In Quaker organizational structure, the ultimate decision-making body is the Yearly Meeting – so named because of its annual sessions. While the central event is the convocation, the organization itself (also called the Yearly Meeting) has ongoing activities and committee meetings throughout the year. One of the purposes of the gathering is simply to coordinate and nurture these missions.
Unlike some denominations, we have no central headquarters. Our Yearly Meetings are rather distributed across the country and the globe, and these bodies work together through cooperative affiliations, shared projects, communication, and inter-visitation.
My local Friends Meeting is part of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, the oldest such body in the world. In fact, when more than 800 people – representatives, their spouses, and children – assemble next month on the Castleton University campus in Vermont, it will be our 358th gathering. (Until 1905, we met in Newport, Rhode Island. Since then, we’ve moved around New England.)
Here are some reasons I attend, whenever possible.
- It’s inspiring. I’m reenergized and refreshed by the daily devotion of some very dedicated Friends I’ve come to treasure over the years. Some of them are deeply involved in peace and social justice work. For others, it’s environmental or economic. And still others, it’s radical theology. For all, it’s rooted in a shared faith.
- It’s challenging. My assumptions are tested from alternative perspectives and actions are questioned in rounds of profound introspection and spiritual direction – something that’s ultimately cleansing and refreshing.
- The Bible Half-Hour. Each year a respected Friend is invited to discuss selected Biblical texts and stories in the half-hour right after breakfast each morning. Last year we spent 2½ lively hours on a single sentence from Romans. It’s rarely anything you’d expect to hear from a pulpit but rather a personal journey that’s an eyeopener in more ways than one.
- We’re always eating. Or so it seems. Dorm food was never like this back when I was in college – it’s gotten so much better. The reality is that we’re usually lingering over animated conversations, sometimes at a table set aside for a specific topic or group focus.
- The clerking. Crucial to the success of Quaker business is the skill of our clerks. At Yearly Meeting, this means the presiding clerk, two recording clerks who are minuting our deliberations, and two reading clerks. Since we arrive at decisions without ever taking a vote and still face crowded agendas, clerking is a unique art. Time after time, what I observe is the best. Admittedly, though, sometimes it can be trying – very trying.
- Few of our Meetings include music as part of our worship, but Yearly Meeting has times that reveal the amazing voices and talents in our midst. These can be emotionally moving.
- Workshops and “opportunities.” Tucked into each day are short presentations, discussions, or even documentaries based on particular interests Friends carry. These can be anything from parenting and child care to Mideast peace to nomadic reindeer herders to new publications to theology or history. I hate it when three or four at the same time compete for my attention.
- Just good to get away. It’s a unique kind of vacation. Who could possibly complain about driving across New Hampshire and Vermont, for instance? Period.
- The contacts. This means reconnecting with incredible people and being introduced to more – individuals I’m likely to be working with somewhere in the future, and perhaps even in the past. I’m often surprised when someone I don’t recognize says, “I remember when you …” So far, it’s always been in a positive light.
- We’re building on a revolutionary foundation. The Quaker movement emerged in the upheavals of mid-1600s Britain, one of the most incredible periods in history when it comes to social, economic, political, and religious breakthroughs. Being part of a group central to that legacy and its continuing advances is both humbling and exciting, especially in the face of the difficulties of our own time.
Is there a similar assembly – maybe a camp? – that you like to attend for similar reasons? What is it? And why?
Continuing the poetry parade, see what’s new at THISTLE/FLINCH.