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 Sandra Cronk’s Gospel Order: A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community (1991 Pendle Hill Pamphlet #297). The paper describes Quakerism as a community led by God in church government, discipline, healing of rifts, and elders’ nurture of the community.
In his chapter from A Testimony of Devotion on “The Blessed Community”, Thomas Kelly describes his understanding of how God wants us to relate to each other in Holy Fellowship.
Francis Howgill (1618-69) described in A Gathered People how Friends were caught up in a net together to become what they called a “People of God”.
Order of the Day? is an article by Matt Rosen on the importance that early Friends placed on setting up meetings for business and their vision of what corporate discernment was all about.
Susan Smith, an elder and former clerk of Ohio Yearly Meeting, gave a talk at Quaker Spring in 2007 Friends Business Meeting as Conservative Friends Experience It. It is instructive to learn the differences in how meeting for business is generally practiced and viewed among Conservative Friends.
Meeting for Business
Friends developed in the 17th century is a unique form of communal decision-making that we call Meeting for Business. This is a spirit-led practice where a member 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 they believe God is calling the group to do. The clerk’s discernment of this “sense of the meeting” is tested. If she or he has accurately perceived what the group intention believes is God’s will, this is “minuted” and the group moves forward.
Patricia Thomas suggested in a brief clerk’s reflection at World Quaker Day in 2022 that our approach to corporate discernment is Our Gift to the World.
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 willingness to let go of one’s own personal agendas on the part of all members taking part in the process. In practice today, many local Quaker meetings are even less likely to be able to achieve deeply God-guided meetings for business than they are to experience deeply gathered, spirit-led worship.
The Mind of Christ: Bill Taber on Meeting for Business (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #406 – 2010) by Michael Birkel describes Taber’s view of how Meeting for Business can serve as a practice of communal discernment of Christ’s hopes and wishes for the community.
The Four Pillars of Meeting for Business is a fine detailed description by Debbie Humphries 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.
Corporate Decision-Making in Meeting for Business is Chapter 3 of the Interim Faith & Practice of New England YM. This chapter includes advices to clerks and recording clerks, queries, and excerpts from the writings of Friends on Meeting for Business.
Hearing God’s Voice in Meeting for Business is a handout that identifies six critical components of practice by everyone involved if Quaker decision-making is to succeed in its basic goal of reaching a decision that is an expression of God’s hopes and intentions for the faith community at the time.
In 2003 Eden Grace gave a talk to the Amesbury Council of Churches; Guided by the Mind of Christ: Yearning for a new spirituality of church governance. In it, she suggested that Christian churches facing difficult divisions over issues such as theology and homosexuality might approach decisions as a form spiritual discernment and search for unity in God, rather than the dominance of one party over another using Robert’s Rules of Order.
Early monthly meetings did not have formal membership rolls for many decades after these were first set up as an expression of our corporate local faith communities. Friends’ open faithfulness to God’s calling made them stand out clearly from the non-Friends around them—and often put them at risk of punishment by the secular authorities they lived under.
Tom Gates has written a wonderful pamphlet that explores the meaning of membership in a faith community in terms of the way members actually engage with each other in a shared search for God and for faithfulness, called Members of One Another: The Dynamics of Membership in Quaker Meeting. You can buy the pamphlet from Pendle Hill or read it online.
Three Rivers Meeting is a new meeting in New England Yearly Meeting. They have been a worship group but are in process to become a monthly meeting. The meeting has been exploring new approaches to worship, eldership, and membership to help Friends be faithful to divine guidance in this time. This includes membership as a form of covenantal relationship, the use of an annual “examen” to assure the relationship is a living one, and a new concept of sojourning membership in this era of online participation in worship and decison-making. Here is an exciting document that the group has adopted: What Does Membership Mean at Three Rivers Meeting?
Are we willing to engage with each other within our meeting family and assist each other in our efforts to be faithful to God’s leadings for us? This is often a scary possibility. Many feel that it undermines their sense of privacy. But if we are to help each other we must know each other. And this requires a vulnerable willingness to disclose our own struggles and broken places, trusting that others will respond to this with love.
Marcelle Martin and others have developed a process for facilitating this via small groups of 3-4 Friends within a meeting or other Quaker group. These are described in more detail in the Leadings section of this website.
The Closing Minute of the Quaker Spring gathering held at Rindge NH in 2011 addresses the richness that can spring from a willingness to be vulnerable with each other as Friends. We have often experienced this truth at work among us in Quaker Spring gatherings.
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.
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.)
The Role of Elders in West Hill Friends 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.
Healing of Rifts within the 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.
In 2003 Eden Grace gave a talk and kind of liturgy as a prayer for unity within Western YM, entitled Come Holy Spirit – Restore Your People.
A Minute of Exercise on Healing of Rifts with the Faith Community was written at a QuakerSpring gathering in June 2011.
George Fox wrote an epistle that addresses the issue of On the unity of the saints across distance that has relevance to Friends today questioning whether it is possible to reach the same degree of unity over electronic media as meeting physically together as well as when groups of Friends feel led to gather separately from a larger group of Friends or begin a new meeting.
Cutting ties with a member
Disownment is the term that Quakers traditionally gave for involuntary release from membership. It can be distinguished from two other important forms of break with a member practiced by other Christian groups:
- Excommunication involves denial of the ability to take part in corporate worship. Since participation in mass is considered critical to salvation for Roman Catholics, this action is often viewed as a form of severe, even eternal, punishment for acts of heresy and failure to follow church expectations. Popes often excommunicated secular rulers as an attempt to pressure them to come in line with papal expectations. Some Roman Catholics today urge that Catholic politicians supporting reproductive choice be denied communion or even excommunicated.
- Shunning. Jehovah’s Witnesses and many Anabaptist groups such as Amish ask members to shun those who leave the church. This means refusing to have any social contact with the ex-member (such as visiting, sharing meals, etc.) This can be extremely painful for someone who’s whole life is built around the faith community. It is perhaps done to try and maintain the purity and cohesion of the faith community.
- Reading out. This is the Quaker term used for involuntary removal of a member from the meeting’s membership rolls. Being read out of membership does not prevent a former member from attending worship or other meeting functions, although a former member who has been disruptive of worship may, for example, be asked to not attend worship. The most frequent reason for reading out was for marrying a non-Friend.
- Disownment. It has been said that disownment focuses on the world rather than on the individual who has broken rules of the faith community. Again, disownment does not prevent the disowned former member from either participating in Quaker worship or having social relationships with those who remain within the faith community. It is a public act intended to avoid confusion as to what Friends believe in and stand for non-Friends.
The group called Friends of Truth [previously known as “Publishers of Truth”] wrote an interesting statement “Our Understanding of Disownment” in 1991. It provides both a historical overview of the practice in the Religious Society of Friends, a discussion of the differences from other forms of distancing such as excommunication, and the biblical roots in Matthew 18:15-17. It is worth noting that Jesus interacted with “pagans and tax collectors” very differently than many did at the time in the Jewish community and was often criticized for, for example, eating with tax collectors or having other forms of close contact with non-Jews.