Sunday, April 24, 2005

Advice number 7 of the Elders at Balby

7.-That as many as are moved of the Lord in his light to take a brother or a sister in marriage, marriage being honourable in all, and the bed undefiled, let it be made known to the children of light, especially to those of the meeting of which the parties are members: that all, in the light may it witness to be of God. And being by the light made manifest to be of God let them be joined together in the Lord and in his fear, in the presence of many witnesses; according to the example of the holy men of God in the Scriptures of truth recorded, which were written for our example and learning; that no scandal may rest upon the truth, nor anything be done in secret; but all things brought to the Light that truth may trample over all deceit, and that they who are joined together in the Lord, may not by man be put asunder, whom God hath joined together. That there may be a record in writing, (witnessing, the day, place, and year, of such things) kept within [that meeting] of which one or both of them are members; under which writing the witnesses present may subscribe their names, or so many of them as be convenient; for the stopping the mouths of all gainsayers, and for the manifesting the truth to all that are without.

Comment: To take a "brother or sister" in marriage meant, of course, taking another Quaker in marriage, not a biological sibling. It is my understanding that in this period only marriages within the established church were clearly recognized in law. That presented a problem for Friends, who regarded the established church as not a true church and not competent to perform or witness marriages. Some critics of Friends began to say that the Quakers were sexually libertine and that they "went together like rude beasts" as George Fox reported some had said. The Friends themselves, however, believed in marriage as a deep and solemn commitment that should be made before God and also in public. It was decidedly not enough that two Friends simply believed themselves to be married or that they made a private commitment between themselves. Rather they were to declare themselves to the meeting, and to proceed only if the meeting could "it witness to be of God". The wedding, when it took place, should also be public, and the parties should actually sign the promises they made to each other. This was not to be a temporary or provisional arrangement, nor to be lightly undertaken. It was to be done in the presence of God and "in his fear" and it was understood that those thus joined by the Lord could not "by man be put asunder".

Echoes of all this survive in the Quaker marriage meetings of today, in which the couple's promises to each other begin with the words "In the presence of God and these our Friends..." The degree to which the underlying assumptions of the early Friends are still understood and accepted may vary from Friend to Friend and meeting to meeting. I have sometimes (not often) felt that couples who came to my meeting looking for marriage have thought of the approval process as more or less a formality. I also know of some Quaker couples who have begun to regard themselves as married without ever seeking either legal status from the state or recognition by the meeting. Divorce, of course, is common and separation even more so. In this we share much with our non-Quaker neighbors. A rigid enforcement of the 17th century discipline would hardly solve these problems, only change their form. Yet surely something has been lost. This 7th advice seems to me one of the most challenging to Friends today. (And no, I do not think that marriage between people of the same gender is anywhere close to being our problem).

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Advices 5 & 6 from Elders at Balby

I am continuing in my plodding methodical way to comment on the advices in numerical order as I come to them, saving the more interesting and controversial ones until it's their turn, so to speak. As always, the advices are quoted from the text published by Quaker Heritage Press at Balby Letter of 1656

5.-That collections be timely made for the poor, (that are so indeed,) as they are moved, according to order,-for relief of prisoners, and other necessary uses, as need shall require: and all moneys so collected, an account thereof to be taken; from which every need may be supplied, as made known by the overseers in every meeting: that no private ends may be answered, but all brought to the light, that the gospel be not slandered.

6.-That care be taken for the families and goods of such as are called forth into the ministry, or who are imprisoned for the truth's sake; that no creatures be lost for want of the creatures.

These two advices seem related in that both call upon local meetings to care for Friends (and maybe others also?) in need. The ideology of "self reliance" and the notion that poverty is a punishment from God are both noticeably lacking.

Number 5 is talking about all who are truly poor, for whatever reason, and urges the local meetings to see to their relief by taking up collections for them and disbursing the funds as needed. The parenthetical qualification "that are so indeed" seems to recognize that even among Friends it might turn out that some who claim to be needy are not, and it is proper for the meetings to take this into account. The advice also specifies that all such collections be properly and openly accounted for. In part this was to avoid public scandal ("that the gospel be not slandered"), but it was also to guard against a temptation to corruption ("that no private ends be answered"). In these quite practical ways the Friends - though they believed that the Lord could take away their sin - implicitly recognized that they needed to guard against human frailty even among their own elders and overseers.

Number 6 concerns the families among Friends who have needs because one member is either traveling in the ministry or in prison for "truth's sake". This seems like a more particular application of the principle in advice number 5. Pastoral Friends sometimes point out that it was also an early recognition among Friends that those who do the work of ministry sometimes merit the meeting's financial support. I don't quite agree that this constitutes a valid argument for the system of paid pastors found in many meetings today, but it does illustrate that the issue may not be quite so cut-and-dried as some of us unprogrammed Friends think it is.

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Sunday, April 17, 2005

Advices 1 thru 4 of the Elders at Balby

I see that some readers have still been visiting this blog even though I haven't posted in weeks. At long last I feel ready to write something. (Incidentally, Florence Accetta, whose illness has absorbed the energies of our whole family for the last weeks, is in a rehab nursing home and seems to be recovering her strength but is still enduring many trials. Continued prayers are welcome.)

In one of the last posts on this blog, we began a dialog of sorts about the advices of the elders at Balby. My original hope was to draw attention to the advices themselves as opposed to the postscript to the advices that is so often quoted out of context in Quaker circles. Unfortunately, the discussion was truncated. I would now like to continue it by bringing my remarks on the first three advices out of the "comment" section and into the body of this post, followed by remarks on the fourth. (I will continue with the others in future posts). The quotations are from a posting of the original text by the Quaker Heritage Press as transcribed by Rosemary Moore from "a copy in the Lancashire Records Office at Preston, from the papers of Marsden Monthly Meeting."

"The elders and brethren send unto the brethren in the north these necessary things following; to which, if in the light you wait, to be kept in obedience, you shall do well. Fare well."

Comment: It would be interesting to know whether the "brethren in the north" asked for this advice, or brought some questions that elicited it, or simply seemed like a troublesome lot who needed it. In either case, it's instructive to see that the writers of the epistle thought "obedience" was a good thing. By this they apparently mean obedience to God and His light rather than to themselves as elders.

"1.-That the particular meetings by all the children of Light, be duly kept and observed, where they be already settled, every first-day of the week; except they be moved to other places. And that general meetings be kept in order and sweet in the life of God, on some other day of the week than on the First-day, unless there be a moving to the contrary: that so in the light and life, the meetings may be kept, to the praise of God."

Comment: "Children of light" is the name used here for those we would now call "Friends" or "Quakers". Keeping meetings going was evidently considered a very important duty of the community, and if they were kept this would be "to the praise of God". It's a different mindset than one which views meetings as optional and designed for the benefit of the worshippers. I'm not sure what "general meetings" means in this context: meetings for discipline?
"2.-That care be taken, that as any are brought into the truth, meetings be in such places amongst them, as may be for the most convenience of all, without respect of persons: and that hands be laid on none suddenly, lest the truth suffer."

Comment: To join with Friends was, of course, to be "brought into the truth". Meetings should be set up for the new Friends in places convenient to them, even if they were not convenient for important existing Friends. The caution that "hands be laid on none suddenly lest the truth suffer." still survives among us in the form of a custom that people should attend at least a year before being admitted as members.
"3.-That if any person draw back from meetings, and walk disorderly, some go to speak to such as draw back; to exhort and admonish such with a tender, meek spirit, whom they find negligent or disorderly. And if any, after admonition, do persist in the thing not good, let them again be admonished and reproved before two or three witnesses; that by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every thing may be established. And if still they persevere in them, then let the thing be declared to the church: and when the church hath reproved them for their disorderly walking, and admonished them in the tender and meek spirit, and they do not reform, then let their names and the causes, and such as can justly testify the truth therein, and their answers, be sent in writing to some whom the Lord hath raised up in the power of his Spirit to be fathers, his children to gather in the light, that the thing may be known to the body; and with the consent of the whole body, the thing may be determined in the light."

Comment:Here we get to the meat of the advices, with instructions on how to deal with Friends who "withdraw from meetings" or "walk disorderly". It's striking that no definition is offered of what it might mean to "walk disorderly". My guess is that Friends thought they would know disorderly walking when they saw it. Probably the disorderly walkers would know it, too, and that might explain why they might begin to "withdraw from meetings". I wish we could know more about exactly what kinds of situations prompted this advice. Was the primary effect of the advice to inaugarate a tighter discipline on Friends who were hitherto doing their own thing? Or was it to moderate and regularize the procedures for admonishing them, as an alternative to arbitrary harsh treatment by self-appointed disciplinarians?

A further point of interest is that the elders felt quite comfortable referring to the meeting community as "the church". They identified with the New Testament Church and did not feel in the least squeamish about using such language.

"4.-That as any are moved of the Lord to speak the word of the Lord at such meetings, that it be done in faithfulness, without adding or diminishing. And if at such meetings, any thing at any time be otherwise spoken by any not of the light, whereby the seed of God cometh to be burthened; let the person or persons in whom the seed of God is burthened, speak in the light (as of the Lord they are moved,) in meekness and godly fear, to him; but let it be done in private, betwixt them two, or before two or three witnesses, and not in the public meetings, except there be a special moving so to do."


Comment: This advice embodies all the subtleties and paradoxes about the concept of a free ministry inspired by God alone that is nevertheless accountable to a body of other Friends. The minister is to speak the word of the Lord without adding or diminishing. But if he or she does otherwise, who will know? The answer that other Friends will know by senseing that the "seed of God is burthened". And if they feel this it is their responsibility to speak to the minister who has erred (not, notice to third parties about the minister but to the minister himself or herself). The time place and manner in which this speaking is done is of crucial importance. It must be in "meekness and godly fear". Perhaps this is a tacit recognition that the person who feels the seed is burdened, rather than the minister, may be mistaking the Lord's intentions. Moreover, the conversation should not take place in the meeting itself, which would make it a matter of public debate and would risk humiliating one or more of the Friends. Rather it was to take place in private, or with no more than two or three witnesses. A concern for sound ministry is here balanced with a concern for fairness and balance and good order.

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