Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, Jesus observed, and our Friends’ meetings are not immune to the danger of dividedness. We may look forward in hope to the promised reconciliation of all things (Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:19-20), but this will not keep houses built on sand from falling when the storm comes. And come it must; and a community of worship divided is a house on a sandy foundation.
I see fault lines, cleavage lines, in my own home meeting, as elsewhere, not on “theological” lines of division as we ordinarily think of them, but along lines of who’s boss around here, the Holy One or me, the individual? If me, the individual is boss, then meeting for worship becomes a campfire for singing and storytelling — storytelling about what makes us happy or unhappy. In such a meeting, because of its accepting atmosphere, I can hope to maintain my fantasy that others are edified by what I say, rather than that they are trying to forgive me my trespass against them. But if it’s the Holy One who is in charge, gathering us into a Unity with an all-wise and all-loving Head and Heart, then what we thought was a campfire becomes a fire with a far different purpose, before which me, the individual, is dethroned. We are not in agreement about which kind of meeting we are. And we are not in agreement that we want to know that we’re in disagreement.
This makes us a community with an unmentionable elephant in the room, whose unmentionability is a rule, itself unmentionable, that everyone abides by. It’s very hard to be the first to mention the elephant and the rule, because the penalty for breaking an unmentionable prohibition is also unmentionable, and therefore may incur pain, horror and guilt that are unmentionably vast. Only when the prospect of life without breaking the prohibition seems more dreadful than the unknown consequences of breaking it can we dare to defy the fear and open our mouths.
Fear rules in such a meeting, and where fear rules, so do his brothers anger and guilt. We’re civilized about it, of course, and forgiving, just as we try to be in a marriage that’s grown cold and pleasureless. At rise of meeting, we smile when we shake hands, and the announcements are read cheerfully; surely this is not the time to say that the meeting was hijacked by disorderly speakers. But when is it time? If we dedicate a Sunday afternoon to a called meeting to discuss the elephant, will the necessary people come to it? And will their ears be opened to hear?
Of course, the elephant-mentioner must not expect his announcement to be greeted by agreement and expressions of relief, because fear, anger and guilt are skilled at hiding themselves and don’t like being outed. Those of us who can often live in denial of them, perfectly normal though they are, waste-products of life in an imperfect world.
Are we not angry? Scientists tell us we’re cooking the planet, turning good land into desert and the oceans into death soup, while policymakers deny climate change and otherwise dance to the tune of the corporate masters that bought them. Our fellow-citizens seem hypnotized by the for-profit media that tell them what to think; our religious institutions, for the most part, provide little help in connecting us with a living God who empowers us to do all things and whose voice, from behind us, says “This is the way, walk in it.” Absent such felt contact with an omnipotent, omniscient and loving God who can be relied on to show us what to do, shouldn’t our experience of powerlessness in an insane world make us fearful, and the fear make us angry?
And if our meetings for worship seem to hinder, rather than facilitate, our contact with our Only Wise Teacher, is it any wonder that we turn our anger onto other members of our faith community? And is it any wonder that, lacking firm contact with our Holy Guide, we hear our fellow-worshippers urging us at rise of meeting (depending on the political coloration of our Meeting) to come to such-and-such a demonstration, or to vote for candidates of such-and-such a party? If the Mind of Christ is one mind, how is it that Friends are so often Democrats in blue states and Republicans in red? Have we despaired, amid all the noise of our meetings for worship, of being made “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32)?
As for guilt, shame, and our need for reassurances of God’s forgiveness and healing: there is a fair share of mutual confession, and requests for one another’s forgiveness, in the small Quaker meeting that is my household, but I see precious little of it at the meeting where my wife, my children and I hold formal membership. This is hardly surprising, since, for all the apostolic advices about it in the New Testament, I find no mention of it in my yearly meeting’s Faith and Practice.
Another way of saying that fear, anger and guilt rule in an unruly Friends’ meeting is that separation rules rather than Unity, and that we’re collectively content with separation because that’s all we know. If we were inwardly unified, perhaps, we’d look out on a world that appeared to us as one unified organism, growing toward perfection in spite of its transient growing-pains. But if our inward condition is a war of all against all, what else can we see outside of ourselves but the same?
Whatever our inward condition, though, and however it projects itself on our outward experience, including our experience of the condition of our meeting, there is One who knocks at our door (Rev. 3:20). If we’ve put rubber plugs in our ears so as not to hear Him, He’ll knock more loudly, so that not only we but also our meeting will hear. He can be relied on to do that, because He loves us. Let us be thankful.