Experiences with Sabbath and Jubilee Years

Over time, the vitality of a Quaker meeting will naturally ebb and flow. Friends tend to measure a meeting’s vitality by whether the attendance at worship, outward witness activities, and pastoral care of members are increasing or at least not declining. These measures, I contend, are merely symptoms. Vitality emanates primarily from a meeting’s openness to God’s promptings, corporate spiritual development, and grounding in Quakerism.

While serving the Religious Society of Friends, I have had personal contact with some recent, radical efforts to invigorate meetings. The meetings involved have referred to their present-day holy experiments in terms of “Jubilee” or “Sabbath.” One might quibble over whether their pursuits were correctly named in light of traditional connotations of Jubilee and Sabbath; one cannot quibble over their valiant initiative.

Beacon Hill Meeting

In 1996, Beacon Hill Meeting in Boston, Mass., charged an ad hoc Jubilee Committee to consider whether the meeting might have more slots than it could reasonably expect to fill, given the number of Friends available for committee service. According to its records, the Jubilee Committee tried to “learn about, encourage, and re-imagine the many ways that Friends give their time and energy in support of the meeting.” What it firmly intended to do was to make Friends feel less harried, overcommitted, and guilt-ridden. The committee identified several signs that the meeting was failing to use fully and appreciate the “abundant gifts among us of energy, talent, love, and dedication.” It developed ideas to rejuvenate the meeting as well as principles to guide committee service. The Jubilee Committee recommended expanding the role of the Nominating Committee in order to nurture members’ gifts better as well as procedures for handling the meeting’s workload. Many Friends who had served on the Jubilee or Nominating Committees were named to the new Gifts and Leadings Committee.

Fifty-seventh Street Meeting

Similarly overwhelmed with nominating concerns for its committees, its building’s residential program, as well as its representation to yearly meetings in Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference, 57th Street Meeting in Chicago had not only been shrinking significantly in overall membership, but also losing active members serving in pivotal roles. The communal mood was one of loss, scarcity, and failing to live up to the meeting’s expectations. Sparked by Beacon Hill’s example, 57th Street decided to undertake a Sabbath, a time to set aside obligations, renew, and refocus. The meeting recognized a desire to express intentionally and collectively its grief from recent losses as well as its celebration of the Spirit and sense of community still present in its midst. Fifty-seventh Street Meeting also acknowledged that after its Sabbath there would be a need to adjust its structure and expectations in order to be able to fulfill them.

New York Yearly Meeting

Out of a leading from a retreat weekend the preceding autumn, New York Yearly Meeting celebrated 2000 as a “Year of Sabbath Rest and Jubilee.” The yearly meeting’s leadership focused on the admonition of Isaac Penington, “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts, which are the leadings of God.” In general though, Friends had difficulty “relaxing into it” and had to address concerns of sanctimoniousness, as well as expressions of anxiety, frustration, and the desire to get on with business. Many questions also arose, including: “How are contemporary Friends to understand Sabbath when from the beginning we chose to live every moment sacramentally?” and “What is the relation between Sabbath and Jubilee, resting in God and releasing the captives?” Friends arrived at yearly meeting sessions in July to what one Friend described as “a schedule and, many would say, a spirit unlike that of recent years. There was a feeling of spaciousness and a rhythm that allowed for deeper fellowship and holy encounter.” Unlike its usual meetings for business, the yearly meeting mostly held “meetings for worship with a concern for leadings” which had no set agenda. It still held two meetings for business and heavily relied on the use of a consent agenda to approve straightforward matters without discussion from the floor. Any substantive issues raised prior to consideration of the consent agenda about the proposed nominations, committee reports, and similar routine matters would have been fully taken up. The clerk’s prayer for New York Yearly Meeting as 2000 came to a close was that “we will be drawn ever more deeply into a disciplined and on-going practice of faithful listening and faithful living.”

Central Philadelphia Meeting

In its informational packet, Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting described Sabbath as “a way of being in the world, a change in point of view, not a set of things to do” and its Sabbath year as an invitation to “one another not so much to change our behavior as to shift our attention during the coming months—to take time to listen for our deepest truth and to support one another in hearing and responding.” Specifically, Central Phila-delphia Meeting shifted its attention to the meeting’s spiritual life and grounding in Quakerism. Over the year, the meeting offered a mix of topics and activities including individual study and practice, small groups, weekend retreats, and corporate reflection during half of each meeting for business. Participating Friends found the experience spiritually nurturing and were drawn closer to the meeting.

Future Plans

Although their Sabbath or Jubilee occurred for a specific period of time, these meetings may still harvest fruits from their efforts and risk-taking. Each meeting chose a different emphasis: Beacon Hill Meeting on nurturing members’ gifts and re-imagining committee service, 57th Street Meeting on honoring losses and celebrating community, New York Yearly Meeting on opening its agenda to God’s promptings, and Central Philadelphia Meeting on Quaker spiritual formation. Other meetings, such as Northside Meeting near Chicago, are now discerning how to tailor these four models to their own specific situation and measure of Light. A meeting may indirectly learn from others’ examples, but fostering its own vitality is achieved experientially. Each meeting’s efforts contribute to the Religious Society of Friends’ continuing revelation.

Quakers believe that we can have an immediate experience of God and that this experience lies within each of us as an inner condition, the Seed, or Christ within. It is God, not a calendar, that sets the rhythm of our lives and accompanies us through periods of consolation, desolation, toil, and rest. It is God that may prompt in us the spiritual power symbolized as baptism, Advent, Lent, resurrection and, yes, Sabbath or Jubilee. In obedience to God, rather than heeding merely our worldly bodies and notions, Quakers can thus be faithful when open to and responding to such spiritual leadings and rhythms.

Truth prospered, I believe, in the life of these four meetings that acted on promptings for Sabbath and Jubilee. Is your meeting weary? Might its life and work be renewed by consecrating a specific time to rest in God?

Laura Melly

Laura Melly, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, currently works at Pendle Hill and serves on Friends General Conference's Traveling Ministries Committee.