The gathered meeting and Jesus the Christ—some questions

July 5, 2013 § 24 Comments

A couple of commenters a while back raised the question of why I have focused so much on the Christ as the gatherer of the gathered meeting. The answer is that I don’t really know why. Or rather, that this is the direction in which I’ve been led, all unexpected. I have not been systematic in my approach to this series. Rather, I have been following trains of thought and publishing them when they seemed seasoned enough.

I have explored ways in which I feel that the consciousness of the gathered meeting corresponds to the glimpses we get in Christian scripture of the consciousness of the Christ, which has led me to speculate about the Christ as consciousness. In this regard,  I can say that I believe we are “gathered in Christ” when we find ourselves in the gathered meeting, though I have not directly experienced Christ in that way.

So Friends in all ages have said of the gathered meeting, that they were “gathered in Christ”. But how exactly does the Christ “gather” a meeting? On the surface, this looks like a question that can only lead to what early Friends called “notions”, airy speculation that is, at best, only a shadow of the truth. But for theistic Friends, for whom this talk of consciousness misses the point, that Jesus the Christ is a distinct divine person active in the world and in our lives and in our meetings and capable of relationship, not some vague “consciousness”, then the question of how Christ gathers a meeting seems to me more than just a diversion.

Presumably, if he exists (and I believe he does) and he is present in the meeting, and the worshippers sense his presence, then some kind of “hub and spoke” connection gets made between the Christ and the individual worshippers. But what about the “rim”? How does the presence of the Christ enable the worshippers to sense each other in a gathered meeting? For this is one of the signature characteristics of the gathered meeting.

The answer might be that the Christ acts as a conduit for communication between worshippers, that our consciousnesses flow through the Christ as the hub of a wheel, as it were, and then on out to the other worshippers along the “rim”, to whom he is present also. To use a cybernetic analogy, we communicate with each other through the Christ much as computers communicate with each other through the server in a computer network.

The Christ consciousness serves the worshipping community as the medium through which we become spiritually present to each other. (I am tempted to explore John 15 along these lines: “I am the vine, you are the branches”; or John 14: “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”)

But I have reverted to my consciousness language again. This, as I said, may not satisfy the more theistic Friends among us, who, I suspect, focus more on communion with Christ than they do on communion with each other. They may have no such speculative and metaphysical approach to a “Christ consciousness” in the gathered meeting, but are satisfied simply to say that Christ gathers us and leave it at that.

I think I feel encouraged to pursue this consciousness angle because I have no direct experience of the Christ as the gatherer of the gathered meetings I’ve experienced. Moreover, I am hungry for more; the gathered meeting is all too rare among us these days. So I am seeking for ways to improve our chances of being gathered. I am looking for elements of both faith and practice that might foster the gathered meeting.

And I suspect that Christ is one of the key factors of faith. I can hear my Christian readers saying to themselves, no, Christ is THE key, the indispensable factor. But isn’t this just a confession of faith? Where is the evidence? Are there not gathered meetings in which no one experiences the Christ? Certainly, one does not have to believe in a divine Jesus Christ to experience the gathered meeting. So, in terms of actual experience, it’s not clear that a traditional faith in Christ is necessary. But that doesn’t mean that the Christ isn’t necessary.

In fact, I am inclined to agree that Christ is key. As I have said, I believe that Jesus the Christ actually exists, though I have not experienced him as such myself. Thus my own experience leads me to relax and expand my understanding of who and what the Christ is to explain what actually happens. This exploration of consciousness is part of my effort to do that.

I guess I’m evangelizing a new way to think about Christ. How did I end up here?

§ 24 Responses to The gathered meeting and Jesus the Christ—some questions

  • […] On July 8, Bill Rushby wrote this in his comment on my post on The gathered meeting and Jesus the Christ—some questions: […]

  • Bill Rushby says:

    I think there are important questions that are being missed here. In discussing this blog, we have moved off into “rabbit trails” concerning the theological basis of Quakerism.

    No one here has offered an explication of the concept of “gathered meeting”. And, at least in this blog and discussion, the origins of this idea have yet to be probed. It would be useful to narrate some specific experiences of gathered meetings, both in the ministers’ (and other) journals/memoirs and in the personal recollection of the parties to this discussion. The theological context of these experiences would also be relevant.

  • Emily Ranseen says:

    Who gives a shit what George Fox would think?

    I agree with ? Christ is not the “key.” In order to deepen their own worship, Friends in Japan and India during the 1970s decided to make their version of Quakerism more friendly to their own tradition, and move away from focus on Christ. In Friends World News in that period, there was an article by one Quaker travelling the world, extolling Zen Buddhists for deepening his own Quaker worship, saying that they had much to teach us.Regarding worship sharing, in another issue of World News (sorry no date), Doug Steere recommended worship sharing as a means of deepening worship, citing Margaret Gibbins Encounter Through Worship Sharing (FWCC, 1971).

    Date: Fri, 5 Jul 2013 13:36:18 +0000 To:

    • Emily says:

      Please ignore above message. Sent by mistake.

      • Howard says:

        Your mistake was just fine. It does bring up a valid insight, and I thank you for it.

        I think hanging onto the words of Quakers of old too tightly is a recipe for limiting the Spirit’s indwelling action upon us and our modern community of Friends. We are called to have our own experience with the Light.

    • Bill Rushby says:

      Hello again, Emily!

      Are you saying that Marjorie Sykes and Douglas Steere are still relevant to modern Friends, but George Fox is not?

      • emily says:

        Howard, Thank you for understanding so well.

        Bill, I think you should be directing your comment to Howard, since I stated that my message was posted by a mistake–but I’ll respond.

        Every Friends’ opinion is important, whether coming from George Fox or Marjorie Sykes or Doug Steere. I didn’t think, however, that a debate on George Fox’s opinions is relevant to the issue at hand (as you said in your recent post, we’ve moved off-topic). I think George Fox would have approved of Marjorie Sykes’ opinions, and mine, that Friends around the world can come from different directions to find God–and produce a great gathered meeting. Fox was, after all, quite sensitive to the many Native Americans he encountered who had never met Jesus but were very aware of God. And had he lived long enough to talk to missionaries going off to completely foreign cultures he would have learned that all successful missionaries do not just tell foreigners what to believe. They learn their language and their gods, and they provide them with services.

        Friends who feel the way I do would generally agree, I think, that the mission of Friends is to spread the word and love of God, through Jesus and whatever other sources–in other words, we’re evangelicals for spreading the love of God through the teachings of different cultures, not excluding the Christian. We believe that messages can come from any spiritual source to produce a good gathering of Friends.

        I see your own evangelical message as spreading the word of Christ, and to search otherwise is to fall into dangerous moral relativisim–and I would guess you believe that you think George Fox sees it that way, which is why you asked what would he think.

        In arguing this point, we are both in danger of each going beyond our own evangelicalism into fundamentalism. This is probably why so many Christocentric Friends interpret all “liberal” Friends as hostile to all Evangelical Friends, and why so many liberal Friends say fearfully that they “can’t talk” to Evangelical Friends.

      • Bill Rushby says:

        Hello, Emily!

        Actually, my question was an effort to understand how you look at George Fox and the great “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us. I was attempting (probably in vain) to avoid advancing my own view, or to argue with you.

        Actually, you did a rather good job of making your case. You sensed correctly that I wouldn’t agree, but I did learn more about where you are coming from. And that’s what I was hoping for.

        I don’t feel any need to tell how I look at it all, at least for now! I have lived long enough to know that others aren’t going to approach these issues as I do, and I don’t feel threatened by such differences.

        Thanks for your response.

  • For those who honestly don’t know whether that Indwelling Presence they may sometimes feel in prayerful moments, or sense “putting words in their mouth” in perilous situations, is rightly to be called Jesus Christ, or by some other name, I suggest the following prayer (This is unseasoned, Friends. It just came to me in morning worship):

    Good Indwelling Presence, welcome; make clear to me what I should call You. If I should think of You as part of myself, enlighten my understanding of what myself is, so that I do not injure myself or frustrate Your purposes by diminishing the esteem due to Your goodness and holiness. If I should *not* limit my understanding of You by thinking of You as part of myself, correct me and guide me away from such thinking. If You can make me more fit to stand in Your presence by washing me clean of sin, ignorance, evil addictions and selfish agendas, show me these things and wash me clean of them.

    If Your right name is Jesus Christ, welcome again; heal and correct my world-view so that I might make adequate room for You in my heart and in my life. Let my words and my acts glorify You. Let me not discourage anyone who honors and glorifies You by some other name; but protect me from being deceived by those who would use Your holy name as a cloak for their own dark purposes.

    I am Yours; show me how to be Yours; increase my faith, my love and my understanding so that I might walk worthy of this calling. Amen.

    In friendship, John Edminster

  • Bill Rushby says:

    In connection with this essay, a comment made by Howard Brinton in his Pendle Hill pamphlet on “Prophetic Ministry” comes to mind. He wrote: “I think it can be shown that prophetic ministry has had the greatest driving power when it has been of a Christ-centered type.” p.24

    • Howard says:

      I would say Howard Brinton is probably correct only when the worshippers are Christ-centered themselves. If they are, then a Christ-centered vocal ministry would have more power than a generally spiritual/universal-centered vocal ministry. However, if the worshippers are not Christ-centered, then a Christ-centered message would carry no more weight for the worshippers than any other spiritually oriented message. It stands to reason that if a person assigns special power to Jesus of Nazereth who is identified by Christians as “the Christ”, then any message that calls upon that name will be very powerful. Yet, the opposite is true as well.

      I have witnessed life transforming messages for individuals (given during worship), that were spiritually powerful – yet not Christ (Jesus)-centered. And I have also witnessed life transforming messages that were Christ (Jesus)-centered.

      I think some (not all, of course) Christ-centered Friends need to resist the temptation to judge all spiritual experiences from their own spiritual perspective of exclusivity (that “only professed Christians have truly valid spiritual experiences”). The Spirit that was manifested so fully within Jesus is perfectly capable of manifesting itself wherever, whenever, and in whatever vessel is willing to receive it, using meaningful terminology for the hearer. If this Spirit is the Source of everything in the universe, it simply IS. “A rose by any other name is still a rose”.

      • Bill Rushby says:

        I guess that you are claiming that Howard Brinton was mistaken.

      • Patricia Dallmann says:

        It would be truly useful for present-day Friends to do a little research into what our Quaker tradition is by reading some 17th century Friends writing and thereby learn not to conflate our tradition with apostatic forms of Christianity. After all, if other forms had been right, the first Friends wouldn’t have had to start something different, and suffer considerably for it at the hands of those who participated in those other forms: magistrates, judges, and jailers, among others.

        In the following paragraph for example, first-generation minister Francis Howgill distinguishes those whose faith is “grounded on the report of Christ dying at Jerusalem,” those who “missed Christ the substance,” from those who like the Apostles are “ministers of a living experience which they had themselves tasted.”

        “ministers of the letter, and in their very conformity to the first Apostles were departing from their [the Apostles] ministry, for they [the Apostles] had been ministers of a living experience which they had themselves tasted. By thus gathering men into a conformity to the letter and to that which was visible, they were missing Christ, the substance, and teaching a religion which was all at a distance, grounded on the report of Christ dying at Jerusalem, and the belief in this report they called faith. They boasted themselves in their ordinances, the water and the bread and wine, which were but elementary and never anything but a sign, and in the day of appearance of Christ would melt with fervent heat.”

        From this paragraph, you can see that they pronounced judgment upon these “ministers of the letter.” Friends were not averse to pronouncing judgment on what they saw as wrong; this you might interpret, Howard, as not being inclusive. That would be an error.

        ALL were included in the admonition to let the light be awakened in us which can judge us. Penington says it here:

        “There is no other way; be not deceived: that must be awakened in you which can judge you, and must bring forth its judgment in you unto victory, if life in you ever rise and get the dominion over death. And that spirit which now rules in you, and keeps the life down, knows this very well… He would fain keep the light in others from judging you. “Do not judge,” saith he; “All judgment is committed to the Son.” True; but shall not the light of the Son judge? Shall not the light of that candle, which the Lord hath lighted in one heart, discover and judge the darkness of another heart? Light doth make manifest, and its manifestation is its judgment. …Therefore, be not afraid to judge deceit, O ye weak ones! But be sure that the light alone in you judge; and lie very low in the light, that that part which the light in you judgeth in others get not up in you, while the light is making use of you to judge it in others. (Works, I. 109)

        So it is not by human standards, such as professing (but not possessing) Christians exclusivity, or Universalist inclusivity that we are to undergo judgment, but solely by the light. It is this light that we are purged, and the wheat is gathered into the garner, and the chaff is burned up (Mt. 3:12).

      • Howard says:

        Thanks Patricia for your insight.

        I do see this seeking of Light as an inclusive experience. I am merely cautioning Friends to not expect others to adopt the whole Judaic-Christian outlook towards the Light in order to be included in the transforming love and power of the Light in one’s heart.

  • Howard says:

    My meeting has always had periods where we have experienced gathered meetings. However, over the last few years, as the strong sense of community and spirituality of the meeting have waned due to a number of unfortunate events, the frequency of gathered meetings has decreased noticeably.

    The meeting has never been a Christ-centered meeting; although, it does not shy away from fully integrating Christ into our more universalist spiritual outlook. So, I am led to believe that being Christ-centered per se is not a requirement in order to experience a gathered meeting for worship.

    I want to share an interesting thing that has happened over the last few months. The meeting recently decided to hold a 30 minute adult First Day school every Sunday just before unprogrammed worship. Over our near 30 year history, we have never done this before. These weekly sessions are always centered on sharing thoughts regarding a different spiritual passage each week that is emailed in advance to the whole meeting. Sometimes a Bible passage is used, sometimes Buddhist or Taoist passages, sometimes non-canonized Christian scriptures, and sometimes passages from modern spiritual works that claim to be inspired. The sessions are never on topics that purely appeal to the mind, such as Quaker history, Quaker personages, Quaker testimonies, social action, etc. The sharing is always free-form (there are no queries or discussion points), and these sessions are always focused on deep spiritual realities that often defy the logic of the mind.

    What I have noticed is that the sense of community and spirituality of the meeting, as well as the experience of Friends during worship – is again getting stronger. Interestingly, since we began this adult First Day School, the vocal ministry given during worship has nothing to do with what was shared prior to worship. It’s simply as though we have been prepared spiritually for the experience of worship, in whatever way the Spirit leads it.

    So, I am wondering if our recent return of gathered meetings for worship is related to the fact that a critical mass of worshippers have inadvertently been prepared for worship – due to our spiritual consciousness being raised for a period of time before worship begins.

    I do remember reading that a large number of Friends in ‘olden times’ prepared with anticipation for worship. Have our busy lives caused us to neglect this practice of advanced preparation. And could our meetings help this situation by providing a spiritual sharing time before worship to help us get back into this practice of preparation?

    I can determine no other reason for this return in my meeting’s spiritual experience of gathered meetings for worship.

    I have also noticed that many new ones are now returning each week to worship with us. This makes me think that gathered meetings for worship may be our greatest tool for drawing in new Friends.

    • Thanks for this comment, Howard. Several of the things I’ve read about the gathered meeting, and about meeting for worship in general, stress personal preparation before meeting, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything about collective preparation like this. Except, if I remember correctly, in Howard Brinton’s On Quaker Process, in which he counsels against having RE programs before worship, fearing that they will seed the following meeting for worship with ideas, and inhibit the work of the Spirit.

      He may have had in mind more didactic programs, rather than simple sharing. You sessions of sharing, I think, help Friends get to know each other better. They open up trust. And they turn the participants inward. I’m very interested in your meeting’s experience.

      And I agree with you that the gathered meeting is really important in meeting advancement, as we call it in New York Yearly Meeting. People come looking for something and if they find it, they come back.

    • emily says:

      I agree with Howard, that Christ is not the “key.” In order to deepen their own worship, Friends in Japan and India during the 1970s decided to make their version of Quakerism more friendly to their own tradition, and to move away from focus on Christ. In Friends World News in that period, there was an article by one Quaker travelling the world, extolling Zen Buddhists for deepening his own Quaker worship, saying that they had much to teach us.
      Worship sharing has much to offer us for deepening the gathered meeting. Doug Steere recommended worship sharing in one issue of World News (sorry no date, from the 1970s), citing Margaret Gibbins Encounter Through Worship Sharing (FWCC, 1971).

      • Bill Rushby says:

        Hello, Emily! You wrote that “Friends in …India …decided …to move away from focus on Christ.” In fact, there are several, diverse groups of Friends in India. I think it very unlikely that Christocentric Indian Friends decided to abandon their faith in Christ. You are probably referencing a group in that country which was already liberal in outlook.

      • emily says:

        I said “Friends in India,” so I didn’t mean to say ALL Friends in India haved moved away from Christ. Certainly there are many more Christocentric than Hindu-centered Quakers in India, and it’s highly unlikely that Quakers in those meetings said “no” to Christ. Yes, the Friends in India who decided to focus less on Christ were probably “already liberal in outlook,” and they were deciding to go further with that.
        Marjorie Sykes lived in India for a long time. In her book on Quakers in India, she pointed out that evangelical missionary Quakers missed out on a chance to spread Quakerism in that country by blocking a very natural link between traditional Hindu faith and Quakerism. The point I was trying to make was that one is probably most comfortable with what one’s tradition is–and Quakers can come from an ecumenical or a Christian tradition–or perhaps another. Each meeting has to respond to the individual needs of those who attend–not be fundamentalist and demand that all Quakers follow one path because we see it right.

      • Bill Rushby says:

        “(Marjorie Sykes) pointed out that evangelical missionary Quakers missed out on a chance to spread Quakerism in that country by blocking a very natural link between traditional Hindu faith and Quakerism.”

        I can’t help wondering what George Fox would think!

  • […] Steven Davi­son: The gath­ered meet­ing and Jesus the Christ: […]

  • Bill Rushby says:

    I tried searches for “covering”, “covering over the meeting” and “gathered meeting” on Earlham’s Digital Quaker collection, with interesting results. I suggest that you give this a try.

  • Bill Rushby says:

    To learn more about the dynamics of “a gathered meeting” and “a covering over the meeting”, I suggest examining ministers’ journals from the past–to see what they have to say about these matters. You might start with Joseph Elkinton, Ann Branson or Richard Jordan. However, there are many others.

    If you try this, I will be anxious to learn what you find out.

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