NOTE: A slightly different version of these remarks first appeared as a comment in response to the post about individualism on the Friends of Color blog.I appreciate this dialogue and the many points that Friends have lifted up and have been wrestling with. Thanks, Tania, for opening up a complex topic.
It's true that modern Friends are quick to quote George Fox and consider the relationship between God and the individual:
I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition": and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.It's also true that we affirm that God can speak directly to any of us, individually, at any time, if we but lay aside our personal ambitions and listen.
George Fox also writes:
Christ has come to teach his people himself.Where modern Liberal Friends have put emphasis on the individual, other Friends remind us to consider that Christ is teaching us-as-a-people, not us as distinct individuals.
(See Lloyd Lee Wilson's essay "Wrestling with Our Faith Tradition" in his collected writings of the same name or online here, beginning on page 3.)
But there is more to Quakerism than just the belief that God can speak to any of us at any time. I would say that we do an injustice to our faith tradition when we lift up this element above any others.
Perhaps by coincidence but perhaps not, the worship group has begun reading Lloyd Lee's Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, and I've just reread a long section that speaks to the "gestalt" of Quakerism (Chapter 2). In that section, Lloyd Lee echoes some of the concern I'm wanting to express:
The faith community as an entity and the individuals who make up the faith community nourish and nurture each other in vital ways... There is a communion with God which takes place in the context of the faith community that can not be replicated in solitude...To me, these words very much speak to the perception that Quakerism focuses on the individual and therefore is an individualistic faith. Not so!
There are a number of significant implications of this understanding of Quakerism as a community gestalt; perhaps the most important derives from the fact that a gestalt can not be separated into its component parts without losing its identity. --pp. 20-22; emphasis mine
In fact, the importance of maintaining the corporate nature of our faith is stressed to some extent by George Fox, when he exhorts Friends in his 23rd epistle to "keep [our] meetings":
Friends-- Fear not the powers of darkness, but keep your meetings, and meet in that which keeps you over them; and in the power of God ye will have unity.So I would say that there is an equally strong and relevant place for the corporate body, for worshiping together and not just for keeping the wild ones in check.
And dwell in love and unity one with another, and know one another in the power of an endless life, which doth not change... (emphasis mine)
It's just that many of us have forgotten about the corporate nature of our faith, or we've downplayed it, or we think we understand it but we really don't, or we begin to scratch the surface of it and wonder how to learn more about it and experience it more fully.
The Quaker gestalt and the corporate nature of Quakerism extends beyond participating in Meeting for Worship and beyond attending Meeting for Worship with attention to Business. It helps point the way for how we interact with one another when we are away from the meetinghouse, when we are laboring with one another in committee work, when we are giving ourselves over to the Light so that we might ourselves be made low and return to the Service to which we are called.
In my case, it's taken me years to begin to grasp the slippery nature of our corporate faith. Also, I find I need to surround myself from time to time with Friends who value this part of our faith: it reminds me that there are multiple dimensions to Quakerism and it brings into balance, to some extent, the two elements of the Quaker gestalt that are most visible to me: the corporate and the individual.
I've mentioned elsewhere the creative tension between the individual and the community, between receiving and testing a leading on our own and bringing that leading to the gathered body (e.g. a clearness committee) for additional testing and discernment.
The trick is that our meetings, as a whole, must be willing to engage in the labor of understanding just how far to tilt the scales, whether it be toward the individual and each of our preferences, beliefs, and practices... or toward the corporate body and our accepted manner of joining together, not only in worship but also in other parts of our active community life.
ADDITIONAL POSTS from The Good Raised Up that continue exploring the corporate nature of Quakerism include:
The slippery nature of a corporate faith
The Great Jigsaw Puzzle
Report about Iowa Conservative's 2006 Midyear Meeting
Understanding what God wants