Sunday, December 05, 2010

Peter on the Minute of Sending Forth

The annual Sessions of New England Yearly Meeting this year was unusual. The 350th anniversary of NEYM was declared a Jubilee year, and items of business were squeezed into very brief discussions or simply handed down from the clerks’ table in a “unity agenda” for approval without discussion, leaving the bulk of our time together free for “meetings to hear God’s call.”

The week ended with the drafting of a Minute of Sending Forth, which was an attempt to capture succinctly all of the currents of discernment and passion, despair and hope, which had been rising during the week. The minute included a brief statement that had been composed by one of the anchor groups—small groups of a dozen or so that had been meeting in between the gatherings of the entire body. This small, three-paragraph statement proved to be very controversial. It was prefaced with “noting that we as a body cannot claim all these words as our own” and followed by “with pain and regret and gratitude for their faithfulness ... we record that [half a dozen] Friends wish to stand aside from this minute.”

The controversy arose from the opening two sentences of the anchor group statement: “There is only one testimony, and it is the testimony to the transforming power of God. There is only one witness and it is the witness of the body of Christ.” In the context of a liberal Quaker body that included both Christ-centered and non-Christian Friends, it seemed wildly inappropriate to conclude our annual Sessions with a declaration that seemed to say that everyone in the room was Christian and that Christianity is the only true religion.

The clerks would not permit any wordsmithing in the language of the anchor group’s statement, and there was no time, at the end of the week, to compose a statement of our own that would reflect the leadings of the entire body. Their statement was simply cut-and-pasted in, making it look as if it were ours. The minute as adopted was especially painful because it came so close to capturing the essential truth: that we really are one body with one witness, and that in worshiping together, we really are all gathered under one Spirit.

Some Friends angrily stood aside. Enough others were so uneasy that the Minute of Sending Forth ended up saying more about our disunity than about our unity. Me…I kind of shrugged with a feeling of, Oh well, we blew it that time. We’ll do better in the future.

Months passed. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a f/Friend from the Boston area, who had also been at Sessions, was in town and stopped by to have dinner and spend the evening in conversation. Like me, he has a painful history with Fundamentalist Christianity. Like me, he has an appreciation for the universalism and diversity of liberal Friends. And as we were talking about the Minute of Sending Forth and about the anchor group statement, he said two things that got me thinking.

One was that Quakers (at least liberal Quakers) in using phrases like “only one witness and it is the witness of the body of Christ,” mean something very different than Southern Baptists would mean with the same phrase, and he was disappointed that people at Sessions had been unable to trust that the anchor group had been using the phrase in the Quaker sense.

The other was that he was disappointed that those first two sentences were the only part of the anchor group statement that anyone ever talked about. So much of worth later on in the statement was being ignored or completely missed.

Thinking about this, I realized I couldn’t remember a single word of the statement except for those first two sentences. The conversation that night led me to go back and look at it again, first transcribing it into my Lectio Divina notebook and then simply rereading it and sitting with it.

There is only one testimony, and it is the testimony to the transforming power of God. There is only one witness and it is the witness of the body of Christ. There are many pieces of work which will require the particular gifts, ministries, and passions of all of us, because the desire of God for healing and redemption of this blessed creation requires profound change.

We refute the lies of the present situation: the lie that causes movements for transformation to see each other as competitors; the lie that says that social action is spiritually shallow and spirituality is socially passive; the lie that says that war and destruction are inevitable and efforts for change are hopeless; the lie that says we can’t change the world until we have perfected ourselves.

We declare that with God’s help, we stand ready to be agents of transformatory witness to God’s promise. We pray for the wisdom to perceive the patterns of thought and behavior within ourselves which conform to the present darkness. We pray for the strength to take bold, prophetic and concrete action in the world. Some of that action will be local, some global, some individual, some corporate, some immediate, some long-term. For action which is rightly guided, we can trust that we have already the resources required for faithfulness. Use us Lord!


My first reaction to those opening sentences was to simply skip over them. (In fact, it was suggested on the floor of Sessions that the statement be included with the first two sentences removed—a suggestion that was summarily dismissed by the clerks’ table.)

I remember once hearing a Chinese physicist talk about how incredibly difficult it was to write a basic physics textbook in communist China, not because the physics was difficult, but because “you had to have Mao on every page.”

I remember in the weeks and months following 9/11, how antiwar activists wore red, white, and blue and used slogans like “Peace is patriotic,” not because patriotism was forefront on their minds just then, but because you simply couldn’t participate in the conversation about war and peace without first establishing that you loved America.

And I think about how Quakerism came into being in a time of religious wars and religious terrorism. Like patriotism after 9/11, Christianity in the 1600’s was simply a prerequisite to participating in the conversation. Religious freedom, freedom of conscience…these concepts might or might not apply to Puritans or Catholics or Dissenters, but to extend them to Jews or other unbelievers was unthinkable, much the way it was unthinkable for Americans in 2002 to identify with the struggles of Muslim societies to maintain their cultural and religious identities in the face of western globalization.

So my instinct, on trying to read the anchor group statement with an open mind, was to skip over Chairman Mao and go straight to the physics, so to speak.

It took a long time before I saw the elegant parallel structure within the statement. It begins by talking about spiritual/religious unity, and then it uses that to affirm the underlying unity in our various gifts, leadings, and actions. The first two sentences are not just a perfunctory acknowledgement of an obligatory creed. They matter, and if you can avoid choking on the word “Christ”—take the word to mean “Spirit-as-they-perceive-it”—then it is a beautiful and powerful statement.

For me, the parallel structure shows up better (and I am less likely to have a gag reflex to the Christocentrism) if the sentences and some of the clauses are simply reversed in order:

Use us Lord!

We can trust that we have already the resources required for faithfulness in action which is rightly guided. Some of that action will be local, some global, some individual, some corporate, some immediate, some long-term. We pray for the strength to take bold, prophetic and concrete action in the world. We pray for the wisdom to perceive the patterns of thought and behavior within ourselves which conform to the present darkness. We declare that with God’s help, we stand ready to be agents of transformatory witness to God’s promise.

We refute the lies of the present situation: the lie that says we can’t change the world until we have perfected ourselves; the lie that says that war and destruction are inevitable and efforts for change are hopeless; the lie that says that social action is spiritually shallow and spirituality is socially passive; the lie that causes movements for transformation to see each other as competitors.

There are many pieces of work which will require the particular gifts, ministries, and passions of all of us, because the desire of God for healing and redemption of this blessed creation requires profound change. There is only one witness and it is the witness of the body of Christ. There is only one testimony, and it is the testimony to the transforming power of God.

The anchor group seems to have been entirely faithful to their leadings in every word of their statement. But I cannot believe that they ever intended it to speak, as written, for the entire gathered body. If they had so intended, I think they would have had the discernment to use the word “Spirit” instead of “Christ,” knowing (as they surely must have) that the Spirit that covers us and gathers us together in worship is known by some of us as Christ and by others of us by other names, or by no name at all.

17 comments:

Tom Smith said...

My "concern" is with the choice of "body of Christ." If the words "Spirit of Christ" were used I don't believe that this would be less "Christian" even in the language of the 17th century and definitely would be more in line with "Christ has come to teach his people himself."
"Body" may well be used in the sense of "body of believers" but this is not what the statement implies.

Part of my concern is that within the current questions regarding sexuality in FUM and the concerns in Western Yearly Meeting regarding the "Physical" aspects of Friends beliefs that the one Spirit that can unite us is being lessened.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

@ Tom: I can't speak for Peter, of course... and I'm afraid I'm not following your meaning around the questions regarding sexuality within FUM or the concerns within WYM.

But I believe Peter's preference would have been for the use of the term "Spirit" rather than "Spirit of Christ," as you have put it here. Peter and I both have a convention here of using the capitalized term "Spirit" here to refer to the underlying Spiritual reality of whatever our human words--God, Christ (to a Christian), or what-have-you--stands for.

I know it drives many Christian Friends slightly crazy to have that Spirit decontextualized from the Christianity that they find so helpful... but we are not Christians, and we often are speaking from and to that point of view. I hope you can understand that perspective.

I can say as one who was present in the gathered body of Friends when this minute was considered that the use of the term "body of Christ" was clearly meant as all those who are gathered to listen to and follow the leadings of the Spirit of Peace, Compassion, and Love. It is my sense that that Spirit is the being Quakers, at least, tend to call Christ, though it was also plain to me that the term "body of Christ" was being used to mean, not just Christians, not just Quakers, but in a truly universalist way.

As William Penn put it, "The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion, and when death takes off the mask, they will know one another though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers."

I know that was the intended meaning of the expression; I could tell that even at the time, though the Christ-centered language pained me as, in the minds of many, implying otherwise.

What pained me, personally, the most, was that the minute came so close to capturing something breathtakingly wonderful working among us... but failed. It was because there was so much Truth in the minute that it hurt to see it published when--to be candid--I do not believe we were anything like in Unity on it.

Pitch313 said...

What strikes me first is not the statement but the authoritarian meeting process.

I admit that I am not a Friend and have no experience of Meetings. But the description of 'anchor groups" and "clerks" decreeing from the table that phraseology is immutable seems far from my imaginings of gatherings of the devout seeking existential consensus in the common illumination of their assembled souls.

I gotta say that decrees from a table of clerks that a group cannot change the language of a statement composed by a smaller group seems all too fundamentalist to me.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

@ Pitch:
The anchor groups were really small interest groups--discussion groups--that met on their own during Sessions. Some were very fertile and others were just sort of... there.

I have no doubt that the anchor group that produced the controversial wording from our Minute of Sending forth was faithful to the movement of Spirit among them, and took the time to capture the sense of their own experience, in the words that worked for them--that were most resonant with their experienced Truth.

The difficulty seemed to lie in a desire on the part of the clerks to be faithful to the process of discernment that the anchor group had gone through for themselves, which seemed to mean, in their judgment, not amending their minute. And, in fact, it is presented as not representing everyone in the Yearly Meeting.

But the context--a minute from the entire Yearly Meeting--overwhelmed that notice. It looks as though it is intended to speak for the meeting as a whole, and yet, the anchor group was not an appointed committee of the meeting, entrusted with discerning the words to capture all of our experience. (Though, if it had been, there still would have been a process for revising the language if it did not suit the gathered Sense of the Meeting--as is commonly done with Epistles, for example.)

There were points of entry into the Unity Agenda--the usual business meeting stuff--at Sessions. But it was unusual to have so little discernment on the part of the whole body of our business together.

If every year were like this year, I'd be very unhappy about it. However, the intention was to engage in a one year experiment, for the purpose of allowing us more time to gather for simple worship as a community--as opposed to worship with attention to business.

I don't think it was a successful experiment, in the sense of being something we'd like to repeat. But I do think it was successful in requiring us all to be daring, and to be willing to move outside of our individual comfort zones, in search of what Spirit might have to say to us. That was useful.

But the process, I think, was ultimately flawed, and I look forward to returning to the more usual custom of Friends' business practices next year.

Tom Smith said...

I understand your comment, which is quite often used in reaction to my writings, that I am "vaguely clear or clearly vague." This "title was awarded to me over 40 years ago by the students at the school I was teaching in at the time. Part of it is my search for "universal" language and part of it is my sense of "seeking truth" while not having the firm "convictions that I have the truth but am trying to express where I am.

My reference to FUM had to do with the "homosexuality" policy that derives from a large segment of FUM taking the scriptures literally regarding physical sexuality. My reference to Western YM is the withdrawal of 4-5 "churches" due to the Yearly Meeting not taking action against essentially one pastor, Phil Gulley, who has questioned the physical resurrection - virgin birth - etc. largely dealing with the beliefs about the "physical reality" of Jesus as the Christ.

I do understand the "church," as in the universal church, as the body of Christ and the "body" of any group as the assemblage of persons. However, I guess over the years in dealing with "fundamentalist" language and interpretations while still maintaining relatively "orthodox" Friends beliefs (imho) I get "tied up" with subtle contexts and catch words that I react to.

It is for this reason that on more than one occasion within the past year I have come to the "conclusion," (without really being able to stick with it) that maybe I just need to stay out of the "fray." If my words are not clear enough to provide any light (Light?) or an understandable point of view, then I am just muddying the waters.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thanks for this post, Peter. I hadn't reread the Minute of Sending Forth since we left Sessions, and it was rather startling to look at it again and picture how it might come across to someone who isn't Christian.

When the anchor group statement was read in session I felt strongly in unity with it; I felt that the words had life and truth. It actually didn't occur to me that the body of Christ part might be taken to mean that Christianity was the One True Faith (which I don't believe that it is, though it's my faith.). I immediately associated the phrase with Paul's writing in 1 Corinthians 12 about God's people as many parts of one body, looking different, performing different functions, but inseparable and all necessary. And when people began to object to the Christ-language I found myself thinking, "But the roots of the Society are Christian; can't people deal with that?"

Reading the words now, at a distance from the body and the process, I see more clearly how they could come across as hurtful, divisive, limiting. And I wish we'd had more time to sort that out. And I wish I'd noticed sooner.

Anonymous said...

Peter said:

>>>>>And I think about how Quakerism came into being in a time of religious wars and religious terrorism. Like patriotism after 9/11, Christianity in the 1600’s was simply a prerequisite to participating in the conversation.<<<<<<<

and I came across this thought myself a few years ago within my own meditations.... and ultimately, it was this, my understanding as to why this amazing social technology, Quakerism, came about under George Fox in the 1600's. Anything more radical at that time, in England, would probably not have made it into the 1700's let alone now in 2010's.

The bottom line is that Quakers is by definition an living, evolving belief system. For 400 years collective consciousness has been determining the next steps in evolution of social thought. I think as I write this perhaps the "collective consciousness" is in fact the "Spirit" of which we speak, and further, the "body" of which we speak.

Further, I too have negative personal experiences related to other so-called "Christian" ideologties. As I try to understand the historical times of Jesus Christ, in my limited uneducated way, I do realize that in the land and time he was in, the social skills and advanced thinking the stories tell he assisted with, altered life as the people of his time knew it. He assisted the movement towards the lives we have today, perhaps.

And, so did many other visionaries along the way, of different thought structures and motivations and agendas..........

The key point is ever evolving. And I think "evolution" includes "inclusion".

That said, I did read of this Session Forth through the NEYM newsletter that recently came to me and was somewhat distressed that there really was not a counter discussion from those who stood aside that I could sink my teeth into.

Peter, yours speaks to me. Thank you.

Anne

Mr. Bishop said...

Many thanks for all the comments. I think Cat has already responded to many specifics, and I would only be repetitious if I tried to add to it.

The one thing I do want to say is that up until about a week ago, I was feeling a real stop to making any kind of public statement about this year's Sessions or about that Minute of Sending Forth. I didn't want it to be a litany of things I was annoyed about. It was only when I revisited the anchor group statement and was able to see the faithfulness of the writers in every word of the document that I felt like I was able to make a response to it that also felt entirely faithful.

My one regret about the post is that so many commentors have reacted to my descriptions of the clerks being "authoritarian." Cat was right when she said that this year was an experiment in a new group process that was not entirely successful. The refusal to allow wordsmithing seemed to be mostly about respecting another writer's intellectual property, and not being able to draft a version of our own was mostly about not having the time, in the last hour or so of our week together, to take on a job of that scope.

At the same time, the clerk's job in running a meeting for worship with attention to business with 600 or so people in attendance HAS TO involve a lot of--shall we call it "leadership"--if anything is to get done at all. Some clerks do it more gracefully than others, but every clerk must be prepared to discern and name the sense of a meeting and move on, even when that meeting is still roiling with a certain amount of discord. The authoritarian style of the clerks' table was not the problem at this year's Sessions. I have opinions about what the problems really were, but...

Saying my piece about the Minute of Sending Forth this morning felt like faithfulness, in a way that dissecting group process tonight would not. I don't feel like complaining. I don't feel like Monday-morning quarterbacking. I feel like being as faithful as I can individually, and finding ways that we can be faithful as a gathered body. That means listening deeply, and speaking only from a place of depth.

'Nuff said.

Jeffrey Hipp said...

Thanks for sharing not only your thoughtful-as-usual comments, but the evolution of your own relationship with the minute. I'm going to break my response into two comments.

I recall one piece differently from you, which probably makes a difference in readers' perception of the clerks' table. In my memory, the clerk had offered to omit the "one body" sentence with an ellipsis, but there were shouts of "no!!!" from the crowd. Shortly afterward the clerk suggested the disclaimer statement should precede the minute, which got similar responses of "YES!!!"

This was unsettling to me, as it felt like we were exercising a certain kind of mob-mentality psuedo-discernment in reaction to the inadequate time, where large groups of people were shouting out their opinion instead of seeking to guidance of the inward Teacher. It was bad process, primarily because the clerks had not allowed adequate time for good discernment, but I don't feel that the clerks were completely ignoring the voice of the gathered Friends.

Jeffrey Hipp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeffrey Hipp said...

So, for part two, I should disclose that I was the "friend from the Boston area" who enjoyed a blessed evening of dinner, conversation, and worship with Peter and Cat.

I came out of the evening with a clearer understanding of what was on my heart. I came in with uneasiness with the minute because of how the "one body" sentence would be interpreted by others. I also felt a discomfort with how, as Peter recapped, those words are too readily seen by other Friends as exclusive, not evaluated in the light of a longstanding Quaker tradition that sees the "Body of Christ" as a universal, mystical body of people of all faiths who are faithful to the promptings of the Spirit.

I was reminded through our conversation that those of us who use Christian language have to unpack it. When we "own" the Christian label, we also have to own the horrible history of institution of Christianity, and distinguish how our Way is different from that way. A clause explaining the radical Quaker experience of the one body would go a long way in removing the stumbling block for others.

Something else that became clear to me was that I was seeing the Anchor Group statement very differently from Peter and Cat. I feel like they were seeing it more as a minute passed on from a committee of the Yearly Meeting, whose work could be revised by the body. I saw it more as a completed work from a semi-independent body of Friends who were speaking for themselves. The author of the broader Minute of Sending Forth used it similarly to how we often use excerpts from the writing of other Friends in our public minutes (e.g. the George Fox quote that is on the top of the minute.) We'd never dream of changing George Fox's or Ben Pink Dandelion's words in order to include them in a minute (other than maybe an ellipsis or two!).

While I still feel like this is true, I am more appreciative of the fact that, again, to an outside audience, there is no context for what an "anchor group" is, and that it could very well be a committee appointed to craft wording on behalf of the body. Furthermore, the anchor group excerpt is a whole three paragraphs — much longer than our typical excerpts — and takes up nearly a third of the overall minute. That perhaps gives it more weight than it otherwise would have.

Jeffrey Hipp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeffrey Hipp said...

Sorry for the triple-posting of the same comment! Blogger was giving me an error message and saying it wasn't posting. *Grumble*

Hystery said...

I appreciate this discussion. It leads me to deeper reflection about Friends' histories, cultures, symbols and metaphors. I do not have any completely formed opinion on the minute of sending forth, but I do see a need among us to continue a discussion of our terms and their contexts. Much misunderstanding comes from a want of fellowship, collective reflection, and systematic and sensitive study and is complicated by the fact that Friends really are theologically diverse not merely by virtue of a fragmented Quaker history, but also by the great variety of non-Quaker backgrounds from which so many of us come. How are we to know what we mean today by "Christ" if we aren't clear what various groups of Friends meant by the term in the past? As a mother, I see this as greater incentive to immerse my children in a more rigorous religious education.

RantWoman said...

What wonderful language aside from the Christocentrism issue!

Was the unity agenda approach used for other segments of this gathering. What was the result?

DaisyDeadhead said...

Love the Chairman Mao remark... I find that talking politics with certain conservative people in the south (which I stubbornly insist upon doing), you must establish upfront that you love Jesus. I used to go along with that to get to the heart of the matter (the physics), but I am now in transition and simply won't do it. And I find that my opinion is considered far less. So these things do matter.

Great post, interesting and perceptive.

credencedawg said...

thank you for an interesting discussion - as someone who is learning more about the Friends, it is enjoyable and insightful to read

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