19 December 2013

A few thoughts on Quaker discipline

This evening I went to a small gathering of Friends in Moscow, with audio-video links to Tbilisi and Kazan'. I'd  been asked to anchor a discussion on "Quaker discipline." Here's a sample of what I said. (A Russian-language recording was made which will be available online eventually; I'll try to remember to provide a link.)

My Quaker mentor was Deborah Haight, whose roots were in Canada Yearly Meeting (Conservative), which was part of the small family of conservative yearly meetings that still includes Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina. Canada (Conservative) eventually became part of today's Canadian Yearly Meeting. From Deborah I gained an appreciation of the quiet, sober, reflective, unostentatious prayer-centered lifestyle of conservative Friends.

For many Friends in this tradition, outward activities and interests took second place to the inward life of prayer, home Bible study, and waiting worship. It's easy to see how this way of life can become a sort of model, a way of imagining what "Quaker discipline" ought to look like. But it would be wrong to generalize and stereotype this picture of Friends, especially if we begin to imply that, whatever culture a Friend comes from, he or she must have the same capacity for inwardness, long attention spans, and specific tastes in clothing, music, architecture, and modes of worship.

So what is at the heart of Friends discipline? What originally molded this "classical" lifestyle and molds the faithful Quaker of today?

First, our belief that "the body reflects the beauty of the Head." I don't know who first said this, but I heard it from our Yearly Meeting's former superintendent, Norval Hadley, as the spiritual foundation of the peace testimony. This is "Gospel order," life with God at the center. The famous sermon of George Fox recorded by Margaret Fell gives a sense of this consistency: 
"The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord": and said, "Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?"
Second, our concentric ecclesiology. Our meetings consist of people gathering around Jesus as the head, attentive to learn from him and respond, and ready to help each other grow in the ability to learn and respond. "Helping each other grow" includes the loving and risky responses to misbehavior that we sometimes call "eldering."

I told the story of the weighty Friend who needed to be eldered for his sarcastic stage whispers during meetings for business, and mentioned a couple of cases where meetings or yearly meetings revoked the status of Friends recorded in the ministry. Such eldering also includes encouraging those whose gifts (public or not) are just emerging, or who want to invite the meeting's oversight in connection with their leadings to travel among Friends, to publish in the name of Friends, or to conduct a public witness such as refusing to pay military taxes. Caring for marriages and family life in the meeting are also part of this crucial task of helping each other learn what it means to live with Jesus as the head of the community.

I mentioned George Fox's advice that each circle, starting with the local meeting, appoint "substantial Friends" to the wider circles--the quarterly and yearly meetings, and (now, by extension) the international associations of Friends such as Friends United Meeting, Evangelical Friends Church International, and Friends World Committee for Consultation. Such appointees, said Fox, should be able to "... give a testimony of your sufferings, and how things are among you in every particular meeting."

Finally, I mentioned how we choose leadership--based on spiritual gifts, not social status. I touched on the mutual accountability of clerks, elders, and pastors to the communities that appointed them. We had an interesting discussion of the limited power of the clerk to declare a decision in the face of disunity.

One Friend asked what we do when the meeting seems split 50/50 on the desirability of some course of action. And then what happens when, after lengthy deliberations, there still seems to be an irreducible 10% still opposed? Isn't it sometimes impossible to obtain genuine unity? I admitted I had no formula but love, but my experience, unaided by any theory, is that in almost every worthwhile controversy I've observed, unity was eventually reached.

Quaker discipline is based on the idea that we're a body of believers who reflect the beauty of the Head, rather than on a specific model from the past, however beautiful. This allows (requires!) us to include all sorts of temperaments and cultures into the family of Friends. In response to a question about how our meeting deals with controversial subjects, I pointed out that passions sometimes run high in meetings for business. We don't avoid conflict. As clerk, I have only one criterion for a successful business meeting, and it isn't whether or not everyone remained calm. My sole question is, "When all was said and done, were we able to unite around the apparent will of God for us?"

In closing, I acknowledged our tiny numbers in Russia, which may lead some in Russia to conclude that Friends discipline is too fragile or exotic to work in Russia. In citing experiences of Friends discipline that I've had in other countries, I disavowed any desire to set up those experiences as exact models to import into Russia. Instead, I wanted to use those experiences to testify that Friends discipline is indeed realistic and sustainable, an ideal worth striving for, whatever cultural coloring it might take on.

When I arrived at this evening's gathering, Vladimir Putin's apparent promise to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the talk of the room. (Moscow Times coverage.) So far, Khodorkovsky's own team of lawyers is reacting very cautiously to this bombshell.

An interview with performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky. "... The West lives by the same phobias as we do...."

Meanwhile, the orphan watch.

"Russia, Quakers, and Civil Society," a weekend course at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre next November 28-30.

Wesley Hill, "Elected Representatives: Rethinking the Doctrine of Election."

"101 Christian Women Speakers" ... along with many more in the comments.

We played Odetta's "Spiritual Trilogy" in class today. Here's something different from her:

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