In August, I traveled to Rhode Island to join Friends from New England Yearly Meeting at their annual sessions. New England Yearly Meeting is one of many meetings that have labored over their relationships with the Quaker "umbrella organizations," Friends United Meeting (FUM) in particular. When Friends meet just once a year to practice business and discernment together, as is the case with many yearly meetings, so much depends on the atmosphere of worship.
Any time hundreds of Friends gather together in waiting worship, the results can be unpredictable. There are very good reasons why these large meetings can bog down: it can seem that there is simply no way every person’s opinion can be heard; worship can devolve into conversation or debate; the chairs are invariably uncomfortable; the Friend you were expecting would deliver the same familiar message does so; the room is too stuffy; the acoustics are bad. Being human, we can dwell in these frustrations and not in the place where Spirit speaks to us and through us.
What I found at New England Yearly Meeting was a body of Friends willing to experiment in ways to transcend the very real problems that attend large meetings for worship. The Young Adult Friends (the 18- 35ish cohort) led one morning worship session that very intentionally invited those gathered to speak over one another. Everyone with a March birthday, for example, was instructed to rise at once and speak to the query projected on the screen. They called this "loud worship," and it produced a joyous cacophony, out of which resonance ebbed and flowed. It was playful and surprising. This was the apotheosis of a "popcorn meeting," but I got the sense that it also gave Friends who are not always inclined to vocal ministry the chance to exercise Spirit’s call in that fashion. Did it deepen the silent worship that followed? Perhaps. Did it demonstrate the value of experimentation and risk-taking in the ways we can "program" even an unprogrammed meeting? To me, it indisputably did so. Both the YAFs that hatched this idea and the wider body of Friends who were game to give it a try now have more tools to use in exploration of God’s call for them—for us.
If "loud worship" was one end of the spectrum, the meeting-for-business session the following morning titled "Listening Deeply: FUM and Us" was the other. The premise was both simple and novel: worship, don’t speak, just listen. What would happen if we were just to listen, to receive, to refrain from vocal ministry and simply process the deeply sincere testimonies of a few Friends about the complexity of the yearly meeting’s relationship with FUM? I found this experience so powerful that I knew immediately that I needed to find a way to share it with the readers of Friends Journal. On pages 6 through 12, you will find four of the messages shared at this session. Listen deeply and imagine how simply sitting with these truths, from the experience of your sisters and brothers, might crystallize insights in your own Spirit about how you are called to build the community of Friends.
As you gather with your own family and your own faith community this season, why not consider how new structure, playfulness, and experimentation might enrich your lives and create opportunities for Spirit to surprise you? We at Friends Journal hope you’ll let us know what you try, and how your experiments in faithfulness turn out.
Our blessings are with you in this season of Light and love. Be well.