Newcomers to Friends often find the private language (jargon?) we use confusing and even alienating. It is often very obscure to outsiders. It’s worth exploring this language to see if it is necessary. Does it tally with our testimony to simplicity?
In our business meetings the clerk will sometimes ask whether a decision or a minute is agreed by the meeting. The response, if positive, will be a chorus of “(I) hope so”. My musician American colleague at FWCC, Thomas Taylor, set it to music! Why don’t we say “approve” or “agree” as our American cousins do? The logic is that the individual Friend cannot speak for others, hope so speaks only for me. “Approve” suggests I expect other Friends to agree with me, and that isn’t my role the meeting – it is for the clerk to discern the sense of the meeting.
Similarly many (all?) of our jargon terms have reason of integrity in their origins. Some have fallen out of use because they are no longer relevant. A good example of that is the ancient use of the second person singular, thou and thee in stead of you. The origin is a testimony to equality in the 17thCentury when you addressed your superior as you, your inferiors and your intimates thou (or thee, a dialect form which became the norm for Friends). English language has changed and the use of thou has fallen out of use. Our usage became obsolete and whilst it survived in some families into my lifetime it is rare now.
Area Meeting was until quite recently called Monthly Meeting although few met monthly. The change in Britain Yearly Meeting was not controversial. But it took a long time for London Yearly Meeting to change its name to Britain YM and then only at the urging of Scottish Friends!
That’s the easy stuff, but what about words we use with meaning different from that understood outside the Society? Take “Meeting”. No great problem with the event, but we also use “meeting” for the organisation. We are beginning to see that usage weakening: although our formal name is Bristol Area Quaker Meeting, we often refer to ourselves as Bristol Area Quakers, but things change slowly.
When I was Clerk of Meeting for Sufferings I was very conscious that my role was pretty obscure to those outside the Society (and some inside!) Should we give up the reference to the ancient body that started as a way of recording and responding to the sufferings of Quakers in a time of persecution. Recording of sufferings for conscience sake still occurs but it is a minor part of the role of the meeting. Changing the name to representative board (as in American meetings) might be more transparent. But what about “clerk”? Why don’t we call the person who conducts our business meetings and committees the chair? (At least we don’t have the gender problem of chairman/woman/person.) Our use of “clerk” dates back to a time when the clerk of the meeting was primarily a recorder, but the role has evolved and has more of the role of chair in it. Nevertheless our view of the role is distinct from that of a chair. Much of it is a matter of emphasis relating to our insistence on the sense of the meeting as opposed to voting but vital difference in British Quaker practice (but not in North America) is that the clerk generally prepares the minute on each item and has it agreed in the meeting. In America with a small exception the minutes are prepared by recording clerks and generally presented at the next session. In Britain, the Recording Clerk is the senior employee of the Yearly Meeting.
I have lived with Quaker speak for a long life; it’s for the next generation of Friends to work on this knotty language question.