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Can we sing together?

By: Douglas Bennett
Published: March 5, 2014

Race Street Meeting house during the 2013 Corporation Meeting.

Photo: AFSC / Bryan Vana

In worship this morning, I found myself thinking ahead to next week’s AFSC Corporation Meeting. I wasn’t surprised to find myself wondering, “Can we sing together?”

I was visiting at Durham Meeting with my son Robbie rather than worshipping at Brunswick Friends Meeting where we normally go. I was not surprised when we began by singing some hymns; I knew Durham describes itself as semi-programmed. They sing as they gather, various people calling out suggested hymns that especially speak to them that day. It reminded us both of First Friends in Richmond (IN), a programmed meeting where Robbie and I both are members, even though at First Friends the worship leader picks the hymns in advance. 

Part of my wondering was whether Corporation members drawn from across several dozen Yearly Meetings can and will join together in harmony. There are striking differences among our Yearly Meetings in manner of worship, in belief, even in what feels comfortable in informal fellowship and conversation. All too often each of us slips into thinking, “We’re the real Quakers; those other Quakers have strayed.” That attitude can’t help us find our way to singing together.

Part of that wondering, too, was whether Corporation members from Friends churches and meetings across the United States will find comfort with AFSC itself. AFSC carries out program work on behalf of peace and justice across the United States and around the world. Members of its paid staff are Corporation Meeting 2013essential to this program work, often working in concert with members of the communities in which these peace and justice issues arise.  At the same time, many Quaker meetings and churches are engaged in peace and justice activities. As volunteers they visit prisons, hold peace vigils, campaign for sensible attention to climate change, and much more.

The question is, can these two kinds of peace and justice work find comfort with one another? Can each respect the other? Learn from one other? Support one other? Can we all sing together? I’m sure we can if we try, but we will have to work at it.

Friends meetings and churches are so comfortable with their own style--small in scale, and wholly volunteer--that they can be ill at ease with the ways of a large organization and the program activities of paid staff.  Conversely, trained staff who work full time on issues can slip into being impatient with volunteers who seem longer on enthusiasm than expertise. Both staff and volunteers can see themselves as the "real deal" and look at the other as lacking some legitimacy. Both staff and volunteers can slip into thinking that they are the ones who truly understand what Quaker testimonies ask of us today. 

Can we sing together? We certainly should.  When we sing together, we celebrate, we comfort one another, we find shared strength. I don’t think there are any hymns where we complain about one another or find fault. Singing together brings us together. Singing together reminds us that the same Holy Spirit animates us all. 

About the Author

Douglas Bennett

Douglas Bennett is a member of AFSC's Corporation, as well as the Standing Nominating.  He also serves as the clerk for the AFSC Friends Relations Committees. Doug is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. His scholarly publications includeTransnational Corporations Versus the State: the Political Economy of the Mexican Automobile Industry, co-authored with Kenneth Sharpe (Princeton University Press, 1985), and many articles on transnational corporations in developing countries, immigration, and other topics in public policy and in higher education. In the past Doug has served on various of AFSC's advisory committees.  He is married to Ellen Trout Bennett, and has two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).   He is a member of First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, part of the New Association of Friends. You can learn more about Doug at his blog.

More posts by Douglas Bennett