. However, I think this shift needs our attention. So far, it’s been mostly unconscious, the result, I suspect, of many Friends just not knowing that clapping and minuting thanks are not our tradition and why they are not our tradition, so they do it because it’s the right thing to do in the wider society; and it’s the result of many clerks either sharing that ignorance, or being unwilling to bring it up when it happens in meeting, or believing that it does no harm.

And maybe it doesn’t. I don’t like it. It feels unseemly to me, and I get very uncomfortable when it’s me they’re clapping for or thanking. Then I sometimes have to speak up, though it feels awkward and ungracious to do so. But obviously, many Friends feel otherwise

On the surface, it probably looks like I’m a traditionalist, but that’s not quite it. I do not feel responsible to the tradition, meaning that I feel I must adhere to it. But rather, I feel responsible for the tradition: I feel uncomfortable when we abandon it without thought, without discernment, without consciousness of what we are doing.

So, if this really is new ‘revelation’ that we simply have not yet subjected to discernment, then the yearly meeting and our monthly meetings should, I think, take the matter up and formally acknowledge that clapping and minutes of thanks are now our practice, and at least informally acknowledge that this represents another dimension to our shift toward secularization, from a Religious Society of Friends to a Society of Friends, or at least to a Society that no longer thinks of God as the source of ministry. (And by “God” I mean the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience, whatever that experience is. I’m not evangelizing here for any particular definition of God.)

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§ 7 Responses to Comments on Friends’ Practice Prompted by PYM Annual Sessions

  • chel avery says:

    I remember an evening plenary at PYM annual session in the late 1980s. The program was for families, and the presenter was a (nonQuaker) storyteller who specialized in stories from cultures all over the world. She told the first story, paused, smiled, then told a second story. Again she paused, smiled, and told another. In her pause after the third story she exclaimed, “Oh, I get it! Quakers don’t clap!” She seemed delighted to have acquired this little bit of cultural insight, but of course, after that observation, Friends applauded every story, even though the storyteller urged them not to. She wanted to respect our culture. We wanted, at all costs, not to be rude.

    But, not intended to follow from this story, this post challenges me — when is our tradition a religious practice, and when is it a cultural one? Even those practices that reflect our religious principles are often maintained for cultural reasons. They emphasize our in-group experience. I like our culture, but I hope we keep our faith at the center.

    Chel Avery

  • RantWoman says:

    This post delivered such a quantity of opinions and reflections that it goes in queue for seasoning and response on my own blog.

    Editor Brain is intrigued by the juxtaposition of bad financial news and your need to speak of appreciation in terms of movements of the holy spirit. Is there anything more you feel led to say specifically related to this juxtaposition?

  • Sometime during the past year, a working group I’d clerked for some time was laid down by the standing committee to which we reported… I felt a great sense of release, though it seemed somewhat a one-sided decision, it was one I expected. I’d done what I could despite some structural barriers that cropped up at various times.

    Others on the Working Group minuted thanks, and for me, that was enough. What I did not expect, however, was that it was then forwarded for “thanks for service” at Interim Meeting. I declined such recognition — for reasons both Steve and Marshall have given. It felt awkward.

    I feel even more awkward among FGC Friends, whether the tradition is waving both hands above the head instead of clapping. Applause is just that… silent or audible. I’m not interested.

    When I serve others, it’s not for recognition, but after careful discernment. There is hope. After meeting with a group of Friends for two years, I’ve been able to give up/give over attachments to what I do as a Friend, and move into other forms of ministry that are more filled with the Life and Power than mere institutions can provide.

    • An addition: Perhaps I’ve just been in Philadelphia too long. Many of the local meetings I’ve attending over the past three decades have the tradition of writing minutes of thanks for varied forms of service. In the conservative traditions, service is expected, so there is no overt recognition.

      Yes, it should be God’s work to which we are (ideally) obedient instruments. What I said in declining recognition of this sort was that the others on the working group had been just as faithful and as dedicated. Why should I be singled out for thanks?

  • I seem to recall Bill Samuel saying that he once heard Friends at one of Philadelphia YM’s annual sessions booing a speaker. That would seem to be consistent with the clapping, and with the inclusion of thanks to individual Friends in the minutes.

    I do describe myself as a traditional Friend, although I don’t think I mean the same thing by that phrase that you do. I don’t wear old-timey clothing or speak in an old-timey way, but I believe that I understand the purpose and witness of Quakerism in the way the first Friends understood it, rather than in the modern way that says you can be a Quaker and believe anything you like. Where my practices differ from the first Friends’, they differ only because I believe that the old practices convey a different message to modern eyes and ears.

    My own reaction, as a traditional Friend, to clapping, and to the inclusion of thanks you describe, would be to stand in meeting for business and ask the Friends doing these things to consider carefully what their actions signify. You do not say, here, whether you tried that. But in traditional Quakerism, at least as I understand it, it is expected of us that we take up any behavior we are having problems with, with the actual Friend(s) engaging in that behavior, before we complain about the matter to outsiders.

  • Tom Smith says:

    I agree with much of what you have written, but I won’t thank you for writing it. :-}
    I especially like your comment about not being a “traditionalist.” I find that often the “traditionalist” falls into the trap that Fox and others were so clear about in rejecting forms and “rituals” that had become essentially meaningless in the performance over the substance. I believe we are called to be aware 24/7 of even our “small gestures” and consider the source. We should not just do things because the early Friends or the previous generations did them, but because they are a vital witness today to the “living source.”

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