If, as seems undeniable, the current form of the Quaker way is on a gradual but steady path towards extinction through failure to renew its numbers, perhaps this is evidence of a lack of ‘fit’ with the underlying reality of human beings’ need and desire for profound experiences of spiritual reality. In this case, perhaps the path towards renewal is not by returning to the cultural forms that were well-adapted to the society and culture of a previous Christian culture. Neither is it necessarily to be even more conformed to contemporary culture, if that means failing to meet the deep and compelling spiritual needs that are ignored or denied by a purely secular society. Instead, the renewal of the Quaker way may depend on a new ‘mutation’ in its language, imagery and concepts, that enables it to answer the deepest human needs in a way that fits their experience and the reality of our society, now and in the future.
One additional thought: any discussion of gathered meetings for worship would be incomplete without mentioning Michael Sheeran’s book Beyond Majority Rule, and especially Martin Kelley’s commentary on it. In my previous posts, the distinction between gathered and focused meetings seemed connected to one’s religious outlook, and thus related to the divide between Christ-centered and universalist Quakers that has bedeviled our faith for centuries. But as Sheeran and Kelley argue, the more fundamental divide in the liberal branch of Quakerism is between those who seek contact with the divine and those who don’t. Kelley in particular notes the particular historical context for this division:
The unstated condition behind the great Quaker reunifications of the mid-twentieth century was a taboo against talking about what we believe as a people. Quakerism became an individual mysticism coupled with a world-focused social activism – to talk about the area in between was to threaten the new unity.
It’s been about 15 years since that post was written, and that in-between area, a community life that nurtures and shapes both individual devotion and social concerns, still feels like the most underdeveloped part of Quakerdom. We would do well to pay more attention to it.
Reader Mary Linda writes concerning this post:
I would add that while my experience of gathered worship isn’t common–it doesn’t happen with frequency or regularity–it is also not that rare. […] Gathered worship isn’t contingent on everyone believing the same thing or sharing a common awareness or even expectation; it is really about everyone being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, whatever they call it. I’ve even been in gathered worship during a business meeting with teenagers and at least one non-theist adult that was profound in its spiritual depth. It was possible because, in spite of our differences in understanding, we were all present to the work of Spirit and we trusted in that, even when we didn’t all understand what we were trusting in.
This is really insightful, and has made me rethink my original post. It is certainly true that the fact of people having their own perspectives doesn’t prevent their becoming gathered in worship. I suppose that the distinction between gathered and focused really comes down to what it means to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Do we expect that turning our attention, or rather our most inward selves, toward God will change us? Or do we think nothing special is going on and we can proceed normally?
Francis Howgill famously described the experience of the first Friends thus: “The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net…” For me, that image points to what I’m getting at: if you’re swept up in a net, you’re off balance; you don’t have the same certainty about yourself and your surroundings as you did before. Part of what it means to be gathered is that uncertainty, that trust in something even if you don’t fully understand it. A focused meeting, by contrast, may have the same seriousness of purpose, but is more settled in what it’s doing and what it expects—as if resisting the net being thrown over it.
An elder Friend once made this distinction:
From time to time, unprogrammed Quaker worship results in what’s called a gathered meeting, in which the presence of the Holy Spirit becomes especially palpable, lifting the worshippers out of their usual mindsets and perspectives. (Thomas Kelly’s essay on the gathered meeting remains the best description of what it is and why it is so important.) Gathered meetings are revered among Quakers, but are rare to the point that, it is said, almost no Quaker alive today could be said to have experienced one. I know I haven’t.
More frequently, to the extent that meetings for worship have any cohesion at all, they are focused meetings; that is, the worshippers are all paying attention to some spiritual principle, but each from their own perspectives. So for liberal Friends, a focused meeting might have Christians waiting upon the Lord; universalists seeking the Inner Light; pagans getting in touch with nature; Buddhists letting go of attachments; non-theists seeking a feeling of peace; etc. Even in meetings where there is more uniformity of theological opinion, there can be wide variation in how they are approaching worship or in what they imagine the object of worship to be. While this state of affairs is preferable to meetings in which Friends are disengaged or merely using them as a platform for their hobbyhorses, it nevertheless is a pale shadow of the gathered meeting as described by Kelly and other Quakers of past generations.
That said, I have experienced moments in worship when the usual boundaries between people melt a little bit and make room for forces besides our individual egos to act. At one recent meeting, for example, I had something on my mind, and another Friend rose and spoke on that very topic, albeit with different words. That kind of experience gestures toward the feeling of being gathered as earlier Quakers described it, but there’s a long road we would still have to walk to get there.
The following is based on vocal ministry that I gave at Frederick Friends Meeting on 8/13/2017.
Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness. (1 John 2:9-11 NRSV)
I have always been puzzled by the duality at play in this letter, as well as in the other letters and gospel attributed to the same author. It is John who tells us that the Light of Christ shines in every person, that God is love and that everyone who loves knows God. Yet it is this same John who says that if you hate your brother or sister, you are a murderer and the kin of Cain and the devil. It seems that, as great as the love of God may be, so too is the condemnation for those who oppose that love.
In the wake of the eruption of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville yesterday, we face two temptations. The first is to give in to the kind of hate we saw on display there, or to let hate have the last word. I admit that I let the phrase “goosestepping morons” escape my lips watching the alt-right marchers on TV, and that was among the milder things that I said. Yet I cannot but hope that those in thrall to white supremacist ideology might find a way out of that trap.
The other temptation, though, is more insidious, particularly for peace churches like the Society of Friends: namely, to not see the darkness for what it is. So long as these racist and fascist elements in our country feel that they can espouse their hatred with impunity, so long as they enjoy the sympathy of our president and his advisors, so long as the structures of racial oppression that enable them are left untouched, the love of God is aggrieved. Our empathy for whatever pain these white supremacists may be in should not eclipse our empathy for those who have suffered and died at their hands, nor should it be construed as a passive “niceness” that fails to resist what they stand for.
If God is love, then love is the most powerful force in the universe. Let us live in that power and hope that it can bring those who are in the squalor of darkness into the splendor of the light.
Nothing symbolizes the foreclosure of the future like the slaughter of a nation’s young. And it’s so routine now — there have been at least eight this year at a school or college where someone was injured or killed — that attention will quickly fade, as it does with subjects one doesn’t intend to do anything about. Another word for that bitter fatalism is “defeat.”
And we have been, in an important moral sense, defeated. We won’t do anything about it, or can’t; the fact is so well understood that we don’t even need new commentaries stating as much for each shooting — we just recycle the old ones, from the old shootings. If this is what American freedom means, if this is what the Constitution entails, if this is where prayer gets us, then it’s easy to understand why millennials — the first generation to be raised on a steady stream of schoolhouse slaughter — barely believe in anything, democracy, American-style liberty, America’s future and organized religion included.
This paper by Marika Rose (h/t The Magnificast) is really helpful in thinking through the issues of racism and queer-phobia in Christianity and Quakerism I discussed yesterday. In it, Rose shows how contradictions within Christianity itself gave rise to racism as we know it. Progressive Christians like to cite Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”) as a statement of inclusivity, but that statement leaves the question of what to do with those who are not in Christ Jesus unanswered. Or rather, as the history of Christians over the centuries shows, it was answered—by oppressing non-Christians, a category that over time took on racial connotations.
One other thing Rose’s paper shows, though she doesn’t discuss it, is the limits of relying on scripture as a guide for navigating the world we live in today. By this I mean not simply the usual anti-fundamentalist bromide that the Bible isn’t meant to be used as an instruction manual for life, but rather that the biblical narrative itself is incomplete without accounting for the 2,000 or so years that have passed since the last of the scriptures were written. Imagine a Bible that ends with the handing down of the Law in Deuteronomy, or that ends with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah to Babylon in 2 Kings; in both cases, they would offer very different pictures about who God was and what his purposes were than in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as we have them today. Similarly, to talk about the Christian faith as something derived from the Bible without talking about how it has been lived out in actual history, warts and all, leaves a dangerously distorted picture of what the faith is or should be. It’s almost as if the Bible is merely a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself.
I want to start this pop-up blog by thinking through what I think is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for progressive Christians, particularly Quakers: namely, a self-image as being “the good guys”, which paradoxically can get in the way of acting justly or Christ-like.