Friday, 7 December 2007

The Emperor’s Nose

I’ve been puzzling over the 'Long Term Framework for the work and spiritual development of Friends' for a while. Then I came across this old story:

‘Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor, but a man wanted to know the length of the Emperor’s nose. So he went all over the country asking people how long they thought the Emperor’s nose was, and then took the average of their answers. ‘This must be accurate’, he said to himself, because I have asked so many people…’

My understanding of discernment is that it is a process of seeking the will of God in a particular situation. Can this be done with a questionnaire? This seems unlikely, for the same reason that the man in the story is not likely to find the correct answer to his question.

A questionnaire like this, even if it is called ‘a record of discernment’, inevitably becomes a record of people’s opinions about what BYM should be doing. This would be fine if we were a social club or political party, but if we are seeking to follow the guidance of the Inward Light, then our collected opinions are largely irrelevant. If you want to find out the length of the Emperor’s nose, it is of no use asking people who have never seen it. Similarly if we, as a Religious Society, want to discern God’s purposes for us then we need to look to those individuals and groups within BYM who have had something of God’s purposes revealed to them, and have been led to act on it - what we call ‘acting under concern’.

It is a distinctive and important feature of traditional Quaker spirituality that collective action arises from uniting around the leadings of individuals who have been charged by the Spirit with a particular task or message. There are many signs of such ‘prophetic movements’ within BYM at the moment; the Living Witness Project, Quaker Quest, the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network and others. These are all signs of where the Spirit is calling us at this time. There may be further questions of discernment about how to order or prioritise these different concerns, but again this cannot be done by ‘averaging out’ all our opinions about it. If the leadings are genuinely from God, there will be a right ordering that will reflect the pattern of God’s purposes for the varied gifts and capacities of our membership, and this should be discerned in the Meeting for Worship.

I don’t want to criticise or undermine the efforts of Meeting for Sufferings to become a ‘crucible for sharing and testing concerns’. I am wary, though, of discussion about ‘finding our prophetic voice’, as if we have to go around looking for something to do. The Spirit of God is always speaking to us. Our task is to be attentive to recognise the presence and activity of the Spirit in ourselves, in our Society and throughout the world.


Martin Kelley said...

Hi Gavin,
Reminds me of a visioning weekend I went to a few years ago that was trying to revive a somewhat dormant Quaker youth (20-30yo) organization connected to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The first part was a brainstorm of what everyone thought this organization should do. The facilitator dutifully recorded all the suggestions on butcher paper in the front. Then we were all given little star stickers to decide which we thought were the most important tasks and we dutifully voted on what we thought this organization should be doing.

I'm sure you can guess the outcome: a very theoretical and predictable list of what we all imagined this group should be doing with no sense of leadings and no one really excited to do any of this work. I tried to respectfully protest the process but the whole weekend had been head-centric and a-spiritual and I finally realized I was too frustrated to be useful, gave up and went home. The group pressured various people to do the voted-upon tasks, which they did under duress for a few months until it all wound down again. If we had been a richer organization we could have hired someone to do the work for us but professionalizing Quaker service doesn't make it more spiritually-motivated.

When I've been in this kind of situation I've let the head-projects do their thing (and almost always go nowhere) and focused on the more spirit-led projects I've seen, even when they're much smaller scale.
Martin @ Quaker Ranter

Gordon Ferguson said...

Thanks to both Craig and Martin for pointing up the difference between politics and community.

One thing to note is that government and state agencies are constantly trying to use statistics to justify future plans, progress and past activity. When they wonder why we don't buy it, it's another sign that they don't understand community. In a community, or fellowship or group of friends, every individual is equal and infinitely significant. Luke 12:7 - "But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows." Of course statistics has its place - for instance to know that there will be 10 million more people in this country in ten year's time is very important for the efficient allocation of resources by the state. But at the end of the day every one of those 10 million will be a unique individual.

But that still leaves us with just what is the relationship between local Quaker Meetings and Meeting for Sufferings. Unlike Craig, I am worried about the criteria suggested for being a ‘crucible for sharing and testing concerns’. It's all standard managerial assessment tools, or as Martin puts it 'head-stuff'. Here are the suggested criteria from the Long Term framework questionnaire:

a) Is it properly researched?
b) Is it rooted in our Quaker history or current Quaker experience?
c) Does it advance any of our testimonies?
d) Can it be adequately supported?
e) Are Quakers especially suited to carry it forward? Are others already doing it adequately?
f) Has partnership been fully considered? Are any proposed partners the most suitable?
g) Will it provide experience or information that will better enable Quakers and others to speak out?
h) Is it innovative or experimental (Quakers are sometimes able to try out new approaches where others are not)?

Just what has this got to do with spiritual concern? Martin's 'small scale' stuff may well not pass these tests.

This is where the 'prophetic voice' comes in. Craig - it's not something we do, but how we go about it. I commend the work of fellow Quaker Alastair McIintosh on 'spiritual activism' - see

I also commend St. Paul trying to get the Corinthians into what we would call 'right ordering' of their Church/Meeting - no not the unfortunate misogyny that so many small minded people latch onto - but look at 1 Cor. 12, 13 and 14 (but skip v. 34 and 35).
In chapter 12, Paul reminds them that it takes all sorts to build up the community, and all contributions, no matter how seemingly lowly, are equally essential.
In chapter 13, we are told with great eloquence that the whole thing is a complete waste of time unless grounded in faith hope and love.
In chapter 14 though comes a new emphasis - we are not just doing this for ourselves, important though it may be, but for others:
14:24,25: "But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth."

This is what 'being a prophetic voice' is all about. As Meeting for Sufferings tries to discern 'gospel order' for it's role, they could do no harm to look back to the roots of our faith.