Saturday, 9 June 2007

Reflections of an Attender

Introduction, ‘Reflections of an Attender’

In the letter from Balby Elders and Overseers, published on the Blog on 16th May, I posted a ‘Comment’ with regard to its content on 4th June saying that I would write a reply before the weekend. Since then I have considered my response, and I have offered for publication in Sheffield Quaker News, where I first read the letter. As I post my reply - ‘Reflections of an Attender’ on the Quaker blog I would like to offer some claqrification. I have been an Attender at Sheffield Central Meeting for 18 years. Why, you may wonder, did I not apply for membership over all this time? The answer is partly to be found in what follows and a further explanation can be found in my ‘Saga of Faith’ or Search for Meaning (blog Feb. 2007).

Reflections of an Attender

The recent letter from Balby Overseers and Elders raises a very important issue. ‘How can we enable everyone in our meetings to feel more fully included’? The young George Fox searched among priests and puritans for four years before he realized that these people offered nothing to meet his spiritual needs. He had further inspirations regarding the centrality of Christ Jesus in speaking to his condition. From his inspirations the Society of Friends came into being. Perhaps a key question is, ‘Do our Quaker meetings offer today’s seekers the help that George Fox was looking for in his day?’ I would be confident of a more positive response if Friends were all a bit more alert to ‘Advice number 5’ which has an application to spoken ministry, as well as to all interactions between visitors, attenders and members.

Seekers do come to our meetings and they too are advised to take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. The presumption is that Friends share freely from their inner experiences. Can this sharing be a little devalued, especially in meeting for worship? In the recognised tension between spoken ministry and silence does the balance swing too much towards silence? The two should not be mutually exclusive, and together they make up Quaker worship. I hear Friends remark, ‘It was a lovely meeting - silent’. A group of hermits could meet to pray and to meditate in silence, but would George Fox advocate more than this in Quaker worship? I think that the Quietism that characterized meetings of 18th century served a real purpose, after the turmoil of former days. However when meetings in our time are calling for integration and outreach, can we offer silence - plus? Margaret Fell spoke of the danger of Quakerism moving from being ‘an adventure in discovery’ to becoming ‘a family of faithfulness’. I dare to ask that our meetings offer more of ‘an adventure in discovery’? Settled Friends do meet else-where and have opportunities to share and to learn, but where, if not at meetings for worship do the rest of us learn about other people’s experiences of the Light’?

Where do we discover the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God? Where do seekers learn about ‘the Way’ proclaimed by Jesus? Most early Quakers were steeped in knowledge of the Bible and of the church. Is this true of most Quakers today? I believe the message of the Gospels and the church must be taken hold of at a deep level, and with guidance, a seeker is enabled to see what fits one’s own inner promptings and then he/she can take the final steps towards discovering a new relationship to God. Most Friends believe that the teachings of the Bible and the church are not the only sources of inspiration, however we dare not ignore them, for against what other background of knowledge, do Friends interpret the inner promptings that lead to a new consciousness of God.

We have a wealth of Quaker literature, and so much other spiritual writing. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? Could Friends share something more of the things that they have found valuable and insightful in their personal prayer? In our meetings for worship should our relationship with God be reflected in the building up of the community? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value? Is our faith so private that we keep it to ourselves, even though our ‘word’ might be the one that truly speaks to someone else’s condition? Surely we cannot be complacent if only a relatively small number respond in ministry to the inner ‘small voice’? I am not suggesting a multiplying of ministry for its own sake, nor ministry that comes from clever thinking or the ego, but could it be just fear that stops many of us from contributing in spoken ministry during our ‘adventure of discovery’?

I don’t believe that Friends have got it ‘all together’ all the time. That’s fine; it’s just the way it is, however do we realize that by sharing something of our inner questions and turmoil we may be offering a precious gift to someone who is seeking to make sense of their own confused life? It is helpful to appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth? Could fear of sounding shallow become our block to this process? It is not strength that speaks to a soul. Our very weakness can be the bridge that will enable ‘the seeker’ to cross over to a new spiritual insight. Jesus was not only the ‘comforter of the afflicted’, but also the ‘afflicter of the comfortable’. I dare to ask if our meetings might benefit from a bit more ‘quaking’ and a bit less ‘comfortable silence’? Jesus sent his disciples out to teach and to heal. Quakerism should not only teach but also help to heal the souls of each one of us in our giving and our receiving. Could those who feel intimidated or shy find on occasions extra courage and make an added contribution to the meeting through sincere ministry? Active response to ministry and to the inner voice can lead each worshiper to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

Like George Fox, many in our age too are searching for a place that can offer help! I believe that sincere welcome, silence and honest ministry are three of the things central to what a seeker needs. Otherwise the visitor or an attender may well turn around and continue their search elsewhere. I was so close to doing this many times. I did stay and eventually, by God’s grace, I responded to ministry offered and to the inner Light, and at age 64, I was once again given the gift to turn my life around. After years of confusion and depression, I discovered a deeper, richer, personal, first-hand faith. This faith is one I had never dared to dream achievable. Now that I know it is, I wish it to be shared by all true seekers. Deo Gratias.

When I first read the letter from Balby Elders and Overseers, the 3 sentences that had the most impact on me, and that stirred a need to respond were:-

1) “How can we enable everyone in out Meetings to feel more fully included?”
2) “How do we ‘help one another up with a tender hand’ during crises – spiritual, social, psychological?”
3) “Yet how sad if they were searching for something we really have to offer – but never gave them the opportunity to discover”.

What I wrote is simply one person’s beliefs, from reflecting on life and the gift of Quaker worship. I look forward to the response that others might bring to all the questions raised in the Balby letter.

I recognise the danger of there being too much ministry at our meetings and the further danger of some ‘ministry’ proceeding from the ego rather than from the inner promptings of the Spirit. However I also believe that ‘an undue fear of ministering’ is not from a person’s true centre either. The Spirit of God is not one of timidity. Any undue fear is most likely coming from the same ego place. So one way or another, the danger of our ‘egos’ getting in the way of the Spirit is very real and always present. It is a danger that we should always be aware of, but I don’t think we can ever be 100% certain that we ourselves or others are coming from the true Self or that there is ego interference.

I am happy to trust the Spirit of God that is at the heart of our Meetings, and the spark of God in each one of us, leading us all forward in the most appropriate way. Without wishing to compromise anything of the best of the Quaker Tradition, I dare to ask, with the Balby letter, that we give ‘Integration’ a real priority in this age. I believe that this integration is needed in our Society of Friends. It is also needed as a sign to our often broken and divided ‘wider communities’.

I believe that the honest ministering that I’m asking for would
assist the healing process in each one of us. The most crucial ‘integration’ we need is the integration of our own psychological lives, to become ‘whole’ or ‘holy’. I am not addressing these words to the faint hearted and I know I’m suggesting an approach to worship that will not be to everyone’s taste. It may in fact be inappropriate for many to step beyond a comfort zone that they are secure in, but does this prevent one from expressing an ideal? I sincerely hope not. What The Christ centre seems to ask for is more and more consciousness, and an honest sharing from this consciousness - Jesus told us, in the parable of the lamp, ‘Would you bring in a lamp to put it under a tub or under the bed? Surely you will but it on a lamp-stand? For there is nothing hidden but it must be disclosed, nothing kept secret except to be brought to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to this’ (Mark 4: 21-23). I know that this challenges every ego position to an incredible degree – it would even make a counsellor cringe! And am I asking for honest sharing in public, at a meeting for worship? For some this may be out of the question and sometimes we need to remember that the price of discipleship is high, but the rewards incredible!!

I’m reminded too of Jesus words “I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly”. (John 10: 10). I believe that with God’s grace we can minister to each other and help bring the gift of healing to each other, especially ‘spiritual, social and psychological’ healing, by chipping away at our own ‘negative’ egos. Only then in this more central place within, that Carl Jung calls ‘The Self’ or the ‘God Centre within’, can we move to experience a more abundant life.

I seek to share my thoughts in humility without pretending I’m an expert in psychology, which I am not, and certainly not intending any offence to the Society of Friends or to any individual Friend. My wish is rather to stimulate further thoughts, conversation and discussion. And perhaps what I share may resonate with some. If anyone feels that ‘there is a germ of truth’ in what I share, then why not try to live and worship more adventurously. Then maybe our Meetings for Worship could just possibly reflect a greater openness. And then only time would tell whether visitors and attenders begin to feel more integrated and so be more likely to stay around to enjoy what we truly do have to offer, through the Spirit of God in our midst.

My words come from my own experience of having suffered from depression and the sense of exclusion that I felt over time. This experience was followed in my life by a sense of well-being which brought much prayerful reflection on what aided the movement from one state of mind to the other. I recently came across at Sheffield’s Millennium Centre a lovely quote from John Ruskin, “What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end of little consequence. The only thing of consequence is what we do”.

I give thanks to God for the Friends who listened to my questions, and hung in there with me during times of great confusion. I give thanks for the inspiration of George Fox who came through his own darkness to light and gave us the Society of Friends. I give thanks for our silent worship; but also for ministry that others shared with us out of that silence, especially for ministry offered by those who were daring enough to share weakness as well as strength, and finally I give thanks for all who demonstrated a real spirit of welcome to me over the years at Sheffield Central Meeting.


Craig Barnett said...

Dear Maurice,
Thanks you for these reflections. I was struck by the sentence -
"I believe that sincere welcome, silence and honest ministry are three of the things central to what a seeker needs."

For me the important questions about spoken ministry in Meeting are 'where does this come from?' and 'who is this meant for?'

The traditional Quaker understanding of vocal ministry is that it is a gift from God, for the building up of the faithful community. For me it is important to distinguish between the thoughts that come to me during Meeting, and the much rarer sense of a message being 'given' for me to speak.
A second distinction which earlier Friends found helpful was to ask themselves whether this message is for the community, requiring to be spoken in Meeting, or whether it is 'bread for home', ie it is meant for themselves to take home and inwardly reflect upon.
I share your concern that authentic and honest ministry should be encouraged amongst our community. It may be worth considering also whether authentic and courageous ministry requires a space of deep gathered worship to arise and to come to expression.I wonder sometimes whether we give enough space for this to happen, or whether it is sometimes prevented by Friends rising to speak before they have fully tested whether it is a message from God, for this Meeting.

Kirby Urner said...

In our meeting, a concern such as this might go to Worship and Ministry, which works on the tenor and quality of the worship experience, insofar as any committee might influence this.

Once on the topic of vocal ministry, the focus may shift to audibility i.e. do Friends stand, is there a level of loudness to aim for... ?

As far as involving attenders, in my book that means keeping almost every role and committee open, in principle, to attenders, including clerk of the meeting should the right attender be found (a visiting saint from another religion perhaps?).

Meetings which close off Nominating and/or Oversight to non-members have, in my view, closed doors that should never be closed, even if the norm is for most attenders to be more tentative. If they're ready, their talents should be exercised. Membership is not a requirement for service in the manner of Friends, including service on clearness for membership committees.