Chapter 7 » 7.01
The yearly meeting’s local organisation was settled in the years 1667–9. The 1670s saw the development of central organisation. Apart from Yearly Meeting (1668), three bodies deserve special mention – the Six Weeks Meeting (1671), Morning Meeting (1673) and Meeting for Sufferings (1675). All were basically meetings of London Friends; all, to a greater or lesser extent, undertook national responsibilities. The Six Weeks Meeting was the most metropolitan of the three, though even it engaged on occasion in such national business as the wording of the marriage certificate. The Morning Meeting may have had its origin in the ‘meeting of ancient Friends’ said to have started about 1656 or the general meeting of ministering Friends in and about the city, established in 1661. It comprised men ‘publick’ (or ministering) Friends in and about the city, and when, later, elders were appointed, men elders became eligible for membership of the Morning Meeting, which met each Monday.
It was the Morning Meeting which took the initiative in calling a conference in October 1675 to consider what steps could be taken to secure redress from sufferings. At that meeting it was agreed ‘that certaine friends of this Citty be heere nominated to keep a Constant Meeting about Sufferings 4 times a year, with the day and time of each meeting here fixed and setled’. Twelve Friends, two from each of the London monthly meetings, were then listed with ‘as many as are free of the Second dayes morning meeting of publick Friends to meet togeather as aforesaid’, and that ‘at least one friend of each County be appointed by the quarterly meeting thereof to be in readyness to repaire to any of the same meetings at this Citty, at such times as theire urgent occasions or sufferings shall require’. The constitution of Meeting for Sufferings agreed by Yearly Meeting 1702 was set forth as: ‘Publick Friends and such that are appointed or approved by the severall Quarterly Meetings of the Countyes & other Countrys that Correspond with this meeting in all Places, and are entred as such in the Correspondent Book.’
The full Meeting for Sufferings was to meet at the beginning of each law term and one quarter of the membership was to meet weekly (each Friday) until the next full meeting. The minutes begin on 22 June 1676. At the outset some eight to ten Friends attended the weekly meetings and the speed with which, backed by information from the quarterly meeting correspondents, the meeting was able to put Friends’ case to good effect before members of both Houses of Parliament is indeed impressive. The meeting was not restricted to the efforts to obtain redress in particular ‘Cases of Suffering’ (though this was the first item in the minutes until about 1750). Yearly Meeting entrusted it with the task of trying to obtain relief from the oath, in which it was successful under the Affirmation Acts of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Yearly Meeting likewise asked it to try to secure a reduction of the burden suffered under tithes, which the meeting attempted by the promotion of successive Quakers Tithe Bills in the 1730s. It was the same closely-knit relationship of county quarterly meeting correspondents and London members of Meeting for Sufferings that enabled Friends to campaign with such success in the movement towards the abolition of the slave trade. Meeting for Sufferings, meeting weekly (as it continued to do until 1798), was able with great effect to carry out Yearly Meeting’s instructions. So swift and smooth had its organisation become that it would be tempting to describe it as highly efficient parliamentary lobbying. Although it was primarily a London body its effective correspondent system enabled it to speak with an authoritative national voice.
The nineteenth century saw a steady increase in the work of Meeting for Sufferings and a corresponding growth of its committees. The Parliamentary Committee had existed from the early eighteenth century. The Slave Trade Committee of 1783–92 was followed by other and more permanent committees – the 1817 Minden & Pyrmont Committee became the Continental Committee, serving for over 100 years as a link between Friends in Great Britain and small groups on the continent of Europe, in Australasia, in Calcutta, southern Africa and other places; the administrative committees charged with the care of the premises and with printing were supplemented by others responsible for the library and for finance; other committees took up particular concerns of Friends – several undertook successive efforts at relief work, an anti-slavery committee was re-established, in 1888 the Peace Committee was formed, and subsequent committees were set up to express Friends’ views on the opium traffic and on betting and gambling.
Alongside this steadily widening stream of interests, the constitution of the meeting was changing. The era of railway travel made it increasingly easy for Friends to attend, and the system of London and country correspondents gave place to that of quarterly meeting representatives. This was reflected in revised constitutions of 1856 and 1883. In 1884 the meeting had an appointed membership of ninety-eight with representatives from all but six quarterly meetings. In 1898 (following a decision of Yearly Meeting 1896) the first women Friends took their seats in Meeting for Sufferings. Anna Littleboy, one of those then appointed, recalled thirty years later that ‘while kindly and courteously received, it was evident that the presence of women was not exactly welcomed by most of the older members, and the clerk impressed upon them that the meeting was for the conduct of business and not for speeches’.
Perhaps a more drastic change than the admission of women Friends was the laying down in 1901 of the Morning Meeting and the transference of its functions to Meeting for Sufferings. Henceforward the consideration of personal concerns for service overseas and the welcoming of travelling Friends from other yearly meetings was added to already increasing business. Preoccupation with relief work, and still greater growth of the range of Friends’ concern, added to the length of agenda. The days of the meeting which began at eleven o’clock and was over by late lunchtime had passed.
The twentieth century therefore witnessed a steady trend of delegation of routine matters to subcommittees, but it also saw a gradual growth in the meeting’s function in drawing together and relating to one another the different strands in the yearly meeting’s life and service. This process was helped as some of the nineteenth-century ‘independent associations’ (the Friends Foreign Mission Association and the Friends Tract Association for example) became or were merged with official committees of the yearly meeting, gradually accepting the responsibilities and discipline that this involved. It also became increasingly clear that the distinction between committees of Yearly Meeting and Meeting for Sufferings had outlived its usefulness, and Special Yearly Meeting 1965 agreed that all standing committees should be appointed by Meeting for Sufferings which, in periodic review of their work, would be enabled ‘to become more sensitive to the insights of the committees and thus … promote that knowledge and understanding by means of which both the meeting and the committees should be able more effectively to enter into and to discharge their responsibilities’.
The additional tasks laid on Meeting for Sufferings as ‘a central body which can act on behalf of the Society between Yearly Meetings’ necessitated, in the words of Special Yearly Meeting 1965, that ‘such a body must be representative of Friends both geographically and as to diversity of our membership’. This led to representation from monthly meetings rather than quarterly meetings, to three-year appointments rather than annual, to a change in the day of meeting from Friday to Saturday and, in 1974, to the withdrawal of the automatic right of elders to attend. In furtherance of ‘the essential unity of the work undertaken in the name of the Yearly Meeting’, staff employed by the yearly meeting and by seven separate employing committees were unified and became employees of Meeting for Sufferings. The anomaly remained that while the yearly meeting’s essential central services were funded by means of a ‘quota’ contributed by monthly meetings, standing committees were issuing separate financial appeals which had the effect of competing one with another. The financing of all the central work was unified between 1986 and 1988, placing further responsibility on Meeting for Sufferings for the testing of concern and for the allocation of available resources to the wide variety of religious service undertaken in the name of the yearly meeting.
In 1997 Meeting for Sufferings revived the practice of maintaining a register of Friends before the courts or imprisoned for matters of conscience.
In 2006 Yearly Meeting confirmed the setting up of a body of trustees (8.03) separately from Meeting for Sufferings for the centrally managed work. Meeting for Sufferings had previously exercised the trusteeship function. The role of Meeting for Sufferings was seen as being freed up to develop the vision for the future for the whole of Britain Yearly Meeting and develop this in long-term plans. An expanded role for Meeting for Sufferings as a representative body in communication with meetings was also envisaged. After review of the new roles of trustees and Meeting for Sufferings in 2011, Yearly Meeting further agreed to reduce the size of this representative body to one representative (and an alternate) from each area meeting (7.05.a).
Thus, albeit in different circumstances, Meeting for Sufferings attempts to fulfil its functions as defined by Yearly Meeting 1833: ‘A standing committee of this meeting … entrusted with a general care of whatever may arise during the intervals of this meeting, affecting our religious society and requiring immediate attention’.