What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Doing G*d’s Work
January 10, 2014 § 5 Comments
[Reminder: I use the asterisk in the middle of G*d to stand in for whatever your experience of God is.]
Note: I have more to say about Fellowship as the mission of the Quaker meeting, but I want to do a little research first, so I am going on to the meeting for business in worship and will return to Fellowship in a subsequent post.
When I asked one of my grown sons a while back why, after being raised a Quaker, he has not continued, he answered, “Because meeting for worship is a bunch of blowhards saying the same things every week and meeting for business is about things that don’t really matter.” Something like that.
I think there’s probably more to it than that. And I think he might have a rather different experience of meeting for worship if he went to some other nearby meetings. But I doubt that the meeting for business would be different.
I once statistically analyzed the business of a yearly meeting over a year, as recorded in its minutes. The vast majority of that business was irrelevant to the kingdom of G*d *. Only three pieces of business out of some 120 minutes came to the Yearly Meeting floor in gospel order, that is, originating in a local meeting and passing on through a regional meeting to the yearly meeting because that was the appropriate body for it; and one of these items was a fairly routine request for a disbursement from a trust fund asking for help with meetinghouse repairs.
Almost all of the yearly meeting’s business was generated by the yearly meeting’s committees. Most had to do with either the mechanics of the meeting sessions or money. Most of the business affected only the yearly meeting organization (by which I mean the yearly meeting’s committees and the Friends under appointment to those committees, and the apparatus of the Yearly Meeting sessions). Most of our business is, to use the most shocking and crass expression possible, spiritual masturbation. It brings forth almost nothing in the world we live in, which is in dire need of spirit-led ministry. It is a waste of the Seed.
A lot of our business is quite mundane, it’s true. Property matters, budget stuff, routine reports from committees on their work. We have to do this work, and it is boring at the surface level of management. So we all sit there doing it, usually with the utmost conscientiousness, in my experience. Fine.
But we do sometimes get lulled into a pro forma treatment of this work. Put another way, we let ourselves fall into habit—and out of worship. And our meetings for business are supposed to be meetings for worship. Often, the tone of our business meetings is to get out of there as soon as possible. And it’s not always just tacit. My own meeting cuts fifteen minutes off the meeting for worship that day so that we can get out earlier.
Clerks, both the presiding clerk and committee clerks, can help maintain a spirit of worship by being prepared and thoughtful about the agenda, trying to help committees present effectively, maintaining a good period of silent waiting between items, knowing Quaker process well, and setting a worshipful tone throughout.
Then there are the decisions that are contentious or otherwise difficult. Two things really get on my nerves in the way we often handle difficult business. The first is our habit of asking for voiced approval before everyone who might have an objection has been heard, which forces the meeting to return to its discernment after approving something—which feels very odd to me and often results in some chaos in the discernment. Second, and often in tandem with this first dynamic, we often do our discernment by editing the text of a minute, focusing on tweaks to the language and often devolving into points of grammar and semantics, instead of focusing on the guidance of our Teacher.
I feel that clerks should pointedly ask for objections to a verbally proposed test minute, and do so repeatedly until no one speaks up; then ask the recording clerk to read her/his record of the minute that’s just been presented verbally by the presiding clerk—and then ask again for objections and corrections until no one speaks up; then ask if s/he may take the body’s silence as approval. (Doing this also means you don’t have to reread and approve this minute later in the process of approving minutes.)
But the basic problem remains: where is the kingdom-work? Why do we do so little that addresses directly the spiritual lives of our members or the woes of the world? Even when we approve a minute of conscience, all we are usually doing is laying down some words. Maybe we issue a press release or in some other way broadcast our words. Still just words.
I believe the root problem behind our lackluster business agendas is that we have lost the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. I know I keep saying this, but this is my ministry—to recover the central role that I believe ministry could and should play in our personal and corporate spiritual lives. I believe that the faith and practice of Quaker ministry is the very soul of Quaker spirituality, both personal and collective.
Currently, our standing committees generate most of our business. I believe that some of the work that some of our committees do should be treated as ministries under the care of the meeting and in the hands of people who feel led to do the work, with committees of support and oversight when appropriate. I’ve written about this before.
However, we do need standing committees for some of our work, especially that which concerns the necessary and routine business for which we have fiduciary responsibility: property, money, the corporation. But I question the use of standing committees that are organized around concerns, like our witness committees, advancement, outreach, even religious education. But that’s another blog post.
If we actively taught—trained, really—our members in the faith and practice of ministry as a personal path, ministries would arise, hopefully even flourish. By “ministry” I mean clear leadings to do something to enrich our members’ spiritual lives or to bring G*d’s love, healing, compassion, and justice into the world. Then we would have some great work to do in our meetings for business in worship, helping to discern and support these leadings—are they spirit-led, what exactly is our Friend led to do, what can we do to help, does our minister need oversight, how do we track the ministry’s progress, when should s/he and we lay it down?
Imagine business meetings so packed with G*d’s work that we have to lay over property decisions, or simply leave them in the hands of our competent property committee! For this kind of work, young people like my son might show up. In fact, they probably would be bringing a lot of the work, if our meetings fostered this kind of religious environment.
One other thing would deepen our business meetings and invite some kingdom-building: extended periods of open worship without an agenda at all, except a kind of non-binding focus on the life of the meeting and its members and on the world we live in, leaving the more open-ended, not-focused worship to our regular meetings for worship.
* Saying “kingdom of G*d” is like saying “mankind”—it carries bad gender baggage, and I would like to use some other phrase. I hope my readers will accept that I mean what the Greek of Christian scripture really connotes with the word “basileus“, which translates clumsily in English. For us, influenced by Latin more than Greek, “kingdom” is an abstract noun. It denotes a place and a state governed by a man. But the Greek basileus is, like most Greek nouns, a verb-noun: it’s a noun built from a verb. So a gerund would be more faithful: “ruling”, without the “-dom” on the end, would be a better translation: the “ruling of God”, rather than the “kingdom of God”, the state in which God rules.