Deborah Rowlands reflects on the 'wonderful paradox' of Quaker discipline
‘All Friends understand and live by Quaker discipline.
‘Our discipline is actually “Letting go and letting God”: not “Thou shalt” nor “I will” but “What does Love require of us?” It works when we understand it and practise it. Because we understand it, we can share it with others. Our testimony guides us, but we have to work on what it means for each of us personally.’
- From Our faith in the future
What a wonderful paradox that is! Discipline sounds so firm and rule-bound, and letting go and letting God so freeing. How can we experience the freedom inherent within our discipline? Quaker faith & practice has plenty of guidance. But none of it works without attention to what Love requires. In the seventeenth century George Fox had this to say: ‘Take heed of getting into a form without the power… for that will bring deadness, and coldness, and weariness, and faintings.’ Our discipline depends not on domination by the ‘oughts and should,’ which might be implied by the word discipline, but by each of us coming willing to ‘Let God’ into our business meetings. Otherwise, they can indeed be places of weariness, and deadness!
Fundamentally, Quaker discipline is not just something that happens for a Quaker business meeting. It is how we live all the time, following the promptings of Love and Truth to discern our way forward in our daily encounters. Easy to say, but less easy to let go of my own ego, and let God in. As Our faith in the future reminds us, by working on it I understand more about what helps me to let go. One of the best ways of gaining an understanding of how we do discernment as a community is to practise it; being aware of how different clerks and Meetings work together sensitively in response to the movement of the Spirit, bringing their own personalities and skills to bear.
There are some practical things which help good discernment: silence, an agenda, informed participants, a well-prepared clerk, worship, clarity about the decisions to be made, adequate breaks and a clear timescale. These are important to being loving and inclusive to everyone. It is hard to let God in when you are longing for your sandwiches! Working at an important issue over more than one session helps. It is not just that it allows more consultation, but that pause is also a chance to let God in. So, it is not just about facts (though they are definitely a helpful ingredient of good decision making!), but also about being aware of emotional responses to the matter, and self-will. The way we make a decision is not just about the decision itself; it is also about how we are as a community, and the commitment we feel to carrying through the outcome together.
It is amazing to participate in discernment in a Yearly Meeting session of a thousand or more people, but some of my deepest experiences of Quaker discipline have come in small working groups. We may use less formal ways to bring out different truths amongst us, but if we can ‘let go and let God’ our service can be centred on deep Friendships which are fostered between us, as we move forward our Quaker witness in the world, to create that web of connection, life and Love spoken of so beautifully by Rose Ketterer in Quaker faith & practice 26.35:
That the web exists is my faith. Spinning at it, dancing along it and calling others into it are my ministry. Ripping it or withdrawing into isolation and despair are my sins. Articulating my faith is hard enough; living it is often beyond me. But we are all connected. Strength seeps in from everywhere and amazing things happen. The sense of participation and communion sweeps over me like ocean waves.
This is a revised version of an article first published in Calon, the newsletter of Quakers in Wales.
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