A yearly meeting wide witness, or corporate witness (corporate meaning “of the body”), of the yearly meeting is a new approach to social justice ministry.
As seekers of Truth, we expect to be called to action. A witness for the whole yearly meeting means we all, together as a PYM community, witness to the Light, contributing to transformational work in the world. We encourage and support one another in taking risks together, as we make an impact on our society. We enhance our effectiveness by focusing our corporate action on fewer, clearer goals.
This approach is distinct from the witnesses that individuals in the yearly meeting might engage in together. It is more than a social justice issue minuted as a concern by the yearly meeting and truly goes beyond the yearly meeting approving a ministry as important but rather it is he experience that our entire community is experiencing God calling our entire community to respond.
There are two characteristics that distinguish Yearly Meeting Wide Witness as unique. One way that it is distinct from other approaches to witness is that there is an expectation that every Friend, household, local meeting, and the yearly meeting as a whole will each discern for themselves how they can respond to Yearly Meeting Wide Witness call.
Another way is that it is the experience of the body that our entire community and each of its members is asked to respond God’s call, whether or not we experience the call as individuals.
Only twice has Philadelphia Yearly Meeting approved a ministry as a yearly meeting wide witness. In January 2015, we approved Addressing Racism as a ministry that belongs to every Friend, meeting, and PYM. Then again, in March of 2021 we approved Addressing Climate Change as a second ministry that all of us are asked to be under the weight of.
How Yearly Meeting Wide Witnesses Came to Be
In 2014, after years of discernment across the yearly meeting community, Friends approved to serve as a compass for guiding us towards God’s invitation to our yearly meeting. One of those strategic directions was to facilitate PYM wide corporate witness and action.
The Current Yearly Meeting Wide Witnesses
Between 2015 and 2021, the yearly meeting approved two corporate witnesses which include addressing racism and addressing climate change. Each witness lauds a unique story of how each came to be.
The first yearly meeting wide witness, addressing racism, was approved after experiencing the demand of spirit and of one another to come together to consider what was our responsibility related to racism. In 2015, there was a called meeting at Arch Street Meeting House where 400 people attended.The day included worship, small groups, threshing, and questions with minutes being approved at the conclusion.
Addressing Climate Change
The second yearly meeting wide witness, addressing climate change, took on a very different path from a year-long process. Friends who carried a concern for our environment for decades and had been leaders in our community for taking action, often inviting others into the ministry of addressing climate change, spoke to the clerks of the yearly meeting requesting the concern be elevated to being a corporate witness. The presiding co-clerks asked for prayerful responses from the body at sessions and from every monthly meeting to the engage the question of how we are called to respond to climate change. In March of 2021, the body approved holding addressing climate change as a yearly meeting wide witness.
Yearly Meeting Wide Witnesses are Uniquely Important to PYM and Friends
The ‘ask’ of everyone in our faith community to be under the weight of a concern together is important because it petitions all of us to trust our yearly meeting to have faithfully heard how we as a people are being called, even if an individual isn’t hearing the call for themselves. It is asking our members to trust our faith community’s discernment.
This is important for two reasons:
- A ministry that includes 10,000 people and 100+ congregations has more power and effectiveness to it than the traditional path of individuals responding to their own individual calls.
- This is not only about the ministry but also about our community and how we are drawn together.
Initially, we believed it to be most about taking action, but as we have lived into it and asked meetings to be in the under the weight of it and households to consider what it means to them, we found that it means that we need to listen and learn from each other. It has taught us to trust our community and take action even if we haven’t heard the call in our own meeting or our own hearts. Yearly Meeting Wide Witness requires an interdependence and deep relationship amongst us that is different from how individuals and meetings have been in relationship in the past.
How Yearly Meeting Wide Witness Shows up in Local Meetings
The Yearly Meeting Wide Witness is the same for every meeting, household, and Friend. However, the response to the call is individually decided by each one. Each meeting may focus on a particular aspect or expression of the witness. For example, one meeting addressing racism, might look at internal transformation and relationship, another may take action against mass incarceration while another might build relationships with other faith communities of varying ethnicities in their neighborhood. The same holds true for households and individuals in their daily lives. For example, an individual whose personal ministry in their life is related to public education might consider, how racism shows up in public education and how can they incorporate that into the work that they’re already doing?
The Possibility for Additional Yearly Meeting Wide Witnesses in the Future
Yearly Meeting Wide Witness is lifted up through the body of PYM during monthly and quarterly meetings or demonstrated through the clear and consistent action and commitment of many individuals and meetings. The Presiding clerk of the yearly meeting who sets the agenda for what we consider and approve will take steps to explore the possibility of a witness, possibly through threshing sessions, queries, discussion at sessions, on-going conversation with monthly meetings, and/or meeting committees.
While an individual cannot propose a yearly meeting wide witness, the discernment (as with all business of the yearly meeting) needs to come through a body of Friends, such as a quarterly meeting. The threshold for Yearly Meeting Wide Witness is higher (even more than for regular business) as it has such a profound impact on the community an extended time. It should rise as a concern seen throughout our community in many ways, many places and over time.
Laying Down a Yearly Meeting Wide Witness
Yearly Meeting Wide Witnesses are not approved with a sunset date. However, they can and should be revisited from time to time with discernment of whether current Yearly Meeting Wide Witness continue to be relevant and a divine calling. The expectation is that there will typically be “a few” Yearly Meeting Wide Witnesses, however the exact number and how long they are active is not prescribed.
How Friends and Households can Join in a Yearly Meeting Wide Ministry
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