Monday, February 25, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Week 8 - D for Discipline

Quaker Faith and Practice, the red book, is as its subtitle reveals 'The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain'. It was first issued in 1738 following requests for a compilation of those minutes of advice and counsel which the yearly meeting had sent out from time to time over the years to quarterly and monthly meetings. Many revisions have followed at the rate of roughly one a generation. The process for the last revision began in 1985 and was published in 1994 although with changes in practice there have been several new editions since then and the book is kept up to date online. Perhaps the time for a new revision is drawing near.

Australian book of discipline
Ireland book of discipline

Each Yearly Meeting, and sometimes smaller groups such as Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon, publishes their own book of discipline, also revised from time to time. Two of the most recent examples are from Australia Yearly Meeting, the fruit of a 10 year process, and Ireland Yearly Meeting whose Quaker Life and Practice has also been laboured over for many years. I find that reading these different books of discipline both historical and recent gives me a very good picture of the differences and similarities between the branches of worldwide Quakerism.

Although these compilations of Quaker practice have always been known collectively as books of discipline it is noticeable that modern editions do not generally include the word in their main title. What discomfort with the concept does this show? As the introduction to Quaker Faith and Practice says, 'Discipline is not now a popular word. It has overtones of enforcement and correction but its roots lie in ideas of learning and discipleship. Discipline in our yearly meeting consists for the most part of advice and counsel, the encouragement of self-questioning, of hearing each other in humility and love...'

For myself I certainly struggle with aspects of self-discipline in my Quaker life. Living in community, living simply and giving myself time to be open to the Light within are all things I find difficult. What keeps me going in the end is the corporate discipline of Friends.

Discipline in the way meetings for worship of all kinds are held is important to me. Ways change over time - in general we no longer kneel to pray in worship or stand when others minister in this way - but the discipline of waiting attentively for the Light, of waiting to be sure that the words that may come to us are to be shared with others rather than being for ourselves alone is still valid. The discipline of taking part in a meeting for worship for business, speaking only when called by the clerk, speaking only once on each topic, leaving time between contributions, upholding the clerk in the process of drafting and agreeing a minute - all this is vital.

Discipline in the Society of Friends is not easy but it is necessary. For me it is part of an active engagement with our endeavour, individually and corporately, to discern and act on the will of God.

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