On the Book of Discipline Revision Committee, we have sometimes been talking about the voice of the book – what do we want it to sound like? What tone should the book take, and how is that created? Sometimes we talk about a singular voice, and at other times we recognise that many voices will be present in the final result – the committee and the yearly meeting, and the individual or corporate authors of sources we use for extracts (and not just written ones, but the creators of images and music and videos we use as well). In order to explore the question of voice in books of discipline, I went looking for some examples, and in this blog post I want to offer close readings of three passages, all from Quaker books – all passages from sections on Yearly Meetings – but which have markedly different voices. Close reading is as much of an art as writing, and you may not agree with my conclusions if you hear different resonances in the passages I discuss. I have chosen three passages from sources which are available online so you can go and read more for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Please share them!
The first passage is from the 1806 “Rules of Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends, Held in Philadelphia”. Like most books of discipline of the period, it is divided into chapters which are then arranged alphabetically. The chapter on Yearly Meeting is short, with only a few extracts from previous minutes laying out different aspects of the process. The first paragraph reads:
It appears by the records, that our first yearly meeting was held at Burlington in New Jersey the thirty-first day of the Sixth Month, 1681, O.S. for the provinces of Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; that in 1685, it was agreed to be held alternately at Burlington and Philadelphia; that in 1755 the time of holding it was changed to the Ninth Month; that in 1760 it was concluded to be held at the same time at Philadelphia only; and that in 1798, the time of holding it was altered to the third Second-day in the Fourth Month, as it now is; the yearly meeting of ministers and elders to be on the seventh day of the week preceding; and both to begin at the tenth hour.
Some of the features which first stand out to a modern reader are the fashions of the time – for example, the use of semi-colons to make sections, almost a list, where modern writers would be more likely to use full stops and create more but shorter sentences, is an obvious aspect of the writing here but may have as much to do with the expectations of the time as a deliberate choice creating the voice of the book. However, the decision to use Quaker-style dates (“Sixth Month” rather than July, and so on – to avoid using pagan names) is a very deliberate one and would have been knowingly at odds with surrounding society.
The voice of the book is also created by the decisions about content. What did the creators of this book think their readers wanted to know? About history, obviously. About dates and changing practices, about which it’s necessary to give some level of detail. About what’s done now – after this passage, the reader of 1806 knows to expect Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to begin at 10 o’clock on the the third Second-day in the Fourth Month (that is, the third Monday in April). Readers who do not know what Yearly Meeting is or what it does, however, would be very little better off after reading this passage than they were before – it’s a meeting which happens yearly, and has for a long time, but what do people do at this meeting and why? The book assumes readers already know this. The voice of this book is of an insider speaking to an insider – “our first yearly meeting”. It is pedantic, recording details most people would be unlikely to remember, and perhaps designed to remind rather than to teach. It does not rhapsodies or relate personal experience at all, but sets down facts without comment, even though that leaves many questions unanswered about the whys as well as the hows.
Here, by way of a contrast, is the beginning of the chapter on Yearly Meeting from Australia Yearly Meeting’s “Handbook of Quaker Practice and Procedure in Australia” (seventh edition, 2020)
In the previous chapter, consideration was given to the first meaning of Yearly Meeting, the organisation of the whole body of Quakers in Australia, denoted by AYM. Now this chapter is about the other meaning, the annual gathering of Australian Quakers, denoted by YM. One purpose of Yearly Meeting is the reaching of decisions on AYM policy and conduct. Other reasons for Yearly Meeting are the enriching of fellowship between Friends, mutual support in spiritual growth and the discussion of current issues.
Yearly Meeting is usually held for seven to eight days in January, and is hosted by each Regional Meeting in rotation. A Summer School (6.3.4) is held in association with Yearly Meeting.
There’s no shortage of technical language here but it is handled differently, with a specific effort made to explain most of the terms used (‘regional meeting’ was also covered elsewhere). The voice of this book is more didactic, explaining the purpose of this chapter (“about the other meaning”) as well as the purposes of the Yearly Meeting itself. Unlike the voice of this blog post, which uses words like ‘didactic’ even though I had to use Google to check my spelling, the voice of this book seems to be trying to use plain language even when talking about more emotionally laden elements – “enriching of fellowship between Friends” is a flowery as it gets. However, that turn of phrase is noticeable for its use of a standard play on words; in a book which usually refers to the group as ‘Quakers’ (in this passage, for example, it’s a “gathering of Australian Quakers”), the switch back to the older ‘Friends’ implies the ordinary sense of ‘friends’ as well. “Fellowship between friends” is almost a tautology – if you don’t have fellowship with your friends, are they really your friends? – but the capital letter opens the dual meeting “fellowship between Quakers/fellowship between friends” and makes it worth saying. Note that the use of the phrase ‘Australian Quakers’ also means there are no pronouns here – the group are named rather than being designated as ‘us’ or ‘them’. The resulting impression is more removed than the discussion of ‘our yearly meeting’ in the previous example, but perhaps easier to follow for readers who do not consider themselves part of the group. (Including me: I am a Quaker, but not a member of Australia or Philadelphia Yearly Meetings.)
Finally, here’s the first paragraph from the chapter on Yearly Meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting’s 1994 Quaker faith & practice. This is the start of a lengthy section which brings in both history and commentary.
Our yearly meeting grew out of a series of conferences of ministering Friends, some regional, some national. We may think of that at Swannington in 1654 or Balby in 1656 (the postscript to whose lengthy letter of counsel is so much better known than the letter itself) or Skipton the same year, or the general meeting for the whole nation held at Beckerings Park, the Bedfordshire home of John Crook, for three days in May 1658, and attended by several thousand Friends. This in some ways might be considered the first Yearly Meeting were it not for the fact that the 1660s, through persecution and pestilence, saw breaks in annual continuity. The meeting in May 1668 was followed by one at Christmastime, which lasted into 1669, since when the series has been unbroken. It is 1668, therefore, that we have traditionally chosen as the date of establishment of London Yearly Meeting. But many (though not all) of the meetings up to 1677 were select, that is, confined to ‘publick’ (or ministering) Friends: from 1678 they were representative rather than select in character. Minutes are preserved from 1672.
There is a good deal of detail here, but rather than simply reporting facts the voice of the book is working to persuade us. It gives several examples (assuming that these are known to us already – “we may think” – and of course readers already know about the letter from Balby… if you don’t, here’s a brief introduction) before arguing that in fact none of these was the first Yearly Meeting. Both the issues of continuity and representativeness are raised as characteristics of a Yearly Meeting which will count as such – while the reader drowns in dates much as in the 1806 Philadelphia example, and is assumed to be an insider, a lot more information is given (like details about locations and attendees), and it is possible to infer some things about the purpose of the meetings from the way in which some examples are judged to be ‘in’ the series and others not. The people are called ‘Friends’ throughout and the arguing voice, the reader, and previous generations of Friends are all included in the decision to be made: “we have traditionally chosen”. The method of presenting facts in support of multiple possible interpretations, especially done so quickly in a single passage, is reminiscent of an academic project such as an essay. The vocabulary is extensive, background knowledge is assumed (‘pestilence’ presumably refers to the outbreak of the Black Death in 1665, for example), and only some technical terms are explained (‘publick’ is glossed with the more familiar, although still technical, term ‘ministering’).
I’m not sure that I want the voice of our future book to copy any of these. I hope, though, that a careful reading of three examples shows something of the range of what is possible – even without adding a diagram or a video – and how the details of choices add up to create an overall impression. There are the issues of vocabulary – ‘we’ and ‘our’, ‘Quakers’ and ‘Friends’, ‘ministers and elders’. There is the question of sentence length and style – how many subclauses is the reader expected to be able to follow, for example? And these issues cannot be separated from the issues of content and audience. In order to decide what the voice of the book should be like, we as a Revision Committee will be thinking about questions like: who is reading this book and what do they want to find out? Are they knowledgeable Quakers who want to double-check a date? Australian Quakers or strange people on the internet who want to analyse language use by Australian Quakers? People who have been to yearly meeting before, or people who are considering whether it’s worth giving up a week’s holiday to go for the first time?