This text is from the 2014 Interim printing of Faith and Practice, the book that provides guidance for Friends in New England Yearly Meeting.
Whenever the committee re-reads the “Peculiar People” document, we realize how well it still describes our intentions and hopes, our sense of the rhythm of our work. As we have grappled with how to approach the rest of the book, we realize that our work so far has dealt with that which is foundational to our lives together—first, the gift of communal worship, in which we open ourselves to the divine Presence in our midst, in expectant waiting. We have also described that special form of collective dwelling in the Presence which is corporate discernment, out of which there come blessed times when we know the rising up of the Spirit and realize that we have come together into God’s unifying reality. In the Illustrative Experiences chapter we have gathered examples of the wide variety of Friends’ experiences with the divine and ways the Spirit has moved and been revealed in their lives. We have assembled a “how-to” section of appendices to offer practical guidance on Friends’ procedures. The faith out of which these procedures grow will be explored in chapters still to be written.
Our work now turns toward how our lives bear witness to the Spirit that guides us. In the remaining chapters we have the task before us of describing the integration of faith and life in our personal lives, our communal life as a religious society, and in the wider community. Over the past few years we have embraced both the faith that all testimonies come from the one Source, and the understanding that our whole lives, both personal and communal, are our testimony. We feel keenly what early Friends described as “Truth’s testimony,” the witness of the Inward Light—that which we feel and know throughout our whole being when we “stand still in that which shows and discovers.” This is the felt Presence that can move us to live “in the virtue of that Life and power … ”. Whether we come to this Source first through inner exploration or through the outer living of its principles, it remains the heart of our witness and the source of our integrity.
Though asked repeatedly for a definitive list of Quaker testimonies, our sense remains both that we cannot make such a list, and that attempting to do so involves the danger of “the testimonies” being held up as a kind of Quaker doctrine or creed. Lists such as the one represented by the relatively modern acronym SPICE (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality) do indeed have their place in teaching situations. They describe some broad categories into which our faith often leads us, but they are also limiting, just as a creed is limiting. We want to hold up the central work of the Inward Guide as the driving force from which, ideally, all our actions arise, and to show what that looks like in our lives.
Our intention as we move forward with the book is to show the ways in which God is a living, active Spirit, guiding each one of us. This is our testimony. It manifests in our lives, in how we parent, in how we choose to interact with the earth community, in how we do business in the world, and in the choices we make as consumers and as citizens. We want to explore how our lives are infused with the testimony of the living God, whose nature includes truth, justice, compassion, and peace. To that end we want to include as much as possible of the lived experience of Friends. We ask that you share with us your experiences of how testimony, in all its variety, is expressed in your lives, both as individuals and as meetings.
We are also embracing the challenge of trying to describe the organizational structures of New England Friends, at the monthly, quarterly, and yearly meeting levels. In doing so we want to make it clear that we are a purpose-driven rather than a structure-driven organization—to describe not simply a framework, much as one might describe a skeleton which gives shape to a body, but to examine the life that is supported by that skeleton. We have been led to begin by asking:
What functions are needed for a healthy, faithful community?
What structures do we put in place locally and in the wider bodies of Friends to support these functions?
What are the kernels of wisdom in our current structures?
How can we write Faith and Practice in such a way that we don’t commit ourselves to forms that don’t have life and can’t evolve?
We want to describe not just the outer forms which have changed over time, and will continue to change, but the essential motion of the Spirit in which they are rooted. We have found that those underlying spiritual functions fall under the broad categories of spiritual nurture and stewardship. Spiritual nurture is a vital part of our communities and one of the major reasons to form meetings. There, as fellow learners, we may grow in knowledge of the Spirit, support and encourage one another, and be a witness in the wider world to the truths we know. Stewardship is about making good, responsible, faithful use of what we have been given, spiritually and materially. There are both similarities and differences in how both spiritual nurture and stewardship are expressed in monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings.
We are aware that as a Yearly Meeting we are at a time of transition in our structures and procedures. We on the Faith and Practice Revision Committee have found Life in our process of deep listening, mutual respect, and moving with “the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matt 11:29, The Message). We have sensed the driving force of Spirit when we are on the right track and we have felt the lulls and the stops when we are not yet clear. Working in this way, our vision has been fluid, evolving, and changing—and we have tried to let go of anxiety as we proceed without knowing the exact outcome. Continuing revelation is expected in healthy spiritual communities, bringing new life and constant change. We depend upon you to accompany us on this journey. Can we explore together both the solid and unchanging ground of our faith, as well as the motion among us of new insights and leadings that need new structures to free the Life? Can we embrace not fully understanding the new life which is being born, but try instead to be in right relationship, with God and with one another, while it is emerging—to be poised, nimble, and committed to responding faithfully?