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The Individual and the Meeting
by Martha Paxson Grundy
Part 2 of 4
Perhaps it would be helpful to describe the meeting community before exploring its relationship to an individual member or attender. We need to look at the meeting group, not as it looks in its too often broken state, but in terms of its ideal reality and possibility. Earlier Friends experienced a group cohesion, a knitting together based of the discovery that these other people had all experienced the same radical, transforming experience of being in the presence of Divine Love—or yearning mightily for such a knowing. The point was not that each person had had an identical experience. Not at all. But each Friend recognized that the Divinity that touched him or her was the same that had touched the others. The fellowship was best described, they felt, by using one of Paul’s metaphors: that of the body. As the human body is aware of all its parts, and a hurt to one part is felt by the whole, so it is with the body of Friends. As all the parts of the human body act in concert to accomplish a given activity, so the group worked together to worship God, conduct its business, and witness to the world. As Paul described the various functions of the parts of a human body, so Friends found that a variety of gifts had been bestowed on members of their group, all intended one way or another for strengthening the group and its witness.
Lloyd Lee Wilson’s description of two contrasting meetings and their resulting dynamics is a helpful reminder to be aware of the underlying basis of the group. Meeting A “is based on a sense that these community members are somehow special human beings, who have the right concerns and values and live the right lives.” But when, inevitably, the community fails to live up to these standards and expectations individuals leave and the group shatters. Meeting B “is based on an acceptance of a covenant relationship with God.” It is a setting in which
…we are given in relationship to each other precisely in order to help one another through these painful times, into a fuller relationship with God and one another. What is a centrifugal force in one case is a bonding experience among a covenant people. Our individual sins and failures become opportunities for the community to practice true loving forgiveness, to offer spiritual counsel and guidance, and to offer spiritual and emotional healing. It is precisely the imperfect, human nature of the people in a covenant community that gives it the opportunity to witness to the redeeming love of Christ, through the redeeming love we have for one another in Christ.
Frances Taber puts it a different way, asking if the basic query in regard to one’s meeting is, “Does this meeting adequately meet my needs for spiritual nurture and community support for my life?” If that is the fundamental question, the answer more likely than not is, “No, my meeting does not adequately support my needs.” This is clearly the attitude of most of the consumers in today’s religious marketplace. So-called liberal Friends fall into this consumerist mode by trying to present our wares with an emphasis on both the lack of demands made on members and our broad acceptance of individuals who are tacitly invited to create their own definitions of Quakerism. One result is that newcomers join with little expectation that they will explore and live into the richness of our tradition.
Let’s take a brief look at our tradition, that is, how the first Friends experienced and articulated their concept of community or church order. One of the basic presuppositions of George Fox was that God is calling all people “into a community whose fellowship and order are produced by a master-disciple relationship to the living Christ.” In the words of Fox scholar Lewis Benson, early Friends understood Christ to be active in the community in three ways:
First, as he is present in the midst of the gathered community, teaching, instructing, and guiding them. His people can hear his voice as he raises up spokesmen and sends his spirit by which the spoken word is confirmed in the heart of each member. . . . Second, he speaks to the individual member and shows him how to cultivate his gifts and offer them acceptably toward the harmonious functioning of the whole community. Every member is called to contribute something, and the functioning of the community is dependent on the faithful response of each member to the call of Christ. And third, God and Christ send the spirit which is good and holy, and which helps us to know Christ as the one head of God’s people, and helps us to hear and obey him.”
This language, which pulsed with Life for earlier Friends, is foreign to many Quakers today.
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