In June 2005, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting met in called session to consider its response to Earth-wide challenges of climate change. After meeting and dialoging with experts, scientific and political, we gathered in small regional groups to share with each other how we experience these issues touching us. Then we returned to gather in "meeting for worship with a concern for business."
At the end of the day there was great unity among those present on the urgency to address these issues personally, as a religious community, and as a nation. No one present questioned the scientific urgency of the risk to our planet or the spiritual imperative this places on Friends. The only disagreement that arose among us that day regarded the use of the word "accountability" in the minute we were to consider.
The phrase that caused concern read: "We call upon the yearly meeting, in all its manifestations, to seek ways to hold our members accountable to live in God’s world in a more environmentally sustainable fashion and to join other like-minded groups and organizations in supporting this concern." Several Friends expressed fear that holding each other accountable could lead to mutual judgment, discord, and perhaps even disownment for failure to live up to other Friends’ standards of personal environmental stewardship and forceful witness against the destruction of our planet.
The yearly meeting ended up accepting the minute even with the "A" word—with the insertion of "lovingly" before it. [The final text of the epistle appears on pages 36 and 37—eds.] At the end of the day, however, I was struck with how the problem this word raised for some highlights a fundamental challenge for us as a religious movement today. Why, in fact, are Friends so terrified of engaging each other spiritually?
There are many reasons, I suspect! Our collective memory still reacts to the type of eldering illustrated in the film Friendly Persuasion, where meeting elders sternly criticize a member for owning a musical instrument. My wife’s family is one of many who had a Quaker ancestor read out of meeting for marrying a non-Friend. In Philadelphia we have only just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the rejoining of our Orthodox and Hicksite divisions. When the schism occurred, Friends were so bitterly divided that some wrote letters to the editor attempting to convince non-Friends that members of the other side were not "real" Friends. Others went to court to battle over property. Some Orthodox Friends in London went to the unquakerly extreme of barring women from speaking at the World Antislavery Convention—a thinly disguised stratagem for preventing Hicksite minister Lucretia Mott from speaking and taking a leading role at the convention.
So we have come to fear deeply that if meeting members challenge each other strongly around matters of faith or lifestyle, it will be done in an unloving and insensitive manner—and could lead ultimately to some being forced to leave our spiritual family or to suppress others’ deeply held spiritual intuitions and life choices.
Another great impetus, of course, is secular. We live in a society today that celebrates the individual. We cherish dearly our right to "do our own thing." Most liberal Friends cite "that of God in every one" or the Inner Light as the center of our faith as Friends. This can often be interpreted as being synonymous with the supreme inviolability of individual conscience.
The elevation of individual access to God over the community was not, however, Quaker dogma prior to the 20th century. My own understanding of what is unique to our Quaker vision is that we experience God speaking and leading us as a people through a gathered community. This gathered community reaches its fullest expression in our meetings for worship, and meetings for worship with attention to community decisions. This process of trying to discover God’s voice in close collaboration with others has always been rooted in the local Friends meeting, and has also extended outward through the network of quarterly and yearly meetings.
When we run from this vision of revelation as a communal process, we miss out on the possibility of creating and maintaining a Quaker movement and become a disordered association of individual seekers. We close ourselves off from the possibility that God can speak and lead humans in a coherent fashion. We are so accustomed to being turned off by the self-righteous judgmentalism of religious fanatics of various stripes that we may end up rejecting the possibility of there being a living God who really does have wishes and hope for our world—for example, a God who rejects war utterly or longs for this earthly creation to survive environmental degradation. We flee from the hope that God can provide prophetic leadership out of the dark challenges facing our world today.
The Quaker vision of corporate discernment of God’s voice is rooted in humility and love. It is a fragile venture and has no possibility of success if those present cling too fiercely to their own personal intimations of the Divine Wind. The process demands both radical faithfulness in expressing one’s own provisional sense of what God is saying to the group and willingness to discover through the differing revelation of others that our own intimation may not have been God’s intention for the group after all. This combination of passionate, prophetic insight with readiness to let go of that same insight is difficult indeed.
As a community reaches each new unity (for the process is an ongoing one), this vision of the faith community also demands great tenderness towards the individual member or family or meeting that may apparently lie outside the community’s shared vision of what is expected of its members.
We will not always get it right. We may err in our conclusion as to what God is inviting us to at this time in history. We may fail in our obligation of tenderness as we attempt to wrestle with each other around the demands of faithfulness to a shared spiritual journey. The answer, however, cannot be to abandon the effort to discover together what God is saying to us. And when we do end up stumbling mysteriously into unity, the answer is not to flinch from wrestling with each other on how we are living out the difficult challenges into which God appears to be leading us.
Let’s take the risk of trying to discover how God wants us to take on this great environmental challenge. Let’s communicate to each other the lifestyle choices we are making as families in response to this new testimony that many of us believe God is laying on us. Let’s help each other tenderly to find new ways to "get off the back of the Earth." Let’s take the risk of doing this more lovingly and patiently and uncertainly than we imagine to be possible.
With God’s help we can bring to birth once again a fundamental corporate dimension to our efforts to hear and obey God’s voice as Friends—and do so in love.