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The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life
(can becoem 2 parts)

Many commentators are noting that Quakerism is not in the best of health. Membership is declining and there is an ongoing theological debate. But we should remember that the early Quakers turned their back on theology and concentrated instead on good practice. There is no such thing as Quaker orthodoxy but there is the Quaker Way. We are defined by our practice.

In the gathered meeting each individual shares in the attentive listening to the Spirit and its outward expression in ministry. The worship generates a circle in which inward prayer inspires outward action and reflection of the outward action informs the process of inward prayer. There is no hierarchy. It is more than democracy. We practise the full participation of all who attend in worship, participation which extends beyond the local meeting. We have a beautiful organisation of individuals set in membership in Monthly Meetings, worshipping in local meetings and all contributing to a Yearly Meeting.

Helen Rowlands has described the Way in her study of authority. She uses this term in its senses of permission as well as weight. The authorities of the individual person, of the worshipping community and that of tradition are held one against the other in a trinity so that no one authority can assume power or control over the other two.

We are eroding the Way. It is well recognised that nobody is much bothered about going to Monthly Meeting. We seem to be satisfied that our local worshipping group can be plaintiff, judge and jury. That is not an idle metaphor. The system set up by George Fox was in the nature of a court of law. It is a practical demonstration of how we test our individual responses to the Spirit against the combined understanding and wisdom of our mutual Friends, rather than simply among our friends. The first discovery of Friends was that we can hear for ourselves what the Spirit is saying to us. The second discovery was the sorry realisation that we can so easily con ourselves into believing we have heard the Spirit instead of our own ego. Monthly Meeting was the forum.

My friend Clive Sutton is unsure whether Monthly Meeting as devised in the horse age is even fit in the bicycle age. If that is so we have a remarkable capacity for tenacity. Well into the motorcar age, Monthly Meeting alongside Advices and Queries was one of the two major influences which drew me into membership. But I am now one of a rare breed. I have been watching the decline of Monthly Meeting for some two decades. A decline manifested in the tedium of business method, nominations, minutes and a monthly meeting tea. Symbolised by the appointment of a single or possibly two representatives from each local meeting. It seems to have lost its function whereby Friends from differing local meetings may meet together.


Now, RECAST has given us a wonderful opportunity. Meeting for Sufferings has been set free to examine its role as a crucible. And every Friend and local Meeting is similarly invited to examine how we might engage with each other, how we may enable each other to test our individual responses to the Spirit.

But wait, for this revitalisation to occur I think there is another facet of our Quaker Way to be restored.




I would like to introduce a concept from outside. We are very familiar with the postscript from the Balby elders that the letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life. Jewish thinking is similarly well acquainted with the way that the codified law is deadening. But the rabbis recognised a different corollary to the life giving spirit. They said it is one thing to codify the law, it is another to interpret it with anecdote and story. Knowing that interpretations can get out of hand they combined the two thoughts into a single puzzle: "halachah without agadah is dead but agadah without halachah is wild1": the uninterpreted code, the letter, killeth, but the unfounded interpretation must be tempered. Translated into the postscript we might say that the living spirit does not set us free to go exploring wildly. The phrase is "live adventurously". The practical Quaker Way is the same genius of paradox.

In the previous article I observed that our meetings for worship generate a creative circle of inward prayer and outward action which inform and inspire each other. Our purpose at meeting for worship is to be attentive to the Spirit and to respond to it. Drawn forward by a vision of heaven on earth, we are called by the Spirit. By careful enquiry I realise my gifts. My responsibility is to use them.

Yet my experience is that more and more of our meetings for worship are wrapped in a silence in which we do not dare to test our convictions. The still small voice is indeed still and it is small, Experiments with Light notwithstanding. These Experiments do indeed disclose our darkness. But that doesn't mean that the darkness is somehow not good, that it shouldn't be there. It very much should be because without it there is no pressure to act. The Light may indicate the direction and pull us toward itself but the jet propulsion comes from behind.

If our structure of local meetings has become crystalised in formality so too have our meetings for worship. If we don't go to Monthly Meeting or anywhere beyond our local meeting, if we have no opportunity to use the authority of the wider community which holds our combined membership to test what we discover in the process of listening to the Spirit, we very sensibly decline to follow what could be our egos. What irony!

We deny the truth of the Spirit and, declining the opportunity, we decline. Our congregations are dying. People come for an hour of silence instead of a time for inspiration. The codified silence is killing us. I can hear the howls of protest. But remember this. Meeting is both listening and responding. The Quaker Way is a practical demonstration of how to balance the dead and the wild. Listening without responding is dead, responding without listening is wild. What happened to living adventurously? Have we pulled the shutters tight against the wind of the Spirit? In the context of Meeting for Worship, how many times do I come away feeling totally refreshed for the week ahead? Because somebody had the inspiration not just to speak but to do something that led me into the creativity of life? What about worshipping adventurously? Alex Wildwood wants juicy Quakerism. So do I.

Anthony Gimpel


 


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