Posts Tagged ‘church government’

Mystery, Marketing, and the Mess at General Theological Seminary

October 19, 2014

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/whatgodwantsforyourlife/2014/10/when-mystery-becomes-product-the-case-of-general-theological-seminary/ The link is to a blog by Frederick William Schmidt about the conflict at General Theological Seminary in New York City.  In recent weeks, from what I can make out on the Quaker sidelines, several faculty members registered complaints with the Board of Trustees about the dean. Matters got to a point where eight faculty members wrote to the trustees saying that they would stop teaching until matters were resolved. The trustees took this as a letter of resignation from the eight faculty members, accepted it as such, and relieved the eight of their positions on the faculty. The eight faculty members said it was never meant as a resignation. Questions about the right to organize, the right to strike, freedom of speech, and academic freedom are swirling around.

On Friday, October 17, the trustees reaffirmed that the dean was the dean they wanted and the eight faculty members could apply for provisional reinstatement on an individual basis—which I’m told is a classic union-busting technique. I’m posting about this on Among Friends because there are things in Schmidt’s blog and in the comments on his blog that got me thinking about Quaker life and New York Yearly Meeting. For example, Schmidt says that seminaries were created by the Council of Trent to be “seedbeds.”

“Over time, seminaries have become something very different.  They are no longer seedbeds, they are dispensaries, sources of information, places where commodities are sold, factories. . . . And, now, as numbers and money begin to become acute issues for seminaries, boards and seminary leaders without any deep sympathy for that seedbed model are beginning to ask themselves, ‘How can we distribute this information and collect tuition for it in a more efficient fashion?'”

In the last paragraph of his post, Schmidt talks about mystery— “Therein lies the message to the seminaries left standing: Consider your purpose.  If you are simply dispensing information, your days are numbered.  The product can be codified, recorded, and dispensed.  A seedbed is a different matter.  It is baptism into a mystery – an experience of God – a relationship with God and those who have been touched by the Divine.  Mystery is not something that is simply learned, it is absorbed and the few that choose to offer that gift have a future.  For those that don’t offer that mystery, there isn’t one.”

Those last two sentences opened to me why effective Quaker religious education is so difficult. How do you teach a mystery? How do you teach the mystery that is Quaker meeting for worship? Schmidt’s words help explain to me why we leave so much to the notorious Quaker ‘process of osmosis.’ Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. But is there a way to engage people in that osmotic process more effectively in our monthly meetings? 

I got more explanations—these about yearly meeting life—as I read the comments on Schmidt’s blog. In one by Roy Herndon Smith, I found this— “As Bernard Brandon Scott observes, in any age, the dominant institution in society becomes the model for churches and church-related institutions. In sixteenth-century Europe, the feudal court was the model for the church. In twenty-first century America, the corporation is the model.”

And there we are: the ‘priorities’ models of marketing that New York and Philadelphia yearly meetings (are there others?) adopted this summer. To adapt Schmidt’s quote, I heard my yearly meeting asking of itself: ‘How can we . . . collect [money] in a more efficient fashion?’”

Early Friends witnessed against the feudal court–model of the church and “the dominant institution” of society. Friends today are falling nicely into step with the wisdom to be found in the life of the successful capitalist corporation. In another comment, I learned about Juergen Habermas from someone going by his Twitter handle of frharry. Frharry has a somewhat heavy style that needs a little ear-of-the-heart translating. Bear with it—

“Juergen Habermas spoke of the colonization of the lifeworld by its business quadrant as early as the 1980s. With the political quadrant neutralized, business construction of the lifeworld based in business values of profit and the commodification of all aspects of that world (including its human “resources”) no longer had any checks. As a result, all social institutions and cultural values become colonized, taking on business values and goals. Education becomes knowledge fluency, higher education becomes job training, students become consumers. It is an impoverishment of the lifeworld that ironically sells itself to the public as the best of possible worlds, a la Pangloss. Most of the time we are so voluntarily distracted that we don’t notice.”

I lift up for your attention the concept of becoming colonized, taking on business values and goals.

The mention of Pangloss with its reference to Voltaire’s Candide was especially meaningful to me. As part of the summer’s Priorities business, New York Yearly Meeting Friends are being urged to contribute to the Make Our Garden Grow web page: http://www.nyym.org/?q=MakeOurGardenGrow

I keep wanting to post the Leonard Bernstein–Stephen Sondheim song there.

Priorities for the Religious Society of Friends

June 28, 2014

A story is told about John the Beloved Disciple, who, alone of the twelve disciples, lived to a very old age and died a natural death.  As Jerome recounts it, in his last years John had to be carried to the church in Ephesus in his disciples’ arms. At these meetings he’d say no more than “Little children, love one another!” After hearing the same message many times, his followers found it tiresome, and asked him why he always said it. He answered, “It’s the Lord’s command; and if this alone be done, it is enough!” (see William Steuart McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles (Living Books edition, 1983), pp. 187-188.)

“Love one another:” isn’t this the “new commandment” that Jesus gave the disciples at the Last Supper? Wasn’t this to be the criterion (John 13:34-35) by which all people might recognize followers of Jesus? That they love one another as Jesus loved them – therefore, wrote John, “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).  There is, of course, also the commandment to love our neighbors and our enemies (Matt. 22:40, 5:44), without which we can’t really love God: love is the fundamental thing; faith “worketh through love,” Galatians 5:6.  God loves us infinitely, but if we bite and devour one another, refuse to forgive one another, tell lies to one another, or use one another to gratify our own swollen egos, we shut the door on God also, and refuse God’s love.  In such a case, estrangement from God is our doing, not God’s.

Fast forward sixteen hundred years, to the founding of the Religious Society of Friends, whose rallying-cry was “Christ is come to teach His people Himself!”  This, said George Fox and others, was a truth known “experimentally,” that is, through direct experience of the “true Light, which lighteth every [person] that cometh into the world” (John 1:9).  It’s important to remember that this was no voluntary association of individuals formed around common values and purposes, but a people of God – “the people of God in scorn called Quakers,” they sometimes styled themselves – who knew themselves bound to God by a covenant, and called – called to be saints, called to grace, liberty, holiness, peace, and eternal life, called to the fellowship, kingdom, and glory of Christ: called no longer to live as separate individuals unto themselves, but to die to the old self and live as branches in the One Vine.  Three hundred and fifty years later, we Quakers may no longer remember that we’re a covenanted people, and we may no longer even agree that there is a God, let alone a Person titled Christ who calls us to a new life, but neither have we repudiated any of these foundational understandings.  So it’s to this covenanted people I address myself here:

New York Yearly Meeting, to which I belong, is in the midst of considering its priorities, having approved a process “to discern… what work God would have us do.” It’s appointed a working group of dedicated, seasoned Friends to meet with local and regional meetings and worship groups. These have done a great deal of deep listening over the past few years, and formulated a Statement of Leadings and Priorities, which is shortly to be presented to the Yearly Meeting for approval. Tomorrow there’s to be a called meeting, at my monthly meeting, to consider the document. I think it’s a pretty good document, and it makes sound, sensible suggestions – loving suggestions – for improving our corporate health.

But there are a couple of things that don’t sit well with me. The encouragement to bring new people into meeting, for example, so that we’ll enjoy an increase in membership. Frankly, I don’t want an increase in membership. 70% of our membership takes no part in our committee work; 10 to 15% come to business meeting; this tells me that membership as we know it is a rotten institution. I don’t even want to see an increase in attendance per se. I’d like to see an increase in love for one another, in mutual forgiveness, in readiness to die to the old self or to die one for another, even to sacrifice personal comfort for one another’s sake. Be more Christlike, Friends! Then, I think, new people would come to us like bees to the honeysuckle vine. And then we might see how to reinvent membership, to have more to do with that covenant with God than it now has.

Then there’s the expressed hope that the Yearly Meeting would “witness to the world on our behalf.” No, I don’t want it to witness to the world on our behalf, I want it to witness to the world on God’s behalf, on Christ’s behalf, on the Gospel’s behalf, or else be silent! I don’t want it to lobby public officials to do the right thing so that what we consider right policies are enacted and enforced, leaving those officials’ defiled consciences unchallenged, but to call those officials to repentance if that’s what their spiritual need is. What have we, a people disarmed of carnal weapons, to do with the apparatus of the state, which is all about domination, force, mass surveillance, and the deployment of carnal weapons? The world says, “let us do evil, that good may come of it” (Romans 3:8); we’re a people called out of the world, forbidden to reason in such a manner. What communion hath light with darkness!? Jesus was silent before Pilate: do we think ourselves any better equipped to negotiate with the world?

On the other hand, if we are a city on a hill that cannot be hid, there’s hope that the world will come to us for counsel when its own counsel fails.