The “angel of the meeting”

January 21, 2011 § 13 Comments

I learned from Bill Taber in a Pendle Hill class that, through the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, many Friends believed that each meeting had its angel. They got this idea from the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation. Some ministers, especially when they had been invited (or sent) to a meeting to help sort out some difficulty, would ask to meet with the meeting in worship before talking to anyone so that they could try to commune with the angel of the meeting about the problem first. Ever since learning this, I’ve tried to commune with the angels of the meetings I’ve visited and I’ve had three such experiences, one of them quite intense.

Does anyone know more about the history and theology of this practice? Has anyone else tried this? Had any success? Or has anyone had such an experience spontaneously?


§ 13 Responses to The “angel of the meeting”

  • forrest curo says:

    Previous comments pointed me towards Dorothy Maclean’s books, and the local library had one… She makes a distinction between “the angel” of an institution and it’s “personality.”

    If I understand this, a Meeting’s personality would be closer to what we typically encounter– much like a human ego, only embodied collectively– while its angel would correspond more to our soul, more intimately linked to an organization’s higher purpose and God’s intentions for it…

    This would be somewhat different from the angels of the churches in Revelation, which evidently needed to function more like what Maclean would have called their “angels”, aka Christ (It would seem, analogous to the distinction between our ‘little mind’ selves and Godself within us.)

    I was trying to contact the personality (& the angel) of my Meeting yesterday… and gathered that all of us were pleased to have new, livelier people jarring us loose from our old rigid fixity. But, I told them, we really do need to let go our conventional attachment to money and worldly “prudence” (which has long ago proved itself utterly reckless in accepting the most absurd conventional assumptions.)

  • It has been very interesting to read the responses to this post. While I don’t normally use the word “angel,” I find it quite helpful to pay attention to the spiritual reality behind meetings and other organizations. I don’t think this post means that some people in meetings are angels, but that “angel” is one way of describing the spiritual reality behind the meeting. It is an affirmation that spirituality is not just individual, but collective. Walter Wink, who has written a lot about the topic puts it this way:

    “My thesis is that what people in the world of the Bible experienced and called ‘Principalities and Powers’ was in fact real. They were discerning the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day. The spiritual aspect of the Powers is not simply a ‘personification’ of institutional qualities that would exist whether they were personified or not. On the contrary, the spirituality of an institution exists as a real aspect of the institution even when it is not perceived as such. Institutions have an actual spiritual ethos, and we neglect this aspect of institutional life to our peril.

    Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequence of huge systems over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestations can the total structure be transformed.”

  • SJ says:

    I’ve certainly met people who seem to think of themselves as “angel of the meeting” and who would probably welcome this idea acquiring wider currency among unprogrammed Friends. I think it’s a terrible notion, actually, whatever its provenance. There should be more discussion among Friends of the damage that spiritual pride is doing to contemporary Quakerism. I’m frankly shocked at the egotism, careerism and naked expressions of self-love I’ve seen both within my own meeting and in the wider Quaker world. Ideas such as this one will only make things worse.

  • Nancy Andreasen says:

    I too have never heard of this concept, although I have read much, and have been deeply shaped by Quaker culture, since i have several Quaker ancestors on both sides of my family who were convinced by George Fox. I would love to hear the source(s) for Taber’s statement.

  • RantWoman says:

    Interesting. I do not think anyone at my Meeting would localize the presence and call it an angel, but many people who are new or visiting comment about a feeling of great peace in our worship room

  • Bill Rushby says:

    I have read the journals of many 18th and 19th century ministers, and have never seen any mention of the “angel of the meeting.” Has anyone reading this post found documentation of this idea in old Friends’ writings.

    I believe that a meeting would be better served by sitting at the feet of Jesus Christ.

    • It’s worth noting that Christ himself is the author of the letters to the angels of the seven churches in Asia Minor in chapters two and three of Revelation, though it must be said that he refers to himself as neither “Jesus” nor “Christ”, but only by a series of mostly arcane epithets, some of which are used elsewhere in Christian scripture for Christ (most notably, son of God). So the Christ of Revelation communicated with the “angels of meetings” directly, if you read these chapters more or less literally.

      Personally, I take literally the idea that such letters were written so, at the very least, some human wrote them down—for inclusion in the book of Revelation, if not for actual hardcopy delivery to the churches in question. This author, writing from some ‘home church’ somewhere, clearly claimed the authority to speak on Christ’s behalf. And, at the receiving end in each church, some human opened and read these letters to the congregation. Presumably, someone there had the authority to ‘hear’ the message on behalf of the angel of the meeting. I think it’s reasonable to assume that he or she also had authority to ‘speak’ on behalf of the angel to the meeting, and to the angel on behalf of the meeting. How was this communication effected?

      I would bet that the person ‘channeling’ the angel did so in some way similar to the way the home church author ‘channeled’ Christ. This branch of the late Johanine community evidently practiced some kind of spiritualist technology that gave them authority to speak to and for angels, including Christ himself. These must have been specialized “gifts of the spirit,” a la Paul in I Corinthians, Romans and Ephesians. If this Johanine technique followed a similar pattern, the process would have been possession by the Holy Spirit, in the spirit demonstrated most definitively at the Pentecost, but also visible, perhaps, at the Transfiguration.

      Was some form of prayer involved? How did the community “discern spirits,” as Paul named it in one of his lists of gifts of the spirit, in order to be confident that the prophet in question had a legitimate connection to the angel (or Christ), and not some other power? And why did the Christ of Revelation bother with these angels? Why did the churches get involved in this kind of spirituality? Why not just sit at the feet of Jesus Christ himself, as you say? They were going for some kind of mediation, and of course, the genius of Quaker spirituality is that we know that you do not need mediation: the individual and the meeting both can commune with Christ directly, without mediation. So trying to commune with an angel of the meeting is, as you suggest, actually a departure from our tradition.

      Of course, all this depends on how you read those two chapters. Apparently, some early Friends read them literally enough to engage in this practice. I have absolute faith in Bill Taber as a source for this history, however. In my opinion, his own integrity is unimpeachable, his call to ministry and eldership unquestionable, and his knowledge of the history of Quaker spiritual practice is, perhaps, the deepest of any Friend that ever lived. He made a special study of it, and his own psychic powers in ministry were considerable. I am sure that some Friends did in fact commune with the angels of meetings.

      It is, as you suggest, odd that we see basically no mention of it in our secondary literature, which is one of the reasons I keep bringing it up in various Quaker contexts. I think this history deserves broader familiarity. But it doesn’t surprise me that primary sources like journals don’t mention it. Ministers would be unlikely, I think, to mention it if they did not practice it themselves, or have occasion to criticize or comment on it in their ministry. I got the impression from Bill that the practice was not widespread but fairly persistent over some length of time. Lots of meetings in New York Yearly Meeting were holding seances in the 19th century, and we never hear about that, either. There has always been a tendency to ignore, downplay or outright suppress the spiritualist experiences of Friends. Witness the Book of Miracles, only widely known after Cadbury uncovered it in the early 20th century. And many of Fox’s miracles were deliberately excised from his journal, in order to avoid the charge of blasphemy and to undermine the persistent reputation Friends had for blasphemous beliefs.

    • forrest curo says:

      When the spirit of a Meeting has gone astray– not so much “gone into rebellion,” though that’s the direction it drifts, even while holding itself faithful to whatever ‘idol’ it comes to substitute for ‘Christ’ (== “God at work in us”)…

      then “sitting at the feet of Jesus Christ” is simply not happening, whether or not said Meeting uses that terminology.

      There may well be people in that Meeting who are attempting to learn from God through Jesus (and any other means God may find) but “The Angel of the Meeting” aka ‘the spiritual form that the group embodies’ will automatically tend to marginalize such people. It will tend not to respect, it will tend not to hear, it will tend to misunderstand what it does hear from them– and so will the individual members concretely visible in the Meeting.

      Wink started me (& some friends in my book group) thinking about the Angel of My Meeting, and we found there were things we could definitely say about its personality, beliefs, and preferences.

      It was a newcomer to Meeting, never in those conversations, who really drove that objective quality home to me. She is a psychologist, quite gifted and practiced in intuitively picking up how individuals feel about one thing and another… and one day she told us, “I would really like to bring more people to this Meeting, but I get the feeling that you’re really happy with seeing members you’ve known and long time, and you’re uncomfortable about change.” She hit it right on the money; this was the spirit I’d been futilely struggling against all these years.

      We are acquiring new people, and changing, and it really had to wait until we were ripe for that. But if I could have addressed our collective spirit as it was, directly, I do wonder if God might have found way for us to ripen sooner. (It is very good to see happening at last!)

  • David Spangler is worth looking into, as well. I’ve read several of his Findhorn pamphlets, but not his books. He was, for a while, the ‘theologian” of Findhorn and a key figure in shaping what has become known as “New Age Spirituality”.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Quaker Quaker, Ray Lovegrove. Ray Lovegrove said: RT @quakerquaker: Steven Davison: The “angel of the meeting”? #quakers […]

  • The practice of connecting in prayer with the angel of a meeting (or other type of organization) is a foundation of the work I do. Walter Wink’s books on “the powers” helped me open up to this way of engaging groups. I believe every organization, or group of people who have developed a common identity and purpose, has a dynamic spiritual reality (angel) that is behind the visible elements of the organization. I also believe we can engage with that angel through prayer, and that the engagement can open us up to what is needed, and what God is already doing. Here is a post on my blog about my experience doing this with a Friends meeting and a secular organization:

    • MIchael, I too was very inspired by Walter Wink’s books. But I first encountered the idea of community angels in the early 1970s when Findhorn was still an evolving community and Dorothy, their main human contact with the devas they were working with, was still alive and active. A friend of mine loaned me a manuscript from Findhorn that was a transcription of Dorothy’s first communication with the just-then-awakened deva of Findhorn—the angel of that community. I wish I had that document now. It was the most overwhelmingly articulate and emotional thing I about ever read on the spirituality of institutions. It was basically a long thank you for bringing it into consciousness, but “thank you” comes nowhere close to the depth of feeling, the joy expressed.

      Don’t know if you know anything about Findhorn, but they believed, like you, that everything had a consciousness, which they called a deva, and that devas responded to attention from humans, especially human communities. They worked mostly with the devas of the plant world, famously focusing on gardening.

      They had a gifted medium, so they enjoyed lively relationships with their devas, but it seems to me that it’s very hard to communicate with the angel or deva of a meeting, or any organization, from within, as one of its members. It seems to be a lot easier to do so as a visitor or outsider.

      Back to Wink and Christian scripture. I don’t remember now what he has to say about Jesus’ casting out the unclean spirit known as Legion, a story that appears in all the Synoptic Gospels. But the name obviously refers to Roman occupation of the Decapolis, the region where the event takes place. Many of the details of the story do not correspond directly to reality. For instance, none of the cities given as the location (each gospel gives a different one) is anywhere near the Sea of Galilee, or any other sea, so the pigs charging off and drowning must be another allusion—clearly Pharoah’s chariots from Exodus. On and on, with the anomalous details.

      This story encodes a much more sociological understanding of Jesus’ work as an exorcist than the other exorcisms in the gospels. I believe he’s calling Jews back from their assimilation into Greco-Roman culture, exorcising the diaspora community, perhaps specifically speaking to disenfranchised peasants-turned-bandits (hence the repeated chainings and escapes)—acknowledging their alienation, but calling them to the third way Wink describes: neither assimilation, nor violent revolt, but peaceful nonviolent resistance. And, as with his other healings and exorcisms, he drives a spirit out by replacing it with another one: the Holy Spirit.

      This from a fantastic book I suspect you will find very interesting: Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity. Throughout the book, Stevan Davies develops social science models for understanding Jesus’ healing ministry in the context of community. He reviews social science literature on exorcism and spirit healing, identifies the models that seem to apply quite well to Jesus, and then reviews the stories to illustrate how he worked. None of which negates, for me, at least, the reality of the healings or of Jesus as a charismatic healer. I have had just enough experience with spiritual healing myself to know that these ‘miracles’ aren’t impossible. But i’m less interested in believing that they happened than in knowing how they happened, and why they happened—what they meant to those he worked with, and what it means to us today.

      Well, I’m going on, here. Let’s keep talking about this.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Thank you, Steven. I hadn’t heard of the book by Davies before or about Dorothy Maclean. I enjoyed reading some about both of them online. I’m especially drawn to the Dorothy’s work. I liked this description of her by David Sprangler:

        “She sees herself as an ordinary person who learned to fall in love with God and discovered beyond all question that God is in love with us. It is spreading the message that we can each find our own unique contact and love with the Sacred that gets her out of her comfortable apartment and into cars, trains, and aeroplanes to go wherever someone will listen to her story. And she does this not out of any messianic impulse or even a desire to teach. She does it because she wants to share the joy and love she has found in her own life. She feels it’s the natural inheritance of each of us, and she feels that more than any time in the past, the world needs as many of us as possible to remember this inheritance and to claim it.”

        I look forward to digging deeper into her writings.

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