The fourth core area which Deeper Roots will address is that of authentic faith community. The ancient Quaker testimony of community grows out of our common experience of the Divine, often expressed as Christ speaking to our condition, Christ come to teach His people Himself, and that of God in every one. The direct perception of the presence and guidance of God by each individual, without external assistance, shapes our understanding of what sort of community or social structure God yearns for us to live in together. We are enabled and equipped to accomplish authentic, faith-filled community by listening for and following the inward guidance of the Divine, as individuals and together as a gathered people. When we follow that guidance closely, our monthly meetings become patterns and examples of authentic community to the world, undergirding our witness to all people about how all humans, and all creation, can live in God’s shalom.
A distinctive Quaker term for this has been Gospel Order. As Brian Drayton has written, “A most expansive approach to Gospel Order would define it as the social result of the free operation of the Spirit to create coherent community practice under its guidance ….” From its earliest beginnings the experience of the Religious Society of Friends has been that it cannot survive one-dimensionally, as an individual religion or spiritual path; we need one another to help perceive and understand God’s leadings clearly, to encourage one another when it is difficult to be faithful, to help one another up when we fall, and always to be building, in our relationships with one another, that prototype of the Blessed Community which we (and God) yearn to be practiced throughout creation.
Accomplishing this has never been easy. It involves walking a narrow path between excessive individualism and overly constrictive institutions. Stray in one direction, and true community never develops; stray in the other and individuals can lose the freedom that gives them space to discover and develop their particular God-given gifts and abilities. At different times in their history, Quakers have moved away from this narrow path, first in one direction and then in the other.
The monthly meeting community, right down to the most basic idea of a regularly scheduled public meeting for worship, was not an immediately recognized or accepted part of Quakerism. Friends managed for the first eight or nine decades of the movement to thrive without any formal membership. There was opposition to the innovation of establishing local, or “monthly” meetings; some of those who agreed that something of the sort might be useful in the city, protested that there was no need for such organization in the countryside. Some early Friends argued that even a scheduled meeting for worship contradicted an obedience to the leadings of the Holy Spirit, and instead individuals should just stop what they were doing at any given moment and worship privately, whether there were other Friends present or not.
During the Deeper Roots program we will seek to discover the important functions and services which local Quaker meeting communities have provided, leading Friends to recreate them again and again in spite of these early objections. What can we say is the purpose of a meeting community today, and what common practices in our meetings support or undermine these functions in the present day? What does it mean to be a member of a monthly meeting today? If old practices no longer suit us, how can we ensure that the needed functions of community are still being carried out? How can we work to strengthen our own meeting communities so they are better able to serve us all? These explorations will be grounded in our own attempts to build authentic faith community in a small group made up of fellow Deeper Roots participants.
(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the apprentice authors, and not official statements of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) or Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) of the Religious Society of Friends.)