- Marshall sent me an email in response to my previous post, concerned that it would detract from the topic I was lifting up at the time. He has given me permission to share his comments about "the pattern of early Friends" around the use of corporate discernment.
- What I appreciate about Marshall's remarks, once again, is the interweaving he provides between Quakerism's historical figures, our faith tradition's spiritual discipline, and Biblical references that relate to and undergird our practice. --Liz
- P.S. Emphasis in the text below is Marshall's. At times I have added links and an occasional paragraph break or blockquote.
This is in response to your blog posting of October 11...
I cannot agree with Arthur Larrabee’s take on why Friends engage in corporate discernment. We don’t do it because it nurtures community. We do it, alas, simply because we are following the pattern of early Friends. And then some of us come up with rationalizations for why Friends follow that pattern, as Art Larrabee has done. But such rationalizations are simply guesses, no more.
So why did early Friends actually engage in corporate discernment? They didn’t do it to build community. They already had community, without seeking it, amongst themselves. Their reasons for engaging in corporate discernment were quite different.
Early Friends understood that God does not just address and teach individuals as individuals: God also addresses and teaches His people as a people. "Christ has come to teach his people himself," as George Fox put it. “God has given greater judgment to his church than the individual members of it,” wrote William Penn.
The Bible, indeed, gives illustrations of God instructing a group as a group, as for instance the story of Susanna (Daniel 13, which is omitted from Protestant Bibles), and also the story of the apostolic council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29). The latter story provided the specific model that Friends followed in structuring their meetings for business. (Cf. Robert Barclay, The Anarchy of the Ranters, §VI.)
Early Friends actually had a fairly clear sense of the reasons why God might prefer to instruct His people as a people, rather than as individuals. It was clear that His people had to make policy decisions somehow, and it was quite clear to them that God did not want any single human being making these decisions for them all, in the fashion of the Pope or the King, because it was evident that such an autocratic approach led more or less inevitably to the corruption of the Church, and indeed had done so ever since the time of King David. Thus William Dewsbury pointed out, “There should not be a man in Israel to rule one over another, but ... the rule and authority of man should be overturned, & Christ alone rule in the hearts and spirits of his people.” Corporate decision-making removes the rule of any single man, and replaces it with the rule of Christ speaking in the hearts of all.
In one general letter, James Nayler advised Friends to “meet often together and wait upon God for his teaching ... in a cross to your own wills, for therein is the secrets of God revealed.” Corporate discernment provides better discernment in the long run, because it crucifies the wayward will of the individual — whether that individual is a leader or a follower.
- “All Friends, submit yourselves one to another, in the fear of God,”
- “let nothing be done with strife, but in love, to the glory of God, in the name of God, and in his power; so that you may all see and feel Christ among you, ordering you all to his glory with his wisdom, which is pure, peaceable, and easy to be entreated; so that none may be burdened nor oppressed in your meetings.”
All this, however, does not mean that early Friends wanted the prophetic leadings of individuals squelched, as so often happened in Friends communities in subsequent generations, including our own. They were constantly repeating the apostle Paul’s adjuration that congregations must “quench not the spirit” where it arises. Fox said it forcefully in a letter of 1656, titled To Friends, about Christ having the best room:
- “Quench not the Spirit nor despise prophecy where it moves.... You that stop it yourselves do not quench it in others.... The sighs and groans of the poor, judge not that ... lest you judge prayer. ... Every one exercise this gift and every one speak as the Spirit gives them utterance. And Friends be careful how that you do set your feet among the tender plants that is springing up out of God's earth lest you do hurt them and tread upon them and bruise them or crush them in God's vineyard.”
So what is involved in this practice is something quite different from community-building. It is a particular way of connecting to God, and being changed thereby, that the rest of the world does not know. If we lose that way, and come to treat it as community-building, then we have lost an essential part of what makes us Friends.
All the best,