Quakerism: a view from the back benches continued
Copyright 1966 The Back Benches
The Size of the Meeting
Experience leads us to the conclusion that the number of people attempting to create a religious community is the determining factor in success. The large, urban Meeting, while offering an intricate, often well-functioning organization with something for everyone, is not the breeding ground for total commitment of its members. It is true that individuals can commit themselves to work in such a Meeting, but the prospect is that they will limit their activities to certain compartments within the Meeting. This may be satisfying to individuals in the short run but, in the long run, may be destructive of the possibilities for corporate activity and growth.
Many members of large Meetings recognize this problem yet resist addressing themselves to a solution. Tradition, the care of a much-loved meeting house, a graveyard, a school, an old people’s home, etc., still the voices of those who might otherwise face up to the need for experimentation in size. The effect of Meeting property on the Quaker religious life is dealt with in another chapter. Here, we will only state that large holdings of property can crush the vitality of a Meeting’s active workers, frighten them in rigidity concerning change.
Large urban Meetings need to face squarely the need for growth-by-division. Ideas of what constitutes the correct size may vary; if a large urban Meeting were to multiply into a series of House Meetings, 15 to 30 adults might be a good number. Rotation of the place of Meeting (homes) would not unduly burden members; and finances would relate directly to the concerns of the Meeting and contributions might be more cheerfully given than is often the case in large membership organizations.
Leaving the newly constituted “House Quakers” for the moment, let us consider the problems of the too-small Meeting. It is safe to say that American Quakerism boasts many Meetings with too few members valiantly struggling to keep the Meeting alive in order to preserve a tradition, a lovely old meeting house, and so forth. Respecting these motivations as admirable and intensely human, we yet feel tender toward the admirable and intensely human, we yet may feel tender toward the needs of the Friends who so labor, and we question whether these burdens allow for the fullest participation in the wider and deeper Quaker experience.
An attempt by these members of identify what is of real value to them in these small, struggling Meetings and sift out what is merely burden may be of help. Perhaps the real essence, for example, will be found to be a meaningful worship, or a regular fellowship supper, or a children’s educational activity. This valued activity might be made vital by dispensing with all else in the Meeting’s life.
Perhaps, finally, the solution would be to lay down the Meeting or to join with another neighboring Meeting which shares many of the same difficulties of survival. The test would be whether by such experiments release and renewal are found by members, giving rise to fuller participation in Friendly concerns, and a more productive worship experience for all.
Perhaps small Meetings might spring up around a specific concern, such as a mental hospital, prison, peace effort, etc., so that the life a the Meeting would be focused on one area, at least for a time, all members giving and gaining spiritual sustenance through this unity of concern. If such a Meeting is later laid down, Friends are cautioned not to mourn its passing but to rejoice in the quality of service and spirit which it possessed while it was alive.
In smaller, closer Meetings, there is more possibility for experiment in new forms of communication, such as music, drama, the dance, and common work. New adjuncts to worship could be developed, predicated on the theory that silence is not sacrosanct, having no inherent life or value of its own, but is made meaningful by those who share it.
Experimentation with new ways of creating a silence alive with communicated truth should not be considered heretical so long as the effort is serious, focused on a goal, flexible, and above all fruitful.
(to be continued)