Tag Archives: process

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 10 & 11: Belonging to a Quaker meeting/Membership

A friend of mine who has been attending Quaker meeting regularly for several years now has said a couple of times recently that she finds Quakers very smug. She also commented that other churches she has been part of do not spend nearly as much time as time as Quakers do talking about themselves, amongst themselves.

I’m not entirely convinced that Quakers are unique in having these conversations (I’m not sure about other churches, but I know that any online pagan community will go through a round of ‘real Pagans don’t do that!’ or ‘but surely all Pagans agree about…’ from time to time). I do agree that we have these conversations a lot among Quakers, and I’m about to add to the problem by writing another blog post about Quaker membership and community (yet another – see the rest of my tag on ‘membership’). I also suspect that there are a couple of underlying factors here: one is that a lot of Quakers wish they felt more secure and welcome in their Quaker meeting, and the other is that many Quakers believe, often subconsciously, that you can create community by talking about community.

There are, of course, lots of problems which can be helped by talking about them. Quakers are often reluctant, despite a few wise passages in Qf&p and the efforts of Living with Conflict and other projects, to talk about conflict as a problem in meetings, even when that would help. It seems to me, though, that when I feel most part of a community, it’s because we’re doing something together and/or genuinely like one another, rather than because we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the structure and formation of our community.

If we didn’t ever talk about the structure of our community, though, there are things I would get away with not thinking about. Reflecting on chapter 11 has brought to the fore my insecurity about my membership. Every time the issue of membership is discussed, I deal, not always consciously, with the fear that my membership will be taken away from me. My reaction to the suggestion that membership as a category should be abolished – no! I struggled to get that, don’t take it away! – and my reaction to any idea of restricting membership by belief – surely I wouldn’t pass? what about times when I doubt/think x/prefer different words? – are both deeply shaped by a worry that my membership is bogus, that if people knew what I really thought or felt they would reject me, and that although I am very committed to the Quaker community, the community doesn’t really want me.

(I am not, by the way, claiming that any of this is true or logical. My local Quaker community do value some things about me – they like my clear speaking voice even if they don’t always want to hear what it says – and there’s some evidence that I can be useful in the wider community. Nevertheless, a fear that I am not really accepted colours all my reactions to discussions of this topic.)

There are always areas of life in which we try to do things differently, where we think mistakes were made. There are aspects of teaching when I promise myself I’ll never do it that way; when I was asked to participate in a membership visit, I wanted to include a whole list of things which I felt were not considered during my membership application process, as well as some things I valued and wanted to replicate.

Overall, I do think that the process itself is valuable; asking people whether they are really committed to the community offers – if it is done well – both the individual and the Meeting an opportunity to reflect on how they relate to one another. Of course, this needs to be reviewed over time, because needs and abilities on both sides will change, but a membership application process can offer a foundation for this. Confirming that commitment through a formal process also enables us to trust one another with roles which involve taking on responsibility and dealing with vulnerability; this is why some roles in a Quaker meeting are, and in my opinion should remain, restricted to members.

To return to the comments of my friend, mentioned at the beginning: if we never reflected on these things, what would happen? It’s possible that we would all just get on with it, feeling secure in our personal relationships to one another and trusting the Spirit to look after any structures the community needed. I don’t think I’d experience it like that, though. If we never talked about these things, I think many of us would just worry about it without discussing it, as we currently do with many other potential conflicts in our meetings, and sometimes that would turn into a real problem. I’m prepared to say that we may sometimes spend too long on internal issues – but I also think that if we cannot get relationships right amongst ourselves, we don’t stand a chance of changing our wider society.