Last Sunday while on a trip, Hal and I attended a church unrelated to Friends. I enjoy opportunities to relate to the wider Christian community, but this visit made me squirm. (And when I squirm, it’s not pretty.) I entered into the worship, appreciating the mix of old hymns and new choruses, as well as the skill of the musicians, the beauty of the Powerpoint (with moving backgrounds—trees swaying, waves rolling in), and the emotional fervor. But when it came time for the preaching/teaching component, my body temperature went up several notches. (Yes, I’m getting older, but “this” was not “that.”)
Basically, the older ordained white men tell the rest of the congregation what the Bible says, what they are all to believe, and expect quiet submission in return. Am I being too harsh? Too ungraciously critical? (Lord, forgive me.) At any rate, it felt good to get back outdoors into the open air again. I thought to myself, “I’m glad I’m a Quaker.”
But later in the week I took part in a discussion of the leadership team of our Friends meeting. We were trying to set up guidelines for a sensitive discussion the congregation wants to have about human sexuality. In the course of the discussion, several people expressed concern that we not refer directly to the Bible as a guide in the conversation, partly out of fear of scaring people away (e.g., my reaction to the earlier non-Friendly experience) or to seem to rigidly determine the outcome. But the idea of minimizing reference to the written word of God alarmed me, and I’ve been tossing and turning every night since.
I deeply respect the other members of our ministry team and do not think that any of them are being subversive or unchristian. Yet this points to an area of ambiguity that Quakers both wrestle with and embrace. It has to do with authority (a nasty word, to some; a word all of us need to use carefully).
One thing I love about Friends theology (by “theology,” I mean the ways we as a community reflect about God) is the dual focus on the “living word” (Jesus as the present teacher and friend in our midst) and the “written word,” thus connecting us to the Christian movement down through the ages and across the globe. I realize this is the focus of the evangelical branch of Quakers (although not exclusively), but that’s the family I’m a part of. The “living word” takes precedent over the “written word” but never replaces or contradicts it (although it may seem to at times). Because of the dual focus, ambiguity is necessarily a part of our process.
Even though as a poet I love ambiguity, that doesn’t make it any easier when we face hard conversations and difficult issues. And I don’t ever want to sideline the Scriptures. They are “a lamp to our feet and a light on our path” (Psalm 119:105, not taken out of context). Even for Quakers.