What we are is truly seen in what we do. We may claim to be a people of faith and love, but if our actions belie our claims, the truth is not in us. Faith and works are inseparable. As James so directly put it: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” Faith without deeds is invisible, useless, a lie. Faith without works is as a dead spiritual tree that bears no fruit. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Before we begin I want to say that the yearly meeting I am referring to in the beginning is London yearly meeting since that is where the queries were born. This will be the history, which eventually evolved to include yearly meetings around the world. Most yearly meetings have their own unique set of queries and you have been given a copy of NWYM queries.
The Quaker practice of receiving and answering Queries is rooted in the essential question: Are we being faithful to the hope that is within us? Receiving and answering the Queries is far more than a mere personal self-examination. It is meant to be a corporate self-examination of the unity of our faith and life together as Friends, as Christ’s church.
Now, before we examine how the queries might be used it is interesting to know where our queries came from, what earlier friends had in mind, and how they used them. This is not so that we can imitate earlier friends, but that, knowing the queries’ origin, we can make a more informed choice about our own use of them.
Our Quaker Queries grew out of a fundamental challenge to Quaker identity, character, and discipline. Also, Yearly Meetings began the practice of querying Monthly and Quarterly Meetings as to how truth prospered among them and how friends were in peace and unity. The practice established that Quakers were not simply a band of individualists, each doing his or her own thing. They were God’s people witnessing to His presence and power in their lives by the visible fruits produced by their faith and salvation. Quakers were a people who stood for certain spiritual and moral absolutes.
The queries, then, remind us that the church is not a spiritual supermarket with lots of spiritual fruits for sale in the produce section. They remind us we are not to wander up and down the aisles, testing each fruit to see if we should “buy” it. “This fruit’s too hard! I’d never be able to stomach it. This one’s too mushy—I reject it. And this one! It’s old! No longer nutritious for our time. Ill toss it!” Selective obedience to God’s will has never been an option.
Friends have assessed the state of this religious society through the use of queries since the time of George Fox. Rooted in the history of Friends, the queries reflect the Quaker way of life, reminding Friends of the ideals we seek to attain. From the Christian tradition, friends have taken as a standard the life and teaching of Jesus, not only as recorded in the New Testament, but even more importantly as revealed inwardly, as we seek God’s truth and its expression through our lives today. Friends approach queries as a guide to self-examination, using them not as an outward set of rules, but as a framework within which we assess our convictions and examine, clarify, and consider prayerfully the direction of our lives and the life of the community. Over the years, the content of the general queries has changed, as each generation finds it own voice. The earliest general queries of London yearly meeting asked for specific facts and figures asking 3 questions. 1. What friends in the ministry, in their respective counties, departed this life since the last yearly meeting? 2. What friends imprisoned for their testimony have died in prison since the last yearly meeting? 3. How has the truth prospered amongst them since the last yearly meeting and if Friends are in peace and unity? Today, queries that are looking for specific factual answers are not included in the general queries. The language of the queries today is language that encourages the probing-in-depth of an issue or a concern. (I wonder if that is why we seldom read or think about them). While changes in specific focus and language are inevitable over time, the queries have been marked by consistency of convictions and concerns within friends testimonies—simplicity, peace, integrity, stewardship, equality and community—as well as by strength derived from worship, ministry and social conscience. There may be times when a meeting will reword a query or contemplate a new one to meet its particular situation. (After checking on the Internet, I have found this to be very true. We (NWYM), have fewer than most yearly meetings and even though we are asked probing questions, you should read some of them!!)
In 1682 when the 3 questions were asked that I mentioned earlier, to each quarterly meeting, they were expected to answer those questions orally. They were intended to produce factual information from friends with local knowledge, so that the progress of friends throughout the country could be seen and help given in the areas where it was most needed. Being expanded in 1694 to 6 questions and further increased in the early 1700’s their purpose was still mainly to elicit factual information. The practice of oral replies to the questions became too cumbersome and was replaced in 1706 by written replies from the quarterly meetings. The system of replying to the questions took root in the society and the term ‘query’ was increasingly used, in yearly meeting minutes from 1723 onwards, instead of ‘question’.
As the practice of replying to the queries became more formal their purpose also began to change. The queries were increasingly used to ensure consistency of conduct among friends and to obtain information as to the state of the society. They included advice and direction to overseers, dealing with personal differences, public scandal, offenses against the church, backbiting, disowned persons not permitted in meetings for business, none to oppose ministers publicly, burials, attending meetings, and the form marriage certificates should take. In 1721, for example, a query was added as to the receipt and payment of tithes, and in 1723 as to defrauding the king of his customs and excise, and many other subjects were included in additional queries. In 1755 they were again revised and added to. Friends were directed to consider them once every 3 months, with answers to be prepared by overseers or other weighty friends. There were 13 queries, covering the outward behavior expected of people professing to be friends. Appended were 4 administrative queries and 9 for ministers and elders. The purpose of the queries after 1760 became principally disciplinary, and monthly and quarterly meetings and their elders and overseers regarded the queries as a touchstone on which they could rely in administering the discipline.
There were periodic revisions of the queries during the next hundred years, although the number of substantial changes was few. When the queries were revised in 1791 yearly meeting adopted the first ‘general advises’ for consideration by monthly and quarterly meetings. They were short, and mainly concerned with the domestic life of the society and its member. During the early nineteenth century friends were much influenced by the evangelical movement and this was illustrated in the revision of the general advises in 1833. They were completely re-written and much expanded. They became of much greater importance than before, and their purpose was no longer mainly disciplinary but instead they were used to emphasize the importance of evangelical principles and to encourage friends to consider whether they should not adopt them personally.
As friends in the early nineteenth century entered more into the public and social life of the times, many of them began to question traditional practices of the society including the very large amount of time spent at business meetings in reading and drawing up answers to the queries, which were often formal in nature. The value of the queries for self-examination had been commended by yearly meeting from 1787 onwards, however the requirement of preparing written answers was virtually abolished, and while the regulations continued to provide for a corporate consideration of the queries by monthly and preparative meetings, this in turn became in many places a formality. The general advises were revised over the same period. They were lengthened and extended in scope, and provision was made for them to be read at the close of meeting for worship.
After this, no major revision of the queries took place until 1928. By this time many friends considered that they were too negative in approach, had become uneasy at the evangelical language then in use, and wished for greater emphasis on the social responsibilities of Quakerism. These views were reflected in the revised queries, which again increased in number. The requirement of corporate consideration of the queries by friends’ business meetings remained but this became of much less significance. The use of the queries became increasingly devotional- a collection of exhortations on the right management of one’s own affairs both inward and outward, and a collection of questions, or groups of questions, in pondering which a whole meeting can achieve a corporate examination of conscience’. The practice was established in many meetings of reading the queries in meetings of worship.
A revision of queries, adopted in 1964, contained a number of alterations to the previous edition and included references to social problems not apparent in 1928.
In the revisions from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1972, the introduction explains that “the queries reflect to Quaker way of life, reminding Friends of the ideals we seek to attain.” It adds that “Friends approach queries as a guide to self-examination, using them not as an outward set of rules, but as a framework within which we assess our convictions, and examine, clarify and consider prayerfully the direction of our lives and the life of the community.” The language was chosen, it explains, to encourage “the probing-in-depth of an issue or a concern.” It is interesting that we are not expected to probe ourselves in depth, or invite the Light to probe us, but rather to deal in depth with the outward issues.
By 1984 some monthly meetings were expressing unease with the 1964 edition of the queries. (This is for Laverne) The use of masculine nouns and pronouns no longer seemed justifiable, and some of the theological language used was being questioned. Some recently evolving concerns were not referred to, and there was some difficulty reading aloud some of the longer paragraphs.
In the light of these responses, and after several more years of work on the revision of the whole list, a committee prepared the present text, which was approved by yearly meeting in 1994.
Although the corporate use of queries is governed by more flexible regulations than in the past, they should continue to be a challenge and inspiration to friends in their personal lives and in their life as a religious community which knows the guidance of the universal spirit of Christ, witnessed to in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Queries are not a call to increased activity by each individual friend but a reminder of the insights of the society. Within the community there is a diversity of gifts. We are all therefore asked to consider how far the queries affect us personally and where our own service lies. There will also be diversity of experience, of belief and of language. Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal experience. Some find traditional Christian language full of meaning; some do not. Our understanding of our own religious tradition nay sometimes be enhanced by insights of other faiths. The deeper realities of our faith may be beyond verbal composition and our way of worship based on silent waiting testifies to this.
Our diversity invites us both to speak what we know to be true in our lives and to learn from others. Friends are encouraged to listen to each other in humility and understanding, trusting in the spirit that goes beyond our human effort and comprehension. So it is for the comfort and discomfort of friends that these queries are offered, with the hope that we may all be more faithful and find deeper joy in God’s service.
Over the generations Friends have found that the Divine Presence, the inward Teacher, has taught certain things to us as a group. These lessons are not intellectual creations but practical guides for daily living so that through our personal lives Friends might bear witness to the world of these teachings and to the love and power of God. As we all know, these testimonies had to do with our form of worship in expectant waiting, with plainness of speech and dress, with a lifestyle of honesty and integrity in business and domestic spheres, with peace, equality, and simplicity.
There was a well-defined lifestyle by which any Quaker anywhere could be readily identified. Those who made other choices could not be owned as part of the meeting and its witness to the world. For better or worse this is no longer the case. However, we are still concerned to live lives of faithful attentiveness. As friends we are continually invited to bring more and more parts of our lives into harmony with divine love and truth. The queries offer us an opportunity to hear God calling us to a more faithful life.
Sometimes the discussion of a query was the high point of a monthly meeting. In one meeting that was noted, after a rather tedious, long-winded, not particularly well-grounded meeting for business the query that was considered was simply “how do we recognize what we are called to be obedient to?” As people spoke to it, the silence deepened and lengthened between speakers. Finally the speaking ceased altogether and the Friends present were wrapped together in quietness and love. The clerk ended the meeting but they were reluctant to leave. They were in the presence of God, and found it good.
Careful and prayerful consideration of the queries can be the outward structure that unites the individuals and the faith community. If the intent of our meetings and of Friends is to grow ever deeper in our relationship with the divine, and we have chosen the Quaker path as our way, then the queries offer a checklist of how faithful we are as we trudge along on our journey, together.
There is a Quaker way, it is not quite the same as any other way. This is not to say other ways are not valid, only that it is probably counter-productive to try to walk on several paths simultaneously.
Yes, we can learn from other faiths. Yes, we can worship with others. Yes, we can give thanks that God has taught diverse peoples in diverse ways, all with the same underlying message of love, and drawing humans God-ward. But we have chosen one way, the Quaker way. The queries help us stay on our path and deepen within it.
Our Quaker way professes that the divine will teach us, inwardly. We will be taught individually and we will be taught together, as a faith community. Our responsibility is to be teachable, and not a stiff-necked, stubborn, self-righteous people. A humble opening of our selves to be searched by the divine through the queries is one way to remain teachable.
George Fox continually referred to the “power of God” or the “power of the Lord”. What is our experience of this power? If we haven’t experienced it together, what is hindering its bursting forth among us? What is God trying to teach us, in our meeting, today, through our consideration of these things?