It has been a long yet enriching day today. We (as in my wife and I) spent our time at the local Quaker house for the usual Meeting for Worship - if it can ever be called 'usual' - followed by a sharing meal and a short session of singing folk-style Christian hymns, to the tune of an acoustic guitar. It was, what I termed as we drove home tired afterwards, 'a Quaker Marathon'.
It has struck me several times today that this way of doing things is very much in line with the Free Christian principle I have come to hold dear - in the sense of keeping Christian belief and practice simple, welcoming different people and their perspectives, and quite crucially, remaining open to the movement of the Spirit however it may come.
I have expressed a view previously that the two things I missed since joining in regular fellowship with the Quakers is taking part in communion (Baptist style) and singing (well done, to pianos and acoustic guitars rather booming organs or a praise band). Funnily enough, this had become a bit of a lingering question or doubt in my mind about whether I could ever move from being a 'roaming Christian' to 'fully paid-up Quaker' (becoming convinced, as traditional Quakers would say). I have felt cautious at signing up to a singular, exclusive way of 'doing faith', in terms of silent worship, which could eventually become limiting.
In many ways today answered this, at least in the respect of feeling fully part of the meeting house I've been attending. Following the more solemn, structured Meeting for Worship, today's gathering became a much more quirky, somewhat haphazard affair. But in many ways, each person bringing a contribution to a shared meal and then eating with one another, with many of us sat with someone we wouldn't usually connect with, is arguably a more authentic act of communion than the more formalized ritualistic versions seen elsewhere. Similar sentiments could be drawn from a group of people sat in a circle singing and laughing together rather than lined up in pews.
From today's experience, the words of James Martineau on 'Untrammeled Fellowships' came back to mind:
Among the Nonconformists who were left unchurched by the Act of Uniformity, not a few learned the lesson of persecution aright; and when permitted to build their own "conventicles," and constitute their own societies, refused to put the yoke on others which they had been unable to bear themselves, and dedicated their chapels to Christian worship without specification of usage or of creed. Scope being thus left for natural development, their descendants became familiar with successive doctrinal change, and with simultaneous doctrinal variety, without interruption of continuous religious life.
To them, therefore, it can be no new thing to consign the articles of theology to the realm of individual opinion, and put to trust, as societies, to a purely spiritual bond. They do not, like the Catholic-minded Churchmen, find themselves members of a body, and under a constitution, far narrower than their own spirit, and obliged to break bounds in order to claim the full measure of Christian fellowship.
In the congregations to which they belong, everything is possible which the largest piety can desire, and the latitude of communion which elsewhere is a dream of the future, foreshadowed by the brave catholicity of exceptional men, is the legal rule and corporate principle. There is nothing, therefore, to hinder a society thus constituted from bearing, in its collective capacity, the same witness to the comprehensiveness of the Divine relations which the scattered exiles and the noble malcontents of less open churches individually bear.
Unfortunately, these Nonconformist communities have not always worked out persistently their own historical principle, but have fallen into usages which have arrested the natural growth and limited the spiritual freedom left possible to them at their birth.
There is no breadth of intellectual basis, no depth of spiritual union, which the Independence of Bobinson and the Presbyterianism of Baxter might not have reached. But each has parted with its early promise, and settled on its selected dogmatic lands, duly fenced or labelled; the one fixing itself in Trinitarian orthodoxy, the other in Unitarian heresy; the former guarding its position by precautionary tests, the latter content, for the most part, with the warning of a doctrinal name. Explain it as we may, there would seem to be something transient, and incapable of passing into institution, in the higher action of God's Spirit in history.
Again and again religious movements, springing from an impulse truly Divine, and proclaiming the purest spiritual trusts, prove unable to sustain themselves at the height of their first inspiration, and, like Quakerism and Methodism, descend to a lower ground, — a ground which, with or without the originating fervour, they can permanently command, - viz., that of a specific creed and an established discipline. And so that which is 'born of the spirit’ dies down into a theological school, or a philanthropic habit, or an ecclesiastical organization.
Still, among those who inherit the traditions of the age of Milton, Hale, and Baxter there are many who have caught the spirit of their aims, while outgrowing the forms of their belief; who honour them for not having embarrassed their successors by names and standards of their own; who look upon every new doctrinal element built into the structure of a church as an impertinence insulting to the great Master-builder; and who feel bound to leave the future tenants of their sanctuaries free to think their thought and pray their prayer, without the pain of breaking with the past, of erasing its inscriptions, and declaring its identity gone. Such persons are ready for a religious fellowship not based upon doctrinal conditions. It is happy for them that often they may have it in their own worshiping society by simply recalling that society to its half-forgotten Catholic basis.
Among all these persons there is, and there has long been, the movement of a common spirit. They are all averse to both the Sacerdotal and the Atheistical view of the world. They none of them insist on any form of orthodoxy, though it be their own, as essential to the pious union of men or their filial relation to God.
The "unattached," who find the place of public prayer uncongenial, and have gone “up into the mountain alone," are willing to return when the devotion shall speak what they can truly say.
The "broad-churchmen" are ready to widen their communion with the expanding limits of national piety, not excluding the fullest doctrinal theology, but requiring the least. The liberal Nonconformists, weary of sectarian interests, wanting more room for their faith and affections, and finding that companionship in the school of divinity is no guarantee of spiritual sympathy, are longing for a larger fellowship and a freer use of their right of growth.
What is the essence of this common spirit pervading such different classes? — Is it intellectual agreement ? Is there any sort of creed which these people could club together to propagate ? By no means: unless you call it a creed to have a fearless respect for intellectual freedom, and to trust the bonds of piety, righteousness, and love amid large varieties of thought.
This trust you may, no doubt, if you must convert into a dogma everything which the human mind can hold — express in a proposition to be believed. But this is your work at the end, not its way of beginning. Its birth is in the moral and spiritual nature: and those whom it possesses have been carried towards one another, not by deliberate steering to or from the same lines on the logical chart, but by those silent changes in the moral currents beneath, and in the winds of heaven around, which sometimes mysteriously turn the drift of human affairs.
Hopefully, this is what I have now found.