Message from the Pastoral Care and Eldership Team (PaCET) for Sunday Meeting 8th January 2023
Dear Friends, Several apparently unconnected bits of news in the last few days have sent me musing on the nature of authority and the maintenance of coherence in societies and … Message from the Pastoral Care and Eldership Team (PaCET) for Sunday Meeting 8th January 2023
Several apparently unconnected bits of news in the last few days have sent me musing on the nature of authority and the maintenance of coherence in societies and in the Society of Friends. One strand in this musing came from the rise and fall of populist or tyrannical leaders such as Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro, Xi. Sometimes countries led by authoritative leaders seem more able than democracies to take decisive action and get things done – a decidedly mixed blessing.
A second strand came from being reminded of Michael Gove’s statement, immediately prior to the Brexit referendum, “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” This refers to a different kind of authority, namely the authority granted to supposed experts. Justified or not the distrust spawns a lack of coherence in the country’s response to many issues, e.g. covid, climate change, Brexit.
A third strand was sparked by the death of the previous Pope, which brought to mind issues of authority in religious and spiritual matters. Just as human societies and groupings maintain their ethos by investing authority in their rule books and office-bearers, so religious and spiritual bodies tend to emphasize to varying degrees their traditions, or revered writings and scriptures, also they have their priests, imams and gurus. The Religious Society of Friends itself may not have gurus but it does have “weighty friends”, it does appoint people to specific tasks with enhanced influence over our corporate life, and we certainly have revered writings in Quaker Faith and Practice. Are such authorities enough to maintain our truth, formulate our goals and achieve them?
Looking up authority in QF&P lead me to a host of wonderful passages proclaiming that for us the only true authority is the Inner Light. From these I have chosen first the contribution written by Ellen S Bosanquet in 1927:-
The Inner Light does not lead men to do that which is right in their own eyes, but that which is right in God’s eyes. As the Light is One, so its teaching is ultimately (though not superficially) harmonious. In actual experience, it is not found that souls truly looking to the Inner Light as their authority will break away from each other in anarchy. (QF&P 26.68)
Let’s not kid ourselves that these ideas are automatically liberating or automatically deliver harmony. Sometimes our light appears dim, and at others we may struggle to separate truth from what is merely convenient for us. So harmony is not automatic. It does not come from intellectual agreement, rather from tapping into the spirit of love.
The whole section from 26.61 to the end of the chapter has much gold to be mined, so let’s include another. Take this contribution from Thomas Kelly in 1942 (with seasonal overtones from its obvious inspiration from the opening of John’s Gospel).
The light for which the world longs is already shining. It is shining into the darkness, but the darkness does not apprehend it. It is shining into the darkness, but the darkness is not overcoming it. It is shining in many a soul, and already the new order has begun within the kingdom of the heart. It is shining in many a small group and creating a heavenly-earthly fellowship of children of the light. It will always shine and lead many into the world of need, that they may bear it up into the heart of God. QF&P 26.62
There was another strand in my mix, related to our Christian heritage; I chanced upon Matthew’s remarks after he had set out the collection of teachings attributed to Jesus often known as The Sermon on the Mount. Matthew commented the crowds were astonished at his teaching , since he had been teaching them on his own authority, unlike their (own) scholars. Whatever you make of the Jesus stories, it is clear from the “sermon” that Jesus’s message – despite being misunderstood by many of his early listeners and later followers – was actually one of love, forgiveness, and trust, not one of might and coercion. This is where it acquired its authority for 17th century Friends and where we may still connect.
On behalf of the Pastoral Care and Eldership Team (David Hitchin, Chris Lawson, Tim Pitt-Payne, Theresa Samms, Nancy Wall)