Sunday, January 12, 2014

C is for Clerk and Cats

Call me indecisive (and maybe I am, when it comes to the plethora of opportunities for the third letter of the alphabet) but I have been thinking of how Quaker concepts of "clerk" and "cats" might, when taken together, illustrate the strengths and limitations of our ideas about equality. For those readers who are new to Quakerism, by "clerk" I mean the Friend in an unprogrammed Meeting who arranges the agenda in our monthly Meeting for Worship for Business and assists the group in finding unity and perhaps in formulating minutes (or in helping us realize when to set a matter aside if unity cannot be found). Clerks must be able to listen and to park their own views at the Meeting House door. By "clerk" I do not mean a scribe, although the so-called presiding clerk can also write down as well as formulate minutes, and the recording clerk in a Quaker business meeting works together with the clerk. I also don't mean a clerk in the sense of a student of philology or theology (as in Geoffrey Chaucer's words, "A clerk ther was of Oxenford also"), from which we get the modern English word "cleric."

Back when I was a teenager and just starting my journey into Quakerism, my Meeting had a short-lived experiment with a thirty-minute midweek Meeting for Worship. The clerk, a beloved Friend who is, alas, no longer with us, hosted some of the gatherings at her home. One day there were only three of us: the clerk, yours truly, and the clerk's cat. This cat, a magnificent Siamese, was not comfortable with outsiders. On that occasion, however, our feline friend spent virtually the entire period nestled in my lap, purring and asking for the occasional ear rub. Whatever that cat got out of Meeting (and there are probably some Friends who may be rolling their eyes at this point with the thought that a non-human animal might gain anything other than companionship), it was clearly enough to transform her behavior.

People who are either new to Friends or who are not Quakers sometimes look at clerks as the closest analogues to clergy, which unprogrammed Meetings lack. They might be forgiven for this, and not only because of the linguistic relationship between "clerk" and "cleric:" in some jurisdictions, Monthly Meeting clerks signs Quaker marriage licenses,  and virtually everywhere documents representing Meeting decisions go out under the signature of either the clerk, recording clerk, or an assistant clerk. In some Monthly and Yearly Meetings, the clerk is the person who closes Meeting for Worship with a handshake. Someone is also appointed to "clerk" a Memorial Meeting for Worship, in the sense of welcoming visitors and, along with other appointed Friends, keeping an eye out for those who might be in distress. Nevertheless, although it is true that a clerk is a leader in the Meeting, the role has nothing to do with ordination. A well-functioning Meeting hopes to have at least several people who can serve as clerk; indeed, some Meetings have formal or informal term limits (the usual single term is for one year). The Friend who had the Siamese cat learned to her consternation that people sometimes expected her to have insights in areas in which she had no expertise. It was not always easy to explain Quaker concepts of equality.

Friends believe that human beings have both equal rights and differing talents and experience. There is also an increasing understanding, both among Friends and in society as a whole, that animals who are not human have some rights. We differ widely, however, in our views of what those rights are. I will speak plainly here. Friends have been leaders in the struggle against capital punishment for human beings, but many of us eat meat. (I am in the middle: I do not eat meat, fish, seafood, but, as a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, I do consume dairy products and eggs.) Needless to say, we also differ in the extent to which, if at all, we believe that non-human animals can experience transcendence.

I would leave this rather unorthodox meditation except for two other examples that may shed some light on it. First, as I mentioned above, in some jurisdictions, secular authorities require that Quaker clerks sign the marriage licenses of those marrying under the care of the Meeting.  This is true in the state where my husband and I had our Quaker marriage ceremony. Years later, and some time after the clerk who signed our marriage license had joined another denomination, he was the plaintiff whose name was given to one of the earliest lawsuits  for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Whenever my husband and I needed to produce our marriage license in those days, we were reminded that not all were equal under the law.

On a more mundane note, my Friend's cat was not the only feline to insist on taking part in Meeting for Worship. On several occasions a couple of years ago we hosted a small Worship Group at our home. Invariably, Hermione, one of the two cats we had at the time, made the rounds, greeting everyone with a purr that could be heard in the next room. Her warmth was a reminder of what love may do. She was a former stray who was initially so traumatized by her experience that she hid under the bed in the spare room for a month. Watching her in Meeting for Worship, it was hard to believe that she was the same animal.

We lost Hermione to an undiagnosed heart condition a week before Christmas in 2012. Her successor is an extreme extrovert. If we host the Worship Group again, will the new cat have the same instinctive sense of the boundaries of Meeting for Worship, or will she pounce into someone's lap without warning, just as she did to our recording clerk when he was invited to our (meatless) Thanksgiving dinner?
Hermione (2004-2012) Photo © 2008 Kristin Lord

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