Archive for February 2010

The New Quaker Monasticism and Liturgy

This Ash Wednesday, a few friends and I got together to observe the beginning of Lent. We shared a meal, and then we read the lectionary scripture for the day and settled into waiting worship. After worship had broken, we walked together over to St. Mark’s Episcopal church to attend their service. For me, the Episcopal service was at once foreign and familiar.

Several years ago, while in seminary at Earlham School of Religion, I lived as part of a new monastic community called Renaissance House. We lived together in a big, dilapidated mansion in the once-prosperous Starr District of Richmond, Indiana. We hosted public dinners three times a week where all were invited, and which were frequented by the mentally ill, the very poor, college professors, entrepreneurs, drug addicts, seminary and college students, and neighborhood kids. We lived off the land, dumpster diving for food and foraging for wasted wood and fallen trees to heat the house. We prayed together as a community four times a day.

As we explored what it meant to be a worshipping community, we visited a nearby Roman Catholic monastic community, the Sisters of St. Francis, in Oldenburg, Indiana. One of the surprising things we learned was that we at Renaissance House did a lot more corporate prayer than the “real” monastics did. We gathered for worship before breakfast (Matins), at noon (Sext), before dinner (Vespers) and in the late evening before bed (Compline). We prayed liturgy out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, we sang, and we read the Scriptures aloud.

Because I had come to Christianity in the Quaker tradition, this form of worship was new and somewhat strange for me. I did not know quite what to make of spoken liturgy, especially because the Friends tradition that I was being steeped in put a high value on extemporaneous, “Spirit-led” prayer and vocal ministry. To have our prayers “scripted” seemed questionable. Despite my reservations about the details of our worship, I felt very committed to the worshipping community at Renaissance House. I believed in our way of life as a Christian brotherhood. I believed that our ministry to the neighborhood and wider community was meaningful; that we were truly “being the Church” in that time and place.

My experience at St. Mark’s this Wednesday surprised me. First of all, it became clear to me that Renaissance House was an Episcopal-inspired new monastic community. Having the chance to participate in a more formal Episcopalian service, I saw how almost all of our practice at Renaissance House was based in that tradition. Second of all, and far more shocking to me, I realized that I missed the liturgy. I missed the corporate recitation of the Psalms. I missed the congregational call and response. I missed the corporate confession of past failure, and repentance from sin. I missed the discomfort of being asked to say things that I would not normally say.

Recognizing that spoken liturgy has meaning for me, I feel the need to reflect on how this relates to my distinctively Quaker interpretation of my faith. I know that the early Friends rejected precisely the form of worship that I am now finding compelling. And I feel like I understand why they did. When the Quaker movement was emerging in the middle of the 17th century, the Church of England (now known as Episcopalian in the United States) was an oppressive force that demanded submission to an array of priestly codes, and which made the Gospel something that had to be mediated through educated, humanly authorized clergy. I affirm the early Friends’ rejection of human-based authority and the idolatry of Scripture and ritual.

But the early Friends did not merely leave the “apostate” Church of England and take up a revised liturgy on their own. They did away with the liturgy, with pre-arranged congregational singing, Scripture-reading and prepared sermons. They insisted that for worship to be conducted “in Spirit and in Truth,” there could be no pre-arrangement. True worship was when God was waited upon and women and men preached out of a sense of immediate leading by the Holy Spirit. The liturgy was a dead letter imposed by the human mind, but the Spirit gave life.

I think that this may have been the right answer for the early Friends. This first generation of Quakers had been filled to the brim with ceremony, liturgy, singing and Scripture. From their earliest childhood, the tradition of the Church was inculcated in them. The liturgy was practically in their DNA! The early Friends already knew the Scriptures, the creeds and the hymns of the Church by heart before they broke away from the deadening ritual and hierarchy that fallen humans had employed to take the Gospel captive. The early Friends rejected the abuses of Scripture, music and liturgy – but they retained full knowledge and use of them as they gathered to wait on the Lord.

More recent generations of Friends have not been as fortunate. We have been raised without as rich a sense of the tradition of the Church: without a corporate knowledge of our hymns; and without a regular corporate confession of our faith, our recognition of sin, and repentance. Many of us have lost even a basic awareness of the Scriptures.

Given our present context and condition, I wonder whether some form of liturgy might not be a good thing for Friends. What is the balance between us waiting on Christ to lead us in every step and us taking initiative to respond to Christ’s call?  What would be a Quaker way of doing liturgy?

Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #16 – North Carolina and FUM General Board

Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Despite signs earlier this month that spring might be upon us, the Mid-Atlantic has been slammed during the past couple of weeks by blizzards that crushed all past records of snowfall in the DC area. From our perch on top of the William Penn House, Faith and I looked on as foot after foot of snow fell on Capitol Hill. All told, our neighborhood received somewhere upwards of three feet in one week. Despite the inclement weather, I have been able to make two major trips this past month as I serve Friends in North America.

Long before the advent of arctic storms, I took the train down south to visit Friends in Virginia and North Carolina. My first stop was in the city of Richmond, Virginia, to see Jon Watts. Jon Watts is a Quaker musician who grew up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, attended Guilford College as a part of the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program, and later spent time as a student at Pendle Hill. He is perhaps most famous for his song, “Friend Speaks My Mind,” which depicts his experience growing up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting‘s youth program, and which has drawn both intensely positive and intensely negative reviews from across the Quaker world.

It was a real privilege to meet with Jon and stay with him in his home. I felt like our relationship was deepened a great deal, and we both gained a deeper understanding of how each of us is seeking to be faithful to God’s guidance in our lives. Jon and I will be looking for ways we might collaborate in the future as we seek to share the good news that Christ is come to teach his people himself.

Moving on from Richmond, I took Amtrak to Greensboro, where I participated in Earlham School of Religion‘s 50th anniversary celebration, which took place at Centre Friends Meeting House. I enjoyed being with Friends in North Carolina and touching base with a number of folks from ESR. It was a joy to be a part of the ongoing celebration of ESR’s 50th year of service to the Religious Society of Friends, and I am looking forward to taking part in the celebration in Wichita, Kansas, this April.

Last week, I was on the road again, this time for the Meeting of the Friends United Meeting General Board at Powell House, in Old Chatham, New York. I felt lucky to get there at all. Several fellow board members were hearing predictions that another snowstorm was about to hit the Mid-Atlantic and make travel very dicey. So, at the last minute, we decided to drive up a day early. We arrived at Powell House around two in the morning, which left me feeling jet-lagged for the next couple of days. We arrived very early, so I had a couple of days to settle into life at Powell House, including to learn the ropes of being the resident “butler,” assisting with the dining room and kitchen work during the board meetings.

Our time together as a board felt good. On Friday night and Saturday morning we looked at who we are as FUM, what our mission is, and how we should operate as a Christian association of Yearly Meetings. While the conversation began as a look at restructuring the organization, it soon became clear that structure was not our fundamental problem: We need a change in our ways of relating with one another, as well as with our projects around the world. Recognizing that our difficulties come largely from the way we relate to one another and from our collective attitudes and habits as a body, we changed our focus. We began to look more deeply at who we are as FUM, and who God is calling us to be.

One of our biggest tasks as a group has been and continues to be learning to trust one another despite all of the cultural and theological differences between us. I felt that we continued to make progress on this important work at these meetings. Unfortunately, because of the weather, we were missing many of our board members. Those of us who were able to attend the meetings in New York feel a responsibility to help those who were not present understand the work that we were able to do together. Little by little, we are developing a healthier relationship between us as representatives of our Yearly Meetings; and I pray that we continue on in this slow, but vital, work.

This is hard, painstaking labor. If I came in with any illusions that FUM would be transformed overnight, I have been relieved of them. What is left for me is a recognition of the beautiful and maddening reality of Friends United Meeting: We are the largest, most diverse Friends body in the world. Some of us are Friends who are not sure how to relate to the Christian tradition in light of the evils done in Christ’s name. Others of us are Friends who are so deeply embedded in the mainstream Christian culture that we question whether Quakerism is even relevant. We are Friends who worship in expectant silence for an hour; and we are Friends whose worship services last for many hours and include singing and long sermons. We are Republicans and Democrats; we are Kenyans and Jamaicans, Arabs and Cubans. We are members of the Body of Christ, seeking our way to serve our Lord in a world that is dying in misery and sin. We are committed to energize and equip Friends, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as Teacher and Lord.

I am Friends United Meeting. Many of you are, too. You may agree with the personnel policy or disagree with it. You may like the Richmond Declaration or feel uneasy about it. You may think that some of FUM is too liberal, or too Evangelical. But we are Friends United Meeting. We are the middle ground, caught between two polar visions that would divide us out of fear. We stand in the middle, at the heart and soul of the worldwide Quaker family.

As those of us gathered in New York considered together what it meant for us to be FUM, we acknowledged that there is a deep hunger in our Meetings to hear the Gospel message, to hear about how God is working in our lives and transforming us into a new creation. We also acknowledged that FUM plays a vital role for Orthodox Friends in the United Yearly Meetings (Canadian, New England, New York, Baltimore and Southeastern), encouraging them in a sense of Christian identity in bodies that do not always affirm a sense of corporate Christian faith. We felt clear that God is calling us to continue to be in relationship with one another, to encourage one another in Christ’s call for us: that we be salt and light in a flavorless and darkened world.

I encourage each of you to pray for Friends United Meeting. Pray for our office staff in Richmond, but not only for them. Pray for our diligent workers in East Africa, Israel/Palestine, Belize, Jamaica and Cuba – but don’t stop there. Pray for our released leaders – meeting secretaries, youth workers, pastors, traveling ministers, general secretaries and superintendents. And go further still: Pray for the local Meetings across the world and throughout North America. Pray that we hear the still small voice of God’s Word in our hearts, and that we respond – as individuals, as local churches, as Yearly Meetings, and as Friends United Meeting as a whole. Pray for strength and courage for this journey that we are on, which we know will be arduous, but which we know will be rewarded by our Heavenly Father with the wonders of God’s power and the peace of God’s presence.

Blessings to each of you. Peace in God our Father and in the holy love of Christ our Lord. Amen.

Micah Bales