Over on Tape Flags and First Thoughts, Su Penn has a great post called “Still Thinking About My Quaker Meeting & Me.” She writes about a process of self-identity that her meeting recently went through it and the difficulties she had with the process.
I wondered whether this difficulty has become one of our modern-day stages of developing in the ministry. Both Samuel Bownas (read/buy) and Howard Brinton (buy) identified typical stages that Friends growing in the ministry typically go through. Not everyone experiences Su’s rift between their meeting’s identity and a desire for a God-grounded meeting community, but enough of us have that I don’t think it’s the foibles of particular individuals or monthly meetings. Let me tease out one piece: that of individual and group identities. Much of the discussion in the comments of Su’s post have swirled around radically different conceptions of this.
Many modern Friends have become pretty strict individualists. We spend a lot of time talking about “community” but we aren’t practicing it in the way that Friends have understood it–as a “religious society.” The individualism of our age sees it as rude to state a vision of Friends that leaves out any of our members–even the most heterodox. We are only as united as our most far-flung believer (and every decade the sweep gets larger). The myth of our age is that all religious experiences are equal, both within and outside of particular religious societies, and that it’s intolerant to think of differences as anything more than language.
This is why I cast Su’s issues as being those of a minister. There has always been the need for someone to call us back to the faith. Contrary to modern-day popular opinion, this can be done with great love. It is in fact great love (Quaker Jane) to share the good news of the directly-accessible loving Christ, who loves us so much He wants to show us the way to righteous living. This Quaker idea of righteousness has nothing to do with who you sleep with, the gas mileage of your car or even the “correctness” of your theology. Jesus boiled faithfulness down into two commands: love God with all your might (however much that might be) and love your neighbor as yourself.
A “religious society” is not just a “community.” As a religious society we are called to have a vision that is stronger and bolder than the language or understanding of individual members. We are not a perfect community, but we can be made more perfect if we return to God to the fullness we’ve been given. That is why we’ve come together into a religious society.
“What makes us Friends?” Just following the modern testimonies doesn’t put us very squarely in the Friends tradition–SPICE is just a recipe for respectful living. “What makes us Friends?” Just setting the stopwatch to an hour and sitting quietly doesn’t do it–a worship style is a container at best and false idol at worst. “How do we love God?” “How do we love our neighbor?” “What makes us Friends?” These are the questions of ministry. These are the building blocks of outreach.
I’ve seen nascent ministers (“infant ministers” in the phrasing of Samual Bownas) start asking these questions, flare up on inspired blog posts and then taildive as they meet up with the cold-water reality of a local meeting that is unsupportive or inattentive. Many of them have left our religious society. How do we support them? How do we keep them? Our answers will determine whether our meeting are religious societies or communities.