Reading the chapter about Meeting for Sufferings brought back to me clearly how much I enjoyed serving as an alternate. This remark does, I realise, need clarifying in three ways for the reader:
- what on earth is Meeting for Sufferings? (This was one of the phrases most interestingly mangled when I had some interviews with Quaker professionally transcribed; it’s obviously almost impossible to hear it as correct English unless you already know what it means.)
- who would enjoy something with Sufferings in the name, and why?
- what do you mean by ‘serving as an alternate’ – surely that doesn’t make any sense?
and I’ll try and address these in this post.
Meeting for Sufferings is an old institution of British Quakerism, which as the first section of this chapter carefully explains, has been through many changes over the years. We have kept the name, partly as a reminder of our historical sufferings (in the early years of the Quaker movement, Friends were persecuted – practically all our leaders spent time in prison) and partly because we still (revived in 1997) have a practice of recording those Friends who are “before the courts or imprisoned for matters of conscience” (these days that might be something like an arrest for protesting new runways or blockading arms bases). Today, Meeting for Sufferings is a representative body for Quakers in Britain, meeting several times a year with people from all over England, Scotland, and Wales. (Remember that Ireland Yearly Meeting is separate.)
When I began my service on Meeting for Sufferings, the new small size (with a total of around 100 Friends present) was very new, and so was the system by which that was produced. Each Area Meeting, in order to be represented at every Meeting for Sufferings without having to force one person to go every time, appoints two people: a representative, and their deputy, which in non-hierarchical Quaker terms we call an alternate, because they are the alternative choice. Within each Area Meeting, Friends choose whether the two will alternate, i.e. take turns between one and the other, or whether one will normally go and the other deputise if necessary. In my Area Meeting, the serving representative said to me, “You go a few times in a row to begin with, to get the hang of it,” and this gave me a good opportunity to get into the swing of it. We then took turns for a while before I sadly left the Area Meeting before the end of my triennium (standard three-year appointment) and had to give it up.
Within the whole chapter about Meeting for Sufferings, though, the part which speaks to me most is the advice about who to nominate. There are things here that I don’t recognise in myself, as there always are in these lists (spiritual maturity!?!). However, there are also some which I can see I had started to develop, and was able to work on enormously, through my service on Sufferings. “A good grasp of our testimonies and structures”, for example. I had a fair idea, but I learned a huge amount just in reading the papers for Sufferings and listening to the business – there was a huge amount of work which I had no idea about. I became much clearer about the scope and purpose of our central work, and about the importance of supporting it. I enjoyed getting a glimpse of the ways in which local, area, central, and international work all interconnects.
I came to appreciate “the importance of reporting back” on topics which were important to Friends locally, although I remember several times when I came away from Area Meeting having given a thoughtful report which I had worked hard to present in a lively way, and wondering why I bothered! It can be a struggle to help people feel connected when they are only hearing snippets and have an eye on the clock.
I don’t know whether I was able to bring “fresh insight” to the role, but I hope that in my own small way I contributed to the “experience and continuity” – not just by bringing my previous experience into my service, but also by carrying what I learned from Sufferings on into other roles. If you are ever asked to consider nomination, Friends, I encourage you to think seriously about what you might have to learn as well as what you have to offer. In the meantime, you can find out what Meeting for Sufferings has been doing recently because their papers and minutes are online.