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Annual Meeting and Quaker "Movements"

November 22, 2006

Each one of us puts into the community his person and all his powers under the supreme direction of the General Will; and as a body, we incorporate every member as an indivisible part of the whole.

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract”

FCNL’s Annual Meeting having concluded a week and a half ago, I have taken some time to reflect on the experience. Several things leapt out at me at the time, which I shared with others at the conference. Other thoughts have been bubbling up for a while and were reinforced that weekend. They are all thoughts in progress and gestation.

The assembled General Committee read, worked on, and approved FCNL’s priorities for the 110th Congress. I was fascinated again by the clerking and conduct of our business meetings. These sessions were not framed as Meeting for Worship with a concern for business, but simply as business sessions. They were opened with silence. And they ended in silence. But the focus of the participants did not seem particularly centered.

Of course this doesn’t apply to all the participants, but merely to what stood out in my mind. I spent much of the business session time trying to listen as deeply as possible to the spirit speaking through the gathered body, 200 Friends gathered to determine what the Religious Society of Friends is called to work on in the coming Congress. A Friend at the QUIT Torture Conference in Guilford this past spring posed the question, which I wrote on the back of my name tag and have posted at my desk, “Is this the product of Spirit?” I try to ask myself this in many of the choices and actions I take, especially where some amount of discernment should be required. This query arose in me many time as individuals rose to speak and contemplated the guidance of the clerks.

Now my little disclaimer: I’m not a clerk. I’m a convinced Friend with very little business meeting experience. Very little.

That said, here comes Jay’s inevitable judgment:

I was surprised to find, in discussion of the priorities document, the personal and individual focus of many participants comments. The number of “I” statements was rather surprising. Many people were pushing their pet issues, and trying to attach them to the priorities document.

It reminds me of Congressional pork. At the end of the year, when Congress needs to pass the government’s spending bills, Senators and Representatives line up to get their pet projects attached to the big bill which will be passed anyway, regardless of what pork is on it. Everyone knows that the giant bill to fund the military is going to pass, so why not attach your favorite road project to it?

Both processes seem to lack a maturity of focus. Congressional leaders don’t guide Congress to focus on the purpose of the bill at hand. Just so, the elders and clerks of this meeting seemed to insufficiently frame the General Committee’s deliberations and discussions of the Priorities. The question that was asked was, “we’ll now open the floor to Friends’ comments, questions and concerns.” But we’re not looking for individual Friends’ comments or concerns unless those concerns rise to a level of conscience, are we? We’re looking for what Friends are led to do in the next two years with regards to our federal government.

Shouldn’t the frame be “Do Friends feel that this statement is an accurate reflection of the will of the General Committee as led by the holy spirit?” We’re not looking for the amalgamation of individual wishes, but we’re looking for what, as a corporate gathered people, we find to be our true leading. Where does the Light lead us, historically and currently, to devote our energy this year? Given limited resources, what should the staff be working on?

Now, many members of the General Committee were aware that those were the questions really before the group, and several spoke up and addressed it. But the overall tenor of the business sessions didn’t change. Perhaps I am asking too much?

I’m not sure how this leads into the second topic. I keep thinking about the fragmentation of Quakerism into interest groups and organizations that have secularized our way of doing business. Quaker action isn’t centered around the Monthly Meeting which tests leadings and labors with concerns before “going public”. Now, Friends with particular interests insert themselves into a group of like-minded folk and have their own meetings and listservs and conferences. I think FCNL does a good job at trying to counter this through our Priorities setting process – we ask individual Meetings and other communities of Friends to go through a process within their groups to discern what should be FCNL’s focus in the coming two years.

But I wonder if this is sufficient to discern what the Quaker movement should be devoting considerable resources to. Is it possible to be spirit-led in such conditions? John Woolman didn’t have a distant Committee which he got to adopt and carry forth his concerns about slavery.

I guess I don’t have a lot to add on that observation for now, other than that it’s been occupying my mind for several weeks now. And that’s not to mention the questions of what it means to be a “professional Quaker.” Well, ’till next time, mind the Light!

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