A Peculiar People

This text is from the 2014 Interim edition of Faith and Practice, the book that provides guidance for Friends in New England Yearly Meeting.

The Faith and Practice Revision Committee presented “A Peculiar People” to Sessions in 2003 as “a window for the Yearly Meeting into the work we are doing.” We hoped it would describe the unity of faith and life we wanted to convey in the revision. We have been asked to consider including it somehow in the book and we welcome reflections on this from individuals or groups.

The three-part dance:

Centered through stillness,
In Spirit gathered
Do we dare reflect the Light?

Friends: A people called to listen, gathered to seek, sent forth to serve.

(Friends World Committee for Consultation Triennial theme, 2000)

I.  Our ultimate authority is the grace of God as inwardly experienced

Centered through stillness,       A people called to listen …
In Spirit gathered 
Do we dare reflect the Light?

At our best, Friends live according to inner, rather than outward, promptings. The Inward Teacher is experienced as full of grace, eternal, not belonging to the self but entirely at the self’s center. This inner voice is the basis of our spiritual being and how we discern our values. No outside authority, be it church, government, employer, or family, speaks to us with the same authority or power.

Friends often speak of “the Inner Light,” which we understand to be Divine. We name this Seed in many ways. Whatever name we use, we are clear that each person can live in a direct relationship with the Divine. We experience a divine Spark that unites us with all of creation.

Our faith is not dependent on outward forms, but rather on the transformation of our hearts and minds in order to conform to Divine will. Our best witness is an outward expression of that inward transformation, which occurs through grace. Friends’ tradition is a way of knowing God that is deeply rooted in the life of the Spirit that we know and name in inclusive ways, such as the Christ, the Seed, the Light. It is a deeply rooted tree, drawing its sustenance from that Spirit and able to sway in the heavy winds of real life.

Friends’ understanding of baptism and communion is based on our faith that God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit can be alive and present with us at any moment. So when we experience a “covered” meeting, we have experienced communion—a deep connection with each other and with God. This is not a choice, as water baptism can be, but a matter of grace. Our practice of expectant waiting, in faith that we will come to know the Spirit, does make us peculiar in this fast-paced culture.

Quakers are “peculiar,” both within the Christian tradition and beyond it, in that we do not base our religion on a system of outward requirements (either of belief or behavior) or rewards (either in this world or the next). Quakerism invites much freedom for personal spiritual inquiry and guidance. This suggests a basic optimism about the goodness of life and belief in God’s availability to teach, to comfort, and to minister to each person directly. Central to this experience is a willingness to be transformed, not just once but over and over. That means a willingness to test ideas and processes. It also means living as pilgrims, always seeking new openings.

As pilgrims ourselves, our meetings are open to others who seek. We do not profess what we have not experienced, nor do we ask anyone else to profess what he or she has not experienced. But we need to name experiences of the Divine in others and in ourselves. We affirm that ours is a community that provides an opportunity to seek, and indeed rejoices when people affirm, “This I know from my own experience!”

Friends place authority in the living Spirit of God. To know if they are authentic, we test individual leadings of the Spirit through the discernment and prayer of our meetings. Authentic authority among Friends is holistic: it encompasses individual leadings, corporate discernment, historical witness, and Scripture. Scripture provides an important window into the workings of the Spirit, but it is not an authority by itself. Friends believe that the same Spirit that inspired the written word continues to reveal itself to us. We pay no special reverence to persons, institutions, or outward things; our emphasis is on the Spirit.

II. Corporate discernment and the corporate experience of the grace of God

Centered through stillness,
In Spirit gathered —       …gathered to seek…
Do we dare reflect the Light?

A. In worship

Our most visible peculiarity lies in the form of our worship: we sit together in silence, for some or all of our worship, trusting that the Spirit that has led others throughout history, whose works are written of in Scripture, can also fill us and guide us now. We hold within our communities some who find that the encouragement and guidance offered by a pastor is helpful to their own spiritual deepening and to their meeting community. The hope is that, whether programmed or unprogrammed, whatever occurs during worship contributes to and leads toward the deeper silence where we are all one and all one with God. Our experience as a community is rooted in our faith that by listening together we will hear the Divine, and together we can discern how we are led to act as a community and as individuals. This experience is the source of our unity that overcomes our differences.

Friends are not unique in the belief in the possibility of direct communication with God—all the great mystical traditions share that. Our more unusual gift is to understand not only that this capacity is latent in every human being, but that it is best nurtured, tested, and seasoned in group worship. 

Friends’ worship can be tender and fragile, requiring great trust among the worshippers. In the best of circumstances, it allows the Spirit to enter our minds and hearts and conforms our minds and wills, calling us to remember whence we came and whither we shall return, touching our hearts with the balm of Presence.

B. In meeting for business

Corporate discernment—that experience and process of waiting on the Divine, in unity, for unity—is a unique and precious aspect of life among Friends. Friends’ business practice is firmly grounded in finding Divine will. It encompasses the simple belief that by gathering together and worshiping as a community, we can be opened to God’s Truth, which we could not have found any other way. It also includes the experiential conviction that it is our attentiveness to the Presence in our midst, and our willingness to fall under the Spirit’s discipline by hearing and obeying a challenging message given through individuals, that leads us to right action. Our authority to act comes from the Spirit through the community as it listens together.

The discipline of corporate discernment ties us together as a community. The community supports and guides individuals in their journeys just as surely as the individuals inspire the community. The discipline of corporate discernment holds the community together, preventing it from fracturing into individuals, each following their own interpretation of the Inner Light. Our differences may provide opportunities for growth and understanding, thus invigorating the religious life of the community. We do not believe in either majority rule or in a leadership that must be followed: we recognize that the majority is not necessarily correct. We learn not to ride rough-shod over members with whom we disagree, but to take the time to listen to them and together to listen for God’s guidance. Our meetings for business are to discern God’s will and in the process to build up the community of faith. It is not our aim just to “get good things done.”

III.  The “Testimonies”: Outward behavior as reflection of both inward experience and corporate experience of the grace of God

Centered through stillness,
In Spirit gathered,

Do we dare reflect the Light?            …sent forth to serve.

Our experience of the Spirit, both individually and corporately, has caused us to be moved toward what we think of as traditional Friends’ testimonies, such as peace, simplicity, equality, integrity. Each generation finds its own ways in which to live out these testimonies. These are not outer standards to strive toward: they are qualities toward which we are moved by the influence of the Spirit in our midst. Applying these inner truths to our everyday actions is what gives integrity to our lives. Being a Quaker is not something we just do on Sunday.

An individual’s—or a community’s—understanding of the implication of its religious values can grow, necessitating a change in action in order to live into the new light they have been given. Friends’ stand on slavery is an example.

New England Friends need to examine the degree to which we have let ourselves be co-opted by the culture, so often reflected in our lives by materialism and consumerism, busyness and political correctness. We see clearly that most of us are not living lives of marked simplicity, or arresting integrity, or astounding prayerfulness. Each generation faces its own challenges to truly live the Testimonies we profess.

Peculiarity of the Quaker kind cannot be resolved by intellect or feeling. It must be lived whole in the lives of particular individuals and their particular, practical societies. The final test of faithfulness is how Friends live: not the fact that they are a peculiar people, or even how that peculiarity is specified. We must express ourselves as particularly and clearly as possible. Then we must live according to that faithfulness.

We are at our best as a Peculiar People when we are actively engaging with the differences within our communities, within our tradition, and within ourselves. We hold within our tradition the knowledge that there is a Truth, but that Truth cannot be held without love—that in carrying Truth without love we have lost both. We hold within our tradition the knowledge that each of us is given a measure of Truth, but that none of us has the entire Truth—and that the call is to live up to the Light we have.