Saturday, 9 December 2017

Purpose, Practice and Structure

A rather tatty copy of the second edition of the 1994 "Quaker faith & practice"
Quaker faith & practice, essentially the handbook of Britain Yearly
Meeting, devotes considerable space to the structures of different
tiers of the YM, AMs and LMs, the expectations of various roles,
and so forth.
In a recent blog on the website of Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM), Alistair Fuller suggests that we might benefit from re-examining our structures and practices, to make sure that they serve us and our faith, rather than vice versa. As a response to that post, and being British myself, this post is very much written from a BYM perspective. The way different roles are broken down between different positions and committees, and the terms used for them, will vary between different YMs, and will be even more different in programmed traditions. As such, there's no attempt at all to put an international perspective on the specifics – I'd love to hear about how this works differently in different places in the comments section.
As Alistair writes,
“Many of us are deeply familiar with these structures and indeed can find great comfort and reassurance in them. But might there also be something about the shape and structure of our Quaker communities – locally and nationally – that makes them difficult to access for many people?
Is there sometimes something about our ways of working that seems to stifle the Spirit, rather than creating the space for it to flourish and speak?”
I don't know if this question prompts a different reaction from people who've been part of these structures for longer, perhaps those raised among Quakers will see it differently from those convinced in adulthood. I can only give my perspective, as someone convinced over 10 years ago, in my 20s. While a small part of my responds with caution, with a slight instinct to defend our structures as they are now, the greater part of my gut reaction is to say “hey, now you mention it, I think you might be on to something” – at least, as regards structures. I'm more defensive of practices.
I agree that our practices and structures need to serve a purpose, and to serve the people pursuing that purpose, rather than being things that we serve. As a religious society, that purpose should be religious, rather than social or political. That is not to say that our religious purpose is never furthered by social or political activities; our social interactions can bind us together as a community, and help us maintain connections with the wider community, while Friends have long expressed their faith through political action on issues of particular importance. However, we cease to be faithful to our stated purpose where we become a social club or political action group.
We might struggle to agree a clear description of precisely what our religious purpose is; I would say that it is improving, for as many people as possible, our awareness of the Divine and ability to be guided by it, and promoting the results of that guidance. I suspect that many other Friends would come up with something broadly similar, perhaps with more theological specificity, but also that many Friends besides would come up with something radically different. Whatever that purpose is, however, it is clearly best served by having practices and structures that serve it, rather than that obstruct it. My head tells me that our structures could be far better at serving our purposes, and my gut tells me that they do, at times obstruct it – especially that supposedly quintessentially Quaker inertia.
When did we accept that inertia in our practices and structures was an inherent part of our faith? Why should an idea, that no-one can point to a reason for being bad, that seems to be a product of genuine leading, that does not require significant resources, be held up in consideration by several committees? Why should a Meeting tell its members that they cannot organise a public Meeting for Worship without authorisation by elders? No, sorry, we meant authorisation by Local Business Meeting… no, wait, we need to check with trustees. I don't mean to suggest that this is universal, or even usual behaviour, I haven't heard of such things from enough Meetings, but it certainly isn't rare. When there are signs that a Friend may be acting under concern, why do we not offer them loving support and testing of that concern as a matter of priority? Our processes are by their nature slow, yes, and deliberate, with very good reasons – but they need not be so extremely obstructive. Making decisions by discernment can take longer than by secular methods, but need not take week upon week.
I don't know precisely what it is about the current state of our Meetings that leads to this. Have people fetishised deliberation to the point of excess? Or is it simply a cover for a sort of conservatism that allows us a handy excuse to prevent attempts at change? I just don't know.
So we have things that need doing, and we appoint people to do them. Discernment needs someone to “lead” it, and we have to have someone handle correspondence on behalf of the Meeting, and so we have clerks. We have found it necessary, or at least helpful, or at least comforting, to have Friends who take special responsibility for upholding our practices and fostering spiritual development, and so we have elders. We recognise that we have a collective responsibility for the well-being of our communities, and that the community is made up of individuals, and so we have overseers. We have legal responsibilities as charitable organisations, and so we have trustees. We have buildings that must be looked after, and financial considerations, and so we have premises committees and property committees and finance committees and treasurers. We wish to have the opportunity to develop as a community socially, so we have social events committees. We have wardens that require support and supervision, and so we have wardenship committees. We have money that we wish to use for good causes, compatible with Quaker values, and so we have committees dedicated to deciding what charities we collect for, or give to from our own funds. We have a legal responsibility to record marriages according to our usage, so we have registering officers. We know that there are legalities and needs for pastoral support for funeral and memorial meetings, and so we have funeral coordinators. I'm going to stop there, but I'm sure with some more thought this list could go on a lot longer.
We have Local Meetings grouped into Area Meetings, all part of Yearly Meeting. We also have Regional Meetings and the other successors of the English regional General Meetings (once Quarterly Meetings), doing different sorts of things since they were removed from the formal structures of the Yearly Meeting. We have the General Meeting for Scotland and the Meeting of Friends in Wales. We have centrally managed work at the YM level, with staff and committees and representative councils.
Alistair Fuller asks, if we were starting today with a blank slate, and operated in the spirit of the early Quakers, what sort of structure and practices would we end up with? Would it look anything like what we have now? I don't think so. I think there's dead weight in our structures and practices. I'm just not at all sure where it is. There is no point in saying “something must change”, and then changing something because that's what we can think of; we need to work out where the problem is, where we should be, and then try to get there. Changing whatever you can think of just because you are sure something must change is rarely terribly productive.
(As an aside, Rhiannon Grant has an excellent response on the matter of what early Friends would be doing today… it seems light-hearted, but I think it has a very serious core, that I may return to in future.)
I know this seems like I've just got half a thing here – saying we've got to do something, but I don't know what. Thing is, that's got to be the first step. To recognise something is wrong, even if we don't know what it is. Then we have to sit down and really look at what it is, and only then can we work out how it should change. That can't be done by the odd Quaker sitting down and thinking about it, or even some self-selected group of Friends, however weighty and well-qualified, talking it over between them. We need to work out just what we are for, and how our practices and structures aid and inhibit that purpose, which means we need truly wide engagement in the issue, at least on the scale of the Reading Quaker faith & practice programme the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group ran. But the first step to doing that is to get some recognition that there is a problem – and this post is my way, my own small way, of contributing towards that end.
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