Spiritual nurture of the Meeting

This is one of the documents used in the EMES Meeting for Learning 11-13 June 2010 held at Svartbäcken, Rimbo, Sweden

Gospel Order

In her Pendle Hill pamphlet entitled Gospel Order. A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community, Sandra Cronk tells us that Gospel Order is a term that gathers together the most significant threads of Friends’ understanding of the church community. She says that George Fox used it to describe Quaker practices of worship, decision-making and daily living in meetings and everyday lives, and how being led into God’s new order of love, peace and justice manifested itself in the world. For early Friends, Gospel Order implied the emergence of new patterns of life, a listening and responding to the leadings of the Inward Teacher, and being part of a community of faith. Transformed lives also meant turning to the Light – which led to Christ, the Inward Teacher and Guide – that revealed what people needed to do in order to live true and faithful lives. In this sense, Gospel Order meant God’s New Order and alluded to a reconciled, faithful, personal relationship with God. It also implied being gathered into a faith community of similar seekers and rejecting all social conventions that were considered contrary to God’s will. Through Gospel Order people would be restored to a right relationship with God and with each other. Although Early Friends used the phrase Gospel Order to describe the communal/ecclesiastical and societal dimensions of this new ordering, it can also be used to describe the personal and cosmic dimensions of God’s New Order.

Cronk breaks the definition of Gospel Order down as follows: Gospel refers to the life, power and reality of our relationship with God, while Order indicates the characteristics of daily living that flow from God and that allow the faith community to maintain and deepen its relationship with Christ. George Fox referred to this relationship as a “covenanted relationship”, which is a relationship of enduring trust and faithfulness with God and with other people (given that one cannot live God’s New Order alone). For early Friends the new covenant was Christ Jesus and their living relationship with Christ. In this context, patterns of life – the ‘order’ in Gospel Order – were a manifestation of one’s relationship with Christ. The Quaker meeting community as a whole – and not simply the individuals within it – was also required to embody the new pattern of life and to bear fruit, i.e. to live out the fullness of a living relationship with Christ.

Gospel Order means a life lived in transforming, guiding and sustaining power, not the imposition of a system of “shoulds” and external codes of behaviour. It is based on an ordered way of life that is tangibly expressed in all areas of living, both outward and inward and reflects a sense of peoplehood, rather than individualistic actions and assumptions. According to Cronk, the content of Gospel Order as understood in the Quaker context is made up of three specific areas:

a) the inward life of worship and discernment: living in a way that nurtures and maintains the covenant relationship with God, e.g. holding regular meetings for worship and for business where the discipline of listening together and discerning the inward leadings of the Divine Teacher and Guide are practised.

b) the interior functioning of the church community, our families and homes: which grows out of the above and reflects the love and unity of our relationship with God.

c) the social testimonies of Friends: a prophetic witness to society at large expressed through the Quaker testimonies that witness to the New Order that God brings to birth in the world.

In the early Friends model of Gospel Order, socioeconomic and political concerns and the life of the meeting community were linked and intertwined into an integrated whole. Today, in contrast, we tend to regard these aspects as separate models and often categorise into ‘social concern Friends’ (action-based) and ‘inward life Friends’ (prayer and contemplation-based). Friends in Fox’s day believed that the most basic peace and social concerns grew out of living Gospel Order. This was reflected, for example, by their community witness or testimonies to plain speech, simple dress, the refusal to go to war, take an oath etc., and their consequent living in a new order of peace, simplicity and harmony. Living like this was seen as a prophetic challenge to all the unjust social structures of the so-called old order. In other words, Gospel Order grows out of the interweaving of the inward, communal and social witness aspects of our lives as Quakers.

Mutual accountability was seen as an important component, in that it provided an internal dynamic to keep Gospel Order strong within the Quaker community and meant accountability to each other and to God. This accountability was regarded as the lifeblood of the process of discipling, i.e. being disciples to one another and helping each other to become disciples of Christ. In a prophetic context, accountability also means mutual admonition, given that the Inward Light of Christ also reveals our unfaithfulness and wrongdoings. Friends regarded admonition as part of a larger process of spiritual listening, guidance and nurture that meant helping each other to hear and respond to God’s call, recognise and use spiritual gifts, identify life’s broken and unfaithful aspects, overcome fear, discern leadings and know when the Inward Guide had either been outrun or had not been heeded. In this sense, admonition implied encouragement to: undertake a much needed service or ministry, resist taking on too many tasks, trust God’s leadings or let go of behaviour or things that prevented a deeper commitment to faithfulness in all areas of life.

Understanding Gospel Order helps us to hear God’s call to a deeper faithfulness. Nowadays it does not mean reproducing patterns of the past that do not match or fit our times. What it does invite us to do, though, is to live in the life and power of a covenant relationship with God and with each other that speaks and witnesses to our contemporary world.

Within the meeting community, Elders were regarded as the overseers of Gospel Order. Their role included oversight of meeting for worship, the spiritual life of the meeting and the daily life of the meeting community. Another of their roles was to nurture Friends’ practice and process of listening. Listening to God in community was regarded as the heart of Gospel Order and the act of faithfulness from which all life flowed. The Elders’ attitude of deep listening helped the meeting as a whole to centre down in worship, helped individual Friends within the meeting community to listen and respond to God, helped to ensure that the inward life of the meeting and of individual Friends was translated into faithful daily living, and helped to ensure that Friends with special needs received the help and care they required. Their work also included the oversight and practice of accountability – in terms of helping to solve conflicts or disputes, the reconciliation of broken relationships, serving as mediators or arbiters at the request of the parties involved, encouraging ministry, providing care and spiritual guidance and generally watching to see that individual Friends and the meeting faithfully practised Gospel Order.

Sue Glover Frykman