One of the key parts of George Fox’s revelation was that religious structures can kill the free movement of the Spirit. That was one of the main reasons the early Quakers left their gatherings unstructured: to allow the Spirit to give worship its form every time. I think George Fox recognized how deeply embedded the human need for structure is: after we have found an experience we like, we try to recreate the experience with the use of structure.

My Ffriend R has advocated the practice of disbanding the Religious Society of Friends every 5o years. He believes that the spark of the initial vision and passion of religious groups only survives for about 50 years before developing structures start to choke the movement of the Spirit. Then expectations of “correct” practice take over, and the authentic fire gets doused. So R would disband the RSoF after 50 years, believing that a new RSoF (perhaps with a different name) would arise out of the ashes of the first group and be helpful for about 50 years, after which the structure would become harmful and the RSoF should be laid down again.  

I think R’s idea is a bit too radical, perhaps. And yet… 

Many Meetings around the USA have taken “sabbaticals” during the past decade or so. They needed a break from the weight of their committees and regular work. More recently I’ve heard that at least one Yearly Meeting (Pacific) and several Monthly Meetings (North Seattle Friends Church and University Friends Meeting here in Seattle) have decided to set aside a year to discern what the group’s needs are and what kind of a structure is most conducive to worshiping God and being faithful to God’s call in the world.

My own liberal Meeting, Salmon Bay, has just taken its own major steps. Despite worship being strong and deep for a while now, there is little life outside the hour of worship. Many members report feeling a sense of heaviness in relationship to Meeting, and our newcomers find it hard to get involved in the Meeting. Nominating Committee has struggled for years to fill all the committee positions and responsibilities for our Meeting. This year we were unable to put together a Nominating Committee: No-one wants the task of asking someone to take on yet another responsibility. Something had to be done.

First a little background: Our Meeting consists primarily of youngish families, with very few retired members with time to give to the Meeting. Most of our adult members have full-time commitments to family needs or very demanding paid work and have little energy left over for the Meeting structure. And yet there are almost as many offices to be held as there are adult members of our Meeting.

Now Salmon Bay’s Ministry & Worship Committee (on which I serve) has suggested to our Meeting, based on the model of our local evangelical church, North Seattle Friends Church, that we enter into a 6 month trial period of suspending as much of the old structure as we can. During that time we will put our focus on worship and fellowship. We will have a potluck on our regular business meeting Sunday, and if there is business that requires the full Meeting’s attention, we will have a short business Meeting, but only for matters of substance. Otherwise we will just eat together and talk with each other.  

We want to change the way we think about our role as a Meeting – rather than being there to test leadings and ensure that everything under the Meetings’s auspices happens according to “good order”, we want to be encouragers and cheerleaders when vision emerges or energy flows. We want to help the Fire burn stronger and hotter!

We have proposed that our clerk take care of correspondance and outside requests in executive fashion, consulting with members of M&W/Oversight when needed. M&W and Oversight would continue to meet, but only to care for worship and our members in the most immediate ways, not to do any seasoning/pre-discernment for business that will come before the Meeting as a whole. There would be childcare, but we aren’t sure whether there will be children’s education, or adult education for that matter. Perhaps we will just use that time for intergenerational fellowship? In the past we have only had 20 minutes for fellowship each week, and I think many of us feel like we are strangers to each other.

In other words, we don’t want to try to serve the structure Quakers created more than 350 years ago. We want to rekindle the flames and devote ourselves again to the Fire. Then, when our attention is on the Fire, we can create whatever structure is appropriate based on our condition.

Isn’t that what Quakerism is truly about – being attentive so that the Letter of the law doesn’t kill the Spirit?

Query for prayerful consideration:

What are the needs of the Quaker group in which I worship? Do other Quaker groups (in my own branch of Quakerism and in others) have creative ideas which we might borrow to help keep structure from killing the Spirit?