Friday, March 21, 2008

Radical Inclusiveness -- Beanite Tradition -- Part Two

I saw a comment on another blog recently that differentiated radical inclusion in civil society from that in a religious community. Membership or association with the religious community is voluntary, it was said, whereas one is in civil society with no alternative but to stay. That is why, as I understand the argument, civil society owes all in it a radical inclusiveness whereas a religious community does not.

Makes sense.

I wonder, though, if all would agree that our membership in or association with the spiritual communities of which we are a part was the product of our voluntary choice. Would some of us say that we were led to that community, quite contrary to our inclinations or plans? Is there some will at work, quite apart from our own, that has us where we are, where it/It wants us to be? Could it really be, as I have thought sometimes, that all who wash up on the beach of our monthly meeting, no matter how unlikely that seems given what they look like, do so because, whether they stay long or not, they all have something for us, and we have something for all lthem?

This comes to a brutal impasse when the following question frames any situation: Should someone stay, or be allowed to stay, in a spiritual community if, as a corporate body, it believes that s/he is not living by its rules (or beliefs)? Should they leave? Should they be excluded?

Joel and Hannah Bean, both enrolled ministers in a yearly meeting, witnessed against changes that were made in the faith and practice of that yearly meeting. The yearly meeting had been inundated with new members who had little background in or grasp of that yearly meetings' Gospel Order. These newcomers became part of the monthly meetings in this yearly meeting in the wake a great wave of revival that passed through their part of the country. When the agents of revival moved on they left those they “revived” to find local spiritual communities to call home. Many, thus, came to a Quaker meeting for the first time.

Those Friends who were members of the yearly meeting before its numbers were increased by the “revived” were unable to maintain its faith and practice, its Gospel Order; the right order traditional to their Orthodox Yearly Meeting. To cope with the number of the “revived” the yearly meeting came to adopt a faith and practice comfortable to the “revived,” one that seemed practical to deal with so many new members with so much to learn about Quaker tradition. Most of these new members, in so far as they had experience with a religious community, had an expectation that it should look like a Protestant Christian church.

As the meetings and the yearly meeting were conformed to that model, and away from the Orthodox Quaker faith and practice, many of those there before the revival became uneasy. The new members' expectations were changing the faith and practice of the yearly meeting more than that faith and practice was integrating the new members into Quaker faith and practice. Unable to move the yearly meeting back to its former faith and practice, many of these pre-revival Friends left and found a different yearly meeting of which to become a part.

Joel and Hannah Bean did not leave, however, at least not initially. They chose to remain in fellowship with those rejecting the Orthodox faith and practice, albeit urging Friends, new and old, to return to it.

As to why they did not choose to leave their yearly meeting and find a spiritual home more comfortable to and conforming with their yearly meeting’s former faith and practice Joel wrote:
“I was directed to His own perfect example. He never separated Himself from His people in all their opposition and enmity toward Him. He did not disown the Church of His Birthright, though it disowned Him.”

Joel Bean
Letter to R. H. Thomas 2nd Month 8, 1899
Among the Bean papers at Swarthmore Library

In the end they were separated from their yearly meeting, although not by their own choice.

It seems to me that Joel and Hannah Bean tried to live out a testimony in the tradition of Friends:
Question: But if I do not presently see that service in a thing that the rest of my brethren [sic] agree in? In this case what is my duty, and theirs?

Answer. It is thy duty to wait upon God in silence and in patience, and as thou abide in the simplicity of Truth thou wilt receive an understanding with the rest of they brethren [sic] about the thing doubted. And it is their duty, whilst thou behavest thyself in meekness, to bear with thee, and carry themselves tenderly and lovingly towards thee.

"True Spiritual Liberty," William Penn, 1681
(condensed by Lewis Benson), Tract Association of Friends

Some contemporary Friends probably would not use this "Christo-centric" language but all can translate this instruction easily into words with which they are comfortable and through which they can appreciate both the truth and Truth they contain.

I have not found explicit reference to this testimony in the literature or papers of the Beans. It does not appear to me that the Beans or the members of the yearly meeting who found their continued presence so vexing actually lived out this testimony as faithfully as Friends inclined to "come down" on one side or the other (or both) of this situation today might wish they had.

From what I can tell, silence and sometimes patience did not always characterize the Beans' “abiding in the simplicity of Truth.” Some his Joel's writing seemed to be in the tone, volume and practice of a Jeremiah or Hosea.

It is also not possible to say that those with whom the Beans tried to abide always bore with them and or carried themselves tenderly or lovingly toward them. Perhaps the proviso of condition on their duty to do so (“whilst thou behavest thyself in meekness”) provided them a justification for the apparent lack of tenderness or love in, first, removing the Beans from the list of enrolled ministers after they moved to California and then, later, disowning them.

(To be fair, it is unclear whether this disowning, which took place years later, was due to the same animosity that led to their names being removed from the rolls of ministers or whether it was due to a simple “clearing of the rolls” of names of Friends not seen at meeting for a long time. Meetings then, as now, paid assessments for members on their rolls. It appears that some who came to unity with this disowning of the Beans may have done so for the former reason and others, for solely the latter. In any case, the disowning was later reversed).

All this digression aside, I want to recommend this formula described by Penn for dealing with disagreement within the meeting. I think it is the formula that at least guided if it did not perfectly describe the abiding strategy/testimony the Beans. Their (imperfect) example is one to consider when Friends find sharp differences between their own faith and practice and that of their yearly meeting. It is also one for the yearly meeting to consider when it finds Friends holding to faiths and practices that differ from that of the established corporate unity. Perhaps a more universal use of this mode of dealing with conflict among Friends might prevent future lamentations like this one:
“And now, as I write this, after years of reflection and observation of the effect of promulgating opinions and doctrines not essential in themselves, especially on the mission of Christ in that prepared body, I am confirmed in the belief that it tends to unprofitable discussion and controversy, and often to alienation of love for one another…Had love of God abounded in the heart, it would have been seen that obedience to Him in all things was the plan of salvation ordained by Him from the foundation of the world, and we should then have remained a united people of great influence in gathering the nations to the peaceable kingdom of Him who was ushered into the world with the anthem, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will to men!”

Rachel Hicks
(New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1880), p 39

Again, whether her language resonates with us, or not, we can all certainly translate it into spiritual (or non spiritual) terms that makes her message, and the Truth and truth of it, clear. Throughout the history of the Society there have been many occasions, and today there remain many occasions, where differences among the various faiths and practices of Friends have pulled them out of right relationship with one another, to their own personal detriment and to the detriment of the Society as a whole. It will be for someone else to explain the benefit of all this division and schism. It is for me to entreat Friends (and friends) to consider another testimony from long ago.
For you may be sure that separation neither restores any to love the Truth, neither gathers any to God, but rather scattereth and driveth away some that was gathered in love to Truth by the painful and faithful labourers that was truly sent of the Lord.

William Dewsbury to Edward Nightingale
Quoted in Braithewaite’s “Second Period” p 477

Again, we can each of us translate this parochial language so as to see in it a plea for the all inclusive unity/love that is at least one of the aspirations of probably every spiritual tradition, including that and those we in the Society of Friends call our own.

North Pacific Yearly Meeting seems to still be a "united" yearly meeting, as was its predecessor College Park Association of Friends, founded in 1889. The circle of fellowship is wider and the inclusiveness is more radical, although it is perhaps no more radical, in our own time, than the Association was 120 years ago.

North Pacific Yearly Meeting also remains an "independent" yearly meeting, not affiliated with any of the other domains of the Society of Friends. In theory this could mean that it is in fellowship with all of those other domains and yet neither the yearly meeting, or those that occupy those other domains would probably agree with that latter statement or be open to such fellowship.

Perhaps, in the future, there will be such a thing as "interdependent" yearly meetings, consciously and expressly in fellowship with all other yearly meetings. But that will happen only if all yearly meetings in the Society similarly, consciously and expressly, become "interdependent" in this same way. To be affiliated with any fewer than all other yearly meetings would seem to be to still endorse the division of the Society and to acknowledge that we can never be Rachel Hicks'
"...united people of great influence in gathering the nations to the peaceable kingdom..."

"From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered...Here the Lord opened unto me, and let me see a great people in white raiment by a river side, coming to the Lord...:

George Fox
Journal, Chapter Six


Robin M. said...

I found today that I had saved this post "to read later" and later turns out to be four months. I still think this is a valuable lesson that deserves more thinking about. Thanks.

kwix said...

Friend Timothy,

Thanks so much for the quote from William Penn. I did not know this one, but I cannot think of any better statement of the core of Quakerly corporate decision-making.

I think we of the modern world are likely to ask "What's the best way to resolve this conflict?" But that's not the question that Penn asks. He doesn't ask a question about the relation of human to human. His question is about our duty to God.

This immediately provides a larger context in which our disagreements are put into perspective. It takes us out of an us vs. them situation in to one framed by our relationship with the Divine (whatever language we may use to describe that). Clearly, this is not a situation in which one party "wins" and the other "loses." It is a situation in which both parties have a "duty" to behave patiently and lovingly with each other.

I have despaired over recent controversies that have beset Friends in FUM (not to mention Episcopalians, and UCCs and others), because these issues sometimes seem irreconcilable. But this way of looking things reminds me that we need not despair -- so long as we each do our duty to God, and are patient and loving with each other. This is not a promise of resolution, but a promise that the solutions are not zero-sum games -- that God's ways are bigger than we can understand at the moment, which means that sometimes we must be uncomfortable with where we are right now.