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Listening for the Yearly Epistle

Peter Anderson
On Words (November 2021)
Inward Light

“We’re not really watching,” said a member of the Watching Committee several years ago.  “What we’re really doing is listening.” Not only was the term “listening” more accurate in describing the work of composing an epistle for our yearly meeting, it also struck a friendlier chord. Earlier generations of Friends no doubt had good reasons for the names they chose, but for us “Watching Committee” suggested an oppressive sense of authority as in “Big Brother is watching you.” So, we proposed, and Intermountain Yearly Meeting later approved, the name change to “Listening Committee.”

As our committee member rightly pointed out, the task of composing an epistle begins with listening – as is true with so many dimensions of Quaker practice. It is also true that the craft of writing, any kind of writing, begins with listening. It is essential to approach the task with the kind of openness and receptivity that we experience in the stillness of our meetings. A poet like William Stafford listens internally to find that trail of words that may eventually lead into the making of a poem. Journalists may focus their listening externally at first in order to record descriptions and quotations that are clear and accurate, but in the composition process that follows, they too must listen inwardly for unifying themes underneath the facts or for a turn of phrase that makes a good headline.

The process of composing an epistle, as in meeting for worship or business, is an exercise in group listening. As Listening Committee members, we venture forth into various dimensions of our yearly meeting to discern the spirit – and ideally, the movement of the Spirit – in our yearly gathering. We begin the task as reporters, witnessing and recording what we hear at interest groups or business meetings or dinner conversations. If we hear phrases or metaphors that seem especially prescient for our gathering, we record them. We then bring all of our “gleanings” into our next committee session.

What follows is a group inventory of whatever happenings, impressions, and snippets of language we have gathered. At first, we simply report on our findings. In conversations that follow, important topics or themes begin to emerge. Then we venture out again into the flow of yearly meeting for another period of listening and gathering, before entering into a period of discernment to determine our priorities in crafting an epistle. Some committees may try and write their epistle as a group, but in recent years, we have chosen instead to gather, glean, and hone a vision of what we want to say collectively, leaving the composition of a first draft to the clerk. Once there is a draft, the committee reconvenes for a threshing session to refine it before presenting it at business meeting.

Further revision takes place after the draft epistle has been read at Meeting for Business. Decisions in shaping a final draft are not left to the writer alone as in a creative writing workshop; rather the writer, with the benefit of more group discernment in Listening Committee, will attempt to reflect the view of the yearly meeting as a whole. The final epistle doesn’t aspire to a personal voice, but rather to the collective voice of the entire meeting. As such, the process invites all of those involved in drafting and revising the epistle to walk humbly while carrying the spirit and the Spirit of the meeting in their hearts. ~~~

Peter Anderson is a member of Durango Monthly Meeting. He is currently the clerk of the Listening Committee at Intermountain Yearly Meeting.


Yearly Meeting Epistles Quaker Culture

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