In the earliest years of our faith, buoyed up by currents of the Enlightenment, Friends professed Truth as they drew it from individual revelations. Even though they shared a common Christian background and perspective, early Friends’ revelations multiplied wildly, leading to strife and confusion among them. By 1666, many prominent Friends had been executed or imprisoned, and the faith seemed destined to fizzle. What saved Friends’ faith was Friends’ invention of practices of corporate discernment, which allowed them to create some order among themselves, so they could truly function as corporate bodies (articulated), rather than merely as disperseable collectives of individuals (amorphous).
Richard Farnsworth and ten other Quaker elders gathered in London in 1666 and drafted “a testimony against the unruly,” which laid the groundwork for good order among Friends. This epistle was circulated widely among Friends, and within the next few years, a system was established that would somewhat regularize the faith and practice of local monthly meetings by having them gather together in regional quarterly meetings to strengthen their common foundation. The 1666 epistle emphasized and clarified the dominant authority that Quaker meetings (elders and members) should hold over the authority of individual Friends. “[It is right that] the elders and members of the church, which keep their habitation in the Truth, ought to judge matters and things which differ; and their judgment which is given therein, [ought] to stand good and valid amongst Friends . . .”
William Penn published a hundred works on religious and civic topics during his lifetime. His life as an individual embodied the vigorous Life of the Spirit that early Friends promoted through corporate reflection on individual revelations. “True godliness [doesn’t] turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it,” he wrote in 1682. Penn found ways to extend Friends’ practices of corporate reflection into the civic life of budding democracies, most notably in the Pennsylvania Frame of Government (1681), which later informed the framing of the U.S. Constitution. By these extensions, Penn was not merely creating secular clones of Quaker business practices. Rather, he was fixing the Light of Good Order onto a high stand for all humanity to see by: “[Government arises so] that one may not injure another, nor himself, by intemperance. . . [Its end is] to over-rule men’s passions and resentments, that they may not be judges in their own cause, and punishers of their own wrongs.”
It’s easy to imagine some Friends in Penn’s day complaining that he was “too political.” I can also imagine the Spirit guiding him actively, constantly, mysteriously, as he shared bread and arguments with tax collectors.
I attended a board meeting of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District last month. The matter at hand was whether the district should set stricter rules and standards on oil refinery emissions. District staff opened by stating that they would not be setting “hard caps” on emissions, because counsel had advised them that such caps would certainly be challenged in court. Of the eighty public speakers who followed, several responded: “If the district isn’t being sued by the oil refineries, it isn’t doing its job.” By the end of that five-hour meeting, the board did instruct staff to produce a proposal that includes hard caps on emissions.
While I sat through those tedious hours of push and tug between public and private interests, I was knitting. Pressed by warm bodies on all sides, I wove the yarn back into itself, row after row. Immersed in stories – refinery neighbors with lung cancer, refinery neighbors with daily layers of grime on their patio tables, refinery workers with concerns about job security, environmentalists with concerns about our Earth – I knitted stitch after stitch, weaving my awareness into the corporate body of individual strangers, feeling my heart align with the rhythm of the public soul, beating with love and struggle and resolve. Immersed and transported. The beloved community is at hand. ~~~