Meetings and meetings
For Quakerly historical reasons, Quakers call nearly all organisational units “Meetings”. This can cause confusion! When Meetings hold meetings these are usually called “Meetings for ...”. The most common are Meetings for Worship and Meetings for Business.
Quakers do not have a hierarchy (which literally means “Rule by Priests”!) but they do have a structure. That structure is described below from the bottom upwards.
The basis and essence of Quakerdom is the Local Meeting. That is what individual Quakers are Members of. They generally meet each Sunday for a Meeting for Worship, usually in their local Friends Meeting House (FMH). See Meetings in the menu on the left for a list of Local Meetings in Devon and Cornwall, and also for some notes on what happens in a Meeting for Worship (“First Time in Meeting”).
The Local Meeting (LM) has a Meeting for Business every one or two months, to manage local business, including premises and finances, to appoint or nominate people to take on specific responsibilities, and to conduct other business of interest to members. And the LM may also arrange various other events and gatherings, such as Fairtraid sales, shared lunches, breakfast meetings, and seminars on topics of concern. Details of any such may (possibly!) be found on the Web page for each LM.
Each Local Meeting belongs to an Area Meeting. In Devon and Cornwall we have Devon Area Meeting and Cornwall Area Meeting.
The affairs of Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends) in Devon and Cornwall are managed by these Area Meetings. Among other things, they consider applications for membership, appoint the Elders and Overseers of Local Meetings (on the LM recommendation, of course!), and supervise property and other financial matters in their Area.
Each Area Meeting comprises all members of the Local Meetings belonging to that Area. An Area business meeting, which is normally convened every two months on a Saturday, and at which all Quakers in the Area (and regular Attenders by prior permission) are welcome, is formally known as 'Area Meeting in session'.
Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) is the national body for Quakers in Britain. It maintains a building in London (Friends House), with conference facilities, library and bookshop, and all the other services you would expect. It also houses various committees and other national agencies to look after the interest of Quakers in Britain.
BYM organises a Yearly Meeting for Business at the national level, held once a year, usually in London in May, lasting for a week-end. In some years there are national Gatherings in July/August which include the Yearly Meeting but are otherwise large social/information events, residential and lasting a week, held at universities: there was one in 2011 at Canterbury and the next will be in 2014 at Bath University. Area Meetings are asked to send representatives to Yearly Meeting but other Friends can attend without limit at present. It usually numbers 700-1000, but in the years when it is combined with a social Gathering it can be as many as 1500.
Quaker policy at other times, between these Yearly Meetings for Business, is developed by 'Meeting for Sufferings' (so called for historical reasons), of about 100 Quakers, including a representative of every Area Meeting.
Note that Northern Ireland is not part of BYM but is covered by a separate all-Ireland Yearly Meeting (q.v.).
Around the world there are a large number of independent Yearly Meetings and other Quaker organisations (at least 100, and possibly 200: Quaker bodies are always difficult to count!) which are affiliated to the Friends World Cmmittee for Consultation (FWCC). These bodies have a diverse range of practices and views, but share a clear commitment to testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity, and truth, and the principle that it is not what you say you believe that is important but what you live.
From Quaker Faith & Practice 3rd Edition, as revised 1995-2008:
4.01 (part): The area meeting is the primary meeting for church affairs in Britain Yearly Meeting. Its role is to develop and maintain a community of Friends, a family of local meetings who gather for worship and spiritual enrichment. It should provide that balance between worship, mutual support, administration, learning, deliberation and social life which can make its meetings enjoyable occasions and build up the spiritual life of its members.
Area meetings act as facilitators and co-ordinators, ensuring that their constituent local meetings have access to opportunities for fellowship, spiritual development, and spiritual and pastoral care, including the care of children and young people. They also provide mutual support through the shared testing of concerns.
4.02: Until 2007 area meetings were known as monthly meetings. The change was made to give more emphasis to the area meeting as a spiritual community rather than a regular event, and in the interests of accuracy because many monthly meetings no longer met monthly.
Monthly meetings were an important part of the gospel order established by George Fox, which played a large part in ensuring the survival of the young Society of Friends. From 1659 onwards monthly meetings were set up, first for men only, then for women and finally joint; they combined business with social ties, caring for the poor and prisoners, education and ministry. By 1676 they were the unit of authority for membership, marriages, property, records, the recognition of ministers (until 1924) and the recognition and laying down of local meetings; most of these functions continue today. So too does their formal responsibility, completed by 1789, for the appointment of elders and overseers.