Friends emphasize the direct relationship between believers and God in the present time. This direct teaching, guiding relationship is not, however, an individual or personal relationship. It is a relationship between a faith community and God.
Friends have developed since the earliest years a wide variety of practices that enable the faith community to:
1. Hear God’s voice for the group
2. Reach unity around an understanding of what the community is being called to do
3. Identify & nurture spiritual gifts & ministries of meeting members & hold such members accountable for living out their gift faithfully
4. Lovingly hold each other accountable for personal faithfulness to the social testimonies that Friends have agreed are important for us to live by.
The best short treatment on this overall subject is Sondra Cronk’s 1991 Pendle Hill Pamphlet #297 Gospel Order: A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community by Sandra Cronk. Among other things the pamphlet describes the important concept of the “offices of Christ” – i.e. the several roles that the Inward Christ plays in leading the faith community. She also talks about how gospel order provides the way that conflicts are managed within the family of faith.
Meeting for Business
Friends developed in the 17th century is a unique form of communal decision-making called that we call Meeting for Business. This is a spirit-led practice where an individual officer known as a clerk seeks to hear what God is asking the group to do through listening faithfully to expressions by group members as to what is right. The clerk’s discernment is tested and if she or he has accurately perceived what is the group intention, this is “minuted” and the group moves forward.
The Four Pillars of Meeting for Business is a fine detailed description by Debbie Humphries of NEYM of what it takes for this process to be successful (with a nod to Bill Taber’s classic Pendle Hill pamphlet, Four Doors to Meeting for Worship). The article includes excellent queries that all participants in meeting for business can keep in their hearts to help the faith community discover God’s hopes for them together.
Susan Smith, a former clerk of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) gave a wonderful talk at Quaker Spring in 2007 on a traditional approach to meeting for business, called Friends Business Meeting as Conservative Friends Experience It. (Note: Although many Friends today favor the term “Meetings for Worship with Attention to Business” to refer to Quaker Meeting for Business as a way of attempting to ground the session in shared listening to God’s voice, Susan and many other Conservative Friends object to this usage. They suggest that Meetings for Worship and Meetings for Business should both be guided by God, but that these are quite different practices – and that it is is unhelpful to confuse a business session with a planned agenda and clerk shepherding the process from the much more open and unprogrammed approach of Spirit-directed vocal ministry out of gathered silence in meeting for worship.)
The Mind of Christ: Bill Taber on Meeting for Business (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #406 – 2010) by Michael Berkil describes Bill’s ideas on how Meeting for Business can be a practice of communal discernment of Christ’s hopes and wishes for the community.
Unfortunately, this method of decision-making is difficult to practice and requires both significant giftedness on the part of the clerk and large doses of humility, patience, discernment skills, and willing to let go of one’s own personal agendas on the part of all members taking part in the process. In practice today, most local Quaker meetings are even less likely to be able to achieve deeply God-guided meetings for business than they are to experience frequently deeply gathered, spirit-led worship.
Healing of Rifts within a Faith Community. Meetings often find themselves to be deeply divided. When there is serious disunity that is not easily resolved, the path back to unity may seem impossible.
In the early 19th century Quakerism in North America experienced a “Great Schism” that essentially divided Quakerism in the U.S. and Canada into two branches: the Hicksite and Orthodox branches. The division was so profound that most yearly meetings divided into two bitterly divided yearly meetings. Many local monthly meetings and even families divided along these two branches. For over a century the two branches did not even recognize the other branch as being Quaker. Meetings went to court to fight over shared property and railed against each other in public forums such as newspapers.
Other divisions followed such as the Wilburite-Guerneyite separations and the withdrawal of a number of yearly meetings from the Five Years Meeting to form the Evangelical branch. More recently a number of pastoral yearly meetings have experienced new separations over the issue of same gender relationships and theology. On the other hand, some yearly meetings reunited during the mid 20th century.
A Minute of Exercise on Healing of Rifts with the Faith Community was written at a QuakerSpring gathering in June 2011.
Eldering (or “eldership’) is the term given traditionally by Friends for both identification and nurture of personal spiritual gifts – and also to holding one another accountable for lives of faithfulness around shared community expectations of “testimonies”. This website has a whole section of articles and resources on the subject of Eldership.
Elders also have played a role, not always a positive one, of attempting to exercise discipline over members of the meeting that fail to live in keeping with shared Quaker values. (This role is depicted in the Hollywood film Friendly Persuasion.)
Elders is a post from West Hill Friends that includes an historical overview on the role of elders in the life of Friends Meetings and ends with some provocative questions on how accountability can be carried out within a faith community without an overemphasis on conformity or the narrow values of those exercising spiritual authority.
The section of this website on Worship describes ways that meetings historically have recognized, nurtured, and held accountable Friends in the meeting with particularly strong gifts of vocal ministry.
See also the section on this website on Leadings to read about many of the ways meetings offer support to members in their effort to live out faithfully spiritual gifts and a call to a variety of other ministries besides the gift of vocal ministry.
Engaging with a Monthly Meeting about Ministry describes the process which her own meeting went through in response to Debbie Humphries’ request for a minute recognizing her leading to carry out travel under religious concern.
Fears of accountability. Many Friends today are deeply ambivalent about opening themselves to shared accountability with other members of their faith community. In my view there are two major reasons for this:
1. In the 19th century many Friends experienced meeting “elders” as having seized too much power in the life of the meeting community and exercising it in ways that were more judgmental than loving.
2. Friends around this issue as well as many others have been strongly influenced by the surrounding culture. We live in an individualistic society in North America. Again, this is in large part a reaction against small town and rural life where many people felt stifled by others knowledge of and “meddling” in their personal choices. Many people like the fact that others do not know or care how they live their lives personally. It is very difficult for many modern Friends to allow others in their faith community to be aware of their own personal choices or to challenge them around these choices.
Holy Obedience: Corporate Discipline and Individual Leading. This is a rather detailed essay I wrote in 1998 following a presentation I made on a panel at a Pendle Hill Conference on Friends & the Vietnam War.
Facing Fears of Shared Accountability among Friends Today. This is a 2005 Friends Journal article growing out of a called meeting for business of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting held the previous May on global climate change, focusing especially on the fear expressed by many of minuting an expectation that PYM members act in their lives to reduce damage to the earth.
Firbank Fell’s Challenge to 21st Century Quakerism. This is a 2002 Friends Journal article that I wrote on the 350th anniversary of George Fox’s sermon to a thousand seekers that many consider the unofficial beginning of the Quaker movement. The essay focuses on Friends’ need to overcome fears of outreach to those outside our spiritual community, of spiritual authority, and of shared disclosure and accountability within our local meeting communities.