Spiritual nurture of the Meeting

This is one of the documents used in the EMES Meeting for Learning 11-13 June 2010 held at Svartbäcken, Rimbo, Sweden

Important Aspects of a Meeting for Clearness

Complied by Sue Glover Frykman

What is a Meeting for Clearness?

In the early days of the Quaker movement, clearness committees were mainly appointed to ensure that both partners wishing to enter into marriage were ‘clear’ from previous marriage commitments. Clearness committees were also appointed to help applicants for membership to gain a deeper understanding of the Religious Society of Friends and as a way of testing ‘leadings’ with a small group of experienced Friends. It was also a way of testing whether a member was, for example, called to travel in the ministry. In a sense, it was seen as an opportunity to ‘become clear’ as to the right way forward.

While many American and European Yearly Meetings still maintain the practice of clearness for marriage, the concept has broadened to include partnerships between heterosexual and homosexual couples. It has become a loving and caring exercise on behalf of the meeting, in which the couple are helped to explore their commitment to God, to one another and to the meeting, to look in depth at the outcome of previous relationships or marriages, to consider their attitudes towards the care of existing or future children, and to explore how they can make decisions about their life together.

During the 1960s, Young Friends started to apply the concept of clearness to other weighty matters of life, such as when a difficult decision had to be made, e.g. about a job or profession, unexpected changes, conflicts in the family, separation or divorce. Such meetings were also seen as being of help and comfort to the dying. Meeting for Clearness was seen as providing support and guidance from the spiritual community when it was most needed. One of its strengths was that it was flexible and could be adapted to suit a variety of situations.

Meetings for Clearness have also been used for testing concerns and as a conflict transformation tool. While they can also be used in and adapted to secular situations, the focus here is on the use of clearness meetings as an instrument for spiritual discernment according to Quaker practice.

A Meeting for Clearness should be held in a relaxed atmosphere of trust, although some degree of formality is helpful. A facilitator should be chosen to assist in clarifying the question or questions to be considered. Some groups may decide that notes should be taken. It is important that confidentiality is maintained within the group. There is a need for careful and attentive listening, tact, affirmation and love.

The object of the exercise is to examine the issue and obtain clarity about what is to be done. The role can be investigative, supportive or mediatory, depending on the specific need. The meeting is usually conducted in a Quaker worship-sharing mode (see separate information sheet). Each member of the group should have opportunities to question and explore the background to the matter that is to be clarified. It is important not to be diverted by side-issues, but to concentrate on exploring options and understanding underlying difficulties. It will take time to reach clearness and periods of gathered worship will be helpful.

The meeting should also have a clear ending and should not continue once tiredness sets in. A further meeting or meetings may be needed if the original issue, or practical details, would benefit from further thought.

Why is a Meeting for Clearness valuable?

A Meeting for Clearness is valuable because it involves a process of corporate discernment that is designed to help an individual - or group - to ‘test’ or clarify a concern or problem and thereby come to a greater understanding or realisation. It can be described as a process that leads to reconciliation or a sense of inner peace.

Corporate discernment is important because it helps us to discern whether actions or intentions are impulsive ideas or are truly and faithfully rooted and grounded in the spirit, to the benefit of the spiritual community and in keeping with God’s purposes. In short, corporate discernment helps us to look at different angles of a problem or concern in an attempt to ‘become clear’ and find ‘inner peace’ in the unfolding of our lives.

Important aspects of a Meeting for Clearness

A Meeting for Clearness can either be initiated by an individual member, who approaches the Elders, their local Meeting or Worship Group with a concern or problem that necessitates a decision or action, or by the Elders or local Meeting. When clearness has been reached, the work of the appointed clearness committee comes to an end.

Care should be taken in the appointment of a clearness committee, as it is important that issues are examined from a variety of different perspectives. It can be helpful to include Friends who don’t know the focus person or group very well, in an attempt to avoid partisan alliances or attitudes, as well as those with particular areas of experience or expertise that might lead to deeper insight into the questions being asked. However, it is important that the people serving on the clearness committee are chosen for their abilities and skills of spiritual discernment. A maximum of 6 people is usually recommended. The focus person or group may also have ideas about who to include, and should therefore be consulted.

A Meeting for Clearness is not an opportunity to give advice, make statements or suggestions or ask loaded or rhetorical questions of the person or group in focus. The clearness committee’s role is to search for the Truth relating to the matter in hand. Discernment therefore involves open, challenging and loving questions that enable the focus person or group to clarify their own inner truth. Attentive and prayerful listening is another important feature of a Meeting for Clearness. It is not our will that we are seeking, but that which is Divine.

It is helpful if the person or group seeking clearness writes down his/her/their area of focus in advance of the Meeting for Clearness and makes this available to those involved in the process. The concern or problem area should be identified as precisely as possible: relevant background factors should be mentioned, and clues provided at to what lies ahead. This exercise is valuable for the clearness committee members as well as the focus person or group.

A Meeting for Clearness lasting about two to three hours should be envisaged, with the understanding that a second and even a third meeting may be necessary. It is important that the process is not hurried in any way. Short pauses during the Meeting for Clearness can be opportunities for ‘taking the pulse’ and re-assessing how to proceed.

Maintaining confidentiality within the group must be emphasised. It is often helpful to appoint a facilitator or convenor to look after the practical details of time-keeping and making sure that the Meeting for Clearness proceeds as it was envisaged. The group of people involved should decide in advance whether notes of record or a summary of the meeting ought to be made.

Basic guidelines for a Meeting for Clearness

The following guidelines illustrate how a Meeting for Clearness is conducted.

  • The process is one of prayer and discernment. The task in hand is to serve as a channel for the Light to help those present to clarify their own inner truth (i.e. no-one makes any decisions or attempts to solve the problem).

  • Arrange for one member to be facilitator or convenor (i.e. to be responsible for the process) who will attend to physical details that will nurture an atmosphere of stillness and seeking – telephones turned off, no interruptions etc.

  • Begin with worshipful silence. The convenor opens and closes the meeting, reminds everyone of the purpose of the meeting, the need for disciplined and prayerfully attentive listening and keeps the process moving in a worshipful way. The convenor also reminds people that what happens or said during the Meeting for Clearness is said in confidence, keeps track of the time and makes sure that all who wish to speak have the opportunity to do so.

  • Invite the focus person or group to formulate their experience, concern, leading or problem. After this, others present are invited to ask clarifying questions, make an observation, or describe an image - as they feel moved.

  • Allow for plenty of silence between contributions. When questions arise, try to ensure that they are honest, caring and open, and are asked for the sake of clarity. Listening without prejudice or judgement, helping to clarify alternatives, helping communication and providing emotional support as a person seeks to find the “truth and the right course of action” are all important aspects. Focus on what is happening now and explore what can be done to resolve the situation (rather than focusing on historical excuses or reasons for the present problems).

  • After the first round of contributions, the convenor should allow for a short pause and ask the group how they wish to proceed. (This is to try to ensure that everyone is comfortable with the process and remains involved in it.)

  • Towards the end of the meeting, the convenor can invite members to reflect on the process and ‘mirror back’ what they have seen, heard or have become more aware of. It is helpful if the group agrees upon and records a summary of events or whatever clarity seems to have been attained, as well as any next steps agreed to be taken.

  • All those involved should agree on the next steps, such as whether this recorded summary should be brought to the attention of the next relevant Meeting for Worship for Business, whether a follow-up meeting should be held etc.

  • End with a period of stilling, centring worship – taking inward stock of particular insights or promptings that have arisen from the session.

Things to keep in mind

  • Avoid the temptation to ask leading or rhetorical questions or give advice. This is counter-productive to a Meeting for Clearness.

  • Ensure that the clearness committee members work as a team with the focus person or group, thus avoiding ‘cliques’, partisanship or defensive positioning.

  • Problems may arise during the Meeting for Clearness itself, for example, if emotions become heated or the focus person or group doesn’t feel they are being ‘heard’. If this happens it is important that the convenor lovingly asks for a period of silence to give the Meeting for Clearness a chance to ‘come back on track’. The convenor needs to be prepared to lovingly confront and guide if necessary. Thinking ahead of time about possible difficult scenarios and how they might be dealt with is a wise precaution