Hurt by the Meeting

January 28, 2020 § 12 Comments

I know quite a few Friends who feel wounded or betrayed by their meetings. In the incidents in which this wounding occurred, it was individuals who hurt each other. Yet, whatever these Friends might feel towards the individuals involved, they still feel betrayed by the meeting, as well. This is the shadow side of the extraordinary corporate character of Quaker meeting life.

This transference of blame, hurt, and anger to the meeting calls for a special kind of pastoral care that we don’t seem to do very well or even talk about much. I am not at all clear about what’s called for myself, but I grieve for the people I know who have been hurt in this way and also for the meetings in which this pain and tension lives as a shadow on the fellowship. So I’m going to explore it here, in the hope that thinking and writing about it will bring some kind of opening and/or elicit some insights from my readers.

First, why do we transfer to the meeting hurts we suffer at the hands of individuals?

In some cases, I think we do so because a number of individuals were involved, and there seemed to be some kind of consensus among them about what they were doing. Some spirit was at work, some sense of the gathering.

Friends also have a perverse tendency sometimes to minister to the perpetrator in a fraught situation, rather than the victim. I’m not sure where this comes from. Maybe it comes from a perverse desire not to take sides, as though siding with the perp isn’t taking sides, but providing some kind of balance instead. I don’t know. But I want to name it, and I know it figures in some of these situations.

Very often, I know the hurt stems from the fact that other Friends let it happen, that a group or the meeting as a whole stood by while the wounding took place. These witnesses may not have agreed with what was going on, but they were paralyzed by fear, awkwardness, or indecision, or a failure of insight into what to do and/or courage to do it. This is a large part of why so many Catholics who have been abused by priests are so angry at the church: the church did nothing to stop it.

Very often, we’re not talking about just one incident, but rather an ongoing situation in which the principals seem stuck in their patterns and the meeting as a whole either doesn’t know what’s going on until it’s too late or doesn’t know what to do. Here, our culture of silence is our enemy: we tend not to talk to each other forthrightly about such things (though we may do so behind cupped hands in the parking lot), and our passive quietist tendencies suppress active involvement.

Also, in the Catholic case, the institution was more important to those in power than the people who were being victimized. We Quakers don’t have an imperial institution with that kind of embedded power, but we can still favor the institution over the individual. For us, the “institution” is “Quaker process.” I have seen Friends insist on Quaker process when the process was clearly hurting someone. Usually, this manifests as delay: it takes so long for the meeting to come to clarity and decision that those involved feel betrayed; their needs or concerns seem to have no value in the face of the slowly moving machine.

I have a phrase for this: To hell with Quaker process when hell is where it takes you. I feel quite strongly that people are more important than principles and institutions most of the time. My signature example of this is the way conservatives want to protect “the institution” of marriage rather than protect same-gender couples. On the other hand, I’m not sure what we can do about this. Our process for corporate discernment sometimes takes a while.

I’m not sure what we can do in any of these cases. We have the “gospel order” of Matthew 18:15–20 to guide us when things go bad between individuals: speak to the one who has sinned against you, then take one or two others with you, then take it to the meeting. Early Friends adopted this framework explicitly. I’m not sure how long the practice continued, but modern-day Friends hardly even know it exists. I hear it talked about (there’s even a Pendle Hill Pamphlet), but I’ve never seen it done. For one thing, this process lays the impetus for action on the wounded one, whose vulnerability makes it hard to do. And it doesn’t work at all when you feel betrayed by the community.

Very often, Friends who were not part of the incidents and groups originally involved in the situation sense the tension and go to the aggrieved people to express their sympathy and to invite them to come back (for these Friends often leave us when they see nothing is being done to address their concerns). But the aggrieved want to hear from the principals, not from third parties. And I think they want something from the meeting, too, which the meeting does not know how to give, even if the meeting is inclined to do something collectively.

I have seen individuals who caused some such hurt speak publicly to the meeting of their error and their anguish at having made such a mistake, and this does help the meeting some; but it rarely helps the aggrieved, because they usually weren’t there to witness the contrition and feel some answering movement of forgiveness within themselves.

Perhaps a minute of exercise from the meeting would help, in which the meeting admits its failure to act, or whatever.

Or perhaps the meeting could have some kind of called meeting for atonement whose goal is to become clear about what happened and then to decide what to do. It might urge those involved to speak to each other, especially those who had caused the hurt or had not intervened, rather than the other way around.

This is a level of corporate self discipline that I have rarely seen among us. When I have, it’s been a spontaneous emergence of grace in a gathered meeting for business that resolved a conflict in the moment, but I don’t know how those who felt aggrieved going into the meeting felt when they left those meetings. The body might have felt better while the individuals did not.

Perhaps meetings could have a called meeting for speaking whose purpose is just to create as safe a space as possible for everyone to name their pain and grievances. I would model this on Quaker dialogue, known to some as Claremont dialogue, after the California meeting that published a pamphlet outlining how it works. It’s simple: It’s like a worship sharing—Friends speak what’s on their mind when they feel ready. No one interrupts or answers or debates what has been said, or tries to correct it. Everyone gets to speak their own truth and then everyone goes home. No discussion. No decision. No sympathizing or reassurances. Just honest speaking and deep listening.

I would love to hear from my readers what they think. I know that this is a widespread, even universal experience among us. Perhaps you have some insights or experience that the rest of us might find helpful.

Gospel Order Packet — Preface section

March 5, 2016 § 1 Comment

New York Yearly Meeting’s Gospel Order Packet was a loose leaf binder with eight pocket dividers packed with resource materials for nurturing gospel order in seven areas of meeting life. In the next posts, I plan to publish these materials as pdf files section by section. I have made no effort to edit them yet; that would delay the project too much.

The first section, published here, is a preface section with introductory materials. The other seven sections are:

  1. Individual Spiritual Development within the Community
  2. Meeting for Worship as Central to Community Life
  3. Recognizing God in All Community Members—Building the Faith Community
  4. Discernment of Leadings among Members
  5. Pastoral Care of Community Members
  6. Worship as the Basis for Quaker Business and Following Gospel Order in the Meeting Structure
  7. Fruits of the Spirit: Friends Social Testimonies

The Preface section

The Preface section includes the following materials:

Pamphlets included in the Packet included:

  • Spiritual Discernment—the context and goal of clearness committees, by Patricia Loring, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #305.
  • Guide to Quaker Practice, by Howard H. Brinton, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #20.

Gospel Order—Setting Limits

March 4, 2016 § 2 Comments

A checklist of questionable behaviors in meeting

A guide intended to help clarify the role of eldership in the meeting.

Meeting for worship

  •        Consistently arriving late
  •        Speaking too early in the meeting
  •        Leaving too little silence between messages
  •        Bringing a prepared message
  •        Dialog, or answering another’s message
  •        Speaking too long, “running past the guide”
  •        Speaking too often
  •        Speaking more than once
  •        Harangues, threats and other assaults on the worship
  •        Eldering a speaker without the inward or outward authority to do so
  •         Conversation, moving about, and other disturbances to the silence; reading and cell phone activity


  •        Inappropriate unauthorized eldering of others
  •        Quenching of the spirit of Christian or biblical (or any other) vocal ministry
  •        Sexual harassment; assault and/or battery
  •        Deceit and theft
  •        Refusal to work in good faith toward resolution of conflicts
  •        Tale bearing, backbiting, and rumormongering; “sense of the parking lot”
  •         Civil suit between members

Quaker process and meeting for business in worship

  •        Knowingly and consistently violating Quaker process
  •        Holding the meeting hostage: “if you do “x,” I will do “y”, withholding financial contributions in protest
  •        Forming political alliances
  •        Blackballing or stacking nominations
  •        Biased or forceful clerking; ignorant clerking
  •        Secret or improperly publicized meetings
  •        Failing to record minutes or changing the minutes without meeting approval
  •         Presuming to speak or act for the meeting on weighty matters without the approval of the meeting

The testimonies

  •        Civil suit between members
  •        Joining the armed forces
  •        Gambling
  •        The use of dangerous or addictive drugs
  •        Improper sexual conduct
  •        Unrepentant prejudice



Gospel Order—Signals and Actions

March 4, 2016 § 2 Comments

A Practical Guide to Eldering

Signals: Things that happen in the process of an unfolding, difficult situation that might call for action on the part of an authorized committee in the meeting.

Actions: Some suggestions about options in such circumstances.

Introduction to the Sequence of Signals and Actions

This “Sequence of Signals and Actions” has two purposes: to help meetings identify problems and conflicts with some clarity and in a timely fashion, and to provide some options for action. Experience with conflicts in the yearly meeting and the testimony of the state of the meeting reports in 1994 to the queries on conflict indicate that many meetings regret having waited until too late to address their problems and that meetings sometimes are not clear about an order of response to problems. We seek on the one hand, to protect other Friends and the worship and fellowship of the meeting from disturbance and conflict; on the other hand, we want to express compassion for all parties involved. We offer this sequence as a place to start.

It is only a place to start. We recognize that this is a very sensitive issue for Friends and we offer it as a set of suggestions only. We encourage and expect meetings to make their own connections and to revise them as their experience indicates. We do, however, strongly recommend that you decide ahead of time on some guidelines for when you will begin to act in response to a perceived problem; experience has made the value of such preparation very clear.

We use the phrase “bringing gospel order” several times. It may feel archaic or technical to some Friends; it may be uncomfortable to Friends for whom the “gospel” has no relevance or even has negative associations. We use it out of an interest in recovering our tradition, because it may contribute to deeper understanding of the term, but mostly because we believe it is rich in meaning; it would be difficult to say as much as this phrase does with so few words. We refer Friends to the brief information sheet on definitions of gospel order in the Preface Section of the Resource Packet on Gospel Order for a fuller understanding of the phrase. For the purposes of this resource, we would clarify our meaning of gospel order with this concise description:

‘Gospel order’ is used here to denote a process in which a person or persons bring their concerns directly to the person with whom they have a difficulty, in a spirit of love, with the intention of

  1. a) listening to the other person’s needs, feelings and concerns in the situation,
  2. b) sharing their own needs, feelings and concerns, and
  3. c) seeking some agreement as to how the conflict might be resolved. In some cases, those bringing gospel order may be authorized to speak for M & C or for the meeting.

A note about Ministry & Counsel’s log. Friends may feel uncomfortable with the prospect of someone keeping a record of who said what in the meeting. We recommend such a practice because we have seen repeatedly in actual conflict situations that Friends contradict each other in their claims and great confusion arises because no one knows what has really happened. Eventually, meetings often seek to recover and even to document for themselves some agreed-upon description of what has happened so that the meeting can make decisions in clarity and understanding. It is also useful to see how long a problem is lasting, how big it is getting over time, and what measures have and have not worked. To this end we recommend that the clerk of Ministry & Counsel keep a strictly confidential, dated record of complaints brought specifically to M & C and a record of whatever actions the body has taken and other informal notes which might be useful should confusion about events arise, and that this log be deleted of material which is no longer current.

We realize that some Friends will consider such a practice to be very unFriendly, even if it remains in the hands of the most trustworthy clerk and is kept in the strictest confidence. We hope that you can find some alternative method of retaining perspective and corporate memory in the midst of long-standing, complex difficulties.


Signals Actions
When someone on M&C hears of trouble informally Confer informally with other members of M&C
When the first person brings a concern to the clerk or someone on M&C Make a note in an elder’s log
Consider bringing the matter to M&C
Ask whether s/he has spoken directly to the persons concerned (gospel order*)
When the 2nd or 3rd person brings a concern to the clerk or someone on M&C Bring the matter to M&C
Ask whether s/he has brought gospel order.
Consider conferring with the meeting’s clerk.
When all members of M&C agree that there is a problem. Confer with the meeting’s clerk.
Prayerfully determine what is to be done and then appoint someone to bring gospel order to the situation.
If the initial attempt at gospel order fails. Try again with two or three people.
Consider holding a meeting for reconciliation.
If the second attempt fails and/or the idea of a meeting for reconciliation is rejected. Consider asking for outside help.
Consider bringing the matter to the meeting.
Consider some stronger intermediate action.
When the first person leaves meeting because of a difficult person. Minister to the person who has left.
Consider seeking outside help.
Take some strong intermediate action.
Firmly elder the difficult person, requiring an apology and a change in behavior (you may as well have lost them instead of the person who has left).
Consider bringing the matter before the meeting.
Eldering fails.
When the second person leaves the meeting because of a difficult person.
When the problem has persisted a long time (say, one year).
Consider asking the person to leave the meeting.
Consider terminating membership.


* As described elsewhere in the Gospel Order Packet, “gospel order” means several different things in different contexts. Here it refers to the traditional process for eldering someone in meeting that is based on Jesus’ instructions to his community in Matthew 18:15-20 for dealing with conflict within the meeting. This is a kind of “three-warning” process that includes 1) meeting alone with the other party in conflict to work toward resolution; 2) bringing one or two others to speak to the other party; 3) bringing the matter before the church/meeting. Finally, if no resolution can be reached, the meeting disowns the recalcitrant Friend. The passage in Matthew ends with the famous words: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also.”


Gospel Order—Some Guidelines for Eldering Discipline

March 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

While serving in the early 1990s on New York Yearly Meeting’s Ministry & Counsel Coordinating Committee, as it was then called, which had oversight for the yearly meeting committees concerned with worship, ministry, and pastoral care, and for the support of worship, ministry, and pastoral care in the local meetings, I participated in a few “interventions” with meetings that were experiencing conflict or difficulties of some kind with members.

In that service, I noticed some themes that were common to all these cases:

  • Meetings inevitably wished that they had acted more decisively and sooner than they did.
  • They wished that they had talked with each other more about what was going on; a culture of silence had masked unacceptable behavior.
  • They were not clear collectively as a ministry or pastoral care committee or as a meeting about what exactly was not acceptable behavior.
  • They had experienced some denial, considerable confusion about how to act, and a deep hesitancy to act in a way that might harm someone, even when that someone was harming others or the fellowship or the worship.
  • They lost members, and some who did not leave still felt deeply betrayed or hurt by the meeting’s actions and/or inactions.

When we set out to create the Gospel Order Packet, I developed two documents intended as aids to a meeting’s efforts to protect the worship and protect the fellowship of the meeting. One was a tentative list of unacceptable behavior and the other was a set of “triggers” and response to those triggers, a list of behaviors or incidents that should attract the meeting or committee’s attention, and some tentative general suggestions about what to do when these things happened.

I have converted these to pdf files, which you can download using the links below, and I have also entered them as their own blog posts.

Gospel Order—Four Types of Clearness Committees

March 3, 2016 § 7 Comments

The gospel order packet committee of New York Yearly Meeting wanted to include resources on clearness committees, but as we looked into them, we discovered a bit of confusion and heard accounts of Friends being mishandled in their conduct. So we did some research and some thinking and came up with this handout on Four Types of Clearness Committees, which I have revised very slightly for this publication.


Clearness committees are an ancient tradition among Friends, originating with clearness committees for marriage in our earliest days. In a letter written in 1653, George Fox refers to some process in which, “when all things [are] found clear,” the faithful “might appoint a meeting on purpose for the taking of each other” in marriage.

In our own time, this tradition has enjoyed a renaissance, with new forms emerging spontaneously as meetings creatively adapt the basic format to new situations and needs. In this process, some confusion has resulted about what a clearness committee is, how it is appointed and conducted, and what it can be used for. With this short paper, we hope to clarify very briefly the various purposes and formats for clearness committees that we have encountered. It is also a resource guide, citing pamphlets that provide useful information on the variations described.

We have identified four kinds of clearness committees in use among us so far. These include:

  1. The traditional clearness committees for marriage and meeting membership.
  2. The more recent but widely used committees for helping a Friend reach clearness in making a decision or solving a personal problem.
  3. Clearness committees for discerning a leading.
  4. Clearness committees used for conflict resolution.

Some comments: In our experience, the last two uses just mentioned are much less well defined than the first two. For one thing, there are fewer support materials available, especially of the ‘how-to’ kind that would be useful to conveners. Consequently, in discussing them we have gone past description of present experience and practice and have provided some general suggestions for the purpose of clarity. Nevertheless, questions about their actual practice remain unanswered. We hope that more research and experimentation will produce more useful materials in the future. As we explore these new forms, we recommend that meetings use some caution. We know of circumstances in which the wrong format was used and Friends were hurt. We hope that the clarifications we offer below will help prevent accidental misuse.

Some suggestions: Experience with clearness committees suggests several things. It’s important to have some seasoned Friends on any clearness committee, folks who can guide the process when it needs it, and leave it to the Spirit when it is gathered. It’s useful to have some connection to Ministry & Counsel in the meeting, so that someone has an overview of what’s going on in the meeting and can help with resources, if necessary. We also recommend thinking out which kind of clearness committee is called for in those cases that are not for marriage or membership, to help provide good order for the committee’s conduct.

The role of worship: Finally, a word about the role of worship in the clearness process. The more worshipful a clearness committee is, the better it works. As in meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship—and especially like worship sharing, with which clearness committees have many affinities—it is God who leads us into clarity of mind and singleness of heart. It is the faith of Friends that in silent attention to the Inner Guide, the Spirit of truth of whom John speaks (John 14:17) will come to us and guide our work. One key to such worshipfulness is humility. The more we come to the work of the committee as servants of the Friends involved and lay ourselves in God’s hands, the better the process seems to work. Many Friends have had the experience of surprising openings in the process of the committee session and of unlooked-for answers afterwards, even when the session itself has seemed at first unfruitful. Worship, cultivated in all aspects of the clearness committee’s process, nurtures this rising up of God’s leading light, in which we are enabled to answer that of God in each other.

Four types of clearness committee

Clearness committees for marriage and membership

The meeting chooses the committee. The committee has a specific goal: whether the meeting and the applicant(s) are clear to go forward with either the marriage or the membership application.


  • The NYYM pamphlet on Marrying Under the Care of Friends.
  • Peter Woodrow, Clearness: Processes For Supporting Individuals And Groups In Decision-Making, Movement for a New Society, 1985. Part Two covers clearness committees for membership in a Movement for a New Society household; developed from the Quaker process for membership.

Clearness committees for discerning a leading

The committee might be chosen in consultation between the meeting and the member. The goal is to determine whether a specific leading is of God and/or how the meeting might support the ministry that arises from the leading; in this sense, the form is close to that for membership and marriage.


  • Patricia Loring, Spiritual Discernment: the context and goal of clearness committees, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #305.
  • Paul A. Lacey, Leading And Being Led, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #264. What Quakers mean by a “leading.”

Clearness committees to help a Friend make a decision or understand a personal problem

The committee is chosen mostly by the applicant. The process is one of simply asking good questions designed to clarify the situation for the ‘focus person’; there is no specific goal or corporate decision to be sought.


  • Jan Hoffman, “Clearness Committees and their use in Personal Discernment.” A short piece widely reprinted.
  • Peter Woodrow, Clearness: Processes For Supporting Individuals And Groups In Decision-Making, Movement for a New Society, 1985. Part One covers clearness committees for decision making and seeking greater clarity about ones directions in life and work.

Clearness committees for conflict resolution.

This is a new and as yet somewhat undefined use for clearness committees for which there are no set format or guidelines currently in use among Friends. Meetings seem to be doing whatever makes sense to them in an attempt to resolve a conflict and calling the process a clearness committee. Here we offer some suggestions to help clarify things.

Both the meeting and those in conflict might choose the people on the committee. The ideal, long-term goal is reconciliation or a new agreement between the parties in conflict; the practical, short-term goal is a safe environment in which those in conflict can speak and be heard and achieve enough clarity about the situation for the meeting (including the parties in the conflict) to choose a course of action. The form can have two parts.

The first part uses Quaker dialog, a process in which the parties in the conflict respond directly and in turn to questions out of worship, as in worship sharing, addressing themselves to the questions rather than to each other’s offerings, and with no discussion, responses, or rebuttals, but rather silence between the sharings. This is not really a dialog.

It seems to work well if the questions stay focused on a single thread until some clarity is reached about that thread. Two such threads—about what actually happened, and about how we feel about the events—often get tangled and it’s useful to keep them separate, exploring first the factual or “events” thread, and then the other “emotional” thread, if possible: one thread tries to clarify what has actually happened; the other explores how each party to the conflict feels as a result.

We have seen that the parties in the conflict often have different stories about events, that neither story is fully accurate, and that misunderstandings have colored the perception of events. It can be very difficult to arrive at a single narrative that all agree on, but it’s one way to structure the questions. So one person tells their story without interruption, then the other. Then follow questions to clarify the discrepancies.

Feelings come up in the process of telling the story. They are part of the story. But they can derail the session. Experienced, spirit-led facilitation and worship are the key to sorting this out.

A second part might follow the listening session if it seems that some progress has been made or it seems it’s safe to reach a little deeper. If not, then the clerk should just end the session and let the simple act of having listened to each other do some work. At some later time, it might be useful to convene a more open dialog between the parties in the conflict.

Whichever way it’s done—immediately after a listening session or some other time—this second session consists of facilitated question-asking by a clerk or other participants, to which each party in the conflict responds, trying to maintain a spirit of worship and using periods of silence to return the participants to this spirit when necessary. But, in contrast to the earlier session, here the parties in the conflict are really in dialog, speaking their point of view in answer to the other party’s statements.

It is useful to have someone trained in mediation clerking this session, if possible, as the stated tentative goal of the session is to arrive at a new agreement between the parties in the conflict about how things will go in the future. At some point, if things seem to be opening up and if the parties in the conflict express readiness to do so and an agreement seems achievable, then the parties to the conflict and the other participants can try to zero in on what that agreement might be. This might be treated as a third stage in the process—trying to fashion an agreement about behavior in the future.

We want to stress that these guidelines are experimental. Some of them we’ve seen in action; others are just suggestions based on experience. Meetings will want to think the process through carefully and then adapt these suggestions and/or come up with new elements that they think will work in their situation.


  • Fellowship; in Depth and Spiritual Renewal through QUAKER DIALOGUE “CREATIVE LISTENING, Suggestions for Leaders of Group Dialogues Derived from the Experience of Claremont, California Friends, Library Committee, Claremont Monthly Meeting, 727 West Harrison Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. A pamphlet on the so-called Claremont Dialog, also called Quaker Dialog.
  • Margaret S. Gibbons, Encounter Through Worship Sharing, FWCC 1506 Race St., Phila. PA 19102.


Gospel Order—Some Definitions

February 29, 2016 § 1 Comment


“Gospel order” appears as a distinctive idiom in the writings of Friends from the earliest days until the present. It has meant different things in different contexts, and at different times. But these various meanings can be organized loosely into four groups:

  1. the principle of conducting individual and community affairs under the leadership of the Spirit;
  2. processes for conflict resolution and mutual accountability,
  3. Quaker church structure and business process, and
  4. a “cosmic” meaning that speaks of the underlying order of creation as established by the cosmic Christ, the Logos/Word of creative divine wisdom. At the end of this documenta are footnotes and scriptural references.

Led by the Spirit in personal and community life

Gospel order is a generic term for the ordering of the meeting’s life and our own lives in accordance with the gospel, in accordance with the leadings of the living spirit of God. In the words of Joseph Pickvance [footnote #1], “The order that arises in the Church when the members live in the Gospel, the power of God, under the government of the Spirit and Light of God and Christ.”

This is not just an outward adherence to the principles of governance and right walking which are to be found in scripture; but more properly, the alignment of life to the spirit of Christ, or the Inward Light, which is the source of all wisdom and love, and a commitment to follow the guidance and changes of heart which arise from that alignment.

Fox defined gospel order this way: “the spirit of God, which was given to every one to profit withal, and the grace of God, which bringeth salvation, and which hath appeared unto all men, and teacheth them that obey it to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world: that this is the most fit, proper, and universal rule, which God hath given to all mankind to rule, direct, govern, and order their lives by.” [2]

In her Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Gospel Order: A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community, (PHP #297) Sandra Cronk defines gospel order as “the phrase early Friends most often used to describe the communal/ecclesiastical and societal dimensions” of “the inbreaking of God’s new order in our lives.” “God’s new order meant a reconciled and faithful personal relationship with God. It also meant being gathered into a community of God’s people who lived the way of faithfulness together eschewing those conventions of the larger social order which were considered contrary to God’s will.” [#3]

“Early Friends stressed that God’s new order was not present simply because people did all the ‘right’ things in an outward sense; rather, God’s new order, gospel order, was present when people lived out of the fullness of their living relationship with Christ.” “It simply means that gospel order is, first and foremost, life lived in God’s transforming, guiding, and sustaining power.” [#4]

Cronk identifies three general areas of concern in gospel order:

  1. the inward life of worship and discernment, including meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship;
  2. the interior functioning of the meeting community, including the traditional role of eldering, home life, meeting for marriage, and the larger meeting structures that we call quarterly meeting and yearly meeting; and
  3. the social testimonies of Friends.

Mutual accountability in the Spirit

Gospel order is a technical term for the 3-step process for conflict resolution instituted by Jesus among his disciples in Matthew 18, verses 15-20.

The specifics of this process, as adapted by Friends, date back to George Fox himself, as the excerpt below describes. As a technical term for this process, it continued through the middle period of Quaker history. The process includes 1) meeting alone with the other party in conflict to work toward resolution; 2) bringing one or two others to speak to the other party; 3) bringing the matter before the church/meeting.

Gospel order then, in addition to this specific reference to Matthew 18, has the wider meaning of mutual accountability. Friends soon institutionalized the functions of accountability in the role of the elder, who had nurturing care and disciplinary oversight of how individuals and the meeting walked in the Light. Friends derived the deeper spiritual authority for discipline in the meeting from verses 18-20 in the passage of Matthew mentioned above, which ends with the promise that “where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Church structure and business process

Gospel order also means the traditional “path” through which individual concerns become the business of the meeting and the ordering of meetings into quarterly and yearly meetings for accountability.

This applies to the practice of bringing leadings and concerns before the meeting for worship with a concern for business for corporate discernment and action; of the meeting then laying such a concern before the quarterly or regional meeting when the meeting has chosen to support a concern; and then, perhaps before the yearly meeting at the decision of the regional meeting.

Thus, ‘gospel order’ includes the particular “ecclesiastical” structures of Friends that carry responsibility for spirit-led governance and discernment: the monthly meeting, the quarterly or regional meeting, and the yearly meeting. (By implication, then, gospel order also includes the process of clearness committees, both committees for clearness for membership and marriage and committees for personal discernment, especially when used to test leadings.)

This “system” of increasingly inclusive “tiers” of meetings for the conduct of corporate affairs was instituted by George Fox in the 1660s, along with other structural reforms (including Quaker marriage procedures, the setting up of schools, and the establishment of women’s meetings with pastoral responsibility) after his release from prison at a time when so many travelling ministers were either imprisoned or dead. “What is important to recognize,” writes Doug Gwyn, “is that this system of monthly, quarterly, and yearly men’s and women’s meetings was not the Church government itself, but the discipline by which Christ the head was allowed to rule the body of his Church according to his spirit.” [#5]

Behind the structure, we can see in the quotes that follow the intimation of a principle of moral ordering, of discipline as an aspect of discipleship: “And after we had visited most of the meetings in Somersetshire, we passed into Dorsetshire to one Harris his house, where we had a large Men’s Meeting, and there all the Men’s Monthly Meetings were settled in the glorious order of the Gospel, and that all in the power of God might seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and might cherish the good and reprove the evil.” [#6]

This next quote resonates with the sense of Matthew 18, with the background for the spiritual authority of meetings over individuals and of regional meetings over local meetings, becoming almost visible: “I had some of all the men Friends of each meeting and I established the Men’s Monthly Meetings amongst them also in the order of the Gospel, the power of God. And the power of the Lord confirmed it in all that felt it. And they came to see and feel that the power of God was the authority of their meetings.” [#7]

Thus, in addition to the role of the various levels of meetings as bodies of discernment with respect to leadings, concerns and ‘business’ in general, ‘gospel order’ also refers to their respective roles for discipline and pastoral care for each other. Thus, monthly meetings once were expected to formally answer queries from the regional meetings in meeting for business in worship, sending their minuted responses to their quarterly meetings for review and possible disciplinary action. Today this dimension of gospel order continues in our practice of writing and approving the written ‘discipline’ of Faith & Practice by the Yearly Meeting, the writing of Advices and Queries, the provision in Faith & Practice for a terminated member to appeal the decision of their meeting to the regional meeting, the practice of paying the proportional share to the Yearly Meeting through regional meeting treasurers, which is no longer New York Yearly Meeting’s practice, the writing of the State of Society Report, the recording of ministers, and so on.

Included in the original reforms initiated in 1667 was the establishment of women’s meetings. Up to this time, men had conducted all ‘business’ meetings.

Gospel order as the divinely ordained order of the universe

In his book, Lloyd Lee Wilson emphasizes a “cosmic” meaning for gospel order: “the order established by God that exists in every part of creation . . . the right relationship of every part of creation.” In fact, Lloyd Lee Wilson begins his book with this definition.

When Leanna and Linda and I first created this definition document, I don’t think we paid enough attention to this aspect of gospel order. In fact, it’s possible that Wilson’s book had not yet come out. And it’s been so long since I read it that I no longer know where to go to develop this idea fully, so I will leave it at this for now. I will return to expand on this meaning after I have had a chance to review the book.

I’m not too worried about this, though, because I don’t think Fox and early Friends emphasized this aspect of gospel order very much either. They weren’t much given to cosmic or metaphysical theologizing in general, preferring to focus on the here and now, to take a more practical approach to sin and salvation, and to be wary of “notions” and “shadows”, of ideas without manifest power. Fox did refer to Christ as the Word and the Word of Wisdom quite a lot, but less in speculation about the ordering of the universe and more in exhortation toward the ordering of the Godly life.

More quotes from George Fox

Gospel order and discipline:

“In the church of Christ, where he is the head, there is his gospel and his order and his government; there is his power felt in everyone’s heart, and there are his offices of admonishing, rebuking, exhorting, reproving, amongst them that are convinced, and converted, by them that are in the power … they that would not have the people to be admonished … and yet go into sin and wickedness, those are out of the gospel order and government of Christ Jesus …” [George Fox, Works, Vol. VIII:62]

The cosmic dimension of gospel order:

[1. The Everlasting Gospel Order]

“Herein is the holy, heavenly and powerful Order, which is everlasting and will have no end. This Order of the Gospel, which is the Power of God, is over all the orders in the world and before they were, whether Jews, gentiles or apostate Christians . . . “ [Epistle 313 (1674), p. 309 of …]

Fox’s guidelines for dispute reconciliation:

[1. The Disorderly who walk not in the Truth]

All Friends must know one another in the Spirit and Power of God. In all the Meetings of the Country, two or three may be appointed from them to go the Quarterly Meetings … to give notice … if there be any that walk not in the Truth and follow callings and dealings; nor honest, nor just, but run into debt and so bring a scandal upon the Truth. … Query and search out all [those who] live not as becomes the Truth and the Gospel, yet do profess it; so that they all may walk in it, as well as talk of it….

And Friends … that you all may be preserved in the Lord’s Power … in the order of the Gospel and in the government of Christ Jesus, “of the increase of which there shall be no end” (Isa. 9:7).

Settling Differences, Disputes and Misconduct in Gospel Order

Dear Friends, if there happen any difference between Friend and Friend, let them speak to one another. If they will not hear, let them take two or three of the Meeting they belong to, that they may end it if they can. And if they cannot end it, then it may be laid before the Monthly Meeting. [See Matt. 18:15-18] And if it cannot be ended there, then it may be brought to the Quarterly Meeting and there let it be put to half-a-dozen Friends, that they may end it…. Or, they that are at differences may choose three Friends and Friends may choose three more … and let them stand to their judgment. For there [are] few … will [want] their names brought to a Monthly or Quarterly Meeting, to have their names sounded over the country that they are in strife, but will rather endeavor to end it amongst themselves or at their own Meeting…

And if there be any difference brought to the Monthly or Quarterly Meeting … after you have heard them one by one, and let but one speak at a time, know [from] them whether they will stand to your judgment? If they will, let half-a-dozen Friends make a final end of it. But if they will not stand to your judgment, they are not fit to bring it thither.

And if any brother or sister hear any report of any brother or sister, let him or her go to the party and know the truth of the report. If it be true, let the thing be judged. If false, go then to the reporter and let him or her be judged….

Now concerning Gospel order, though the doctrine of Jesus Christ requires his people to admonish brother or sister twice before they tell the Church, yet that limits none … that they use no longer forbearance, before they tell the Church; but that they shall not less than twice admonish their brother or sister before they tell the Church. It is desired of all, that before they publicly complain, they wait in the Power of God to feel, if there is no more required of them to their brother or sister, before they expose him or her to the Church. Let this be weightily considered.

And further, when the Church is told and the party admonished by the Church again and again and he or they remain still unsensible and unreconciled, let not final judgment go forth against him or her, till everyone of the Meeting have cleared his or her conscience … that if possible the party may be reached and saved.

After all are clear of the blood of such an one, let the judgment of Friends in the Power of God go forth against him or her . . . that no reproach may come to rest upon God’s holy Name, Truth and people.

All [those who] behold their brother or sister in transgression, go not in a rough, light or upbraiding spirit to remove or admonish him or her, but in the Power of the Lord, Spirit of the Lamb, in the Wisdom and love of Truth, which suffers thereby…. so, may the soul of such a brother or sister be seasonably and effectually reached….

And be it known to all, we cast out none from among us. For if they go from the Light, Spirit and Power in which our Unity is, they cast out themselves. It has been our way to admonish them, that they may come to that Spirit and Light of God, which they are gone from, and so come into the Unity again. For our Fellowship stands in the Light, that the world hates…. If they will not hear our admonitions… the Light condemns them, and then goes the testimony of Truth out against them.

No condemnation ought to go further than the transgression is known. If he or she returns and gives forth a paper of condemnation against him or herself, which is more desirable than that we should do it, this is a testimony of his or her repentance and resurrection before God, his people and the whole world….

That no testimony by way of condemnation, be given forth against any man or woman, whatever crime they commit, before admonition….

And so, keep the Church order of the Gospel, according as the Lord Jesus Christ has commanded; that is, “If they brother offend thee, speak to him between thee and him; and if he will not hear, take two or three. If he will not hear two or three, then tell it to the Church, etc.” (Matt. 18:15)

And dear Friends, in the Power of the Lord God, you who … in your Men’s and Women’s meetings, in the Power of the Lord Jesus see that all things be well amongst you and that all do walk in the Truth as becomes the Gospel of Christ and his glorious Light and Life, so that all may stand up for God’s glory and be valiant for his Truth….

Contemporary usage

The following is a collection of definitions culled from modern writings.

“GOSPEL ORDER. A fellowship of the disciples of Christ that comes into being as the result of the preaching and experience of the Gospel. Our order, organization, testimonies, and closeness come from God through the relationships between people that Jesus described in parables and showed through his healing, counsel, and prophecy. Jesus lives amongst us, counsels and chastises, and leads us in living this order. Our fellowship is local, regional, national, and international at the same time, since we are a spiritual group that Christ heads rather than an episcopal, congregational, or bureaucratic system managed politically.” NYYM Faith & Practice, Glossary.

“Gospel order is the order established by God that exists in every part of creation, transcending the chaos that seems so often prevalent. It is the right relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other part and to the Creator. Gospel order is the harmony and order which God established at the moment of creation, and which enables the individual aspects of creation to achieve that quality of being which God intended from the start, about which God could say that ‘it was very good.’ [Lloyd Lee Wilson, Essays On The Quaker Vision Of Gospel Order, Celo Valley Books, Burnsville, NC, 1993; p. 3]

“Gospel order…is an organizing principle by which Friends come to a clearer understanding of our relationship to God in all of the divine manifestations and the responsibilities of that relationship.” [Wilson, Essays, p. 4]

Gospel order includes evangelism:

This meaning is current among evangelical and pastoral Friends, but has its roots in the writings of George Fox: “You may see how the Apostle, after he had convinced people, brought them into the Order of the Gospel. The Jews, after they came out of Egypt, they were brought into the Order of the law of God. And as Christians came to believe in Christ, then they are come into the Order of the Gospel.

“So, as I was first moved of the Lord God, to go up and down the nation to preach the Gospel, then after[wards] the Lord moved me to go up and down to exhort and unite, that all people might come into the possession of the Gospel, and the Order of it, which is the Power of God . . . by which all things are upheld and ordered to the Glory of God.

“So, this was the spiritual Order of the Gospel, which the Apostle in Spirit beheld . . . in whom their walking should be, to wit, in Christ, the spiritual and heavenly Man; and not to walk in old Adam, who was without this spiritual, heavenly Gospel Order, which it is the duty of all Christians to walk in. . . . It is said in Psalm 37:23, ‘The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord:, that is, by his Power and Spirit.'” [George Fox, Epistle 313, The Power Of The Lord Is Over All, The Pastoral Letters Of George Fox, edited by T. Canby Jones, Friends United Press, Richmond, IN, 1966; p. 257]

Marlene Pedigo:

“Gospel Order is the practice of being led into God’s new order in worship, decision-making and daily living within the faith community.”

“The Everlasting Gospel Order was a term developed by early Friends to describe their commitment to live with integrity the Good News of Christ Jesus. . . . Gospel Order is an experiential reality, the results of a dynamic friendship with God.” [Marlene Pedigo, in Gospel Order, Study I – Lesson 1 of the Journey In Faith Series, introduced as a special section in Quaker Life, Jan/Feb 1995.]

Johan Maurer:

“‘Gospel order’ basically means ordering our lives and our churches so that we can be obedient to God and uphold each other in mutual accountability and support to achieve that obedience.” [Johan Maurer, in “Commitments,” Quaker Life, Jan/Feb 1995]

Stephanie Crumley-Effinger:

“Early Friends challenged all people to live by ‘gospel order,’ developing patterns for life in community that would enable individuals and meetings to discern, and to live according to, the will of God. Gospel order requires the power of the risen Christ, available to those who seek to be his disciples through corporate discernment about individual leadings and ways of living.”

Jim Healton, Sacramento Friends Church, offered an electrical model—Jesus Christ being the generator, with gospel order the gridlines through which power flows to meetings and individuals.

[Stephanie Crumley-Effinger, in “Gospel Order: Building True Community,” in Quaker Life, Jan/Feb 1995]

Lucy Davenport:

“[Early Quakers’] view of the light within was not of a natural light, but a light with power to save men from their temptation to turn from God, to be bound by evil. Thus the light becomes the judge of history, as men’s [sic] eyes are opened to the cause of wickedness both in themselves and in the unredeemed social order. Thus the doctrine of the light led naturally into an understanding of what came to be referred to by Friends as ‘gospel order,’ an order of righteousness in which God’s people obey God’s voice as it is revealed to them inwardly by the light of Christ, which leads them out of the disorder and chaos of Satan’s rule into the kingdom where Christ rules all.” (from “Christ Jesus the Covenant of God: Two Views of the Quaker Doctrine of the Light,” Quaker Religious Thought #80, Vol. 26, No. 2, March 1993, p. 11)

Lewis Benson:

“…what Fox is telling us is that gospel order is essentially a relationship between God’s son and God’s people. ‘They that do obey the voice of the Lord and Christ Jesus . . . in this they know the order of Christ.'” [Lewis Benson, “The People of God and Gospel Order,” The Church In Quaker Thought And Practice, Charles Thomas, ed. (Philadelphia: Faith and Life Movement, 1979), p. 21]

Bill Taber:

Gospel order is “a power which can be felt and experienced, and can bring forth the organizational agreements appropriate to a given situation.” [Bill Taber, as reported by Bill Wood in an article for Purchase Meeting newsletter, NYYM]

The working definition used by the subcommittee on gospel order:

Organizing principles that help keep God at the center of Friends community life.

Synonyms: “right order” or “good order”

Scripture passages

The following scripture passages are quoted by Fox as foundations for gospel order:

1 Cor. 13:10-13; 14:40    Matt. 7:24f     Heb. 11:10      Col. 2:5           Isa. 28:16

[Works, Vol. VIII:59f, 175] Ps. 37:23

Rev. 21:3

[Works, Vol. V:138]

Other scripture references include:

Pss. 25:1-5; 46                       Gal. 5:22-23

Isa. 42 [esp. vv. 5-7, 16]       Col. 3:1-17

Matt. 18                                  Eph. 3:14-21

John 15:1-17; 16:1-15            James 3:13-18

Acts 14:21-23; 15                   1 Pet. 1:13-25

Rom. 12:1-2


[1]   Joseph Pickvance, A Reader’s Companion To George Fox’s Journal, Quaker Home Service, London, 1989; p. 79.

[2]   Fox’s Journal, 687.

[3]   Sandra L. Cronk, Gospel Order, A Quaker Understanding Of Faithful Church Community, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #297, Pendle Hill, Wallingford, PA, 1991; pp. 4-5.

[4]   Cronk, p. 8.

[5]   Douglas Gwyn, The Apocalypse Of The Word, Friends United Press, Richmond, IN; p. 50.

[6]   Fox’s Journal, p. 525.

[7]   Fox’s Journal, p. 520.

A minute of conscience: Apology to Afro-Descendants

November 18, 2013 § 7 Comments

This past weekend (November 15–17, 2013), New York Yearly Meeting held its Fall Sessions and we approved an Apology to Afro-Descendants for our historical participation in and profit from slavery. It was a very difficult meeting.

The Apology had been years in the works, including distribution to our local meetings for discernment. The local meetings ran the gamut from approval to disapproval and ignore-ance. In addition to individual Friends, two formally constituted groups within the Yearly Meeting had participated in its development: a Task Group on Racism and the European American Quakers Working to End Racism Working Group.

Several Friends objected on various grounds and the clerk, perceiving that we were not in unity, decided to discontinue the discussion and move on to other business. At this point, all the African-Americans (three, I think!) in the room stood and left, and others left to support them. Other Friends refused to let the matter rest, however, and we returned to discernment on the Apology. The Friends who left came back. Ultimately, we did approve the Apology, with one Friend asking to be recorded as standing aside and another asking to be recorded as standing aside on behalf of his meeting, though the meeting had not formally charged him to speak for them. That meeting had labored over the Apology at length and could not support it.

I wish I had kept better notes on Friends’ objections. Several of those who spoke had clearly thought about the matter to some depth. This is what I remember:

  • The body was not in a position to make such an apology because none of us had participated in the institution of slavery and we were not accountable for the actions of others, even if they were our Quaker “ancestors”. This was the reason voiced most often.
  • We were not a collective body that could in any way be held accountable for the actions of individuals in the past. We were a living body that had moved beyond the condition of the Friends who had owned slaves in the past.
  • The Apology was not enough: it needed more work and it didn’t say enough.
  • As worded, it spoke on behalf of the Yearly Meeting as though that body were a white body speaking to a black audience, whereas the body did in fact include African-Americans, so its voice was wrong.
  • It was unclear to whom the Apology would be addressed, since the victims of slavery were no longer alive, though the Apology did address the ongoing suffering and oppression of the descendants of slaves (it was titled “Apology to Afro-Descendants”).
  • The Apology looked to the past and it would be more constructive to look forward and dedicate ourselves to ending racism, rather than look backward in this way.
  • Many Friends were not comfortable with various aspects of the Apology’s wording, and wished to add things or change things in the minute.

This was an extremely emotional discussion for many Friends. Many wept as they spoke. I myself spoke with some passion and came close to breaking up, which surprised me. I think a lot of us surprised ourselves.

I spoke in support of the Apology. I do feel that:

  • Both in faith and practice, we have a strong sense of ourselves as a corporate entity that can and should be held accountable for its actions, even those the community has taken in the past.
  • Because in our meetings for worship with attention to the life of the meeting we seek to discern and do the will of G*d, and always have, the body that gathers today stands in a continuum, in a prophet stream that is continuous with Friends of past ages, and thus we share in some way in their failure to discern a truth that we now see clearly, namely that slavery is abhorrent and morally wrong. The oneness, the continuity of the prophetic stream that is embodied in the meeting for business in worship, ties us to our past.
  • just as present-day African-Americans live lives constrained by the legacy of slavery, so we European Americans live lives constrained by the legacy of our privilege, bought in part by our historical participation in slavery and its aftermath, and thus we European Americans living today do owe Afro-Descendants an apology.
  • I felt that the Apology did not go far enough, because it did not ask for forgiveness.
  • I felt that, though the audience for such an Apology might be a little vague—to whom would we deliver such an apology, for instance—that it should also have been addressed to G*d, as a prayer of repentance and for forgiveness, though here also, the audience is a little vague, since many modern Liberal Friends do not believe in a theistic God to whom one could address such a prayer. Nevertheless, our slaveholder Quaker ancestors had believed in such a God, and so have the vast majority of our Quaker ancestors since, up until perhaps the middle of the 20th century. We therefore have inherited an unfulfilled religious obligation, even though this is complicated by the fact that we mostly don’t have a theology that matches up with that obligation. Still, I thought it important to ask for forgiveness.

It was a confusing and disturbing meeting. Friends did things that troubled me, though I think I understand and appreciate their motives, both the rational and the emotional ones.

Several Friends brought prepared statements. The clerk, rightly I think, encouraged Friends not to make this a regular practice, but these Friends are not likely to make it a regular practice, I am sure. Furthermore, we had been encouraged to read the Apology and think about it before we came to the Sessions, so it was only natural that many of us had already formed an opinion. I would have been more comfortable if these Friends had waited to read their messages until they had heard some other vocal ministry, remaining open in this way to the possibility of hearing an alternative to their view that carried the power of the Holy Spirit, but they were all virtually the first to speak.

When Friends left the meeting at the point that the clerk decided to move on, it had the effect of holding the meeting emotionally hostage. I am sure that this was not their intent, though one Friend did say that she could not remain present in a body that could not unite behind such an apology. In retrospect, I think that rising to ask the clerk to test whether the meeting really was ready to move on to other business would have been more constructive, because clearly we were not ready to move on. But sometimes the only thing you can do with searing pain is try to get away from it. Perhaps that was what they were doing. I haven’t had a chance yet to find out what motivated them. I hadn’t even realized they were gone, actually, until someone rose to point it out, and that was the thing that brought us back to the discernment. I think my eyes were closed in prayer when they left.

So the withdrawal of these Friends did in fact have the effect of drawing us back into discernment on the matter. But I worried at the time that our subsequent willingness to approve the Apology over the objections of Friends may have arisen, at least in part, as an attempt to affirm our fellowship with those who had left, as a natural response to their pain, rather than as a response to the prophetic call of the Holy Spirit.

Now, however, I think it might have been both. Walter Brueggeman, the biblical theologian, once wrote that lamentation is the beginning of prophecy—that before the prophetic message can emerge, a community often has to be able to name its suffering and oppression first. So perhaps answering that of pain in our Friends was answering the work of the Spirit among us, after all.

The final complication for me was approving an action over the rather strong objections of Friends. From the formal point of view, there was no problem because both Friends stood aside, rather than standing in the way, so we were clear to go forward. But I doubt very much that those other Friends who had expressed their objection had changed their minds; they certainly did not say so.

Normally, we would have kept at it in the face of such resistance. I strongly suspect that it was the clock that drove us forward. We were already over time, it was the last session of the last day of Fall Sessions, and we were waiting to eat lunch. Moreover, we had yet to approve our 2014 budget, which was important business and business that in the past has often proved to be its own very difficult discussion.

How many times have I seen an important piece of G*d’s work face the tyranny of the clock and suffer for it? And how many times have I seen a meeting fail to take decisive prophetic action (if you can call a minute an “action”) because we could not come to unity on the language of a minute, even when the issue is a no-brainer? How many times have I seen a meeting make a decision simply out of exhaustion?

We were stuck. Things were going to go badly almost no matter what we did. So we stumbled forward. On the way, we trampled some people, our gospel order, and maybe some Truth. We did our best and it wasn’t all that good. Some Friends felt triumphant, I think. I felt battered. This was the best we could do and I feel it was a net positive, in the end. But if it was a “victory”, it was pyrrhic.

This is the bittersweet condition of a community that tries to live according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a world that does not grasp the Light. Our way is not an easy path and we often do stumble. But it’s still the best one I’ve found so far.

PS: A note about the clerking of this meeting. Reading over this post, I realize that I may have given the impression that I thought the clerk failed to discern the sense of the meeting. I do not think that. We really were deeply divided, with no clear breakthrough on the horizon. I suspect that only a crisis such as what did take place could have given us direction. And the clerk has responsibility for all of the business on the agenda. Given how important the budget was and the way the body was writhing under the burden of discernment over the Apology, I think it was perfectly reasonable to lay the matter aside and go on. We do this all of the time, and properly.

Furthermore, one really does have a different perspective when sitting at the clerk’s table, able to see the body as a whole, and the body language of all the individuals, and so on. It’s a lot easier to second-guess a clerk than to be one.

Finally, it is my experience that Friends really need time to vent when their emotions get so involved in a matter of business. The venting is going to happen until it’s spent, usually, and it’s almost not worth trying to reach a decision until it’s over. We were a long way from done with venting. We still are, I suspect. But the body—some of it anyway—was going to charge forward. So maybe we surfed the venting into a decision. Clerks are not in control of such a wave.

Accountability in Quaker Institutions

December 2, 2012 § 13 Comments

A recent issue of Friends Journal is dedicated to Friends and Money. In a searching article titled “When Quaker Process Fails,” John M. Coleman looks at why so many Friends institutions are declining financially and have failed to respond creatively or effectively to the current recession. Friend Coleman uses the recent financial debacle in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as a case for study in understanding these trends and failures, though, as he points out, the problems he identifies are widespread among Quaker institutions.

John Coleman also points out that we didn’t used to be this way. For centuries, Friends have been extremely competent at managing organizations and money. This only began to change in the early twentieth century. For the book that I’ve been writing on Quakers and Capitalism, I have looked at our relationship with money, taking the research up through the 1920 Conference of All-Friends in London, which is the point at which Friends began to move out of business and management. As a result, I have some ideas about why these changes took place, but they are tentative and not fully baked. Still, I’d like to suggest some possibilities.

Let me start by trying to clearly frame the question. John Coleman has done a great job of naming the problems:

  • disregard of elementary principles of accountability,
  • insensitivity to ethics,
  • weak-to-nonexistent strategic planning and goal-setting,
  • lack of realistic priorities,
  • poor personnel practices,
  • scant appreciation for expertise;
  • unworkable organizational structures,
  • lack of transparency,
  • a failure to measure, and
  • an unwillingness to look outside of Friends for models and ideas.

So that’s a broad sketch of the problems we face. Here’s the question: Why, after centuries of world-famous excellence in all these areas, have Friends become so inept? Why, especially, are we failing in areas like ethics and transparency, in which we pridefully maintain an apparently unwarranted self-esteem?

In later posts, I would like to look at a range of other causes for these failures, but what’s on my mind right now is the first one John Coleman names—the disregard for accountability. Many of the problems John Coleman names descend in part from this one.

In the late nineteenth century, Friends turned against the culture of eldership to which they had adhered since George Fox began “bringing gospel order” to meetings in the 1660s. Beginning in the mid-1800s, meetings began laying down the practice of recording elders. Soon after, we began laying down the practice of recording ministers. In doing so we abandoned the structures we had for holding each other accountable. We did this for some good reasons; they had become moribund, in some ways even toxically repressive, and change really was called for. But we threw out the baby with the bath water.

To replace recorded ministers and elders, we created committees for ministry and oversight or ministry and counsel and we staffed these committees with Friends named by nominating committees. By about the 1920s, I think, this process of abandoning recording and other aspects of our traditional culture of eldership was virtually complete, at least in the Liberal branch.

Gradually (maybe right away?), these committees suffered from uncertainty as to their scope of activity and their authority. In the decades since, these committees have come to consist of Friends who very often do have spiritual gifts in ministry and eldership that their nominating committees have recognized. But in my experience, they often now do not know the tradition well enough to understand, exercise, and transmit what is left of our shredded culture of eldership and I’m not sure they would try if they did know it. For one thing, they would likely face serious resistance from some in their meetings.

As a result, nowadays the roles and functions of eldering are haphazardly practiced by inexperienced Friends who do what they can at considerable personal risk. I speak primarily of dealing with problems and with problem people in our meetings and institutions, but even the more positive, nurturing role of elders is now left to chance, or to God, if you will. God does raise up elders among us, but our meetings are often quick to tear them down, or more likely, to let Friends who are allergic to discipline tear them down while we feel paralyzed to stop it.

Just as we turned away internally from the damage that a corrupt and ossified culture of eldership was doing to us, we increasingly embraced newcomers who were refugees from the religious cultures of their upbringing. Some of these people have been damaged by those communities. These Friends don’t just find that ‘eldership’ doesn’t work for them; they are scarred and often scared, and therefore hostile towards it. The treatment that has scarred these Friends almost always involved some kind of coercion. Thus, throughout the twentieth century our ranks have swelled with people who were not going to tolerate anything that looked like coercion in their new home among Friends. And because eldering or accountability of any kind looks suspiciously like coercion and therefore causes these Friends pain, their natural resistance to structures and processes of discipline reinforces the already-established trend of abandoning responsibility for eldership. As a result, we are systematically and systemically failing in our responsibility to protect our worship, our fellowship, and the corporate health of our meetings and institutions.

This includes failure to discipline those who do harm in the name of resisting discipline: we can not and do not hold these wounded Friends accountable for the damage that they themselves do. I know; I was one of those people. I caused a lot of trouble for a while in my meeting and the only person who ever really eldered me for it was the person I was harassing the most.

Part of the reason we have no accountability in our institutions is our practices of membership. I have discussed this in other posts. When we meet with prospective members, we often do not include agreements about mutual accountability in our discussions, especially regarding finances. We don’t think of membership as a covenant between member and meeting in which we exchange promises of mutual accountability for support and nurture. Thus we leave financial support of the meeting to chance, or rather, to individual choice surrounded by a culture of silence and avoidance. The result is that (if I am not mistaken) we are among the least generous of religious communities when it comes to members’ financial support.

I’m not sure what the solution is for this. This fear of coercion goes deep. This creedal commitment to radical individualism is now an established tenet of our faith. This wholesale abandonment of any culture of eldership is now a longstanding aspect of our practice. It will take a conscious choice and a sustained effort to reverse these trends in our culture. No realistic person looking at the problem from the outside would expect us to undertake such a far-reaching and difficult transformation.

But, as I’ve said in a recent post [], we have done it in the past. The problems we face today are nothing compared to the challenges Friends overcame in the 1660s and ‘70s when we first established gospel order as a way to reign in ranters among us and protect us from the depredations of official persecution with structures and discipline. And two hundred years later, British Friends turned on a metaphorical dine (farthing?) and reversed a catastrophic decline in membership.

In the 1660s, the solution was more discipline, corporate efforts to prevent another James Naylor affair and to create a structure that could endure despite the catastrophic loss of leadership in England’s gaols. In the 1860s, however, British Friends relaxed discipline, saving themselves from self-destruction and helping to put us on the slightly slippery slope that has got us where we are today. In the 1870s and ‘80s in America, many Friends found renewal in the great transition to programmed worship and ultimately, professional ministry. In the 1960s, Liberal Friends rode the currents of cultural revolution away from discipline again.

It’s time for the pendulum to swing again.

  1. We need to recover, study, evaluate, adopt, and adapt what’s left of our ancient culture of eldership and experiment with new forms of discipline that work for us. This calls for a Society-wide commitment to religious education.
  2. We can pray for spirit-led ministry: vocal ministry in our meetings that begins to open eyes and minds and hearts and doors; written ministry that teaches, preaches, and proposes; and ‘workshop’ ministry that engages Friends in hands-on experience with the faith and practice of eldership.
  3. And we need to rethink our approach to the membership process. We need to discuss eldership with prospective members, to ask them how far they are willing to engage with the meeting in mutual accountability; we need to establish whether they think of discipline as an essential aspect of religious life. This assumes, of course, that the meeting is itself willing to engage, that it believes that discipline is an essential aspect of religious life. Not many do, in my experience.
  4. So we need to have an open conversation in our meetings about just how “covenantal” we want our meeting to be.

Yearly meetings, monthly meetings and gospel order

July 31, 2011 § 4 Comments

In a recent post on Earlham School of Religion’s blog, Valerie Hurwitz, Director of Recruitment and Admissions, invited thoughts about ways forward for Indiana Yearly Meeting in its recent struggle with the course of its eldership of West Richmond Meeting, which had approved a welcoming and affirming minute dedicating the meeting to apply the same standards to all persons regardless of “race, religious affiliation, age, socio-economic status, nationality, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation or mental/physical ability.” Sexual orientation was the sticking point, for it runs counter to the yearly meeting’s minutes condemning homosexuality as a sin.

Bill Samuels commented on that post that “the key question may be, What is God’s purpose for Indiana YM?” I commented, as well, agreeing in part to Bill’s comment that, behind hot-point questions like homosexuality lie meta-questions like the ‘purpose’ of the yearly meeting. Another of these ‘meta-questions’ that lie behind this particular controversy is how you define and practice your culture of eldership. I wrote in my comment about how the yearly meeting might approach its role as elder of the monthly meeting in gospel order.

It turned out that Earlham’s comment text box has a character limit that prevented me from posting my entire comment. So I am posting a revised version of my original full post here because I think the problem of corporate discipline in gospel order deserves more searching attention than we often give it. By ‘corporate discipline’ I mean how yearly meetings discipline monthly meetings in gospel order.


How does a yearly meeting exercise eldership over a monthly meeting?

Eldership has two sides, that of nurture and that of discipline. In its role as elder, any meeting has a responsibility to nurture its members and their gifts and a responsibility to protect the meeting’s worship and fellowship from behavior that threatens either one. For the monthly meeting, this is difficult because you are face to face with each other, week in and week out, and it’s personal, even intimate. You really have to know your members to nurture their ministry and spiritual life. And discipline is difficult because real people can be hurt. We’re talking about real relationships between people. Difficult as it may be, though, it’s still rather direct and, in a way, straightforward in a monthly meeting. It is immediately obvious when the worship or the fellowship is suffering, and how, though our culture of deference and silence sometimes confuse things.

Things are more abstract for the yearly meeting. The members are meetings, not individuals. Nurturing their spiritual life is of a different order than nurturing individuals, requiring different tools and gifts. The yearly meeting’s ‘worship’ is perforce limited to the body’s worship when in session, or it’s viewed in the abstract. The yearly meeting’s ‘fellowship’, beyond the fellowship of Friends in session, is a fellowship of meetings, which we also must treat in the abstract. Given the abstract nature of corporate worship and fellowship in the context of the yearly meeting, how do you perceive threat to either one in the actions of a monthly meeting? And how do you practice discipline?

Suppose we use the monthly meeting’s eldership of individuals as an analogy. Then, a monthly meeting’s decision is somewhat analogous to an individual’s vocal ministry in meeting for worship.

A monthly meeting’s behavior, when minuted, as West Richmond Friends’ decision has been, represents ‘vocal ministry’ within the larger body. Presumably, that decision has been tested corporately in the light of Christ’s spirit (that’s what their minute says), much as, in theory, an individual’s prophetic vocal ministry in meeting for worship is assumed to have been prompted by the Holy Spirit. We would, on this analogy, start by assuming that West Richmond’s ministry is Spirit-led. If we perceive a threat in this behavior to either the yearly meeting’s worship or its fellowship (I think we’re talking about worship here), we are really questioning whether the decision is Spirit-led. We are then called to exercise a corporate gift of the spirit—the gift of discerning spirits—to determine whether the meeting’s prophetic ministry is of God, or (I suppose) of Satan.

How does the yearly meeting exercise the gift of discerning spirits in such a case? Do you interview those who were present at the meeting when the minute was discussed and approved, to try to determine whether the meeting really was gathered in the Spirit? Do you simply assume that a meeting that reaches a decision contrary to the testimony given the yearly meeting in the past (in this case, minutes condemning homosexuality) must of necessity have been out of the Spirit? Do you assume that the yearly meeting’s past testimonies do not need testing anew? If you acknowledge that a monthly meeting’s decision might be prophetic witness, how do you test that witness in discernment?

Josh Brown once wrote a great little essay defining the things Friends use to test a new leading. If I remember correctly, there were four: Scripture, tradition, common sense or reason, and the discernment of the body gathered in the Spirit. I would add a fifth: the testimony of experience, the testimony of the lives of those Friends (or meetings) who are already living in the light of the new testimony: what are their fruits?

For many Friends, of course, their interpretation of biblical testimony stands as the ultimate touchstone for discernment, so that ministry contrary to that interpretation can reliably be deemed out of the Life and contrary to Truth without further ado. (I say ‘interpretation’ because that is, of course, all we are ever working with, even when we interpret Scripture in the spirit in which it was given forth. Friends have, of course, famously reinterpreted Scripture in some cases contrary to the wider Christian tradition, laying down the outward forms of baptism and the Eucharist, inviting women to participate fully in the meeting’s ministry, and abandoning Scripture’s apparent sanction of slavery.)

Finally, our tradition once was to use Matthew 18:15-20 as a guide for bringing gospel order to individuals thought to be walking disorderly. Does this simple but elegant 3-step model still work for us, and, if so, can it not be applied corporately to the discipline of a meeting? This would at least provide a framework for action that might help prevent some hurt and disorder in the course of the discipline. (It’s worth reminding ourselves that, in Matthew’s presentation, once a decision for expulsion had been made, the expelled party was to be “as tax collectors and sinners” to the saints—that is, they are the people on whom your own evangelism focuses most intensely, just as Jesus focused on tax collectors and sinners with special attention himself. They are not pariahs to be cut off and shunned, but lost sheep to be wooed back into the fold. If they then reject your gospel, perhaps you would then leave town, shaking their dust off your feet.)

So meta-tasks involved in a process of corporate discerning of spirits regarding a monthly meeting’s prophetic ministry seem to me to be:

  1. Try to determine, if possible, whether the meeting was in the Life when it made its decision, taking seriously it’s own claim to that effect.
  2. Clarify whether testimony given the yearly meeting in the past should ever be tested anew.
  3. Clarify what touchstones you would use to test a new leading that seems contrary to previous testimony, and clarify their relative importance.
  4. Once you are clear about these questions, test the testimony of the meeting as potential prophetic witness. That is, exercise the gift of discerning spirits regarding the decision, rather than putting the meeting’s defiance of the yearly meeting on trial.
  5. Once your discerning has named the spirit behind the meeting’s decision, apply (if necessary) gospel order according to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 18.

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