For the first two centuries of Quaker history, the work of the Meeting was accomplished by two separate monthly meetings – the men’s, on one side of the sliding shutters, and the women’s, on the other – and they had their own responsibilities. Specific tasks might be accomplished by appointing two or three Friends to address an issue and report back at the next meeting – and then they were done.
There was also a meeting of the ministers and elders (or “select meeting”), though I’m not sure if this was a joint body or was also two separate ones.
I suspect that during this period, much of the communication that now occurs in our Monthly Meeting sessions likely happened over the family dinner table, especially when the grandparents and cousins were present – Quakers, were after, a family affair, too.
What we now have as our system of standing committees emerged around the beginning of the 20th century, in part as a response to the changing home life of families and perhaps as a consequence of the longer agenda before each month’s business session. I suspect that with many Friends employed as college teachers, we saw our committees more and more resemble faculty committees in practice.
Once again, as we’ve move into the 21st century, we’re finding it increasingly difficult to maintain this system. Dover Friends are not alone in this – it’s affecting monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings everywhere, and the underlying stresses are also weakening other social organizations. (For the bigger view, turn to Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 groundbreaking book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. People just aren’t getting together they way they did when we were growing up.)
When we look at Quaker Meeting, we see that it’s rarely a family affair anymore: one spouse is involved while the other isn’t. Adult children aren’t continuing in the faith or present. Most of us live at a distance from the meetinghouse, and that means that getting together as Friends is an effort. We don’t bump into each other at the grocery or post office, either. (Post office? Want to talk about changing social structure?) We have conflicting demands on our time and income. Workers commute longer distances to the job and are expected to be 24/7 or at least available for unconventional work hours. On top of it all, the rise of self-centered individualism comes at the expense of a degraded community. And then there’s the increasing absence of men in churches of all denominations. (Where are the men going, anyway? It’s not all Red Sox Nation or the Patriots, after all. Hey, guys, where are we hanging out?)
Other Friends are sensing that what we’re about is quite at odds with the mainstream. When we sit together in silent worship, we’re cutting ourselves off from the constant flow of social media (another term, by the way, that needs reconsideration). We’re not being entertained from a stage, and we have a responsibility for our own spiritual practice. That’s even before we get to our testimonies of simplicity, nonviolence, equality, and the like.
So here we are, looking to the future. I, for one, believe we have much to offer. The big question is how we’ll do it. What’s the best use of the resources we have? How does the Truth prosper amongst us?
This originally appeared in Dover Friends Meeting’s newsletter as we consider new ways of addressing the needs of our faith community. Unlike many denominations, we Quakers are closely involved in the business of our congregations, or “meetings,” given that name by our recognition of church as the believers or people rather than any organization or building. (And so, the church meets.) The “monthly meeting,” or local congregation, is so named because we gather together to review our common business once a month even though we worship together at least once a week.
In sharing this dialogue, I’m hoping Friends and non-Quakers will perceive ways the discussion might benefit their own circles, religious or otherwise. I certainly welcome insights and suggestions. After all, we’re all in a time of upheaval and the challenges are many. Once again, the world’s being turned upside down.