Sunday, 24 January 2010

Threshing and Concern

I've finally got my act together to read up on the blog. As I'm on Elders at the minute, I should say that my response here is made in a purely personal capacity. I feel some sense of concern to enter the discussion actively, but what follows is largely my own judgement and I offer it as such.

Firstly, Craig's words in his previous post describe my own experience quite closely and prompt me to put my thoughts in order for a process of discernment which is likely to continue for some time. I think the issue is layered. On the surface we have a number of specific issues such as the size of the meeting, the 'busyness' of ministry, and so forth. Underlying this, clearly, is a shared sense of concern about the life and depth of (spoken and silent) ministry in meeting for worship, and underlying *this* in turn (I think) is an even deeper concern about the life of the meeting as a whole. And here it gets scary, because no-one on earth can order us about and get us out of any messes we get ourselves in. We commit ourselves to the understanding that nobody and nothing stands between us and God (or other favoured term). Individually and corporately, we entitle ourselves to spiritual freedom to the exact extent to which we willingly accept direct responsibility to the Spirit. In this sense, Quaker life is much *less* of a spiritual free-for-all than life lived under the rule of a dogmatic institution, because the Spirit is not a set or finite list of requirements. Scary thought. But that, folks, is what we sign up to. We claim freedom in order to go deeper into the Spirit than we would otherwise go.

In saying this I'm aware that I speak as a highly undisciplined personality, and I've never personally had any problem whatsoever with the idea (and I stress the word "idea") that being a Quaker might involve conforming to some kind of external discipline exercised through the corporate life of the meeting. So if I'm coming across as some sort of disciplinarian that might well be my personal baggage, talking the language of over-compensation. But not entirely. I think the key term here is 'concern' in the Quaker sense. Briefly, Quaker life is life lived under concern (in the Quaker sense); Quaker ministry is utterance given under concern (i.t.Q.s.). Ultimately it's a matter of personal and collective discernment how far we are guided in our ministry by genuine concern, and, without passing comment on any other Friends' spoken ministry, I know for a fact that I have myself given spoken ministry without being under a sense of concern. Once ... the sky didn't fall on my head, and Quakerism in Britain (or even Sheffield) didn't collapse as a result, but nevertheless I know that I made a mistake there (not as painful a mistake as NOT giving ministry when I WAS under concern to do so, but a mistake nonetheless).

As a worshipping Quaker meeting we accept responsibility to know what our concerns are, and to commit ourselves to at least try to respond to them consistently. This is not a once-and-for-all learning experience: it's something I (for one) need to relearn and keep relearning. *If* we as a meeting are not remaining close to our sense of concern in the way we conduct our ongoing affairs, including our meetings for worship, *then,* to be honest, we're in trouble. I stand to correction from wiser Friends than me, but, for what it's worth, I personally think I (and seemingly we) may possibly have let that one slide a bit in recent months. Maybe spoken ministry is the obvious area where it shows, but it also shows in less obvious ways: the difficulty we sometimes encounter in finding Friends to fill posts and committees (too many posts or not enough active Friends?), the failure of scheduled and other donations to meet the meeting's running costs (leading to cross-subsidy from the Meeting House lettings, which plugs the gap but masks the problem), and so forth.

That's my diagnosis; what's my prescription? Well, if I'm right there, we don't need to panic about it - still less fall about in a round of nervous recriminations. We remain a conspicuously successful meeting and the issues we face are symptoms of our success. We're big, we're busy, we're relatively young on average, we have an incredibly lively children's and young people's meeting, and, in a nutshell, we're doing all right. We just need to have a cool, very unsparing, very loving and mutually supportive look at where we are, compared with where we ought now to be.

Firstly, I don't think that it has anything really to do with the surface issues - the size of the meeting, the 'busyness' of ministry, and so forth. These things matter, but they are symptoms, not causes. In the final analysis, we are not *really* going to frighten God (or other favoured term) away with our numbers any more than we are going to bore God (o.o.f.t.) away with our many words. I therefore think concentration on these things in isolation may be an attempt to avoid or sidestep the central point at issue, which is, how to keep the meeting (and its ministry) spiritually alive in conditions of such diversity.
Secondly, however, given that we seek unity (i.t.Q.s.), I think diversity itself is the opposite of a problem; it's uniformity we need to be scared of, and a split meeting for worship would encourage uniformity within each subsidiary meeting, work against unity, and therefore be (in my understanding) a bad thing (unless there was a reason to set up a new, entirely separate meeting, elsewhere in the city).

Thirdly, if it really is true that we need to rediscover our unity in the shared discipline of ministry (and I suspect this is true), this inevitably involves some exercise of authority within the meeting, by someone, at some point, in some capacity, and the acceptance of discipline from within the meeting by individual Friends. This thought frightens a lot of Quakers (me included). But it's unavoidable.

On the matter of discipline within a meeting, the buck ultimately always stops with the current nominated Elders, but I don't personally think it's always sufficient to assume that nominated Elders can easily fulfil this role alone. For one thing, many Friends in the meeting may not accept their authority to do so. In fact, I know that, as things currently stand, some don't. Nor do I think it's a matter of old hands within the meeting generally teaching the ropes to newcomers, because sheer duration of involvement brings its own spiritual risks and does not *automatically* confer the capacity for deeper insight. Sometimes fresh eyes see more clearly, although it's equally possible for a relatively inexperienced Friend to desire forms of change which inadvertently involve chucking the baby out with the bathwater.

What I therefore conclude is that (a) discernment comes through dialogue, and if there is a special role for more seasoned Friends within the meeting, it involves asking hard questions but not giving easy answers; (b) each one of us must accept that, in order to progress spiritually, we have to be changed by our involvement in the meeting, because progress involves change by definition, and such change can be as painful as it is necessary, and may involve the admission that "I'm wrong" and "you're right" (and possibly even that "I'm right" and "you're wrong"); and (c) whatever the outcome of our discernment, it must be grounded in a shared awareness of what the term 'concern' has meant to previous generations of Quakers. It must be (in conventional words - inadequate though all words are) 'what God wants, whether we want it or not.' And in that sense, then, yes, there is absolutely some learning which every Quaker needs to learn. Newcomers need to be learning a sense of concern, and old hands need to be always relearning it - partly, indeed, by sharing it and spreading it around. And what I think it boils down to is this: we all need to grasp what concern is. For me, it's all in that one word. If we (re)learn what concern is, and apply that learning, then (although only a fool makes predictions) I predict that the size of the meeting will cease to trouble or impede us, and the quality of ministry will sort itself naturally out (and maybe the other less obvious symptoms will too - eventually). But, without a living (maybe renewed) sense of concern, nothing we do to change these surface things will necessarily make any real difference.

In terms of a way forward, better for me than a split meeting or similar would be something like a special business meeting running on from meeting for worship, addressing the single issue of concern, as it exists in principle, and as it applies in practice to the life of the meeting as a whole. But that's just a suggestion. I also felt that the threshing meeting was held in right ordering - apple-pie ordering, in fact, if I can use that phrase - and this gives me great hope that we are on the right tracks, or at least facing in the right direction.


Peter Lawless said...

Interesting especially along with Craig's blog on this.
|I need to read it again but one point which strikes me as a result of reading both is not simply the role of Elders but also the drive that some may have to have Meeting be what they 'want it to be' not as 'it is' especially in terms of wishing silent Meetings. This surely goes against the purpose of Meeting - notice I said purpose and not rules etc. - because what are we waiting on in the silence?
Yes sometimes there is silence other times not but is it not the case that in many ways ways that Meeting serves to 'comfort the disturbed' and 'disturb the comfortable'?
You may wish silence and there is daffodil and similar ministry at times but I have found over 20+ years that Ministry can sometimes be directed at one or two present. If it disturbs others - why? If focussed in Meeting that focus cannot easily be lost or if it can surely they have served a purpose in getting people to reflect upon why in their own silent time. To find that Ministry is disturbing silence is surely is a personal issue and cannot be imposed even on a 'silent' Meeting if we are true to the roots of Quakerism - how would they have gone on in the Meetings of Fox's day when the watch watches would not have been able to keep checking the time even after the children come in?
Do we need Elders who make the Meetings run on times like pre-war Italian trains?
(Yes I am aware that it is rarely that I am at long Meetings but I have been going to Wednesday Lunchtime Meeting frequently and would make First day Meeting were it not for my physical/health problems.)
We need outlying Meetings and not just concentrate on the town centre
and in many ways we must give thanks because there can't be many troubled by growth unless as, at least one person might say, we're are growing in response to the decline of the Labour Party in Sheffield! That's why we may appear to be a social(ist) catch-all,

Sharon Langridge said...

Thanks for posting this, Simon.
(No coherent response from me at this time, but I have warm feelings in response to your and Craig's posts.)

Beth said...


Thanks for posting this! I has inspired me to write a blog posting on the topic - in response to this post with lots of quotes from your post (and citing it back to you of course)

I find the whole topic fascinating! I have felt the call to minster several times this year and have truely felt moved by the Light to do so.

forrest said...

We have the opposite of your problem (My Meeting is too small and too silent!) but what you say about it speaks to me as well.

"Concern" being a rather technical term in Quakerese, wouldn't "guidance" be a clearer statement of what is really involved? I am "concerned" about a great many difficult or unpleasant facts, but any effective response to these demands more than that; I need to be alert to hints and proddings of what (if anything) Spirit wants from me.

crawlingfromthewreckage said...

The silence itself is everyone's ministry. By waiting in the silence you call down upon the place the energy of the Spirit. It is this gracious presence that meets the needs of all hearts. To bring yourself to silence before God is to serve the planet. To invoke the uncreated light within you is to bring balm to troubled hearts and solve problems beyond imagining. Quaker silence is a living and pregnant silence that infuses all hearts, that speaks of eternity whether you know the process of it or not, deeply within us, utterly and wonderfully beyond us. "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of the Most High". Here in my mortal frame I apprehend that which is beyond me, that which is, was and always will be. Here at the start of the meeting, if there is someone troubled, in pain, in perplexity, lift up your hand above your head (either really or metaphorically) and send them the balm, peace and blessedness of the engrafted silence.