What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Corporate Spiritual Nurture

December 29, 2013 § 4 Comments

I’ve written quite a bit already about the next items in my outline of What the Religious Society of Friends is for—the role of the community in nurturing the spiritual lives of its members and attenders. I want to revisit some of those themes here and to expand on them to include more of the corporate worship life and fellowship of the meeting itself. Here’s the excerpt from the outline:

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spiritual nurture in covenantal community: Engage in each other’s spiritual growth through a robust and nurturing culture of eldership; protect the communal fellowship and the community’s worship.

Take responsibility for the corporate side of personal spiritual nurture; that is, work together to name each other’s gifts and discern and support each other’s ministry.

By “covenantal community” I mean a meeting in which the members invite the meeting to actively participate in their spiritual lives and offer their own active participation in the life of the meeting. In concrete terms, this means:

  • Sharing your spiritual and religious experience with the meeting. Does anyone in your meeting know what your spiritual practice is? How you came to Quakerism? Why you stay? What you want from the meeting and whether you are getting it? If you were going through a crisis or a dry period in your prayer life, your family life, your work life, your creative life, would your meeting know? If you were facing an important decision and didn’t see clearly what to do, would you ask for a clearness committee?
    • If you asked for a clearness committee, would the meeting know what to do? Would your meeting welcome deeper knowledge of your spiritual life? Would they be prepared to help you with a crisis in your spiritual or prayer life? Does your meeting have elders whose own depth of religious experience would equip them to mentor you or help you with your spiritual life? Are you yourself such an elder, at least potentially? Do you look for opportunities to serve the members of your meeting in these ways?
  • Eldering. Do you feel that there are people whose behavior disturbs your meeting’s worship or fellowship? Do conflicts trouble your meeting? If you were yourself bringing conflict or disturbance to your meeting, would you welcome loving eldering—the meeting’s caring attention to your behavior?
    • Does your meeting act with confidence to protect the worship from inappropriate behavior? Does your meeting act with confidence to protect the fellowship of the meeting? Is your meeting in denial of the conflicts that trouble it? Does your meeting bring accountability up in any way with applicants for membership in its committees for clearness on membership?
  • Inviting the meeting to help you deepen your spiritual gifts, your vocal ministry, and the other ministries to which you feel called. Have you identified your gifts of the spirit? Are you engaged in some activity outside of meeting that is a ministry, that the meeting doesn’t know about? Do you think of it as a ministry yourself? Do you speak fairly often in meeting? Do you want to deepen your vocal ministry? Do you feel some obstacle to speaking in meeting?
    • Would your meeting welcome knowledge of your leadings? Does your meeting do anything concrete to name each other’s gifts of the spirit? Does your meeting know the faith and practice of Quaker ministry well enough to take responsibility for it? Do they know how to conduct a clearness committee for discernment of leadings? Does your meeting provide opportunities to discuss ministry, especially vocal ministry, in general? Does your meeting provide its ministers with committees of support or oversight, or engage with them in any other way?

What if your answers to some of these questions are no? If our “no”s involve the personal queries about our own relation to the meeting, we can start thinking about how to reengage with the meeting. But often, our reticence stems from our sense that our meeting will not be there for us. So what then? What do we do when our meeting does not meet our spiritual needs, either because it does not have the resources, especially the human resources, or it doesn’t have the interest or the will?

Meetings often lack the will to be a true covenantal community in the way I am describing (that is, to work with their members and attenders in a meaningful way to enrich their spiritual lives) because it isn’t in unity about it whether to do it, let alone about how to do it. Some Friends just wouldn’t want to go there, and through tacit understanding, it just never even comes up. And we are so cautious about possibly hurting people or driving them away. In my experience, very often a solid majority of people in the meeting would be uncomfortable with this kind of meeting life, for a variety of reasons.

People come to a meeting and to religious life wanting different things. Most want comfort, support, spiritual companionship, renewal, recharging—peace. Far fewer want transformation, let alone the fire of the spiritual crucible. And yet a meeting should try to meet all these needs, both the comfortable and the uncomfortable.

So a meeting should try to accommodate those of us who want more engagement around our spiritual lives, but hopefully in ways that don’t threaten others, or force them to change in ways they don’t want to, or that pulls the community rug out from under them. This is a delicate balance and hard-to-achieve. Any experiments along the path toward greater engagement and accountability between members and the meeting would inevitably meet obstacles and inevitably, we would make some mistakes.

I’m not sure what to do about this. Naturally, we can’t force our meeting to change just for us, especially if we really are in the minority about this sort of thing. Some meetings might be led in this direction over time—a long time, probably—given some deft leadership.

But it’s awkward—and not often successful—to try to be the leader yourself, the person who teaches the meeting to how meet your needs; to teach the meeting how to conduct clearness committees for discernment, for instance, when you are the one who needs help with discernment; or to teach the meeting how to write a minute for travel when you are the minister who feels the leading to travel.

And it’s even more complicated when eldering is called for, when conflict or inappropriate behavior or weak clerking trouble the meeting. In these cases, bold and wise leadership is called for, and it’s not easy to take the initiative, especially if you’re not serving on a committee that would normally deal with such things.

Very often, in fact, the nominating process is one of the sources of the problem—people appointed to positions for which they lack the depth or knowledge of the Quaker way, or who in areas in which they have a strong opinion or an axe to grind that would obstruct the committee’s effective action. I have seen more than one committee on worship and ministry with a member or two who either know very little about Quaker ministry and/or are uncomfortable with its faith and practice, especially with the role of eldering, and would resist action in these areas. I am not sure what to do in these situations, except perhaps speak with nominating committee about one’s concerns, and see what the next cycle of nominations brings about.

In the easier case of personal ministry and spiritual nurture, the only thing I can think to do is to try the meeting first, to see how far you can go. And then, if it looks like the meeting isn’t going to be able to respond to your needs in a timely fashion, to try to create for one’s self, with others of like mind, a non-formal structure for spiritual exploration, support, nurture, and accountability independent of the meeting’s formal structures. For many Friends in smaller meetings or meetings less amenable to these ideas, this will mean some kind of regional group. In New York Yearly Meeting, the networking for this kind of engagement is quite lively at the Yearly Meeting level, but it hasn’t moved down into the regional meetings very much, as far as I know.

What I’m getting at is that, in many yearly Meetings, there might be opportunities for grassroots networking at the local meeting level around this kind of spiritual nurture that could converge with similar efforts taking place at the yearly meeting level, which could then be relocated at the regional meeting level without too much difficulty. New York Yearly Meeting is too big geographically and meets too seldom as a yearly meeting body to host groups that serve these kinds of spiritual needs very well. But a New York City spiritual nurture group, or an outer Long Island group, or a central or northern New Jersey or Finger Lakes group might be able to meet more regularly.

The model here might be the Experiment with Light groups, which are usually organized, if I am not mistaken, at the local meeting level, but often with participants from nearby meetings; and the spiritual nurture groups formed by the School of the Spirit and by the spiritual nurture programs sponsored by Baltimore and other yearly meetings.

And what would such groups do? The following ideas assume that the local meetings are not willing or able to serve your needs in these ways:

  • Hold extended periods of open worship, hopefully without a programmed time to end.
  • Provide opportunities to share the joys, challenges, and evolution of each others’ inner lives, personal practice, and the life of the spirit in general.
  • Conduct clearness committees for discernment of leadings.
  • Name each others’ spiritual gifts in some way, and find ways to help each other mature in your gifts.
  • Share your spiritual practices with each other and provide mentoring in them, if you feel qualified and others show interest.
  • Create structures for sharing and learning together the faith and practice of Quaker ministry and Quaker spirituality.
  • Provide support and oversight committees for those following a leading, especially those led to travel in the ministry or to pursue some specific service, and for those who feel called to vocal ministry.
  • They would not, however, intervene in local meeting situations that require eldering. This, I think, remains the prerogative of the meeting, even if it’s dysfunctional in this area.

Hopefully, within some meetings, such non-formal groups would prove to be seeds for a more robust culture of eldership based in the meeting, once members saw how it worked and how valuable it was for its participants. So these groups should not hide their light under a bushel. Nor should they evangelize out of spiritual pride. But they should be open and inviting to any who would want to participate. For this is one of the things that the Religious Society of Friends is for—corporate nurture and support of personal ministry and spiritual life.


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§ 4 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Corporate Spiritual Nurture

  • Carol Holmes says:

    John, I think you’ve left out a piece of information in your discussion of a covenantal community. What exactly was God’s covenant with “this people”? You’ve explained that God won’t turn away from the covenant he’s made, but what is it he’s not going to turn away from?

  • bxlloyd says:

    Your post speaks to my condition. As a person in recovery from addiction, the transformational experience you rightly perceive meetings as being ambivalent about, was for me foundational before I ever arrived at meeting for worship. God/Spirit/High Power can save/transform/reform your life – I get it. And I am so grateful, everyday, for that salvation, which I must attend to daily if that grace is to remain available to me.

    Perhaps a barrier we face is that for our modern and skeptical society, it takes a brush with death, or at least a “bottoming out” experience to get us to take spiritual salvation seriously. One of the questions you are asking is, how do we offer support for that transformation encounter to people who aren’t addicts, or on their last legs in some way? And should we?

    The level of intimacy required for this kind of support makes many in my yearly meeting (Philadelphia) queasy. The covenant community you describe is one in which the walls of privacy and individuality we cling to in the 21st century are gently broken down. These are walls reinforced (ironically) by electronic communication and social media, which confuses online connection with face-to-face connection. They are not the same. And yet, they have helped make an idol of individuality today, it is a sacred cow needing to be slain in order for the transformation you describe to occur. Sacrifice of this kind is painful, or at least uncomfortable. It is my perception that some Quaker meetings have attracted people who are addicted to being comfortable.

    I think the prescription you offer is sound for the time being. Those who are drawn to this kind of deep relationship to each other and God self-select into smaller groups. But I hope that those who do self-select, remain in loving connection to a monthly meeting they call their own, so that the fruit that grows from these smaller encounters can be shared with the larger group.

  • Steve, this posting is both excellent and, with respect to my personal condition, timely, since I’m finding my local meeting ill-equipped to provide what I perceive I need from my spiritual community, but non-formal groups emerging to catch and hold me. So your discussion mirrors what I find happening in my own life.

    What I feel specifically called to comment on is your use of the term “covenantal community:” “By ‘covenantal community,'” you wrote, ” I mean a meeting in which the members invite the meeting to actively participate in their spiritual lives and offer their own active participation in the life of the meeting.” That is, the individual has a real, meaningful covenant with his or her local meeting. But is the living God involved in this covenant? It’s possible, after all, to have a covenantal community of non-theist Friends, rather like a Buddhist monastic community, in which no acknowledgement of a divine Being or divine oversight is given.
    What I think needs to be pointed out is that the People of God Called Quakers – arguably, that’s all of us – seem to have been a *covenanted* community since the day – Third Month 28, 1652 – that Francis Howgill, after months of prayer, received assurance that “the sun shall leave its shining brightness” before God would abandon His covenant with “this people.” (see James Backhouse, editor, _Memoirs of Francis Howgill_ (York, 1828), pp. 56-58, downloadable free from Google Books.)

    This astonishing claim raises three questions: 1. Did God really make such a covenant, or was it just Howgill’s delusion? 2. Are you and I and all our Friends bound by this covenant by virtue of being Friends, or was the “Quaker Covenant” binding only on those Friends who were alive in 1652? Or since, in its preamble, God refers to “those who seek My face in righteousness” and “them that fear Me,” do only those Friends living today who would answer to such a description come under the Covenant? 3. If the answer to the first two questions is “Yes,” then what does the Quaker Covenant ask of us, and how might it affect any voluntary covenants we make with or within our meetings? Dare we now make any more covenants without reference to the Quaker Covenant that binds us all?

    • John, thanks for this comment. As usual, it cuts right to the heart of the matter, when I have been circling its center.

      I’m not sure what to make of Howgill’s testimony that the Religious Society of Friends had entered into a covenant with God. Let’s assume that he was right, just as we normally assume that vocal ministry in meeting is spirit-led (though this is deeper than just being “spirit-led”). But I think you know what I mean. Howgill’s testimony is not to be dismissed out of hand.

      On the other hand, could his testimony be accepted for all Friends and for all time? Covenant is not a permanent condition, but one which a person or a community must continually renew. I think that we probably have lost the covenant—broken it ourselves—repeatedly, and returned back to it cyclically, like Israel in the book of Judges. And not all of us—not the “Religious Society of Friends” as a whole, as Howgill may have conceived it back then—but pockets and moments of renewal have taken place throughout our history.

      This is an even more urgent concern for we Liberal Friends, who cannot as communities testify to a living relationship with Jesus Christ anymore, he with whom we established our original covenant. And so, as I did in this post, we replace the living Christ with ourselves and conceive of the covenant as between us and the meeting—if we conceive of a covenant at all.

      So yes, I agree that the real goal, vis a vis covenant, would be a covenant, not with each other, but together as communities with G*d. The original covenanters like Fox and Howgill would probably say that only in this way could we expect that all the things I talk about in this post could be inspired and governed by the Spirit of Love and Truth.

      But I’m not sure that’s really true, and anyway, that’s not where we are, is it, at least not in the Liberal tradition? In fact, I’m not even sure that our “Christ-centered” meetings have the kind of covenant I am talking about either. Are they any better at the responsibilities involved in nurturing their members’ spiritual gifts, ministry, and devotional practice, especially if they have a pastor? Certainly not vocal ministry in pastoral meetings, since that has been co-opted by the pastor’s sermon or some other Friend’s prepared message and truncated by the very short time that is usually set aside for open worship.

      But this raises the theme that keeps coming up for me in this blog: without confession of Christ, or even, sometimes, of G*d, just what are Liberal Friends and Liberal meetings aligning themselves with? If we and our communities are not in covenant with Christ, as Howgill testifies, then what are we doing?

      On the surface, displacing the focus of our covenantal relationship from G*d to the meeting—that is, essentially, to ourselves—seems . . . what? Illegitimate? Even idolatrous? Or just wrong-headed and weak?

      But this is just speculation about religious ideology. What is our experience? Do we really experience the gifts and ministries of nonChristian Friends as “shadows”, as Fox would put it, as without substance? No. Is mutual engagement with each other about our religious lives an empty exercise just because we do not confess Christ? Is covenantal community impossible without hewing to the covenantal theology we have inherited from the Bible? Not in my experience.

      I believe that all our meetings can benefit from the “covenantal meeting” as I’ve defined it, even though we do not explicitly invoke G*d or Christ. As I have said in some of my posts on the gathered meeting, I’m not sure that Christ cares all that much about his “name tag”, that he is perfectly capable of being present “anonymously” as the Presence we experience in the gathered meeting, and in our clearness committees and other meetings for discernment, even as the source our individual vocal (and other) ministries. Does Christ declare himself every time he is present to us?

      So I hold up the possibility and the great value of the covenantal religious relationship in its many configurations. After all, scripture describes several different covenants. Some, like that between God, Noah, and the creation, were “cosmic”; that is, they were quite abstract: while there may be such a God, there was no Noah, and how does God establish a covenant with creation? Other covenants in the Bible are barely defined at all. The New Testament is a case in point. Presumably, Jesus defined his new covenant most clearly at the Last Supper, and the nature of that covenant is anything but clear, I would say.

      The only outward covenantal form he established at the Last Supper is the Eucharist. Christianity does not agree at all about the meaning and mechanism of the Eucharist, and of course Quakers have laid aside the outward form and redefined communion in our own peculiar and powerful way. So the Quaker covenant is inward, between each of us and the Light within us. Is that the Light of Christ? Until he declares himself to me, I can’t say. All I know is that covenant seems possible to me without confession of Christ, just as nonChristian Friends have real gifts and spirit-led ministries.

      And I pray for a meeting that can share this with me and help me with it.

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