I have been asked to write a few thoughts about laying down the role of Clerk, and on the balance between inner spirituality and the outer life inherent in that role. This is a challenging question not just for the clerk but for the whole community, especially in our meetings for worship for business and committees.
In our meetings for worship we seek through the stillness to know God’s will for ourselves and for the gathered group. Our meetings for church affairs, in which we conduct our business, are also meetings for worship based on silence, and they carry the same expectation that God’s guidance can be discerned if we are truly listening together and to each other. QF&P 3.02
One of my favourite Quaker pamphlets is titled Beyond Consensus: getting to the sense of the meeting. * It has been a companion during my time as clerk of Lewes meeting as I have prepared for those meetings which Quakers have variously described as Meeting for Church Affairs or more recently Meeting for Worship for Business.
As a Quaker community we seek not to find consensus, nor necessarily to find an intellectually satisfactory conclusion, but to go beyond that to reach the sense of the meeting. It may not be what any one of us thought as we entered the meeting, but it can emerge if we are grounded in attentive listening. When there is a strong community grounded in shared worship then trust, love and respect will grow. There are times when a meeting can get stuck, we can seem to be going no-where on an issue. Clearly we need to be practical and inform ourselves about the facts but I also believe that when we get stuck it is often because we have lost commitment to, or faith in, the process. We may hesitate and stumble, make mistakes, but we need to learn through experience, to listen carefully to hear the underlying message, to let go of ego and discern the way forward together. We pick ourselves up and we move on.
As a clerk it is easy to become impatient, willing the community to find the way forward on a thorny issue, and wanting to get to the point where a minute can be concluded. But I know that I need to lose that sense of urgency, to wait for the sense of the meeting to emerge.
Sometimes we may find we need to consider matters outside the business meeting so that we are sufficiently informed to discern the way ahead when we come together in the meeting for worship for business. Examples of such consideration in Lewes meeting in the past three years have been: An open workshop on “What is the ministry of our Meeting?”; a meeting at which Premises Committee introduced discussion on potential improvement to our historic meeting house; a facilitated day, at a point within the meeting we were experiencing tension and losing our way, entitled “Creating Harmony, Responsibility and Community”.
A whole separate piece could be written on the subject of Quaker minutes. I love that the minute is the responsibility of the whole gathered meeting, not just the clerk, that it is agreed there and then during the meeting and not altered later. Advance preparation of the background, the factual part of the minute, helps the clerk to be able to concentrate on capturing the sense of the meeting in a minute of a complex decision. But sometimes human frailty gets in the way – did we really reach the sense of the meeting? In many of the matters we have to consider routinely we do not need to struggle too much – a “good-enough” minute will record what is needed.
As for all the practical aspects of being clerk – the emails, the phone calls, the notices – I try to remember one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s small meditations for everyday living. The “answering the telephone” meditation which slows you down, take a few seconds to centre yourself and be ready to be fully present to the person at the other end of the phone before you pick it up. Something similar applies to taking a pause before sending off an email. The weekly decision about how and what to convey in notices to those gathered on Sunday, or by email to the wider community, can be a spiritual exercise in itself. And as with all the other aspects of being clerk not a task for the clerk alone. It always helps if Friends with information to pass on send the clerk clear details in advance, and our wonderful monthly newsletter and web-site have certainly helped ease the burden on the clerk.
There is no hierarchy within a Quaker meeting. As members we are all equally responsible for the life of the meeting and take it in turns to serve the meeting in a variety of roles. Some of us have had the role of clerk in the past, others will take it on in the future – but at any one time whoever is the clerk, or treasurer, convenor of premises or coffee rota organiser, need not feel alone with the task. I very much value all those Friends who during my time as clerk have quietly offered support or stepped in to take on an aspect of the task which I might have been struggling to fulfil, and indeed those who have shared laughter and fun – being clerk is not all seriousness and solemnity.
* Beyond Consensus: Salvaging Sense of the Meeting. Barry Morley, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 307