On the Way to Harmony -
Annual Meeting of the Friends World Committee for Consultation,
Section of the Americas
the spiritual disciplines of a Christian reconciling ministry
March 16, 2001
This talk is also published by the Wider Quaker Fellowship (a program of Friends
World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas) in their pamphlet series.
Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell
together in harmony!
In December 1998, I stood in an enormous tent in Harare Zimbabwe
with over 5,000 other people, praising God together. We came from
almost every country and almost every denomination in the world.
As we stood, singing and swaying, I felt fully released into the
joy and presence of that moment. My American and my Quaker inhibitions
melted away as tears streamed down my face. I could see people all
around me moving with that same Spirit: young African men —
Indigenous women from the mountains of Peru — European bishops
— Indians from the untouchable caste — Methodists from
tiny south Pacific islands — Sudanese refugees — a 30-year
old Quaker mother from Boston. We all were seized by the one Holy
Spirit, and, as our bodies moved together, we became the one body
of Christ. Our churches have denounced each other as heretics, yet
the living Christ who knows each heart gave complete assurance to
our unity. Even the tent itself began to move, as a fierce thunderstorm
raged around us. This baptism by fire was the opening worship of
the World Council of Churches Assembly, and it was a point of no
return for me on my personal quest for a vision of the reconciled
Spiritual experiences such as these are what breathe life into
the structures of the formal ecumenical movement, such as the World
Council of Churches. They are what inspire individuals to make a
personal commitment to the demands of facing Christian division,
as indeed I have done. But beyond that, a spiritual understanding
and experience of oneness in Jesus Christ is at the heart of all
reconciling ministries — not only reconciliation between divided
Christians, but also reconciliation between races, cultures, religions,
family members, victims/offenders or any other situation of brokenness.
This evening, I want to explore some of the personal spiritual
disciplines that give expression to the heart’s desire to
dwell together in harmony. I’m describing the elements of
a particular spiritual gift, as I have experienced it. I’m
laying out a roadmap for the journey toward reconciliation.
You may not have had ecumenical experiences like mine, but I’m
hoping that you will be able to find yourself somewhere in this
picture. Imagine yourself at a gathering of 5,000 Christians, from
over 330 denominations and every continent of the world. Or imagine
yourself at a small theological consultation, discussing the deep
divisions within Quakerism. Or imagine yourself being called upon
to explain Quakerism to those who know nothing about it. Or imagine
yourself struggling to understand someone else’s tradition,
which frankly strikes you as bizarre. How do you behave? What do
you say? When do you keep quiet? How do you listen? For how long?
What do you assume? What assumptions do you question? What do you
You, as individuals with a calling to work for Quaker unity through
FWCC, should recognize your own experience and leading in my description
of the ecumenical movement. Indeed, the mission of the ecumenical
movement is the same as that of FWCC, seeking to bring divided brother
and sisters together in unity, and FWCC can be seen as intra-Quaker
I am going to offer my reflections the form of advices and queries.
I have six spiritual disciplines to propose to you: on speaking,
on listening, on working together, on building trust over time,
on unity, diversity and division, and on being careful. For each
of these disciplines, I will first offer an advice, then elaborate
with reflections from my own experience, and conclude with a query.
You have the advices and queries printed on your handout.
Speak from what you know by your own experience. Be humble
because your experience is limited. Be bold because God has empowered
you. Know what your gifts are. Know the power of words and use them
with integrity and careful respect.
One of the first things I had to learn when I started doing ecumenical
work was to speak from what I know, which also means don’t
try to speak from what I don’t know. Finding that place of
self-confidence for myself has been something of a challenge. Being
young, being a woman, and not being ordained opened a lot of doors
for me in the ecumenical movement. I get invited to a lot of things
in the World Council of Churches because of a quota system for how
many young people, how many lay people, and how many women have
to be on each committee. I fit three categories, which means I’m
nominated for everything. It’s been a challenge for me to
realize that they invited me for their reasons, but God puts me
here for God’s own reasons, and all I can do, or say, or claim
with authority, comes from standing where I am and not trying to
be more than that.
“Be bold because the Lord has empowered you” and “Be
humble because your experience is limited”. That’s tricky.
It is a difficult thing to hold in balance. We need to check ourselves
for tendencies both toward arrogance (“I know the whole truth”)
and toward relativism (“my truth is just truth for me”).
We get to claim Truth with a capital T, and then also admit that
it’s God who holds that Truth, and I may not know it all.
Be willing to change or at least reconsider and rearticulate your
position. Cling to your beliefs with a certain elasticity.
Know the power of words and use them with careful respect. Don’t
be careless with words that can hurt, dismiss or disrespect the
experience of another. There is a poster in my son’s classroom
at Cambridge Friends School that says: “Sticks and stones
may break my bones, but words can really hurt me.” That’s
true. We can hurt each other and we need to be careful.
At the same time as we are choosing words that respect other people,
we need to choose words that respect our own integrity and don’t
violate our own experience. That’s been a question for me
in an ecumenical setting around the use of titles. Quakers have
had a longstanding testimony against titles. Yet here I am in ecumenical
settings with Eminences and Right Reverends. I don’t know
the system of titles and I resist learning the system of titles.
How can I be faithful to my own tradition, to my own integrity about
what I believe to be true, and at the same time be respectful of
people who come from a very different tradition than mine? What
I’ve discovered is that the testimony against titles can become
an outward form — a refusal to say certain words. What I think
is the truth of the testimony against titles is a testimony on equality
that I can claim in the substance of relationships regardless of
the titles. I can sit down with a Metropolitan from Egypt at a lunch
table and have a conversation with him as my brother. Whether I
call him by the title he prefers or not, what I want to attend to
is the substance of that brotherhood, and to claim for myself that
I am his sister and therefore his equal. I need to practice a careful
balance between using words that respect others and using words
that respect my own integrity.
The last thing I want to say about speaking is about holding words
lightly and listening for the meaning behind the words. At the World
Council of Churches, all business is simultaneously translated into
five languages — English, Spanish, French, German and Russian.
The reality of colonialism is that almost everyone in the world
speaks one of those languages, although this puts native speakers
at a significant advantage over those for whom a European language
is their third or fourth tongue. It also puts a particular responsibility
for discipline on the native speakers — to speak slowly and
to listen sympathetically. Don’t worry about nuances of grammar
and vocabulary, and don’t rely on those kinds of nuances to
make your point.
However, in the WCC’s tradition, worship is not translated.
Each person prays and reads scripture in their native language,
not their European language, and this is not translated. It is an
indescribable experience to hear the Holy Spirit speaking through
words that carry no meaning to me. Most profound of all is the Lord’s
Prayer. The entire worshipping congregation — in Harare that
was 5,000 people — spoke the Lord’s Prayer together,
each in his or her own native language. It sounded like mush, and
it was utterly staggering. It was immediately clear that God speaks
all languages and none — that language is a human construct
that God both completes and transcends. Truly, our mush was acceptable
corporate prayer, for it is the heart that prays, and thus we were
praying in unison.
Query on Speaking
Are you careful to speak from your own experience, not overstating
or outrunning your guide? Are you prepared to give an account of
the faith that you have? Are you confident in your witness, knowing
that God empowers you through your faithfulness? Do you know what
gifts God has entrusted to you, and are you trustworthy in offering
them? Are you careful with words, looking always for how the Holy
Spirit might be speaking through human language?
Listen with a charitable presumption of goodwill, expecting
the best from others. Seek out the gifts of others and know where
you (and your tradition) can benefit from hearing their experience.
Hold your assumptions lightly, and listen for deeper meanings. Expect
to find a profound resonance of spiritual experience, although you
might be hearing that experience described in alien language.
The first condition of a listening spirituality is a presumption
of goodwill. Listen with a charitable heart, expecting the best
from others. Assume the best about those who are different from
you. Impute good motives. I experienced the way that can transform
a meeting at a particularly contentious session in the WCC. Directly
across from me at the table was a Russian named Father Hilarion.
I knew the Russians were particularly sensitive about the discussion
in this committee. Father Hilarion was silent through the whole
first day and I found myself spending a lot of energy looking directly
across the table at him trying to figure out what he was thinking.
I was sure that he was angry, dismissive, and critical — even
though he wasn’t saying anything. And then on the second day,
he and I started to make some eye contact and smile at each other
a little bit. I said something and he smiled at me when I spoke.
My whole sense of the meeting started shifting as I began to impute
a different motive to him. He hadn’t given me any evidence
of his negative attitude — I had projected that onto him and
that was coloring the whole experience for me. I made the choice
to say: “Father Hilarion is here with goodwill. He’s
willing to listen to me. He’s interested in being part of
this process. He wants a good outcome from this meeting.”
The whole meeting shifted in tone for me, from an adversarial one
to a cooperative one. Just because I shifted my attitude toward
Don’t presume you understand the language, context and experience
of someone else, especially in a cross-cultural situation. Most
of the work I’ve been doing has been in international meetings.
I have learned to be much more aware of the way that my culture,
my context, my Americanism colors the way that I speak and listen,
and to hear other contexts not through my own lens, but to try to
hear their context in their own words.
To listen with a reconciling spirit means to listen carefully,
deeply and sympathetically to the experience behind the words. I
participated in a small consultation last July at Pendle Hill, which
brought together Quaker theologians from around the world to talk
about the essential Quaker identity. Who are we as a church, bottom
line? And it was a very difficult meeting. We had people coming
from each of the branches of Quakers, each of whom felt that they
held the essential message of Friends and the others had gone astray.
We were each proposing formulations of Quaker identity to which
the others would say “Friends in my country could never find
themselves in such a statement.” The turning point in that
consultation was a profound moment when we realized that every one
of us, from each branch of Friends, felt beleaguered, fearful, sure
that we were the persecuted few and that some other branch of Friends
held all the advantage. To hear your own feelings of beleaguredness
echoed in the one who is perceived to be your adversary —
to feel your enemy’s pain as your own — is the first
step toward reconciliation. That realization that we all feel beleaguered
transformed the whole meeting at Pendle Hill. We shifted from proposing
theological positions to feeling each other’s experience,
and from there we reached a sense of deep unity, that we are indeed
a single church, despite our divisions, that we share a single heritage
and a single spirituality. So listening sympathetically to those
from whom we are divided can transform the relationship. Listen
to unfamiliar perspectives and learn from them. Listen with ears
to hear — expect to hear an experience you recognize expressed
in words you wouldn’t have used to describe it.
Query on Listening
Do you listen with a charitable attitude and a presumption
of goodwill? Do you expect the best from others, listening to the
experience behind the words? Do you seek resonance rather than conflict
when encountering difference? Do you allow disorienting unfamiliarity
to become an invitation to new understanding?
3. Working together
Act together in all matters except those in which deep differences
of conviction compel you to act independently. Seek ways for ever-increasing
and deepening your shared worship, witness and service. Pay attention
to how you come together; attend to how spiritual fellowship is
nurtured in your shared experience. Take risks that stretch the
limits of what is possible to do together. Know that the substance
of reconciliation is in the relationships, which is reflected in,
rather than created by, the formal agreements.
There’s an ecumenical doctrine called the Lund Principle,
which came from the World Council of Churches in 1952, which says
“act together in all matters except those in which deep differences
of conviction compel us to act separately.” We should assume
that we act together with other Christians, except where we are
compelled to act separately. And especially we should apply this
principle to other Quakers.
Shared life is the norm. Division demands explanation. Let me say
that again. Shared life is the norm. Division demands explanation.
The divisions within the Religious Society of Friends are not and
should never be considered normative. FWCC as an organization, and
you as its representatives, are called to a faithful witness to
the scandal of our schism. Through FWCC and other means, you must
be intentional about living into a new depth of fellowship through
shared life in worship and work.
Do practical things together. Assume we will be together. Grow
together. Seek ways for ever-increasing our common worship, witness
and service, with a special priority given to worship. Worship is
the most basic Christian activity. All cooperative action needs
to be grounded in shared worship.
The way we do things matters just as much as what
we do. The way we do things is how we build spiritual fellowship
or koinonia, the Biblical word for community or fellowship.
Over the last year I’ve been involved in looking at the way
that decisions are made in the governing bodies of the World Council
of Churches. Now, that may not be a question that inspires you,
but it does me. Because I see the implication of how we reach agreement
and what we believe agreement is — is it 51% of the group,
or is it discovering the will of God? One of those things destroys
unity and the other builds it. And I believe that when we pay attention
to how we make decision together, how we engage together, and root
that in our unity in the Holy Spirit in the will of God —
then we are intentional about building fellowship. So whether we
vote or whether we reach consensus becomes, for me, a deeply theological
issue that has a profound spiritual impact.
Take risks to stretch the limits of what it is possible to do together.
I’ve been inspired by the example of the Massachusetts Council
of Churches in taking risks which build trust. The Council is, in
terms of membership, a Protestant body, yet it yearns to grow, to
include Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches in membership. In order
to live into this possibility, the Board has taken the risk to include
Roman Catholic and Orthodox representatives on the Board, to give
them voting power in this Protestant organization. We have done
this in faith that working together builds relationships, creates
a shared history, and opens the way. We’re starting to see
the results of the trust we’ve built as we have now received
an application for membership from the Greek Orthodox diocese of
Massachusetts. Sustained commitment, the generosity to share the
table with others, and attention to the quality of the fellowship
do indeed bear fruit that is worth the effort.
Query on Working Together
Do you cooperate with your brothers and sisters in all matters
except those in which deep differences of conviction compel you
to act separately? Do you engage constructively with such points
of difference? Do you seek to share in worship, witness and service
with all Christians, stretching the limits of what it is possible
to do together? Are you attentive to the unfolding process of reconciliation,
and not simply focused on a final outcome?
4. Building trust over time
Grow together in trust over time. Come prepared to trust, with
patience for the time required to build trusting relationships.
Take time to share your personal stories with each other, to know
one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Reap the fruits of
shared trust by taking risks with each other. Within relationships
of trust, be prepared to question and be questioned. Be impatient
for truth and justice, and patient for the pace of change. Remember
that we are in the middle of God’s unfolding plan for creation,
and be prepared to live with some measure of unsettling ambiguity.
It takes time to build trust, to build community. We can come with
a presumption of trust, but that presumption needs to be filled
out by real experience of each other. We need to invest the time
to build that community. And the fruits of what you can experience
as a result of sustained cooperation are worth it.
One place where I’ve experience the fruits of building trust
over time is on the Board of Friends United Meeting. FUM experienced
some truly difficult years during the Realignment proposal. We managed
not to succumb to the divisive spirit in that proposal, but rather
reaffirmed FUM’s identity as an inclusive Christian body.
The depth of trust and love that has grown on the Board in the nine
years since then is truly remarkable. We’ve journeyed together
as a group. We know each other as people. We know the traditions
we each represent and we don’t always agree with each other,
but we trust each other, and that’s allowed us to continue
to govern this organization full of constituencies that don’t
always trust each other. The fruits of growing together in trust
over time can be quite profound. I know you have experienced the
same thing here in FWCC, and its fruits are evident in the spiritual
condition of Quakerism world-wide.
It is important to know each other’s personal stories, to
know each other as people as well as representing a particular constituency.
For me that’s meant staying at the hotel when I attend WCC
events, even if I could stay with Friends in the area. I can eat
breakfast with the Archbishop from Albania and show him pictures
of my family and ask him questions like “how did you come
into ministry?” You hear amazing things, and it fills out
people into real flesh and blood so that when you are in those dicey
theological conversations, it’s easier to come with that presumption
of goodwill and trust. It’s worth investing the time to share
at that informal, personal level.
One of the hardest things to do, and one of the places where we
run against a lot of conflict ecumenically is the tension between
being impatient for truth and justice and patient for the pace of
change. For me, one place where I feel the pull on both sides is
the question of women’s ordination, because it is perfectly
clear to me that God calls women to public ministry and there is
nothing that disqualifies women from being recognized as leaders
in churches. Yet I am meeting together, with a presumption of goodwill
and respect, with people for whom that’s a decided question
on the other side. It is not helpful for me to be triumphalistic
and accusatory and dismissive. Yes, I’m impatient for those
women who I know aren’t able to exercise their gifts. Where
I draw strength to be patient is from finding places where there
are kernels of change and recognizing that change is slow. People’s
hearts are changed sometimes in a flash, but whole communities change
Query on Building Trust over Time
Are you patient with the slow pace of change, knowing that
God’s purposes are not always served by our hurried expectations?
Are you impatient for the truth, never complacent with injustice
or unfaithfulness? Are you consistent in building relationships
of trust over time, undergirding the work you do together with a
sense of love for each other? Do you listen for the movement of
God in the lives of the individuals you encounter? Within relationships
of trust, can you question and be questioned? Are you prepared to
live with a measure of ambiguity, trusting that as you live up to
the truth you have received, more will be granted you?
5. Unity, diversity and division
Cling to the sure knowledge that what unites us is stronger
than what divides us. Seek to know each other in that which is eternal,
in that which unites. Affirm the diversity of creation while challenging
divisions that break the bonds of love. Know that the forces that
divide us are powerful, real and should not be underestimated. Know
also that the walls that divide us do not reach all the way to heaven.
For me, the source of ecumenical assurance is that Christ is not
divided. I know that what unites us is stronger than what divides
us, since I know that Jesus Christ is Lord of us all. I look for
what unites us. I expect to find it. I know that our unity is a
gift of the Spirit, a consequence of our common faith, not something
we manufacture. It’s not a product of our creativity or our
hard work or our intellect or our clever theology or our searching
the Scriptures. Our unity derives from the unity of Jesus. There’s
an old Quaker saying which bear well the test of time: “Seek
to know each other in that which is eternal.” Know each other
in that Spirit.
Diversity and division are not the same thing. Diversity is intrinsic
to the triune nature of God, since relationship is not possible
without differentiation. We must be different from each other in
order to love each other, and in this sense we can celebrate diversity.
But division breaks the bonds of love, severs the relationship,
and must be challenged. One possible measure of the difference between
diversity and division is whether we can share in worship together.
Question division. Don’t accept as inevitable that there are
four Yearly Meetings in one state.
But know also that what divides us is powerful, real and should
not be underestimated. It is not easily overcome, and those who
try will meet fierce resistance. We are bound to bump against our
hurt places, as people and communities. In fact, if we’re
not bumping against our hurt places, we’re not doing the work
of reconciliation. This is especially true within FWCC. Reconciliation
is not about smoothing over or pretending a pious spiritual unity
of the invisible church that masks real and deep division. An overly
spiritualized unity is a persistent danger for Friends. It is not
enough to say that God has granted invisible spiritual unity to
the universal church. We are called to incarnate our unity by growing
in visible love and fellowship with each other for the sake of the
What divides us is not always theological. Some classic theological
divisions between churches are around baptism, eucharist and orders
of ministry. But in the United States, one of the most church-dividing
issues has been race. Among Quakers, we are divided in the relative
weight of authority given to Scripture — that’s partly
a theological point, but it’s also cultural and historical,
and has as much to do with which non-Quaker movements influenced
us, than with what the original Quaker teachings were. Quakers,
like all churches in the US, are divided on moral and social issues,
which often get discussed theologically, but which are rooted more
in sociological and demographic factors. If we’re not engaging
these complex questions, and feeling the hurt and the brokenness
which they evoke, we’re not doing the work.
But — this is an old Orthodox quote — the walls that
divide us do not reach all the way to heaven. Christ is not divided.
Query on Unity, Diversity and Division
Do you look for the unity that comes from abiding together
in Christ, and know that because our Lord Jesus Christ is One, what
unites us is stronger than what divides us? Do you seek to know
each other in that which is eternal? Do you uphold the diversity
of spiritual expression as a creative manifestation of the triune
God? Do you give proper weight to those things that divide us, neither
underestimating the depth of their hold on us, nor elevating them
6. Being careful
In embracing the spirituality of reconciliation, you are called
to the difficult work of balancing speaking and listening, humility
and boldness, challenge and acceptance, patience and impatience,
firm conviction and the willingness to change. Do not underestimate
the depth of this challenge, and be always ready for self-examination.
Hold before yourself a primary commitment not to place a stumbling
block in the path of your sister or brother.
Dr. Seuss says, “life’s a great balancing act”,
and what I’m describing for you today is a lot of balancing.
Balancing being firm in your convictions and being flexible in relating
to those who hold other convictions. The Apostle Paul tells us “each
of us will be accountable to God. Let us therefore no longer pass
judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling
block or hindrance in the way of another.”
We need to take care that our witness, that our expression of our
experience, is not damaging to another. Don’t build yourself
up by tearing down someone else, or compare your best to their worst.
This is the more common thing to do. It’s easier. It’s
hard to compare your best to their best. It’s hard to understand
their best. But if you’re satisfied with building yourself
up by tearing someone else down, then you’re not doing that
hard work of reconciliation. Don’t compare the spiritual depth
of the gathered unprogrammed meeting with a caricature of programmed
worship. And don’t compare the spiritual power of a programmed
meeting with a stereotype of unprogrammed worship.
One place where this comes up in a very concrete way is in the
problem of what’s called proselytism — of trying to
win converts to your church by preying on the weakness of another
church. Certainly there are things to criticize in all the churches.
None of us is at our best all the time. But a destructive witness
is something that we must challenge. It simply fails that test of
not placing a stumbling block in the path of your sister or brother.
Quaker Meetings tend to attract “refugees” from other
churches, but we must be extremely careful that we do not engage
in outreach which makes Quakerism sound attractive by exaggerating
a stereotyped image of another church.
All this is hard work, and I don’t think individuals with
this leading can do it alone. It’s important to know who our
spiritual advisors are, and to use them to engage in frequent, searching
self-examination. I have an oversight committee of five people appointed
by my Meeting. They are appointed as my elders, to sit with me and
help me stay faithful. To discern. To check and challenge me when
I go astray. And I couldn’t do this work without somebody
drawing out my faithfulness. We can’t do it alone.
Query on being careful
Do you remember not to underestimate the difficulty of this
balancing act? Do you set aside time for self-examination? Are you
careful that your witness does not come at another’s expense?
Do you take care that your boldness of faith does not place a stumbling
block in the way of another?
I have often prayed, with Psalm 51, for a broken and contrite heart.
Ezekiel 11 promises to remove our heart of stone and give us a heart
of flesh. The very essence of Quaker spirituality is the desire
to take up our daily cross. We must yearn to bear the suffering
of brokenness, feel its pain as our own and pray through it, in
order to become ministers of reconciliation. When the work I’ve
described is grounded in prayer, then we will behold how good and
pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony.
Pray for your own discernment (since what I have described
is not easy, and you won’t always get it right.)
Pray for God’s forgiveness, and ask the forgiveness of others
when you mess up
Pray for those you are divided from, both close by and distant (geographically,
Pray for your “enemies”
Pray together with those you are divided from
Pray for Christian unity, that the scandal of the broken body of
Christ may be healed through our faithfulness
Pray for the Religious Society of Friends, that in seeking persistently
to heal our divisions, we might unleash the power of reconciliation
embodied in George Fox’s vision of a gathered people
Pray for the world, that all creation may know the healing, reconciling,
transforming, saving love of God in Jesus Christ.
© 2001 Eden Grace
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