The Gathered Meeting—The essential experience of the Quaker religion
April 26, 2013 § 2 Comments
Toward a “Theology” for Liberal Friends, Part 6
The importance of the gathered meeting
I’ve repeatedly said that I want to start with experience as the foundation for my “theology of Liberal Quakerism”, and I’ve talked about a lot of different kinds of experience, most of them personal. But it is the experience of the gathered meeting that is really my starting point. The rest has just been laying the groundwork.
I start from the gathered meeting because it is collective experience. It is experience that you and I can share. It is transcendental, in several ways. And it is real—it transforms the meeting when it happens and it transforms the people who experience it. This is most obvious when a meeting for business in worship is gathered, because everybody feels it psychically and transcendentally, both collectively and personally; and everybody sees the concrete result—the body has come to a decision, often veering toward a new truth from a morass of confusion.
I start from the gathered meeting because this is the experience that protects Quakerism from “ranterism”, from the dangers of individualism, from being the kind of “do it yourself religion” that means that anybody can do whatever they want. It protects us from the very strong trend in Liberal Quakerism toward this kind of individualism because it is by definition not individual experience. It brings with it the assurance of collective unity in the Spirit. It is the soul and the goal of our way of discernment.
I start with the gathered meeting also because it connects us to Friends of the past and it leads us into the future. It connects us to Scripture. And most importantly, it connects us to God*.
The gathered meeting is literally our source as a people of God. (Well, God was our source, but it was in the gathered meeting that God first came to us.) On Pendle Hill George Fox had a vision of a “great people to be gathered” and his vision was fulfilled when the Seekers to whom he preached at Firbank Fell became a gathered meeting and emerged as the seed of the Quaker movement.
Throughout our history ever since, new seekers have found their home with us in the gathered meeting. One thinks of Robert Barclay’s famous testimony in his Apology, in which he describes how he found his home among us in such a meeting:
For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart. And as I gave way to it, I found the evil in me weakening, and the good lifted up. Thus it was that I was knit into them and united with them.
Barclay’s Apology in Modern English,
Dean Freiday editor, p. 254
And where does this idea that individuals gathered in worship can collectively experience the divine? Fox and the Seekers and other early Friends believed in the gathered meeting as their spiritual inheritance because of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 18:20 that, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also,” and because of the description of the gathered “business” meeting in Acts 15, in which the early disciples of Jesus decided to sanction Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.
In the gathered meeting, Friends rediscover the truth of the unique claim and contribution of Quakerism, that God calls each individual to a direct, unmediated relationship with the divine, yes—but also that God calls the community—the gathered collective—to a direct, unmediated relationship, as well. Very few religious communities can truthfully claim to deliver direct collective experience of the holy spirit consistently throughout the ages. What an extraordinary gift it is!
And yet, my sense is that, at least among Liberal Friends, the experience of the gathered meeting has become rather uncommon, if not actually rare; that many of our members and attenders have never actually experienced it or, if they have, they do not recognize it for what it is. The gathered meeting is not a promise that we can expect to be fulfilled by simply gathering in the silence. The gathered meeting requires more than a passive faith. We must “work” to bring it about.
How we do that is a matter for a later blog entry. First I want to clarify what I mean when I say “the gathered meeting”, with a focus on the nature of the experience, especially the collective character of the experience. That will be my next post.
* Just to reiterate, because it’s been a while, I define “God” as the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience, whatever that experience is.