01 December 2011

Do we need Advent?

Last week I presented a draft description of "open worship." One of the comments I received via Facebook was, in part, as follows: I think it is very good. It leaves me wondering why programmed Friends feel they need anything else?

As I was thinking about this comment, I noticed an Internet Monk article, "Why I need Advent." In his explanation of Advent's importance for him, Jeff Dunn quotes Sister Joan Chittister:
Christmas is not meant to be simply a day of celebration; it is meant to be a month of contemplation. But because Advent has been lost somewhere between the Thanksgiving turkey and the pre-Christmas sales, we have lost one of the richest seasons of the year. Unless we can reclaim Advent, the lack of it will show dearly in the way we go through the rest of life itself.
Dunn adds:
I need Advent to tell me why Jesus had to die, and that he was born as a baby in order that he could grow to be a man who would be executed as a criminal.

Yet we have made Advent a time of ribbons and bows when it should be a time of weeping and wailing for our sinfulness. If I do not come to see my hopelessness before the Perfect Judge, with nothing to bring before him to buy even one minute’s pardon, then how can I rejoice with the shepherds that a Savior has been born this day in Bethlehem, the City of David?
I understand this idea of a "month of contemplation" and preparation, so that the celebration of Jesus's birth is not just a self-contained holiday, a disconnected mixture of piety and festivity, but contains within it the full scope of the Gospel story. (I remember Anthony Bloom's powerful words on the Good Friday service, "...Instead of the cross on which a living young Man dies, we have a wonderful service that can move us but that actually stands between us and that rude and ghastly tragedy." A more complete excerpt is here, toward the end of the post.) Context grounded in reality is crucial.

Furthermore, this month of contemplation, however well or poorly it is experienced in full depth, has been ratified over centuries by a huge part of the worldwide church. And isn't the church calendar, with its holidays and seasons, simply a larger extension of the acts of worship that we perform on any given Sunday?

Well. Friends don't require Advent observances, but they often have them. Friends don't have a liturgy beyond the inward liturgy of silent worship, but they sometimes incorporate liturgical elements. Is there any consistency at all? I think there is, but I in trying to describe it, I'm reduced to political terms: I belong to a church that deliberately lacks a "power vertical." For better or for worse, we Friends have no hierarchy to carry out a program of interpreting, mandating, licensing, and quality control. Program management happens at the junction of God, the Bible, and the historical and present-day "sense of the meeting." That junction is located at meeting for business, conducted face-to-face by people who (ideally) love God, love each other, and are mutually accountable to each other. If these Friends find no Divine urgency in a practice or ceremony or season or tradition, then we conclude it is not needed, not required of us by God in this time and place, no matter how ancient or beautiful it might be.

The insights resulting from this process are codified for a time in minutes and books of Christian discipline. This applies to local congregations and also to the concentric associations around them--quarterly meetings, yearly meetings, Friends United Meeting (or equivalent, if any)--wherever Friends gather for church government on the basis of prayer. Usually, those minutes and books are concerned with the stewardship of the community and its identity. They describe the beliefs, organizational structures, offices, and ethical expectations that give our church coherence. I've rarely if ever seen codifications of what worship should look like, let alone the church calendar.

Perhaps that helps explain why we haven't codified Advent, but still (the vast majority of Friends worldwide) have elements in our worship beyond bare silence. Those elements are drawn from a variety of sources, among them being
  • the Bible (see, for example, Peter Blood's article, "The Biblical Roots of Quaker Worship")
  • the practices and traditions of the larger Christian church (so, for example, some Friends meetings do in fact celebrate Advent, including having children take turns lighting Advent calendars, doing Advent readings, and so on--and some meetings also observe various elements drawn from Lent--but it's not imposed by any body or document)
  • Friends' traditions, most obviously open worship
  • the traditions of that specific congregation
  • national and ethnic traditions of the local congregation
  • the promptings of the Holy Spirit
  • the dramatic or artistic gifts of individuals in the congregation--incorporated spontaneously or by planning--
and, in the ideal case, are selected for inclusion in the meeting for worship only after prayerful discernment according to the needs and spiritual obedience of the body.

Have I ever seen this ideal process in practice? Yes! In several meetings I've been a part of, the planning of the meeting for worship was itself a very worshipful process. I remember, for example, West Richmond Friends Meeting, Indiana, USA, on the occasions I was a guest speaker there. Since I lived in Richmond, I was able to attend the planning meetings for the meetings for worship at which I'd be speaking. It was always more or less zero-based-budgeting: several elements were likely to happen each time, but nothing was taken for granted--each element was considered before being put on the list. Equally importantly--we knew that the pastor or worship leader was free to alter the list at any time during the worship if it seemed that something else was needed. Any sermon, any hymn selection, and so on, could be changed without scandal at the last minute.

By the way, I've argued before that unprogrammed Friends, whose worship appears to be based on the purity of silent waiting, nevertheless have elements of programming incorporated from tradition. My favorite example is the meeting I experienced in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting where most all Friends, of all ages, assemble together as part of the education hour, and then break up into age groups. At the end of the hour, they reassemble and walk from the old schoolhouse to the meetinghouse, where they settle into unprogrammed worship. I felt a powerful and beautiful sense of worship during this whole two-hour-plus period, including that procession to the meetinghouse.

And there are unwritten rules in some meetings for the way unprogrammed worship is conducted. Certain topics are unwelcome in vocal ministry. No speaking should occur during the first half of the meeting. You should or should not stand up to speak. Speak only once! You can refer to a previous speaker, but you can't engage in refutation, ask questions, or invite debate. Before speaking, allow time for the previous speaker's words to be absorbed by the community. (How long? Depends on the meeting!) In many meetings, there's a simple table with a Bible in the center of the worship space, in others not. I'm not commenting here on the rightness of these expectations (except when they are concealed, only to be revealed in the way a violator is cold-shouldered). I'm only pointing out that some degree of programming is probably universal.

I began with the question, why do we programmed Friends feel as if we need something beyond open worship? Maybe I can reframe the question a bit. Unscripted communion with the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to the Quaker reformation of Christian worship, but don't our meetings and churches have the freedom to draw (with discernment!) from the full range of what other Christians find meaningful in loving and hearing God, loving and hearing each other, and loving and hearing the wider community during our worship? Why would we give up that freedom?

This Sunday is legislative Election Day in Russia. Here's a low-key and, to my mind, relatively balanced view of the elections. Among our own acquaintances are people who are voting for parties represented in the present State Duma (including the ruling party) and for one of the legal parties not now in the Duma--and they all have well-thought-out reasons for voting the way they plan to vote. I'll be interested to see how the proportions in the new Duma will compare to the voting proportions of our friends. Will the results show that the elections are rigged, or simply that our circle of acquaintances is completely unrepresentative?! (And to those of our friends here who are in despair about Russian "political technology," I like to point out that I grew up in Chicago, where the old slogan was "vote early and often.")

Our meeting's worship place is the location of the district electoral commission (see photo with an electoral commission sign on the left side of the door, and a poster for the ruling party on the right side!), so we can't use it for worship this Sunday. I'll be at home, praying for the nation, and praying against the spirit of cynicism that seems to be at a high-water mark this season. A reminder to myself and others: it's possible to have ones eyes open, and still to remember that the spectrum of God's light always includes hope.

Presidential elections follow on March 4, 2012.

"Do you follow the liturgical year?" and "Why some don't observe the Christian year."

Nancy Thomas on two books, two special audiences.

From Australian Friends: Quaker Voice online magazine is looking for volunteers of all kinds. (Thanks to quakerquaker.org.) And from New England Yearly Meeting's Earthcare Ministries Committee: Quakers in Transition.

"The Way of the Heart--Cynthia Bourgeault Part 1: What IS the Path of Jesus?" (with links to the rest of the series). Interesting points of contact with Eastern Orthodox Christians and Friends.

"The most transparent government Chicago has ever seen, part one." (Caution: unredeemed language and a wee bit of cynicism.)

Believe it or not, "the internet will be back when we return...."

Joe Ely and Jeff Plankenhorn


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

“I’ve argued before that unprogrammed Friends, whose worship appears to be based on the purity of silent waiting, nevertheless have elements of programming incorporated from tradition. ... I’m only pointing out that some degree of programming is probably universal.”

This is a big issue. Let me try just to note a few key points:

1) Ritual processions, expectations about when to speak, and the like, were certainly no part of the original Quaker practice. If they had been part of the original practice, those critics who claimed that Friends’ worship was only differently liturgical rather than being truly liturgy-free, would have mentioned those things — and they did not.

The only elements of early Friends’ worship practice that such critics did point to, as being possibly liturgical, were the appointment of a specific hour for worship and the form of breaking fellowship at the end. And Barclay’s reply to those critics, you may recall, was that these things were simply a matter of “conveniency”, and no more than that should be read into them.

2) The original worship, however, was waiting worship; for seasoned Friends, at least, the only matter of interest was the Comforter, Advocate and Light that illumined themselves and their situation and their path. This was far different from participants in a ritualized worship, who look to the ritual itself for a part of their experience of holiness.

3) It is obvious that people in such congregations as the Philadelphia one you are referring to, were looking to the ritual itself, “going” or “looking out of themselves” as Fox would have put it instead of “dwelling within”. But this is only one more sign of what we already know, that modern liberal unprogrammed Friends’ worship practice has become profoundly different from the practice of early Friends.

The modern liberal unprogrammed Friends practice “silent worship” rather than “waiting worship”; many of them become upset by disturbances of the silence, whereas early Friends were unperturbed by such; many of them look for God in the silence and fail to find Him (not surprising) and declare themselves “nontheists” or Buddhists or other sorts of things, whereas the early Friends had with God before any silence occurred. Silence is in fact these modern Friends’ liturgy, as it never was for the first Friends.

4) Seasoned Friends in modern Conservative Friends communities, and even some in many modern liberal unprogrammed Friends communities, still practice their worship in the original way. So “some degree of programming”, beyond simple “conveniency”, may be very widespread indeed, but it is not truly universal. And thank Heaven for that!

Michael Snow said...

Thanks for your reflections. I have also been helped by Internet Monk in thinking about Advent. From a Friendly perspective, the story of the Christmas truce would lend itself to Advent meditation. See Oh Holy Night: The Peace of 1914 on amazon or evangel press. Links on my website.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello to Marshall and Michael.

Thank you, Marshall--as usual you deepen the discussion. I'd caution against over-romanticizing the first generation of Friends (that's not quite the right verb, but I can't think of a better one just now). I'm sure that some of them also developed inner liturgies and outward formalizations--their self-discipline and ability to wait were not always at 100%. On the other hand, they did grow quite rapidly, which is a phenomenon I don't associate with formalism.

Your fourth point is interesting. As a so-called "programmed Friend" (even though now worshipping with unprogrammed Friends, as in my first years as a believer, in Ottawa, Canada) I think some programming is not only inevitable but even natural and defensible. Therefore I'd like to express doubt that practicing worship "in the original way" is somehow completely a blank slate. Of course a lot depends on what we include in our definition of programming, which in turn partly depends on whether we're defending it or denouncing it. I defend things that increase access to the Holy Place (as in the epistle to the Hebrews) as opposed to the things that control or formalize or take the place of such access.

Michael--I recently read that Christian Pacifism: Fruit of the Narrow Way has been republished in a Kindle edition. From my "remote" point of view (in Russia), I'm delighted! I'm going to order it right now.

As for the Christmas 1914 events, I'm glad you're helping to keep that memory alive. Is that going to end up as an e-book as well?