Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Trusting in the Spirit

Meeting for Worship at Hlekweni Friends Training Centre
Yearly Meeting is the annual decision-making forum for all Quakers in Britain. This year, Friends have been considering three questions in advance as part of their preparation for the Meeting, on the theme of personal and communal discernment. I have been asked to distil the responses to the questions, and to give a short presentation to Yearly Meeting during the first session on Friday evening.

What I have found from preparing this is that there is a great store of wisdom in the wider Quaker community, and also that many Friends have a gift for a lively turn of phrase. These are some of the highlights of the responses so far.

How have you discerned the right way forward in your own life?

The three themes that spoke to me from the responses to this question were 'listening', 'being listened to' and 'being bold'.

Listening was described as 'offering a problem to God and waiting in the Light', whether in Meeting for Worship, in personal prayer or in daily life. The process of patient openness to God's guidance can be prolonged and uncomfortable. It demands a willingness to sit with fear, impatience and discontent, to feel lost and helpless, a readiness to 'set sail beyond sight of land'. A Friend described it as being 'made tender' by the struggle to remain authentic.

The fruit of this patient listening can be a feeling of 'rightness'; what one Friend described as 'being stroked towards a decision', that comes with its own inner reassurance.

Some Friends spoke of the experience of living in a more continual way in the spirit of reliance on God's guidance; of 'learning to dwell in the place where leadings come from'.

Being listened to is also crucial for many us; discussing difficult issues with Friends, perhaps holding Meetings for Clearness or Threshing Meetings, and knowing that we have the support of our Meeting through difficult circumstances. Our personal leadings sometimes need questioning and refinement from a supportive community. One Friend observed that 'discernment is about actively testing leadings, checking them against other sources, especially when you sense a challenging leading.'

Thirdly, when a leading becomes clear, we need to be bold. Friends were eloquent about the need to 'live adventurously':

'We need to be willing to be led into the dark as well as through green pastures and by still waters.'

A Friend described the experience as 'following my passion', another as 'following the course of action that resonates with my heart.' Often this means taking a step forward, however small, into the unknown, and trusting that we will receive 'just sufficient guidance for our present purposes':

'Live up to the light thou hast, and more shall be given to thee.'

A Friend wrote of 'learning to follow the path as it appears before me', and many described the need to overcome our fear and let go of the outcome:

'We just need to trust and test our leadings, and still our minds of the fear and doubt which can block us from seeing our true calling.'

What experiences have you had of Quaker Meetings being guided by the spirit when making decisions?

Many Friends described the Yearly Meeting 2009 decision to celebrate same-sex marriage as a spirit-led process:

'Personal testimonies and threshing meetings deepened and informed the process. Friends came with hearts and minds prepared.'

'Then the spirit took over. Instead of a small and timid reckoning with the issue, Friends were moved to be bold in a startling way.'

Many Friends wrote of the importance of returning to an issue after waiting for guidance in our Meetings for Worship for Business. Friends described situations of deadlock in their Meetings, which were wonderfully opened through a time of prayerful waiting.

'When there are obviously only two possible outcomes and then after a period of worship a third way emerges which feels right.'

'When things were at an impasse, the clerk called for a period of silence... When the clerk read a draft minute, the first to call for its acceptance was the Friend who had previously been arguing the contrary view.'

Friends wrote of the experience of coming to spirit-led decisions as 'uniting' - with the reminder that 'unity is not the same as unanimity.' This experience of unity can come unlooked for, something that happens beyond consensus and beyond words. 'Suddenly our discord melted' wrote one Friend:

'What happened surprised us all... there was a strong sense in the Meeting that we were being led to go forward in faith.'

Another Friend described the moment after the decision on equal marriage at Yearly Meeting:

'I felt in the silence the whole body of Friends uniting and rejoicing in the Spirit.'

The process of seeking the guidance of the spirit together also requires a mindful self-discipline by everyone in our Meetings:

'It is the spiritual discipline and forgetfulness of self of those present that enables leadings to be discerned.'

One Friend described the 'mix of unity and dissent' in a healthy Meeting, praising 'the discipline of Friends who disagree but are willing to uphold the decision.'

Everyone in a Meeting for Worship needs to give up our own agenda and 'humbly seek guidance'. Inevitably, we sometimes fall short of this, and the consequences can be very painful and destructive of our communities. 'There is great responsibility laid on all of us to make this work,' wrote one Friend:

'I have been in a small number of meetings where the spirit and our business method were ignored. They were horrible.'

What do you value about the way in which Friends work together?

Friends described their love of the Quaker way of plain speaking, in the spirit of love and respect:

'Quakers do not talk over each other, but listen.'

They spoke of the 'genuine search for honesty and truth', and the 'spirit of equality, using everyone's different gifts.'

Some Friends also appreciated the 'toleration of oddities' - the willingness to 'see beyond the irritations of difficult personalities, observing that 'being difficult and cantankerous is almost part of what we are as Quakers.'

Seeking a unity in which there are 'no winners or losers' is also precious to many of us:

'We value the respect shown to all present, the way in which we are encouraged to come without our minds made up and without lobbying.'

'Our way of bringing disagreement or uncertainty into the presence of God enables us to listen with respect to attitudes or opinions which differ from our own, remembering that those who hold them are also children of God.'

One Friend was able confidently to assert that 'Meetings do not indulge in politicking'. Or as another Friend describes it:

'No interrupting, and no biff-baff.'

It seems clear from reading these responses that trust in our process of discernment is something that unites us as Quakers; something we recognise as precious, but also fragile. It will always be vulnerable to our natural human tendency to want to 'win', to be in control of the outcome, and to place our trust in rules and procedures rather than in the risky process of discernment of God's guidance.

The only way to keep our tradition of discernment healthy is to practice it faithfully, to learn from and encourage each other in the demanding discipline of seeking the guidance of the Spirit together.

Quaker decision-making is not the absence of conflict or an easy consensus. It is an active process of self-discipline that enables us to listen and respond to God's guidance for us as individuals and communities. It asks us to trust that there really is guidance available to us, the willingness to continue seeking it, and the courage to follow where it leads, even when the destination is unknown.

There is still time to respond to the questions in advance of Yearly Meeting (until 7th May) on the forum here.

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"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)