Disruptive innovation – part of the Quaker tradition in these times?

“Dost thou call this place a church? or dost thou call this mixed multitude a church?” But instead of answering him, the priest asked what a church was? to which George replied, “The church is the pillar and ground of truth, made up of living stones, living members, a spiritual household, of which Christ is the head; but he is not the head of a mixed multitude, or of an old house made up of lime, stones and wood.” – George Fox, 1648

Based on these visions, these realizations, this convincement – the early Quaker movement would eventually seek to drop the “steeplehouses” made of lime, stones and wood.  Friends were often imprisoned and fined and persecuted for these actions.  They were brave and wrote letters of encouragement to others, and were faithful in a dark time.  It is one of our treasured stories.  Not a myth, but perhaps a bit mythological?

Today I’d call these valiant sixty (the first Quaker ministers who birthed the Friends movement in England) innovative disruptors.  Historically there have been many disruptors in our society.  Many religions and traditions have had a breaking away into new forms.

Our disruptions, our ability to find the Divine within ourselves, to hear the Inner Teacher on a hill or in a jail cell, was the first and formal “rule” we had.  When people ask me what a Quaker believes – I start with that premise, and not a list of the SPICES and so forth.

And what happened next?

Here’s some Unwritten rules about Quaker worship that we “know” now.

  • Worship happens on Sunday mornings.
  • Worship happens in a circle of chairs, facing inward.
  • No one speaks twice.
  • Quoting NPR is “lesser” ministry
  • Old buildings are more “spiritual”
  • We don’t actually quake in worship
  • Pastored meetings and prepared messages are not for “real” Quakers.
  • Worship happens in person.
  • Children are not given messages.
  • Quaker worship is “caught not taught”

(of course these do not apply everywhere – but I have heard these comments regarding worship among Friends presented as fact)

right: Quaker Meeting for Worship via ZOOM (IC: MA Council of Churches)

Now we are in a very strange time.  Meetings that in the past took months to discern whether or not to rearrange their benches have jumped into online spaces and are creating whole new worship experiences, with new shapes and methods.  Meetings that were having conversations about whether ineptly using a microphone “got in the way of” messages in worship are now using a microphone (and a mute button!) for ALL of the messages.  Because of the different ways screens work, we often can no longer “see” each other in worship.  Do we close our eyes in worship, or unshare our screen?  Is attending to a family member, or having to get up and stretch or calm a pet more acceptable in this new environment?  Was it ever acceptable?  Why or why not?  What makes it “worship?”

left: Cambridge MA Friends in worship on a sidewalk at Raytheon (IC: Skip Schiel)

What has come to me most strongly in this time of change and unknowing is encouraging others to take the risk to see these challenges as opportunities to revisit our traditions and ask if they are cultural, or our call in this time to be faithful in new and old forms.

Before this switch to online worship:

  • If your meetinghouse wasn’t fully handicap accessable, some people were left out
  • If you had no childcare, some people were left out
  • If you were not on public transportation, some people were left out
  • If you used jargon and confusing “secret” language, and your policies were not clear to newcomers, some people were left out.
  • If you only used in person communication and not digital spaces, some people were left out.
  • If you only used digital communications, and not in person communications, some people were left out
  • If you only met at one time (Sunday morning, Tuesday evening) each week, some people were left out.

I am not saying this “leaving out” was not sometimes necessary or unavoidable.  I’d also ask what “leaving out” really means – in these cases I mean the tangible, in person worship experience in most cases.  Not left out of relationship with the Divine.  Not left out of the ability and call to carry a message for the good of the whole community.

The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in. – Francis Howgill, 1663

Today that net of heaven is a digital network, with hundreds of people calling in on various devices, and we are standing (sitting?) and waiting for further group instruction.  Still.  Always.

So now everybody can get to be in the community, right?  Suddenly this digital divide is the great equalizer?  No.

There are still folks without internet or technology.  There are still folks (my own daughter) who cannot use zoom for various reasons.  In a time of limited income, I have been asked to work on Sunday mornings – so I am finding other Meetings to connect with for worship besides my own at other times (in other timezones). Whether you meeting is public or private, and shared in this time, will determine your new visitors.  How do you follow up with them?  How do you explain Quaker worship in this space?

I think expanding our “toolkit” for worship is terrific.  I am huge advocate of this new technology, and it is very encouraging to see how many meetings have jumped in and are trying new things.  In addition though, I’d like to encourage us to keep asking what is called for now, in this time, to support our communities and provide spiritual nurture.  Do we all have to “invent” our own meeting for worship?  Could we use the old systems of grouping (“quarterly meetings”) to connect us in larger meetings for worship to support smaller meetings?  Could our meetings create a new schedule, one that means there is a meeting every morning, afternoon, and evening somewhere in New England for those of us who cannot be there on a Sunday morning?  When we learn all these new lessons about inclusion, how will we incorporate that knowledge in our brick-and-mortar spaces?

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues, to one the working of a Zoom account, to another the ease of texting, to one the gift of humor through memes, to another the gift of translation of technology to those who need understanding, to one the ability to sense when rest and internet fasting is needed, to another encouragement in physical spaces (six feet apart though). Corinthians: 12/Wooten edits

I have a zoom account, and the knowledge to use it for basic meeting for worship. I can “host” my own meeting anytime I like.  What has become clear to me however in this time is that I am not led to do so.  It’s easier and less energy for me to find other members of my community that are meeting at times that fit in my work schedule, and join in worship there.  If those Friends are being faithful to their leading to host worship, and I am being faithful to my call and gifts in this time, there will be enough.  We do not need to rush off to church, or to the market, or to every ZOOM meeting in each moment. We are expected (I think, by God) to rush right into what we are called for – it might be medical support, or a walk outside with a scared child, or standing on the other side of a window waving to lonely elders, or bringing toilet paper to our neighbors.

I’ve had a heightened experience in these times of the Quaker practice of “holding in the Light”.  I am often aware of specific Quaker meetings taking place.  Sometimes I just sit on my deck in the sunshine, and hold them in prayer with no technology at all.  That has always been an option for Friends, worshiping at a distance, being in a community.  It has always “worked” for me.  When i used to physically travel in gospel ministry, I often was reminded of my home meeting in worship, while I was away.  This Sunday, I’ll be helping with some ZOOM worship for my “work church”.  They have a small time of silent meditation.  It will line up with the middle of Fresh Pond’s meeting for worship.  Somehow, that seems like the connection to note and be grateful for this week.  What will happen next week?  I am curious to see!


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