A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Quaker Romanticism

Besides being a Quaker I am also a philosopher. In these posts sometimes the one shows a bit more than the other. Philosophers are fond of drawing distinctions, which often seems like pointless hair-splitting to others. But at times I cannot help myself.

I am proud to say I am a romantic in one sense of the word and proud to say that I consider myself completely unromantic in another sense.

Good romanticism is the belief that at bottom the world makes sense. There are real values worth living for and sometimes even worth dying for. There is heroism in facing the tedium and danger of ordinary life without deliberately imposing that pain on others. Heroic because this requires taking a bit more of that pain on oneself than is strictly necessary. And that underlying it all is a mysterious Power that brings all things to good in the end. That after the cross comes a crown. In a word it is the romantic belief that God is real. This romanticism is good because it makes us stronger and freer. It is good because it is the truth.

There is also a bad romanticism that refuses to see weakness or evil where it does not want to see it. And where do we not want to see these things? In ourselves and in those we love. It is there in Fox, Barclay, Naylor, Penn and Woolman. It is in Paul and the evangelists, in the Old Testament and in the New. It is in old-fashioned plain Friends and in articulate, hypereducated modern Friends. It is in our elders and our ministers. It is in all of us.

The good romanticism accepts that faith begins a process that culminates in a state of perfection that will render us fit subjects of the kingdom of heaven, the peaceable kingdom in which the lion lies down with the lamb. The bad romanticism views this process of sanctification through a gauze of unreality. We are all equal, one sort of bad romantic thinks, so no one is any further along on this path of killing the selfish self. To identify one person as an elder or as a minister dishonors the rest of us because among Friends all the children are above average. Another sort of bad romantic thinks, there are the holy ones who have gifts because they are perfect. Elders and ministers do not continue to painfully work out their own salvation in the midst of weakness and pain. They are perfect already.

Good romantics, of the sort I hope that I am, recognize that there is good vocal ministry, not-so-good vocal ministry and some words spoken during the meeting for worship that cannot rightly be called ministry at all. Those we properly name as ministers are those whose gifts lead them to frequently give good vocal ministry. There is also wise advice and counsel which is really helpful to the hearer. And there is also not-so-wise advice and self-righteous hectoring and badgering. Those we properly name as elders frequently give good advice and are able to do so because they have a gift that enables them to discern truths about the spirit of the person in need of the advice.

Meetings sometimes make mistakes in naming these gifts. Those without any real gift are sometimes named. And in many meetings people with these gifts go unnamed. Naming someone as having a gift when they do not is surely the worse error. It can encourage the sort of ministry and eldering should be discouraged. It can also puff people up and make them proud when they should be humble. The best elders I have known have been unusually humble. There is also the danger that naming elders and ministers will discourage people not yet named from trying out their gifts. If individuals had to wait until their gifts were recognized by the meeting then those gifts would not have the chance to grow, develop and be recognized. That is why we insist that our meetings for worship be open to vocal ministry by all.

Despite the pitfalls I think that a realistic romanticism will see that the advantages of naming elders and ministers outweighs the risks. By identifying those who elder or minister very well it serves as a clear signal to less experienced Friends. It serves as encouragement for those possessing these gifts to use them. And in the case of elders, it serves as a sign to those who need wise advice where to seek it. Finally it helps the meeting as a whole to use its collective power of discernment to find and nurture the real gifts within the body.


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