by Peter Blood

When the time of Jesus’ death was approaching, he promised his community of disciples that after his death he would send the Holy Spirit to comfort them and provide them with direction as to what they should be doing as a Church. The Book of Acts provides several examples of ways the early Church tried to carry out this mission of being a faith movement led by Christ’s spirit. This includes a description of their efforts to reach common understandings of what is expected of community members on key issues such as circumcision and Jewish dietary laws. For many years prior to the blending of the Church with secular authority at the time of Constantine, the Christian community stood apart from the surrounding secular society and government on a number of major issues, including participation in the military.

A generation or two before early Friends, Anabaptist fellowships on the Continent attempted to recreate this earliest form of church community both in terms of radical expectations of its members set apart from secular society and in terms of the methodology of community decision-making and discipline.

The first unique dimension of Fox’s ministry was to proclaim the possibility of a direct, ongoing relationship with Christ as teacher and leader of the faith community. The second unique dimension of his ministry was to establish a system of church governance that institutionalized this relationship with the inward living Spirit of Christ in terms of corporate decision-making and discipline. The structure of monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings offered a practical method by which Friends could discern the will of God in decisions facing the community. This included the position which the community was to take on key social questions such as payment of “tithes” that supported the established Church of England and whether Friends should participate in the military.

One of the key reasons why Fox and other early Quaker leaders established this system was to provide a mechanism by which individual Friends’ leadings could be tested and either approved or disowned by the larger Quaker community. This became an issue when some Friends (such as Naylor and his Bristol followers) engaged in forms of public witness that were profoundly disturbing to many other Friends. Another reason for establishing organizational structure to the early movement was to organize support for those who suffered persecution for following through on their Quaker faith. The main original reason, for example, for establishing meeting membership rolls was to have an organized way of identifying individual families who should be provided financial support as a result of religious persecution. This was necessary in part because Friends had rejected adult water baptism as the outward ceremony marking a boundary between members and non-members utilized by the Anabaptist communities. (This is the origin of the name for Britain Yearly Meeting’s interim meeting as “Meeting for Sufferings”.)

This ongoing intimate relationship between the individual Friend, the larger larger Quaker community and the living spirit of Christ remains at the heart of Quakerism to this day. This interplay can be summarized as follows:

1. Individual Leadings

The first question that an individual Friend must ask her/himself is: “What do I believe God is telling me to do?”

Individual Friends feel leadings to carry out their faith in many particular ways, including the leading to carry a “concern” to other Meetings or to carry out acts of conscience which may violate secular law. Such a leading may in some cases take the individual Friend into new territory which Friends have not as yet recognized as acts of conscience or obedience to God’s voice.

2. Clearness & Corporate Support for Individual Members

Are we as a Quaker community able to unite in believing that God is in fact telling this individual to carry out this action?

The meeting tests the authenticity of the leading which its member feels drawn to and either unites with it (often expressed through writing a traveling minute or a minute of support) or is unable to do so. The Friend may or may not go ahead and carry out the leading without the support of the community. A committee of clearness may meet with the Friend to assist with the individual Friend’s discernment process and the Meeting’s process of discerning whether to unite with the individual’s leading.

Individual Friends may be far ahead of the rest of the meeting in terms of what they see as holy obedience. Individual meetings may also be at a very different place than their yearly meeting. And various yearly meetings today have very different understandings of what they are prepared to recognize as authentic expressions of obedience to God’s will. Such differing understandings of God’s voice have been present since the beginnings of Quakerism. Two early conflicts among Friends were over whether to schedule regular beginning times for worship and whether men should remove their hats when someone prayed out loud during meeting for worship.

Although Friends today like to “claim” the Underground Railroad as a shining example of Quaker faithfulness, the large majority of Friends at the time did not support either abolitionism or violation of fugitive slave laws. This led during the early 19th century to separations by Friends in several yearly meetings who were uneasy with the reluctance of their yearly meeting to take a more forceful position in opposition to slavery. Benjamin Lay was read out of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for the colorful and forceful manner in which he communicated his concern about slavery to other Friends.

Although Friends led to take a draft noncooperation position since 1940 initially encountered lukewarm support or even active resistance from their Meetings, support for this stance became stronger and stronger during the Vietnam War years especially among unprogrammed Friends. Many Friends read letters of support from their monthly or yearly meetings during their draft trials. The same evolution in the response from the wider Quaker community has also occurred for Friends led to refuse taxation supporting the military during this century.
Some of the other forms of support offered to individual Friends during the Vietnam War include: offering symbolic sanctuary in the meetinghouse to a member at the time of arrest, attendance of and testimony at trials, prison visiting and support for families of imprisoned Friends, and the “Sufferings Column” printed for a number of years in the Friends Journal. Meetings have also “released” members at times though providing financial support for them to pursue work they feel called tocarry out.

3. Corporate Guidance to the Meeting’s Members

Can the meeting unite in believing that God is telling it to call upon all its members to take (or at least seriously consider taking) a certain stand–as opposed to simply supporting individual Friends called to take that position?

Friends have traditionally utilized the Bible, Friends writings, and the corporate experience of other Quaker and Christian groups to assist them in the process of hearing together in the present what God is telling them is required of them. These sources are not always clear in what they suggest God is saying to the community. As a result, it often takes a considerable period of time for Friends to move from support for individual concern to full unity around the position originally taken by a few individual Friends. It took a century of contentious struggle, for example, for Friends to reach unity around the unacceptability of slave owning by Friends. We may well forget as we struggle to hear what the Bible is offering as guidance today on issues from war tax refusal to same gender sexuality how many biblical passages were cited over the centuries justifying the practice of “kindly” slave-owning.

The classic ultimate expression of unity once it has been attained is a statement on the subject in the yearly meeting’s Book of Discipline.
A conference on the subject of conscription was called at Earlham College in 1968 that was attended by representatives appointed by a large number of yearly meetings. The new Richmond Declaration on Military Conscription agreed upon by this gathering expressed strong opposition to military conscription and offered strong and unequivocal support BOTH for those called to accept conscientious objector status and those called to the noncooperation position. This conference represented a kind of watershed shift in the corporate position of Friends from an earlier position heavily weighted towards the cooperating C.O. position.

As yet, few Friends bodies have moved from support for individual Friends war tax resisters to statements asking all Friends to wrestle with the incompatibility of opposition to war and paying for it.

4. Public Corporate Witness

Is the meeting able to unite in believing that God is asking it to communicate its position to the wider non-Quaker community around it?

This is presumably the basic source of the term “Testimony”, although the term is used today to refer both to the public aspects of the corporate position and the internal expectations placed upon members. Some of the ways in which Friends expressed their public opposition to war during the period included: the public offers of “sanctuary” mentioned above, letters to the media, letters and delegations to public officials, and publication of books and pamphlets expressing Friends’ position on the issues. Friends were increasingly willing as the Vietnam War progressed to join with a wide variety of church, pacifist and other antiwar groups in attempting to mobilize opposition to the war and the draft. This was in sharp contrast to the relatively limited attempts by Friends to influence broader public opinion during other wars in the past.

5. Corporate Action by the Meeting

Can members unite in believing that God is asking the meeting to carry out action as a group as an expression of one of the community’s corporate testimonies in a given area?

Many monthly meetings, yearly meetings, and Quaker organizations wrestled with whether they could as corporate bodies directly carry out actions in violation of law. Examples included willingness to send medical supplies to all sides in Vietnam, willingness to honor employees’ requests that their salaries not be withheld for federal income taxes, and active support for those led to leave the military during time of war. A number of yearly meetings were in fact able to unite on such actions, though only after considerable struggle and conflict.

There have been many other examples of meetings wrestling with similar issues of corporate action since that time. Many meetings wrestled with whether to hold onto investments in South Africa under apartheid. Some meetings today make it a matter of principle to avoid use of paper products, Styrofoam or plastic utensils as an expression of their understanding of our new unfolding testimony on unity with nature. The question of whether to hold a ceremony of commitment for a same gender couple is particularly challenging for many meetings precisely because it represents corporate action by the meeting rather than merely an abstract position on the issue of same gender relationships.

6. Internal Teaching to Members

How does the community communicate to its own members (including especially children raised within the group and new converts) the positions that it feels are important?

Differing religious communions utilize a variety of similar methods from religious education, camps, religious youth organizations, voluntary service projects, and rituals surrounding rites of passage such as first communion, first baptism, and confirmation. Amish churches set up youth fellowships to help maintain interest in the church community prior to an adult decision to join, but then struggle when those fellowships engage in practices contrary to church beliefs. (For example, several members of such an Amish youth group were arrested recently for selling hard drugs to other members of their group.) Friends in Philadelphia Yearly wrestled for years with the question of whether to permit smoking at Young Friends gatherings for similar reasons. The upshot is, however, that if a community cannot effectively communicate to new members its deeply held convictions, it will either die out or no longer stand for those values it once held dear.

The Peace Churches have had widely varying degrees of success in communicating the importance of non-participation in the armed forces to their draft-age male members in different wars. Different branches of Friends have often placed very different emphasis on what kinds of behavior are considered essential to being a Friend and what behaviors are considered “optional extras”.

7. Discipline of Members

What action does the faith community take if individual members fail to practice the teachings of the group?

Several examples are given in the Book of Acts of ways a religious community can handle failure by its members to follow its teachings. These efforts are rooted in the foundational teaching of Christ given in Matthew that when a member of the community strays from the community’s principles that bind it together, it should be handled first through one-to-one private discussion. If this fails, then a meeting with two or three other members of the community, is to be arranged. Only after these steps have been attempted is a question of “discipline” to be brought to the community as a whole.

Presumably Friends follow this practice today: beginning with informal one-to-one communication of concern, proceeding to private discussion with a few other individual members, next taking the matter to an official committee such as overseers or worship and counsel, and finally bringing the matter to the attention of monthly meeting itself.

The ultimate form of discipline for Catholics is excommunication, which means banning the incalcitrant member from receiving the rite of communion. An important method of discipline for some Anabaptist groups is “shunning”, which involves members in good standing being asked to stop socializing with the member who has violated church teaching.

There are two ultimate forms of discipline which have been practiced traditionally by Friends. The first is being read out of meeting, through which the monthly meeting decides to remove a member from its rolls.

The second is disownment. Disownment technically means something quite different from removal from membership, although the terms are often used interchangably among Friends today. The term disownment originally referred to the public action of witnessing to the surrounding non-Quaker community that the action of a person who claims to be a Friend is, in the meeting’s understanding, inconsistent with Quaker practice and testimony. The purpose of disownment is essentially evangelical – that is, to maintain the clarity of the Quaker message to the world. The practice has largely fallen into disfavor – perhaps in part because of the frequency with which different Friends groups disowned each other during the 19th century schisms.

Concern among many liberal Friends about Richard Nixon’s Quaker membership illustrates well the difficult issues around reading out and disownment. Friends outside of California YM who were deeply uneasy with Richard Nixon’s active leadership of the nation in prosecuting a war clearly lacked authority to tell East Whittier Meeting or California YM what they should do concerning his actual membership. They certainly did have the option, some might say the obligation, of communicating in a loving and respectful manner their concerns to Nixon’s own meeting what effect they saw Nixon’s publicly recognition as a Friend having on the clarity of Friends’ testimony against war.

In the end, however, disownment is not in the end an issue of membership but of witness. Therefore, it does not seem inappropriate to the basic idea of disownment that in some extreme instances (such as Friend Nixon) a yearly meeting might feel called to communicate to the public that the behavior in question seems to it to violate core tenets of Quaker belief.

A meeting which publicly distances itself from the actions of Friends from another Quaker group must, of course, be prepared to accept the possibility that other Friends groups may feel called, in turn, to distance themselves from other actions of their meeting or its members. There is a real danger that Friends today could be drawn into another process of mutual disownment over difficult issues such as same gender commitments.

Individualism & 20th Century Friends

Friends and Buddhists have classically leaned more heavily towards individual conscience while certain other religious communities like Anabaptists and Catholics have leaned more towards corporate discipline. This difference is illustrated by the discussion following a presentation that a Friend made to an ecumenical course on spiritual direction on the Quaker practice of clearness committees. The non-Friends present were deeply intrigued and drawn to the practice. One asked what happens when the group and the individual Friend reach different conclusions at the end as to what God is asking the individual to do. Her expectation (based on her own faith community’s approach to corporate discernment and discipline) was that the individual Friend would follow the direction of the clearness committee. The Friend making the presentation surprised many of the non-Friends present by confessing that in most cases the individual Friend would probably go ahead and do what she or he felt was right.

In fact, corporate discipline seems to be little exercised among Friends in this century. Some view this fact as a strong pendulum swing away from overly severe exercise of discipline by meetings on issues like marrying out in the 19th century. Some see it as the influence of rampant individualism (“Do your own thing”) in the surrounding secular society. Still others see this as a healthy and natural evolution towards respect for diversity of personal discernment.

Very few Meetings, if any, read out members for military participation during the Vietnam War. I expect that even gentler forms of discipline have been fairly rare in many meetings during this century for military participation. There have been Friends meetings that have exercised stronger corporate discipline in response to social taboos such as dancing than towards participation in war. Mid-America Yearly Meeting recently revoked the recorded minister status of two of its members for public disagreement with its stand on homosexuality. The only basis for being read out of many liberal meetings, on the other hand, appears to be consistent failure to attend meeting, contribute to the meeting, and to respond to letters of inquiry from overseers.

There are actions which do sometimes put members of liberal meetings “beyond the pale” of tolerance by their meeting. Members whose long-standing mental disorders lead them to consistently disrupt worship or to seriously disrupt in other ways the life of the meeting have occasionally been removed from membership. The same has been true in some meetings for a member who has engaged in sexually abusive behavior towards another member. A member of Canada YM at the Friends and the Vietnam War gathering described the efforts of that yearly meeting to wrestle caringly with protocols or guidelines dealing with sexually abusive behavior which occurs within the life of the meeting.

Some queries that relate to the above:

  • Has your meeting ever counseled or otherwise challenged a member for failure to live out core Quaker testimonies?
  • Has it ever removed a member of your meeting from membership for anything other than wholesale non-participation in the life of the meeting?
  • Are you aware of any other meetings in your yearly meeting which are more willing to engage each other on such questions?
  • What area, if any, would you feel it might be positive for your meeting to exercise discipline or offer direct guidance concerning personal behavior of its members?
  • How could this best be approached in a way that was tender and supportive rather than judgmental?
  • Has our deep reluctance to practice any discipline among liberal Friends weakened the meaning of membership or our testimony to the world?

Pastoral Care in Unprogrammed Meetings

What in fact is the best way in which members of a religious community should approach issues of personal behavior?  One of the major differences between pastoral and non-pastoral meetings is that a pastor has access to homes in the way that members of a non-pastoral meeting often do not. You almost have to go into members’ homes to know them well enough to communicate concerns about personal dimensions of faithfulness in a way that is both true to the members’ actual life context and tender to their efforts to obey God in their life.

Some meetings have a practice of assigning responsibility for each meeting family and single Friend to a member of overseers or ministry and counsel. The idea is that this member of the meeting gets to know each of her/his families and single members well enough to be able to recognize pastoral needs and provide a loving and appropriate response to unhelpful or un-Friendly behavior. My sense is that this is a nice theoretical plan, but that such assigned overseers often find it hard to carry out this role as intended. Both the committee members and the members of the meeting assigned to them may feel too uncomfortable with this level of engagement with each other.

Perhaps the deeper question is: How can our meetings become the kind of redemptive community which is touched by the Holy Spirit in a way which changes the lives of its members – and creates the sense of deep trust and safety necessary to wrestle together with issues of personal and corporate faithfulness? How many of us have ever experienced that kind of redemptive community any time during our lives? Certainly the early church was that kind of community – as was the early Quaker movement.

In large “super churches” today, it is generally felt that the larger church community as a whole should be a place for public worship, celebration and affirmation of common bonds. Issues of personal discernment and lifestyle choices can be much more easily addressed in much smaller ongoing face-to-face groups. Such churches often require all members to be part of small “cells” or prayer groups who remain together over time. There may be hundreds of these cell groups in a single large congregation.

Even if none of our unprogrammed meetings approach the size of these mammoth congregations in terms of membership, this model may be a useful way for meetings to try venturing into the risky territory of loving mutual accountability. Certainly it is much more possible to experience the sense of safety, of being personally known at the core, and of being touched by God’s love in an ongoing group of 6-10 than even in a modestly sized meeting as a whole. The richest experiences I personally have had of tender accountability have been in the context of small ongoing cell groups of this type.

Some Closing Questions:

What are the “frontier areas” that you know of individual Friends today being led to take stands which may be hard for many Friends to support?

What do you see as possible new “testimonies” emerging among Friends in the 21st century? War tax resistance? Unity with nature? A stronger commitment to simple lifestyle given the terrible impact which over-consumption has both on environmental integrity in planting the “seeds of war”?

Are there actions which our meetings, yearly meetings and Quaker organizations could be taking today to live out what we believe in the peace testimony or other core testimonies?

Does our peace testimony mean anything at all when our membership in this country is living at a standard of wealth so distant from that of most of the world’s inhabitants, sowing the seeds enormous future conflicts?

How are our meetings communicating their ideals to our young people? Do our younger members know anything at all about the stands taken by older members of our meetings during periods such as the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam War?

Has the pendulum swung too far from corporate discipline to individualism? Do we in fact stand for anything as Friends today? (I am thinking especially of FGC and other unprogrammed Friends.) Are we truly “members of one another” in any sense? Do we want to be?

What will it take to raise up public ministers among us today who will communicate powerfully and effectively to the world around us an alternative vision of a peaceable kingdom shaped by the living Spirit of God?

Written in 1998 after participating in a panel at the Friends Conference on the Vietnam War, held at Bryn Mawr College under the sponsorship of Pendle Hill earlier that year.