November 21, 2017 § 2 Comments
Brian Drayton’s blog Amor Vincat is one of the best Quaker blogs I know of. I find it consistently thoughtful, edifying, and most important, Spirit-led. His latest post offers a wonderful resource and raises important questions about our meetings’ nurture of vocal ministry. The post is Library: Harvey “Our Quaker ministry since the cessation of recording”.
Harvey’s little essay was written in the mid-1940s, some twenty years after London Yearly Meeting had laid down the practice of recording ministers. Harvey had approved of the laying down, even though he himself had been recorded. In this article he looks back to consider what had been lost and gained in the intervening decades.
Harvey’s main concern is my own, as well. Though the yearly meeting’s book of discipline had strongly encouraged meetings to support vocal ministry and especially newly rising ministers, both within the meeting and through minutes of travel and service outside the meeting, very few meetings knew this injunction even existed, let alone taken responsibility for such nurture. That is, just because the practice of recording had been discontinued, the need for nurturing Quaker ministry remained, and most meetings were not meeting that need.
New York Yearly Meeting still does record gifts in ministry, though many Friends and many meetings in the yearly meeting don’t like it. I have written an “apology” for the practice (On Recording Gifts in Ministry) and feel very strongly that, even if a meeting would never record the gifts of someone in their meeting, they should be paying attention to those who speak in meeting often. Worship and ministry committees should offer their ministers support and yes, oversight. They should nurture the meeting’s vocal ministry with programs that discuss the conventions governing our practice of ministry and its history. Meetings should provide opportunities for its regular speakers to consider whether they have a calling to ministry and be prepared to offer support, if only through continued meetings for mutual sharing. And meetings should provide opportunities for all members and attenders to share their own experience and practice regarding vocal ministry.
Vocal ministry is one of the most important aspects of the Quaker way and a key element in our outreach. Newcomers to our meetings have only the quality of our silence, the quality of our vocal ministry, and the quality of our fellowship by which to feel inspired to make us their religious home. Weak vocal ministry, which is all too common in our meetings I fear, not only fails to inspire the deeply yearning souls who come to us, but sets a low bar for expectations of everyone, newcomers and oldtimers alike.
November 8, 2017 § 11 Comments
In a comment on a recent post, Patricia Dallmann pointed out that, in quoting Matthew 18:20—“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”—I left out what she felt was the most important part: “in my name”. So I did.
I have for decades now been trying to chart a way for myself (and for liberal Quakerism) that honors our tradition while selectively letting go of it. I’ve been picking and choosing in the way I read the Bible.
One of the things I’m letting go of is the traditional Christian “name theology”. Name theology—the power of the name of God—has a long and deep history in the Jewish tradition and it made a stark and decisive turn in the dark years between the Babylonian captivity (roughly 587–525 BCE) and the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE. It became increasingly magico-religious, the kind of thinking that believes that the bread and wine actually turn into Christ’s body and blood when the bell rings.
Of course, name theology is also about confession. By invoking Jesus’ name, Matthew is saying, unless you believe in Jesus, you can’t expect him to show up. I suspect that this is Patricia’s point.
But is it true? Is Matthew right? Or are we even reading the real words of Jesus here, or something Matthew wrote? Or maybe some piece of tradition that Matthew inherited, but who knows where that came from? How would we know any of this? Where’s the benchmark, the test for biblical authority, in this case, or in any case?
I am choosing to leave the name thing out in this case. The name theology feels to me like the tradition speaking, and not Jesus himself. But who knows?
We are all of us always picking and choosing when it comes to the Bible. This is one of the things that makes the biblical argument against homosexuality so twisted. Those folks are just picking and choosing, only they won’t admit it.
For instance: Jesus commanded his disciples to call no one father, to wash each other’s feet, and to go out and buy some swords. The Roman church calls its priests father; only the Brethren wash feet; and we Quakers don’t buy swords. In the South, of course, lots of Christians buy their Glocks.
Now fundamentalists will insist that they take the Bible literally. But it is literally impossible to take the Bible literally. For one thing, one third of it is poetry and taking poetry literally is ludicrous by definition.
For another thing, we’re all reading somebody’s translation. Whose translation are you taking literally? The NIV and the modern, reader-friendly translations favored by evangelicals are the very worst at getting things right.
For a third thing, the manuscript traditions vary quite a lot, especially in some cases. For Acts, the differences amount to hundreds of words. Mark is famously missing its original ending and the tradition took three different tries at finishing it. The version used in our Bibles usually includes all three endings. We have no idea what Mark originally wrote.
Then there’s lacunae—holes in the manuscripts we do have. The word or phrase just isn’t there. Translators do the best they can to make up something that makes sense.
Or unique words that have no known cognates . . . we have no idea what these words mean. Again, translators try to use context to fill in the gap.
We are all always picking and choosing, even when we don’t know it. The best we can do is be honest about that and try to justify the decisions we make.
The problem with that is that then you have to study the Bible. Deeply. I have. But most Friends don’t read Bible commentaries for fun like I do. But why should they if they don’t want to?
And that doesn’t really do you much good in the end, anyway. You still end up picking and choosing. For the deeper you go, the more you realize you don’t know. And the deeper you go, the more complex things get; the Bible is the most self-referential library on earth—1500 years of writers and editors and redactors looking at what went before and then adding to it. Virtually every passage has hidden resonances and echoes.
My point is that the Bible is an unreliable foundation for religious life. At least until something in it has been confirmed by our own experience, until the Holy Spirit opens it up to us. Which the Spirit can do, and has always done. For the Bible has also repeatedly demonstrated its value as an aid to faithful religious life, its weirdness, opaqueness, vagueness, contradictions, confusions, resonances, and echoes notwithstanding.
Its a paradox.
I can see that I have more to say about the role of the Bible in our religious lives. I started in two other directions before ending up in this one. Had to stop somewhere.
November 4, 2017 § 5 Comments
Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 9
In a previous post, written quite awhile ago now, I gave the first of four reasons why I think we should name our collective religious experience as the spirit of Christ. That was a negative reason: that the more diverse theologically and the more uncomfortable we have become with our traditional Christian identity, the more diluted our worship has become.
I have more to say about this, about whether our worship really has become more shallow and how theological diversity might have that effect, but it’s not seasoned enough yet. In this post, I want to explore the sociology of our collective religious experience. For collective religious experience is intensely social even while it is ineffably transcendental.
By “collective religious experience”, I mean the gathered meeting, primarily, plus those instances of profound vocal ministry that brings a meeting into divine communion, and the other extraordinary psychic experiences that arise in the practice of the Quaker way. I believe that coherence in our collective understanding, a shared framework for understanding and a shared vocabulary—or lack of it—has a real effect on the quality of our worship.
The group dynamics and psychology of a religious community act both as “drivers” behind its experience and as part of the discernment by which the community seeks to understand the experience that it does have.
The chain of our tradition is long and the links are strong. In Christian scripture, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit (in several places in the gospel of John) and to be present whenever two or three are gathered (Matthew 18). Then, according to the testimony of our forbears, the promise was fulfilled in the experience of the early Friends, beginning 1600 years after those promises and continuing as revelation for another three centuries and more of our history as a people of God. Jesus’ promise and fulfillment established a foundation of faith upon which many Friends have built their religious lives. That faith, and its fulfillment in continuing revelation, fosters what we now call continuing revelation.
But our tradition does not just encourage our collective religious experience; it also explains it. It gives us a framework for understanding our experience and for talking about it, amongst ourselves, to our children, to newcomers. For more than 300 years we have said that we were gathered together in Christ. In fact, the tradition gave us our very identity: “You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you. . . I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of the Father I have made known unto you.” (John 14:14, 15)
Or it used to explain our experience. Until sometime around the middle of the twentieth century. Now, we in the liberal tradition don’t really have an explanation. And I suspect we don’t have the support for such experience that the tradition used to give us, either.
Nothing illustrates how the tradition comes into play after collective transcendental experience more powerfully than the resurrection experiences recounted in Christian scripture, of which there are ten or so accounts, depending on how many stories you consider accounts of the same appearance by different evangelists.
In all but two of the resurrection stories, the people to whom the risen Christ appears do not recognize him or they have their doubts about what’s going on. Some cases are extremely challenging. How, for instance, could Mary Magdelene, Jesus’s closest disciple, fail to recognize him in the garden until he says her name (John’s gospel)? How could those two fellows on the road to Emmaus walk with Jesus himself for several hours while talking to him about his own crucifixion and the rumors of his appearances, and still only recognize him after they have arrived at their destination and broken bread together?
The answer is in the breaking of bread, that is, in the communal meal inaugurated at the Last Supper. We know that this meal was the central practice of Jesus’ movement. Jesus’s followers would gather at someone’s house, share a meal, hear catechetical teaching, pray and worship together, and distribute food and resources to the poor among them (Acts 2:42).
Here’s my point: Some of Jesus’ followers were having visions of Jesus after his death, but the meaning of those visions had to be worked out collectively over time, and this took place in the context of the “daily bread”, the daily meal. Put another way, Jesus did not come to these friends and disciples with his name tag on. It wasn’t obvious what they were experiencing. They had to discern together what was happening to them.
The resurrection experiences of the disciples are directly pertinent to my suggestion that we name the spirit of Christ as the center of our gathering. Even at the very roots of our religious tradition, doubt and confusion prevailed, and community discernment was needed to arrive at a conclusion.
Likewise, in our gathered meetings today, it is not immediately apparent what is going on; it is only obvious that something is going on. In the past, our collective discernment has concluded that we were being gathered in the spirit of Christ.
Now, however, the bathwater, the deep and rich tradition in which we have been steeped for three hundred and fifty years, has been thrown out the window. Is it any wonder that we now we look around and find that the baby is gone, also, that we wonder why we so seldom experience the gathered meeting?
Now, doubt, confusion, and most egregiously, disinterest dominate our collective (lack of) discernment about what is happening in the gathered meeting. When it happens, the worship has a center or we wouldn’t be gathered, but we have no way to articulate what that center is. We have no framework, no vocabulary with which to speak to each other, or to our children, or to newcomers about what we have experienced. As a result, we don’t speak about it much. Furthermore, we have no context, no cohesive religious ecosystem for nurturing the experience.
Now, as I’ve said in earlier posts, I myself have no direct experience of Jesus Christ at the center of the gathered meeting. In this I am like a lot of Friends in the liberal tradition. But I am not really talking about Jesus Christ as conventional Christianity understands him, that is, as a spiritual entity who was the Jesus of Christian scripture, who was crucified, dead, and buried and rose again according to the creed. I am speaking of the spirit of Christ—that mysterious experience of awakening, joy, comfort, and renewal that the two men on the road to Emmaus experienced—after they had been taught who had come into their midst.
My name for that spirit in which we are gathered in our collective religious experience as Friends is the spirit of Christ. For me, the relation of that spirit to the man who walked the roads of Galilee is a matter for speculation rather than one of direct revelation. And that’s enough for me, though I love the study, thought, and imagination that such speculation requires.
For me, the spirit of Christ is more than just a placeholder for whatever might be going on in our collective religious experience, though it is that. It is another link, made of faith, in the chain of our tradition, one that I refuse to break simply because I am still on the road to Emmaus and have not yet broken bread with Jesus as the Christ.
October 27, 2017 § 16 Comments
My formative “mystical” experience was triggered by a sweat lodge ceremony more than thirty years ago, during a time when I was deeply involved in the study of the First Nations of Turtle Island (North America). This was before I became a Quaker.
Because this life-changing experience had come from outside the Quaker tradition, I struggled for a long time about whether I really could be a Quaker. Nor was this the only spiritual experience that I brought in from outside the Quaker tradition. I had also been a serious practitioner of yoga as a spiritual path, not to mention my psychedelic experiences. I was only convinced it was okay to join Friends when a very close f/Friend—a neo-pagan priestess—convinced me it was okay because it had worked for her.
I’m still not sure she was right, sometimes, since I have come to feel quite strongly that the Quaker tradition is a Christian tradition, and the Christian tradition makes little room for neo-pagan or neo-indigenous experience. But here I am. This dissonance between my past experience and my current tradition prompts me now to consider myself a guest in the house that Christ built and to give the master of the house the respect I believe he’s due.
Meanwhile, since having this experience (in 1984), I have immersed myself in the Quaker way at least as passionately as I immersed myself in indigenous spirit ways, and in yoga before that. Since then, I’ve also had “mystical” experiences that have come directly from my Quaker practice and that fit comfortably within our tradition. They have been less profound than that sweat lodge experience, which is still a rock upon which I build my spiritual life, but they are important to me and defining for me nonetheless.
Thus I have always had within me these ties to experience, faith, and practice that are not at all Quaker, standing alongside my Quaker “mystical” experiences. This is a defining condition of many Friends in the liberal Quaker tradition. Most of us are convinced Friends and many of us come to Friends already mature to a degree in some other spiritual path or experience. It is one of the gifts of the liberal Quaker tradition that it allows us as individuals to accommodate or even incorporate these other experiences and spiritual identities in our personal pursuit of the Quaker way.
This leaves open the question, however, of how this eclectic dynamic in liberal Quakerism affects our collective faith and practice of the Quaker way. I suspect it’s both a strength and a weakness. A strength because it gives (some of us) both grounding and faith—we know the life of the spirit is real and important to us. We know that there is a there there. Meetings need Friends who are thusly grounded in their own experience.
But it’s also a weakness because it seems to encourage some Friends to think that anything goes in Quakerism, that we don’t actually have a coherent or clearly defined tradition anymore. About that I profoundly disagree.
Furthermore, a lot of disparate but powerful experiences in a meeting might make cohesive community and collective experience more difficult to achieve. Perhaps; but maybe not.
I’ve been reading Rufus Jones’s Studies in Mysticism, seeking to track how he redefined liberal Quakerism as a mystical religion, which was a significant innovation in the history of our tradition. He’s the one who gave us “that of God in every person” as a divine spark—not George Fox. It’s clear that he was a neo-Platonist of a kind, that he did believe in some version the divine spark as the vehicle by which humans had mystical experiences. He finds versions of this belief in many of the mystical movements he discusses in that book, and he came to believe that this was the universal element in mystical experience, if not in religion itself.
Thus liberal Friends get from Rufus Jones the current form of our universalism, the notion that there is truth in all religions, and that something universally true lies behind the distinctive beliefs and practices of each religion. I’m not so sure he’s right about that, myself. It sounds nice, but I think it might be wishful thinking.
Jones also felt, it seems, that mystical experience lies at the root of the religious impulse itself. Modern liberal Quakers do not necessarily share this view.
A survey of Friends conducted by Britain Yearly Meeting to understand what draws people to Friends identified three types of experience or temperament in their newcomers. The survey called them mystics, activists, and refugees. This latter would be better labeled community-oriented Friends, people who seek religious community; some portion of these folks are indeed refugees from other traditions, but not all.
Of course, most of us have all three of these temperaments to some degree, but in my experience, most of us “specialize” in one or the other. (What is your experience and your primary focus?) My point is that the activists and the community-oriented Friends have not necessarily had transcendental experiences and often aren’t particularly interested. The mystics are often less inclined toward witness. And community-oriented Friends, which seem to me to be the majority, seem less interested in either than in having a settled religious identity, a shared fellowship, and a place to belong.
I suspect that this diversity of religious temperament is at least as responsible for whatever weakness or shallowness we have in our meetings’ collective spiritual life as is the diversity of our past transcendental experiences, since the majority of us may not have had profound transcendental experiences in the first place.
I am profoundly grateful that I can bring my experience with me into the Quaker fold. In return, I try to respect the tradition I’ve joined.
In this, Rufus Jones has become my model. He was raised an Orthodox Friend and he, along with John Wilhelm Rowntree and the rest of the cohort of young adult Friends who were the midwives of the liberal Quaker movement—they were all devout followers of Christ. To our modern liberal ears they even sound rather evangelical, though many of their innovations were actually reactions to the evangelicalism of their time. They were Christians with a vision of a new kind of Quakerism that was active in the world, that embraced science, and that held a mystical and universalist view of religion.
I’m not sure what they would have thought about my sweat lodge experience. But I would like to think they would have asked, what are the fruits? Hast thou known the Light, by whatever means thee has found it? And has it awakened love—of God and of thy neighbor?
October 27, 2017 § Leave a comment
I wonder how open Friends are to mystical experience? How many of us have had a mystical experience? How do we treat those of us who have had mystical experiences? How equipped are our meetings to minister to members or attenders who’ve had such an experience?
Maybe “mystical” isn’t the best word. Mystical in its traditional usage implies union with the divine, a la Jacob Boehme or Theresa of Avila. “Transcendental” might be a better word. By transcendental, I mean experiences that transcend normal consciousness, that transcend our understanding, that transcend the senses. But I also mean experiences that are positively inwardly transforming, that deepen your faith, make you a better person, inspire compassion, empathy and love, give you direction, and awaken greater spiritual awareness.
That’s not to say that mystical experiences aren’t disruptive. When an experience changes your life, it disrupts your life, and sometimes the lives of others, of people who are attached, or at least used to, the old you.
Mystical experiences fall along a spectrum of intensity and affect on a person. I suspect that many Friends have had “milder” versions of “mystical” experience, and may not even think of them as such. But what about those of us for whom the experience has been earth-shaking, truly transforming—and therefore disruptive?
We are fewer in number, I suspect. Maybe one person in a medium-sized meeting? Or maybe not even one. I know of at least one other in my meeting, which has roughly 60 worshippers on a given Sunday. But I bet there are others. My point is that we are not likely to know.
We don’t share these experiences lightly, or with just anyone. It’s too precious, we feel too vulnerable, and we have had some bad responses. I know I have. Some people can’t imagine such an experience and feel somehow threatened by it. Many people just don’t understand it and are mystified and feel awkward. Some will think you’re deranged or somehow delusional. Sometimes our passion and self-consciousness makes us talk about it with a combination of avid intensity and nervous withholding, especially early on when we haven’t finished processing what’s happened to us, so we do come off as a little deranged.
What would happen if someone came to your meeting with such an experience? Would your pastoral care committee or worship and ministry committee be equipped to provide some help and support? Would you know of any other mystics in the meeting to whom you could turn, who might be able to serve as an elder to this person?
I was lucky that, when I had my formative experience in a sweat lodge at the first North American Bioregional Congress, I knew a fellow there who had studied with an Aboriginal medicine man for a while. He was able to elder me, to help me understand what had happened to me in the experience’s own terms. That is, he gave me an indigenous spiritual understanding for an experience that had presented itself through an indigenous spiritual technology, the sweat lodge, and that was rife with the symbolic elements of indigenous spirit-ways. And I already had some background in that worldview and I had had transcendental experiences before, so I wasn’t totally freaked out.
But some of us have to work out the meaning of a mystical experience on our own. In fact, you still have to even if you have an elder, like I did. But at least I had some psychic, spiritual, and intellectual tools to work with and a little help.
My message here is that our meetings should try to create an environment that is open to mystical experience. We should somehow encourage those who have had transcendental experiences of any intensity and import to share those experiences with the rest of us, or more likely, to feel comfortable at least seeking support privately, either through a committee or an individual. We should be ready to listen with open hearts and minds.
And if the experience comes from outside the Quaker tradition, as it is very likely to have done, we should help the Friend integrate the experience with their Quaker faith and practice, if that’s what they want. Or be ready to point them in some other direction for support, if that seems appropriate, or if we’re not equipped to be of service.
I might share more about this last point in a subsequent post.
October 23, 2017 § 6 Comments
I have spent the whole of this past summer furiously writing to meet a deadline early this month for two long essays, and so have had no time or focus for this blog. One of these essays was a short history of Right Sharing of World Resources, the other a very condensed version of the book in Quakers and Capitalism I’m writing, parts of which I offered here a few years ago. For the past couple of weeks I have been resting my brain and waiting for the Holy Spirit to guide my next efforts.
The Quakers and Capitalism piece got me started again on the research I need to do on the twentieth century in order to finish the book. Doing so, I stumbled upon the Official Report of the All Friends Conference of 1920, held in London, the first worldwide conference of Friends.
The Conference was called to deal primarily with the peace testimony in the aftermath of the Great War. The book features, among other things, short prepared messages on the following topics:
- The Character and Basis of our Testimony for Peace
- The Peace Testimony in Civic and International Life
- The Testimony in Personal Life and Society
- The Life of the Society in Relation to the Peace Testimony
- Problems of Education in Relation to the Testimony
- The International Service of Friends
- Methods of Propaganda
Two Friends presented messages under each heading and that was followed by a time of worship with vocal ministry as commentary on the presentations. In the Discussion, as the book calls these offerings, on The Life of the Society appears a relatively long piece of vocal ministry by Rufus Jones. It brought me up short, and I decided to share it here:
“We shall be weak in our work and message for the present hour unless we greatly deepen our manner and power of worship. We are here, a selected group out of more than 150,000 Friends, and we are supposed to be, in some measure at least, leaders and representatives of the larger group. We have been together now for more than half our Conference, and we have had many occasions set apart for worship. I have been impressed myself with our weakness as a gathered body in reaching these marvellous (sic) depths of spiritual corporate life with God, as we meet together. We have hardly experienced in any very large and striking fashion yet, the tremendous power of silent community fellowship with God. We have found it extremely difficult to avoid saying the words that popped into our minds, when we should have reached so much power if we could have gathered into the complete unity of life with God. I do not discount words; I feel that words are often of the very greatest importance in interpreting what one has arrived at; but first of all I must arrive before interpreting. I feel as I have studied in the last ten years* the life of our Society, as contrasted with the life of our Society in earlier times, that we have a decided weakness in what Gladstone once called the work of worship. We do not succeed in anything like the way we should succeed, as a living body of Christ in the world to-day, in coming into union with God in our gatherings. We do not achieve that corporate effort of spirit that would bring us into parallelism with the divine currents that are waiting to unify and dynamise us with the living fire of the presence of God.
I hope we shall go, all of us, in our communities at home with this concern as a personal concern, to make our meetings for worship in the times of silence vastly more real and powerful than they are at present. It is perhaps the greatest thing we have to exhibit to the spiritual life of our age. It is perhaps our most unique contribution, and we must not fail in that.” (p. 132, All Friends Conference London, August, 1020; Official Report; The Friends Bookshop, London1920.)
This message dismayed me, but it didn’t surprise me. And how far have we come in answering his urgent appeal? In my own meeting yesterday I could almost smell the popcorn. Two messages before twelve minutes had passed and on and on from there. Our meeting was hosting quarterly meeting, so we had a lot of visitors from the other meetings in Philadelphia, which swelled our numbers from the usual 45–65 to maybe 75 or even 90. The bigger the meeting the more people who will speak, by statistical determination. But the wide range of spiritual discernment and self-discipline was stunning, from the relatively deep and valuable to the . . . well let me just leave it there. One never knows when some speech that seems weak and useless is actually answering that of God in someone else.
And with the president rattling his megaton saber with his own undisciplined mouth, we need a strong peace testimony now more than we have since the fateful wars following 9/11. How long has this nation gone without a war since 1920? Not counting the incursions and CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvadore, Nicaragua, Grenada, the Balkans, Chile, and Iran, just to name the ones I remember: twenty years to WWII; five years to Korea; ten years to Vietnam; ten years to the first Iraq War. ten years to Afghanistan and the second Iraq War. We’re overdue, according to this timeline, though the second Iraq War has never really ended, only morphed into the nebulous, terrifying, and unwinnable War against Terror.
I pray with Rufus Jones that we will recommit ourselves to true worship and in the Presence find our voice against the sea of darkness that is trying to drown the world. We need to start writing letters and Op-Ed pieces to the editors of our newspapers, letters to our political representatives, open letters to the other churches. We might get together with the Mennonites and Church of the Brethren to see what we might do together. But most of all, we need to recover deep worship and true communion, from which would spring the prophetic spirit that I know we all long for.
* Jones is referring to his The Later Periods of Quakerism, the third in the historical series that he and John Wilhelm Rowntree and other leaders of the new liberal movement in Quakerism conceived after the Manchester Conference in 1895. The other two are William C. Braithwaite’s The Beginnings of Quakerism to 1660 and The Second Period of Quakerism. The Later Periods of Quakerism was published in 1921.
July 26, 2017 § 8 Comments
Last Sunday a Friend visited our meeting from another nearby meeting and, in our “joys and sorrows” time, expressed puzzlement and hurt over the fact that she had come to us some time ago with a deeply held witness concern and a minute from her meeting and nobody showed up for a program she had gone to considerable length to organize with outside speakers. I learned from speaking to her later that the experience had cast a shadow over her ministry and now, in addition to the sense of hurtful rejection of her ministry she struggled with spiritual confusion about the nature and future of her calling.
I have seen this happen before. A Friend who carries a witness concern with deep commitment and passion has trouble getting other Friends to pay attention. Often, it’s the lack of interest in one’s own meeting that hurts the most, especially when your desire, or even your expectation, is that the whole meeting will take up the concern collectively.
Meanwhile non-Quakers seem more receptive. Often such a Friend finds support only among the members of whatever secular movement has organized around the concern, but those folks do not appreciate the spiritual roots of your concern or its religious expression.
We can’t expect our meetings to collectively take up our concerns, witness or otherwise. This takes time, energy, and resources both human and sometimes financial, and our meetings are usually short on all three, or four. Taking up as a collective body the deeply held concerns of all those in the meeting who have them would lead to exhaustion and collapse.
Moreover, we come to meeting with different religious temperaments and for different things. As a survey by Britain Yearly Meeting of who had come to them through convincement has shown, we break down into three basic groups, broadly categorized: activists, mystics, and, in BrYM’s terminology, refugees. I would call this latter group communitarians, people who seek religious community; not all of these Friends are refugees from some other tradition, but they share a hunger for community and find fulfillment in fellowship and service to that community.
My point is that the communitarians and the mystics are not temperamentally inclined to respond to an appeal to activism. Friends in both groups are inclined to acknowledge the importance of a given witness concern, but aren’t likely to embrace it with passion, or maybe, even to go out of their way to attend a program.
I ran into this from the other end just a few weeks ago when I unknowingly set up a Bible study on the Politics of Passion Week at the same time that someone else was leading a session on racism, a concern which our meeting has taken up collectively. Four Friends showed up at my session, instead of the 15 or so who had been coming to past Bible study sessions, and those four felt quite torn. I didn’t blame them. I would never have scheduled my Bible study opposite that session if I had known. We often feel torn by competing goods like this.
However, while we can’t expect our meetings to whole-heartedly embrace our concerns collectively, we should be able to expect them to give us the discernment and support we need to be faithful to our call. This visiting Friend had a minute of service from her meeting but apparently no other support.
Too often writing a minute of service for someone with a leading is as far as a meeting goes. New York Yearly Meeting, for instance, routinely endorses minutes of service at its sessions—and I do mean routinely. The body usually gets some sense of the ministry from the reading of the minute itself, when that occurs. But there almost never is any follow-through—no background, no report from the Friend and/or her or his accompanying elders or support committee, if there are any. It’s all very pro forma, as though the yearly meeting has no other responsibility for the individual ministries it supports.
The Friend who visited my meeting obviously needs a support committee and also a clearness committee to help her sort out where she is with her call. She doesn’t have either. Did she ever have a clearness committee for discernment of her leading? If she did, then at least the Friends on her clearness committee would know what her leading means to her and maybe they could provide support. Having a support committee spreads this intimate familiarity with the Friend and her or his concern even farther into the meeting. This helps to ameliorate the feeling of isolation, at the very least.
But many meetings do not really know the faith and practice of traditional Quaker ministry. All they know how to do is write a minute, and that often with a rather shallow understanding—or maybe they don’t. They often don’t know how to conduct a clearness committee for discernment. They may not know about the resources available for guidance in creating support committees for Friends with leadings.
My meeting has a committee dedicated to this work, but mine is the only meeting I have ever heard of that has such a settled and seasoned infrastructure for the nurture of Quaker ministry. Meanwhile, this is the very heart of Quaker spirituality—as individuals, to listen for and to answer God’s call to service, and as meetings, to support the ministries that the Holy Spirit has raised up.