The Word of the Lord

Is a Minute of a Quaker meeting the Word of the Lord, like the Bible? If we say the Spirit moves us to speak in Ministry, then arguably it is. But the Bible is self-contradictory, including different perspectives, and a growth in spiritual understanding. It is filtered through the minds of humans (there are arguments that some passages are by women) who confess to see “through a glass, darkly”.

I think Christine AM Davies in her Swarthmore Lecture coined the term “God’s loving purposes”. God’s Will sounds Eternal and unchanging, but we seek God’s will for us, now. Our understanding grows, as we continually return to matters: London Yearly Meeting in 1727 censured the importing of Black slaves; in 1758 warned Friends against profiting from the slave trade; in 1761 recommended that any who persist in the slave trade be disowned, and in 1772 approved work to stop others trading slaves. In 1793 LYM minuted, “we desire that Friends may never suffer the cause [of anti-slavery] to cool on their minds”. At last, Friends were campaigning enthusiastically as a Society, but it had taken decades, during which some Quakers had been slave traders. I found these minutes quoted in the Book of Discipline of 1861, the year the American Civil War started.

Meeting for Sufferings in 1987 moved towards supporting a “celebration of commitment” of gay couples in Meetings. The minute records the difficulties: “The acceptance of homosexuality distresses some Friends”. Not personal displays of affection during Meeting for Worship, not even gay relationships, but homosexuality itself. The distress may linger: 16.07 explicitly requires registering officers to officiate at gay marriages. I am sad that such a rule may be necessary, even though I have heard it has been used about a straight marriage: responsibility for discerning that a marriage should take place is the AM’s and not the registering officer’s.

The Minute from YM 2009 has the line “marriage is the Lord’s work and we are but witnesses,” taken from Ministry from a Friend previously Biblical in his opinion on equal marriage. It also says “we have been reminded of the need for tenderness to those who are not with us who will find this change difficult.” What difficulty would they suffer? They would have felt that their particular understanding of God and the Bible was shared among Friends. For whatever reason, acceptance of gay people’s relationships has acquired enormous symbolic power in many Churches as well as among Friends, to divide some Friends who feel they respect God’s Will from those of us who accept God may match gay couples. Could God’s Will be different for different Yearly Meetings? Yes. Community and tradition have value, we all have our blind spots. We know only in part, and we prophesy only in part.

As clerk, there is one minute I drafted which I regret in particular, when I brought the matter to a close prematurely and picked one side in a dispute. The hurt of the dispute continued. I also recorded a minute where it seemed to me there was no particular opposition to spending money in a particular way, but no Pentecostal sense of the Will of God either. Months later a Friend spoke against the decision at an AM. A new clerk wrote a minute showing agreement, and the Friend did not challenge the minute; I am grateful for my Friend’s forebearance, and feel we might have reached consensus rather than Unity. A Friend may oppose a Minute, yet once it is recorded support it as the Leading of the meeting; and there was enough for those dealing with the project to go ahead.

I drafted just one minute recording different views- some say this, but some say that; I was careful to record the reasons, positively, as well as I could in the words used in ministry, and I was helped by Friends suggesting amendments to my draft. We resolved the issue at the next AM.

I am aware of a Friend resigning membership because of the way a decision was made, seen to be forced through based on what he thought was another’s misapprehension. We are fragile, sometimes, and we can be stiff-necked.

Not every Friend is a left-liberal social justice warrior (mostly clicktivist, in my case) like me. At Friends House I saw a man reading the Telegraph! I even know a Friend who voted to Leave! It is comforting to imagine ones Friends think the same way, and we don’t always. We adopted in 1793 “the cause of our fellow-men, the oppressed black people,” and now some of us are waking up to the lingering oppression. Hence the term “woke”.

Considering minute 33 of Yearly Meeting in London 2019, I don’t think we are all “seeking to become aware of the unseen and unspoken chains that bind us”, and particularly not through the lens of the concept of privilege. I love the idea that We must learn our weaknesses and those of our Friends to live with one another. I think we sensed our weakness and division. I hope we can carry along any who do not recognise this concept of privilege, and particularly those who feel their disprivilege is minimised compared to that of others. White privilege exists [download pdf from 1989, then consider a reassessment from 2018]. Possibly starting with class privilege would be good: our privilege can change over time, we will be privileged and disprivileged in different ways, we can share experiences, get to know each other, and learn; though even then we will hear challenging things. Should women talk about male privilege amongst themselves, before doing it in a mixed sex group?

This is not the only area of work where particular Friends have a particular calling, and other Friends are uninvolved. But we have a Minute recording our calling. One of our rules is that we need good reason to reopen a decision once minuted, and in 2017 we decided,

We have heard the call to examine our own diversity, particularly in our committee and organisational structure, locally and nationally. Diversity has several key dimensions and more may emerge in the future. We ask Meeting for Sufferings to look at how we can remove barriers and actively seek wider participation in the full life of our meetings, paying particular attention to race and age diversity. Then in our epistle we wrote, We need to recognize our own selfishness and privilege: to be changed ourselves, to live as if the Kingdom of God were already fulfilled. Our YM minutes have always exhorted us.

2 thoughts on “The Word of the Lord

  1. “I even know a Friend who voted to Leave” is too light a way to speak of the way in which a strong and opinionated minority in the Society have used the issue you write about, our inability to progress until unity is found, to stymie Friends action on the current political climate. That no Area meeting has brought a minute campaigning on this subject because Friends are afraid to talk about the differences that creates, shows how our own processes can work against us. Like the Friends of the 18th century, the Society is turning inwards to self examination when we should be turning outward to oppose evil, now, before it is too late.

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    • “Evil” is too dark a way. I find Brexit merely destructive, and some of the people guiding it frightening, but not those Quakers I know who voted for it. And I think privilege, inclusion and identity are useful foci for the Society now, to help us cleanse ourselves for the work to be done. Brexit is too large and too political for us to have a single view, but identity is part of it. And lightness is one of my characteristics.

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