Wise words from Finland

Church decline in the West is a real if unwelcome phenomenon. We may not be able to have Christian life with the same cultural, political or financial force as we once did, but Jesus promised to be with us where two or three are gathered in his name. (Matthew 18:20) It would be lacking in faith to give up only because our numbers are few. But we may need to come up with other options about how we arrange our common Christian life..

As many of my readers will know, Quakers typically organize in a locale and conduct, worship weekly and conduct the business of their meeting (congregation) once a month. This is why a local Quaker church is customarily called a monthly meeting. Monthly meeting may come together in a region as a quarterly (four times a year) meeting, but more often these days in a larger area or in a smaller country on an annual basis, as a yearly meeting. Thus Yearly Meeting is the usual name for the broadest functioning body of Quakers, with these in the United States then often affiliated with one or more of the “denominations.”

Finland Yearly Meeting is one of the smallest yearly meetings in the world, with about 30 individual Quakers in the country. If they can keep body and soul (and website) together, there’s hope for the rest of us.

Fortunately, parts of their site are also in English. Naturally, I look to Northern Finland, assuming it would be the thinnest for Quakers, and indeed there are between five and seven Quakers there. But they still come together. One town has a “quiet room” with a small library.

When we meet it is usually for most of a day with the travel being part of our fellowship as travel can take several hours. We generally meet about 2-3 times a year, but we can usually arrange a [meeting for worship] in response to a visiting Friend.

This arrangement can’t be easy, but I find it encouraging given their current numbers.

Asking Micah Bales's question: Are we capable of planting churches?

A cautionary tale. I’ve worshipped with Micah here in D.C. so I sawa little of what he described but I’m certainly no Quaker, and (happily) have since gone back to my old church. But the critical mass issue is one that Unitarian and Universalist Christians are going to have to grapple with, in part because we’re probably too radioactive to attract ecumenical partners. Which is its own shame.

If Quakers don’t have the strength or inclination to seed new congregations, perhaps it’s time to partner with those who do.

Source: Are Quakers Capable of Planting Churches?

Notes from another church fellowship

American Unitarians and Universalists have, for about a century, kept and extended fellowship through a series of institutions, the largest and most notable today is the Church of the Larger Fellowship.

The British (and independently the Scottish) Unitarians and Free Christians have a similar fellowship. And the Quakers have one globally.

But when I discovered the Coptic-jurisdiction British Orthodox Church had one,  I knew I had to investigate. And thus the background for the next couple of posts.

On using that prayerbook

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read that Quaker minister, blogger and friend Micah Bales had bought an Episcopal prayerbook. Let’s hear it for experimentation.

I think I’ve said that I be an Episcopalian, provided I could find a liberal Morning Prayer parish. Oh, and no bishops. (So goes that Venn diagram.) So I’ll instead remain a Universalist with a free catholic point of view, the meaning of which I’ll get into in a blog post or two. Suffice it to say right now that I’ve learned my way around a prayerbook, and it takes some work.

Let me offer to the reading public a series of blog posts I wrote in 2004 for a very small church beginning to use prayerbook resources. Then I imagined a long-standing church in decline, but I think there are helpful ideas for people not from prayerbook traditions.

Universalism: not heresy

I’ve long ago rejected the tittering proclamation that Universalism is a heresy — said like this was a good thing. And also the self-serving etymology; that since heresy is derived from the Greek word meaning to choose that this it’s necessarily, again, a good thing. The implication of the word is clearly and honestly one of a false choice meant to mislead others. I won’t joke about that, or align myself with it. I’m a Universalist — particularly a Universalist Christian — and I’m no heretic.

I’ve also been pleased that the universalist theology angle of Evangelical minister Rob Bell — and whether or not universalism is honestly heresy — has been carefully and theologically considered in the Quaker end of the blogosphere. See, in particular, this blog post by Quaker minister and blogger Micah Bales. I’d like to think I had an influence, as we lunched yesterday and Bell and kin came up.

Quakers, as you might know, have their own version of Universalism which isn’t unlike the more general, non-Christian meaning found in Unitarian Universalism today, and which I don’t uphold. A meaning and understanding of Universalism that makes me wonder if most Unitarian Universalists really see a fellow-traveller in Rob Bell, or just an opportunity to get some press.

Two blog posts on mission and ministry

If you don’t keep up with the Quaker blogosphere, you might miss two valuable blog posts about mission, ministry and how these speak to generational change, resources and burnout.

Micah, for those counting, is a Quaker minister, with the Capitol Hill Friends worship group I mentioned last time. You can also follow them as micahbales and martin_kelley on Twitter.

A change in blogging (wherein I blame the Quakers)

After seven and a half years of blogging, it’s time again to rethink “The Boy in the Bands” — if only in a limited, experimental way. Blog is short for web log; so what of logging my thoughts first on paper, and then letting them ripen a bit before transferring them to the web? (Case in point, I’m transcribing these notes from September 8th.)

Of course, I blame the Quakers. Wednesday, I attended dinner, Bible study, singing, open worship and fellowship with the Capitol Hill Friends, an independent Conservative-leaning worship group across town. For the second time. Not sure what to make of the experience — open worship in particular is quite a challenge for me — but I feel more grounded and faithful coming out of these evenings, and less inclined to grind out a few choice words just to say I got a blog post up. Besides, as other bloggers know, writing this way is quite time consuming and now I would rather read more — including the Bible, and John Murray (rather than John Woolman) — and pray more. And perhaps even sleep more. So even, dear readers, if I’ve not posted any given day, it may be because I developing something more substantial and not because I’m disinterested.

(But a side thought. A logbook can also be a a running log of work, warts and all. And I have some church tech projects in mind, too. So there might be the odd, unripe posting. And some quickly dashed “see here” notes. I make no promises for consistency. And I’m not trading in my bands for a broad-brimmed hat.)

Where two or three gather, there's a worship group

I’ve been studying the Quakers more than usual lately. Not just the Friends General Conference — the main fellowship for liberal Quakers, including many who aren’t necessarily Christian — but others, including the Holiness pastoral Quakers, and the Conservatives, with whom I would likely be most at home, should I ever go to the Friends. (No plans, though.) They’re a interesting continuum, and I suspect offer many lessons both personally and for the institutions I care about.

A friend — not a Quaker — pointed out QuakerMaps.com as a resource for finding Quakers in North America and Europe, and its a good ministry worthy of emulation. And one with an actual funding model. (Perhaps not by a U.S. Unitarian Universalist, who are almost entirely in a single fellowship in the UUA; thus causing a duplication of effort.)

But before I saw that site, I downloaded a PDF of the world map of Quakers, by the Friends World Committee for Consultation. Take a look.

The thing that touched me was the implied seriousness with with Jesus’ promise that  “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) The lone worship group in Croatia has (or had) two members. Also in Lithuania. The one in Greece has three; Estonia’s lone group has four. Denmark Yearly Meeting, in essence a national body, has 29 souls meeting in three different places. And I wonder how many more tiny groups are hidden in the statistics of relatively larger groups.

Which isn’t a romantic impulse to tininess. Perhaps members of these little groups are frustrated by their small numbers. Or not. And it must be more work per capita to keep small meetings going, though it isn’t like faith is a wholesale business. And while some may be dwindling, legacy groups, I gather that others are much newer.

I could go back and forth like this all day, so suffice it to say that there’s a recognized place in the Friends environment for the smallest gatherings — even those that have no settled space and meet far less frequently than weekly. (“By arrangement” seems to be the mode of choice in some European countries.)

Recognition and respect — that’s worthy of emulation, too.

With this post, I open the category Quakers.