Yearly meetings, monthly meetings and gospel order
July 31, 2011 § 4 Comments
In a recent post on Earlham School of Religion’s blog, Valerie Hurwitz, Director of Recruitment and Admissions, invited thoughts about ways forward for Indiana Yearly Meeting in its recent struggle with the course of its eldership of West Richmond Meeting, which had approved a welcoming and affirming minute dedicating the meeting to apply the same standards to all persons regardless of “race, religious affiliation, age, socio-economic status, nationality, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation or mental/physical ability.” Sexual orientation was the sticking point, for it runs counter to the yearly meeting’s minutes condemning homosexuality as a sin.
Bill Samuels commented on that post that “the key question may be, What is God’s purpose for Indiana YM?” I commented, as well, agreeing in part to Bill’s comment that, behind hot-point questions like homosexuality lie meta-questions like the ‘purpose’ of the yearly meeting. Another of these ‘meta-questions’ that lie behind this particular controversy is how you define and practice your culture of eldership. I wrote in my comment about how the yearly meeting might approach its role as elder of the monthly meeting in gospel order.
It turned out that Earlham’s comment text box has a character limit that prevented me from posting my entire comment. So I am posting a revised version of my original full post here because I think the problem of corporate discipline in gospel order deserves more searching attention than we often give it. By ‘corporate discipline’ I mean how yearly meetings discipline monthly meetings in gospel order.
How does a yearly meeting exercise eldership over a monthly meeting?
Eldership has two sides, that of nurture and that of discipline. In its role as elder, any meeting has a responsibility to nurture its members and their gifts and a responsibility to protect the meeting’s worship and fellowship from behavior that threatens either one. For the monthly meeting, this is difficult because you are face to face with each other, week in and week out, and it’s personal, even intimate. You really have to know your members to nurture their ministry and spiritual life. And discipline is difficult because real people can be hurt. We’re talking about real relationships between people. Difficult as it may be, though, it’s still rather direct and, in a way, straightforward in a monthly meeting. It is immediately obvious when the worship or the fellowship is suffering, and how, though our culture of deference and silence sometimes confuse things.
Things are more abstract for the yearly meeting. The members are meetings, not individuals. Nurturing their spiritual life is of a different order than nurturing individuals, requiring different tools and gifts. The yearly meeting’s ‘worship’ is perforce limited to the body’s worship when in session, or it’s viewed in the abstract. The yearly meeting’s ‘fellowship’, beyond the fellowship of Friends in session, is a fellowship of meetings, which we also must treat in the abstract. Given the abstract nature of corporate worship and fellowship in the context of the yearly meeting, how do you perceive threat to either one in the actions of a monthly meeting? And how do you practice discipline?
Suppose we use the monthly meeting’s eldership of individuals as an analogy. Then, a monthly meeting’s decision is somewhat analogous to an individual’s vocal ministry in meeting for worship.
A monthly meeting’s behavior, when minuted, as West Richmond Friends’ decision has been, represents ‘vocal ministry’ within the larger body. Presumably, that decision has been tested corporately in the light of Christ’s spirit (that’s what their minute says), much as, in theory, an individual’s prophetic vocal ministry in meeting for worship is assumed to have been prompted by the Holy Spirit. We would, on this analogy, start by assuming that West Richmond’s ministry is Spirit-led. If we perceive a threat in this behavior to either the yearly meeting’s worship or its fellowship (I think we’re talking about worship here), we are really questioning whether the decision is Spirit-led. We are then called to exercise a corporate gift of the spirit—the gift of discerning spirits—to determine whether the meeting’s prophetic ministry is of God, or (I suppose) of Satan.
How does the yearly meeting exercise the gift of discerning spirits in such a case? Do you interview those who were present at the meeting when the minute was discussed and approved, to try to determine whether the meeting really was gathered in the Spirit? Do you simply assume that a meeting that reaches a decision contrary to the testimony given the yearly meeting in the past (in this case, minutes condemning homosexuality) must of necessity have been out of the Spirit? Do you assume that the yearly meeting’s past testimonies do not need testing anew? If you acknowledge that a monthly meeting’s decision might be prophetic witness, how do you test that witness in discernment?
Josh Brown once wrote a great little essay defining the things Friends use to test a new leading. If I remember correctly, there were four: Scripture, tradition, common sense or reason, and the discernment of the body gathered in the Spirit. I would add a fifth: the testimony of experience, the testimony of the lives of those Friends (or meetings) who are already living in the light of the new testimony: what are their fruits?
For many Friends, of course, their interpretation of biblical testimony stands as the ultimate touchstone for discernment, so that ministry contrary to that interpretation can reliably be deemed out of the Life and contrary to Truth without further ado. (I say ‘interpretation’ because that is, of course, all we are ever working with, even when we interpret Scripture in the spirit in which it was given forth. Friends have, of course, famously reinterpreted Scripture in some cases contrary to the wider Christian tradition, laying down the outward forms of baptism and the Eucharist, inviting women to participate fully in the meeting’s ministry, and abandoning Scripture’s apparent sanction of slavery.)
Finally, our tradition once was to use Matthew 18:15-20 as a guide for bringing gospel order to individuals thought to be walking disorderly. Does this simple but elegant 3-step model still work for us, and, if so, can it not be applied corporately to the discipline of a meeting? This would at least provide a framework for action that might help prevent some hurt and disorder in the course of the discipline. (It’s worth reminding ourselves that, in Matthew’s presentation, once a decision for expulsion had been made, the expelled party was to be “as tax collectors and sinners” to the saints—that is, they are the people on whom your own evangelism focuses most intensely, just as Jesus focused on tax collectors and sinners with special attention himself. They are not pariahs to be cut off and shunned, but lost sheep to be wooed back into the fold. If they then reject your gospel, perhaps you would then leave town, shaking their dust off your feet.)
So meta-tasks involved in a process of corporate discerning of spirits regarding a monthly meeting’s prophetic ministry seem to me to be:
- Try to determine, if possible, whether the meeting was in the Life when it made its decision, taking seriously it’s own claim to that effect.
- Clarify whether testimony given the yearly meeting in the past should ever be tested anew.
- Clarify what touchstones you would use to test a new leading that seems contrary to previous testimony, and clarify their relative importance.
- Once you are clear about these questions, test the testimony of the meeting as potential prophetic witness. That is, exercise the gift of discerning spirits regarding the decision, rather than putting the meeting’s defiance of the yearly meeting on trial.
- Once your discerning has named the spirit behind the meeting’s decision, apply (if necessary) gospel order according to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 18.