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’?