Have Friends lost their cultural memory?

In Amer­i­ca today our sense of spir­i­tu­al fel­low­ship in Lib­er­al meet­ings, the feel­ing of belong­ing to the same tribe, is dimin­ish­ing. We no longer live in the same com­mu­ni­ties, and we come from diverse faith tra­di­tions. Our cul­tur­al val­ues are no longer entwined at the roots, as were those of our founders. As a body we share less genet­ic and cul­tur­al mem­o­ry of what it means to be Quak­ers. Dif­fer­ent view­points often pre­vent us from look­ing in the same direc­tion to find a point of con­ver­gence. We hold beliefs rang­ing from Bud­dhism to non-theism to Chris­tian­i­ty, or we may sim­ply be eth­i­cal human­ists. Just imag­ine a mix­ture of wild seeds cast into a sin­gle plot of land, pro­duc­ing a pro­fu­sion of col­or. A wide vari­ety of plants all bloom­ing togeth­er sym­bol­ize our present con­di­tion in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends. Dis­cern­ing which is a wild­flower and which is a weed is not easy. We are liv­ing a great exper­i­ment of reli­gious diversity.

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  • Alice Yax­ley

    Yes, I think the tra­di­tion can be called in to nur­ture our faith­ful­ness, and huge­ly valu­able on those occa­sions. I know I have learned a lot from those few occa­sions where I have heard that done, in Britain Year­ly Meeting’s annu­al ses­sions a while back. 

    My cur­rent learn­ing is some­thing about that teach­ing min­istry requr­ing a lot of matu­ri­ty on the part of a min­is­ter. Lots of the peo­ple I’ve encoun­tered who val­ue and learn from our tra­di­tion, go through years of feel­ing defen­sive and annoyed about how lit­tle oth­er Friends val­ue the tra­di­tion in lib­er­al Quak­er cir­cles. I think when a con­tri­bu­tion comes from that spir­it of crit­i­cism it’s hard for any­one else to take it in. But per­haps when we have grown through that stage into spir­i­tu­al matu­ri­ty, we can offer min­istry by serv­ing the need of the meet­ing to remem­ber and learn from our rich her­itage with an open heart and an open hand, and then it is fruit­ful because it is blessed by the holy spirit. 

    It occurs to me this morn­ing — because lib­er­al friends are so focused on the momen­tary expe­ri­ence, I won­der if that can make them more sen­si­tive to the spir­it from which a con­tri­bu­tion comes? That dis­cern­ment to ‘lis­ten for where the words come from’ is about the only part of the tra­di­tion that was taught at all when I began attend­ing MFW for busi­ness. Even then it has tak­en me the bet­ter part of fif­teen years to under­stand what that meant, but I know I am a slow learn­er in some ways.

    I’m think­ing aloud here (usu­al­ly dan­ger­ous in pub­lic!), but if that is the case — the height­ened sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the spir­it which the con­tri­bu­tions come from, but with­out oth­er ele­ments of the tra­di­tion­al dis­cern­ment toolk­it — it makes sense of what I have wit­nessed — some­thing like an aller­gic reac­tion — and I think what was being react­ed to was mis-use of vocal con­tri­bu­tions as a pul­pit to press their own agen­da. That can pre­vents the good stuff from the tra­di­tion being tak­en in because of a lack of matu­ri­ty in the min­is­ter — no-one likes to be told off, or talked down to, and the for­mer con­text of col­lec­tive church dis­ci­pline that might allow folks to respond cre­ative­ly to lovingly-intended crit­i­cism might be entire­ly missing. 

    I am reflect­ing on this stuff as it seems I am mov­ing towards peace and humil­i­ty about the dis­cour­ag­ing expe­ri­ences I had in one meet­ing I tried to attend where I felt ignored, patron­ized, and ridiculed by turns. I thought I was being faith­ful and hum­ble but I am begin­ning to be able to see that some­times I was com­ing from a place of crit­i­cism and that it was per­haps not the holy spir­it mov­ing me. It is not the same as the expe­ri­ences I am hav­ing now where if I am preach­ing, it is because I feel a divine light is shin­ing bright­ly, and if I am able to and feel instruct­ed to, I speak from the pow­er of that liv­ing presence. 

    When min­istry comes from the holy spir­it I think there is an unmis­tak­able flavour to it, the fruits we read of in Gala­tians 5 are brought forth from deep roots drink­ing from that liv­ing water. When the tra­di­tion comes alive in us, we become able to feed Jesus’s sheep. Suf­fi­cient matu­ri­ty on my part shows me those reac­tions of Friends last decade as sim­ple igno­rance and bewil­der­ment — they hadn’t the spir­i­tu­al matu­ri­ty to nur­ture me in my stum­bling steps. Thank good­ness it is God’s vine I am graft­ed onto, and not the human ‘Quak­ers’: per­haps expe­ri­ence of find­ing none to help us is a peren­ni­al part of devel­op­ing a Quak­er spirituality. 

    I hope some­one with your keen eye for “what is real­ly going on” is present to bless the next MfW for church affairs that I get to. That kind of teach­ing min­istry can be the bread of life to meet­ings. I am learn­ing that my focus has to be on whether it is the cre­ator of the bread of life, the mak­er of the well of liv­ing water, who is prompt­ing the teach­ing, and to do my best so what I say comes from the lov­ing pow­er of that spirit.

  • Nicholas Gre­go­ry

    I won­der if Meet­ings can become an expe­ri­ence pure­ly of inter­sub­jec­tiv­i­ty where we are tuned into each oth­er and syn­chro­nize our emo­tions and think­ing. Uncon­scious and con­scious val­ues guide gath­er­ings in silence espe­cial­ly where peo­ple are empa­thet­ic and car­ing. When peo­ple meet open to God as an objec­tive real­i­ty and beyond our under­stand­ing and with­in the para­dox­i­cal nature of. The Chris­t­ian faith and where there is an immer­sion in the Scrip­tures and shared lan­guage then I believe there is a very dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence and we are spo­ken to from beyond this gath­er­ing. Maybe it’s like a tele­scope that can be turned to the ground or to the stars. Of course God is at work but a shared lan­guage and frame deep­ens the expe­ri­ence. I first came to wor­ship at a time when my faith was rusty and the gap between head and heart a gap­ing chasm. I desired sim­ply to find a sim­ple human expe­ri­ence in a place with­out judge­ment, creed and cer­tain­ty. I found myself in a meet­ing with a diver­si­ty of views but that unas­sum­ing Quak­er sense of being open to the ques­tions and to truth. In that set­ting meet­ing for me was a purg­ing a painful yet sup­port­ive place to be held in uncon­di­tion­al love. What am I sug­gest­ing, maybe both my ideas may lack the sense that Grace is abound­ing yet with a sense of prayer­ful focus on the Light there is that deep­er more trans­for­ma­tive dimension.