Given their histories, these seem to me to be declarations of testimonies by New England Friends. As a short-hand description, a testimony identifies something that we believe should be characteristic of all practicing Friends in the Yearly Meeting. This is a big deal, and also represents an important spiritual opportunity for individuals and for meetings.
Why is it a big deal? Well, a testimony in Quakerspeak is different from a concern or leading, which is generally an individual development. A testimony represents a fundamental discovery about the nature of divine-human relations, which indelibly marks Quaker faith and practice.
Despite a recent tendency to over-simplify (think SPICE), Friends have made a lot of testimonies, “large” and “small” — on oaths, participation in war, the nature of worship, marriage, gambling, ministry, the equality of the sexes, and so on. These are claims about what Truthful living entails.
Even when we have separated, we have tried to articulate how the new practices of our particular Quaker fragment are somehow consistent with the previous enactments of various testimonies — Think of debates about what it means to be “plain,” or to uphold the Quaker testimonies on worship and the free ministry, or the several successive Quaker orthodoxies about the use of “beverage alcohol. ”
The point is, every Quaker needs to position him/herself in relation to the testimonies, and even in circles where all the theological or doctrinal content has been abandoned, and Quaker identity rests solely on “praxis,” the testimonies one way or another are a major proportion of the praxis that defines one as Quaker. Most of us are in process, with regard to our realization of particular testimonies, but we recognize that they are in some sense an irreducible part of our agenda for growth as Friends.
The two recent statements by the Yearly Meeting have some important hallmarks of testimonies. Perhaps most important, they are top-down statements of intent or wishful thinking, as minutes, alas, so often are. This is because they have come to the Yearly Meeting, and been adopted (accompanied by substantive controversy) because many Friends, and many meetings, over a number of years, have been led by a sense of Truth at the heart of these matters, and struggled with them alone and together. The persistence, or insistence, with which they have seized us is evidence of Life at work (even if we have much to do, to separate that Life from fad, custom, culture, etc.).
Second, they have life because when Friends engage with them, they are challenged, uncomfortable; and recognize that if they stay engaged with them, this engagement will change them in significant ways — spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and practically.
Third, each of them represents a path of growth: one may start with little things, yet cannot well come to the end of them, as further understanding — and further challenge — become evidence the longer one tries to live the testimony.
Finally, all testimonies (and there they overlap with individual concerns held over time) have the potential for integration — for being for you or me a path towards a fuller faithfulness and understanding of the whole Quaker message, and the spiritual processes involved in being transformed, by the renewing of our mind, so that we bring the whole of our lives under the ordering of the Holy Spirit, as the advice has it.
I will return to this last point in my next post, to explore what I see as one great opportunity presented by these actions of the Yearly Meeting — two separate actions, but expressions of the One Lord of Life.