ON THE NATURE OF QUAKER MEETING FOR BUSINESS
Friends, i want to make another appeal for us to call things by
their right names, and not to go on confusing the meeting for business
with the meeting for worship. Our two kinds of meetings are not the
same. There are many differences between our two kinds of meetings.
We do not have just "one" kind of meeting.
To begin with, our meetings for business are meetings for action;
they are the method we have learned to help us reach decisions
representing the whole of the meeting. Our meetings for worship are
never meetings for action. Our meetings for worship may be said to be
intended to help us refresh ourselves at the fountain of divine spirit
if i may put it so poetically.
Our meetings for business have an agenda, and we try to stick to
that agenda. Our meetings for worship never have an agenda, but we
may speak to whatever matter we are led to in the silence. We do have
another kind of meeting called a "threshing meeting", in which we have
a single matter for us to seek clarity on together, but we do not try
to reach decisions at those meetings.
Our meetings for business have a presiding clerk, whose part it is
to help us follow our agenda. Our meetings for worship do not have a
presiding individual. In a meeting for business the clerk may have to
remind us to stick with the agenda. In a meeting for worship no one
would ever tell us to stick to the topic.
Another of the duties of the presiding clerk at a meeting for
business is to call upon individuals on occasion, when the need arises.
Perhaps in an ideal meeting for business two people would never rise
to speak at once, so that the clerk would not have to call upon each
of them in turn. But in a meeting for worship no one ever calls upon
anyone else to take their turn. On rare occasions two persons wi11
rise together to speak in a meeting for worship; but one of them
always takes their seat again, although they may rise again later.
At our meetings for business we often hear scheduled reports of
committees; sometimes these will present us with proposed minutes of
action, and sometimes they will not. At a meeting for worship we
never have reports of committees, even if a committee clerk or a member
of a committee may be led to speak about a concern or an activity of
that committee. Sometimes these reports provide us with information to
help us in reaching our decisions together. Sometimes messages in a
meeting for worship will give us information we didn't have before, but
that is incidental to the delivery of the message in the course of the
meeting for worship.
At a meeting for worship our custom dictates that we speak only once
although it is difficult to find a precise spiritual basis for this
custom. At a meeting for business a member may speak more than once
even to the same matter, if the contribution seems important enough
although we are enjoined not to make the same point twice or repeat
At a meeting for business we seek to make decisions regarding the
temporal and spiritual affairs of the meeting; but at a meeting for
worship we never try to make a decision regarding our affairs. At a
meeting for business we may have to layover a matter until a future
meeting, if we need more time for seasoning the matter together, or if
we need more information. A matter may come up at successive meetings
for worship, but that is as the light directs us and not because we
are seeking to make a group decision.
A meeting for business maintains a minute-book or other record of
the decisions and deliberations of the meeting, either by the clerk in
a small meeting or by an assistant clerk called the "recording clerk"
in a larger meeting. But we do not record minutes for our meetings for
worship, although occasionally a message may be written down by another
member because of its great depth and power and beauty.
One of the decisions we are frequently called upon to make at our
meetings for business is the acceptance of new members into our meeting
or the transfer of one of our members to another meeting. But we never
use the meeting for worship as the time to reach decisions on accepting
a new person as a member or releasing someone from membership.
Still, we need to keep ourselves just as centered and open to the
leadings of the spirit at a meeting for business as we do at a meeting
for worship; we need to wait upon the Lord (as Friends say) just as
much if not more in a meeting for business as in a meeting for worship;
we need to be ready and willing to set aside our own desires and listen
to others, if we are to reach decisions together on our matters of
business. These are deeply central aspects of what it means for us to
be Friends and to be a community. We may also use periods of silent
worship during a meeting for business to help us remain centered and
discern our corporate light together.
But it denigrates and demeans the meeting for business to refer to
it as "just" another meeting for worship with a "concern" for business
or as a "meeting for worship on the occasion of business". This is
hardly a simple way of referring to our meetings for business, friends.
This fashion of speech only arose in the 1980s, out of a feeling that
there were those of us who had become careless in our practice of
remaining centered and open, of waiting upon the Lord for openings and
assistance, of refraining from pressing our own desires too forcefully
or frequently. But we should not let our desire to remind each other
of these spiritual needs of our community lead us to confusing our two
kinds of meetings, or to call the meeting for business a meeting for
worship when it is conducted differently from our meetings for worship.
In the 1973 Discipline of Pacific Yearly Meeting, and in other
yearly meeting disciplines, the two kinds of meetings are properly
grasped in the time-honored queries about meetings for business:
Are your meetings for business conducted in a spirit of worship?
Do you seek truth and the right course of action, rather than
acceptance for a previously-formed opinion?
These queries were left out of the 1985 Faith and Practice of Pacific
Yearly Meeting, perhaps out of a desire to promulgate the notion that
meeting for business was the just another meeting for worship.
We could say that a meeting for business is actually a meeting for
worship with an agenda, and a presiding clerk, and committee reports
and during which members may speak more than once, and at which we make
decisions for the meeting and approve minutes of action, and record
minutes. But why bother, when the term "meeting for business" denotes
and connotes all those differences anyway?
It may be possible for us to hold a meeting for business after the
manner of a meeting for worship, without an agenda, letting members
and officers and committee clerks speak to the affairs of the meeting
as they were led, and waiting in silence until someone was led to say
"We are in unity on proceeding in this fashion on this matter...", but
i do not know whether it has ever been done. It might be fun to try.
As a final word, it is to be noted that William James, one of the
founders of Berkeley Meeting and of College Park Quarterly Meeting and
of Pacific Yearly Meeting, always began the minutes during the years
he was clerk by writing, We held our meeting for business immediately
after our meeting for Divine worship. This shows that he perceived
clearly that the meeting for business was not the same as the meeting
for worship, or just another meeting for worship.
There is a time for worship, and a time for business...