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

March 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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