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Quaker queries as collective self-discipline

Excerpts from


by Marty Grundy

"The queries reflect the Quaker way of life, reminding Friends of the ideals we seek to attain.... Friends approach queries as a guide to self-examination, using them not as an outward set of rules, but as a framework within which we assess our convictions, and examine, clarify and consider prayerfully the direction of our lives and the life of the community." [This] language was chosen... to encourage "the probing-in-depth of an issue or a concern." It is interesting that we are not expected to probe ourselves in depth, or invite the Light [Spirit, God] to probe us, but rather to deal in depth with the outward issues.....

It is good to remember that the Religious Society of Friends in its worship and its governance is based on the experience, not just a theory, that the divine is present, and loves us, and will teach and guide us in the specific circumstances of our individual and corporate life. Furthermore, and this seems to me to be crucial -- at least in my own experience -- in order to be able to really live a Quaker lifestyle in love I must be changed, transformed inwardly. I must be empowered by the divine to respond in healthy new, loving ways to old challenges and behavior patterns, as well as to new opportunities....

Queries were to check how Friends were upholding the already agreed-upon testimonies. They were not invented as a technique for figuring out what our opinion is on a given subject. Early queries were quite straightforward and brief. It has been only in this century that the advices in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting seem to have withered and their content put into expanded queries....

Monthly and Quarterly meetings are expected to read the advices and queries at regular intervals. There seems to be no expectation of regular written responses. It is interesting that among unprogrammed Friends only the Conservative branches still seem to expect the discipline of regular written responses to the queries.... The assumption in the 18th century was that the meetings examine themselves to see how well they were upholding the standards of Friends, and if there was difficulty, then the quarterly or yearly meeting would send help....

We found that the queries provided the excuse, as it were, to take a piece of the spiritual life of the meeting and examine--wrestle with--our understanding of how we are called to live as Friends.

Sometimes the discussion of the query was the high point of a monthly meeting. In fact, the most recent query we discussed came at the end of a rather tedious, long-winded, not particularly well grounded, meeting for business. The query we were considering was simply, "How do we recognize what we are called to be obedient to?" As people spoke to it, the silence deepened and lengthened between speakers.

Finally the speaking ceased altogether and we were wrapped together in quietness and love. The clerk ended the meeting, but we were loath to leave. We were in the presence of God, and found it good.

The brochure [Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's widely used Faith and Practice] mentions the use of queries as corporate self-discipline. First, what is corporate self-discipline? Do we have an oxymoron here? Group/self? As Friends, I think we grope for an understanding that the group is greater than the sum of its parts, but is dependent on each individual doing his or her part. In this age of extremes of rampant individualism and mindless mass consumerism, we sense that being part of a vibrant faith community offers a third alternative.

Careful and prayerful consideration of the queries can be the outward structure that melds the individuals and the faith community. If the intent of our meetings and of Friends is to grow ever deeper in our relationship with the divine, and we have chosen the Quaker path as our way, then the queries offer a checklist of how faithful we are as we trudge along on our journey, together....

Our Quaker way is predicated on the expectation that the divine will teach us, inwardly. We will be taught individually and we will be taught together, as a faith community. Our responsibility is to be teachable, and not a stiff-necked, stubborn, self-righteous people. A humble opening of ourselves to be searched by the divine through the queries is one way to remain teachable.

A new query reads: "Is there a living silence as we worship in which we are drawn together by the power of God in our midst?"
We could answer, "yes, sometimes, and we try to have it happen more often." or, "no, not really, but we have good pot lucks".

Or we could prayerfully consider what makes a "living silence". What does it really mean to "worship"? Are we really "drawn together"? What is it like? What is the lasting result?

George Fox [the founder of Quakerism] continually referred to the "power of God" or the "power of the Lord". What is our experience of this power? If we haven't experienced it together, what is hindering its bursting forth among us? What is God trying to teach us, in our meeting, today, through our consideration of these things?

Then, after prayerful consideration, and after every momentous time in our meetings for business, we ought to stop and ask "what have we just experienced together? What have we learned just now, that we must not forget? How do we incorporate it into our personal and meeting life? How do we teach it to newcomers? How do we tell other Friends about it?"

Queries can provide an opportunity for a corporate discipline of paying attention to what God might have to teach us.


See also

Quaker Queries

Quaker Process and Collective Intelligence


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