Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
While on a private pilgrimage to northwest England several years ago, I was moved to climb Firbank Fell, the hill where the great spiritual movement of Quakerism began. The historical marker said that in 1652 one thousand people had gathered there to hear a sermon by George Fox, a young itinerant preacher. I wondered, as I looked around, why so many people had climbed the steep hill to hear him? Later I discovered that they had come to the market fair at Sedburgh, a nearby village, looking for work at the hiring fair. When they heard that Fox would be preaching on the following day at a church at Firbank Fell, they climbed the hill to hear him. Surely many of them went out of curiosity, yet among them were spiritual seekers. Ordinary people such as yeomen, shepherds, weavers and serving girls, came up the hill bearing a hunger of some kind.
The stone church proved too small to handle the great crowd. George Fox spoke from a huge rock outcropping, now called Fox’s Pulpit, while his listeners gathered below inside a natural amphitheater. Historical reflections from that day tell us that he preached a Gospel sermon of such power that the people were electrified. When they heard his vital message that “Christ has come to teach his people himself,” some became aware of their own spiritual gifts. On that day a portion of them was “gathered as in a net.” They experienced a change of direction, becoming part of a renewed apostolic ministry, and followers of George Fox.
As I stood on Fox’s Pulpit, my eyes traveled westward over the endless Yorkshire hills until I could see, in my mind’s eye, a tall white meetinghouse shining in the distance. I was seeing our yearly meeting gathering place on Quaker Lane on the Illinois prairie. Suddenly I understood that we 21st century Friends are the direct heirs of the original vision of the early Friends of England. When Fox saw “a great people to be gathered,” he was speaking about us.
At Firbank Fell a brave group of men and women became valiant traveling ministers, who, upon hearing the Gospel message, took off to share it in distant places in the world. We know that a powerful religious movement was born on that day, carrying those ordinary people to places they never intended to go. If we 21st century American Friends are the remnant of this great wave of Christian faith, how are we fulfilling the founding vision of George Fox? What is the meaning of our Quaker faith today?
In America today our sense of spiritual fellowship in Liberal meetings, the feeling of belonging to the same tribe, is diminishing. We no longer live in the same communities, and we come from diverse faith traditions. Our cultural values are no longer entwined at the roots, as were those of our founders. As a body we share less genetic and cultural memory of what it means to be Quakers. Different viewpoints often prevent us from looking in the same direction to find a point of convergence. We hold beliefs ranging from Buddhism to non-theism to Christianity, or we may simply be ethical humanists. Just imagine a mixture of wild seeds cast into a single plot of land, producing a profusion of color. A wide variety of plants all blooming together symbolize our present condition in the Religious Society of Friends. Discerning which is a wildflower and which is a weed is not easy. We are living a great experiment of religious diversity.
What do we have in common now? Unprogrammed Friends often share a mystical way of knowing and a deep love of silence. They uphold the testimonies of simplicity, peace, equality, integrity and community by honoring them with their lives. These Quaker values attracted many seekers to Quaker meetings, keeping them connected to the traditions of Quakerism. Yet it is also true that 21st century Quaker meetings have become more like independent churches without a strong link between them. Some do not have any direct contact with neighboring meetings, resulting in isolation and stagnation. A small percentage of the members may participate in wider Quaker groups, leaving the majority at home without any direct connection.
As I have traveled across the United States, I have discovered discontent and troubled silence in many meetings. Spiritual hunger has led people to join Friends meetings seeking after spiritual depth. Sometimes that hunger leads them away again when they do not find it. Newcomers may find that we cannot explain our core beliefs or that we tend to suppress discussion of our religious principles for fear of arousing conflict. People who have a limited understanding of basic Quaker traditions have replaced the solid Quaker elders whom I encountered when I first attended a Quaker meeting. Who is helping to shape the contours of our life as Friends today?
I hear fewer people any longer referring to the founding vision of Quakers and the core Christian beliefs upon which our life is grounded. Quakers of old were not intolerant of differing points of view, but they had their own place to stand. Jesus’ message was interpreted by Friends to be universal and inclusive based on the message “Love one another.” Early Friends were a community of people who shared the same set of Christian beliefs and practices. These communal values have been largely lost in our era. Now we have a diverse set of patterns. What are we teaching our children about our faith?
Today the chief characteristic of many liberal meetings is intellectual independence. For some newcomers, a Quaker meeting may appear to be a place to meet people who share their particular political viewpoint. In recent years the search for a common faith practice has often been replaced by an unspoken doctrine of individualism. Rather than being willing to labor to find common ground, differences often suppressed in order to keep an uneasy peace. When an important issue arises, the hidden differences are often revealed resulting in open conflict.
One example of a commonly suppressed conflict, which I have witnessed in many meetings, is between wounded people who have left fundamentalist Christian churches and Liberal Christian Friends. The former Christians are sometimes troubled by hearing Christ-centered messages offered in the meeting for worship, and their temperamental reactions cause the Christians to be silent. When there is no open discussion of these theological differences, conflicts become an underground fire, quietly burning until triggered by an event or person.
When these eruptions occur within a monthly meeting, it is time to call for a midwife. The spiritual midwife is someone invited into the community who can serve as a guide, coach or healer. The role of the midwife is to initiate the laboring process and then to leave the remaining work to be completed by the community. Laboring is an old Quaker term, which has fallen into disuse. In the spiritual sense, laboring refers to the willingness to work face-to-face to solve a problem or dispute with the understanding that God will find an opening. This process is only one part persuasion; it is equally listening to one another’s differences and allowing the Spirit to open a new direction until the Truth emerges.
As Friends we are being called to seek “the third way.” I believe now is the time to start by inviting the midwives to enter into labor with us. We are called to find another pathway than one of avoidance or suppression. Are we willing to be healed?
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I have read what you have written Maurine, several times. Much of it is uplifting. Sadly however, it reflects very much what is taking place within Quakerism in Great Britain. But you seem to be describing a community which is dispersing, whereas here, Britain Yearly Meeting is becoming a centralising body- a sort of politburo- trying to hold together people so diverse in their views that nobody really seems to know what anybody else believes anymore.
My feeling is that we should look back to the vision of early Friends; put aside our reliance on all centralising bodies, and aim to be simply the Body of Christ on Earth.
I write these words having spent some time yesterday at a Monthly Business Meeting. The mundane concerns, jostling for power and influence, and fixation on "selling ourselves" by way of gimmicks, makes such events more painful as each month goes by. We were given badges and told that we should wear them and distribute them to other Friends. They read " I'm a Quaker. Ask me why ".
What next: balloons and a band? Perhaps we should just go back to Firbank Fell and remember the words there. " Let yours lives preach ".