Library: J.W. Rowntree “A study in ecclesiastical polity”

01/03/2019 § 2 Comments

I am starting to add new things to Amor Vincat‘s Library page, and I hope (once again!) that this will become a more regular feature of this blog.  The next several additions will draw from the Victorian Quaker authors that were formative for me, and that I think still offer important food for thought. Here’s one from John Wilhelm Rowntree.

Leading British Friends in the 19th and early 20th centuries took a keen interest in the developments in American Quakerism – the separations of 1827, 1845, and after; the various efforts at re-unification or association such as the Richmond Declaration, the Five Years Meeting, and Friends General Conference; and the evolution of practice going on in most groups.

The new, liberal leaders were aided, and perhaps inspired, by the advent of Rufus Jones, who found a deep kinship with these contemporaries (some of them younger than he).  Jones brought to his British contacts a kindred desire to renew the Quaker voice, and the ministry, for the times (post-Darwin, globalizing, Social Gospel, and so on), fed by his experience in Quaker ecumenism, and his growing study of Christian mysticism and modern psychology (think William James, not Sigmund Freud).   Some of the British Friends of that generation spent considerable time among American Friends, trying (to use John Woolman’s words) to understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them.

John WIlhelm Rowntree (1868-1905) was one of these. His studies of the American scene were shaped by his belief that one of the causes of Quakerism’s decline was the decline of the ministry. In this, he was joined by most of his contemporaries, and some of their elders (such as Rowntree’s uncle, John Stephenson R., from whom we shall hear in future).  He was therefore fascinated by the American experiments with leadership, and the rise of the pastoral system with all its complexities.  In parallel with those experiments, and in part stimulated by them, British Friends were doing their own experiments.  Some of these sound rather like things some modern Friends (for example in New England) are doing for outreach.  (See here and here for example.)

Rowntree in this essay reflects on American developments (around the turn of the last century), on their potential value, and their congruence with his own understand of the Quaker message.  His tone is respectful, sympathetic, open-minded, but judicious.  I encourage you to read it and discuss it — here on the comments, or amongst your friends.

NOTE:  In past Library posts, I have not succeed in inserting a link from this page to the item in question, so please go to my Library, and look for the piece there.

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§ 2 Responses to Library: J.W. Rowntree “A study in ecclesiastical polity”

  • Bill Samuel says:

    To some extent, developments were parallel in the USA and UK. Programmed meetings developed in both places. In the USA, these were generally led by pastors who over time were usually paid, so they assumed other roles common among Protestant pastors in addition to the teaching role which was the original motivation. Also in the USA, certain yearly meetings became all of mostly pastoral, while others were all or mostly unprogrammed. While the difference often followed the schism lines, to some extent it crossed the lines. Orthodox Friends, even those not Conservative or Wilburite, included some unprogrammed meetings. And Hicksite Friends were not totally immune from the pastoral move. For example, for several decades, both the Hicksite and Orthodox meetings in Baltimore had Pastoral Secretaries who operated very similarly.

    In the UK, Rowntree notes 48 programmed evening fellowships when he wrote. The difference was that the Yearly Meeting barred having settled pastors, and always insisted on the unprogrammed meeting being the official worship, and the programmed being in the evening. And the YM by and large kept together. In some cases, the real meeting in practice, however, was the programmed one. When I took a Quaker Tour of England with John Punshon, we visited a meeting where the meeting hall had a lectern and a placard for posting the hymn numbers. The meeting representative told us that the official unprogrammed worship in the morning usually had 2-3 attenders, and the evening programmed meeting about 25. The restrictions meant that there never developed a class of pastors creating the kind of clergy/laity distinction which came to exist de facto although often not de jure in many American pastoral meetings. It also made it hard to keep the programmed meetings going and they dwindled over time.

    What I have noted in the USA in the past 50 or so years is that many unprogrammed Friends have adopted practices to bring in some things that pastoral Friends experience in a different way. There has been a burgeoning of adult religious education, not only local meeting based, but on regional and yearly meeting levels. This provides the teaching which is generally a major role of pastors in pastoral meetings. In many of the meetings, there are now regular periods of singing, often adjacent in time to the official meeting for worship, so the old unprogrammed abhorrence of organized music has largely disappeared. And there has been growing use of a time for sharing joys and concerns, either just before or just after the close of worship, which is similar to the prayer times common in pastoral worship. I think these partly address some of the concerns Rowntree had about the weaknesses in nonpastoral meetings. (I know little about what’s happening in the UK, although I do know that there has been some of the same tendency towards greater adult RE.)

    At the same time, although far less widespread, in a number of pastoral meetings there has been greater use of open worship.

    I left Friends because of the lack of emphasis on Jesus Christ in meetings in my area, but I have found that some of the strengths of Friends ways are found in different manifestations elsewhere. My current church is non-pastoral and uses Quaker business processes, but does not look like an unprogrammed meeting. Membership is taken much more seriously than among Friends today, and in fact admission to full covenant membership is considered to be an ordination to the ministry. All members are ministers, and the clergy-laity distinction is firmly rejected.

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    • briandrayton says:

      Thanks for this, Bill. It’s precisely the parallels between Then and Now that caught my eye. Rowntree was longing for (and working assiduously for) a renewed ministry, precisely because of the weaknesses in unprogrammed worship at the time, and his suspicion that the “arrangements” had unconsidered consequences for the Quaker Christian testimony. I think it’s a good “debate” to have in our times as well.

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