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Traveling Ministry

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Traveling Ministry

History.  From their earliest beginnings in 17th century, Quakers have valued and supported travel by individual Friends "under a religious concern".  In most cases such Friends have traveled among settled (i.e. already established) Friends Meetings either in their immediate vicinity or at a great distance.  At times, however, Friends have felt led to travel among non-Friends with a particular leading.  A striking example is when Mary Fisher felt led in 1658 to travel to Istanbul to meet with Sultan  Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire.  All early Quaker leaders, especially those identified informally as the "Valiant Sixty", carried out such travels in the gospel ministry.  Later Quaker journals are filled with accounts of such  religious travel.

Shared discernment and support from the faith community.  Friends developed very early a process for group testing, usually by one's local congregation, of such leadings.  This process is now usually referred to as a "clearness committee" for one-time calls to travel and a "support committee" for the nurture and holding accountable of those led to carry out such work on a more ongoing basis.  This provcess is one important example of what Friends refer to as "eldership" or eldering.  The process of shared discernment of God's call and holding an individual accountable for carrying out that call faithfully is the same whether or not it is carried out by persons formally recognized as elders or by others not so designated. 

It is considered important that Friends undertaking such work obtain a written minute of religious concern often referred to as a "traveling minute" that describes the faith community's official endorsement of the individual's calling to a particular or more ongoing religious work among Friends or in the wider world.  In cases of distant travel among Friends, these minutes are also often endorsed by the Friend's yearly meeting (regional association).

It is considered critical that Friends undertaking this type of work travel with a spiritual companion or "elder".  The elder both provides prayerful support to the "minister" (both during any programs the minister is leading and before and after) and also to hold the minister accountable for faithful exercise of her or his call.

There is separate webpage with more information on Eldering

Biblical underpinnings. Early Friends saw themselves as continuing a pattern of religious work described in Bible, especially the New Testament.  The importance of traveling with an elder ties in with the fact that Jesus sent out his followers in pairs.  See Mark 9-13.  The resurrected Jesus gave similar briefer instructions in Matthew 28-18-20.  Many examples can also be found in the Book of Acts and Paul's letters.  You can read many reports of the process of discerning in prayer with others what particular travel or religious task Paul and others were called to carry out.

Engaging with a Monthly Meeting about Ministry describes one Friend's request to her meeting for a minute of travel and how the meeting responded.

For a description of some of the types of work that Anne Patterson & I (Peter Blood) have done see Our Travel under Concern.

Four Pillars of Meeting for Business

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Four Pillars of Meeting for Business
by Debbie Humphries

In May 2007, the board of the School of the Spirit Ministries, on which I was serving, was in the process of discerning whether to add a new program. We had a very intense one-and-a-half-day meeting, which resulted in the decision to move forward with our new program, which has since become The Way of Ministry. At the end of a long Saturday, I headed to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to catch a train home to Hartford. I knew I was to speak the next morning at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Hartford, and they had asked me to give a presentation on Quaker business practice. Sitting in the station, I was inspired to write down four key components of Quaker corporate discernment, using examples from the School of the Spirit Ministries board discernment experience, which then formed the backbone of my presentation.

Over the next year I stayed with these four components, and I have continued to grow in my understanding of each of them. As I have sat with Friends in corporate discernment and visited meetings in New England, I have come to believe that we need to revisit the practice of corporate discernment. The form of our business practice is a rich process that builds community, changes hearts, and can unite us with the Spirit, despite differences of opinion. We need to refresh our understanding of our purpose and our practices, and seek to hold them more deeply, to bring ourselves more fully into alignment with God's purpose in our lives.

At the heart of Quakerism is George Fox's statement that there is "that of God in every one." Quakers repeat this phrase to try to describe the core that we share. Embedded in it is the belief that the good--that of God--can be raised up in each of us. As early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay described his experience of worship with Friends:

When I came into the silent assemblies of God's people, I felt a secret power amongst them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might find myself perfectly redeemed. (Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Proposition 11, Concerning Worship, par. 7).

The potential of attending to that secret power, of listening in the silence, of giving way to that power and finding the evil weakening and the good raised up, is foundational to all branches of Quakerism.

The Quaker tradition challenges us to relate to others in ways that call forth and resonate with the good within them, however deeply it may be buried. Quakerism is an optimistic tradition, as we believe that hearts can change and the good can be raised up. The potential for growth in the Spirit is there for each of us. Our worship and our business practice, at their core, are about creating the conditions for hearts to change. By using these corporate practices we are also learning how to act toward others in ways that honor that of God in them.

As I have visited Quaker meetings, I have observed Friends faithfully following the form of Quaker business practices without necessarily understanding the importance and purpose of the forms. George Fox challenged the people around him to seek the power rather than the form. He condemned many as engaged in religious practices that were empty forms, where people followed their practices without understanding the deeper meaning and so had lost contact with that meaning. We are in danger today of living out what George Fox railed against. Accepting the responsibility to keep the Quaker tradition living and vibrant requires that we work to understand why we use the forms that we do, so that the practices are not empty but rich with life. Within the Quaker practice of corporate business there is a treasure that the world needs. It is a way of coming together as individuals with different experiences, needs, agendas, and perspectives and engaging with each other to strengthen relationships and make decisions that affect the community positively.

The pillars that I see undergirding the forms of Quaker business practice are:

·      that the meeting is rooted in worship;

·      that the meeting is clerked;

·      that there is enough time, a sense of spaciousness; and

·      that decisions are made by sense of the meeting.

Meeting for Business is Grounded in Worship

Every business meeting begins with a time of worship. At times the worship is perfunctory, but at its best, the opening worship is long enough to remind those present that we are listening deeply and seeking to hear the Spirit in the agenda items addressed.

The entire meeting for business is the corporate implementation of the skills developed in meeting for worship. Each time we sit together with others in corporate worship, we have the opportunity to further develop these skills. Some of them are at the individual level, where each of us needs to develop our inward ear, the ear of our heart. Building upon the individual skills are the corporate ones of listening together for something more than what we hear individually. Both the individual and corporate skills can be understood as queries:

Can I hear God/Spirit in my heart? Do I know what it feels like to hear God in my heart? When is my ego talking, and when is it other? When I listen, can I tell the difference between my own ego and Spirit?

Early in my journey into Quakerism, after having a powerful experience of being called to ministry, I called together a support committee of three seasoned Friends to sit with me to provide some guidance so I didn't run ahead of--or behind--my leading. Shortly after they came together, I was led to commit to monthly retreats for nine months. At that time, my children were three and five years old, so it was no small feat to make time to go away one weekend a month. The support and understanding of my husband, John, made it possible.

I met with the support committee right before my first retreat, and they asked what my focus was for that particular retreat. Tears came to my eyes as I told them I didn't know how to hear God except when I was moved to speak in meeting for worship. My hope for the personal retreats was to be able to come to know that voice--that Spirit: to recognize it when I felt it, and to be able to hear it when I stopped to listen. The retreats were at different locations--a Benedictine Abbey in Connecticut, a Quaker conference center in Massachusetts, a friend's home on Block Island in Rhode Island--but at each place I would look for a comfortable armchair beside a window and spent a lot of time sitting comfortably there. That silent time was where I became aware of the physical sensations that accompany my attending to the Light within.

The lesson of discerning when my ego is talking is one I have not learned easily, and I have to relearn this lesson time and again. But I remember one particular business session at New England Yearly Meeting where the lesson came home strongly. I knew the session was going to be long, although I couldn't have predicted how few people walked out even when we were over an hour and a half late in completing the business. During that evening session I groaned internally when someone repeated what another had already said, or when a speaker was going on at what I thought was excessive length, or when a speaker didn't appear to be listening to what others had said. I came to the realization early on that all of these internal criticisms were my own ego, and I committed right then to lifting those internal voices up, and then letting them go. I listened deeply that night, holding the business in my heart, feeling deep warmth in my belly, and knowing that we were exactly where we needed to be as a worshiping community. That experience helped me name the voice of my own ego.

The touchstone for discerning Spirit and ego in my own experience is the love that will fill any motion that starts with Spirit. And the love will be for all. So the voice that holds up honor and respect for each of us is more likely to be Spirit than a voice that diminishes the worth of another. Paul provides his own guidance for this same discernment when he says:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Gal. 5:22)

When do I hear Spirit moving in the silence?

Quakerism is about listening in silence. Early Friends spoke about what happened in the silence and focused much less on the content of vocal ministry. It was in the silence that their hearts were broken open. As Robert Barclay describes it:

Yea, though there be not a word spoken, yet is the true spiritual worship performed, and the body of Christ edified; yea, it may, and hath often fallen out among us, that divers meetings have passed without one word; and yet our souls have been greatly edified and refreshed, and our hearts wonderfully overcome with the secret sense of God's power and Spirit, which without words hath been ministered from one vessel to another. (Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Proposition 11, Concerning Worship)

We need a vocabulary to describe the different textures of our corporate silence so we can better appreciate the experience. When we focus on the vocal ministry to evaluate the quality of our corporate worship we have looked to the fruits and missed the source. Attending to the quality of the corporate silence can disentangle the personal issues that arise in reacting to the vocal ministry of another. Sometimes our experience in the silence might be fragmented, distracted, or scattered, with our thoughts and focus jumping from one thing to another. Other times it might be a deep stillness where many of those present feel held to attention, perhaps like what happens in a yoga asana where the breath moves through us while the mind is quiet. Practice can help us come to that place of deep, focused attentiveness more readily.

We practice listening to the Spirit in meeting for worship. It is important to also practice listening individually, on a daily basis. A regular spiritual practice such as daily prayer time, a journal, walks in nature, or Scripture reading can help us tune the inward ear to God's presence. Meeting for worship is an opportunity to practice corporate listening, and the skill of listening to Spirit as individuals prepares us to move beyond ourselves into this corporate experience. We need to develop the skills of listening in the silence for the Spirit, to know when the silence is rich and deep, and to feel when the silence is scattered, disjointed, and not yet gathered. Then we will understand that the quality of Quaker worship is about much more than the messages.

When do I hear Spirit in the ministry of others? Can I hear the spirit of the messages of others, the Spirit that underlies the words?

The work of listening, the capacity to distinguish between when something is only "a good idea" and when it is the Spirit moving, is fundamental to the Quaker business practice. We work on that listening corporately every week in worship. This is not an easy listening, and it is an extension of the earlier exercise of being aware of our own ego. I have visited meetings where the Spirit was powerfully present in the ministry, even though messages felt to be longer than needed and there wasn't as much silence and worshipful space surrounding the messages as I would have liked. If I had stayed with my impatience over the length of the messages and the lack of silence, I would have missed the very real presence and movement of the Spirit.

One of the challenges in learning to listen deeply to the Spirit in worship and silence is that Quakers seldom intentionally create opportunities to check with others about what they heard in worship, and to receive feedback on our sense of when the Spirit is moving and when it is not. We need to create more opportunities to work on our worship skills--to talk about, practice, and then discuss the experience.

The skills of discernment and listening that we practice in meeting for worship are essential for the corporate business practice. Being grounded in worship is critical. If the worshipful environment changes or discussion becomes heated, the clerk may ask for silence to give those present the time to go back to worshipful space. Centering in the silence can help us be tender with the agendas of others, and be more aware of our own.

Meeting for Business is Clerked

Each meeting for business has an individual who has been named to clerk the meeting. The clerk's work includes visible and invisible tasks. The former include preparing the agenda, calling on people to speak, and suggesting a sense of the meeting for those present to respond to. The latter include the prayer and discernment that go into preparing the agenda, being in a grounded and centered place from which to attend to the motion of Spirit in the corporate body during the conduct of business, and hearing what is not said but is present in the room.

The visible tasks are not necessarily simple. In most meetings, the clerk is responsible for identifying agenda items and discerning the order in which to consider those items. The order of the agenda can be important: for instance, addressing difficult items--the ones where discussion might be tense--closer to the beginning of the meeting, when people are fresh and may be more focused.

The clerk is also responsible for recognizing individuals before they speak. This can be a very important practice of discernment, as Jan Hoffman demonstrated during her time clerking New England Yearly Meeting when she listened inwardly to discern who to call on next. This is an important tool that allows clerks to wait and feel the inward motion, reminding the body over and over of the importance of that posture of deep listening. Clerks of New England Yearly Meeting continue to use this practice, although some present may not understand.

A clerk can also make use of the process of recognizing someone to speak to call the group into waiting worship until the Spirit is ready.

In business meeting, speakers address their remarks to the clerk. This allows a little more space for Friends to not feel directly attacked by someone else's differing opinion, and to listen better to perspectives that differ from their own. This can help Friends disentangle their ego stake in an issue, listen to the guidance of the Spirit, and be open to letting go of their own position. At times when the business is focusing on questions of clarification or when the business before the group is easily agreed upon, the clerk's role may seem less critical, but even then these disciplines are important because the practice of being recognized by the clerk and speaking to the clerk needs to be second nature in times of tension and disagreement.

The invisible tasks of the clerk help to hold a worshipful space and remind those present of the importance of listening to the Spirit. Praying about the agenda, about which items to include, whether to hold an item over to another meeting, and how best to prepare the meeting for a particular business item can undergird the business meeting with an invisible sense of Spirit.

The first time I went to a meeting of New England Yearly Meeting's Ministry and Counsel, I was deeply moved by the clerking. Cornelia Parkes maintained a presence free of anxiety despite an overfull agenda. She had clearly prepared well; she knew the agenda items and people involved well enough to rearrange the agenda when needed, to attend to each business item gently and faithfully, and to keep us in a listening space as needed to move through the work people had gathered to complete.

One of the important practices of a clerk is being a non-anxious presence. This is a challenge for many of us. When a situation gets tense, we may become reactive rather than remaining deeply rooted in our own sense of Spirit. When disagreement or strong feelings are present, the greatest hope for change comes when someone is able to remain in a place of centered calm. But this does not mean disengaging from the process or from those present. Instead, it means being able to hold the tension of others without catching it or needing to release it. When we merely avoid tension, we limit our ability to face conflict and to enable transformation from the tension. In contrast, staying in a place of conflict in a respectful and centered way, knowing that we need inspiration to resolve the conflict, releases the full transformative potential of meeting for business and increases the likelihood that those present will be able to hear and respond to the motion of the Spirit.

Business Meeting Will Have Enough Time

Quakers make jokes about how long the business process can take, generally without realizing that what takes so long is for hearts to change. It is difficult for most of us to admit publicly that we are wrong, especially when we have spoken strongly about a topic. This can take a long time, particularly since we may not consciously realize that we're waiting for participants to set down their egoistic voices. Changing hearts is eased when we all can discern the source of the words that come to us and to others. Quaker business practice is about speaking our own Light on the subject, and then setting aside our own perspective to listen to the moving of the Spirit.

At its best, Quaker business practice carries a sense of spaciousness: the search for the right outcome will take as long as it needs to. There is enough space for people to bring and share their opinions, hesitations, and concerns; and because they will not be attacked for their perspectives, or challenged directly and personally, there is a potential for movement.

In the School of the Spirit Ministries board meeting, where the decision was made to move forward with the Way of Ministry Program, several board members expressed deep concerns about the additional financial burdens and oversight responsibilities for a new program. No one expressed a perspective that initiating a new program would be easy. We held the concerns about the board being too small, and we waited for the Spirit. When we found clarity, it was with a decision to move forward in faith, trusting that way would open and the necessary resources would be found.

I visited a meeting some years ago whose members were struggling with questions about their meeting space--whether they should seek another space, build an extension, or build a new meetinghouse. They were in the stage of gathering information and identifying and costing out the alternatives. The meeting was carefully following Quaker process, bringing the alternatives forward. However, the meeting was a young meeting--not in age, or even in experience with Quaker organizations, but in having limited experience diving fully into the Quaker tradition as a guide for individual spirituality. I was led to remind them that when the time came to make a decision, they needed to put their own opinion of the best option down so they could be open to how they might be led by the Spirit.

Business Meeting Decisions Will Be by Sense of the Meeting

One of the assumptions in Quaker business practice is that something more than the best wisdom of the group will be achieved--that those present are listening for something more than what each person thinks. Working toward a sense of the meeting is about listening for what Spirit would have us do in this instance. It is not a negotiated settlement or compromise, giving each person some of what they want. Rather, it is a moving toward, which does not require logical agreement.

Barry Morley's Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Beyond Consensus: Salvaging a Sense of the Meeting, is a wonderful description and invitation into the power of waiting and listening for a sense of the meeting.

At its best, Quaker business builds the worshiping community, strengthens relationships, and encourages each of us to grow. When our corporate decisions are faithful to this Spirit, they not only change the participants; they hold the seeds that change the world.

© 2009 Friends Journal.  This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of the Journal.

Fears of Shared Accountability

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Facing Fears of Shared Accountability
among Friends Today

In June 2005, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting met in called session to consider its response to Earth-wide challenges of climate change. After meeting and dialoging with experts, scientific and political, we gathered in small regional groups to share with each other how we experience these issues touching us. Then we returned to gather in "meeting for worship with a concern for business."

At the end of the day there was great unity among those present on the urgency to address these issues personally, as a religious community, and as a nation. No one present questioned the scientific urgency of the risk to our planet or the spiritual imperative this places on Friends. The only disagreement that arose among us that day regarded the use of the word "accountability" in the minute we were to consider.

The phrase that caused concern read: "We call upon the yearly meeting, in all its manifestations, to seek ways to hold our members accountable to live in God's world in a more environmentally sustainable fashion and to join other like-minded groups and organizations in supporting this concern." Several Friends expressed fear that holding each other accountable could lead to mutual judgment, discord, and perhaps even disownment for failure to live up to other Friends' standards of personal environmental stewardship and forceful witness against the destruction of our planet.

The yearly meeting ended up accepting the minute even with the "A" word--with the insertion of "lovingly" before it. At the end of the day, however, I was struck with how the problem this word raised for some highlights a fundamental challenge for us as a religious movement today. Why, in fact, are Friends so terrified of engaging each other spiritually?

There are many reasons, I suspect! Our collective memory still reacts to the type of eldering illustrated in the film Friendly Persuasion, where meeting elders sternly criticize a member for owning a musical instrument. My wife's family is one of many who had a Quaker ancestor read out of meeting for marrying a non-Friend. In Philadelphia we have only just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the rejoining of our Orthodox and Hicksite divisions. When the schism occurred, Friends were so bitterly divided that some wrote letters to the editor attempting to convince non-Friends that members of the other side were not "real" Friends. Others went to court to battle over property. Some Orthodox Friends in London, went to the unquakerly extreme of barring women from speaking at the World Antislavery Convention--a thinly disguised stratagem for preventing Hicksite minister Lucretia Mott from speaking and taking a leading role at the convention.

So we have come to fear deeply that if meeting members challenge each other strongly around matters of faith or lifestyle, it will be done in an unloving and insensitive manner--and could lead ultimately to some being forced to leave our spiritual family or to suppress others' deeply held spiritual intuitions and life choices.

Another great impetus, of course, is secular. We live in a society today that celebrates the individual. We cherish dearly our right to "do our own thing." Most liberal Friends cite "that of God in every one" or the "Inner Light" as the center of our faith as Friends. This can often be interpreted as being synonymous with the supreme inviolability of individual conscience.

The elevation of individual access to God over the community was not, however, Quaker dogma prior to the 20th century. My own understanding of what is unique to our Quaker vision is that we experience God speaking and leading us as a people through a gathered community. This gathered community reaches its fullest expression in our meetings for worship, and meetings for worship with attention to community decisions. This process of trying to discover God's voice in close collaboration with others has always been rooted in the local Friends meeting, but has also extended outward through a network of quarterly and yearly meetings.

When we run from this vision of revelation as a communal process, we shatter the possibility of creating and maintaining a Quaker movement and become a disordered association of individual seekers. We close ourselves off from the possibility that God can speak and lead humans in a coherent fashion. We are so accustomed to being turned off by the self-righteous judgmentalism of religious fanatics of various stripes that we may end up rejecting the possibility of there being a living God who really does have wishes and hope for our world--for example, a God who rejects war utterly or longs for this earthly creation to survive environmental degradation. We flee from the hope that God can provide prophetic leadership out of the dark challenges facing our world today.

The Quaker vision of corporate discernment of God's voice is rooted in humility and love. It is a fragile venture and has no possibility of success if those present cling too fiercely to their own personal intimations of the Divine Wind. The process demands both radical faithfulness in expressing one's own provisional sense of what God is saying to the group and willingness to discover through the differing revelation of others that our own intimation may not have been God's intention for the group after all. This combination of passionate, prophetic insight with readiness to let go of that same insight is difficult indeed.

As a community reaches each new unity (for the process is an ongoing one), this vision of the faith community also demands great tenderness towards the individual member or family or meeting that may apparently lie outside the community's shared vision of what is expected of its members.

We will not always get it right. We may err in our conclusion as to what God is inviting us to at this time in history. We may fail in our obligation of tenderness as we attempt to wrestle with each other around the demands of faithfulness to a shared spiritual journey. The answer, however, cannot be to abandon the effort to discover together what God is saying to us. And when we do end up stumbling mysteriously into unity, the answer is not to flinch from wrestling with each other on how we are living out the difficult challenges God appears to be leading us into.

Let's take the risk of trying to discover how God wants us to take on this great environmental challenge. Let's take the risk of communicating to each other the lifestyle choices we are making as families in response to this new testimony that many of us believe God is laying on us. Let's help each other tenderly to find new ways to "get off the back of the Earth." Let's take the risk of doing this more lovingly and patiently and uncertainly than we imagine to be possible.

With God's help we can bring to birth once again a fundamental corporate dimension to our efforts to hear and obey God's voice as Friends--and do so in love.

The Philadelphia YM minute referred to in this article read as follows, "Friends at this session unite behind the desire that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting incorporate this concern about the rise of global climate temperatures and its dangerous implications for life on our earth into the body of its work in the world. We feel ready, with divine assistance, to assume the challenges of being prophetic witnesses to protect our earth. We call upon the Yearly Meeting, in all its manifestations, to seek ways to hold our members lovingly accountable to live in God's world in a more environmentally sustainable fashion and to join other like minded groups and organizations in supporting this concern." More information on this called session of Philadelphia YM on Climate Change can be found at PYM Epistle.  Here are some steps that the YM suggested that meetings consider taking to take on the challenge contained in the YM minute on climate change.

© 2005 Peter Blood. Appeared in the October 2005 issue of Friends Journal.

Fears of Accountability

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Facing Fears of Shared Accountability among Friends Today

In June 2005, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting met in called session to consider its response to Earth-wide challenges of climate change. After meeting and dialoging with experts, scientific and political, we gathered in small regional groups to share with each other how we experience these issues touching us. Then we returned to gather in "meeting for worship with a concern for business."

At the end of the day there was great unity among those present on the urgency to address these issues personally, as a religious community, and as a nation. No one present questioned the scientific urgency of the risk to our planet or the spiritual imperative this places on Friends. The only disagreement that arose among us that day regarded the use of the word "accountability" in the minute we were to consider.

The phrase that caused concern read: "We call upon the yearly meeting, in all its manifestations, to seek ways to hold our members accountable to live in God's world in a more environmentally sustainable fashion and to join other like-minded groups and organizations in supporting this concern." Several Friends expressed fear that holding each other accountable could lead to mutual judgment, discord, and perhaps even disownment for failure to live up to other Friends' standards of personal environmental stewardship and forceful witness against the destruction of our planet.

The yearly meeting ended up accepting the minute even with the "A" word--with the insertion of "lovingly" before it. At the end of the day, however, I was struck with how the problem this word raised for some highlights a fundamental challenge for us as a religious movement today. Why, in fact, are Friends so terrified of engaging each other spiritually?

There are many reasons, I suspect! Our collective memory still reacts to the type of eldering illustrated in the film Friendly Persuasion, where meeting elders sternly criticize a member for owning a musical instrument. My wife's family is one of many who had a Quaker ancestor read out of meeting for marrying a non-Friend. In Philadelphia we have only just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the rejoining of our Orthodox and Hicksite divisions. When the schism occurred, Friends were so bitterly divided that some wrote letters to the editor attempting to convince non-Friends that members of the other side were not "real" Friends. Others went to court to battle over property. Some Orthodox Friends in London, went to the unquakerly extreme of barring women from speaking at the World Antislavery Convention--a thinly disguised stratagem for preventing Hicksite minister Lucretia Mott from speaking and taking a leading role at the convention.

So we have come to fear deeply that if meeting members challenge each other strongly around matters of faith or lifestyle, it will be done in an unloving and insensitive manner--and could lead ultimately to some being forced to leave our spiritual family or to suppress others' deeply held spiritual intuitions and life choices.

Another great impetus, of course, is secular. We live in a society today that celebrates the individual. We cherish dearly our right to "do our own thing." Most liberal Friends cite "that of God in every one" or the "Inner Light" as the center of our faith as Friends. This can often be interpreted as being synonymous with the supreme inviolability of individual conscience.

The elevation of individual access to God over the community was not, however, Quaker dogma prior to the 20th century. My own understanding of what is unique to our Quaker vision is that we experience God speaking and leading us as a people through a gathered community. This gathered community reaches its fullest expression in our meetings for worship, and meetings for worship with attention to community decisions. This process of trying to discover God's voice in close collaboration with others has always been rooted in the local Friends meeting, but has also extended outward through a network of quarterly and yearly meetings.

When we run from this vision of revelation as a communal process, we shatter the possibility of creating and maintaining a Quaker movement and become a disordered association of individual seekers. We close ourselves off from the possibility that God can speak and lead humans in a coherent fashion. We are so accustomed to being turned off by the self-righteous judgmentalism of religious fanatics of various stripes that we may end up rejecting the possibility of there being a living God who really does have wishes and hope for our world--for example, a God who rejects war utterly or longs for this earthly creation to survive environmental degradation. We flee from the hope that God can provide prophetic leadership out of the dark challenges facing our world today.

The Quaker vision of corporate discernment of God's voice is rooted in humility and love. It is a fragile venture and has no possibility of success if those present cling too fiercely to their own personal intimations of the Divine Wind. The process demands both radical faithfulness in expressing one's own provisional sense of what God is saying to the group and willingness to discover through the differing revelation of others that our own intimation may not have been God's intention for the group after all. This combination of passionate, prophetic insight with readiness to let go of that same insight is difficult indeed.

As a community reaches each new unity (for the process is an ongoing one), this vision of the faith community also demands great tenderness towards the individual member or family or meeting that may apparently lie outside the community's shared vision of what is expected of its members.

We will not always get it right. We may err in our conclusion as to what God is inviting us to at this time in history. We may fail in our obligation of tenderness as we attempt to wrestle with each other around the demands of faithfulness to a shared spiritual journey. The answer, however, cannot be to abandon the effort to discover together what God is saying to us. And when we do end up stumbling mysteriously into unity, the answer is not to flinch from wrestling with each other on how we are living out the difficult challenges God appears to be leading us into.

Let's take the risk of trying to discover how God wants us to take on this great environmental challenge. Let's take the risk of communicating to each other the lifestyle choices we are making as families in response to this new testimony that many of us believe God is laying on us. Let's help each other tenderly to find new ways to "get off the back of the Earth." Let's take the risk of doing this more lovingly and patiently and uncertainly than we imagine to be possible.

With God's help we can bring to birth once again a fundamental corporate dimension to our efforts to hear and obey God's voice as Friends--and do so in love.

The Philadelphia YM minute referred to in this article read as follows, "Friends at this session unite behind the desire that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting incorporate this concern about the rise of global climate temperatures and its dangerous implications for life on our earth into the body of its work in the world. We feel ready, with divine assistance, to assume the challenges of being prophetic witnesses to protect our earth. We call upon the Yearly Meeting, in all its manifestations, to seek ways to hold our members lovingly accountable to live in God's world in a more environmentally sustainable fashion and to join other like minded groups and organizations in supporting this concern." More information on this called session of Philadelphia YM on Climate Change can be found at PYM Epistle.

© 2005 Peter Blood. Appeared in the October 2005 issue of Friends Journal.

Middletown Minute on Teaching Ministry

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 Middletown Monthly Meeting of Friends

435 Middletown Road

Lima, Pennsylvania

 

Dear Friends,

This letter is written in support of our dear Friend, Peter Blood-Patterson who has worked for years bringing God's glory to many people, not only in our Yearly Meeting but in other parts of the world as well. He has done this most notably as a music maker and song leader, preparing hearts to rejoice in the spirit, in sessions led with his wife Annie. But Peter also brings God's word to others through his gifts as a teacher. For over 20 years Peter has exercised these gifts as retreat leader, workshop leader, and teacher of Quakerism 101 and 201.

Our Meeting knows that Peter has a special love for teaching. It seems to mean more to him than his singing, touching a place in his heart that is a reservoir of strength and peace.  We understand him when he says he feels used by God in these situations, happy to be sharing with his students in the class or workshop as a small but important part of God's journey with our people here on earth.

In his classes he allows participants to explore their own material, apprehending that meaning that suits them. But he also challenges that individual awareness with his own insights grounded in a thorough knowledge of Quaker theology and history, many times bringing a new clarity to the student's experience. In his teaching involving Meeting life Peter strives to bring participants to a deeper awareness of the spiritual quality of their shared Meeting for Worship and Meeting for Business, drawing upon the nourishment provided by Middletown's worshiping community.

Peter has been a caring presence in our Meeting for over ten years. We have heard God's voice through him in our Meeting for Worship and we have felt his strength and concern in our Meeting for Business. He and his family, Annie, Nate, and Ian, continue to play important roles in our Meeting community. We are pleased to support him in this ministry of teaching, knowing that God's presence guides him in loving faithfulness.


With thankfulness for God's grace,

 

Rich Ailes , Clerk

Middletown Monthly Meeting

Lima, PA

 

11th Month, 21, 2004

Firbank Fell Challenge

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Firbank Fell's Challenge
to 21st Century Quakerism

On Sunday, June 13th, 1652, about a thousand people gathered on an isolated hillside in rural northern England to listen to a little-known but charismatic young man named George Fox preach. The sermon lasted three hours. It is always risky to look for a particular date on which a religious movement is born, but many choose this as the time Quakerism was born.

349 years later, my family was staying in Briggflatts Meetinghouse, located just a few miles from Firbank Fell. The meetinghouse is only a stone's throw up the lane from Borrats, a stately old home owned by a Separatist justice of the peace in 1652 and one of the first places Fox visited in the area. Each June Friends in the region honor this important event in our collective history by holding a "Fox's Pulpit Meeting". Fox's Pulpit is the name given to the rock, now marked with a plaque, on which Fox stood during his sermon. Usually this meeting for worship is held in the sheep pasture where the original sermon was delivered. Because of the foot and mouth epidemic last summer, the meeting had to be moved indoors to Briggflatts Meeting. Friends were busily planning with other religious groups in the area a special commemoration the 350th anniversary, which occurred this summer.

We went looking for Fox's pulpit the day after we arrived. On our way back from Sedbergh (where Fox had preached just outside the parish church during a large hiring fair), we turned up the wrong narrow country lane. Later back at the Meetinghouse, I found a map on the wall and was able to figure out our error. While my wife Annie was putting our seven year old to bed, I asked our 14 year old, Nate, to join me on a walk. The moon was full and the air was warm. When I told him I'd figured out where we had gotten lost earlier in the day, Nate exclaimed: "Let's go now!"

I pondered a few minutes, full of adult concerns. We had only intended to walk down to the end of the little lane where the meetinghouse is located. I was pretty sure I could find my way to Fox's Pulpit this time but had no idea really how long it would take. Would Annie worry if we were out a long time? I took the leap: how can you turn down a wide-eyed teenager full of enthusiasm to hike by moonlight to the birthplace of his faith community!

It was a long hike and I got pretty winded keeping up with my athletic teenager as we pressed up the long climb to the fell. But this time we didn't get lost. We gazed ruefully over the stonewall to the boulder with its marker and decided, reluctantly, to honor the health department rules. The fragrance of the fell filled our lungs. Only a few farmhouse lights pierced the darkness now that the moon had hidden in the clouds. Only the wind and an occasional bleat disturbed the silence. (The area may well be less populated today than it was 350 years ago.) We held our own brief two-person worship celebrating that great day at the edge of the lane before beginning our return hike to Briggflatts, taking great leaps on the lane's steep drop off the fell.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Fox's 1652 visit to Westmoreland to who we are and who we could be as Friends. There are three key things that we can say about that event. All speak powerfully to key spiritual challenges facing our Quaker movement today.

REACHING OUT. First and foremost, the decision to go to Westmoreland and preach at Firbank involved the choice by Fox and his tiny group of followers to reach out beyond their boundaries.

Deborah Haines, clerk of FGC's Advancement & Outreach Committee, has written about Firbank that it is good to remember that Quakerism was born in outreach. Surely this is one of the great outreach events of all time! In the space of a few months, the Quaker movement not only grew from a handful of believers to several thousand but recruited a large share of the incredible cadre of leaders at the center of its first generation.

Fox's ministry did not begin in Westmoreland that summer. He already had important followers working with him such as Elizabeth Hooten and Richard Farnsworth. He had spent a year in jail in Derby for his heretical preaching. But his group was tiny up to that point.

The loosely-organized separatist community of Westmoreland Seekers was largely incorporated en masse into the new Quaker Movement following the summer months Fox spent in the area. Several of the key leaders on the new movement including John Audland and Francis Howgill trace their convincement to the Firbank sermon. The convincement of Edward Burroughs in Kendal and Margaret Fell in Ulverston followed within a few weeks. All things being said, it is fair to conclude that it is unlikely that our Quaker Movement would have been born without Fox's ready response to his vision on Pendle Hill of a "great people to be gathered" in the North.

I confess to some lack of enthusiasm for the word "outreach" itself. Liberal Friends give at least lip service to the need for outreach but are generally deeply opposed to evangelism. The idea of reaching out beyond our own community is great, of course, but the word outreach seems to connote an outwardly-motivated obligation to try and recruit new members into an organization. In contrast, the word evangelism denotes an inwardly-generated compulsion to share the good news of one's own experience with others.

Although the faith of Fox and other early Friends was very different than that of modern evangelical Protestants, it is undeniable that First Generation Friends were evangelical to a degree that would appall most liberal Friends today. These early leaders of our movement felt under a deep spiritual necessity to share their religious convictions with others who did not (as yet) share their faith. This was in part because they felt unabashedly convinced of the truth of their own beliefs. It was also presumably due to their strong concern for the spiritual state of those believing and practicing differently.

I would not claim to understand what makes Friends today (myself included) so reluctant to share our beliefs and experience with non-Friends. It may be in part that we are reluctant to stand out as being too peculiar. We seem willing enough, however, to be out of the mainstream on secular issues like not flying flags from our car antennas!
I suspect that the biggest block in me to sharing my spiritual life with others is my anxiety to avoid coming off as anything like a Jehovah's Witness. I am so afraid of being considered (by whom: myself? other Friends? by God?) as pushy and self-righteous that too often I hold back from sharing my deepest beliefs and experiences at all with non-Friends. Many Friends also fear that by sharing we will somehow take away other's freedom to believe what is right for them.

And yet there are certainly as many people out there longing for the Quaker message today as there were in Fox's time. The invitation to the Fell sermon was not limited to card-carrying Westmoreland Seekers. Fox and the Valiant Sixty were led to communicate their message to those outside their circle of followers in homes, marketplaces, taverns, courtrooms, military barracks, palaces and the worship services of other Christian groups. They did so to people of every class and even those like Native Americans or the Sultan that most people at the time would have considered highly unlikely to grasp their message. They were utterly unafraid of being ignored, rejected, ridiculed, or persecuted for trying to explain what they found to be Truth.

Deborah Haines has said that outreach is about welcoming the stranger among us - the one we least expect to respond to our Quaker message. The stranger is waiting outside our Meetinghouse walls.
What will it take for this to change? What will it take for us to care so deeply about the host of seekers longing for Truth that surround us in the world today - until the barriers fall away to reaching out with all the passion that filled Fox and his companions' hearts 350 years ago?

SPIRITUAL AUTHORITY. The second key characteristic of Firbank is that it involved response to spiritual authority.
Why did so many Seekers and other Northern Separatists enter the Quaker movement during that summer in 1652? When a listener was chastising Fox for preaching outdoors in the Sedbergh churchyard, Francis Howgill silenced him by declaring that "This man [Fox] speaks with authority, and not as the scribes." William Sewel concludes his account of the Firbank sermon Firbank with: "Thus preached G. Fox, and his ministry was at that time accompanied with such a convincing power, and so reached the hearts of the people, that many, and even all the teachers of that congregation, who were many, were convinced of that Truth which was declared to them."

The Westmoreland Seekers rejected as false the spiritual authority of the Church of England and of the independent sects of the day. They were waiting for true spiritual authority. When they encountered it in the person and preaching of George Fox, they responded whole-heartedly. His message that he had encountered Christ in an immediate experiential way, available to teach and lead them Himself, struck a deep resonant chord within them. They responded by joining the nascent Quaker movement.

As Friends we hold dear the access that each of us has to this Inward Christ (or Light or Spirit). This radical egalitarianism can serve us ill, however, if it leads us to crush spiritual authority when it arises among us. Past generations of Friends recognized the need to recognize and nurture spiritual gifts in our midst, gifts that vary greatly from member to member. A universal ministry can all too easily deteriorate into a ministry of none.

The term "weighty Friend" was often used pejoratively when I first heard it in the 1960's, implying a stodgy older (probably birthright?) Friend resistant to fresh ideas and change. The term originally had a very different meaning. It referred to the ability of a clerk in a business meeting to recognize and respond to spiritual authority (or "weight") when it appears there. Failure to recognize, respond to and nurture spiritual authority leads to the impoverishment of our meetings for worship and business - and the likelihood that those with gifts of spiritual leadership will be discouraged and sidetracked from exercising those gifts, that we need so desperately, among us.

If our movement is to flourish and grow, the pendulum needs to swing back toward recognition and celebration of spiritual authority when it arises in our midst. We do not need to abandon our commitment to the universal ministry in order to do so. We do need to recover our ability as a faith community to discern God breaking in through the words and lives of others among us.

COMMUNITY. The third key to Firbank is that it entailed the choice of religious community over an individual spiritual path.

Although Fox may have remained through out his life "first among equals" among Friends, the rich diversity of women and men making up the Valiant Sixty guaranteed that Quakerism was a true movement and not simply a one-man show. Even if Fox's robust body had not enabled him to live through the brutal beatings and imprisonment that cost the lives of many other early Quaker leaders, it seems likely that the movement would have lived on and flourished after the 1652 influx of leadership.

In incorporating the Westmoreland Seeker movement into his group of followers, Fox made a decisive choice to build a coherent movement rather than remain a lonely voice decrying the dismal state of religious groups existing at the time. The Seeker movement also made a clear decision in 1652 to move from informal association of like-minded people to a clearly-defined community knit together by the effort to be corporately accountable to God.

Although we do not know a great deal about the Westmoreland Seekers, it seems that they shared with Quakerism the rejection of outward rites and rigid creeds. If they had not been brought into a more coherent movement, it seems unlikely that they would be remembered or have survived any more than a host of other small Separatist sects at the time. In joining the Quaker movement, the Seekers became Finders - they had found a Truth in Fox's ministry that rang true to them. They were choosing to be part of a community with leadership, with coherent theology, and with clear standards of lifestyle.

But their choice was not simply one of community, but of community under the direct leadership of the living Inward Christ. The unique discovery of this new movement was that they could discern God's voice as a community - in their worship and eventually in their gatherings to make decisions together. Although the formal structure of "gospel order" with its several levels of meetings to discern God's voice was still years away, it is apparent that Friends began practicing corporate discernment in more informal ways from the earliest days of their movement. And Friends basically became a movement rather than a collection of individual followers in 1652.

In contrast, there is a powerful bias towards spiritual individualism in our Quaker movement today. There are both internal and external reasons for this. Many Friends in the early 20th century reacted strongly against what they saw as the excessive corporate discipline of meeting life, with its elders and recorded ministers too concerned in the theological purity of meeting members and organs hidden in their attics. In addition, we live in a society that holds personal freedom in high regard. It is important to recognize the impact that this cultural bias has on our attitudes as Friends today towards corporate accountability.

As a result of both these influences, it is unclear whether there is anything a Friend can do today to elicit the explicit concern of other members in their meeting. Many meetings also feel it is beyond their right to establish any clear boundaries that would exclude potential meeting recruits. Most Friends today prefer to remain "seekers" and reject the corporate spiritual life that evolved in the Quaker movement born at Firbank.

Will Friends today be open to God leading us back into community with each other in vital fresh ways, so that we become once again a movement led by the inward voice of Christ? Will our 350th birthday be an opportunity for rediscovering the spiritual power of Fox and his companions or just a chance to honor and remember them? Can I capture in my heart the boundless energy with which Nate led me in search of Fox's pulpit and redirect it into carrying Truth to others who are waiting today to hear the Quaker message communicated with passion and authority? With God's help, anything is possible!

© 2002 Peter Blood. First published in the August 2002 issue of Friends Journal.

The Harvest

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THE HARVEST

 

I was a picker of fruit - 

I and scores of Young Friends

  gathered in orchards fall after fall,

Circled the trees joyfully,

  lifted each apple

  gently off its hanging home.

Breathed in the clear autumn air,

Looked out over treetop to rolling hills

  and other treetops and blue skies.

Cooked hearty meals and sang and

  prayed with aching bones

  when the day's work was done.

 

The air was so clear you longed to breathe it forever.

The world raged with war

  and dreams of justice.

And we dreamed of a way

  to do no harm in our labors -

  in community.

 

 (I reached too far once:

The supporting bough broke,

  my arm broke.

Helen tended me,

  I healed,

The others picked on.)

 

Jesus said to Peter & Andrew

   that he would make them "fishers of men",

And he did.

Now in this great dark hungry world,

Who will reach out and gather

  disciples today

Who will dream & work together to gather

  souls - ripe & ready for the harvest?

 

 (And will young dreamers pick apples again?)


 Written Dec. 26, 2000, after watching the movie "Cider House Rules" and dreaming the following night about teaching school children to pick apples.  Published in the August 2001 issue of Quaker Life.  © 2001 Peer Blood

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On Praying for Others

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ON PRAYER FOR OTHERS - AND OURSELVES

I noticed something not long ago which surprised me: Vocal intercessory prayer appears to be experiencing a major revival among liberal unprogrammed meetings!  Friends may not recognize it as such.  The language used to refer to it varies from meeting to meeting, but often runs something like the following:  "Please hold my friend Jane in the light. She's going through a really hard time with her youngest child." Or, "My father is going into surgery on Thursday morning for his prostate cancer: I would ask you to hold him in your hearts during his surgery." 

This language may have a bit of a New Age ring to it. in my view, however, the same deep process is at work whether the speaker is asking others to pray for someone explicitly or asking them to hold her/him "up to the Light".  After all, what is this "Light" we are holding the person in or up to if not God? 

Some meetings provide a special time for this kind of request or information sharing following meeting for worship.  It may be called "twilight meeting" or "joys and sorrows".  Sometimes such requests are made during meeting for worship itself. They may enter in between introductions and announcements.  Other meetings set aside a completely different time such as a prayer group or healing circle for sharing these kinds of requests.

All this praying for others started me reflecting on what it actually means to bring up another person's needs to God.  If you think about it, mentioning someone's needs to God involves some deep paradoxes.  The first paradox of intercessory prayer involves what theologians call "omniscience."  If you believe (as I do) that God knows all about us including all of our needs even better than we do, why should we need to tell God about our own or someone else's special needs? 

The second basic paradox of intercessory prayer involves the equality of God's regard for all of her/his children. Since we assume that God loves all of humanity (perhaps even all of Creation) equally, it seems wrong that God would direct more healing or caring energy towards one person than other just because one - or even many - people are praying for that individual.

A great puzzle that many of us struggle with is whether God can, in fact, resuce indiviual humans from death despair, illnesss or suffering.  Because we believe God's concern and love for us are without limit, we presume that God longs for each of us to be happy and healthy - to live long and, as far as possible, free from unnecessary pain.  Nonetheless, there may be fundamental reasons why God either might not choose or might not be able to rescure individuals from suffering and death. This is something that both theologians and simple people of faith have been wrestling with for centuries. The reasons, however, why healing fails to occur in a specific instance are unlikely to include either God's unfamiliarity with the problem or the shortage of supportive friends and family praying for the person in need.

Some people avoid needing to wrestle with these questions about the nature of God because they focus on another important benefit of prayer.  This involves the good that flows towards those being prayed for from sensing the love and caring in the hearts of those who are praying for them.  Certainly we know that people heal more easily and flourish emotionally when they know others care about them.  There has been significant scientific research that suggests that those who are ill or in pain receive benefit from others praying for them even when they do not know by any direct outward means that others are doing this.  My own family has extraordinary stories of hearts knit together across distance that is hard to explain: such as people who knew the moment that a loved one was dying at a great distance.  As real and important as such indirect benefits of prayer are, I personally am unable to leave God out of the prayer process. 

Another important reason why many of us pray is because we have been asked to do so:  Jesus, Paul, Francis of Assisi, Fox and many other great spiritual leaders have enjoined us to pray for one another.  But again, this cannot be an entire answer.  It is important for most of us to understand the deeper reasons why we are doing something, even if we feel great trust in those who have asked us to do this. And so I am brought back to the original question, why am I praying in relation to the God who is at the heart of my universe and what am I hoping will happen as a result?

Perhaps when we pray for another what we are asking for above all is not for God to do something different with that person.  God is already doing what needs to happen: loving that person, sending her/him healing energy and reassurance and hope.  Perhaps what we are asking for is something to change in the heart of the person being prayed for - to enable her/him to receive the love and healing that are flowing already from God.   In some cases this may involve being able to face suffering or death if that will be the ultimate outcome.  Or it may be that what we are praying for is a transformation in the situation that will enable the prayer recipient to open up her/his heart toward God and toward the universe without fear and anxiety. 

But when we pray we are also inviting a change to happen in ourselves. I learned this additional reason for praying for each other from my limited understanding of Al-Anon, the network of support groups for family members of alcoholics.  Family members often discover that they have been trying for years to rescue a family member from her/his addiction.  They sometimes find this a critical, though very difficult, step to ending their codependency with their loved one's addiction.  This can lead to finally reaching the point where they are ready and able to turn their loved one struggling with addiction over to God.  When we pray for someone else we are asking God to work in that person's heart for healing and change rather than trying to take on the responsibility for change ourselves. 

So when we pray, we express our longing for God to work change in our own lives and hearts as much as in the heart and life of the person we're praying for.  We are asking for the capacity to let go of our own anxiety, fear, or the sense that we are ultimately responsible for our loved one. We are asking our community of faith to join with us in placing the entire situation at God's feet: bringing about a graceful willingness both in ourselves and in the person in need to lean on God and let go of fear or whatever may be interfering with God's powerful love touching all who are involved.

© 2000 Peter Blood   Published in Friends Journal, August 2000

Holy Obedience

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HOLY OBEDIENCE

Corporate Discipline and Individual Leading

When the time of Jesus' death was approaching, he promised his community of disciples that after his death he would send the Holy Spirit to comfort them and provide them with direction as to what they should be doing as a Church.  The Book of Acts provides several examples of ways the early Church tried to carry out this mission of being a faith movement led by Christ's spirit.  This includes a description of their efforts to reach common understandings of what is expected of community members on key issues such as circumcision and Jewish dietary laws. For many years prior to the blending of the Church with secular authority at the time of Constantine, the Christian community stood apart from the surrounding secular society and government on a number of major issues, including participation in the military.

A generation or two before early Friends, Anabaptist fellowships on the Continent attempted to recreate this earliest form of church community both in terms of radical expectations of its members set apart from secular society and in terms of the methodology of community decision-making and discipline. 

The first unique dimension of Fox's ministry was to proclaim the possibility of a direct, ongoing relationship with Christ as teacher and leader of the faith community.  The second unique dimension of his ministry was to establish a system of church governance that institutionalized this relationship with the inward living Spirit of Christ in terms of corporate decision-making and discipline.  The structure of monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings offered a practical method by which Friends could discern the will of God in decisions facing the community. This included the position which the community was to take on key social questions such as payment of "tithes" that supported the established Church of England and whether Friends should participate in the military.

One of the key reasons why Fox and other early Quaker leaders established this system was to provide a mechanism by which individual Friends' leadings could be tested and either approved or disowned by the larger Quaker community.  This became an issue when some Friends (such as Naylor and his Bristol followers) engaged in forms of public witness that were profoundly disturbing to many other Friends.  Another reason for establishing organizational structure to the early movement was to organize support for those who suffered persecution for following through on their Quaker faith.  The main original reason, for example, for establishing meeting membership rolls was to have an organized way of identifying individual families who should be provided financial support as a result of religious persecution.  This was necessary in part because Friends had rejected adult water baptism as the outward ceremony marking a boundary between members and non-members utilized by the Anabaptist communities.  (This is the origin of the name for Britain Yearly Meeting's interim meeting as "Meeting for Sufferings".)

This ongoing intimate relationship between the individual Friend, the larger larger Quaker community and the living spirit of Christ remains at the heart of Quakerism to this day.  This interplay can be summarized as follows:

l. INDIVIDUAL LEADINGS. The first question that an individual Friend must ask her/himself is: "What do I believe God is telling me to do?"

Individual Friends feel leadings to carry out their faith in many particular ways, including the leading to carry a "concern" to other Meetings or to carry out acts of conscience which may violate secular law. Such a leading may in some cases take the individual Friend into new territory which Friends have not as yet recognized as acts of conscience or obedience to God's voice.

2. CLEARNESS & CORPORATE SUPPORT FOR INDIVIDUAL MEMBERS. Are we as a Quaker community able to unite in believing that God is in fact telling this individual to carry out this action?

The meeting tests the authenticity of the leading which its member feels drawn to and either unites with it (often expressed through writing a traveling minute or a minute of support) or is unable to do so.  The Friend may or may not go ahead and carry out the leading without the support of the community.  A committee of clearness may meet with the Friend to assist with the individual Friend's discernment process and the Meeting's process of discerning whether to unite with the individual's leading.  

Individual Friends may be far ahead of the rest of the meeting in terms of what they see as holy obedience.  Individual meetings may also be at a very different place than their yearly meeting.  And various yearly meetings today have very different understandings of what they are prepared to recognize as authentic expressions of obedience to God's will.  Such differing understandings of God's voice have been present since the beginnings of Quakerism. Two early conflicts among Friends were over whether to schedule regular beginning times for worship and whether men should remove their hats when someone prayed out loud during meeting for worship.

Although Friends today like to "claim" the Underground Railroad as a shining example of Quaker faithfulness, the large majority of Friends at the time did not support either abolitionism or violation of fugitive slave laws.  This led during the early 19th century to separations by Friends in several yearly meetings who were uneasy with the reluctance of their yearly meeting to take a more forceful position in opposition to slavery. Benjamin Lay was read out of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for the colorful and forceful manner in which he communicated his concern about slavery to other Friends. 

Although Friends led to take a draft noncooperation position since 1940 initially encountered lukewarm support or even active resistance from their Meetings, support for this stance became stronger and stronger during the Vietnam War years especially among unprogrammed Friends.  Many Friends read letters of support from their monthly or yearly meetings during their draft trials.  The same evolution in the response from the wider Quaker community has also occurred for Friends led to refuse taxation supporting the military during this century.

Some of the other forms of support offered to individual Friends during the Vietnam War include: offering symbolic sanctuary in the meetinghouse to a member at the time of arrest, attendance of and testimony at trials, prison visiting and support for families of imprisoned Friends, and the "Sufferings Column" printed for a number of years in the Friends Journal.  Meetings have also "released" members at times though providing financial support for them to pursue work they feel called tocarry out.

3. CORPORATE GUIDANCE TO THE MEETING'S MEMBERS. Can the meeting unite in believing that God is telling it to call upon ALL its members to take (or at least seriously consider taking) a certain stand--as opposed to simply supporting individual Friends called to take that position?

Friends have traditionally utilized the Bible, Friends writings, and the corporate experience of other Quaker and Christian groups to assist them in the process of hearing together in the present what God is telling them is required of them.  These sources are not always clear in what they suggest God is saying to the community.  As a result, it often takes a considerable period of time for Friends to move from support for individual concern to full unity around the position originally taken by a few individual Friends. It took a century of contentious struggle, for example, for Friends to reach unity around the unacceptability of slave owning by Friends. We may well forget as we struggle to hear what the Bible is offering as guidance today on issues from war tax refusal to same gender sexuality how many biblical passages were cited over the centuries justifying the practice of "kindly" slave-owning.

The classic ultimate expression of unity once it has been attained is a statement on the subject in the yearly meeting's Book of Discipline.

A conference on the subject of conscription was called at Earlham College in 1968 that was attended by representatives appointed by a large number of yearly meetings.  The new Richmond Declaration on Military Conscription agreed upon by this gathering expressed strong opposition to military conscription and offered strong and unequivocal support BOTH for those called to accept conscientious objector status and those called to the noncooperation position.  This conference represented a kind of watershed shift in the corporate position of Friends from an earlier position heavily weighted towards the cooperating C.O. position.

As yet, few Friends bodies have moved from support for individual Friends war tax resisters to statements asking all Friends to wrestle with the incompatibility of opposition to war and paying for it.

4. PUBLIC CORPORATE WITNESS.  Is the meeting able to unite in believing that God is asking it to communicate its position to the wider non-Quaker community around it?

This is presumably the basic source of the term "Testimony", although the term is used today to refer both to the public aspects of the corporate position and the internal expectations placed upon members. Some of the ways in which Friends expressed their public opposition to war during the period included: the public offers of "sanctuary" mentioned above, letters to the media, letters and delegations to public officials, and publication of books and pamphlets expressing Friends' position on the issues.  Friends were increasingly willing as the Vietnam War progressed to join with a wide variety of church, pacifist and other antiwar groups in attempting to mobilize opposition to the war and the draft.  This was in sharp contrast to the relatively limited attempts by Friends to influence broader public opinion during other wars in the past.

5. CORPORATE ACTION BY THE MEETING.  Can members unite in believing that God is asking the meeting to carry out action as a group as an expression of one of the community's corporate testimonies in a given area? 

Many monthly meetings, yearly meetings, and Quaker organizations wrestled with whether they could as corporate bodies directly carry out actions in violation of law.  Examples included willingness to send medical supplies to all sides in Vietnam, willingness to honor employees' requests that their salaries not be withheld for federal income taxes, and active support for those led to leave the military during time of war.  A number of yearly meetings were in fact able to unite on such actions, though only after considerable struggle and conflict.

There have been many other examples of meetings wrestling with similar issues of corporate action since that time.  Many meetings wrestled with whether to hold onto investments in South Africa under apartheid.  Some meetings today make it a matter of principle to avoid use of paper products, Styrofoam or plastic utensils as an expression of their understanding of our new unfolding testimony on unity with nature.  The question of whether to hold a ceremony of commitment for a same gender couple is particularly challenging for many meetings precisely because it represents corporate action by the meeting rather than merely an abstract position on the issue of same gender relationships.

6. INTERNAL TEACHING TO MEMBERS. How does the community communicate to its own members (including especially children raised within the group and new converts) the positions that it feels are important? 

Differing religious communions utilize a variety of similar methods from religious education, camps, religious youth organizations, voluntary service projects, and rituals surrounding rites of passage such as first communion, first baptism, and confirmation.  Amish churches set up youth fellowships to help maintain interest in the church community prior to an adult decision to join, but then struggle when those fellowships engage in practices contrary to church beliefs.  (For example, several members of such an Amish youth group were arrested recently for selling hard drugs to other members of their group.)  Friends in Philadelphia Yearly wrestled for years with the question of whether to permit smoking at Young Friends gatherings for similar reasons. The upshot is, however, that if a community cannot effectively communicate to new members its deeply held convictions, it will either die out or no longer stand for those values it once held dear.

The Peace Churches have had widely varying degrees of success in communicating the importance of non-participation in the armed forces to their draft-age male members in different wars. Different branches of Friends have often placed very different emphasis on what kinds of behavior are considered essential to being a Friend and what behaviors are considered "optional extras".

7. DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS.  What action does the faith community take if individual members fail to practice the teachings of the group?

Several examples are given in the Book of Acts of ways a religious community can handle failure by its members to follow its teachings.  These efforts are rooted in the foundational teaching of Christ given in Matthew that when a member of the community strays from the community's principles that bind it together, it should be handled first through one-to-one private discussion. If this fails, then a meeting with two or three other members of the community, is to be arranged. Only after these steps have been attempted is a question of "discipline" to be brought to the community as a whole.

Presumably Friends follow this practice today: beginning with informal one-to-one communication of concern, proceeding to private discussion with a few other individual members, next taking the matter to an official committee such as overseers or worship and counsel, and finally bringing the matter to the attention of monthly meeting itself.

The ultimate form of discipline for Catholics is excommunication, which means banning the incalcitrant member from receiving the rite of communion.  An important method of discipline for some Anabaptist groups is "shunning", which involves members in good standing being asked to stop socializing with the member who has violated church teaching. 

There are two ultimate forms of discipline which have been practiced traditionally by Friends. The first is being read out of meeting, through which the monthly meeting decides to remove a member from its rolls. 

The second is disownment.  Disownment technically means something quite different from removal from membership, although the terms are often used interchangably among Friends today. The term disownment originally referred to the public action of witnessing to the surrounding non-Quaker community that the action of a person who claims to be a Friend is, in the meeting's understanding, inconsistent with Quaker practice and testimony.  The purpose of disownment is essentially evangelical - that is, to maintain the clarity of the Quaker message to the world.  The practice has largely fallen into disfavor - perhaps in part because of the frequency with which different Friends groups disowned each other during the 19th century schisms.

Concern among many liberal Friends about Richard Nixon's Quaker membership illustrates well the difficult issues around reading out and disownment.  Friends outside of California YM who were deeply uneasy with Richard Nixon's active leadership of the nation in prosecuting a war clearly lacked authority to tell East Whittier Meeting or California YM what they should do concerning his actual membership.  They certainly did have the option, some might say the obligation, of communicating in a loving and respectful manner their concerns to Nixon's own meeting what effect they saw Nixon's publicly recognition as a Friend having on the clarity of Friends' testimony against war. 

In the end, however, disownment is not in the end an issue of membership but of witness.  Therefore, it does not seem inappropriate to the basic idea of disownment that in some extreme instances (such as Friend Nixon) a yearly meeting might feel called to communicate to the public that the behavior in question seems to it to violate core tenets of Quaker belief. 

A meeting which publicly distances itself from the actions of Friends from another Quaker group must, of course, be prepared to accept the possibility that other Friends groups may feel called, in turn, to distance themselves from other actions of their meeting or its members.  There is a real danger that Friends today could be drawn into another process of mutual disownment over difficult issues such as same gender commitments.

INDIVIDUALISM AND 20TH CENTURY FRIENDS

Friends and Buddhists have classically leaned more heavily towards individual conscience while certain other religious communities like Anabaptists and Catholics have leaned more towards corporate discipline.  This difference is illustrated by the discussion following a presentation that a Friend made to an ecumenical course on spiritual direction on the Quaker practice of clearness committees.  The non-Friends present were deeply intrigued and drawn to the practice.  One asked what happens when the group and the individual Friend reach different conclusions at the end as to what God is asking the individual to do. Her expectation (based on her own faith community's approach to corporate discernment and discipline) was that the individual Friend would follow the direction of the clearness committee.  The Friend making the presentation surprised many of the non-Friends present by confessing that in most cases the individual Friend would probably go ahead and do what she or he felt was right.

In fact, corporate discipline seems to be little exercised among Friends in this century.  Some view this fact as a strong pendulum swing away from overly severe exercise of discipline by meetings on issues like marrying out in the 19th century.  Some see it as the influence of rampant individualism ("Do your own thing") in the surrounding secular society.  Still others see this as a healthy and natural evolution towards respect for diversity of personal discernment.

Very few Meetings, if any, read out members for military participation during the Vietnam War.  I expect that even gentler forms of discipline have been fairly rare in many meetings during this century for military participation.  There have been Friends meetings that have exercised stronger corporate discipline in response to social taboos such as dancing than towards participation in war.  Mid-America Yearly Meeting recently revoked the recorded minister status of two of its members for public disagreement with its stand on homosexuality. The only basis for being read out of many liberal meetings, on the other hand, appears to be consistent failure to attend meeting, contribute to the meeting, and to respond to letters of inquiry from overseers. 

There are actions which do sometimes put members of liberal meetings "beyond the pale" of tolerance by their meeting.  Members whose long-standing mental disorders lead them to consistently disrupt worship or to seriously disrupt in other ways the life of the meeting have occasionally been removed from membership.  The same has been true in some meetings for a member who has engaged in sexually abusive behavior towards another member.  A member of Canada YM at the Friends and the Vietnam War gathering described the efforts of that yearly meeting to wrestle caringly with protocols or guidelines dealing with sexually abusive behavior which occurs within the life of the meeting. 

·    Has your meeting ever counseled or otherwise challenged a member for failure to live out core Quaker testimonies? 

·    Has it ever removed a member of your meeting from membership for anything other than wholesale non-participation in the life of the meeting? 

·    Are you aware of any other meetings in your yearly meeting which are more willing to engage each other on such questions? 

·    What area, if any, would you feel it might be positive for your meeting to exercise discipline or offer direct guidance concerning personal behavior of its members? 

·    How could this best be approached in a way that was tender and supportive rather than judgmental? 

·    Has our deep reluctance to practice any discipline among liberal Friends weakened the meaning of membership or our testimony to the world?

PASTORAL CARE IN UNPROGRAMMED MEETINGS

What in fact is the best way in which members of a religious community should approach issues of personal behavior?  One of the major differences between pastoral and non-pastoral meetings is that a pastor has access to homes in the way that members of a non-pastoral meeting often do not.  You almost have to go into members' homes to know them well enough to communicate concerns about personal dimensions of faithfulness in a way that is both true to the members' actual life context and tender to their efforts to obey God in their life. 

Some meetings have a practice of assigning responsibility for each meeting family and single Friend to a member of overseers or ministry and counsel.  The idea is that this member of the meeting gets to know each of her/his families and single members well enough to be able to recognize pastoral needs and provide a loving and appropriate response to unhelpful or un-Friendly behavior.  My sense is that this is a nice theoretical plan, but that such assigned overseers often find it hard to carry out this role as intended.  Both the committee members and the members of the meeting assigned to them may feel too uncomfortable with this level of engagement with each other.

Perhaps the deeper question is:   How can our meetings become the kind of redemptive community which is touched by the Holy Spirit in a way which changes the lives of its members - and creates the sense of deep trust and safety necessary to wrestle together with issues of personal and corporate faithfulness?  How many of us have ever experienced that kind of redemptive community any time during our lives?  Certainly the early church was that kind of community - as was the early Quaker movement.

In large "super churches" today, it is generally felt that the larger church community as a whole should be a place for public worship, celebration and affirmation of common bonds. Issues of personal discernment and lifestyle choices can be much more easily addressed in much smaller ongoing face-to-face groups. Such churches often require all members to be part of small "cells" or prayer groups who remain together over time. There may be hundreds of these cell groups in a single large congregation.

Even if none of our unprogrammed meetings approach the size of these mammoth congregations in terms of membership, this model may be a useful way for meetings to try venturing into the risky territory of loving mutual accountability.  Certainly it is much more possible to experience the sense of safety, of being personally known at the core, and of being touched by God's love in an ongoing group of 6-10 than even in a modestly sized meeting as a whole.  The richest experiences I personally have had of tender accountability have been in the context of small ongoing cell groups of this type.

SOME CLOSING QUERIES

  • What are the "frontier areas" that you know of individual Friends today being led to take stands which may be hard for many Friends to support?
  • What do you see as possible new "testimonies" emerging among Friends in the 21st century?  War tax resistance?  Unity with nature?  A stronger commitment to simple lifestyle given the terrible impact which over-consumption has both on environmental integrity in planting the "seeds of war"?
  • Are there actions which our meetings, yearly meetings and Quaker organizations could be taking today to live out what we believe in the peace testimony or other core testimonies?
  • Does our peace testimony mean anything at all when our membership in this country is living at a standard of wealth so distant from that of most of the world's inhabitants, sowing the seeds enormous future conflicts?
  • How are our meetings communicating their ideals to our young people?  Do our younger members know anything at all about the stands taken by older members of our meetings during periods such as the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam War?
  • Has the pendulum swung too far from corporate discipline to individualism?  Do we in fact stand for anything as Friends today? (I am thinking especially of FGC and other unprogrammed Friends.) Are we truly "members of one another" in any sense?  Do we want to be?
  • What will it take to raise up public ministers among us today who will communicate powerfully and effectively to the world around us an alternative vision of a peaceable kingdom shaped by the living Spirit of God?

© August 1998.  Written after participating in a panel at the Friends Conference on the Vietnam War, held at Bryn Mawr College under the sponsorship of Pendle Hill earlier that year.

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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.