April 10, 2006

Ken Stockbridge:
Friends' history with confession

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.

Ken Stockbridge
Patapsco Friends Meeting
Ellicott City, Maryland, USA

8 comments:

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Ken, wow!, what a great contribution. While I've vaguely heard of such letters I've never heard them described as confession, though of course they are. Thanks for the great post, I look forward to hearing what others think of this!
Your Friend, Martin Kelley

Robin M. said...

I read about these sorts of letters in The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748-1783 by Jack D. Marietta. (c) 1984. Marietta explictly calls this process confession and explains that often the letter had to be read aloud in Meeting, in the presence of the transgressor, whose sincerity of contrition was also to be judged by the Meeting.

At least in that period, the most often cause for this kind of discipline was marriage outside the Society and/or fornication, especially with one's future spouse. Next was drunkenness, and third was indebtedness. Marietta lists the statistics on pages 6 and 7.

At that time, as I understand it, the main reason to publish these letters was to assure that the Religious Society of Friends would appear blameless - that Truth would not suffer from the appearance of so-called Friends living immoral lives. Since so much of the Quakers' influence was due to their reputation for honesty, upright dealing and temperance, it was important to them that violators be named and either reformed or expelled from membership. Much of the lasting damage was done by overzealous insistence on expulsion, especially of Friends who did not appear sufficiently sorry for their perhaps minor actions.

However, in my Quarterly Meeting, there was recently a serious transgression by a young Friend of a commonly held moral value, and there was no clear way for that Friend to make amends, to show contrition, to be reconciled to the community. All of which would probably have been healing for even this somewhat loose form of community.

This is another example of the ways that, having moved out of small, closely guarded communities, there is very little chance of achieving the same degree of mutual accountability or support that Friends may have enjoyed (or chafed under) 200 years ago.

Or could we reach a point in a Meeting that we agreed on a vegetarian practice, and would disown Friends for repeated and willful breach of this practice? Or on the use of airplanes or automobiles as wasteful forms of transportation? What level of support would we be willing to provide Friends who did observe this practice?

I personally regret the lack of community support for my practice of abstaining from alcohol. Friends continue to offer it to me in their homes. This is clearly a practice that has fallen into disuse among Friends, but is a testimony to the fullness of the Spirit for me. However, I can not imagine my community holding me accountable for a (traditional among Friends) practice that God has called me to, but that they do not observe and in fact generally disparage. If I were to confess to a failing in this line, would anyone understand? Would they recognize the spiritual harm and opportunity for growth? Is there any way that Friends would see my failing as reflecting on them?

Thanks for taking this idea a little further, Liz and Ken.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for the added specifics, Robin, especially about Marietta's text.

You write, in part:

I can not imagine my community holding me accountable for a (traditional among Friends) practice that God has called me to, but that they do not observe and in fact generally disparage. If I were to confess to a failing in this line, would anyone understand? Would they recognize the spiritual harm and opportunity for growth? Is there any way that Friends would see my failing as reflecting on them?

Yes, I feel sad when I consider that the smallness of our faith community has given way to the highly mobile form of American society, as well as to the multiple demands for our time, energy, and attention.

I think this is in part why I feel so misunderstood by a number of Friends in the monthly meeting... and probably why I don't understand them so well, either. If our primary time to interact is on First Days, how are Friends to know what our daily struggles are, let alone our daily failings?

Blessings,
Liz

Anonymous said...

Robin M. said:

"I read about these sorts of letters in The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748-1783 by Jack D. Marietta. (c) 1984... At least in that period, the most often cause for this kind of discipline was marriage outside the Society and/or fornication, especially with one's future spouse. Next was drunkenness, and third was indebtedness... At that time, as I understand it, the main reason to publish these letters was to assure that the Religious Society of Friends would appear blameless - that Truth would not suffer from the appearance of so-called Friends living immoral lives."

As I've recently shown, this pattern is confirmed among Irish Quakers circa 1850 in an expose written by Sarah Greer.

http://generalpicture.typepad.com/leavesofgrass/2006/02/1852_quaker_sec.html

Greer accused Irish Quakers of, among many other things, subjecting the memoirs of weighty Friends to "severe censorship"--that is, "curtailed of all matter, which it is thought desirable to conceal from public view," and allowing "immorality in its most hideous forms, licentiousness" to be "covered," but only when "public attention is not awakened." On the other hand, if "the offence become known, then indeed the offender is disowned by the Society," unless "there is wealth and interest among the high Friends to assist the guilty in escaping."

In fact, she described extravagant leniency shown towards all sorts of misconduct among: (a) prominent ministers, whose exposure would be damaging to Friends: (b) the rich, whose wealth and power allowed the culture to flourish; and (c) the most eligible bachelors, who were in high demand by the society's daughters. From her new vantage as a fire-'n-brimstone evangelical, she opined, 'Some of the Friends have very confused ideas of what sin really is...'

Almost anybody today would simply discard Greer's indictment as the crazy rantings of a scorned apostate--and a mere female, at that. Isn't it comforting to do so? After all, these are serious charges. It would be far too upsetting to suppose that Greer was in fact right on the money: it would overturn our cuddly "Six Flags Over Quakers" theme park.

But I believe her.

-- Mitch

Liz Opp said...

Mitch,

Your comment reminds me that as much as I am enamored by Iowa Conservative Friends, there is one Friend among them who regularly cautions me that Iowa Friends are not perfect.

I still stand firm, however, that it is important to consider HOW we labor with one another when we notice that someone among us either (a) falls short and lags behind our Guide, or (b) puts themself on a pedestal and ignores our Guide.

Thanks for stopping by.

Blessings,
Liz

Lorcan said...

Thank thee for publishing this.
The mention in this of Gospel Order is indeed important. Gospel Order can, often I have seen, become a manner of politics of power in Quaker Meeting, either people define Gospel Order to their own advantage and interests - no matter how that strays from the bible, or our traditions, or they go through the motions, "Well, Friend I DID meet with the Friend and the other could not come to clearness... " the been there done that... argument, to which I respond, then thee both seem not to have really begun towards clearness and love.

I have seen Friends leave to go to other meetings, over this lacking, and I have a dear Friend, who I have so treasured for his membership in the SOF speaking of leaving Friends, for this very reason, that he feels we are all talk and no personal responsibility. I don't know what to tell him, as I know he has to go to where he hears God's voice the loudest, but that he should go to another church over this, is an aching pain for me, as I have so benefited by his light at times I was so much in the pain of feeling lost.

I think that we are not a little more pushy, as older Friends where in their visits, is a rejection of the responsibility of love, we are all each others parents and children at the same time. We need each other to be a beloved community, and in the modern world that just flies in the face of American individualism, an ideal we are exporting around the planet, it often means everyone for themselves.

Liz, thee knows thee has been a comfort to me, sometimes when thee worried that I might find thy queries ... oh what is the word, sharp? Thee knows... but rather, I find that concern needed in our community, so that we all look deeper inside, test our souls together... and I am thankful to thee for it. We need to be mirrors to each other, and there are times we all need to look into that mirror.
:)
Thine in the light
lor

Patrick Nugent said...

Twenty years ago or more, Larry and Licia Kuenning wrote and distributed an excellent article on disownment. There was a helpful treatment of confession in that article. It may well still be available on the Quaker Heritage Press website.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks so much, Patrick, for pointing me to the Kuenning's website. I don't have time right now to delve into thge article on disownment, but it looks interesting!

Blessings,
Liz