Comments on Friends’ Practice Prompted by PYM Annual Sessions
August 2, 2011 § 7 Comments
Part One — Acclamation of Friends’ Service
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.)