Essentials of Quaker Practice?

Last month I was asked by the clerk of my Quarterly Meeting to say a few words about the essentials of Quaker practice. In preparation I asked a few Friends what they thought were the essentials. One Friend had a concise and concrete list which I like:
  • attendance at meeting for worship
  • attendance at meeting for business
  • serving on meeting committees
  • making a financial contribution to the meeting
What I like about this list is that it’s all about participation in the community: showing up and doing your share, whatever your gifts or abilities might be.

I have two further ideas about the essentials, both of which I learned from George Fox.

What stood out for me from Fox’s journal is how he talks about what this new movement is doing. He says (and I paraphrase) their work is to bring the people out of their “chaffy, light minds” (p.353, see Chapter XI), to lead them to the feet of their Inward Teacher, and leave them there.

Notice there are three parts to that. The first is to help people leave behind the distractions to their souls, to separate the wheat from the chaff in their lives. The second is to help people to find and hear the voice of their Inward Teacher – which presupposes that we believe that every person has and can hear that inner voice and that we have learned a few things that can help us listen (like sitting in silence). The third is that we have to get out of the way. Like that other old saying, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. We have to remember that we do not convince or convert anyone – God does that. For our part, it’s enough to model good listening and good living and to teach people how to listen.

The other essential idea from George Fox is that "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition."(p. 82, see Chapter 1) We can hear God – Christ Jesus – the Holy Spirit – that Inward Teacher – speaking to us about our true condition and we can do something about it. In the 17th century, it was a radical idea that we were not predestined to a life of sin. The amazing thing about this concept, then or now, is not that God tells us we’re all basically fine and good, but that we can all change. We can hear and obey. Whether it’s a personal improvement or a social or political concern, we can hear those nudges from God, Quakers call them leadings, and we can follow. It takes practice and discipline to develop that ability to obey, but Quakers have learned a few things that can help with this too.

These I think are the essential Quaker practices in College Park Quarterly Meeting and beyond. As I have traveled more widely among Friends in the last few years, I have seen a variety of forms of worship, and I think those differences are less important than these essentials: that we all make time to listen to God, we rid ourselves of the things in our lives that impede our ability to follow, and we act on what we hear.

Page numbers are from The Journal of George Fox, edited by Rufus M. Jones, published by Friends United Press, 1976. Hyperlinks are to the relevant chapters of the Journal on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

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Blogger Elaine said...

I recently did an ad hoc survey about how different yearly meetings and other bodies described recorded membership: http://grey-cat.com/documents/MembershipMeaningSurvey.pdf That concise list is echoed over and over in descriptions of the expectations of recorded members.

In doing this survey i realized that those lists that are repeated over and over are generated by members of the Society who satisfy those four expectations: the members of the Society who end up writing the descriptions of what is expected of recorded members by and large are a narrow class.

Missing are the voices of adults, who as children were raised in Meeting, who live their lives according to how they were raised, but may not be participating in a meeting.

Missing are the voices of the Friends who have moved away from Meetings, who are not Sojourning at another Meeting, but who only have contact through the newsletter.

Missing are the voices of the sick and infirm.

Missing are the voices of those whose service calls them to travel.

Missing are the voices of the attenders who are deeply engaged in the community, who may refrain from membership for a variety of reasons.

Missing are the voices of the "nominal members" who no longer engage in the community.

Missing are those who were refused dual membership.

None of those experiences go into the writing these documents.

I'm currently trying to discern what this means -- especially as i'm someone who really believes in the important work and practice of Meeting for Business.

I do like your fundamentals because they are accessible in a way that the concise and concrete list is not.

11/04/2009 2:40 AM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

The essentials seem pretty easy: love God with all your might and treat your neighbor as yourself.

The rest are techniques we've found to get there. It's interesting to read the Epistle from the Elders of Balby, which is sort of the mission statement for monthly meetings. It's clear they're pulling together examples of strong communities and trying to put it down on paper as a replicable model that could be used elsewhere.

The words "committees" and "financial" are both absent from the Balby epistle. What's there that's missing from a lot of the more functional modern lists is a strong focus on interpersonal dynamics--how to keep the life of the community strong, just the kind of stuff you're talking about.

Judielaine: amen and amen. There's lots of missing voices out there. Or not always missing, but invisible. I've sat in meetings where the most obvious concerns go unaddressed while conversation turns to the umpteenth discussion about some trivial matter. How do we turn our attention outward?

11/04/2009 9:43 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I think there ought to be a clear distinction of membership, but that is a different essay.

The world is always run by those who show up, and I think that this will ever be.

Martin, I think the point of this post is how to get to what you define as essentials.

11/04/2009 11:51 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Eames Roebling said...

As someone who was indeed called to travel, and whose only contact with my home Meeting is via the Newsletter and personal notes, I appreciate Judielaine's comment.

I do think that some form of corporate worship is essential. I did not feel myself a "practicing" Friend until I found another Friend here with whom to share weekly worship.

I do believe it important to contribute financially to the Meeting, which I continue to do. And to take an interest in the lives of those whom I know from the Meeting and follow the concerns that the Meeting raises.

But most importantly, I follow the precept of Fox's to follow my inner guide, in attempting, at least, to be a Quaker, in " Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.

11/05/2009 10:50 AM  
Blogger Hystery said...

Here's my tentative list.

1. Attendance to the Inner Light

(to the divine, the sublime, the tender, the beautiful, the wise, the true that resides in each of us and which binds all of the universe together).

2. Attendance to our brothers and sisters

(regardless of color, caste, sex, ability, religion, creed, age, or even species.)

It is my Quaker Pagan variation of the following:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Mt 22:37-40

11/05/2009 7:55 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks Babette & Hystery for adding to the discussion!

11/06/2009 12:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, I wonder if the question isn't a bit narrow. While there are good things to be gained from one's particular denominational heritage, should we instead be asking what are the essentials of the Christian faith?

11/06/2009 1:37 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Actually, Pat, I think Martin covered that.

These are two valuable questions, and both are worthy of thought and dialogue. But this was an attempt to distinguish what is important about our particular faith tradition.

11/06/2009 2:34 PM  
Blogger Patrick Ruth said...

Friend Hystery speaks my mind- concise, to the point of the essentials. Just used the reflected passage in Bible Exploration after the manner of Friends at Meeting last week, partially around the subject of QPractice. Thanks and later Patrick

11/07/2009 7:03 PM  
Blogger chelavery said...

Is there a difference between the essentials of Quaker practice and the essentials (or responsibilities) of membership in a Quaker meeting? My list under each of these headings would be different, but I can't clearly separate them into distinct categories. For example, serving on committees (if not every year, at least regularly over the course of my lifetime) feels like a responsibility of membership. But without it, something important would be missing from the spiritual exercise of being a Friend.

11/10/2009 5:00 PM  

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