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.
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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,


Tom Smith said...

Thanks for sharing this.

Although I don't always agree with Marshall ;-} this is one time that the Friend speaks my mind.

Martin Kelley said...

Thanks for writing this Marshall, and for sharing it Liz. It makes me sad, as I think Marshall does a good job at explaining why modern-day Philadelphia Yearly Meeting-style community-building isn't the Quaker process that early Friends put in place. "Community" is the safe word past which we almost never go. Discernment is technique and style.

You get ostracized pretty fast if talk about God too much. And if you point out your ostracism you get free psychoanalysis (a prominent Friend privately responded to my recent post on Interim Meeting by saying "I feel your hurt" asking "how do we engage in helpful dialog about your observations and pain?" though my post's tone was one of bemusement). I like Marshall's description of discernment as the seeking of God's will. It's obvious, yes. It's Quaker, yes. But somewhere along the way official Philadelphia Friends chose worship of self (near-exclusive focus on community) over worship of God. Sigh.

Bill Samuel said...

Marshall's comments are helpful. Years before I formally left my Friends meeting, I stopped attending business meetings.

This was because I realized that the basis of meeting for business there was quite different from the traditional Friends practice of corporate discernment. I came into business meetings with a very different approach than the general one of the meeting.

It had come to me that it didn't really make sense for me to call them to act in a way they were quite unwilling to. Appealing to Friends tradition was not very meaningful because generally the faith of Friends in the meeting was very different from that of early Friends.

So, not having a common basis for decision making with the group, I opted out of the process. At that point, it probably was inevitable that I would formally leave the meeting. The only questions were when and to where I would go.

Art Larrabee's position makes great sense with where many Friends are at. He is very skilled at clerking business within that understanding. But it ia, as Marshall points out, very different from the approach of early Friends despite some outward similarities.

I think we need to be honest and straightforward about such great differences. Too often Friends pretend they are on the same page about Friends practices when in fact they are not at all. If Friends really are concerned about integrity, they must honestly recognize the major differences in faith and practice.

And if your faith is markedly different from that of the meeting, you should consider carefully whether you belong there. In some cases, God may indeed want you there but often Friends are staying out of a failure to recognize the depth of the differences or a fruitless attempt to change the majority to their faith understanding.

We must worship Christ, not a particular faith group, either local or denominational.

Liz Opp said...

Tom -

Thanks for affirming Friend Marshall's understanding of traditional practices as they relate to our meetings for worship for business.

Martin and Bill -

We each have shared our frustrations about our experience within our respective monthly meetings. And yes, some of us choose to leave while others of us feel no sense of being "released" by the Spirit (as was/is my own experience).

I am starting to look at our monthly meetings through the lens of privilege--white privilege, age privilege, class privilege--and I begin to see how the larger institutions of American society in which our meetings are embedded have undermined the spiritual power, Divine love, and corporate discipline that used to be central to our practice.

Where I personally have seen change has been when one, two, or a few Friends begin to speak earnestly and with great love to those older/senior Friends about what early Quakers understood and drew upon.

Sometimes those Friends who have begun to speak out have done so while serving as clerk of the meeting or within M&C; occasionally it's happened during MfWfB. And when one Friend has given voice to that longing and earnestness (?), another Friend or two seems to be given a similar courage to speak as well.

Granted, in my own case, this has taken years rather than months, and I've been helped by worshiping concurrently with a second Quaker group that has supported me in my concern.

But without a doubt, many times I have felt the pang of feeling like "a prophet in [my] own land"--which is why the internet and blogging has been such a balm to some of us, it seems.