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A continuing Yearly Meeting? Strengthening spirit-led discernment

Meeting for Sufferings has just endorsed a proposal for a continuing Yearly Meeting. Robert Card, Clerk of Meeting for Sufferings, shares what this means and what will happen next.

A continuing Yearly Meeting would mean that all Quakers could give year-round attention to Quaker concerns. Image: © Mike Pinches, Yearly Meeting 2023
A continuing Yearly Meeting would mean that all Quakers could give year-round attention to Quaker concerns. Image: © Mike Pinches, Yearly Meeting 2023

What happens at the moment?

Yearly Meeting meets once a year and is the only meeting where all Friends can engage in spirit-led discernment on the most important issues for our Quaker community. Between Yearly Meetings, Meeting for Sufferings meets four times per year to give year-round attention to those Quaker concerns. Not all Friends can attend Meeting for Sufferings, which is made up of representatives from each Area Meeting, General Meeting, and central and standing committee that makes up Quakers in Britain.

So why are we considering changing this?

The differences in membership, remits and roles create a lack of clarity over the discernment of Yearly Meeting, Meeting for Suffering and Britain Yearly Meeting Trustees. Which body is accountable to which? Is the three-part structure the best way to listen for, and live out, the will of God?

Some things are clear: Yearly Meeting is the highest constitutional authority within Quakers in Britain. BYM Trustees and Meeting for Sufferings are both accountable to it. But the relationship between BYM Trustees and Meeting for Sufferings is less clear, and there are areas of unhelpful overlap.

Spirit-led discernment is at the heart of our Quaker practices and our structures need to reflect that. As well as thinking about issues of accountability and the relationship between different bodies, we must ensure that our structures allow for clarity, participation and diversity.

Where did this proposal come from?

In 2020 Meeting for Sufferings appointed a small group of Friends to review Yearly Meeting and Yearly Meeting Gatherings. A review of Meeting for Sufferings was later added to the work. This is part of our normal practice – checking that we have the right structures to do our work.

To address issues of clarity, participation and diversity the group proposed that most of Meeting for Sufferings' current governance jobs could be done by a continuing Yearly Meeting. This would meet at a similar rhythm to the current Meeting for Sufferings, could have representation from the same bodies as Meeting for Sufferings does, but would also be open to any Friend who felt led to attend.

What would a continuing Yearly Meeting look like?

We haven't yet worked out all the details – detailed planning will happen if Yearly Meeting agrees with the proposal but we do have a sense of some of the broad outlines:

More often

A continuing Yearly Meeting would meet four times a year and would be open to everyone, including youth, children and families.

More engaged

That means that all Quakers will be able to give year-round attention to Quaker concerns. We'd be able to watch things unfold, ensure that our minutes are followed-up, and hear reports on what happened next.

More diverse

Area Meetings would still appoint representatives to the continuing Yearly Meeting, but attendance wouldn't be restricted only to representatives. Younger Friends who aren't often active enough in their area meetings to get appointed to Meeting for Sufferings, will be able to come, and bring their distinctive voice to our discernment, alongside Friends from other groups not well-represented on Meeting for Sufferings now.

More fun and fellowship

More frequent meetings of Yearly Meeting would also allow for more community building, all-together worship opportunities and fringe events to explore Quaker concerns. There would always be a programme for children and young people at sessions of the continuing Yearly Meeting so that all ages can be included.

What happens next?

Meeting for Sufferings has endorsed this proposal so it will go to Yearly Meeting this July. If Yearly Meeting discerns that this is the right step, then Friends, supported by BYM staff, will begin the work to implement this. It's likely that the new structure would operate after Yearly Meeting in May 2026.

My own reflections:

The constitutional confusion around the relationship between Meeting for Sufferings, Britain Yearly Meeting in session, and BYM Trustees has been of concern to Sufferings for a very long time.

Back when the Yearly Meeting decided to appoint a trustee body, I remember hopes that it would free up Meeting for Sufferings to be a “crucible" for Quaker thought and activity. My experience as Clerk to Meeting for Sufferings some fifteen years later, is that this has not happened. Instead, Meeting for Sufferings spends much of its time receiving reports on decisions made by other bodies to the detriment of our own discernment.

Some of us might feel sad that an institution that has served us faithfully for 350 years may have reached its end, but even the most cursory reading of the history of Meeting for Sufferings reveals that it has been constantly changing as its context has evolved. While there are certainly issues to work out if Yearly Meeting agrees to move towards a new “continuing Yearly Meeting", I hope that the merger of Meeting for Sufferings with its parent body will permit that deeper discernment that we hoped for back in the early 2000s, as well as the more inclusive community that our recent Yearly Meeting minutes have called on us to build.

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