Thursday, 5 February 2015


“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18.20).
'In my name' means 'in the manner which I have shown you', i.e. we need to come together and submit to one another in love, as free and equal persons. It is there that the creativity that is the dynamic of persons in relations is found, and our full potential is realised – i.e. 'that of god in us' is answered and released –  'there am I in the midst of them'. The implication of this is that 'god' is in the relationships, and not a distant patriarchal man in the clouds barking commands, nor the distant mystical 'ground of our being' or 'ultimate reality'.  The ground of our being is actually fully realised personal relationships, and ultimate reality is living a common life.

But if we come together protecting our own individuality, fearful of being truly free, or come together under some external corporate command rather than as equals, then we are lost.

For me 'individual' and 'corporate' are badly loaded words to express this dynamic.
'Individual' implies some attempt to retain our own ego, to seek our own truth, to believe that we can somehow become whole without relationships with other persons, and worse, possibly trying to conjure up some mystical other being to relate to, which being a figment of our imagination, will allow us to retain our ego. The test of our individual leadings is in action in the world, especially in relationships with other persons. The leading points to truth and light to the extent that our relationships improve, and points to darkness to the extent that our relationships deteriorate. This is the locus of individual discernment, not weighing ideas in our heads, but experimentally through action in a world that contains other persons.
'Corporate' implies some form of external control that we submit to. To 'submit to one another in love' is to enter freely into a relationship which treats the other as fully equal, in faith and trust that this will be reciprocated and no constraint will be imposed on us. So we do not submit to dogmas and creeds and teachings of others, not even what is in Quaker Faith and Practice. But neither do we ignore those who have gone before. We are both rooted in the past and growing towards the future, and to ignore the past and the way it has shaped our language and traditions is to cut ourselves adrift and become anything to anyone. Isaac Penington was profoundly right then to insist that each of us is 'not to take things for truths because others see them to be truths, but to wait till the spirit makes them manifest.' (The works of the long-mournful and sorely-distressed Isaac Penington, 1761) for this is the nature of free and equal relationships with those from the past.

In 'What Can We Say?', on Transition Quaker, Craig Barnett, whom I thank for the Penington quote, asks:
“Is corporate Quaker testimony important in your life? How do you see the balance between individual leadings and collective discernment in your meeting, and in the wider Quaker community?”
In 'What Can We Say Today?', in The Friends Quarterly, v41-3, August 2014, Simon Best and Stuart Masters ask:
'Are we a support group for individuals each engaged on their own personal and private spiritual journey or are we a faith community with a corporate life?'
The answer to the question of individual versus corporate is 'both and neither'. The paradox arises, as is usually the case, because the question is incorrectly framed: it is not about 'individual' and 'corporate' but about relationships. To be gathered together as free and equal persons is to be both fully 'individual' and fully 'corporate', but also to let go of self-identity and to let go of the corporate identity, and find our identity in community with one another. It is other people that call us 'Quakers', we call each other 'friends'. A community of free and equal friends sharing a common life discover that authority resides in their relationships with one another, i.e. know 'experimentally' that 'there am I in the midst of them'.

(NB For Christians, and those brought up in western culture who can still retrieve what is good in the message of Jesus past the patriarchal hierarchical homophobic church, the 'I' is 'Christ', but the 'I' can be any understanding of a personal, relational other that we discover in community.)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Well put. Coffee?