22 July 2010

The Quaker mass

Not long ago, I read some reference to "the Quaker mass," and that got me to thinking. When I'm in a Christian community that practices communion or the Eucharist, I love its deep connection both to history and to the earthiness of life. Usually I'm a sympathetic observer, but occasionally I've participated myself.

Where Moscow Friends meet [at time of this post]
Moscow Meeting is unprogrammed. Usually nothing takes place during the hour of worship that would look like a traditional communion to most Christians.

This is as close as we normally get: somehow over the years, a practice arose among us of singing a simple prayer before beginning our tea, asking God to bless us and pour grace on each of us.

Honestly, some Quaker arguments against ceremonial communion seem a bit thin to me. Back when I was serving with Friends World Committee for Consultation, my colleague Val Ferguson used to caution her Quaker audiences about the "three misleading negatives" that we sometimes use to define ourselves. If I remember correctly, she listed those misleading negatives as "we don't have doctrines, priests, or sacraments." 

Val urged us to define ourselves positively, not negatively. She reminded us that we have our own forms of doctrine and leadership, and pointed out that the absence of something is not always an advantage. The sacrament of communion, for example, can be a vivid reminder of the physicality of God's creation in the form of food and drink -- essential products of the earth, and in fact products which too many people don't have enough of.

Among our beloved 17th-century Quaker soundbites are these two from George Fox: "Christ has come to teach his people himself," and "You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest: is it inwardly from God?" Both imply the importance of communion as relationship, of being in the Presence, of "meeting" in the deepest sense.

So when we Friends argue for an inward and spiritual understanding of communion, as Robert Barclay did in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity (see Proposition XIII), I tend to agree, as long as we modestly remember we still need to make the effort to connect our faith to our practice (for example, keeping a time of quiet waiting in our meetings for worship so that we can actually, simply be in God's presence). If we don't make this effort to link intention and opportunity, it's probably not communion, no matter how lofty our theory.

In fact, isn't this the same effort required by ceremonial communion? What is superior about Friends' practice? Is it the fact that we devote a time of unprogrammed silence to this intention, shielding it from getting crowded out by the other elements of worship? My experience is that communion can be happening whenever God's people assemble -- as I've found among Pentecostals and Russian Orthodox people, among others -- and most Friends wouldn't deny that this can be the case.

No, what I cherish about our minimalist approach is actually more political than spiritual, if it's okay to make that distinction. As soon as you establish an outward practice, you need to guard it. How frequently is it celebrated? Is it optional or mandatory -- and what are the stakes? Who is allowed to lead and to participate, and who isn't? How do we interpret the relevant biblical passages? Is there a script, and how far can we deviate? Must there be literal bread (what about gluten intolerance) and wine (will grape juice do)? Barclay, in his Proposition XIII, touches on the difficulties Christians have had in reconciling their different understandings -- "For there have been more animosities and heats about this one particular, and more bloodshed and contention, than about any other."

But here again, Quakers are not off the hook.

It's true that most yearly meetings don't use ceremonial communion at all, and those yearly meetings that do provide for communion simply allow it, they don't require it. So maybe we're not tempted into the politics of licensing and quality control for this specific practice. However, I know what happens when someone speaks a second time in certain unprogrammed meetings, or speaks too long, or too emotionally, or too early in the hour, or uses the wrong theology. Without "forms," is there also a danger of treating the reality of communion so casually that we, too, might lose the connection between faith and practice? So maybe we still have issues of quality control after all.

Many meetings and churches have elders, or meetings of ministry and counsel, and this is the provision for "quality control" I like the best among Friends. Elders approach the discipline of matching faith and practice, not by appeal to a rule-book or external authorities, but again by going into communion and asking God for guidance. Being humans, they can't guarantee that they will always discern correctly, but neither does an external structure carry any guarantees.

Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of me" -- and Barclay rightly points out that it's the remembrance that counts, not the exact method of remembering. Jesus uses other occasions to make similar connections, such as his discussion of Living Water with the woman at the well, and washing the feet of his disciples. But do we in fact remember Jesus? The Russian Quaker Tatiana Pavlova said, "When I sit in worship, I want to know that the person next to me is worshipping the same God." Our practices may seem very different from those of Christians with more liturgy and ceremony, but if we stay faithful to Jesus' words, and if we use our Quaker understandings of communion to grow in Christ rather than to marginalize him in favor of private meditation, or (just as bad) to one-up other Christians, we're still at the same Table.

With thanks to Wess Daniels for writing things that help me think through these questions. Here's a link to all my posts tagged with "worship."

Last week's post on "who owns the Quaker brand?" attracted comments that are better than the original post. Thanks to all who commented! As a partial introduction to what I called the "tangent" in that posting, I recommend this article: "The Roots and Flowers of Quaker Nontheism." I note that some of the Friends in the author's chronology were actually strongly Christian, even evangelical by today's standards, but I understand the logic of including them.

Tom Astore, "Wars don't make heroes." I appreciate Astore for confronting today's American tendency to exalt the military. Is it possible that this phenomenon is in part a compensation for the fact that so few Americans are being asked to sacrifice directly in Iraq and Afghanistan? Most of us simply have to endure watching our national economy and our civil liberties dangerously undermined by our state of permanent war.

CNN.com: "Born-again rebel Don Miller reveals 'best sermon I ever heard'."

This review of The Last Hero: A Biography of Henry Aaron may explain why I put a baseball bio on my wish list.

Yorba Linda Friends Church is backing a feature film project, according to "Churches making mainstream films to attract souls" in USA Today.

"Those who dance are considered to be insane by those who can't hear the music."

"Feminist Hermeneutics at Worcester."

Rikke Bruhn and friends in a blues jam, Aalborg, Denmark: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"

1 comment:

Bill Samuel said...

I think early Friends practices can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, and you can affirm the (or at least a) basis of a practice without maintaining that the way they carried that out is necessarily for all times and places.

In keeping with a number of things Jesus said, the early Friends practice emphasized that it is the inward not the outward which is of critical importance. Their eschewing of water baptism and communion with physical elements as a witness to that emphasis, particularly needed at that time and place.

To make that into a legalistic rule seems to contradict that spirit. You can get in the trap of focusing on the outward in an outward practice or in insisting on not engaging in an outward practice. The latter temptation has been a problem for Friends, IMHO.

Barring such outward practices seems to say that inward observance and outward observance are inherently in opposition to each other. This seems patently false. Many Christians find that the outward observance of communion, for example, can aid in the inward observance. This is my own experience.

I think Quakers sometimes lack a robust understanding of the Incarnation, reflected in a tendency to spiritualize everything. God came in human form and engaged in physical acts that demonstrated God's truth. So the use of physical symbols seems consonant with the Incarnation. I have also come to believe that the Eucharist is a way Christ provided to experience his actual physical presence in some measure post-resurrection.

I believe in the church as the body of Christ, and I reject the early Quaker tendency (expressed more by some early Friends than others) to condemn the whole rest of the Christian church wholesale. Christ called for unity in the body, and to insist that those who differ in doctrine and practice are hopelessly apostate and therefore not part of the body is very dangerous, IMHO.

Because I believe God speaks to the whole body of Christ, and is not heard just by one small sect of it, one way that I consider whether practices and doctrines of early Friends are properly universal in all times and places is the degree to which they have been accepted in other parts of the body of Christ. For baptism and communion, what I see is that large parts of the body accept that these are not absolutely essential and that the inward spiritual state is critical, but almost all parts do practice water baptism and communion with the bread and the cup.