The first thing which occurs to me when I open chapter 4 is that it begins with a remark which, although true, is liable to be completely mystifying to many. It is the case that “Until 2007 area meetings were known as monthly meetings”, but this doesn’t really tell you anything unless you were already familiar with the term ‘monthly meeting’. Although there will probably always be a few readers of our book of discipline who need the comparison – especially those from other yearly meetings where the term ‘monthly meeting’ is still in widespread use, albeit often somewhat differently from our old use of the phrase – the number of people in Britain who knew what a monthly meeting was, but don’t know what an area meeting is, should hopefully be shrinking every year.
After the history, though, we get into the real stuff: 4.02 explains the responsibilities and importance of the area meeting. It’s where we do much of our business, where we look after all sorts of things which affect us as a church community, and where we hold spiritual, financial, and other forms of responsibility. A group of local meetings make up an area meeting – and it’s at area meeting level that a lot of authority is held.
It’s an area meeting who admit, or don’t admit, people to membership. It’s an area meeting who appoint elders and overseers. It’s an area meeting which is represented at Meeting for Sufferings. Ideally, this hierarchy, in which the area meeting has authority over local meetings, should also go with a widening of participation – if you’re a member of the area meeting, you’re entitled to go to it and participate in the business process, even have a responsibility to do so.
I think it can be easy to forget this, or not realise it. I personally have often struggled to get to area meeting – believing that it’s important to participate does not magically make public transport appear on Sunday afternoons, alas. Sometimes I have put other things first – Brownies who need an adult at church parade, catching a train to go to work, some urgent sleeping I needed to get done. Sometimes it has just come down to the incorrect assumption that I, or someone else in my meeting, would drive a car. When I’ve been unable to attend, I’ve come to value the practice of circulating minutes and reports by email afterwards. Not just those minutes with my name in, either, please! Seeing the whole picture of the area meeting’s business can help me feel part of the wider community even when I can’t be there in person.
When I have been able to attend area meetings, I have often found them interesting and fulfilling. It’s good to see Friends from other local meetings, and to worship with others. Although I have problems with the common practice (thankfully not universal) of holding area meeting on a Sunday afternoon, it does (buses permitting) encourage me to worship with a different local meeting. That in itself can be very enriching. The worship of the area meeting, before, during and after the business, can be very deep, and the area meeting is often a time when people are able to eat together and get to know one another better. The routine business, such as reports from Meeting for Sufferings and charitable trusts the area meeting supports, can be both informative and inspiring. A special area meeting called to write a minute on a particular issue is one of the most gathered and careful business meetings I can remember attending.
I can see glimpses of this when I read chapter 4, but I think I’d struggle to find it if I was trying to get from the text to the experience, rather than reading the experience back into the text. I also find clues that the text has been edited, bit by bit, over the years: compare the technology levels implied in 4.44 with those in 4.45. It’s also technical and detailed – long lists of points, such as in 4.10, are clear in some ways, but can also be daunting and seem disparate, because the connections between the very spiritual (“the right and regular holding of meetings for worship”) and the very practical (“the proper custody of its records”) aren’t immediately obvious.
Sometimes I have felt that we do area meetings a disservice by talking about them as if they are always boring – I’m not denying that they are sometimes boring, since they meet to do work, but they can also be moving, involving, heartening. When a notice or report about area meeting is given in your local meeting, is it merely factual, or off-hand, or does it share with those who hear it something of the power and appeal of a well-held meeting for worship for church affairs?