What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Witness & Service

March 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

Bringing G*d into the world in social action—witness and service.

We have a reputation as a socially engaged religious community and, more than any other religious community perhaps, we elevate social witness to a central place in our religious identity.

The testimonial impulse arises within individuals as spirit-led concern, as feelings of anguish at suffering and oppression, as compassion for those who suffer and are oppressed, both human and non-human, and as a desire to do something about it. That our religion offers these feelings a welcoming home in the community is a deep, powerful, and profound aspect of Quakerism.

For hundreds of years, Friends who felt these emotions, and who felt prompted by the Light within them to act on their feelings, brought their concerns to their meetings for discernment and support in the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. To be fair, it seems that for most of this time, the impulse was mostly to evangelism as traditionally understood, to travel in gospel ministry, though we always have had our John Bellers, our John Woolman, our Elizabeth Fry, our Lucretia Mott.

For most of our history, what I am calling the “witness impulse” was usually a prompting to witness to individuals to change their ways, rather than an attempt to address the root sources of suffering and oppression in the structures of society and their systemic dimension. I think of Elizabeth Fry teaching women prisoners to read or John Woolman traveling from household to household urging Friends to stop holding slaves.

Also, Friends who felt led to more focused, more practical, more truly witness-oriented action often faced inertia, if not resistance. I think of John Bellers, for example, who in the early 18th century repeatedly presented practical solutions to poverty to what was then London Yearly Meeting, and got nowhere.

It seems to me that what we now think of as “witness” work really only got going with the rise of liberal Quakerism at the turn of the 20th century. By “witness ministry” I mean spirit-led work aimed at righting wrongs, changing the social order, getting at the roots of human suffering and oppression, rather than evangelizing individuals and treating the symptoms with charity.

When liberal Quakerism realized its identity during and after the Manchester Conference in England and the Richmond Conference in the United States, and Friends like Rufus Jones, John Wilhelm Rowntree and his brother Seebohm saw a new imperative in the Christian gospel, Quakerism entered a new era. This corresponded with the rise of the Social Gospel movement more broadly, a religious reaction of conscience against the ravages of industrial capitalism and the inequities of the Robber Baron era.

Then came World War I and the recovery of an active peace testimony that required of Friends true sacrifice in the face of social persecution and state prosecution. For the first time since the Lamb’s War of the 1650s, Quakers were defying social norms and the laws of the state and trying to change the social order itself from the light in their conscience, and a new consciousness was formed in us by adversity, sacrifice, and the need for a public defense of our witness. Quakers came out of the Great War a different people

But we were at the same time dismantling the traditional processes and structures for Quaker ministry. By the 1920s, in most parts of Quakerism, we had stopped recording ministers and elders and stopped writing minutes of travel and service. Instead, we started forming committees.

The American Friends Service Committee in the US and the Friends Service Committee in Great Britain set the standard. We had Committees of Industry and Social Order. Now we have committees for everything and most Friends know no other structure for their witness ministry.

I have said this elsewhere, but here I must repeat: I believe that committees do not serve us well as the structure for bringing G*d into the world in witness ministry.

I believe they quench the spirit in many ways. I believe they distort in harmful ways the ministries they are organized to pursue. I believe we should stop using them. I believe we should return to the faith and practice of Quaker ministry as the way to bear our concerns in the world, but modified to meet modern needs.

I know from experience sharing these ideas with Friends that people freak out when they hear what I am proposing. Or rather, when they think they have heard what I’m proposing. I have found that Friends have a very hard time really hearing what I am saying because they hear instead an attack on the work that the committees are doing rather than a critique of committees as a structure for doing the work. So I will say over and over again that I am not proposing that we lay down the ministries that our witness committees are pursuing; I am proposing that we move away from committees as the structure we use to do it. The ministries matter; the committees are just structures.

I know, also, that I am proposing a truly revolutionary shift in our culture. You my reader may find yourself resisting my arguments because it seems that I want to take away something that you value with the utmost fervor. Let me reassure you that I do not want to take away a single work that G*d has inspired you and others to do on behalf of Truth. I only want to release it from the shackles that I believe our committee structure has bound them with.

In the next couple of posts I want to lay out the reasons I believe we should abandon committees organized around a concern and a strategy for working our way forward into a new culture of eldership for witness ministry.

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§ 5 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Witness & Service

  • barbarakay1 says:

    Our small local Meeting has laid down committee structures and does most things as a committee of the whole. We have contact people for property concerns and nurture concerns and make ad hoc committees for things like Quarterly Meeting Pot Luck. Most of us are involved in what might be termed social ministry, either for pay or as volunteers. There are too few of us living too scattered geographically (and most quite long in the tooth) to do much more as a Meeting than gather weekly for Worship and bi-monthly for Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business. We have been more active in the past and, granted young families with energy to spare, will be so in the future; but this is how we are led at this time.

  • We’re blessed to have a prophet among us that keeps prompting us to ask what our Society is for, and therefore to query whether our established ways are congruent with what God calls us to do. I pray that this posting, like your others, Steve, bears fruit in pricked consciences, structural reform, and closer listening for the voice of God.

    You contrast “spirit-led work aimed at righting wrongs, changing the social order, getting at the roots of human suffering and oppression” with “evangelizing individuals and treating the symptoms with charity.” But both are needed, both getting at the root of human suffering and evangelizing individuals, and this Jesus, the Buddha, Socrates, Krishna, George Fox and the Baal Shem Tov understood, so why don’t we? In our time, Martin Luther King, Jr. both shook the foundations of an oppressive social order and _also_ “evangelized” his opponents by praying for them. Would George Wallace have repented before dying if he hadn’t?

    I see a mind-set prevailing among Friends as I know them (mostly liberal Friends in the Northeastern US) that’s grown so disdainful of the idea of evangelizing individuals that we become almost indistinguishable from secular reformers that hope to change the social order by bullying, not evangelizing, individuals: “accede to our demands or we’ll shame you in the media, vote you out of office, and destroy you with our hate.” Such a threat is a carnal weapon. This cannot be “spirit-led work aimed at righting wrongs.”

    I’m cheered by the development of the Transition movement, which mobilizes people to take power into their own hands through local organization. But once that movement prevails, who will evangelize the people in the Transition Towns to take their heart away from the perishable goods of this world and set it on the Imperishable, which only overcomes death and separateness and futility? Have Friends lost their vision of a “fellowship in that which is before time was?”

  • Dear Steve,
    Thank you for your posts. I find them thought provoking.
    Our Meeting had a Peace and Social Concerns Committee. Those of us on the Committee would receive concerns from CFSC, our community and other places. We would feel duty bound to bring most of them to the attention of the Meeting – so they were not the result of a Leading. We also reminded Friends that our work should be the result of their Leadings and asked them to bring matters forward for support from the Committee and the Meeting. I don’t think we had any. Our Committee did facilitate some of the requests that came in from other places, but by and large we became cheque writers, not activists.
    After a time we suggested laying down the Committee. I think it spreads the onus to the Meeting as a whole. Requests that need extra attention are given an ad-hoc committee.
    This is not to say that members of our Meeting were or are inactive. Many do things individually. One thing we are reminded of is that projects we took on years ago, still benefit from support. This takes time. These connections have become relationships, not something reported on in our state of Society report, but important nonetheless.

  • Bill Rushby says:

    See Tucker, R.W. “Structural Incongruities in Quaker Service.” Quaker Religious Thought, Autumn, 1971. pp 49-66.

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    Funny you should mention it. I’ve also been proposing we ban the word “committee” altogether, along with all the baggage these committees carry. (Think of university faculties, for instance.) And I’ve started pressing for reorganization based on ministries, spiritual gifts, and flexible working teams instead of rigid names-on-the-grid.
    One other point: can you think of another denomination, other than the Salvation Army, that was founded with as much social witness as Friends were? So much of our early leadership came from the Levelers and True Model Army, with all of their revolutionary impulses we melded into our own.
    And so much of the work remains in our efforts to be faithful to “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

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