Tag Archives: Meetings for Clearness

My experience of Meeting for Clearness

I was teaching about Meetings for Clearness the other week – offering people the chance to try it out for themselves using a ‘mini Clearness process’ in which a small group takes it in turns to be the focus person – and that led me to notice and reflect on the extent to which I use my own experience of having a Meeting for Clearness in teaching. In particular, I try and give people the chance to have an experience of the process something like my experience. Even if I don’t, can’t, achieve that, it’s guiding my decisions about how to describe the process and how to introduce people to it.

It also led me to reflect on the fact that I haven’t come across detailed descriptions of individuals’ clearness processes. There are some sets of instructions around, but – perhaps because the process is both relatively unusual, and where it is used in its full form it’s mainly for very personal things, like ‘shall we get married?’ or ‘should I have major surgery?’ – not much in the way of accounts of experience. (If you know of a published account of someone’s Meeting for Clearness, please do let me know in the comments!) That being so, I offer my story here.

I asked for a Meeting for Clearness as part of a wider process of discernment. I was applying for funding to offer my PhD work in Quaker Studies as a workshop which would be free for Quaker Meetings. The funding application called for a ‘market research’ exercise with a Quaker meeting, which I carried out, and for references, which I had; but I felt that this process was a bit thin on its own. The formal demands of the funding application were, for excellent reasons, entirely secular, but the work I wanted to do felt like ministry, so I asked for a Meeting for Clearness in order to bring some spiritual depth to my process of deciding to apply.

I was serving as an elder in my local meeting at the time. I discussed my idea with some other elders – if I remember rightly, this was done informally, and didn’t appear in our minutes. One person agreed to act as a convener (although my impression is that I invited people, double-checked times, etc.). Another offered her house as a venue – my flat was too small, and I was very grateful to be offered hospitality rather than worrying about cups of tea and things on the day! The final group were all people from my local meeting, and included elders, at least one overseer, people with experience of clerking and minute writing, at least one person who had used a Meeting for Clearness for an important decision of her own, and a friend whose similar academic background helped him understand the specifics of the question I was facing. On the day, one person volunteered to write a minute at the end of the process.

I had read up about the process in advance, and talked to some people about it, but in the end we made some adaptions on the day. The one which stands out in my mind is that where much advice suggests that the focus person should listen to but not try to answer open-ended questions which seek to shed light on the issue, I decided to answer them as best I could. We had allowed plenty of time for the process, which made this possible. My answers didn’t lead to a discussion as such (although sometimes there was a bit of back-and-forth), but relieved me of the need to try and remember my responses for later, helped me to find out what I really thought and felt (on the spot responses can be much more revealing than later ones!), and enabled later questions to go deeper rather than working off assumptions about my responses to earlier ones.

We did follow the usual process in other ways. We used silence at the start, at the end, and between contributions. I, as the focus person, explained my question and why I was seeking clearness, uninterrupted. People asked questions which probed my feelings and approach, but didn’t try to relate the issue to their own problems or the needs of others. Perhaps the most powerful part – certainly the part I hope I can reproduce for those who try out ‘mini’ versions of the process – was the feeling of being the centre of attention in a wholly positive way, heard, accepted, lovingly challenged, and supported.

Potential problems and negative feelings were held tenderly rather than glossed over, and, unusually for me, I spoke extensively without going away afterwards thinking ‘I shouldn’t have said that’. (It’s not unusual for me to talk a lot, but I normally spend a lot of time in the middle of the night regretting things I’ve said.) In some ways, it healed wounds from previous Quaker processes where I felt important things had been ignored.

Most of the specific questions have faded with time – this was four years ago now – but one stands out in my memory. Someone (I remember who, I can still see her face) asked what I would do if I applied but didn’t get the funding. I said, roughly, that I would be disappointed, but that I would look for other ways to do the work. I have thought back to that answer many times since then, especially when the work is difficult or frustrating. The final minute says, “we are clear that Rhiannon is led to take this work forward in some way; and we are clear she is the right person to do it”. When I’m stuck with it – even now, well after the end of the funding which prompted the initial process and when the work is taking on new forms – I can come back to this and think: it isn’t just me. Other people, joining with me and paying close attention to pick up even the faintest signals from the Spirit, have seen that there will be a way forward.

As well as producing a minute, the Meeting for Clearness brought me closer to the five Friends who met with me, and offered a support structure for the work in the early stages. I’ve moved away from that local meeting and am no longer in regular contact with all of them, but for some time afterwards people would check in with me: how’s it going? how many workshops have you done? what next? Because they understood that much better what I was doing, they were able to ask more specific and deeper questions, which helped me to feel fully part of that community in a way that routine small talk never seems to achieve.

In Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, Meeting for Clearness is routinely used in many Area Meetings for couples considering marriage, but rarely for other purposes. I found it so helpful that I think it’s a shame we don’t use it more. What could you benefit from bringing to a Meeting for Clearness? Have you had one before, and if so, was your experience similar or different to mine?

Reading Qf&p: chapter 12

Most of chapter 12, ‘Caring for one another’, looks at the formalised ways we use ‘eldership’ and ‘oversight’ to take care of the spiritual and practical needs of a Quaker meeting. However, tucked away at the end of the chapter there are also a few fascinating snippets called ‘small groups’, and it’s these I’d like to talk about today.

One part within this looks at creative listening and worship sharing. It’s a fairly full description, compared with some of the others, and if you read it and then walked into a group who were going to engage in one of these practices, you’d have a fair idea what was going on. You might even be able to run one with little more than what is in here – having tried it yourself, or some specific guidance, might be useful, but it’s probably not completely necessary. If you do need it, there’s a line which directs you to Quaker Life for more information. (A good place to start would be the ‘ways of working’ section of the joint Quaker Life/Woodbrooke project Being Friends Together, which includes resources on most of the things mentioned in this post and many more besides.)

Another section deals with Meetings for Clearness (scroll down to find 12:22-25). When I asked for a Meeting for Clearness, I did find this section useful; but there was also a lot it didn’t say, and the experience of other Friends in my meeting who had used the process for big personal decisions was invaluable. Meetings for Clearness need to be tailored to the question and the asker as well as the gifts of those involved as facilitators and listeners, so perhaps this will always be the case. I don’t think that my experience of a Meeting for Clearness would have been at all the same if I didn’t already have trusting relationships with those who came to participate in it, but I can see that this will not always be possible. Perhaps there are other ways to produce the atmosphere of loving support and challenge which I experienced – a process of meeting more than once might be able to create this from a group who didn’t previously know one another, for example.

At the very end, a section deals with support groups. Of these I have no direct knowledge, but maybe they have some of the aspects of the repeated Meeting for Clearness process.

There is also one paragraph which describes threshing meetings. I spent quite a long time with this paragraph last year when I was involved in a piece of research about the use of threshing meetings, and although it’s all true, it doesn’t seem to be adequate to the complexity of the current situation. It would not, I think, be possible to read this and then run a threshing meeting, although it might give you an idea about whether it would be a useful process for your meeting at this time. Much more specific guidelines can be found in the Quaker Life leaflet about threshing – if anything, I’d say that these go too far the other way. In being specific, they cut down the possible flexibility of the process, which can adapt to meet a range of needs. What’s important about it is that it creates a boundary space, held in worship but without the drive towards an answer produced by the need to write a minute, within which issues can be explored from all relevant perspectives. You can read more about this idea if you download our report on the research.

(You can also – advert! – attend a Woodbrooke course in June 2016 in which we will explore threshing, Meetings for Clearness, and other discernment processes.)

Overall, I like the fact that there is a section about meeting together in small groups, and I agree that it belongs with other aspects of ‘caring for one another’. Over the years, small groups of these kinds, including study and discussion groups, have been very important to my development as a Quaker. The other kind of small group, dealt with much more extensively elsewhere in Qf&p but which has also nurtured me in these ways, is the committee or working group. Doing something together is often a powerful way to bond people together, to get to know one another and to explore different perspectives. When we use the Quaker business method for committee meetings, it’s very closely related to worship sharing as well as to threshing. We can explore opposing views, listen to one another deeply, and be held in the Light as we move towards a discerned answer. Does ‘small groups’ deserve a cross-reference to ‘nominations’ or ‘forms of service’?