Chapter 6 » 6.01
Our yearly meeting grew out of a series of conferences of ministering Friends, some regional, some national. We may think of that at Swannington in 1654 or Balby in 1656 (the postscript to whose lengthy letter of counsel is so much better known than the letter itself) or Skipton the same year, or the general meeting for the whole nation held at Beckerings Park, the Bedfordshire home of John Crook, for three days in May 1658, and attended by several thousand Friends. This in some ways might be considered the first Yearly Meeting were it not for the fact that the 1660s, through persecution and pestilence, saw breaks in annual continuity. The meeting in May 1668 was followed by one at Christmastime, which lasted into 1669, since when the series has been unbroken. It is 1668, therefore, that we have traditionally chosen as the date of establishment of London Yearly Meeting. But many (though not all) of the meetings up to 1677 were select, that is, confined to ‘publick’ (or ministering) Friends: from 1678 they were representative rather than select in character. Minutes are preserved from 1672.
The life of the yearly meeting centred until the mid nineteenth century on the quarterly meeting answers to the queries and the ‘Epistles Foreign and Domestick’. Epistles and travelling ministers between them made the Atlantic community of Friends a reality; smuggling in Cornwall or dissension in Nantucket received equal thought and attention. The education of Friends’ children was a recurring theme, and with the establishment of Ackworth (1779) and Sidcot (1808) the reports of boarding schools made increasing claims on the time of the meeting. The answers (more and more stereotyped) to the queries, lengthy reports and other documents read aloud, the long-winded Friends, the narrow range of interest and minutiae of procedure – all must on occasion have been stifling to the rebels. ‘And now for about an hour’, wrote a young Friend in 1858, ‘the YM talked to points of order. When 5 or 6 courses are mentioned and a good many friends speak to each, it does not seem difficult to spend an hour or more in this way.’ ‘It is difficult’, he added charitably, ‘to see how this is altogether to be avoided.’
In reality, Yearly Meeting was probably seldom as parochial as the cautious minutes show, and even they point to certain outstanding sessions – the 1783 one on the slave trade, for instance, or that in 1818 on capital punishment. Yearly Meeting was not merely preoccupied with introspective consideration of the state of the Society: it sought to awaken the public conscience. A statement in 1856 on liberty of conscience was translated into half a dozen languages and taken by deputations of concerned Friends to ecclesiastics and statesmen from Madrid to St Petersburg. Petitions to parliament and memorials to the monarch covered a wide range of concern. When in 1842 Caroline Fox with her brother and father called on Thomas Carlyle, ‘he wanted to know what we were doing at the Yearly Meeting, and what were its objects and functions, and remarked on the deepening observable amongst Friends; but when we told of the letter to the Queen recommendatory of peace in Afghanistan, he was terribly amused. “Poor little Queen! She’d be glad enough to live in peace and quietness if the Afghans would but submit to her conditions.”’
‘Every Quakeress’, wrote Charles Lamb, ‘is a lily; and when they come up in bands to their Whitsun-conferences, whitening the easterly streets of the metropolis, from all parts of the United Kingdom, they show like troops of the Shining Ones.’ Women Friends had from the seventeenth century taken opportunity during the men’s Yearly Meeting to confer together, but it was not until 1784 that a Women’s Yearly Meeting was established, with the right to communicate with women’s quarterly meetings. From the 1880s some joint sessions of men and women Friends were held, and in 1896 Yearly Meeting decided that ‘in future women Friends are to be recognised as forming a constituent part of all our meetings for church affairs equally with their brethren’. Some separate sessions still continued but the Women’s Yearly Meeting was laid down in 1907.
After the Yearly Meeting was constituted on a representative basis in 1678 ministering Friends and, later elders, found occasion to meet with members of the Second Day Morning Meeting (the weekly gathering of ‘ministering Friends in and about the city’) at the beginning and the close of Yearly Meeting. This gathering, therefore, assumed a measure of national authority – it issued, for instance, in 1702 ‘A brief memorial of some necessary things’, which was the basis of the advices on ministry – and in 1754 it was constituted as the Yearly Meeting of Ministers & Elders. In 1876 the meeting was enlarged in membership and renamed the Yearly Meeting on Ministry & Oversight, but as part of the egalitarian movement of the late nineteenth century it was decided to discontinue the separate hierarchy of preparative, monthly and quarterly meetings on ministry and oversight, and, in consequence, the Yearly Meeting on Ministry & Oversight last met in 1906. Elders and overseers subsequently met separately for conference.
Until as recently as 1861 Yearly Meeting was in theory composed only of representatives, together with ‘such ministering Friends as may be in town, and the correspondents or members of the Meeting for Sufferings’. From the mid eighteenth century (if not earlier) the doors were in fact open to any man Friend, and much business was in consequence referred to the Large Committee, which was confined to those constitutionally entitled to be there. When at length the Yearly Meeting sessions were opened to all men Friends as a right there was one, at least, who took a mournful view. ‘The Yearly Meeting’, he wrote, ‘will become less and less of a religious, and more and more of a merely popular, assembly. The fruit of its deliberations, even at its best, will be liable to fall, in an unripe state, as “untimely figs”, by a want of constancy and settlement in the root of life. There is, besides, great cause to dread, that the talkative, unstable part in man, which should be silent in the churches, will presume to speak therein with increasing boldness, bringing forth confusion.’
Whether or not we feel Daniel Pickard’s predictions have been justified, we can indeed be thankful that in almost every generation there has been a Right Holding of Yearly Meeting Committee, though the exact title may have varied from one occasion to another. Such a group has the opportunity of deciding whether we need to direct our attention to constitutional change, or to the shortcomings of our human nature. In 1902 John Wilhelm Rowntree and Edward Worsdell applied their minds to the conduct of Yearly Meeting with devastating remarks: ‘Discussion confused and futile’, ‘discussion disproportionate and prolix’, ‘a demonstration not a conference’. It was two years before this outburst that the first memorandum of agenda had been issued, and it had been agreed to print some reports in advance.
In 1905 Yearly Meeting was held for the first time out of London. Meeting at Leeds it received at its opening session a message from the venerable patriarch J Bevan Braithwaite, who, after sixty-four years of unbroken attendance, felt the journey inadvisable. ‘Coming together as we do’, wrote the Yearly Meeting in its response, ‘amid such new surroundings, the thought of the faithful lives of service which have been given in the past to the work of our Society comes with peculiar power and helpfulness to us, and as we listened to thy letter and thought of the long years in which thou wast present during the sittings of the yearly meeting, the desire arose that we might be more faithful in giving ourselves to the work.’ We too may re-echo the desire that we may be inspired by those who have gone before us in our yearly meeting but not fettered by their procedures.
During the 1970s and 1980s residential Yearly Meetings (6.16) were becoming increasingly popular, with Friends appreciating the events alongside the sessions as much as the business. Hence it was decided to try out a gathering without the formal Yearly Meeting business, answering the needs of Friends to live together in community and to explore issues and activities for which there was little programmed time at a meeting for church affairs. The first such Summer Gathering was held in Bradford in 1991. Four further Summer Gatherings were held at four-yearly intervals, all different and all successful, the last at Stirling in 2007. Subsequently, the administrative pressures of organising these events led to the holding of two experimental combined residential Yearly Meetings and Summer Gatherings. The first such Yearly Meeting Gathering was held at York in 2009. Yearly Meeting Gatherings were then formalised to be held every three years from 2014.
In 1994 London Yearly Meeting agreed to change its name to the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, or in short form, Britain Yearly Meeting. This decision followed a recommendation by Meeting for Sufferings after a consultation with monthly meetings. The new name was chosen to express the identity of the yearly meeting in a more inclusive way, so that Friends who were physically distant from London could feel more fully part of the whole. It also reflects more accurately the geographical area which is covered: England, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The new name came into effect on 1 January 1995.
Yearly Meeting entered the twenty-first century with its sessions fulfilling a variety of purposes, including those listed here. It receives the annual reports of Meeting for Sufferings, Britain Yearly Meeting Trustees and other committees. It provides an opportunity to scrutinise and affirms the work done in the name of Friends in our meetings and by our standing committees and staff. It lays matters of concern before the yearly meeting for divine guidance, testing or decision. It informs and educates us, as a meeting for learning. It agrees constitutional changes and amendments to our book of discipline. It strengthens our witness as a religious society and encourages us in our living of the testimonies. It inspires us to action, corporately in our meetings or individually and in groups. It searches our spiritual depths and refreshes our spiritual life as individuals and corporately. It reinforces the sense of community in our meetings and in Britain Yearly Meeting as a whole. It praises, gives thanks to God, and celebrates.