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

January 11, 2014 § 16 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the angel of the meeting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discerning the angel of the meeting.

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

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

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

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

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

Ministering to the meeting through its angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for hanging on this long.

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

The “angel of the meeting”

January 21, 2011 § 13 Comments

I learned from Bill Taber in a Pendle Hill class that, through the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, many Friends believed that each meeting had its angel. They got this idea from the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation. Some ministers, especially when they had been invited (or sent) to a meeting to help sort out some difficulty, would ask to meet with the meeting in worship before talking to anyone so that they could try to commune with the angel of the meeting about the problem first. Ever since learning this, I’ve tried to commune with the angels of the meetings I’ve visited and I’ve had three such experiences, one of them quite intense.

Does anyone know more about the history and theology of this practice? Has anyone else tried this? Had any success? Or has anyone had such an experience spontaneously?

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