March 13, 2008

The birth of an epistle

The first time I heard the word "epistle" was as a young adult attending Milwaukee Meeting. A high school Friend referred to an epistle that had been shared at the meeting some time before that, and I had to ask her what an epistle was.

My Jewish upbringing of course hadn't introduced me to anything about the epistles of the New Testament, and my early involvement in Quakerism hadn't included my attending events from which epistles might be crafted and sent.

It wasn't until I started attending yearly meeting sessions in my late 30s that I became aware of the practice for Friends to send out epistles that reported on the events of those sessions. ...Then again, maybe by then I had heard about the epistles of George Fox at least, even if I hadn't read them.

But my understanding of epistles changed when I was serving on the Central Committee of Friends General Conference. In 2004, that committee of more than 125 Friends from Canada and the U.S. approved sending out an epistle that affirmed that "[our] experience has been that spiritual gifts are not distributed with regard to sexual orientation or gender identity."*

Suddenly, I understood epistles to be a way to lift up matters of the Spirit that reflected, articulated, or otherwise identified a Truth newly revealed to a group of Friends that also needed to be shared with others. I now understood epistles to be a type of witness, from one individual to another; from an individual to a group; or from one group to another group.

Epistles became to me an avenue for Friends to put words to difficult and tender matters--matters that needed additional prayerful consideration by Friends who were somehow geographically, emotionally, or logistically removed from the process or from the event itself that gave rise to the epistle.

So when two fFriends asked me recently what my understanding was of epistles and how they were used, I offered words similar to what I have shared here. Afterwards, one of the two asked if any "outcome" or specific response were expected when sending out an epistle.

I hesitated for a moment. I was searching for the words that would best describe my early and perhaps immature sense of Quaker epistles.

It was one of those moments when you say something that you yourself don't expect to be coming out of your own mouth:

"My understanding is that epistles are about bringing the readers to the Inward Teacher and leaving them there," I said.

But I'm curious: How would others explain what an epistle is, from a Quaker context? What goes into an epistle, and how is it used?


*Click here to read the entire FGC epistle.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Liz!

If you haven't yet read Fox's epistles, I'd recommend you do so. In my own life, at least, I find them more helpful than his journal. — Although, now that I stop to think of it, some of the most important of Fox's epistles, appear in his journal and not, as I recall, in his collected epistles: the 1671 epistle to the Governor and Assembly at Barbados, for example, which was the first major document to spell out Friends' Christian orthodoxy.

There are other important epistles in our tradition besides those of George Fox. The most notable, surely, is the 1656 epistle of the Elders at Balby, which laid out the first written discipline of Friends. It is heavily dependent on the New Testament; in fact, much of it consists of direct quotes from epistles in the NT (in the Authorised / King James Version).

Most of the great ministers of Quakerism, from the beginnings in the 1640s and 1650s up at least into the middle of the 19th century, wrote epistles, and while the epistles for the most part grew drier and more sterile as the Quaker centuries wore on, there have been dozens and dozens of Quaker writers who have written insightful, inspired, moving epistles down through the years. Nearly all the early Quaker leaders wrote epistles well worth our attention today.

I think your explanation of what epistles are about is true, but perhaps too narrow. Epistles are written ministry; like oral (spoken) ministry, they are directed to the needs of a specific audience at a specific time. As ministry, they cover much more ground than just "difficult and tender" matters. They can be the public cry of horns on the field of spiritual battle just as easily as the confiding intimacies of the cello. At their best, they show what ministerial discernment is all about, and the huge range of matters it is needed to address, as well as illustrating the high art of speaking to the conditions of others successfully. I am in awe of the great practitioners of the art.

What goes into an epistle is, I think, determined by three things: first, one's understanding of the subject matter that needs to be addressed; second, one's intuitive sense of what the person or group one is addressing is ready and able to hear; third, whatever inspiration God surprises us by giving to us. But it is undoubtedly best not to examine these ingredients too abstractly or too analytically. Like any art, the art of good ministry (spoken or written) is only hindered by too much analytic concern with the question of whether one is doing it right.

Still, one can become a better epistle-writer by reading the great epistles of those who came before us!

Fox and other Quaker leaders are good models to turn to, to learn the art of religious-epistle-writing. But they were relatively late practitioners; the epistles in the New Testament (which created the model the early Friends were following) were sixteen centuries older, and there were many epistles written by saints and bishops and such (e.g., Augustine, Luther) in those intervening centuries. I'm not sure one can fully understand what Fox and the other early Friends were up to in their epistles, without some knowledge of what the apostles and the sub-apostolic Fathers of the Church were doing in theirs.

There have been many non-Christian epistles, too, some of which influenced the course of Christianity considerably: I think, for example, of Seneca's Epistulæ Morales ad Lucilium. In India, China and Japan, spiritual teachers have been writing epistles for hundreds of years in ignorance of the Western epistolary tradition, and some of the things they have written have been (in my humble opinion, anyway) quite outstanding.

Modern epistles from yearly meetings and Quaker organizations such FLGBTQC seem to me narrow and constricted compared with the great epistles written by great individuals down through the centuries. I believe there is something about representing an organization that inhibits us, taking its toll of our ministry. More's the pity.

Liz Opp said...


I am so glad you took the time to write such a thorough response as you did.

I had my own "Duh!" response when you framed epistles as written ministry. How simple! How true!

I also appreciated the way you articulated three things that an epistle often addresses-- I need the reminder that sometimes discernment before offering ministry includes consideration and testing of "what the person or group... is ready and able to hear."

I think it is that element in particular that has helped me over the years as I speak to what has been laid on my heart...

As to reading the epistles of Fox and other Friends, I do peek at things from time to time, often in doing "research" for a blog post. I'm not the type of person to read a book or a series of epistles from start to finish, though I agree that there is value in drawing on the very good models of epistle writing.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Liz:

Our meeting has recently begun to unite around the writing of epistles for various different reasons--most of the impetus has come from myself and one other Friend, but we have tried to (and I think succeeded in) act under the Spirit of the leading, being careful to test it with other elders within our meeting as we go.

The description you and Marshall provide seems correct to me, and I, too resonate with the idea that they are written ministry. Perhaps that is why I find myself moved beyond my own desires and intellect to create some epistles, while other opportunities pass me by--because they are not for me at this time.

Our first epistle as a meeting was to Friends in Blacksburg, Va., following the campus shooting last Spring. I can only describe the need to write this as a full-fledged boot upside the head, as opposed to a nudge from the Spirit. Our second one was following our meeting retreat--there was some confusion as to who was going to take the first chance at drafting something, and two of us wrote separate drafts, without being in touch, and basically came up with the same epistle--the only differences were in writing style, and we quickly came to unity on way forward. The latest one we produced was a support epistle to YMs in Kenya, and that was a very moving experience in so many ways.

I have been sitting with whether I am under the weight of a concern for writing (something, anything-- epistles or otherwise) and Light has not chosen to completely reveal itself to me on this point. But thank you for this post--it has helped to illuminate things for me a bit more.


Liz Opp said...

Mia -

Thanks for adding your experience to this post. Somehow through your words, I am feeling encouraged and more hopeful about the condition of Liberal Friends. I think that's because I am reminded that no single monthly meeting is perfectly representative of Hicksite Quakers--and with my tunnel vision, I fall into thinking that my meeting is just like every other Liberal meeting in the U.S. Hah!

I also appreciate reading how you and your meeting are coming into this practice with care and spiritual grounding. I'm excited for all of you.


Anonymous said...

Epistles can be seen as a human history of the work of the Spirit. We sensed the Spirit at work here and this is what it was like.
Lissa Field

Liz Opp said...

Lissa -

Thanks for adding your understanding of epistles here. I appreciate all the ways to look at, think about, and use epistles, especially within the Quaker tradition.