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The Purpose of a Yearly Meeting

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David Shiner, Lake Forest Friends Meeting & ILYM Presiding Clerk

Every so often, organizations are well advised to step back from their ongoing activities so they can contemplate what they are doing, why they exist. Illinois Yearly Meeting is no exception. After all, the heart of Quaker worship lies in its monthly meetings and worship groups. What, then, is the purpose of ILYM, or of any yearly meeting?

One such purpose is based on the Quaker testimony concerning community. Most ILYM meetings have little if any connection with other Friends meetings, even those located only a few miles away. Yearly meetings serve them by furthering connections between Friends. This is especially important for small meetings and worship groups, of which there are many in our region. ILYM is able to offer direct if modest support to such meetings, especially in the form of visits and encouragement from the Field Secretary, members of the Ministry and Advancement Committee, and others. Such connections foster a more expansive and fuller sense of Quaker community than any of us can attain from our meetings alone.

Fostering connections among younger Friends is especially important, and the yearly meeting is also valuable in that regard. ILYM has for decades hosted Quakes and other events that bring together young people from across the yearly meeting. Many of the youth who have attended those events testify to their significance for their personal spiritual journeys. Meetings that have hosted Quakes likewise understand the importance of the yearly meeting for nurturing our youth, for helping them overcome their sense of isolation from other young Friends, and for giving them a broader perspective on what it means to be a Quaker.

The annual sessions of ILYM also help foster a sense of community. They provide a time and space for us to come together in support of what we do in our monthly meetings, as well as to further the work of the yearly meeting. Each of us serves as teacher and learner as we share our experiences and insights, thus deepening our spiritual understanding of our meetings and ourselves. Because of its location, its history, and the richness of its spiritual community, the ancestral home of Illinois Yearly Meeting near McNabb is especially fertile ground for this. For me, as for many of the 200 or so Friends who attend, the annual sessions are one of the spiritual highlights of each year.

Yearly meetings also help to advance the cause of Quaker witness to the world. Every monthly meeting undertakes such witness; but a yearly meeting, especially one that serves as large a geographical area as ILYM, is in a position to embark on collective action more effectively and with a more powerful voice than any individual meeting. This sort of activity can take a number of forms. It might be political, using our collective voice to urge a position based upon Quaker values concerning a particular issue. It might be for the purpose of involvement in the wider Quaker world, as when we supported four ILYM members to represent the yearly meeting at the World Gathering of Friends in Kenya hosted by the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) a couple of years ago. Or it might be both, as in the case of our appointment of representatives to organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).

The benefits that a yearly meeting can offer the monthly meetings and worship groups it serves are a reflection of the relationships between them. In the case of Illinois Yearly Meeting, the authority of the yearly meeting is not over the monthly meetings individually but rather through them collectively. It is because of that authority that each yearly meeting is in a position to write and promulgate its own Faith & Practice, which codifies articulates the guiding principles, organizational processes, and collected expressions of faith of Friends in its geographical area.
Our own Faith & Practice is a case in point. As a member of the ILYM Faith & Practice Committee, part of my responsibility is to bring drafts of text to monthly meetings for their input. I recall one particular incident that took place during a visit I made on behalf of that committee a couple of years ago. At the end of a fruitful discussion of the section of the ILYM Faith & Practice on the practices of monthly meetings, a member of the local meeting who had not spoken until then piped up to say that she only had one comment: “After reading about what we’re supposed to be doing, I’m glad to find out we’re doing it right.”

Verifying that each of us is “doing it right” is yet another benefit a yearly meeting is able to offer the meetings and individual Friends in its care. The fact that each individual meeting tends to develop its own customs and traditions is desirable up to a point, but can ultimately lead to a dilution of what it means to be a Quaker. This can lead to confusion, not only for members and attenders but also for non-Quakers who are interested in the Religious Society of Friends but are not given a clear idea of Quakerism that extends beyond the bounds of that meeting. Our yearly meeting provides a structure that serves to affirm what it means to be a Quaker in general and an ILYM Quaker in particular.

Much of the work of ILYM is invisible. So too are many of its effects. Like much else about Quaker faith and practice, including our meetings for worship, efforts to fully articulate those effects are bound to fail. But, as longtime ILYM stalwarts are well aware, the faith and practice of our monthly meetings and worship groups is enriched by participation in the yearly meeting. So too is the depth of spiritual awareness and understanding in our lives—which is, ultimately, why we are Friends.