Two recent Forum letters have expressed the view that Friends ought not to use the word "worship" to describe what we do when we conduct business – that our meetings for business are not worship and to call them meetings for worship runs counter to our testimony of Integrity (FJ May and August Forums).
My own views regarding the term Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business have evolved since I was introduced to it thirty years ago. As a young adult Friend, I experienced Quaker business meetings as ponderously slow, excruciatingly boring, and largely irrelevant to own life in the Spirit. The running joke at the time was that we could deliberate for an hour trying to discern where we ought to store the vacuum cleaner. As a result, I rarely attended business meetings and considered the term Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business wishful thinking at best, self-righteous posturing at worst.
Some years later, I found myself in a different situation. During this time, I felt obliged to attend business meeting regularly because issues pertaining to the committee I served on were frequently on the agenda. As it turned out, a number of these issues grew to be contentious— deeply and disturbingly so. These business meetings were decidedly NOT boring! Nor were they, I’m sorry to say, very worshipful. Heated words were tossed back and forth, accusations were hurled in anger, feelings were hurt. We would leave at the end feeling bruised and battered, exhausted and discouraged.
It was during this period that my attitude toward the phrase Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business began to change as I saw the need—in our case the desperate need—for worship in business meeting. Not worship as something tacked on in the form of perfunctory silences before and after, but worship as the first motion, the very heart of all that goes on. The very same kind of intense, humble, open-hearted, deep listening worship that takes place in a gathered meeting was exactly what we lacked and what we needed when conducting business. During this difficult period, I began to think of the phrase Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business as a worthy goal, an impossibly high ideal, and a constant reminder of our shortcomings.
It is with some wonder and amazement that I am able to describe a third phase in my evolving attitude toward this idea of business as worship, one in which I have begun to experience Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business, not as some unattainable holy grail, but as an actual fact. These days, our business meetings are deeply grounded in worship – from the gathered silence out of which we begin, to the queries we consider and respond to as led, to each carefully considered agenda item punctuated by silences in which we hold the clerk and recording clerk in the Light as they seek to determine the sense of the meeting and distill it into a minute. When we are at our best, it matters not at all whether the issue at hand is a weighty one or something mundane and routine, we listen to each other exactly the same way we do in Meeting for Worship. At times, the line between voicing an opinion regarding an item of business and inspired vocal ministry becomes blurred to the point of disappearing.
How have we managed to do this? I have already mentioned the heightened motivation brought on by necessity. We educated ourselves in Quaker process and made a conscious effort to establish procedures that seemed awkward at first but have since become like second nature to us. Procedures such as waiting to be acknowledged by the clerk and speaking only to the clerk, rather than engaging in dialog with each other; giving everyone a chance to speak once to an issue before speaking a second time; taking care to keep comments brief and to the point; being willing to allow the clerk to elder us when we forget these things; taking time to consider in silence what has been said. We have been blessed in this journey (a journey that has taken years) by the leadership and example of our clerks. Our current clerk is so obviously "praying without ceasing" as she leads us through our agenda. The Friend designated each month to serve as anchor is very deliberately and intentionally holding each speaker in the Light. The rest of us cannot help but strive to do likewise. These days, after business meeting, more often than not, I feel refreshed, energized, inspired even.
I wish I could say that thanks to all of the above, we have been able to resolve the conflicts that once plagued us. I am sorry to say those issues did not get resolved; many of them simply went away as circumstances in our meeting changed. It’s not hard for a meeting to come to unity when Friends who disagree move away or stop attending. So in a sense, our worshipful way of doing business has not been tested. I don’t know if we could still answer that of God in one another so tenderly should circumstances change again and severe conflict revisit us. But having experienced both Meeting for Business and Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business, if and when such a test comes, there is no doubt in my mind which kind of business meeting I want to be in.