A Guest Piece by Ken Stockbridge, used with permission.
As so often happens in the Quaker blogosphere, a post might draw out information or reflection that advances the electronic conversation that we're having. In this case, Ken's comment to the original post lifts up some historical information about confession, even if it was not called "confession" back then. Where appropriate, I include links to books and pamphlets that Ken has referenced, as well as a couple references that he later supplied me with via email, which are [in italics and offset in brackets]. -Liz
I was intrigued by the topic and the question, "Do Friends Have Confession?" I appreciate the thoughts people have shared about what Friends might want to do today. But for now, I would simply like to share some reflections on Friends' history with confession in the first couple of centuries.
Friends definitely *used* to have confession, though they may never have called it that. It was part of Gospel Order, and Lloyd Lee Wilson's essays provide some insight into it, as does a Pendle Hill pamphlet #297 by Sandra Cronk, "Gospel Order: A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community." And according to Rex Ambler's Light to Live By, early Friends did not have totally warm and fuzzy feelings about the Light. The Light searched them out and exposed their flaws and weaknesses (and sin, gasp!) so that they could be drawn more perfectly to God.
[Here's a quote from Margaret Fell, found on page 5 of Rex Ambler's book, above:
"Now, Friends, deal plainly with yourselves, and let the eternal light search you...for this will deal plainly with you; it will rip you up, and lay you open... naked and bare before the Lord God from whom you cannot hide yourselves... Therefore give over deceiving of your souls..."]I first became aware of how confession worked for early Quakers when I was doing some research and reading minutes from the late 1600s and the 1700s. I stumbled across these odd things called "Letters of Condemnation" (early on) and then "Letters of Acknowledgment" (by the mid-1700s or so). (I really knew so little about Quakers then and only a little more now.) What I discovered, contrary to my intuition, was that these letters were not written by the meeting to member who had faltered in observing Friends' principles. They were written by the Friends who had faltered and been called to account to the meeting, and the letters condemned or acknowledged their own behavior. And I realized this was really a practice of confession, which when followed restored the faltering Friend to the loving embrace of their meeting. Friends were disowned only after failing to provide a satisfactory letter.
For example, I stumbled across one such letter of acknowledgment, and it went something like this... (I wish I had transcribed it.)
"To Chesterfield Meeting, NJ. On my recent visit among you, I now realize, I was not sufficiently low in the truth when I spoke. I thank Friends for making me mindful of this, and I ask that you pass by my offense."
This letter (as roughly recalled) was signed by John Woolman in the mid 1700s.
That kind of blew me away. "Low in the truth" was an expression Friends of that day used to refer to being humble; it acknowledged that the closer we are to knowing truth, the more humbled we will be by knowing it. I wish I knew the rest of the story, but that's all I know.
Now, I do not for a minute suggest that we return to the Quaker practices of that day, which resulted in so many being read out of meeting for various offenses, many of which seem laughable or quaint or even cruel to us today. But I have been intrigued by those practices, and the more I have learned, the more I think there are insights we can glean from them for today.
While it may be true that over time in some places, those practices degenerated into petty meddling and judgmentalism, I have a sense that the ideal, which may never have been fully realized, was quite loving and perhaps even a wonderful thing. I cannot say for sure how those Friends actually felt and thought about those practices, but I can imagine how the discipline might have made sense in its ideal form. What may be misunderstood today is that when meetings brought people before the meeting for discipline (by sending a committee to visit with them), the presumption was not how to punish them and make a case for kicking them out. The presumption was that through loving labor, the people would come to understand why their behavior was wrong and be brought back into right order among Friends. Moreover, even after a Friend was disowned, they were still welcome to worship with Friends and the meeting would still return a person to membership, once a satisfactory acknowledgment had been received. [Johns Hopkins was disowned in the 1820s for selling liquor. He continued to worship with Friends. Though I would like to confirm this, I understand that late in life he felt that selling liquor was one of the greatest regrets of his life (though it was essential to the fortune he made), and that he did seek to be rejoined to his meeting. I'm not sure if he was or not.]
In this ideal that I can imagine, the practice was more about healing than it was about judgment. In support of this possibility, I could point you to many examples where a meeting labored with an individual month after month after month, only giving up when they concluded that further labor "would not be availing." And I could point you to many examples when Friends were retained in membership. [Sadly, I can also point you to later examples where it seemed quite clear that such a spirit was not present.] Do Friends realize this about those practices of discipline used in those days? On those rare occasions today when meetings disown individuals (I have heard of a few), do the meetings work from the same presumption that they dearly want to retain the people in membership?
In any case, so it is with confession, as the other posts suggest. Confession, in the ideal, is a healing practice. My impression is that the "guilt" that Catholics (and Jews?) have a reputation for stems at least partly from perceptions about confession practices in those churches. If that is true, I think it is tragic. Because my sense is that the teachings of those faiths do acknowledge that confession is a path to forgiveness, an unburdening that frees us and returns us to right relationship to God. For example, the Jewish New Year follows a holy week, of which atonement is perhaps the key element.
In recent years, I have been hearing more and more Friends use the word "accountability." [Here's a quote about accountability from Sandra Cronk's pamphlet.] When we have leadings, part of the support that is expected from our support committees and supporting community is to be held accountable to our leadings. For early Friends, the disciplinary practices of Gospel Order were a central part of their system of accountability.
Would we not all benefit if our loving and supportive spiritual community held us accountable, not just for our discerned leadings, but for the witness and testimonies and values that we embrace when we claim ourselves to be Friends?
What role would a Friendly approach to confession play in the process? Is there more we can learn from early Friends and Gospel Order?
I hope this helps and is of interest.
Patapsco Friends Meeting
Ellicott City, Maryland, USA