What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Fellowship & the Angel of the Meeting

January 11, 2014 § 16 Comments

In his class on Quakerism at Pendle Hill, Bill Taber taught that many Friends in the 19th and especially the 18th centuries believed in “the angel of the meeting”, that each meeting had its own angel. Friends got this idea from the book of Revelation, chapter 1:17 through chapter 3. Chapters two and three are letters written by “the one like the Son of Man” (Christ) to the angels of seven churches in Asia Minor. For example:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand (the seven angels; 1:20), who walks among the seven golden lamp stands (the seven churches; 1:20).

Bill said that some Friends who had a reputation for effectively ministering to troubled meetings would travel to labor with them, and before even meeting with any of the parties involved, they would ask for a meeting for worship with the whole community. In the meeting for worship, they would try to commune with the angel of the meeting, in order to learn first hand from the meeting as a whole what the condition of the meeting was, without the filter of accounts from the human members.

Ever since learning this, I have tried to commune with the angel of the meetings that I’ve visited and I greet the angel of my own meeting at the beginning of worship. Three times have I had an experience of a meeting’s angel, twice quite dramatically. I don’t actually remember where the third instance was, but the other two were Rahway-Plainfield in New Jersey and Santa Cruz, California. I have never experienced the angel of my own meetings, but that is because they are partly a manifestation of myself as one of the meeting’s members. That’s what the angel is, the spirituality of a meeting, and thus a projection, if you will, of all its members. It’s really hard to spiritually commune with your own true self.

This faith and practice isn’t New Age balderdash. It is literal biblical Quaker Christianity in a unique manifestation.

Most of us already have some inkling of this kind of thing. We have had the experience that, as soon as you enter a new meeting’s meeting room, you can begin to sense something of the meeting’s personality and this sense deepens as you worship with them or talk to its members.

And lucky for us, we even have some guidelines about what is going on and how to commune with a meeting and its angel in this way. I am talking about the theologian Walter Wink’s extraordinary series of books on “the Powers”—his catchword for the various spiritual entities mentioned in Christian Scripture. I am especially referring to the chapter in the second book in the series, Unmasking the Powers, on the angels of churches. [Note: I just learned that Walter Wink died a few years ago. He was easily my favorite theologian. He made really valuable contributions to our understanding of the gospel. I’m sad.]

Wink’s approach is very modern: he looks at the Powers as the interior spirituality of things, not as the conventional beings with wings and semi-divine powers that we have in popular culture. In section three of the introductory book Naming the Powers, two of his chapter headings will give you a sense of his approach: “The Powers are the inner aspect of material reality”, and “Heaven is the transcendent “within” of material reality”.

I think his insights are so good that I want to quote extensively from Unmasking the Powers on the angels of churches.

What is the angel of the meeting?

It would appear that the angel is not something separate from the congregation, but must somehow represent it as a totality. . . . The angel would then exist in, with, and under the material expressions of the church’s life as its interiority. As the corporate personality or felt sense of the whole, the angel of the church would have no separate existence apart from the people. . . . Angel and people are the inner and outer aspects of one and the same reality. The people incarnate or embody the angelic spirit; the angel distills the invisible essence of their totality as a group. The angel and the congregation come into being together and, if such is their destiny, pass out of existence together. The one cannot exist without the other. (p. 70)

Is the angel of the church then real? On the question of the metaphysical status of angels I have no direct knowledge. . . . I am inclined to follow a more functionalist approach. What the ancients called the angel of a collective entity actually answers to an aspect of all corporate realities: they do have an inner spirit, though our culture has been trained to ignore it. To that degree their angels are real, whether they possess personal metaphysical reality apart from their function or not. Their function is manifested by their personality and their vocation. (p. 71)

The “vocation” of the angel of the meeting—what is its purpose and how should this inform our relationship with it?

Far from being perfect heavenly beings, these angels encompass every aspect of a church’s current reality, good and bad alike. In the same way that I am at every moment simultaneously who I am and who I might become, the angel encompasses both what the church is and what it is called to be. . . . (p. 72)

The coexistence of these two aspects within a single image may be confusing, but this complexity is precisely what gives to this category its heuristic power. Sociological analyses of a congregation can lift up aspects of its personality, but can make no normative statement about what it should become. Theological analyses can speak about vocation [what it is called to become], but tend to do so in global generalizations and categorical imperatives that make no allowance for the unique problems and possibilities of individual congregations. The angel of the church provides us with an exceedingly rich category for congregational analysis, while at the same time providing us with a biblical image for reflecting theologically on the congregation’s unique vocation. The angel gathers up into a single whole all the aspirations and grudges, hopes and vendettas, fidelity and unfaithfulness of a given community of believers, and lays it all before God for judgment, correction, and healing. (p. 73)

In the letters to the churches in Revelation, Christ as the Son of Man* lays out observations about the condition of each church and then prescribes the changes that it should undertake and the rewards that await them if they “conquer”. These are pastoral letters intended to shine the Light on the churches’ shadows and show them the way to grace. The last letter ends with a passage that was a favorite of George Fox when talking about turning toward the light of Christ:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Rev. 3:20)

Discerning the angel of the meeting.

Wink goes on to describe ways in which we can discern the angel of a meeting.

If we wish to discern the angel of a church, then, we first need to see what is there. Once we have become acquainted with its personality we can ask about its vocation. If the congregation and its physical structures are the outward manifestation of the angelic spirit, then the inner reality should be made manifest by its outer concretions. So we can start from the visible, isolating the manifest characteristics of a church and asking what each reveals about its angel. The items that I will highlight are merely suggestive, certainly not exhaustive, and would serve as but starters for a full analysis of a church. [He then discusses the following areas:]

  • architecture and ambiance;
  • economic class and income, social and ethnic background, education, age, and gender of the members;
  • the meeting’s power structure;
  • how the meeting handles conflict;
  • the form of worship (liturgy); and
  • history—how the meeting sees itself.

Many of these aspects are quite different from one Christian denomination to another, but they vary a lot less among Friends. Think of the difference between a Congregatational church in New England versus a Roman Catholic cathedral, in terms of architecture, power structure, and liturgy, etc. Nevertheless, I think they all apply to some degree to Quaker meetings. I think of Fifteenth Street’s huge meetinghouse in Manhattan compared to my meeting’s modest house in Yardley, PA. This is especially true with the way we handle conflict and our histories. So we need our own markers, in addition to the ones Wink provides. I suggest the following:

  • any history in the separations—Orthodox, Hicksite, Wilburite?
  • committee structure—what committees does the meeting have and how many are there relative to their meeting size;
  • presence or absence of recorded ministers, Friends traveling or serving under minutes, and attitudes toward recording, minutes of travel, and other formal programs for ministry and spiritual formation and nurture;
  • presence or absence of potlucks, Friendly Eights, and other opportunities for socializing;
  • existence or absence of corporate witness, outreach, and ecumenical participation in the wider community;
  • number of families with children and the state of First Day School;
  • state of adult religious education;
  • presence or absence of meeting retreats;
  • percentage of members and attenders who attend meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship;
  • ratio of attenders to members;
  • gender and age mix among the meeting’s leadership (clerks and committee clerks);
  • presence or absence of Bible study and attitudes toward the Bible;
  • “tolerance” (or intolerance) versus welcoming of all kinds of vocal ministry, especially of biblical and Christian content and of prophetic witness;
  • number of Friends active in the regional meeting and the yearly meeting;
  • number of Friends whose knowledge of Quaker faith, practice, and history prepares them to teach these things in the meeting.

Ministering to the meeting through its angel

Wink’s whole approach to the angels of churches focuses on vocation—on helping churches become what they are called to be, for their members and in the world. He himself is a very dedicated activist theologian, having written a whole book on apartheid back in the 1980s, and he gave us a breakthrough interpretation of Jesus’ “resist not evil” teachings (“if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the left”, etc.). His extraordinary reading revealed Jesus as anything but passive, but rather, as a master of the jiujitsu move against oppression—turning nonviolent protest into a challenge for the oppressor (a topic for a later post).

Like him, and like those early Friends, I believe we can use the idea—the reality, in my experience—of the angel of the meeting to help transform our meetings, especially when we fall into conflict. The last section of Wink’s chapter on the angel of the church is a case study of how this framework was actually used by a pastor of a congregation.

But the angel is not itself an agent of change. “That role, the letters [in Revelation] make clear, belongs to the “one like a human being,” the Christ.

 . . . no matter how far the congregation has deviated from the divine will, the knowledge of that will is still encoded in its “higher self,” the angel. (p. 78–79)

It is only the “one like a human being” [meaning an angel who has the form of a human, rather than an angelic body; that angel is Christ] who can bring the churches into line with the will of God. . . . God must suddenly appear to the congregations as outside their ken. They must experience a jolt of recognition: we are out of phase with the will of God.

That Otherness that lays such a radical demand on these insignificant congregations must be revealed to them, however, in a way that is not wholly discontinuous with their history. Hence the role of the intermediary, John [writer of Revelation], who is a part of their sameness and yet has beheld the Otherness and can unmask the ways their existence is out of line with their vocation. . . .

In the final analysis only Christ as the Spirit of the whole church (emphasis mine) can change a church, and only the renewed presence of that spirit can bring the churches into line with their supreme vocation. Only as changes in personnel, programs, and relationships take place in congruence with that vocation will genuine transformation take place. For that reason the single most important element in Revelation 1–3 is not the letters as such, but the primal vision that makes them possible: the vision of Christ as the Ultimate Human (1:9–10). Change requires all our strength and sagacity but it also requires that we sit quite still until we have discerned the angel and have been caught up in a vision of what it could become if it were alive to the divine presence that “walks among the seven golden lamp stands” (2:1). . . .

This requires discerning the lineaments and characteristics of a church’s angel. It means holding its present reality up before the one who is present in its midst (emphasis mine) for judgment or affirmation. It involves accepting and loving its present reality, however corrupt, just as one would any other sinner. Churches are like people: they do not change in order that they might be accepted; they must be accepted in order that they might change. If we accept and love the wounded angel, praying for a vision of its true personality (rather than imposing our own), and engaging with others in the struggle to discern the true nature of its calling, then the whole congregation may move toward it organically. (pp. 80–82)

Walter Wink is a Christian, of course, and so he turns to Christ, following the text of Revelation itself, and he takes for granted the value of this very strange book in the Bible for the congregations and readers he is addressing. I wonder how this language is going over with my post-Christian readers?

I highlighted three phrases that seem quite close to Quaker tradition. The reason he uses these phrases may be that Wink does, in fact, attend a Quaker meeting fairly frequently. He knows our tradition. I hope that these phrases will give my readers a door into how this thinking might work for us.

I believe that his approach, which marries sociology to spirituality, is just the kind of approach that should appeal to even our post-Christian meetings. This was one of the fruits for me of my exploration of the gathered meeting—discovering how Christ can be understood as the consciousness of the gathered meeting. Though he is much more, Wink describes Christ as the consciousness of the church as a whole, as the angel of the meeting that is the whole of the universal church. And it was Wink’s books on the Powers that came back to me when I started exploring the relationship between the Christ and the gathered meeting.

Meanwhile, Wink’s approach does, I believe, also provide us with tools that can help us minister to our meetings. At the very least, this framework reminds us that spirit is involved in the dynamics and the conflicts of our meetings, not just sociology—not just human feelings and relationships, but also the inward standing wave of identity and direction that is a meeting’s life—its spiritual momentum, if you will.

Which helps to explain why meetings resist change. They have momentum. They have a certain spiritual mass and direction already, and you can’t turn them at will. You must address this inner dimension of meeting life to bring it transformation, just as you must address the outer dimensions of a meeting’s life.

Well, this has turned into a really long post. I quoted a lot, but there’s lots more. I hope it’s been worth it. I cannot recommend Walter Wink’s books enough, and perhaps some of my readers will find this compelling enough to buy these books and read this whole chapter for yourselves.

Thanks for hanging on this long.

* The Son of Man is the only title Jesus takes for himself in the gospel of Mark. Literally, it translates as “son of Adam”, which is a Hebrew and Aramaic idiom for mortal, or human. But in translations, the title is usually capitalized because it not only is a title, but refers to a specific angelic manifestation of Jesus who will return to judge the world at the end time. This is an exceedingly rich image, deriving meaning from its use in the books of Daniel and Revelation, in addition to the gospels, especially Mark, and also the pseudepigraphical Book of Enoch, which the letter of 1 Peter quotes verbatim, so we know the early Christians considered at least parts of it to be divinely inspired. I believe understanding the “Son of Man” is the key to understanding why Jesus came to be understood as divine. But to unpack that claim would take a long monograph. Thus—for another time and another venue.



§ 16 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Fellowship & the Angel of the Meeting

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  • I too would be very eager to find reference to the letters/journals to which Taber was referring. I think though, that exact phrase “Angel of the Meeting” would not likely have been found as it seems (anecdotally) that we contemporary Friends use “the Meeting” as a lexical unit much more frequently that previous generations. This does not mean, though, that this idea did not exist.

    I looked at each of the entries for “angel of” in Digital Quaker Collection, and on the 49th entry (relevance score of 0.015) got a letter from Hicks to “two Friends in Philadelphia, in the early part of the year 1823.”

    While almost all the previous entries are for Angel of Light” and “Angel of God,” this one is a bit different and it *might* suggest the kind of thinking Steve recounts Taber as having taught:

    “my mind has been drawn into a renewed feeling of near sympathy and gospel affection with
    the dearly beloved youth, not only those of your Monthly Meeting,* that fell more particularly under my notice in the family visits I made when with you, but all others of your city, whom the Lord in the riches of his mercy, is renewedly visiting with the day-spring from on high, through the immediate manifestation of his love and light in their inner man, as the guardian angel of his presence to guide them and keep them; and as they take heed thereunto, will preserve and keep them from all evil, and will lead them up to the head-spring and fountain of living water, of which, when they drink, they will never thirst again after the muddy waters of tradition and education, that stands in the letter that killeth.”


  • Rich Accetta-Evans says:

    Did Bill Taber write about this idea, and did he cite sources?

    • sourlandr says:

      Hi, Rich

      I heard it from him in either a class at Pendle Hill, or a private conversation, I don’t really remember which. But I think it was in class. I know of nothing he had written about this. I think he must have had quite a lot of “papers” that did not reach print, but I don’t know anything about their real existence or their dispensation. Maybe they’re at Olney School. That’s worth looking into.

      Sent from my iPad


  • vombutch says:

    Perhaps – it would be easier on Quaker data bases if “angel” was replaced by “spirit” and “esprit de corps” for group/Meeting angel?

  • treegestalt says:

    The precise nature of these ‘angels’ continues to interest me, though I don’t know that we need to ‘settle’ it.

    Did Sherlock Holmes have ‘an inwardness’? He had a definite personality; thousands of readers complained when his author tried to do away with him; probably any of us would have some idea of “What would Sherlock do?” — or at least what that would look like, even though we lack the precise observational skills we’d need to emulate it…

    My computer is physically embodied, carries out logical processes resembling thought — but (Even though I typically approach a skittish computer with the mantra: “Nice computer, good computer!”) — presumably no ‘inwardness’.

    I can posit ‘a mind’ when I see signs of something acting in a responsive, purposeful way. Something about a Meeting suggests that sort of mentality, even though (far as I can tell) it has no embodiment in any particular individual member.

    Without knowing that there’s something that consciously thinks of itself as “the spirit of Blahblah Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends” I’m reduced to thinking of this mind as an ‘unconscious’ one, ie one that carries out thought-processes and responds to things ‘feelingly’ without (necessarily) having an ‘inwardness’, ie an identity that feels itself sensing-&-responding in the same way that I know I’m typing this and you know you’re reading it.

    Stephen Gaskin observed that ‘We’re all telepathic’, ie that people appear to share thoughts/feelings/etc beyond what gets transmitted through the normal physical channels. Whatever sort of psychic virtual-personality connects us in that way — whatever subpersonalities, tribal identities etc., might form in that medium… I think that God could ‘consign them to the Lake of Fire’ [where appropriate] and there’d be nobody ‘in there’ to suffer. (That was how Jacques Ellul imagined the Judgment in his book on _Revelation_: that The Powers would be judged and in some cases condemned, but that no humans would be lastingly harmed in the process.)

    I’m not by any means ruling out “disembodied” consciousnesses (or consciousnesses with a non-physical sort of body) but having a particular location, a particular history serves to mark ‘me’ off from ‘you’ for example, a sort of psychic address or serial number…. What distinguishes disembodied consciousness that ‘exist’ from those we imagine? (& if God creates these at will, hmmm!)

  • Bill Rushby says:

    Hello again, Stephen!

    I don’t think there is any evidence that Friends believed that meetings had angels, but the idea that visiting ministers avoided being “clued in” beforehand about the spiritual condition of a meeting and its attenders is well established.

    I have been reading passages from *Ephraim Bowles, his Quaker Heritage*, a combination biography/journal of Bowles, who was a (primarily) 19th Century minister among Conservative Friends in Kansas.

    I came across the following passage: “His ministry on this visit (to Iowa) was fresh and to the point. While he was always tender and living he could speak very plainly when he felt it to be his duty. At one meeting he preached what some pronounced a great sermon, but some must have winced under it. In the afternoon, one Friend said privately, ‘I don’t think we ought to tell ministers anything about conditions, but let them feel it out.’ The reply was, ‘That is just what we think, too; we told him nothing nor took him anywhere before this meeting.’

    Father told us afterward that he had ‘never been so pressed down with a feeling of form without life, as on that occasion.'”

  • A cursory look through the Quaker Bible Index (http://esr.earlham.edu/qbi/9hr/rev1-3.htm) turned up plenty of references to the verses in Revelation that mention the angels of the seven churches, but none of the early Quaker writers cited seemed curious as to who or what the angels of the churches were. But no matter: it’s clear that to the author of Revelation, and to the “One like unto the Son of Man” who gave the messages to be sent to those angels, the angels were no more above reproach and warning than the men and women that made up their churches, i.e., were not particularly “holy” or “heavenly” angels.

    Were they, therefore, merely “the unconscious mind of the institution,” as Treegestalt suggests? (though Treegestalt’s words may be Wink’s; I haven’t yet read Wink) Or is there in fact some being to “be” the angel of the church, to hear the Lord’s warning, to intend obedience, and to mobilize and encourage the church’s individual members?The words of Scripture imply real beings with consciousness, will, and identity: “Be zealous therefore, and repent!” was not addressed to a mere institutional unconscious.

    The question is not a merely academic one for me, because I feel myself engaged in what seems like a dialogue (or struggle) with the angel of my own meeting, which in turn seems to have such-and-such a personality, tends to do certain things well and other things not-so-well, has a history of strained relations with the angel of the Quaker school next door, etc.

    We may shy away from the question of whether churches’ “angels” have any real “being” because we’re frightened of beings we can’t see and want to legislate them out of any possible existence — with unfortunate results for the demon-troubled, who can often get help from neither priest nor psychiatrist, not to mention the many who can’t accept the gospel of Christ because of materialistic preconceptions.

    The idea of many individuals making up one collective person is not just a poetic fancy of ancient political theorists, but a teaching enshrined in the heart of the Fourth Gospel: in the Vine Discourse of John 15, and in Jesus’ final prayer for the disciples in John 17, “that they may be one even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one” (vv. 22-23). In our time we have _A Course in Miracles_ teaching that all this multiplicity of selves we experience is but a dream, and when we awaken from it we’ll know that there was ever only one Son of God, Christ Jesus, and we exist eternally in and as Him; but several centuries earlier we had Swedenborg’s _Heaven and Hell_, which described heavenly (and hellish) communities as looking, from a distance, each like one individual person, and indeed all heaven as being in the form of Christ the Lord, one Divine Man comprising countless souls of the blessed.

    I’m inclined to say that if a meeting feels like a person, interacts like a person, and exhibits the spiritual pathology of a person as the seven churches in Asia did, the chances are its angel is a person. But one day, I hope, the Lord will show us all how this mystery of collective personhood works.

    • In Walter Wink’s discussion of the angel of the church, he points out that the Hebrew Scripture model for what he was talking about was the belief that Michael was the angel of Israel as a people (Daniel 12:1). In Daniel, Michael is the” angel of the church” of all Israel. certainly acts like a person. Even more startlingly anthropomorphic is the “prince of the kingdom of Persia (a Principality, in the nomenclature of the Powers in Paul), who “withstood” the angel of Daniel’s vision in Chapter 10; that angel is rescued by Michael after “one and twenty days”.

      My own experiences of angels of meetings was not so anthropomorphic that they actually spoke or otherwise directly addressed either me, the “visionary”, or the meeting. They were both just there, and I got meaning, not from their speech or actions, but from an immediate intuition as the to symbolism of its circumstances and presentation. It was much like the most vivid examples of a really good visualization exercise: elements of the “vision” effortlessly revealed themselves as meaning this and that.

      This fits better with Wink’s interpretation of these “angels” as the emergent interiority of the meeting, rather than as independent sentient beings, like those who visited the prophet Daniel. They did not really act on their own in any way, but rather reflected the condition of the meeting.

  • treegestalt says:

    Wink had some wonderful insights… but his description of ‘The Powers’ strikes me as mistaken.

    William Stringfellow, now, didn’t try to define angels except as entities created by God for His own good purposes & creative pleasure. Springfellow said he’d been able to explain them to students of business, political science & the like — and they readily grasped — operationally, from ‘observation’, what sort of thing he was talking about (like being able to recognize ‘wind’ from watching leaves fly about.) Theological students, alas, were too modern to get it.

    Though Wink sometimes describes the Powers as some sort of ‘interior’ spirituality, this simply does not apply: There is no being to ‘be’ the consciousness of a Meeting; it simply doesn’t have one.

    Yet an institution will generally have an unconscious mind — That is, it will behave as if it ‘had a mind of its own’ — thoughts, desires, fears, likes & dislikes, intentions which are not necessarily those of any particular member, which may even affect outcomes despite members’ conscious intentions.

    I’d wondered about this with my own Meeting, was intrigued but skeptical — until a fairly new attender spoke up to ask whether it was all right for her to invite new people. “I feel like people here aren’t entirely comfortable with strangers or with having the Meeting change.” I don’t believe that anyone there would have told her that, but she must have picked that attitude up somehow. I’d been struggling against it for years without realizing how pervasive it was.

    • I find that I disagree with you, treegestalt. First, I definitely believe that meetings DO have a “being” that could have an interiority. In fact, I think just about everything does, certainly living beings and the cultural formations of human beings. That for instance, Nazi Germany had a Principality of evil, a national spiritual identity and momentum that, as a kind of mob psychology caught up even otherwise good people in evil acts, often against their will, in a way. A kind of demonic possession of the nation.

      Second, where, outside of the Bible, is there evidence of independent agents of God’s creation acting in the human world, as William Stringfellow says? And even these biblical stories are saturated with symbolic elements. The book of Daniel is a great example of beings who act and can be delayed by another power, and yet have bodies “like beryl” and a face “as of lightning”. These elements are clearly “designed” to raise associations with Yahweh’s glory as manifestations through thunderstorms, lightning, and other extraordinary manifestations of light in the atmosphere. Even if we take these descriptions literally, they still have highly charged symbolic elements that are rich with associations.

      Then there’s Jung, of course, with his theory of archetypes and a collective consciousness and a collective unconscious.

      Which brings me to your last paragraph in which you say that meetings can have an unconscious. How can you have a collective unconscious without having a collective consciousness? At least for me (I’m not sure about Wink), this collective consciousness is the “interiority” of the meeting. And I believe we can say meetings have a collective consciousness with considerable confidence because we experience it in the gathered meeting.

  • Hi Steven Davison! Thanks for your very fine post. I posted a rumination on aspects of it on my blog. Thanks for the inspiration and really good thinking about ministry and spirit in our meetings. http://seekerfinding.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-better-angels-of-our-nature.html

  • Bill Rushby says:

    Hello, Steven!

    I entered the phrase “angel of the meeting” into the search function of the Digital Quaker Collection, which includes a very large number of ministers’ journals and other Quaker texts–going all the way back to the beginning. I got zero hits; this phrase was not found in any of them.

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