Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Dogmatic Non-Dogmatism and Rituals of Non-Ritualism

A pile of books and a vase of daffodils on a black table.
Why the flowers?
Quakers, at least of the liberal variety, are generally considered to have no dogma; Quakers of all stripes reject creeds, even if they have been known to organisationally endorse documents that look a lot like them. Unprogrammed Quakers eschew ritual.
But do we really? Are there not ways in which our non-dogmatism becomes dogmatic, and our non-rituals become ritualistic? In this post I will be exploring these questions, what I have learned from Friends in many places, what I have experienced myself – and what I think we should take from that.
The most obvious place to begin, as we consider rituals and dogmas, is Meeting for Worship. We come in, shake hands with a doorkeeper (or two), we sit down, usually in a circle (or concentric circles), we have a central table topped with books and flowers. One or more people might stand and speak from the silence, and sit back down again. At the end of meeting, two people will shake hands, and then everyone will shake hands with people near them. It certainly bears some marks of a ritual, and will be seen as such by others.
It is only fair, however, to consider it in the context of early Quaker development (and, similarly, the changes and divisions in Quakers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). In the mid-17th century, England had an established church, and a great stir of nonconformist religious movements, and it is that situation that provided the soil of the genesis of the Religious Society of Friends. Much of this diversification retained the church service, including the Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion or Lord's Supper), commonly hymns, and generally sermons, prepared in advance by a priest or elder (depending on the denomination). Quakers (not uniquely, but most successfully) rejected such formulations, sometimes vocally while a sermon was being given. Notions, rituals and structured worship were rejected, to be replaced with a simple coming together in silence and reverence, and waiting on the Holy Spirit to make itself known – usually through spoken ministry that might be as much of a surprise to the person speaking as to those others present.
Through the schisms and chaos as the Society developed and changed, some parts of the Quaker world gradually adopted more of these mainstream rituals, among them British Quakers, while others resisted or rebounded from this change to maintain simple, silent worship; the latter group also includes British Quakers, as a rebound after the movement towards more evangelical patterns of worship.
With this context, it is easy to see that our worship is not ritualistic in anything like the same way – a simple liturgy that consists solely of the provision of structure and framework within which the Spirit may act. However, it cannot be denied that we have gilded this slightly with patterns of behaviour that have become ritualistic. In our Meetings for Worship, we generally have doorkeepers acting as greeters/ushers, able to provide some guidance to new attenders – but shaking hands with everyone as they come in. The table with books and flowers risks taking on a altar-like role, expected to the degree of requirement even though it has no theological significance, and while practical significance may be argued for the books, the flowers do not benefit from the same argument. We stand to minister, and sit down when we finish. Someone, generally an elder, knows coming in that they are taking responsibility for ending Meeting for Worship, and does so by shaking hands with a neighbour. Everyone then generally shakes hands. The precise details of this will vary between Meetings, and indeed I imagine even more between different Yearly Meetings, but the detail isn't what's important here – it's the fact that there is detail.
Now, a lot of those elements are there for a purpose. We greet people as they come in to make them feel welcome, and to give an opportunity to help someone new to Quaker meetings. We shake hands as part of that as a generally socially accepted method of polite greeting. We stand to minister so that we might best be heard, and we sit when not ministering because it's more practical than standing the whole time – and if only one person stands, they are easier to hear. We have the table with books on – and perhaps books scattered elsewhere in the room – in case anyone feels the need to read from them to centre down, or find a quote, or is moved to read them in preparation for potentially rising to minister. Someone ends Meeting for Worship because, I believe, it is a common experience that if we don't have a person taking responsibility for this, it's not unusual for no-one to be willing to actually step forward to do so. We do so by shaking hands because we need a visible, understood signal, and shaking hands is both friendly and polite. We shake hands all around as both a sign, and a way to build, fellowship.
I admit I'm at somewhat of a loss about the flowers.
And yet, many rituals develop out of practicality, as illustrated ad absurdam in the story of the guru's cat. In this simple story, every evening when the guru sat down with his followers to worship, the ashram cat would disrupt things. Because of this, the guru ordered that the cat be tied up during worship. When the guru later died, his followers continued to tie up the cat during worship. When the cat died, however, the followers declared “we must get another cat, so we can tie it up during worship!”
I do not suggest that the habits we have developed around our worship are anything like that, but this story illustrates the importance of always being mindful of the purpose of any given practice – and the need to constantly consider whether the practice is the best way of meeting that purpose in the current context. Failure to do so is the peril of creeping ritualism.
Rituals also include forms of words, and this is an area in which we are certainly guilty of going beyond usefulness. We may not have the ritualised call and response of common Christian liturgies, or the conventions of call and response that are common in charismatic churches, but we have our little phrases of Quaker-speak. Each of these emerged for perfectly good reasons, but we must question whether there is a good reason that we continue to use coded phrases, or odd little Quaker alternatives to common phrases. You won't hear someone saying “hear, hear” in a Quaker context often, and indeed you should never hear anything of the sort during worship (including Meeting for Worship for Business), but in the situations where a Quaker might say “hear, hear”, you will more often hear them say “that Friend speaks my mind”. It's very plain what we mean, yet it is different enough that it will set those not familiar with it on edge from unfamiliarity – though it has the advantage of being less suited to an abrupt interjection. We convey subtle shades of meaning in tone of voice, and usually try to shut down consideration of a possible (or actual) nomination, when we say “that name would not have occurred to me” when a name is proposed or brought forward – and in this case, people will not understand what we mean. What it would mean to someone unfamiliar with it would be a simple expression of surprise, possibly thoughtful, but it is generally accepted as “that name must not go forward, and I have no intention of explaining why”. I have my own problem with that practice, as mentioned in my earlier post concerning understanding and trusting nominations, but I see no reason to elaborate further on that here and now.
Just as we must continually consider the relevance and appropriateness of our ritual actions and arrangements, we should not be so wedded to our peculiar patterns of speech that we allow them to set ourselves apart when we should rather prefer to bring the world closer to us.
These patterns also lead to a strange turnaround in the non-dogmatism of liberal Quakerism. The early Quakers were inarguably and emphatically Christian, though they might have rejected much of mainstream Christian doctrine of their time. They rejected creeds, however, for a number of good reasons. This has, among liberal Friends of today, resulted in a massive divergence of specific beliefs, and of ways of thinking about the Divine. As my regular readers will be aware, this is something I consider very good, and something from which we don't get as much benefit as we could. However, it has also led some to have a dogmatic resistance to certainty. Now, as a matter of individual spiritual development, this is also good, to my mind – I have been heard to say, on several occasions, that we should “always question everything; certainty is the enemy of spiritual growth”. However, while that is a maxim that I would even advise others to hold to, I would not insist on it as a Quaker doctrine, as a quasi-creed. Some Friends have found spiritual certainty in the story and divinity of Christ, and if that works for them then that's great – and I would love to benefit from their sharing of the fruits of that experience and understanding. Likewise, others have found such certainty in the teachings of the Buddha, in pagan conceptions, or in the teachings of Muhammad, and I see the same opportunities for spiritual development for us all as I do in Christian Friends. For this reason, I look with concern on those who object to such certainty, even as I might advise against certainty. If we are to have those with such certainty among us, then we must respect their expression of it, and understand that even those with a different certainty can learn from that expression. Provided that those who are certain do not insist on similar certainty from those they worship with, it is in no way contradictory to liberal Quaker practice and faith – and we harm our community and our faith by marginalising or disapproving it.
We can also become rather dogmatic concerning beliefs that stem from our faith, but are not inherently religious. We have social and political dogmas about behaviour, about the causes we support. One need not look to hard to find Friends who have felt isolated or excluded for not sharing the issues most well-regarded in their Meetings, and at least some of them are entirely justified in that feeling. Someone who agrees with our essential practices and fundamentals of Quaker spirituality can still end up with right-wing political views, but in most cases such people will conceal those political views for (not unreasonable) fear of persecution, however gentle and polite, among the largely left-leaning population of liberal Friends.
Our quasi-rituals are not empty, and many have good reasons behind them – much of which is still valid. Yet we must be sure of their continued relevance and not do things just because that is how we've “always” done them, or because we are more comfortable without change. Our quasi-dogmatism excludes without good reason, through seeking to ensure the comfort of what we perceive as the majority, by attempting not to exclude. While we cannot welcome literally everyone in our Meetings, as some have views that are truly incompatible with Quaker belief and/or practices, and we should be very cautious about welcoming those who may genuinely lead to the exclusion of others through their behaviour, we should start from a position of presuming welcome until we have a genuine reason to doubt the wisdom of that presumption.
And really, we need to talk about the flowers.
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