Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
For a world that seems to be crying out for unfettered spirituality, a world that questions authoritative leadership, a world that longs for spiritual transformation that is based on love; why aren’t liberal Quaker meeting houses overflowing with seekers?
The truth is that most liberal meetings experience a revolving door. A large number of seekers are very excited to discover our local meetings, and they eagerly attend worship often – at first. Some do attend long enough to become recorded members, and some become permanent attenders (or unrecorded members, if you will). However, the vast majority of visitors don’t return. In fact, most recorded members and permanent attenders eventually slack in their enthusiasm, participation, and support of the meeting.
What is going wrong? Something is turning these potential and self-identified Quakers off, whether they consciously realize it or not. Why does this happen?
The liberal Quaker message is a simple one. There are no hidden beliefs that surprise new ones eventually. Doctrines are not really a part of the liberal Quaker theology; so no one is coerced into believing any particular party line. Plus, there are no required life changes to become a part of the meeting because liberal Friends tend to meet seekers where they currently are in order to support them on where their spiritual journey is taking them. All of this is the very reason new ones are attracted to our liberal Quaker meetings in the first place. So again, what’s going wrong once many get better acquainted with us?
When George Fox and Margaret Fell forged an inward looking religion nearly four hundred years ago, they cried out for spiritual realness. And it was the power of this spiritual realness that attracted so many to their revived Christian message.
Fox and Fell, along with other early Friends, soon settled on three distinctives that would ensure their fellowship of primitive Christians remained led by the inner Christ. And today, perhaps of all branches of Friends, it is liberal Quakers who adamantly defend the continued practice of all three of these distinctives: unprogrammed worship, Quaker process, and continuing revelation. Yet, many liberal Quaker meetings have not taken advantage of the transforming power these three distinctives may offer to those who might be attracted to liberal Quakerism.
Unprogrammed worship is what we today call the original Quaker practice of communal ‘expectant waiting’ worship that is based on a backdrop of silencing the mind so we are able to hear that “still, small voice”. Some liberal Friends compare this practice to meditation. While it is akin to individualized meditation – especially at first glance – it is really a different experience. Unlike meditation, Quaker unprogrammed worship has the specific purpose of Friends coming together to collectively listen to that mysterious eternal force that all existence has in common. Liberal Quakers each may term this force differently, calling it various names. But the experience of it is the same because there is a common recognition that it simply IS. One Friend may personalize this force as Jesus of Nazareth, another may view it more amorphous, or may simply term it as “God” or “Spirit”, and yet another may just settle for general terms such as “the universe” or “nature” or “the way”. The point is that we are experiencing together something that is real, and no matter how our individual minds try to understand it, the experience of all present is rooted in the same core power - if it is indeed worth experiencing at all. How can we cultivate this recognition that no matter what we each call it, we are experiencing the same thing? This is more than an academic question if we are to “walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in every one”.
If liberal Quakers do believe we are experiencing the same eternal reality no matter how our individual minds might perceive it, then we should embrace the terminology of each other during vocal ministry as we sit in silence. One Friend might express her experience in God language; another in Bible language, another in New Age speak, another in eastern spirituality terminology, and yet another in everyday words. Are we going to risk missing the essence of a message from the Spirit because we don’t fully relate to the terms used by the person chosen by the Spirit to convey it? An even worse situation is when someone is “eldered” because of their terminology. This false eldering action is offensive to the liberal Quaker tradition because it establishes a doctrine for the meeting based on a petty language preference. And as happens with all doctrine, the action of the Spirit among us becomes limited because we’ve established our preference for the divisive ego over the unifying Spirit.
Unprogrammed worship takes discipline and regularity if the individual and the meeting are to benefit fully from it. The discipline involves the need to continually be vigilant in quieting our own thoughts during worship, so the transforming power that is always present within can come to us and to others through us. The regularity means worshipping often, making it a routine, a habit – just as early Friends did so they could benefit from it during the ensuing week and come to know each other well in “Spirit and Truth”.
A demonstration of our modern lack of faith in the power of our own unprogrammed worship is the worry that it is too boring for the children among us to fully participate. Some meetings have established elaborate First Day or Sunday Schools to occupy their young ones and teach them Quaker values. While a degree of indulgence for the young ones among us is proper and loving, shouldn’t our worship together as a community be the foundation of children’s Sunday School? What benefits might the whole meeting enjoy by setting aside one or two Sundays each month to have the adults and children worship for the whole hour together? Quiet activities in the worship room could be provided for the younger ones that help center their own minds in the hour long silence. Friends just one hundred years ago did not even have children’s First Day school during worship for a reason. Can we rediscover that reason in our modern meeting setting?
Have we begun to lose the transforming power of the worship experience due to a watering down of its real essence and neglecting the need of making it the highlight of our week for both young and old? If more Friends employ inner discipline and regularly come to worship, our meetings are more likely to experience the joys of a gathered worship experience. And the meeting community will be strengthened and unified in the Spirit.
Quaker process is more than consensus decision-making. It is the communal search for the right way to proceed; a way to move forward that brings our spiritual community into harmony with the loving eternal force and ultimate truth that permeates everything. Without the recognition that this is the primary purpose for Quaker process, the power of it will elude us. When a spiritual community deeply grasps what is being undertaken through this process, the act of a corporate search for the right decision becomes worship itself – a holy experience that spiritually uplifts the community together.
Are we missing opportunities to engage the whole meeting community in a spiritually meaningful Quaker process during our meetings for business? Does the clerk of meeting remind Friends of the holy purpose of these once-a-month gatherings each time they are held? While our Quaker worship is noted for being simple and organic with everyone present participating in the experience, has the increasingly complex structures governing the business of our meeting communities become worldly-like, unfulfilling, and a burden for many of us?
Could the root cause be that our meetings have become dependent on their committees to oversee, determine, and carry-out spiritual, pastoral, and social justice activities – instead of utilizing the whole meeting to do these things? Think how the whole meeting community would benefit by engaging one another in these core spiritual purposes. Too often ministerial, pastoral, and social action functions are routinely carried out by a few Friends on appointed committees, while matters brought to meeting for business are more mundane and routine. Perhaps that is why some meetings experience scarce participation in meeting for business, since little of any deep spiritual consequence occurs. Have we inadvertently made some of our committees the meeting’s pastor or minister or meeting activist, and thereby missed the power of the whole community uniting in the common activity of spiritual oversight, pastoral care, and social activism?
During meeting for business, very early Friends appointed committees for three reasons: (1) to labor with a Friend in order to understand and validate a leading or concern that the Friend had brought to meeting for business; (2) to oversee or carry-out things once the whole meeting united on a particular course of action; and (3) to help provide clearness to a Friend during a time of life stress, change, or decision-making. These committees served temporarily as long as needed, and they served entirely at the direction of the whole meeting community. These ad-hoc committees were not permanent steering committees for the meeting. There is no better branch of Quakers well-suited to re-embrace this original Quaker use of committees than liberal Friends.
Our meetings for business should not function as the world’s business meetings. For expediency sake many meetings have the appropriate standing committee prepare and flesh-out an issue, provide answers to any potential questions before they are even asked, and also recommend a course of action – all this before the item ever comes to meeting for business. By any other name, this constitutes these standing committees as permanent steering committees. Instead, why not encourage a culture where an individual Friend may express a concern or leading at meeting for business for the meeting to organically process from start to finish? This unfolding Quaker process might first include an ad-hoc committee to validate the concern or leading. Then over subsequent meetings for business, the process could include an ad-hoc committee(s) to take action on the concern or leading.
For liberal Friends the days of having a few “wise” overseers, do seem to be over (whether those overseers realize it or not!). People who may be attracted to our theology and religious outlook are not usually also attracted to a religion that has implied “elders” suggesting, directing, or guiding the unfolding of truth. If we look at Quaker history, it was more often than not, the permanent committee of elders and overseers within a meeting who attempted to forestall the embracing of farsighted social advances for the world at large and the Religious Society of Friends. So, perhaps the very early communities of Quakers at the start of the movement were on to something by heavily utilizing ad-hoc committees to carry out the important work of the meeting. Rather than “overseers”, these temporary committees were tools of the whole meeting. Their temporary nature ensured they would remain so.
Think of the side benefits from eliminating permanent committees wherever we can. No more burn-out of Friends! The dirty little secret of unprogrammed Friends is that if you hang out with us long enough you will get a job that takes a lot of your time, is unpaid, and will entail some grief and controversy. How vibrant our meetings might become if the whole meeting is actively engaged in the monthly oversight of the spiritual, pastoral, and social action of the meeting. Those would be meetings for business that Friends would be eager to attend!
Any permanently standing committees that deal with spiritual matters, pastoral care, or social action might be good candidates to be eliminated, so the whole meeting is able to be actively involved in these essential matters for any Quaker meeting. The corollary to this is that routine activities that must be done in order to provide Friends a comfortable place to worship, would best be handled by permanently standing committees. This is because these activities tend to be more temporal in nature, and do not deal with the core spirituality and care of Friends. Once basic operating parameters are established for them, committees like ‘House and Grounds’ and ‘Financial Stewardship’ should be allowed to function without constant reporting to and intervention from meeting for business. Similarly, informational updates could best be handled through electronic communications instead of presenting them at meeting for business. These few changes would free up time spent on mundane, temporal concerns so Friends at meeting for business could spend time on important spiritual, pastoral care, and social activism matters.
I would offer that if a meeting is too large to function in the way I am suggesting, then it just might be too big and should divide into smaller groups, even if the smaller groups share the same meeting house. Frequently, to build a sense of community our meetings are contriving ways to do this, when the answer is staring us in the face. Our meeting structure should be as simple as our way of worship. It’s that simple and intimate worship that first attracts people to our liberal Quaker meetings, and it is often the over-built, business-like structure of the meeting that eventually sends them away.
Undergoing a simplification process for our meeting’s Quaker process will lead to all types of revealing questions regarding our over-built structures. Let’s just take one example: our pastoral care committee. How would we handle the care of Friends in need if we eliminated a permanent pastoral care committee? One way is to establish a culture within the meeting of naturally caring for one another, as did early Friends and early Christians. For example, at the close of worship each Sunday, it could be asked if any Friend in our community has a need. Then, on the spot, someone present could offer to check in with the Friend and coordinate what’s needed. Once this is done, it may be shown that an ad-hoc committee needs to be formed to handle some ongoing situation. Time could also be spent during each monthly meeting for business to consider how the meeting is doing in its care for one another.
Turning this vital community function over to the whole meeting in an organic manner at the end of worship and during meeting for business, will lead to some in-depth soul-searching for the whole meeting. Also, it might just be the right time in our history for liberal Friends to consider eliminating things that add no real spiritual value for most people who are attracted to liberal Quaker theology. For example, many liberal meetings no longer make any distinction between recorded members and permanent attenders. So why not consider the advantages of no longer keeping a written record of who’s a member and who’s not? Is it really part of being a spiritual community?
The above paragraphs regarding the pastoral care committee could serve as an example for each of our meetings’ committees. We might find that by going through this simplification process, the energy and action from Friends will become more heartfelt, more personally satisfying, and more equally shared. This enlivened spiritual culture with little formal structure will be evident to new ones who visit. And perhaps they will stay to become part of our meetings because our structure truly reflects our values as liberal Friends.
Continuing revelation is the process by which liberal Quaker theology stays relevant to the world we live in. If there is any gripe against religion that people express, it is that most of the world’s religions have remained stagnant; stuck in their holy books that were written thousands of years ago. Continuing revelation, a hallmark of liberal Quakerism, protects us from that charge. Or does it?
Attempt to present nearly any theological perspective within your liberal Quaker meeting, and it will be welcomed with open arms. Present something that reinterprets for modern times one of our procedural, terminology, or value traditions – and you may find you have committed a heresy. I’m not talking about the three distinctives of ‘unprogrammed worship’, ‘Quaker process’, or ‘continuing revelation’ that are important in order to maintain our Quaker identity. I’m talking more in the vein of the traditions that started long ago; traditions that some mistakenly think are what make us Quakers.
These traditions are perhaps quaint and endearing – but may be misunderstood by the casual observer. Using “First Day” instead of Sunday, or other Quakerees is one example. Using old-timey Quaker names and speech patterns might make us comfortable; but what does it say to visitors to our meetings? It likely gives the mistaken first impression that we are somewhat exclusionary, or even cultish. If continuing revelation does not even prompt us to change our language to use words that are meaningful to the general populace, then perhaps we liberal Quakers are not as open to it as we think.
If formal membership in a spiritual group is no longer appealing to people we are drawing to our meeting houses, perhaps continuing revelation is telling us something. Are we listening? And if Friends are exhausted and have to be convinced to participate on one or more of the numerous committees in our meetings, perhaps continuing revelation is telling us modern Quakers, who want to be relevant in the modern world, that we must do something different. Are we responding to its nudging?
Since “God is love”, that constant will continuously reinterpret the world we are experiencing in light of ‘what’s loving’. What seemed loving at one time or place may no longer be experienced as loving. If we experience continuing revelation as helping us to love as God loves, it will lead us to amazing places. It will lead us to want to expand that experience of love to others in ways they can grasp, interpret, and express.
Our testimonies, Quaker process and even unprogrammed worship have become our golden calf. We forget that there is Something More behind them.
In his blog on 3/19/13. Wes Daniels wrote "Quakerism is open to all people, but it isn't whatever you want it to be."
I don't have a clear answer, but I do agree with you. If we look back at our own roots, we'll find a wealth of wisdom.
Jim Wilson said:
An additional observation stimulated by the posts on this thread: James Schultz noted that his current meeting has a greater focus on spirituality than on social justice. And others have mentioned that there is a yearning for 'something more'. It is my view that Quakers in general, and Liberal Quakers maybe more than others (though my experience is not broad) have become so wrapped up in various causes and social movements that this has pushed a spiritual focus to the margins. In other words, I think the activist focus among Quakers has made it difficult for people to receive spiritual nourishment. Not impossible, but the activist focus is, in my opinion, an obstacle.
One of the reasons why new people might not return, or only become now-and-then attenders, is this activist focus. If discussions at Quaker Meetings consist mostly of political issues of the moment, that is not a strong draw for people because you can have a political discussion at any time, anywhere, you can do it online by going to huffingtonpost or other very numerous locations. In contrast, finding others who have a spiritual focus is rare and difficult to find.
I don't think the current immersion of Quakers in activism and politics is unique; it is simply what is going on in American religion at this time. Such a political focus mimics what is happening in most American denominations and religious groups from Catholicism to Baptists. And that is, for me, what is so frustrating about American religion today. The hunger for 'something more' that several posters have referred to is a hunger I have heard from my Catholic friends who have to endure various political harangues from the pulpit when what they really want to do is enter into the mystery of the mass. As a Quaker I want to dive deeply into the meaning of gathered silence and worship, but this does not happen when the focus is on legislation or political campaigns.
I'm not sure how a spiritual focus can be recovered. It is my view that the resources exist in the Quaker tradition for such a recovery (that's why I spend so much time with the 'Guide to True Peace'). But my sense is that the current focus on politics has not, as yet, run its course. I do believe, however, that this has been, ultimately, damaging for American religion, but that is a perspective that is not shared by most.
Hello again, Howard!
I found this essay by Chuck Fager which seems to speak to the questions you posed in "Let's Get Real". The title is "Down & Dirty With Compost Theology".
Thanks Bill for referring me (us all) to this article by Chuck.
It is apparent that all branches of Quakerism to various degrees are sensing that something is not going right. This is not just a liberal Quaker issue. And from reading Chuck's post and others, the resolution is likely not going to be easy and won't happen unless we want it to. How much of this is just the general state of religion in America (and elsewhere), I'm not sure. I have been told by minister friends in other denominations that this downward trend is happening all over the place.
The hopeful thing is that many are concerned, and we are writing about it and listening to one another. As we know, recognizing a problem is half the battle. The other half of the battle is discovering the way to greener pastures. We need to listen to God, not be afraid to try new things, and be courageous in re-embracing some old ways of doing things that bring about "realness".
I can't help but think that people really do truly desire spiritual "realness" whether their preference is traditional biblical religion, liberal theology, or whatever. I think we all want to get away from empty forms, or at a minimum rediscover the original power behind traditional forms.
It is ironic that this is essentially the original message of Jesus to the Jewish establishment 2000 years ago, the message of George Fox to the established Christian church 400 years ago, and on and on.
Nothing's new under the Sun.
One of this weeks editors' picks seems to add to this discussion:
You have been a wonderful addition to our spiritual family. Just before you came to us, we started embarking on this more organic approach to Quaker process. Our meeting has always been very inclusive and inviting. But for a number of years, like many Quaker meetings, we relied heavily on a formal and permanent committee process that we thought had to be sustained at all costs. So my essay wasn't necessarily about our meeting per se. Most Quaker meetings operate in this way.
As you have probably noted from our meeting communications to all of our Friends, we have been dismantling that formal process - letting the Spirit guide us each step of the way. The problem with such a formal and permanent committee process is that it can outlive its usefulness and must be "fed" in order to be sustained. As a result, the danger is that it can become our "idol", burdening Friends at meeting. Instead, accepting volunteers of ad-hoc committees, as needed, tends to be more organic because they are allowed to come and go as needed. The Friends volunteering for them are enthusiastic because these temporary committees are doing something of interest to volunteering Friends. Friends know the "job" won't last forever. And the ad-hoc committees' short life-span ensures they won't amass too much influence; nor outstay their welcome. They tend to be easily guided and directed by the whole meeting every step of the way. They are not mistakenly assigned a role as the "authority". The whole meeting, operating together within the Spirit, becomes the unmistaken authority.
The amazing thing with this gradual dismantling of formal and permanent committees at our meeting is that the Spirit has now been able to fully flourish among us. As a result our worship attendance has tripled, and other activities that nurture our Spirit have organically developed in a natural way among F(f)riends. Our Meetings for Business have changed from a stiff approval process and "announcement session" to a spiritually alive organism that is processing as a whole the important aspects of our spiritual life together.
While we are unsure where the Spirit is leading us, we all sense we are on the right course. The fruits of the Spirit are blossoming among us.