Book Review: Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order

Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order by Lloyd Lee Wilson address facets of (Conservative) Quaker faith and practice. Here is a summary of the book together with some conclusions. I’ve chosen to focus on the Quaker vision of good order, waiting worship, faith community, meeting for business, and leadings and discernment.

Gospel, Right, or Good Order
Gospel order, right order, or good order is the order that exists in every part of the universe. It is the right relationship of every part to every other part. One might say that good order is an organizing principle by which Quakers come to a clearer understanding of this relationship and the responsibilities of that relationship.1 It is the responsibility of Quakers to live in a manner that is in line with good order, even if it means to be in conflict with prevailing norms, values, and laws.2 This has kept Quakers at the edge of human understanding of right relationships.3

Good Order in the Now
Quakers believe that good order is effective in the present moment,4 that it’s always breaking into our lives now.5 Quakers also believe that every person is capable of living in good order. This means that it is necessary for each person to be seeking, trying to discern good order in every situation. The choice whether or not to do so is up to the individual.6

Quakers have discovered and developed a number of practices which are useful in this process of discovering what action is in keeping with good order in a given circumstance. However, it should be remembered that the practices by which Quakers discern good order is a very small portion of good order itself.7 The practices that Quakers follow will not ensure good order if they are followed ritualistically, without an underlying desire to be in good order. Meanings have to be transmitted along with vocabulary.8

Waiting Worship
Early Quakers understood how important the use of language is. The words we use to express our understandings also shape our understandings. The inadequacy of language led Quakers into waiting worship.9 The fundamental means by which a Quaker meeting, or an individual, discerns good order is by centering down, listening, and ”feeling out” what is good order. The process is spiritual, or intuitive, rather than intellectual.10

Good Order in the Situation
Quakers go about answering the question ”What is good order in this situation?” by listening to the Inward Guide. Intellectual, or rational, explanations cannot capture the essence of good order, or the means by which it is perceived. The individual must find out what is good order on her own.11 Good order includes the ability to meet specific needs of a specific situation and time.12 We gain strength, clarity, and harmony to the extent we keep close to good order in each circumstance.13 This is why Quakers try to feel out carefully for good order in each decision, and to follow faithfully given promptings and leadings.14

Quakerism is a gestalt of the community, not the individual.15 A gestalt is an integrated structure which can neither be derived from the parts of the whole, nor considered simply as the sum of the parts.16 A solitary Quaker is an oxymoron.17 A shift to the Quaker gestalt requires inner transformation. It involves a new way of seeing the world and a new understanding of how to move in it.18

Change in Values
When we begin to seek out the root causes for the problems in our world today, we are soon confronted with the need for a society-wide change in values. It involves a new understanding of how we are to live and act in relationship with each other and the rest of nature.19 In order to preserve and sustain the Life which we have been given, it is necessary to sustain and build up the gestalt which guides and nurtures us in our daily lives.20

Creativity and Relationship
The fundamental meaning of any creative act lies in dedicating ourselves before the act rather than after it.21 In this way, we dedicate ourselves in totality and avoid the temptation to hold back some part of our person. As we know ourselves more fully, we are also able to offer ourselves more fully, and thereby enter more deeply into relationship. The only hindrance in this relationship is our unwillingness to accept it fully and openly.22

Knowing Experientially
The signs of true leadings can only be known experientially, not intellectually. A written description can only point toward the experience.23 The responsibility for finding the Truth must be undertaken with the greatest love and tenderness, and a high sensitivity for leadings and guidance.24 The most convincing argument one can humanly give is the simple testimony of one’s own life.25

Promptings and Risks
We all feel promptings and urgings, but being faithful to those promptings feels risky. Those risks include the risk of embarrassment, failure, success, scorn, change, and vulnerability. Success and failure often feel equally risky.26 Personal change is risky. Self-revealing makes one vulnerable.27 The apparent risk of being successful comes when we don’t want the responsibility, or the higher expectations that other people place on us.28 We may also evoke scorn of people who feel threatened or even insulted by our words. This emphasizes the importance of staying close to one’s promptings, making sure not to add or take away from our message.29 For nearly everyone, change is scary. Our current life is known and therefore seems safer.30

Discernment is not automatic. We need to learn it individually. We can also help one another discern as a community. There are three aspects to discerning: observation, dialogue, and testing through experience. If there is harmony in the perceptions of the individual and community, one gains confidence in the validity of the leading. It is very important to help one another.31 Nurturing and encouraging each other to take on the risks of being faithful is vital. It’s necessary to cultivate being open and vulnerable with one another, and to protect that openness and vulnerability with appropriate behavior.32

Quakers decision-making is based on the belief that there is a good order, and that it can be discerned by human beings who seek it out. Quakers experience is that all persons will perceive good order in a given situation when all seek for it, and that the community can come into unity in any decision.33 The task is not to find a decision which all can approve, but a decision where all is in unity. What is required for reaching unity is a personal centering down into that Life which guides us. The process is one of spiritual discernment.34

Meeting for Business
Those Quakers who are not present at a particular meeting for business cannot afterward criticize its actions and decisions, for they were not present. Likewise, those who were present cannot afterward criticize, for they (presumably) did feel the unity. On the other hand, it is very much in order to revisit a decision, to see whether new insight or guidance may change the meeting’s perception.35

Role as Clerk
The clerk has a role to play in helping the meeting find its proper pace and rhythm, by proposing trail minutes, by pausing between speakers, and by proposing worshipful silence when that seems best. If there is a rush to make a decision, it is likely that the right issue has not yet been articulated. The purpose of the meeting is not to make a particular decision, but to discern what is best for the group and this time.36

Sense of the Meeting
As the meeting considers a particular decision one can feel the ”sense of the meeting” accumulate around a particular course of action. From time to time it happens that one, or a few, Quakers are uneasy with the direction in which the meeting seems moving. When this happens, it is important to allow as much time as necessary for all present to feel right about the contemplated decision.37 Sometimes a decision must be postponed for several meetings before the community can reach true unity. The postponement is a continuing of the communal search for discernment. Faithful listening enables greater understanding, and results in better decisions.38

Standing Aside
After listening to the concerns and insights on all sides of a question, there may still be a Quaker who cannot unite with the decision. In this situation a Quaker may wish to ”stand aside” allowing the other Quakers to move ahead. This is never done lightly by any Quaker, and is never accepted easily by the meeting at large.39 For the meeting, allowing an individual to ”step aside” from a decision is to confess failure to reach true discernment. It is far better to be uncomfortable for a while longer in the hope and expectation that a third way will be opened.40

Tyranny of One
A particularly frustrating condition of disunity is when an individual Quaker cannot, or will not, unite with the discernment of the rest of the meeting, and refuses to ”step aside” in order to allow the meeting to move forward. It is easy for such a Quaker to paralyze the meeting, and this must be avoided. In extreme situations of this sort, it is permissible for the clerk to declare the general sense of the meeting in spite of the unresolved opposition of the individual in question. When this situation begins to develop, it is important for Quakers to find ways to help the Quaker in question to feel more trusting of others in the community.41

Unnecessary Speech
When Quakers are in good order, those who speak are simply expressing what others have already felt. The aim of each individual is to help the meeting to hear and to be faithful to the Presence in the midst, rather than to persuade the meeting to adopt one’s own plan of action.42 One should not repeat what has already been said. Unnecessary speech will delay the meeting in its search for unity.43

It is important to compose and approve minutes at the moment unity is reached. Human memory is short and plays tricks. The clerk has the responsibility of composing the minutes. The gifts of clerking the meeting and writing minutes sometimes seem to make conflicting demands on a clerk’s attention. The presence of a recording clerk generally frees the presiding clerk to attend to the meeting itself. When the meeting has come to a sense of unity on a particular decision, it will return to a period of worshipful silence while the clerk formulates and writes down the minute. It is most important that this time isn’t used to discuss other items, since the clerk needs a supportive atmosphere.44

Clerking a meeting for business requires considerable discernment. The influence of the clerk is indirect but substantial. The clerk may never speak to the specific content of a decision under consideration, but has a great influence on the ability of the meeting to achieve discernment.45 The clerk has the responsibility to help the meeting discern the light, but should not to attempt to provide the light.46

The Quakers’ method of decision-making places much power in the hands of each individual. This requires a great deal of trust on the part of all involved. Each individual need to trust that the meeting as a whole is operating with integrity, and the meeting must trust that individuals who express misgivings about a particular course of action do so only from the highest of motives.47

We cannot see anything with clarity until we have faced ourselves and our own condition. Seeing other people’s conditions as they are, or events as they will be, begins with seeing one’s self as one really is with sensitivity and honesty.48 Forgiveness is not something we do, but something we accept. When we have accepted forgiveness, personal dedication is quick to come.49 Our deepest values and aspirations reside below both reason and emotions.50

Outward vs. Inward Change
Outward change and societal reformation are not possible without inward transformation. The true problems are in the hearts of human beings, not in their surroundings. Until there has been an inward change, all our attempts to change outward behavior are doomed to be revealed as false.51 Harmony, community, equality, and simplicity point to inward changes that make new outward behavior possible.52

Harmony is part of the essence of good order. However, there is something about the nature of human beings which seems inevitably to separate us from one another. We seem doomed to live in conflict, even with the people we love most, and with the earth on which we live. The problem results from people thinking that they are separate from other people, and from their environment generally.53 Peace is not simply a denunciation of the violence that is war, but is a more fundamental change which makes war irrelevant.54

All the forces which act to destroy community are present, no matter how much we struggle against them, for example, jealousy, mistrust, covetousness, and all the rest. What redeems the community is commitment to love anyway.55

To be equal does not mean that we are identical or that we should act as we were all the same. The Quaker understanding of equality is that individuals are outward different, but equal in their essence.56 No person has reason to feel superior to others.57

We are pushed and pulled by a myriad of wants, needs, demands, fears, and desires. The simple life is one in which there is always time to remember the deeper purpose behind each task, and to be thankful for each moment of the day. The life that has room to listen and to be thankful is simple, no matter how outwardly busy it may appear.58

The process of keeping open to leadings is close to the heart of the Quaker experience. How we respond to the idea of being led, and to the actual leadings, is closely related to how we feel out our own self-worth. In times when we feel worst about ourselves, we also are about as responsive as a rock.59 Quakers have adopted the view that the inner and outward are being integrally related. Outward actions and activities reflect our inward condition, and what we do outwardly shapes and changes our inward condition.60

There is a continuity of direction and purpose in the leadings that are given to a particular individual. Our perception, or failure to perceive, this continuity is an aide to the discernment process.61 All leadings are reflections of the Truth. The Truth is, furthermore, perceptible to all who truly seek it. This means that the authenticity of any leading will be perceptible to any community who seek to discern it. When a leading will have significant impact on one’s life, it is good order to ask the community for help in discernment of good action.62

Lloyd Lee Wilson’s book is about (Conservative) Quaker faith and practice in general.  I learned a lot. The author is quite concerned about protecting the Quaker gestalt. His view is that external influence regularly has proven to be damaging to Quakerism.63 This leads me to my greatest difficulty with the book. Wilson shares many profound insights, but sometimes I find his views to be too conservative. Try to protect Quakerism from external influence and it loses its vitality.

Wilson emphasizes, on one hand, that discernment of good order in the present situation lies close to the heart of Quaker experience. But he mistrusts, on the other hand, the individual’s ability to choose his/her own beliefs.64 And he distrusts the individual’s ability to discern what s/he needs to learn next.65 I find this contradictory. Wilson seems to trust the faith tradition more than the individual.

From time to time, I also find Wilson’s language awkward. Wilson uses the historic Christian vocabulary of Quakerism. He is fully aware that this may inhibit communication on the deepest levels with people who are unfamiliar with Quakerism, but he still insists on using that kind of language.66 The problem lies with non-Quakers who are inhibited and don’t accept the authentic experience of Friends.67 I find this view simplistic. Wilson seems to value traditional language more than the ability to communicate.

I believe that all human beings have the ability to discern good order. Any group can, for example, search for unity regardless of religious beliefs provided there is trust. I believe, furthermore, that the good order mentioned throughout the book is related to the deeper generative order for organizing, which I’m exploring in this series of posts. A particularly interesting example of communal discernment of good order is, again, in the Quakers’ approach to decision-making.

1 Lloyd Lee Wilson, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order (FGC QuakerPress, 2007, first published 1993), p.10. Please note that the page references are to the ebook version converted to A4 paper size.
2 Ibid., p.11.
3 Ibid., p.12.
4 Ibid., p.12.
5 Ibid., p.13.
6 Ibid..
7 Ibid..
8 Ibid., p.14.
9 Ibid..
10 Ibid..
11 Ibid..
12 Ibid., p.15.
13 Ibid..
14 Ibid..
15 Ibid., p.18.
16 Ibid., p.16.
17 Ibid., p.18.
18 Ibid., p.19.
19 Ibid., p.20.
20 Ibid., p.21.
21 Ibid., p.24.
22 Ibid., p.25.
23 Ibid., p.27.
24 Ibid., p.29.
25 Ibid., p.45.
26 Ibid., p.46.
27 Ibid., p.47.
28 Ibid., p.49.
29 Ibid., p.50.
30 Ibid., p.51.
31 Ibid., p.53.
32 Ibid., p.54.
33 Ibid., p.77.
34 Ibid., p.78.
35 Ibid..
36 Ibid., p.79.
37 Ibid..
38 Ibid..
39 Ibid..
40 Ibid., p.80.
41 Ibid..
42 Ibid..
43 Ibid., p.81.
44 Ibid..
45 Ibid..
46 Ibid., p.82.
47 Ibid., p.83.
48 Ibid., p.88.
49 Ibid., p.89.
50 Ibid., p.90.
51 Ibid., p.93.
52 Ibid., p.94.
53 Ibid..
54 Ibid., p.95.
55 Ibid., p.96.
56 Ibid., p.97.
57 Ibid., p.98.
58 Ibid., p.99.
59 Ibid., p.100.
60 Ibid., p.102.
61 Ibid., p.104.
62 Ibid., p.106.
63 Ibid., p.22.
64 Ibid..
65 Ibid..
66 Ibid., p.42.
67 Ibid..


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