What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Community

December 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

Foster loving, supportive, and joyful community.

One of the most valuable and unique contributions Friends have made to the religious landscape is the faith and practice of Quaker community.

Faith:

  • We believe that the life of the Spirit flourishes best in the bosom of loving and supportive community and in community we share its joys and difficulties.
  • We believe—because we have experienced it—that the worshipping community, like the individual, is capable of direct, unmediated communion with G*d; we call this the gathered meeting for worship.
  • We believe that through this communion, the worshipping community can be called into collective ministry, just as individuals are called into individual ministries of service of various kinds.
  • We believe that the meeting has an indispensable role to play in nurturing, supporting, and overseeing the gifts and ministry of its members.
  • We believe that the meeting also should offer its members loving pastoral care, helping when able in matters temporal, emotional, and spiritual, sharing love in times of both trouble and joy. In particular, meetings conduct meetings for marriage and memorial meetings for those who have died.
  • We believe that the community helps us fulfill the commandments of love—to love G*d, to love one another, and to love our enemies.
  • And we rejoice in the fellowship of the Spirit that manifests in the gathered meeting for worship and our love for each other.

Practice:

  • We conduct our business affairs in meetings for worship, seeking to find divine guidance for our corporate life in that communion. We also conduct marriages and memorials as meetings for worship.
  • We have evolved tests and tools for the discernment and support of individual ministry and for pastoral care.

Community

I am supremely grateful for the wisdom and care of Margaret Fell and others like her who modeled for early Friends and for us how to nurture religious community; and for the genius of George Fox, who ushered in the infrastructure for Quaker community when he began “bringing gospel order” in the 1660s by organizing monthly meetings and other aspects of our corporate life.

I also believe that loving, welcoming community is one of the three essentials required for the growth of our meetings—for holding onto newcomers who come to test for themselves whether we are their new spiritual home. The other two are a ready and substantive welcome to young families—a first day school that does not require parents to teach their own children instead of joining the worship; and spirit-filled meetings for worship—the deep silence of communion and spirit-filled vocal ministry.

To fulfill this vision of Quaker community, we need:

  • clerks who know what they are doing;
  • members who also know “Quaker process”;
  • Friends with the gift of eldership, who are equipped to provide support and oversight for ministry, including vocal ministry, and spirit-led pastoral care;
  • Friends with the gift of hospitality, who know how to make everyone feel welcome and at home in the meeting’s fellowship;
  • Friends with the gift of administration, who know how to run the more mundane aspects of meeting life with joy, humility, and grace;
  • Friends with the gift of pastoral care, who know how to recognize the needs of our members and attenders and minister to them in good ways; and
  • the requisites for experiencing the gathered meeting (discussed here),

For many Friends, it seems to me, community is what they are here for. People have different religious temperaments and, while Quakerism is not equipped to fulfill some temperaments, we do offer those with a temperament for community life a uniquely fulfilling spiritual home. Because we have no paid professionals, we must do all the work of the meeting ourselves, and this provides abundant opportunities for Friends who have the community temperament to share their gifts.

This is true for all the spiritual gifts. What a tremendous blessing it is to belong to a community that recognizes our gifts and provides opportunities for their use. It is one of the great joys of my life that my meeting welcomes my gifts, and I am proud of the way my meeting tries to do the same for all its members.

Does your meeting provide opportunities for you and others to exercise their spiritual gifts? Is your worshipping community a rich environment for spiritual fulfillment?

Membership

Finally, membership—arguably the most important aspect of Quaker community, and yet one about which we are perennially confused and even dysfunctional. I have written about this before (Membership, and On Clearness Committees for Membership).

Membership in a Quaker meeting used to commit you to a covenant in which you invited (or at least expected) the meeting to engage with you regarding your spiritual life. That culture of eldership was quite intrusive and eventually (maybe fairly soon) became abusive and self-destructive. In revolt and for good reasons, we abandoned the communal discipline and mutual accountability that discipleship used to entail.

But now we are on our own with our spiritual lives, and it’s hard to follow the life of the spirit without help, at least when it becomes intense or when you are called into ministry. We are not meant to do it alone.

So I think we need to recover some new approach to helping each other along the Way. And that starts with how we conduct our clearness committees for membership.

Well, as I said, I’ve written at length about this before. But I do think that reforming our approach to membership is one of the most important imperatives for renewing the Religious Society of Friends.

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