Brent Bill is continuing his “Modest Proposal” series on Quaker “revitalization” on his blog Holy Ordinary. Today’s installment (part seven) is great but I’m not sure where it leaves us. He starts by talking about how some Quaker body’s books of disciplines (“Faith and Practice”) are becoming more legalistic as they pick up ideas from other religious bodies. He then challenges yearly meetings and other Friends bodies to a “serious examination of their purpose and programs” in which they ask a series of questions about their purpose.
I agree with a lot of his observation. But at the same time I’m not sure what a serious examination would look like or would produce. In recent years my own yearly meeting has developed a kind of circadian rhythm of constant reorganization, tinkering with organizational charts, legislative processes design to speed up decisions, and changing times and frequencies of events hoping to attract new people. And yet, as I wrote a few weeks ago, when I went to sit in on a meeting of the governing body, I was the third or fourth youngest person in a room of about 75 Friends. It was pretty much the same group of people who were doing it ten years and multiple reforms ago, only now they are ten years older. We actually ripped through business so we can spend an hour naval-gazing about the purpose of this particular governing body and I can report it wasn’t the breath of fresh air that we might have hoped for.
A big part of the problem is we’ve forgotten why we’re doing all this. We’ve split the faith from the practice – and I don’t mean Christian vs non-Christian, but the whole kit-and-kaboodle that is the Quaker understanding of gospel order, a world view that is distinct from that of other Christian denominations. Lloyd Lee Wilson calls it the “Quaker gestalt” in Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order. When a spiritual tradition has an internal consistency, and the process and theology reinforce each other. Architecture and demeanor, cultural and business values fit together. It’s never perfect, of course, and maintaining the consistency against new influences and changing circumstances is often the source of unnecessary petty squabbling. But even something as innocuous as a meetinghouse’s bench arrangements can tell you a lot about a group’s theology and its balance towards authority and individualism.
It’s our understanding of our faith and our concept of body-of-Christ community which undergirds our institutional structures. When we don’t have a good grasp of it, we do things merely because “we’re supposed to” and the process feels dry and spirit-less. We defend particular institutions as necessary because they’re codified in our books of doctrine and lose our ability to positively explain their existence, at which point frustrated members will call for their abandonment as unnecessary baggage from a bygone age.
As an example, about seven years ago my quarterly meeting went through a naval-gazing process. I tried to be involved, as did my then-Quaker wife Julie. We asked a lot of big questions but others on the visioning committee just wanted to ask small questions. When Julie and I asked about divine guidance at sessions, for example, one fellow condescendingly explained that if we spent all our time asking what God wanted we’d never get anything done. We really didn’t know what to say to that, especially as it seemed the consensus of others in the group. One thing they were complaining about was that it was always the same few people doing anything but after a few rounds of those meetings, we ran screaming away (my wife right out of the RSoF altogether).
Re-visioning isn’t just deconstructing institutions we don’t understand or tinkering with some new process to fix the old process that doesn’t work. If you’ve got a group of people actively listening to the guidance of the Inward Christ then any process or structure probably can be made to work (though some will facilitate discernment better). Our books of “Faith and Practice” were never meant to be inerrant Bibles. At their core, they’re our “wiki” of best practices for Quaker community discernment – tips earned through the successes and failures of previous generations. I think if we understand our spiritual roots better we’ll find our musty old Quaker institutions actually still have important roles to play. But how do we get there? I like Brent’s questions but I’m not sure you can just start with them. Anyone want to share stories of spiritual deepening in their meetings or faith communities and how that fed into a renewed appreciation of Quaker bodies and process?