The Faith Community: 
Hearing & Following God's Leading with Others

Friends emphasize the direct relationship between believers and God in the present time.  This direct teaching, guiding relationship is not, however, an individual or personal relationship.  It is a relationship between a faith community and God. 

Friends have developed since the earliest years a wide variety of practices that enable the faith community to:
1. Hear God's voice for the group
2. Reach unity around an understanding of what the community is being called to do
3. Identify & nurture spiritual gifts & ministries of meeting members & hold such members accountable for living out their gift faithfully
4. Lovingly hold each other accountable for personal faithfulness to the social testimonies that Friends have agreed are important for us to live by.

Church government among Friends is a unique practice called Meeting for Business.  This is a spirit-led practice where an individual officer known as a clerk seeks to hear what God is asking the group to do through listening faithfully to expressions by group members as to what is right.  The clerk's discernment is tested and if she or he has accurately perceived what is the group intention, this is "minuted" and the group moves forward. 

The Four Pillars of Meeting for Business is a fine detailed description by Debbie Humphries of NEYM of what it takes for this process to be successful (with a nod to Bill Taber's classic Pendle Hill pamphlet, Four Doors to Meeting for Worship).  The article includes excellent queries that all participants in meeting for business can keep in their hearts to help the faith community discover God's hopes for them together.

Susan Smith, a former clerk of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) gave a wonderful talk on a very traditional approach to meeting for business, called Friends Business Meeting as Conservative Friends Experience It

Unfortunately, this method of decision-making is difficult to practice and requires both significant giftedness on the part of the clerk and large doses of humility, patience, discernment skills, and willing to let go of one's own personal agendas on the part of all members taking part in the process.  In practice today, most local Quaker meetings are even less likely to be able to achieve deeply God-guided meetings for business than they are to experience frequently deeply gathered, spirit-led worship.

Eldering (or "eldership:) is the term given traditionally by Friends for both identification and nurture of personal spiritual gifts - and also to holding one another accountable for lives of faithfulness around shared community expectations of "testimonies".  See this site's page on this subject as well as a resource list on eldering. 

Meetings for Clearness.  Prior to about 1970 Friends utilized clearness committees basically for 2 purposes: to determine whether a meeting was comfortable accepting an applicant into meeting membership and to discern the rightness of marriage by a couple seeking marriage "under the care" of the local meeting.  Beginning (at least in my perception) in Young Friends of North America and later spreading much more widely among U.S. Friends, clearness committees now provide assistance to individual Friends in helping them to discern what God is asking them to do on a wide variety of personal decisions from vocational choices and financial decisions to discerning calls to ministry.

Support committees.  Traditionally Friends recognized gifts of vocal ministry during worship by "recording" ministers.   This practice was abandoned by FGC Frtiends, but many meetings now will appoint an ongoing committee to meet regularly with an individual meeting member to nurture a particular spiritual gift of various kinds and hold the individual accountable for living out their gift in the best possible way.

Engaging with a Monthly Meeting about Ministry describes the process which her own meeting went through in response to Debbie Humphries' request for a minute recognizing her leading to carry out travel under religious concern.

Fears of accountability.  Many Friends today are deeply ambivalent about opening themselves to shared accountability with other members of their faith community.  In my view there are two major reasons for this:
1. In the 19th century many Friends experienced meeting "elders" as having seized too much power in the life of the meeting community and exercising it in ways that were more judgmental than loving.
2.  Friends in this area as in many others have been strongly influenced by the surrounding culture. We live in an individualistic society in North America.  Again, this is in large part a reaction against small town and rural life where many people felt stifled by others knowledge of and "meddling" in their personal choices.  Many people like the fact that others do not know or care how they live their lives personally.   It is very difficult for many modern Friends to allow others in their faith community to be aware of their own personal choices or to challenge them around these choices.

Holy Obedience: Corporate Discipline and Individual Leading   This is a rather detailed essay I wrote in 1998 following a presentation I made on a panel at a Pendle Hill Conferience on Friends & the Vietnam War 

Facing Fears of Shared Accountability among Friends Today  This is a 2005 Friends Journal article growing out of a called meeting for business of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting held the previous May on global climate change, focusing especially on the fear expressed by many of minuting an expectation that PYM members act in their lives to reduce damage to the earth.

A final article discussing several issues in this area:

Firbank Fell's Challenge to 21st Century Quakerism   This is a 2002 Friends Journal article that I wrote on the 350th anniversary of George Fox's sermon to a thousand seekers that many consider the unofficial beginning of the Quaker movement.  The essay focuses on Friends' need to overcome fears of outreach to those outside our spiritual community, of spiritual authority, and of shared disclosure and accountability within our local meeting communities.

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Quote that speaks to me

Death Cannot Kill What Never Dies

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They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it.  
Death cannot kill what never dies.  
Nor can spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle; the Root and Record of their friendship.
If absence be not death, neither is theirs.  
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still.  
For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent.
In this Divine Glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure.
This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
 - William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude, 1702.

Note: This passage was quoted by J.K.Rowling as the epigraph of her novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Braithwaite on Outreach

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Men & Women with a Message of Power

It is as a "religion of life" that Quakerism will be presented in the future and is being presented now.

Its distinguishing note will be its resolve to bring all this human life of ours under the transforming power of spiritual life.  It will stand out against all divisions and compartments that separate the sacred from the secular, the sanctuary from the outward world of nature, the sacrament from the days' common work, the clergy from the laity. 

It will tell of a Christian experience that makes all life sacred and all days holy, all nature a sanctuary, all work a sacrament, and gives to every man and woman in the body fit place and service.  Its concern will be to multiply men and women who will have a message of power because they are themselves the children of light.  It will claim the whole of man's life, and the whole of life, individual, social, national international, for the dominion of the will of God.

William C. Braithwaite and Henry T. Hodgkin, The Message and Mission of Quakerism (Philadelphia, Winston, 1912), 25-26.

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