Some Guidelines for New Testimonies

Three months ago, Ohio Yearly Meeting began the first comprehensive review of our Queries since 1958. During this time, some Friends have expressed ideas about adjusting our testimonies either by prohibiting or recommending a given behavior. These conversations have raised issues around underlying principles on the issue of testimonies.

One place to begin is with a general consideration of testimonies. Early Friends usually did not discuss "our testimonies" but had much to say about "our testimony." By the end of the 19th century, "our ancient testimony" had been partitioned into testimonies regarding plainness, truth & oaths, peace, temperance, equality, and integrity. Some Friends produced mnemonics to emphasize their favorite testimonies and to marginalize others - an example is SPICE (simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality). Note that in the latter list, simplicity has replaced the historic plainness testimony to grant freedom to ignore the issues of titles and the plain calendar, while some testimonies including temperance have disappeared.

Throughout Friends history, however, the word *testimony* has had a specific definition. When the behavior of a Quaker differs intentionally from other people, it has been a testimony of our inward and unmediated interaction with Christ Jesus. We opposed slavery because He directed us to do so, and actions taken by Friends during those years pointed to our desire to be faithful to what the Lord was calling us to be.

Associated with the testimonies are leadings. Individual Friends have occasionally felt a calling to do (or not do) certain things, but these never rose to general acceptance by all Friends and thus did not become testimonies. Examples include a refusal to be photographed, wearing undyed cloth, and choices regarding transportation. These days, leadings are often confused with what I call whims. A leading is something Christ Jesus has directed thee to do. A whim usually has no spiritual significance and is usually defended with autobiographical statements.

Queries and Advices differentiate between testimonies and leadings. Usually, a Query asks about our faithfulness to the testimonies but not to leadings. The Advices similarly cover testimonies and not leadings. This means that when something rises to the level of a testimony, it should be included in the Advices and Queries so that we have to consider our faithfulness on that item each year through hearing the Advices and answering the Queries.

When considering the elevation of a leading to a testimony, the following questions seem appropriate. Since the discussion is framed in the context of Ohio Yearly Meeting, consistency with the Scriptures and traditional Quaker doctrine and practice are taken for granted. The questions also assume that the proposal has been weightily considered and is well-written, with an appropriately written advice and query accompanying the discipline adjustment.

1) Does the proposal rise to the level of being a testimony? Changes to the Discipline should not be undertaken lightly.

2) Is this something that many Friends have similar leadings about? A plurality does not always recognize a spiritual directive, but paucity of vocal support can easily turn into an unwelcome bulldozer that Friends later rebel against. If a segment of Friends is vocally opposed to the proposal, a compromise should be sought or the issue dropped.

3) Is this something relevant to the lives of many Friends? It does not require a lot of spiritual maturity today to have a testimony against slavery.

4) Does the proposal fall into the category of a temporary hot topic? These are usually not appropriate testimonies, since after the resolution of the topic, the Discipline will need to be changed again to take it out.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Perhaps it would be helpful to add a fifth question: Is it Christ asking us to change our behavior in this way, and not just a spirit of the world?

Micah Bales said...

Thank thee for thy post. It's helpful for me to think of testimonies as thee has described them: as a sustained leading of the body, not just of individuals.


Frederick said...

Thank you for your thought-provoking post. I noticed an arresting parallel between Ohio Yearly Meeting's deliberations and New England YM's. My copy of the New England Friend (our YM newsletter) arrived today, and contained an update about NEYM's process for revision of our Faith and Practice. Jan Hoffman writes: "When we distributed a questionnaire in 2002 asking Friends what they would like to see in the revision, a very frequent response was that we print a definitive list and description of “the testimonies.” We were clear we could not do so. [She quotes John Punshon to explain why.] ...This led to our clarity to create a chapter on the spiritual source of testimony itself. ... Another piece of our deepening understanding of testimonies occurred during this past year when we began working on General Advices and Queries. We have come to see that testimonies, queries and advices are closely linked. When we experience the power of a new truth, it brings with it a desire to live in obedience to our Inward Guide as a testimony to that truth. Advices and queries are tools for discovering how to do this."

Sorry to quote at length, but I thought it was exciting to see the Holy Spirit guiding our meeting towards the same place yours is.

I also had a bit of fun with the subtitle of your blog. I know that New England YM is hardly Conservative nowadays, but we were the home of John Wilbur, after all, and a slender group carried that tradition up to our reunification. Some Friends don't like to mention those divisions because of the strife they had in them, but I think that, from a "convergant" point of view, using our history can be very helpful. So I'm glad to see you using the name prominently.

Chronicler said...

Frederick - Thank thee for the post. A close friend of mine in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is a member of the Grange. She says that the historic testimony against secret societies did not include a ban on joining the Grange. I haven't investigated the point because it doesn't matter to me. This is an example of a testimony that has not been discussed too much of late.

kevin roberts said...

It's worth pointing out that one very important aspect of the Queries evaluation doesn't have to do with changing testimonies, but with providing guidance to Friends in areas that the Queries don't currently address.

My monthly meeting has unwed members raising children. How do we maintain an appropriate relationship, and what is it to be?

What do we do about homosexual members and homosexuals who have been led to us by God? The current situation is not addressed by the Queries and we have no corporate guidance in that respect.

Some full members are on active duty in the military, being trained to kill people. Do we need a different witness towards war than the one we maintain now?

Most members of Ohio Yearly Meeting are non-residents, and do not attend meetings regularly. We have no queries that ask us how we are doing with them.

We have no queries that deal with people that want to set up new meetings .

And so on.

We're not talking about letting in the world here, we're talking about opening our eyes and asking questions of ourselves that we need to answer in order to be guided in issues that didn't exist or didn't matter in 1958.