One cost of our theological diversity

02/10/2019 § 23 Comments

The theme of the December 2018 issue of Friends Journal was “Quakers and Christianity.” I enjoyed it very much, and I can tell from subsequent letters columns that it was carefully read by Friends of many theologies — so I suspect it has made many good conversations possible.

In reflecting on my experience as a Friend who is Christian, I became aware of one aspect of the experience of being a Christian Quaker that was not addressed, and that is, the ways in which the diversity in our meetings can inhibit spiritual growth.

This reflection arose, I think, because of the principle emphasis, in the articles, on individual belief.  This is, of course, an important part of the picture — but it’s not the whole picture.  Now, Elizabeth Boardman (page 31) does place herself (as a post-Christian, post-theist Friend) in the kaleidescope of her meeting’s diversity:

Almost everyone looks for a community to belong to. Some will adhere to a group that hates and hurts other people, and they should be urged to change their ways. My own tribe, the unprogrammed Quakers, lets others go their own ways, respected and unharmed. Operating primarily in an “adult” mode, Quakers even let me follow my own path as a post-Christian and post-theist. I am grateful.

In this passage, the meeting’s gift to Elizabeth Boardman is spiritual hospitality, in the form of an unpressing acceptance.  I know that she speaks for many, and this hospitality has allowed many to seek, grow, and change over the years.

I have to say, however,  that being a Christian in a liberal, hospitable meeting can feel lonely sometimes.  Since Christianity has occupied a position of cultural power in Western civilization, it is no wonder that people who feel no connection to it could be irritated, disturbed,  or otherwise bothered by Christian Quakers, and I have known times when it was clear that speaking as a Christian was “not done.”  I have known others who have been put down for doing so, though I have mostly not experienced that.

But this is not the point I want to make.  Rather I am aware that a certain level of fellowship or companionship is missing.  It can take a lifetime, I find, to explore the implications and meaning of the gospel life, to experience such a renewing of the mind that one can grow into the life of Christ, see and learn to honor the Sophia of God, the Logos in its appearing in humans, and in creation, and  in ourselves in our measure.  Fellowship with others who are following that same path ( a path “traditionally held by Friends”) is nourishing, stimulating, and educative in, well, particular ways.  Fellowship with earnest seekers who understand their paths differently is also precious, and indeed necessary — but not the same.

Now,  I love where the life of God is springing up in my Friends and anyone else in which  I am graced to feel it, and give thanks for their faithfulness and clarity, which often exceeds mine (“Not everyone that says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those that do the will of my Father that is in Heaven”).  I am grateful, and not surprised,  when I feel us gathered into the Presence that is beyond words and names.

Yet when I find myself with a friend or in a meeting where there is a common acceptance of Jesus’ invitation (“Take my yoke upon you and learn of me.”), so that we can explore together our experience as learners in the school of Christ, I feel a sense of relief, and opening, which is strengthening, refreshing, and instructive, and I think, What if my meeting were such a community?  It would not be a utopia, surely;  not without conflict, or confusion, or even sin. There would, however, be possibilities for mutual comfort, encouragement, and challenge that come from having a shared language.

When I have been in a situation where English not the principal language spoken, I have been able (in my degree) to communicate in the other idiom, and there is deep pleasure in doing so, but it can be hard work.  It is also notoriously true that there are some things which come very close to the heart that are difficult to share across language boundaries — some kinds of humor, for example; or poetry.


Active Quaker quietists not a paradox

01/31/2019 § Leave a comment

“Quietism” has been the commonest label applied to Quakerism between about 1700 and about 1800 (with tails both before and after those times). The basic idea can be summed up in the phrase “God is most where Man is least” — that is, Quietism assumes that the initiative for spiritual growth or reconciliation is on God’s side, and we humans should strive to remove our egos, our needs & hopes, and otherwise clear away anything “worldly” that hinders our perception of The Pure. Isaac Penington speaks from this place:

Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that, and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is his portion. And as thou takest up the cross to thyself, and sufferest that to overspread and become a yoke over thee, thou shalt become renewed, and enjoy life, and the everlasting inheritance in that.

There are plenty of Quakers (and others, of course) for whom this speaks their mind, and in very many contemplative and meditative practices, there are disciplines for stilling the mind, the shouting ego voice, the needs and anxieties of the flesh and the self, so that at least for a time we are able to feel, relatively unobstructed, the presence of the divine.  Indeed, in roughly the same era as the “quietist period” in Quakerism, there was a strong quietist movement in continental Catholicism.  Friends were very aware of this, and some Catholic quietist classics were kept in print for many years by Quaker publishers.

This movement in Quakerism was seen as a response to the achievement of religious toleration and the gradual cessation of the intense persecutions of the Restoration era in England.  Friends were grateful for the relief, and turned their energies to the elaboration and protection of a Quaker culture, and the building and maintaining of a “hedge” against the Outer World.   As the current book of Faith and Practice of New England Yearly Meeting has it,

During this period a “Quietist” spirit dominated Friends’ worship.  Friends were less concerned with evangelism or making converts than wiht preserving good internal order.  Quaker ministers stressed introspection, silent waiting, obedience to the Divine, and avoidance of “creaturely activity” or actions based purely in human will or desire.

This condition of Friends is in stark contrast, in the usual narratives, to the heroic, prophetic, turbulent First Publishing of Truth in the period roughly 1648-1689.  It is also contrasted with the energetic, also turbulent period following, when Friends got increasingly involved with the Outside World, and under the influence of Evangelicalism or The Enlightmenment, they split into factions, and each group, one way or ‘t other, climbed over or removed the hedge, until we arrived at Modern or even PostModern Quakerism.

Yet the reflective historian will often remark that during this Quietist period, Friends were very active in many ways — in business and industry, for example, in advocacy for various causes, in the building of Quaker institutions, and even (to some degree) in science (thanks, John Dalton!).   This activity is seen as somehow presenting a paradox.   How could Friends square all this outward activity (both the self-interested and the philanthropic) with all that retirement and stillness?

I have never thought there was a paradox, myself.  In the first place you can find lots of very Quietist statements about suppressing the self and making way for God’s initiative, in the writings of some of the original band of Quaker pioneers.  Here is Nayler (from a 1653 epistle to Friends around Holderness):

And now, dear Friends, here is your peace and blessedness, that you silence all flesh, and cease from your own wisdom, and give over your imaginations about the things of God… And now stand in the light, that a separation may be made in you, the precious from the vile, that a new Saviour may arise…sink down into the sufferings and death, that you may find the door whereat to enter; for there is a vale of tears to pass through. You shall find your wellsprings in him, where you shall drink of the water of life, and find refreshment, and grow from strength to strength, till you come up to Sion.

Much similar might be found in this first generation’s writings.  Reading this kind of thing, you might be surprised at the prophetic strenuousness of Nayler and his companions (male and female) from this early time — and yet they were anything but passive.

Now, while there are important historical and cultural differences between the rugged northern pioneers of the 1650s, and the settled Friends of the early 1700s,  it’s not as though the theology was completely different. The Light they followed, the Seed into which they were exhorted to sink, were the same: Christ, alive and about the ministry of reconciliation.

And this, I think, is something that modern Friends forget, when they think about the Friends of the so-called Quietist time, and compare them to the syncretist contemplative practices many of us follow today.  Modern Friends tend to think that when we sink below our selves, “give over our own willing,” and move past words, we are coming to encounter some Divine Principle that is universal, not particular — and sometimes it seems, rather featureless, indeed.

By contrast, Early Friends, and even the Friends of Woolman’s time, humble and retiring and self-abnegating as they might be in their devotions — they were opening themselves to an active, working Someone, Christ alive, whose imperatives for us now are those of the Gospel, which is the power of God to liberation:

Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mt. 20:42-45)

and recognizably in line with the challenge of the prophets of Israel:

 Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow…(Is. 1:11-17).

If in your worship you encounter that Living One, you are in the way of being transformed as Christ is formed in you, and then sent,  in your measure and at God’s pleasure, about God’s work, which is the Lamb’s War against the Man of Sin in all its forms and disguises.  When we ‘center down,” there is in that center the swirling, fecund stillness of creation.  Some quietist practice may lead to withdrawal and non-action.  Quaker quietism, at least (and it has been true of at least some other kinds of quietists as well) cannot do  that and be faithful to its Lord.



P.S. I append here something from William Penn which may be of interest.  It is from No Cross, No Crown, and Quakers may recognize at least one bit in section XII:

XI. Nor is a recluse life, the boasted righteousness of some, much more commendable, or one whit nearer to the nature of the true cross: for if it be not unlawful as other things are, it is unnatural, which true religion teaches not. The Christian convent and monastery are within, where the soul is encloistered from sin.

And this religious house the true followers of Christ carry about with them, who exempt not themselves from the conversation of the world, though they keep themselves from the evil of the world in their conversation. That is a lazy, rusty, unprofitable self-denial, burdensome to others to feed their idleness; religious bedlams, where people are kept lest they should do mischief abroad; patience per force; self-denial against their will, rather ignorant than virtuous: and out of the way of temptation, than content in it. No thanks if they commit not what they are not tempted to commit. What the eye views not, the heart craves not, as well as rues not.

XII. The cross of Christ is of another nature; it truly overcomes the world, and leads a life of purity in the face of its allurements; they that bear it are not thus chained up, for fear they should bite; nor locked up, lest they should be stolen away: no, they receive power from Christ their captain, to resist the evil, and do that which is good in the sight of God; to despise the world, and love its reproach above its praise; and not only not to offend others, but love those that offend them: though not for offending them. What a world should we have if every body, for fear of transgressing, should mew himself up within four walls!

No such matter; the perfection of the Christian life extends to every honest labour or traffic used among men. This severity is not the effect of Christ’s free spirit, but a voluntary, fleshly humility: mere trammels of their own making and putting on, without prescription or reason. In all which it is plain they are their own lawgivers, and set their own rule, mulct, and ransom: a constrained harshness, out of joint to the rest of the creation; for society is one great end of it, and not to be destroyed for fear of evil; but sin that spoils it, banished by a steady reproof, and a conspicuous example of tried virtue.

True godliness don’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it; not to hide their candle under a bushel, but to set it upon a table in a candlestick. Besides, it is a selfish invention; and that can never be the way of taking up the cross, which the true cross is therefore taken up to subject. But again, this humour runs away by itself, and leaves the world behind to be lost; Christians should keep the helm, and guide the vessel to its port; not meanly steal out at the stern of the world, and leave those that are in it without a pilot, to be driven by the fury of evil times, upon the rock or sand of ruin.

Nurturing ministers: Case study #2

01/07/2019 § 2 Comments

Case Study #1 (here) dealt with an experience of Isaac Alexander, a young minister who was a friend of Samuel Bownas’s.  As we shall see in a future case study, the two young men were friends but also felt themselves close companions in the ministry.

Thus, Samuel took Isaac’s experience of concern and eldering very seriously, as he recounts:

When I heard of this affair, I took it so much to heart that it was almost too much for me, and a concern came upon me to go to London with the like message, but with this caution; first, to advise with some faithful brethren before I delivered it: and I wrote to Isaac to let him know it, which gave him great ease.

Isaac’s vision of a “great mortality” as punishment for the nation’s unfaithfulness reflected a sentiment then growing among Friends that people, especially Friends, were “degenerating” — falling away from the righteousness of former times. Young Friends at this time, indeed, would have had parents or grandparents who’d suffered in the great storms of persecution of the 1660s-1680s.  A few of the First Publishers of Truth would have been known or knowable to Isaac (born 1680) and Samuel (born 1676) — William Dewsbury died in 1688, Fox in 1691, and John Burnyeat and Stephen Crisp about the same time;  George Whitehead and Margaret Fell were still living.

Compared with the heroic age of the movement, Quakers around 1700 were able to drowse if so inclined (and Samuel himself was an example of this in his youth).  Some concerned Friends who saw and deplored this shift in spiritual temper responded with an increasing emphasis on right practice, on community accountability and oversight. Straighten up, Friends, and fly right! *

This call for rigor might well have resonated powerfully with young Friends longing for the experience of the Spirit’s power.  If a respected companion (in this case Isaac)  found their concern crystallizing in a mood of prophetic warning, this might well strike another young Friend  (Samuel) as a fresh realization of the truth of the situation, a truly prophetic challenge.

Samuel was nothing if not level-headed and reflective, however.  He felt the leading strongly enough that he was drawn to move with it.  He wrote to Isaac (who was abiding under the guidance of his meeting, but did not see that he was wrongly led), to let him know that his friend seemed led in a similar way — but mindful of Isaac’s experience, he decided to consult more experienced Friends first, before crying Woe! on London.

Accordingly I went to London, and got sundry brethren together, viz. James Dickinson, John Bowstead, Peter Fearon**, Benjamin Bangs, Robert Haydock, and some others, and gave them a plain and honest account how it came upon me, which was not till after I heard how my dear companion was returned home from Bristol; adding, that I had acquainted Isaac how it was with me, that he might know my sympathy with him.

Often, when Bownas refers to “the brethren,” he means ministers.  This list of advisors is all ministers, and some of them (Dickinson, Fearon) came to Friends and public service during the times of persecution.  They would have had long experience with the challenge of discernment that all Friends know, but which is particularly sharp for the minister.  On the one hand, it is important not to do anything to damage people’s faith in the gospel, by extravagance or the indulging of strictly personal impulses (How often did ministers quote, to themselves or others, passages such as “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran; I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.” Jer 23:21)

On the other hand, a minister must always be ready to be sent on an errand of a different kind than they have been given before, that may be a stretch and a sign of new growth — and discomfort to both the speaker and the hearer may (or may not!) be evidence of Truth striking home.  You have to bear in mind the temptation not to rock the boat, to listen to the voices of ease that “say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits.”  (Is. 30).

So these experienced ministers would know the dilemma that Samuel was encountering (self or the Spirit?), and the many possible sources of a message — and would regard it both with rigor and with sympathy, taking care that the young minister’s growth not be harmed by ill-doing or by unfair or harsh rebuke — and also that Friends and society at large not be harmed by a mistaken Cassandra.  The warning Samuel was feeling nudged to give might, of course, be just what is needed, a mark of God’s concern for an erring people.  But how to tell the true from the false leading?

The Friends… found there was a strong sympathy between us, and very justly supposed that to be the moving, if not the only, cause of the concern I was under, and very tenderly advised me to keep it in my own breast till I found how the Lord would order it; for, if he were the author, I should find more of it; if not, it would die of course [i.e. in due course]: but if I found it grew upon me, I should let any of them know it, and they would consider what steps to take in a matter of so great consequence, as going forth in a prophecy of that nature.

The guidance the brethren was designed both to address the question on point (“Shall I go prophecy an impending divine punishment or not?”) and to help Samuel understand some of the dimensions of the challenge of boldness vs. meekness that is the living minister’s lot.  Sympathy between ministers was a well-known phenomenon, and often it was a source of strength and daring, but it could also be a source of mistakes, if the F(f)riends happen to reinforce each others’ wrong ideas.

They brought the leading to the test that Gamaliel recommends in Acts 5:

if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought. But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.

In other words, they recommended watchful patience.  Hugh Barbour, in his tract “Five tests for discerning a true leading” (you can get it here), writes:

Patience. As a second test, elders warned Friends to sit with their leadings for a while in patience. Self-will is impatient of tests. Fox wrote, “Be patient and still in the power and still in the light that doth convince you, keep your minds unto God . . . If you sit still in the patience which overcomes in the power of God, there will be no flying.”

The story does not end with the giving of advice.  They kept watch with the young minister, so as to support his discernment:

the fatherly kindness they shewed me was very affecting to me, one or other of them making it their business to visit me every day; and, as they said, I found the concern went off, and I became easy without publishing it.

The Quaker journals in many places point out the danger that can come of encouraging a Friend to “come along” faster than they are ready to, to take on more responsibility or status than they have yet grown into (as John Griffith said, the effect on him, in his early ministry was to make him like a tree that grows too much in the crown, with too little in the root).  On the other hand, you don’t want to thwart the work of the Spirit, and harm someone’s service (“A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench.” Is. 42).  So patience and watchfulness are virtues as important for the community as for the individual.  As Lewis Benson wrote, “the work of the ministry is real work” — for the meeting as well as the individual.

It is probably not coincidental that Samuel Bownas, treated with direct and sensitive guidance in his infancy as a minister, carried all his life a tender concern to encourage other ministers, so that their service was as helpful, wholesome, living,  as possible.

I conclude this long meditation with a few lines from William Penn:

my beloved and much honoured brethren in Christ, that are in the exercise of the ministry:  Oh! feel life in your ministry — let life be your commission, your well-spring and treasury… else you well know, there can be no begetting to God, since nothing can quicken or make people alive to God, but the life of God; and it must be a ministry in and from life, that enlivens any people to God. …and Oh! that there were more of such faithful laborers in the vineyard of the Lord! Never more need since the day of God. 


  • * It occurs to me to wonder if this appeal to orthopraxy has anything in common with the widespread idea nowadays (at least among liberal Friends) that it is Quaker practices that are  our unifying characteristic, rather than our faith, in a time of pluralism and confusion. Is this our Stillstand?
  • ** Peter Fearon was the husband of another valued minister, Jane Fearon. She features in the strange episode entitled “A memorable instance of divine guidance and protection,” in which she and James Dickinson (note his presence in Samuel’s story) were nearly captured and cannibalized in the wilds of Scotland.  I will post the story soon, though an exciting version can be found in L. V. Hodgkin’s
    Sparks among the stubble, a companion to her Book of Quaker Saints.

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.

Nurturing ministers, Case study #1

12/28/2018 § 5 Comments

Case Study #1: Isaac Alexander predicts a great mortality

My first case study is drawn from the Journal of Samuel Bownas.  Early in his ministry, which began around 1696, Samuel Bownas developed a strong sense of kinship with Isaac Alexander (1680-1705), who “appeared in the ministry” about the same time as Bownas did.  Bownas’s journal portrays them learning about their work in the ministry, and comparing notes with each other.

In Bownas’s account, early in their ministry, Isaac goes to a “yearly meeting” (see here for some background on this term), and finds himself led to offer challenging ministry. He forthrightly accused them of slackness and unfaithfulness. This message in itself might have been unsettling or irritating, but would not have been unusual, as Friends since the Toleration act (1689) had responded to the (mostly) end of persecution by building lives and doing business, and the militancy of prior years faded.  Isaac, however, felt led to predict that continued unfaithfulness would bring on calamity, and Bristol Friends were taken aback.

Isaac [Alexander] went to Bristol yearly meeting, and was very zealous against unnecessary fashions and superfluities in both sexes; insomuch, that some thought he did, in his words against them, exceed the bounds of modesty:the chief objection was, concerning his prophesying of a great mortality, which the Lord was about to bring as a judgment upon the people, for their pride and wickedness; which he thought it his duty to deliver in their yearly-meeting, as a warning for all to mind their ways, lest being taken unprepared, their  loss should be irreparable: which he did in such strong and positive terms, that Friends were afraid he was too much exalted in himself…

The intensity and certitude with which Isaac spoke moved some elders to wonder about the source of the message, and so they undertook to explore the question with Isaac.  Note that they came to him with an attitude of caution, but also of inqury.  What would that conversation have been like?  I imagine that there would bave been a spoken and an unspoken element.

Aloud, they would be asking him questions about the message itself but even more about how he felt before, during, and after the message.  Was there a moment during the preaching when he felt himself pushing beyond what was given to him?  Did he feel any uneasiness when this material arose?  Was he feeling anger, or disdain, or some other judgmental condition, or did he feel rtuly that he was remaining in the cool stream of divine love which should be present at the heart of a message?  When he sat down, did he feel the reward of peace, or did he rather feel some sense of discomfort or rebuke?  Were his answers open, or defensive?

The unspoken part of the conversation would be a careful feeling after the young man’s condition.  They would probably have felt, as Luke Howard wrote about Job Scott, that a minister, espeially a yonug one, might show

a perceptible excess on the side of the imagination and the feelings [as] had been the case with many good and useful men before him: and such a temperament makes a minister faithful, or courageous and energetic in the discharge of duty‚ but in measure disqualifies him from being a competent judge of doctrine and controversies.

Thus, they may well have felt that Isaac was on the whole a promising young minister, in need not of suppression, but of guidance towards a better understanding, and thus usefulness in the important work of the ministry.   They reached clarity that he was not at that time in a safe condition, and that he had wandered from th e leading which brought him to Bristol .  Accrodingly,  they sent him home, no doubt annotating his travel minute or otherwise communicating with the ministers and elders there about their sense of this painful event:

some of the elders thought proper to converse with, and examine him concerning this extraordinary message which he had delivered ; but what he said to them not being satisfactory, they advised him to proceed no farther on his journey, but to return home; which he did under great trouble…

When he got home, interestingly,  Isaac was not in the dog house.  Having returned to the meeting that had care of him, and that had reognized his gift, he took up his life and work as before.

he was there received in much love and tenderness, and appeared in his gift very excellent, and grew in Divine wisdom and power, being of great service in the ministry wherever he came.—

This was a time when the meetings of ministers (increasingly augmented by the addition of elders) would engage in explicit conversations about the ministry offered in the meeting, based on a spirit of watchfulness for the presence of “life” in what was offered.  This, I think, should be inferred in the background from the next episode in the story. Isaac once again felt a leading to travel in the ministry. He spoke to some of the meeting’s elders.  They cautioned him not to go — not  categorically, but not until they could consult with Friends in Bristol.  They examined Isaac again, and heard how the event felt to him, and then wrote to Bristol:

And he having a concern to visit the churches abroad, and acquainting some of our elders therewith, they thought it not proper for him to go, till something was done to satisfy the Friends of Bristol; and upon their enquiry of Isaac, he gave them a  single and honest account how it was with him at that time, respecting his concern : so Friends took it in hand, and wrote to Bristol, neither  justifying nor condemning him, but recommended charity and tenderness towards him.

They would not have “recommended charity and tenderness” if their experience of him in the meeting since his return from Bristol had caused any uneasiness in their minds.  The Bristol Friends returned a message

that with open arms they could receive him, believing him to  be a sincere young man, who intended very well; and they were glad he took their admonition right, and had owned it had been of service to him.

Bownas’s summary of the event is interesting.  Isaac in retrospect at the time he did not think that he had mistaken his leading, at least not in the sense of putting too much of self or misplaced zeal into the warnings he uttered.  Yet he nevertheless felt that Briston Friends had treated him appropriately, and he felt he had been treated well, and trusted their discernment.   In the event, he was settled more firmly in his gift and service.

Thus ended this affair, and Isaac said he could not think hard of his brethren  in doing what he did, though he could not then see that he had missed his way, in delivering that prophecy: thus shewing forth a lively instance of a warm zeal, tempered with a due regard to the sense and advice of his brethren and elders, and the unity of the church, which doubtless tended to his comfort and preservation.

This story has a sequel, which will be the subject of the next case study.  I will note here a few points of interest in conclusion:

  • Isaac was exercising his gift as openly, and we might say passionately, as he could — perhaps pushing boundaries to explore the extent of his capacities at this time.
  • He was not surprised that the elders of the meeting he was visiting exercised oversight of his ministry. The brief account suggests that they were not censorious, but when something made them uneasy, they felt it their place to inquire more attentively.
  • A point to note here is that in the “apostolie era” of Quakerism, public Friends were considered to be members of the meetings they visited. This notion continued into the era of separations later, and alas was abused in the midst of controversy. In our case, however, Isaac did not object that the elders of Bristol would have the same care of him as would those in his home meeting, and the Bristol elders exercised their responsibility.  Their caution suggested some understanding that a visiting minister might bring messages, or speak in a manner, to which they were unaccustomed and in a way that is part of the “point” or benefit of such visits, when done in the Spirit).
  • The “elders” at this time (around 1700) would not necessarily have been “elders” in the sense we know it (that is, occupying a specific, identified office). Perhaps Bristol minutes could provide guidance on this point, but it is likely that the term still had the connotation of someone “well grown in the truth.”
  • Isaac maintained a sense of freedom to follow his calling — there is no sense from the account that he came home and kept silent. He carried on with a ministry that was not abrogated by one possible mistake — but I think that if he had responded to the Bristol elders with disrespect, or if he had returned and spoken in anger or defensiveness, the meeting would have seriously questioned whether in that condition he could rightly discern his way.

In the next case, we will see how this one event had ripple effects in Samuel Bownas’s growth as a minister.

Nuturing ministers: Case studies, Intro

12/24/2018 § 1 Comment

As I am working on a revision of my book on the Quaker ministry, I am revisiting historical accounts of times when a minister was given guidance (eldering, oversight, nurture, discipline).

As part of that work, I will from time to time post “case studies” on this blog. These case studies will certainly be of use to me, as I think about my project, but they may also be of interest to others — both ministers, and those who have a care for them.

For each study, I will examine (at least) the following questions:
• What happened? That is, the sequence of events, and some context (e.g. locale, relevant historical details, biographical notes, etc.).

• Who was involved? This includes who’s telling the story, as well as who the story’s about.

• What was the issue, problem, or occasion for the interaction?

• Who initiated the nurture or eldering? Did the minister request guidance, was it an action of a meeting or a private exchange? Was the guidance coming from a contemporary or someone younger or older? If guidance came from individuals (as opposed to a meeting deliberation), is the “advisor” identified as a minister, an elder, or other?

• What was the result? How did the minister respond? What form did the resolution take?

• Points ot interest or applicability for our time and practice? This is the whole purpose of the exercise, after all!

This series will be occasional — that is, I will write them up from time to time. I look forward to comments and replies, and also to suggestions for further use (or stories about how you have made use of the material).

Finally, if you have a story you’d like me to reflect on, OR if you would like to write up a case to post here as a guest blogger, please get in touch.

Advent 2: Desires

12/16/2018 § 2 Comments

In these days when fewer and fewer people in our country (and many others) adhere to a religion (I include here people who profess a religion but do not actually practice it), we see a lively “explain religion” industry — what is the function of this strange phenomenon?  Some look as deeply as our genes for the physical origins of the religious impulse;  others do not presume to have found or to seek the God Gene, but rather see religion as wish-fulfillment, as a reflection of our fear of death, as an evolved mechanism for social cohesion, as an unfortunate by-product of the human nervous system, or as the familiar old “god of the gaps” — the mysterious X to which is attributed all the stuff that Science has not yet explained.

No doubt there are many cases in which each of these proposed origin myths  “fits” to one degree or another.  I am not qualified to speak about origins.  All I can say is that they don’t describe my experience — and I assume that this is so for very many people across cultures and religions.  I didn’t go looking for it, nor did anyone ever say to me, when I was a child, “Do this to accomplish these ends” — not even “Do this if you want us to think you are a good boy.”  I was free to practice or not, and my family was no more than nominally religious

My experience derives from my experience of the Presence from early childhood.  It has never come at my instigation.   I can be more or less receptive or available to intimations and sensations of that Presence, and I have learned that it is never far away.  It flows “beneath” daily activities, and through them;  feels like something alive and nourishing, demanding and humble, communicative and (almost) incommunicable.

And my religious practice, at bottom, derives from desire,  the desire to stay in that presence, to learn its lessons for me, and to live them as I can — or to regain that sense of Presence, when it has been lost, when I have allowed myself to push that arresting guest or companion into the background.

So I have come to believe that the desire for this awesome, precious presence, is the most important resource for any seeker who is sometimes a finder.  Jesus said “blessed are the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst” for the Living Waters, and I think I know what that means, when I keep “low” enough to hear and feel the Word being spoken inwardly, and outwardly from every face, event, plant, animal, landscape, firmament.

The first Friends, those assertive, strenuous, prophetic, fearless children of the Light whose child I also wish to be, knew the power of the yearning and the longing for the Presence, and the joy when it was felt and known — not as fulfilling some function, but as bread and wine, life-blood, and music.

There is no greater resource for you, friend, that the desire for God, whose satisfaction is available to the least “likely.”  God seeks your hospitality, and the lamp that brings you together in the darkness is your longing for the encounter. Mind the hunger, mind the poverty of spirit, mind the child nature that asks with confidence of the Loving One!


To you people the mighty day of the Lord is coming, and in his power is appearing amongst you, in raising desires in some of you towards his name, which desires cannot be satisfied with any outward observations and traditions of your fathers, but above them does your minds rise, in true hunger and thirst towards the living God, for refreshment from his presence…

that is the living word of God within, that has raised desires in you towards God..wait in the light and power within that hath released the desires, and the Lord will then strengthen and give you power to wait on him in the way of his judgments.

To you tender babes and chilldren of the most high, this is the word of the Lord God in whom desires are raised towards his name: his counsel mind in you, and stand faithful in it, according to his word declared to you… in the light and life lift up your heads, and freely give up sould and body to the Lord…to guide you in perfect obedience to his righteous law, written in the heart.

(William Dewsbury, The Mighty Day of the Lord is coming, in which Christ knocks at the door of the heart..)

Waiting, worship: reflection from the first week of Advent 2018

12/09/2018 § Leave a comment

 I beg you, brethren, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies (your selves) a l living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God, your reasonable worship [or “Wordly” worship]; and do not be shaped according to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind towards discovering [demonstrating, testing out] what is God’s intent, good, pleasing, and perfect. Romans 12:1-2.


Advent is about waiting — the experience of longing and expectation for one whom we may barely know, may not recognize at first, may hesitate to give our hearts to:  Are you he that is to come, or look we for another?

Friends always have known that waiting is at the heart of worship in spirit and truth, and that true worship, the place and moment of encounter, is the foundation of the faithfuless in love that we seek.  What are you waiting for, in waiting worship?  Are you, am I, truly waiting?

It is good to ask sometimes whether our waiting, our praying, is profitable, that is, does it keep us moving forward?  Are we changing, in what we do, how we think, how we suffer and rejoice — and even in how we wait?   After all, worship which is a true encounter with the living God was maybe the single most important witness Friends made, at the beginning.

But what is “forward”? Shall we dare to ask each other, tell each other, what is the aim of all our journeying?  After all, as the Cheshire Cat pointed out, your path depends on your destination, and if you have no aim, any way will work:

Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

Without reflecting sometimes on where our seeking tends, what all our waiting is for, we are in danger of aimless motion, or maybe even merely rocking in place, forwards and back, working our way ever deeper into our little hollows and ruts.

We long to invite others to join us (don’t we?), and there is much talk about how to get more effective in sharing “the Quaker way,” but what indeed can we testify to, out of our waiting?  “Way” is ambiguous — it can mean a pathway, or a method, a way of being.  Nowadays, Friends seem more comfortable with talking about their method (praxis), rather than their message.

This is not an idea that is alien to our tradition: Friends preached, in the beginning, that their worship worked, transformed people and through them the world, in contrast to “the world’s worship.”  In the end, it is the effects of our practice that give evidence that we have found something to celebrate, stumbled into a feast to which we can joyfully invite others.  Lacking that, we merely have another lukewarm stone to toss against the cold edifice of a disillusioned, fearful people:

A good man or woman should be ashamed before God and themselves if they realize that God is not in us, that that God the Father is not active in us, but it is rather wretched creatures that act within us, living in us and determining our affections. Thus, King David laments in the psalter, “Tears are my food day and night, while all day long people ask me, ‘Where is your God?'” (Ps.41:3)…. [Ekhart, Book of Divine Consolation].

Yet is “method” meaningful without purpose?  Perhaps “purpose” is not quite right — it smacks too much of the tendency, the temptation,  to dictate to God, to make God in our image, and to worship what will serve our own preferences and what is easy to talk about.

Early monastic writers like John Cassian related practice (askesis) to ultimate purpose (skopos) — if you want to reach a certain goal, some paths head there, and others don’t.  If our aim is a transformed mind (will, purpose, outlook), discovered experimentally as we seek to understand God’s will, that is, the shape we can take in the Divine mind, we will need to be uneasy with the easy, and cultivate a desire to encounter what we do not prefer, maybe cannot well imagine.  Yet this does not mean a random search, a trying of all, or a preference for whatever churns us up  (Lo here! Lo there!).   If our God is one God, then the revelations we have received from before, that have been tested in other lives and times, and borne good fruit, give some orientation for our wandering, can help turn our wandering into pilgrimage, and give some bread for the journey.  Old Simeon, grown aged in waiting for an unknown Reconciler, recognized the child he had been waiting for, once he held him in his arms.

Yet we must not be blind to the strangeness of the message, but recognize the challenge within the invitation:

as you become faithful thereto, you will feel the fruit of that Holy One springing in you, moving to be brought forth in you towards God and man, your faith will grow, and prayers with strong cries to the Father; as the Spirit sees your wants, your love will spring and move in you, and bring forth towards God and man upon all occasions; which if you willingly serve in its smallest motion, it will increase, but if you quench it in its movings, and refuse to bring it forth, it will wither and dry in you, not being exercised.

And it is the like of gentleness, meekness, patience, and all other virtues which are of a springing and spreading nature, where they are not quenched, but suffered to come forth to His praise in His will and time, who is the Begetter thereof, and to the comfort of His own Seed, and cross to the world: And if you be faithful daily to offer up your body as a sacrifice, to bring forth His image, name, and power before His enemies, then what He moves you to bring forth shall be your inheritance, and will daily increase with using (James Nayler How sin is strengthened, and how it is overcome)

Our worship, our waiting worship, is our message, in the end, since in true worship we have a true encounter with the Living One, whose freedom and whose lawfulness are united in the gospel of love, the gospel of peace.

If we have encountered it in power (even in its smallest first appearance), we have something to proclaim that is the root, and the pith, and the fruit, of all our other “testimonies” or claims to the world’s attention, because we will in our measure have a real story  (the new same old story, as “birth” is old, but each birth is new) to tell — how we have come to our senses and are being worked into a new shape, by a power whose ways are open to all.

By our worship, we testify to the world that we are willing, willing to listen, to be gathered, to be led, willing even to be transformed. If out of that willingness we can say “Yes!” to God’s ceaseless initiative, then whether or not we are graced by the experience of a gathered meeting, we can say, with Thomas Kelly, “It was a good meeting.”  (Thomas Gates, Worship).

What are you waiting for?  What have you found?  What has found you? 

Encouraging emerging ministers

12/02/2018 § Leave a comment

I found the following passage (in the preface to James Dickinson’s Journal) challenging and encouraging on several points.

The ministry, (as Samuel Bownas says) is a birth, and at its birth is tender and vulnerable.  It can be nurtured so as to grow in stature, and the individuality of the person unfold in ways that are beneficial to themselves and to their society — or it can not receive the care and welcome that it needs for its good growth.  The best nurture comes from those who respect the mystery of the individual, while remembering what it is like to be fresh-born, and knowing from their own or others’ experience some (at least) of the elements that should be actively available while the child’s development goes forward towards fulness and freedom.

I would also beseech Friends, when it may please God to raise up and qualify any for the work of the ministry, that they do not slight it, nor despise the instruments who may be so concerned, how mean soever they may appear in the eyes of men,  for it is the Lord’s work, who is able to qualify: but be diligently exercised in your minds, that they may feel the help of your spirits for their strength and encouragement,  for the exercise and concern of the true ministers is of more weight to them than some are aware of.

(John Bell, from his  ‘Testimony’ prefaced to the life of James Dickinson, 1744.)

This would be a good passage for meetings on ministry and counsel, or meetings for business, to think about, meditate upon, and consider in relation to their work of spiritual formation.



Updated admin note and request

11/26/2018 § 5 Comments

I realized this morning that this blog has a lot of stuff in it (88 posts times roughly 1,000 words is almost 90K words). Not all of it is of continuing value, but some might be.
To make it easier to search, for anyone who should happen to want to do that, I have finally categorized the posts.

The categories I have are: Bible comment, Quaker history, ministry, theological, Erasmus, epistles, sermons, Quaker practice, and climate change spirituality.

(If anyone wants to know how I define these, just ask.  The two maybe most opaque are “epistles” and “sermons.”  “Epistles” are public letters written under concern to particular groups.  They may be by myself or by someone else.  “Sermons” are rare, but sort of like epistles– I do not usually remember messages I give in meeting, nor do I try to.  Sometimes a Friend will ask me to write something down;  usually I demur. Occasionally, though, it feels right to do so for them.  Rarely,  the message appears to have possible broader use, and I feel led to write/reconstruct it.  Those are the things that I class as a sermon here. )

My questions to you:
1. If you have suggestions for other categories, send them along!
2. I have started bundling some pieces, as pdf documents on a particular theme. If there’s a category or topic that you’d like to see bundled into a document, perhaps lightly edited to make the joints less obvious, let me know!
3. if there’s a particular theme you’d like to see more of, I will be glad to hear about that as well.

Finally, if there’s someone you think might like to read this blog, please let them know about it!
— brian

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