22 October 2020

Quaker communion (partly a repost)

If there's such a thing as Quaker communion, is it more like what some of us call open worship, or more like a potluck?

(For the moment, I'm not addressing those places in the world of Friends where a formal communion is celebrated that resembles other Protestants' practices -- although I'd welcome their comments.)

These two comparisons came up in a recent discussion of communion in the Facebook group "Christian Quakers." Participants made a variety of good points about Friends' spiritual understanding of communion. The comparison with open worship was there, but most Friends in this thread focused on the connection with a common meal. 

How does the meal fit in? If in worship we seek the companionship of the living Christ, we are already memorializing his life and death and resurrection; what more do we need? However, if we rush to answer, "Nothing at all -- we're Quakers!" ...  we may be giving in to an abiding temptation in at least northern-hemisphere Quaker culture: to over-spiritualize our religious experience, and then, worse, to look down upon other Christians when those others value outward markers for their experiences of initiation (baptism) and spiritual intimacy with God (communion).

My original post (see below) was dated July 2010, and it was occasioned in part by an experience we had in Moscow Friends Meeting that summer. Our friend Sasha marked the fortieth day after his mother's death by leading a period of communion with bread and wine during our normally unprogrammed meeting for worship. It may have been only the second or third time in my whole life that I experienced such an observance in a Quaker setting, but, given the occasion, I had no hesitation about participating.

Applying the word "communion" to unprogrammed worship, or to the period of open worship in programmed meetings, seems to happen much more often than using it for potlucks or common meals, although I honestly see the validity of both if the heart-level intention is there. I've visited a fair number of pastoral and programmed meetings where the open worship period is described in terms similar to this: "Communion after the manner of Friends." The Richmond Declaration of Faith (1887) says, "The presence of Christ with His church is not designed to be by symbol or representation, but in the real communication of His own Spirit." ("The Supper of the Lord.") Deep Creek Friends Meeting in Yadkinville, North Carolina, referred to Quaker worship as "a time of intimate communion with God and one another..." in this newsletter article from 2013 that described a Sunday morning when their pastor suddenly needed to be elsewhere.

Here's the original text of my post from 2010.

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.

Moscow Friends enjoying tea after worship (2010)
Moscow Meeting is unprogrammed, and 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.

Communion at ecumenical peace demonstration
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. 

(Here's a link to the post as it appeared originally, along with Bill Samuels' thoughtful comment.)

Confession: I prepared this post instead of watching this evening's U.S. presidential election debate.

This Saturday: Friends Peace Teams present a workshop, "Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples." Information. Registration.

Seventeen countries send their diplomats to the South Hebron Hills. Guess what? The USA was not represented.

A Lesley Stahl interview. No, not that one -- here she interviews Aleksei Navalny. I didn't know his English is this good.

Two very different examinations of a dysfunctional U.S. presidency: Amy Siskind. John Piper.

Louis René Beres examines the continuing risk factors for a miscalculated war between the USA and North Korea. (Thanks to jurist.org for the link.)

Fifty years ago, the concert that launched Greenpeace. (Thanks to Bill Smith for the link.)

Nancy Thomas presents a poetic breath of fresh air from C.S. Lewis.

Mike Farley on the life of prayer that (in the context of today's post, I believe) supports any real communion -- or any movement for social transformation.

A different sort of blues clip: Christone "Kingfish" Ingram describes his guitars, pickups, and pedalboard, demonstrating how each contributes to the sound he wants. Enjoy!


kfsaylor said...

"If I remember correctly, she listed those misleading negatives as "we don't have doctrines, priests, or sacraments."

I appreciate this. Because it is misleading only in the context of those people who (by their own acknowledgement are in the reflective nature) turn not having doctrines, priests, or sacraments into dis-spirited doctrine itself. There are those of us who through the power and presence of the immanently self-evident spirit of Jesus Christ in our consciousness and conscience, it is discovered to us a different way of life and living that is not of the nature of the reflective process which nurtures and promotes the agency of doctrine, priests, or sacraments. We are come into and affirm the agency, operation, and affection through the operation of the immanent presence of the spirit of Jesus Christ itself in itself as sufficient to guide and inform our relationships and interactions without regard for the agency of outward political, religious, socially reflected formalities. Such a testimony to a witness or experience both negates the reflective nature or consciousness and affirms and nurtures a different consciousness and conscience.

Dave Cundiff said...

Johan, I appreciated your repetition of Val Ferguson's "misleading negatives" about Quakerism.

Sometime in the last decade, I realized that those who start their explanation of Quakerism with the words "Quakers don't" seldom describe a Quakerism in which others would be interested. There ARE bright lines we Quakers will not cross, individually and sometimes collectively, but those prohibitions are never the principal point of Quakerism.

We DO listen to, and seek to follow, the living risen prophetic Jesus/Spirit, who speaks to and through us and others by every means necessary.

Thanks and best wishes!

Dave Cundiff
Ilwaco, Washington, USA