How does Lewes Meeting Work?
The Religious Society of Friends is organised into local meetings each of which should be a community. It is our search for God's way that has drawn us together. In our meeting we can hope to find love, support, challenge, practical help and a sense of belonging. We should bring ourselves as we are, whatever our age, our strength, our weakness; and be able to share friendship and warmth.
If you come to Meeting for Worship at Lewes you may soon feel comfortable with the pattern of silent worship, but the rest of the Quaker activity may seem a mystery, starting with the notices which mention committees with strange names. This leaflet is an introduction to the way that the business of Lewes Meeting is organised, and the way that it relates to Friends at a national and international level. Most other Meetings are very similar.
People and responsibilities
It is the responsibility of a Christian community to enable its members to discover what their gifts are and to develop and exercise them to the glory of God.
We have a paid warden who lives on the premises to take care of the Meeting House and welcome Friends and members of the many other groups which use it. Apart from a cleaner and occasional help with gardening, Lewes Meeting has no other paid employees. All of the other work which needs to be done is shared among members of the meeting and attenders - people who have not applied for membership, but who come regularly and share in many of its activities. If you look on the notice boards you will see lists of people who have accepted responsibility for particular parts of the meeting's work for the current year. It is a long list which reflects the sense of sharing and belonging, and which tries to ensure that everyone may have an active part if they wish.
These appointments are revised each year, and we prefer not to have anyone - however good they may be - doing the same job for a very long period. In time most people play a number of different parts, and many find that they have talents of which they were previously unaware. While there is a sense of collective responsibility, there is no obligation on any member to take on any of these jobs at any particular time. There are times in life when family obligations are especially important, or activity may be limited by ill-health or age and the practical work of the meeting is best left to others, and there are times when people are free and eager to take a very active role.
The Meeting is funded by voluntary contributions. Members make their own individual decisions about how much they feel able to give, and may take advantage of covenanting schemes, but everyone may contribute to expenses and to the charities supported by the Meeting by using the collecting boxes near the doors.
Our shared experience of waiting for God's guidance in our meetings for worship and church affairs, together with careful listening and gentleness of heart, forms the basis on which we can live out a life of love with and for each other and for those outside our community.
This meeting, which usually follows Meeting for Worship on the first Sunday of each month, has two functions; it deals with any local business and it prepares for Area Meeting (which will be explained later). All members of the meeting are encouraged to attend. Non-members are welcome although they should speak to the clerk first. The meeting begins and ends with a short silence, and Quakers try, sometimes more successfully than at others, to make this "a Meeting for Worship for Business." A table will be arranged at the front for the clerk and the assistant clerk. (This job is sometimes shared by two co-clerks) The agenda will have been prepared beforehand, and is often displayed in advance on a noticeboard.
The first unusual feature that may be noticed in this business meeting is that decisions are not made by voting. The clerk will introduce each item, and will allow a few moments of silence before announcing that the matter is "before the meeting." Anyone present may join in the discussion. It is good practice to stand and wait to be called by the clerk before speaking, but this formality is sometimes forgotten. The clerk may pause from time to time to write notes, and no one should speak while this is being done. It is also very important that there are no private conversations; prayerful silence is essential to the process of making decisions.
The intention is not to reach compromise, nor to allow one group force through a decision against the wishes of another. Quakers have a much more ambitious goal; to discern the will of God for the meeting. Eventually the clerk will read a draft minute which is an attempt to state the "sense of the meeting". There may be further discussion and modification of the draft minute before it is acceptable. Decisions are made in a spirit of worship by those who are present, and nobody should challenge the minute once it has been agreed. We send our representatives to other meetings, but we do not mandate them.
This method is the basis of all Quaker decision-making in all business meetings from the smallest committee to the largest national meetings. There are no elections for office. Nominations committees are set up which recommend the names of appropriate and willing people to the meeting, and these recommendations are usually accepted.
The Area Meeting is the primary meeting for church affairs in Britain Yearly Meeting. It should provide that balance between worship, administration, deliberation and social life which can make it an enjoyable occasion, building up the spiritual life of its members.
Lewes Meeting belongs to Sussex East Area Meeting - a group of local meetings which includes Bexhill, Eastbourne, Hastings, Herstmonceux, Polegate, Rye, and Seaford. Sussex East Area Meeting is the legal owner of each of the meeting houses, and is also the body which admits applicants to membership and supervises marriages, among many other functions. It generally meets once a month, visiting each of the Meeting Houses from time to time.
One important responsibility is its appointment of Elders and Overseers. Elders are responsible for the spiritual life of the meeting, especially the conduct of meeting for worship. The person who decides that it is the right time to close meeting and signals this by shaking hands with his or her neighbour is usually one of the Elders. Overseers are responsible for pastoral care, of making sure that nobody is ever forgotten, and that practical and other support is offered to anyone who needs them. Their work is shared by groups of members in "circles". This reflects the Quaker view of Elders, Overseers and in fact all other appointments, that these are the people appointed to be especially watchful over tasks in which all at the meeting should participate.
Several adjacent Area Meetings form a Regional Meeting which holds one-day conferences on a variety of subjects of concern to its constituent meetings.
Yearly Meeting is an occasion when the concerns of one group of friends or another can be shared with others in the Society as a whole as it seeks God's guidance and relates each particular insight or service to the others brought before it.
Britain Yearly Meeting is the final constitutional authority for all Quakers in England, Scotland Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It usually meets in London each May, at Friends House in Euston Road, but sometimes it meets elsewhere. Although there may be a thousand Friends present, the conduct of the meeting hardly differs in any important respect from that of our local Business Meeting. All Friends may attend as of right, and many non-members are given permission to attend and participate.
When the Society of Friends began, Quakers were subject to fines and imprisonment, and there was a need for a standing committee to protect and care for Friends and their dependants, so the Meeting for Sufferings was set up. This continues, under the same name, to carry out the policy of Yearly Meeting. Our Monthly Meeting sends two representatives to its meetings. There are many different committees, most of them served by paid employees at our central office in Friends House.
QCEA (Quaker Council for European Affairs) relates largely to political structures.
FWCC (Friends World Committee for Consultation) is a forum for communication between the many different autonomous groups of Quakers throughout the world. It is our indirect link with the World Council of Churches. Britain Yearly Meeting also belongs to the CCBI (the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland).
Where to learn more
The red book which is on the table during meeting is Quaker Faith & Practice, The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. This gives very full accounts of the spiritual experience and practical organisation of the Society. You may borrow a copy from our library.