Friday, June 7, 2013

Self-examination in Quaker faith & practice

Quaker faith & practice is availaable in full at "The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain."  

This book seems to address all aspects of Quaker life, interweaving the corporate and the personal in a seamless kind of way.   It contains organizational principles and governing structures for the group as a whole, and for regional and local meetings; it discusses procedures for marriage and burial; it offers written wisdom from Quakers living and dead; and it addresses the spiritual lives of its members.

This is from Chapter 1, Advice and Queries:
1. Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

2. Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God's love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.

3. Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God's guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God.

4. The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus' example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?

5. Take time to learn about other people's experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

6. Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship.

7. Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

(It's interesting to read Point #4's claim that "The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity"!   Until quite recently Quakerism would have been described as Christian, without disclaimer.   And it further interests me that the book is nevertheless called "The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain" - a decidedly more traditional description of the thing.  Clearly, there are some opposing currents at work here.)

There are 29 chapters, the first few of which deal with issues of organization and the meetings themselves.  But two-thirds are focused on the corporate and personal lives of individuals:
10. Belonging to a Quaker meeting
11. Membership
12. Caring for one another
13. Varieties of religious service
14. Finance
15. Property and trusteeship
16. Quaker marriage procedure
17. Quaker funerals and memorial meetings
18. Faithful lives
19. Openings
20. Living faithfully today
21. Personal journey
22. Close relationships
23. Social responsibility
24. Our peace testimony
25. Unity of creation
26. Reflections
27. Unity and diversity
28. Sharing the Quaker experience
29. Leadings

Each chapter is further broken down into points.   You'll find observations, meditations, questions, aphorisms, and other kinds of content, all written and/or spoken by Quakers from various eras.  For example, there's Section 20, Living Faithfully today:

I ask for daily bread, but not for wealth, lest I forget the poor.
I ask for strength, but not for power, lest I despise the meek.
I ask for wisdom, but not for learning, lest I scorn the simple.
I ask for a clean name, but not for fame, lest I contemn the lowly.
I ask for peace of mind, but not for idle hours, lest I fail to hearken to the call of duty.

Inazo Nitobe, 1909

Here's an interesting observation, from Section 21, Personal Journey:

When we descend from our towers, and come out from our sanctuaries, and take our place in ordinary homes, and workshops, and are surrounded and jostled by our fellow-creatures, we find that our sensitive souls shrink from some of these contacts: that this man humbles our pride, and that one offends our aesthetic sense: that this woman takes our words amiss, and that one misconstrues and resents our actions. It is so much easier to feel enthusiasm for humanity, than to love our immediate neighbours.

Phyllis Richards, 1948

 The book even has a section on Quaker "Saints"!  Here's the first entry in Section 18, Faithful Lives:

Joseph Bevan Braithwaite (1818-1905) was a leading Friend in the latter part of the nineteenth century, yet in his youth he came close to resigning his membership. Before doing so he thought it right to attend the Yearly Meeting of 1840 throughout and form his own judgment. His mind was changed by the reading of the testimonies to the lives of deceased Friends, as he records:

I listened with an open mind to all that passed, whilst I was at the same time writing a pamphlet explaining my views in opposition to Friends... But I heard the testimonies [concerning] deceased ministers and was ashamed and self-condemned for my harsh judgment... I had been enabled through unutterable mercy to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my Saviour; now I saw somewhat of His unspeakable preciousness as 'the Good Shepherd' and 'Counsellor' of His people, 'always, even unto the end of the world'.

The following is a quote from William Penn in Chapter 28, Sharing the Quaker Experience; here's an unfortunate example of the tendency away from "self-criticism" in its use of the accusatory second person plural.  Unfortunate, because it nevertheless has something important to say:

When you come to your meetings ... what do you do? Do you then gather together bodily only, and kindle a fire, compassing yourselves with the sparks of your own kindling, and so please yourself . ? Or rather do you sit down in the true silence, resting from your own will and workings, and waiting upon the Lord, with your minds fixed in that Light wherewith Christ has enlightened you . and prepares you, and your spirits and souls, to make you fit for his service?

William Penn, 1677 

Quakers corporately self-examine in a variety of ways.  First, Quakers use consensus in making decisions; one very important aspect of this is that the minority voice gets heard and not just "voted down" and thus overpowered and ignored.  It's a much slower process, but has its clear benefits.  (A.A. groups also use the consensus model of decision-making. Here's how Tradition 2 puts it: "For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.")    Consensus decision-making necessitates a kind of long-term group self-examination - and thus helps form a habit of self-examination.

Quakers also use "clearness" meetings, designed to help meetings and individuals discern the "leadings" they feel they are receiving for their ministry.  ("Clearness" maybe sounds a little spooky - but of course it's just another word for "discernment.")   All of this, in unprogrammed Quaker meetings, is entirely lay-focused; there are no ordained clergy at all.  (The London Yearly Meeting, 1986,  admitted that this has its own weaknessess.  From Section 12, Caring for One Another:  "With our structure, we risk failures in understanding and transmitting our tradition, and failures in pastoral care. We do not always adequately support one another. When we appoint people to carry out tasks for us, there is a danger of approaching this in too secular a way... We can and must pray for them to receive the necessary gifts and strength from the Spirit.")


Caelius said...

The North American version of Faith and Practice is on my bookshelf at my parents. I bought a copy when something was going wrong at my Quaker school, and I wanted to show them they were "breaking their rules." In the end, what I wanted done was done, but I actually helped convince the powers that be through absurdity, not by reasoned appeal to law. (To be slightly more clear: I made the cause of the problem look absurd, so that they realized that it wasn't worth the conflict and latent anger that the problem engendered.)

Reflecting later, I realize that Quakers don't order their common life by rules, they do by setting forth questions for reflection. You can't convict them of doing something wrong. If you have a dispute with them, you have to have a meeting, and they firmly believe that God is there. I admire that.

The Friends and Anglicans really are on a common axis of Christianity. I wish we would learn how to handle disputes more like they do. (They had a 100 year schism and managed to fully reconcile.)

bls said...

The difference - at least as I've seen it in the Episcopal Church - is that we don't "reflect" much on anything. We vote on everything, and the majority rules. And that's why, to my mind, our disputes go out of control.

It's true of the Communion as a whole, too: it's "majority rules" all the way, so it's all about power. I joined TEC in 2005 (I think) and was gobsmacked to watch the whole convocation at Lambeth decide by vote how it would treat gay people. There was no actual theology in evidence, and no real reflection on the matter; the thing happened according to who had the most "no" votes.

The only saving grace is that Lambeth doesn't have any actual power. But as far as I can see there's almost no "reflection" going on.