Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Monday, August 14, 2006

What canst thou say

At the sessions of New England Yearly Meeting just concluded, the Faith and Practice Revision Committee presented a second draft on their chapter on worship. Other reactions to this particular business session can be found here and here. I was the confused person that Cat Chapin-Bishop refers to who asked for a clarification of what we were to respond to. I would have been satisfied with a short answer such as “names for God” or “our experience of worship” or whatever. Jan Hoffman's answer was eloquent and was certainly a message but it was a very indirect answer to my question. Maybe she was answering Cat's unspoken question instead of mine.

The business session was fine but I was brought up short by the first paragraph in the draft introduction: “When Friends ask that crucial question 'What canst thou say?' our answer takes its place in a living, changing tradition.” On my first quick and somewhat distracted reading (because I did not read the advance documents in advance like I was asked to) it seemed to me that “What canst thou say?” was being used as Quakerese for “What is your opinion?” On rereading the entire section again it is not clear that is is being used quite in that sense. Whether reading it correctly or not, it pushed a button I hadn't known I had until then. Using “What cans't thou say?” as an invitation for an opinion or a justification for offering one seems to be fairly common among Friends. It seems to imply that all our opinions are important and that each of us should be ready to express them at any time. Unfortunately, that was not what George Fox was asking about when he asked the question. In fact, such a usage is opposite to the original meaning.

The quotation is from Margaret Fell's description of the first time she heard George Fox preach and her conversion. In somewhat larger context the quote is: “You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?"

This is a far cry from asking or justifying an opinion. It is not implying that everyone's opinion is of equal value. It is asking us to consider where our words come from. Rather than being a justification for our ordinary opinions, it is a challenge to discipline ourselves to become obedient to God, to walk in the Light that God shows us, and then, when we know God's voice, did we get what we say from God or from somewhere else.


Update: Since writing this I have found a similar take on these thoughts by Simon St. Laurent at Light and Silence.


Blogger Joe G. said...


These are great clarifications. One of the most frustrating things for me when I was actively involved with liberal Friends was how some new contemporary perspective was put forth as tradition. I also noticed that the more people actually learned about the Quaker tradition, they started to see these sorts of discrepencies. Hence, the famous phrase "What canst thou say?" is used in the fashion that you, I think, clearly show.

Granted, groups change and so do interpretations. But, it would be clearer, and more honest I think, to briefly and concisely explain how things have changed. (e.g. "In former times this question was meant in this way, but over time we are lead to use it this way...")

I also appreciate your honesty about receiving the "very indirect answer to [your] question". Yep.

Well, what canst thou say, right? ;)

August 27, 2006 1:28 PM  

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