Holding Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business in the Light
by Nancy Gabriel and Nancy Riffer
Ithaca Monthly Meeting’s current practice of holding meeting for worship with attention to business in the Light (use of the word "elder" has not gained currency here) began in the first years of the twenty-first century. In 1961, the meeting approved a minute to begin searching for a meetinghouse. For decades, discussion of this issue had hardened into painful factional dysfunction in our business meetings.
Meanwhile in NYYM and wider Quaker circles, interest was growing in restoration of disused Friends’ practices of clerking and eldering. Serious, refreshed discernment brought clarity to Ithaca’s clerking teams. We began in the late 2000s to introduce different practices into our decision-making.
A moratorium was called on all further discussion of properties the meeting had inherited as part of financing a new home.
The meeting agreed to hold two “business meetings” per month, with distinct purposes, for a limited period.
"Worship-sharing” was a relatively new practice in our meeting. Queries were developed and published to encourage Friends to express their emotional responses within the format of sharing without fear of rebuttal or dismissal. There were no decisions pending or outcomes sought.
Before “decision-making” meetings, committees or task forces were charged with organizing practical and factual aspects of any proposal, and publishing them for all to consider.
It was into this context that we introduced the practice of “holding the meeting in the Light.” “Holders,” for lack of a better term, were recognized by the clerk at the beginning of each meeting for business. At first there was some explanation of this, e.g. these Friends are acquainted with the agenda or queries but will not be addressing them. They enter into a still openness, listening for the Presence of Spirit among us.
A member of the Ministry and Worship Committee undertook to establish a list of Friends willing to serve in holding the meeting in this way. No criteria or guidelines were ever written down. Some Friends were familiar with seeing a person stand in silence, or ask the clerk if we could take some time to recenter ourselves in silence. The core of the practice is to have “no horse in the race,” i.e. to have no topic one wants to speak to and no attachment to outcomes, and to be committed to creating and holding a space where that of God in every one may be heard and answered. It calls for faith that in such a space, way will open for the community to arrive where no one person could direct them.
Some who were asked to serve were surprised, thinking themselves not seasoned or weighty enough. One wrote after a few turns, “For myself, the deep listening has become far more valuable than expressing my own ideas; feeling the care for the whole meeting far outweighs the satisfaction of producing a result. Part of the joy of it is to experience how true it is that what needs to come, comes.“
It needs to be said that it takes stamina to hold the meeting through an entire month’s agenda.
It is a workout to focus loving attention on each speaker, on the feel of the room; to keep asking God’s help for the clerk and the presenters, to witness the work of Spirit in “real time”—and to discern when the group seems to be significantly moving away from following Spirit and to know when a word or a motion from the holder is called for. (This has been rare, in our experience.) Whenever possible, we’ve had two people holding the meeting. A trusted Friend to share the high and low points with reinforces the inimitable feeling of being well used.
As Ithaca Meeting has grown into these practices, the clerking and ministry team has felt an almost palpable shift in the tenor of meetings for worship with attention to business. The pace is gentler, the discipline is humbler, love and care for each other outweighs brilliant articulation.