I have always longed to be part of a community. But it has become clear to me lately that “belonging” depends on being accountable. I do not mean this in a quid pro quo sense, like an accountant balancing the books. I mean this in the sense of family members being accountable to each other, where they care for each other, and they all contribute as much as they are able. In the intimacy of a family, each member accepts a sense of vulnerability to the others. They put their trust in each other. They know that each person’s conduct reflects on the family as a whole. They know that they owe the family the consideration of behaving in ways that reflect well on it. The family has a right to expect the members to account for their behavior. By being accountable in an intimate setting, people strengthen the bonds of love among them.
Sadly, I have not found sufficient processes among silent Friends for holding themselves accountable to each other.
If a faith community creates no expectations of trust and conduct among its members, it is not a congregation, but an aggregation. An aggregation is a mere happenstance collection of individuals, which can easily disintegrate. An enduring faith community is bound together by spiritual relationships. People choose to enter into those relationships willingly. The relationships are living bonds among people, not roles held by people individually. We are all in it together. Respectful and loving relationship can only exist if all the parties recognize their accountability to each other. This means that a faith community has to develop loving and respectful processes for making its expectations known and for helping its members to grow.
Being an accountable Quaker means recognizing an authority for your life that is greater than the ego conditioning you have acquired in your upbringing and your continuing immersion in your culture. This recognition of an authority greater than your own is the beginning of Quaker convincement, the beginning of a Quaker life. Friends have traditionally recognized two aspects to this authority.
The primary authority for Friends is the Inward Light. We call it “Light” because it lets us see into matters that have been hidden from us. The Inward Light is not something we can command or bring to bear by our own powers of wanting or thinking. The Inward Light never appears until we fully surrender the fears, desires, and protections that we hold so carefully close.
Our practice of silent worship helps us see the illusions we have acquired in life, see how those illusions have guided us into error, and see what new paths we might take. To arrive at such understandings, we need to let go of the stratagems of thinking that have been guiding us, to quiet our minds, and to rest open to what might be revealed. This takes convincement and practice, which can work together in a virtuous cycle. When we practice letting go, we sometimes experience the Light, which convinces us of its truth. We learn that seeing our lives through the haze of our ego presumptions is seeing through a glass darkly. Only when we let go of those presumptions can we see ourselves and others in a new Light of compassion. But even then, we need to practice silence over and over, so that our convincement and confidence grow.
The secondary authority for Friends is found in intimate sharing with other Friends. We do not overcome our illusions through isolated experiences. The forces that shape us and condition us are almost always working completely outside our awareness, and those forces beat on us constantly. We need the compassionate listening and responses of other Friends to help us bring our own illusions into consciousness. Also, the stories of other Friends’ struggles and achievements bring Light to shine in our darkness. And there is no Friend who never needs a clearness committee. The work of being a growing Quaker is too hard for any individual alone, no matter how rugged a person might presume to be. (I know this because I have spent too much of my life imagining my own brilliance was sufficient.) The authority that Friends can offer each other requires great trust and trust-worthiness.
In short, the loving bonds that hold a Quaker community together depend on accountability among its members. Accountability for Friends depends on individuals’ convincement by the Inward Light that it can guide them. Friends’ convincement by the Inward Light is strengthened by the secondary authority of other Friends. When our Quaker communities neglect these essentials, they hardly deserve to be called “Quaker” or “communities.” I do not have a complete set of answers for the problem of this neglect, but I do have a couple of suggestions.
First, we must work on this problem in small groups. To raise the level of accountability in our meetings, we need to confront our current comfortable cultures and atmospheres. We need to foster this attitude: “Ok, so we’re Quakers; so what? What are we doing to deepen our connection to the Spirit; to challenge our understanding of where we belong in Reality; to increase our spiritual wisdom and love, and to live lives that show it?” We need to create an understanding that as Friends, we have no laurels to rest on; that the need to grow in the Spirit is a life’s work; that a Quaker life is about becoming, because life is about becoming. Such work of spiritual growth happens most readily in the intimacy of small groups. A large meeting might bring in an inspirational speaker to raise awareness, but deep and lasting attitude changes are the result of challenging conversations among people who trust each other.
Many Quaker meetings have tried various activities to promote small groups; these have been good, but we need more. We need to encourage everyone in our meetings to join small, ongoing, worship groups. Every one of us needs to be part of a small group that shares intimately, among trusted Friends, about our spiritual struggles and victories.
A second path toward accountability is the commitment to study and learn about who Quakers are and who we have been. We have many odd practices and traditions. Knowing how we do them isn’t enough. We need to understand why these practices and traditions exist. We need to know what was happening in the world in 1625-1675 and how that relates to Quakers in the twenty-first century. We need to have members in our meetings who can tell us who Gerard Winstanley, Elizabeth Bathhurst, and Pieter Balling were, and why they are still important today. Our members need to be able to clearly state the core theological differences between Quakers and other faiths. They need to be able to explain what George Fox meant by the word, “condition.” We need to move our members and attenders to become grounded in the foundation of Friends’ history and theology. We need Friends to be excited by who they are as Friends.
Let us strengthen the bonds of love among us. I know that my own sense of belonging in my Friends community will deepen when I am challenged to become more intimate and accountable within the family of Friends. ~~~
Robert Griswold is a member of Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, Colorado (IMYM). He has published many articles in Western Friend (formerly Friends Bulletin), Friends Journal and other Quaker publications. He can be contacted by email at [email protected].