Let’s consider new terminology

by | 6 Sep, 2020

Michael Searle, Canberra Regional Meeting

“Meeting for Worship for Business” may be an oxymoron

In the past decade or so, this Quaker expression has become our common language. I submit that it is misleading. I suggest that a Meeting for Worship and a Meeting for Business are incompatible terms.

This terminology has arisen in the hope of keeping us mindful that Business Meetings should be conducted in a worshipful way. I have no disagreement with this aspiration, but I don’t think the name achieves that intent.

I offer the following diagram to help explain how I see this matter. In each rectangle, the chief attributes and acceptable behaviours of each Meeting type are listed.

Central is the red rectangle Any Quaker meeting. The behaviours listed in this box are the things we strive for in any and every Quaker meeting, of any kind. They underpin all kinds of meetings. They should/must be present in every Quaker meeting for it to work.

In the blue rectangles, I have listed other attributes which are distinctive about that other kinds of meeting. Meetings for different purposes have significantly different behaviours, though some overlap. Each blue list is to be complemented by the red list. A Clearness Meetings is very different from a Discussion Meeting, for example.

I’m sure that the lists in both the red rectangle and the blue rectangles could be refined – please work at this. Also, there are other kinds of Meetings which could be included.

When we look at the purposes, attributes and acceptable behaviours of a Meeting for Worship and those of a Business Meeting, we see very few in common. Why do we speak of a Meeting for Worship for Business? I think it is a contradiction.

So, what problems does this contradiction cause?

I think it is important that Business Meetings be reminded that they are there to progress their business in a worshipful way, to listen deeply to each other to hear what is being said beneath the words being used, to be open to the spirit, to be ready to change our mind, to seek few words which will convey the sense of the spirit guiding us, and in its discipline. We are encouraged to come to Business Meeting well prepared. We may have tens of pages of preparatory information to read and form a view about. We may find it helpful to speak with others to clarify a proposal that is being put to the meeting. We must come to Business Meeting with our intellect engaged, yet trying to find that niche where our thinking does not dominate our intuition, our listening, our openness to the spirit. A Business Meeting is substantially focused on achieving a task, whereas a Meeting for Worship hopes to leave our tasks behind.

Whilst reading, reflecting, listening are useful preparations for Meeting for Worship, it is not helpful to come with words formulated or a passage book-marked that we intend to read. When we come to Meeting for Worship, we are advised to try to still our mind, to empty our mind, to find a technique which is helpful to us in quietening our thinking faculties. We would not rehearse spoken ministry with another person prior to the meeting.

I think that confusing these two styles of meeting is not helpful. Being open-minded in a Business Meeting is very different from emptying our mind in a Worship Meeting. The confusion must be hard for a newcomer to make sense of. As we try to find appropriate behaviours for a Business Meeting, the contradicting attributes between a Worship Meeting and a Business Meeting bring confusion, and make effective engagement much more difficult. The confusion does not help our meetings achieve their purposes better.

I think that it is helpful to recognise and understand more about the red central rectangle in my diagram, the approaches and skills which are common to all meetings, whatever their purpose. Listening skills can be learned and fostered. Building our abilities in this central set of attributes and skills also helps us contribute better to Discussion Meetings, Clearness Meetings, Committee Meetings, Threshing Meetings, as well as in everyday life. How can I act in more loving ways is an approach that enables our mind, spirit and heart to learn and grow? How can I be more empathetic? How can I speak truth tactfully?

I suggest that we drop this confusing terminology, recognise the importance of the skills and approaches that are key to any Quaker meeting, so that we have greater clarity to help us achieve better meetings of all kinds, and improve our perspective on how to live our ordinary lives better.

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