October 23, 2010

Guest piece by Marshall Massey: Why we practice corporate discernment

    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.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Hi, Liz!

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,”
wrote George Fox in one letter, and in another one he elaborated,
    “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.”
Corporate discernment involves practice in submission to one another — mutual servanthood, such as Christ taught at the Last Supper (John 13:3-17) — and practice, too, in dwelling together in the state of reconciliation that is Christ himself. Corporate discernment is transformative in necessary ways.

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.”
In another letter Fox went further and advised, “Be one with the witness of God in all, and look at that....” Or in other words, Practice feeling what the witness feels, and seeing through her or his eyes. William Dewsbury wrote in a similar spirit, “Dear people of God, be tender over the least breathings of God's Spirit in one another.” Be tender. In other words, Be sensitive to what is being said.

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,

October 11, 2010

The weightiness of prophetic ministry

While reading an essay by Thomas Gates about covenant community and deepening the life of our meetings, I found myself deeply reflecting on two pairs of elements of our meetings that are in creative tension with each other:

    the individual worshiper vis a vis the community as a whole 
    the community as a whole vis a vis God's leadings and instruction for us.
My reflections deepened while I was considering Tom Gates' paraphrase of something that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Friend Arthur Larabee said.*

Here's what Tom writes:
I keep going back to Arthur Larabee's question about business meeting: "Why is it that we persist in deciding things in this way?" His answer: not because it is quick or easy or efficient (it is not), but rather because we have found that over the long run, this way of deciding builds and nurtures community. In other words, the point of our business process is not to make decisions, but to build community.
Granted, the context of the essay itself is about addressing conflict among Friends while placing conflict squarely in the wider context of covenant community. And this paraphrase of Arthur's words points to the Quaker practice of giving greater weight to the sense of the meeting rather than to the sense of an individual within the meeting.

Most of the time, I'm down with that; I unite with that.

But . . .

What happens when we "persist in deciding things in this way" to the detriment of the bringing about the kin(g)dom of God? What if we give so much weight to the role of the community and to testing the sense of the meeting that we fail to recognize prophetic ministry that has risen from among us?

What if we allow the sense of the meeting--for the noble purpose of "building and nurturing community"--to outweigh God's Divine Instruction itself?

This is a question that has been looming in my peripheral consciousness as I'm nearing the end of reading Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship. The authors of this massive 2009 book offer example after example of how an individual Friend felt convicted by the Spirit to take action against some form of social injustice--from the earliest enslavement in the late 1600s to the modern race-based and class-based oppression of the American Quaker educational system--how these few persistent and faithful Friends labored with their monthly meetings and their yearly meetings so that they might heed God's Instruction to them...

And time and time again, the weight of the sense of the meeting--not the weight of the individual's prophetic ministry--slowed or prevented the social change that was striving to emerge.

I would say this:

1. Certainly there are times when the need to go more slowly is crucial, to bring the meeting community under the weight of a concern, with hearts and minds clear. But can we not also release the Friend with such a call to do as God bids her or him? Can a letter of introduction or a travel minute from the meeting indicate the labor that the meeting is involved in around the topic, rather than shut the Friend down and close our hearts and ears to that Friend's ministry?

    1a. Before anyone jumps down my throat about corporate discernment: of course I acknowledge and recognize the importance of corporate decision-making among Friends! What I am wrestling with and asking questions about has to do with the balance, or the tipping point, between the place of corporate discernment and the place of what may well be prophetic ministry--especially when we, the comfortable, are afflicted by the message a Friend brings us.

2. Too often, our collective privilege gets in the way of our willingness to hear, embrace, and live into true prophetic ministry. As a U.S. faith community, Quakers are predominantly comprised of worshipers of European descent who are also mostly middle-class or wealthier/highly educated. It's hard for those of us with privilege to give up some of our privilege, yet that is what being faithful servants of the Spirit often must do.
"If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." --Matthew 19:21-24 (NIV)
3. I need the support of my community--my Quaker covenant community--to help me loosen my death-grip on my privilege; to help me see how I act, think, and speak out of a place of privilege; to help me work for the betterment of the wider community around me and not equate my service to God exclusively with the building up and nurturing of my own Quaker meeting.


*For those readers who don't know Arthur, he's frequently recognized as the "go-to guy" when it comes to clerking and navigating Meetings for Worship with Attention to Business. I personally believe there are other "go-to" people, but they are doing quieter, less visible work.