When does a meeting begin? When does it end?
If two friends are walking towards each other, when does their meeting start? Perhaps with the first glimpse of one by the other? Or with the first mutual acknowledgment, by a nod or a wave. This can be long before they are near enough to speak and be heard. But already significant exchanges may have taken place. And when the time comes to part, the last words are not necessarily the end of the meeting. The implications and consequences of the exchange may continue for some time afterwards.
When Friends (Quakers) have a Meeting for Worship it is deemed to begin when the first Friend takes their place. Some may presume it starts at the appointed hour and ends at the agreed time. However, in the tradition of Friends worship is not confined by time. Recently, the shaking of hands by Elders has become the accepted signal that the Meeting has ended. Yes, this is not a practice that has gone on for centuries; and the shaking of hand by all present is more recent still! But it is important to note that the Elders are not ending the meeting. They are recognising that the Meeting has ended.
In a business meeting it is also important to recognise that the formal announcements by the chair of the commencement of the meeting and later that the meeting is adjourned or concluded, are not the absolute boundaries they might appear. Pre-meeting conversations, discussion of tactics, formations of alliances, rehearsal of speeches may all have impacts of the way the meeting flows. Similarly, the post-mortems and continuing arguments after the formal conclusion indicate that the meeting goes on still.
In these days of Zoom meetings, a new and yet familiar etiquette has emerged. The ‘host’ welcomes new arrivals, probably well before the appointed time. There is space for the exchange of pleasantries and perhaps more significant information pertaining to the agenda before everyone has arrived. The ‘afterwords’ also provide opportunities for relationship building and care for one another to be expressed.
Meetings have never been solely about the business. The needs of each individual and of the whole group also have to be met as well as reports heard and decisions made. Meetings for Worship, likewise, are about community formation. As one well known Friend (George Gorman) has put it, “One of the unexpected things I have learnt in my life as a Quaker is that religion is basically about relationships between people. This was an unexpected discovery, because I had been brought up to believe that religion was essentially about our relationship with God.” (Excerpt From Quaker faith & practice: Fifth edition, Britain Yearly Meeting)
Many things go on within a meeting: hidden agendas, personal conflicts, and even revelations of truth!