For the first time since 1661, we won’t be gathering face-to-face

The clerks’ table in a previous year in Vermont. The presiding clerk, standing, is flanked by reading clerks and recording clerks as he attempts to summarize the “sense of the meeting” and recognize Friends in the auditorium who wish to speak to the item at hand.

The top level of governance in the Society of Friends is the yearly meeting, so-named because it gathers once a year in decision-making sessions. The constituent local congregations, in contrast, are termed monthly meetings, since they gather in business sessions once a month. (Yes, it’s confusing, since we sit together in worship at least once a week as well.) Everyone active at the local level is welcome to participate in the annual sessions.

Rather than having a single overarching yearly meeting, ours exist independently, originally on a regional basis. Something like the various strands of Eastern Orthodox, for that matter, with the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox the best known of many.

Among Quakers, New England Yearly Meeting is the world’s oldest, founded in 1661, and was held in Newport, Rhode Island, until 1903. Since then we’ve gathered for a week each August on college campuses or other residential sites around the six-state region. In my time here, that’s been Hampshire in Massachusetts, Bowdoin in Maine, and Castleton in Vermont, and I’ve heard tales of the years the event was held in a camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

It’s a solemn and joyous occasion, one that many participants – and many families – schedule their work vacation time around. It’s something like a huge class reunion, too, where you reconnect with many people you hold dear. And living in a college dorm, as most of us do, it’s not uncommon to find that random pairings among those of us who go solo turn into regular roommates, year after year.

So I’m still stunned by the announcement a few weeks ago that we will not be meeting in person this summer, due to the coronavirus. Yes, we will be attempting something online, but it won’t be the same.

Among the faces and late-night conversations I’ll be missing.

Just as jarring is the more recent cancellation of summer sessions at Friends Camp in Maine. For many of our kids, it’s a highlight of their year, and friendships they form there sustain them through high school and college. As one of our neighbors says, a camper who became a counselor, the news is a bummer.

Amen.

 

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