Going lowercase christian with Thomas Clarkson

Vist­ing 1806’s “A por­trai­ture of Quak­erism: Tak­en from a view of the edu­ca­tion and dis­ci­pline, social man­ners, civ­il and polit­i­cal econ­o­my, reli­gious prin­ci­ples and char­ac­ter, of the Soci­ety of Friends”

Thomas Clark­son wasn’t a Friend. He didn’t write for a Quak­er audi­ence. He had no direct expe­ri­ence of (and lit­tle appar­ent inter­est in) any peri­od that we’ve retroac­tive­ly claimed as a “gold­en age of Quak­erism.” Yet all this is why he’s so inter­est­ing.

The basic facts of his life are summed up in his Wikipedia entry (http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​T​h​o​m​a​s​_​C​l​a​r​k​son), which begins: “Thomas Clark­son (28 March 1760 – 26 Sep­tem­ber 1846), abo­li­tion­ist, was born at Wis­bech, Cam­bridgeshire, Eng­land, and became a lead­ing cam­paign­er against the slave trade in the British Empire.” The only oth­er nec­es­sary piece of infor­ma­tion to our sto­ry is that he was a Angli­can.

British Friends at the end of of the Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry were still some­what aloof, mys­te­ri­ous and con­sid­ered odd by their fel­low coun­try­men and women. Clark­son admits that one rea­son for his writ­ing “A Por­trai­ture of Quak­erism” was the enter­tain­ment val­ue it would pro­vide his fel­low Angli­cans. Friends were start­ing to work with non-Quakers like Clark­son on issues of con­science and while this ecu­meni­cal activism was his entre – “I came to a knowl­edge of their liv­ing man­ners, which no oth­er per­son, who was not a Quak­er, could have eas­i­ly obtained” (Vol 1, p. i)– it was also a symp­tom of a great sea change about to hit Friends. The Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry ush­ered in a new type of Quak­er, or more pre­cise­ly whole new types of Quak­ers. By the time Clark­son died Amer­i­can Friends were going through their sec­ond round of schism and Joseph John Gur­ney was arguably the best-known Quak­er across two con­ti­nents: Oxford edu­cat­ed, at ease in gen­teel Eng­lish soci­ety, active in cross-denominational work, and flu­ent and well stud­ied in Bib­li­cal stud­ies. Clark­son wrote about a Soci­ety of Friends that was dis­ap­pear­ing even as the ink was dry­ing at the print­ers.

Most of the old accounts of Friends we still read were writ­ten by Friends them­selves. I like old Quak­er jour­nals as much as the next geek, but it’s always use­ful to get an outsider’s per­spec­tive (here’s a more modern-day exam­ple). Also: I don’t think Clark­son was real­ly just writ­ing an account sim­ply for entertainment’s sake. I think he saw in Friends a mod­el of chris­t­ian behav­ior that he thought his fel­low Angli­cans would be well advised to study. 

His account is refresh­ing­ly free of what we might call Quak­er bag­gage. He doesn’t use Fox or Bar­clay quotes as a blud­geon against dis­agree­ment and he doesn’t drone on about his­to­ry and per­son­al­i­ties and schisms. Read­ing between the lines I think he rec­og­nizes the grow­ing rifts among Friends but gloss­es over them (fair enough: these are not his bat­tles). Refresh­ing­ly, he doesn’t hold up Quak­er lan­guage as some sort of quaint and untrans­lat­able tongue, and when he describes our process­es he often uses very sur­pris­ing words that point to some fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between Quak­er prac­tice then and now that are obscured by com­mon words.

Thomas Clark­son is inter­est­ed in what it’s like to be a good chris­t­ian. In the book it’s type­set with low­er­case “c” and while I don’t have any rea­son to think it’s inten­tion­al, I find that type­set­ting illu­mi­nat­ing nonethe­less. This mean­ing of “chris­t­ian” is not about sub­scrib­ing to par­tic­u­lar creeds and is not the same con­cept as uppercase-C “Chris­t­ian.” My Luther­an grand­moth­er actu­al­ly used to use the lowercase-c mean­ing when she described some behav­ior as “not the chris­t­ian way to act.” She used it to describe an eth­i­cal and moral stan­dard. Friends share that under­stand­ing when we talk about Gospel Order: that there is a right way to live and act that we will find if we fol­low the Spirit’s lead. It may be a lit­tle quaint to use chris­t­ian to describe this kind of gener­ic good­ness but I think it shifts some of the debates going on right now to think of it this way for awhile.

Clarkson’s “Por­trai­ture” looks at pecu­liar Quak­er prac­tices and reverse-engineers them to show how they help Quak­er stay in that chris­t­ian zone. His book is most often ref­er­enced today because of its descrip­tions of Quak­er plain dress but he’s less inter­est­ed in the style than he is with the practice’s effect on the soci­ety of Friends. He gets pos­i­tive­ly soci­o­log­i­cal at times. And because he’s speak­ing about a denom­i­na­tion that’s 150 years old, he was able to describe how the tes­ti­monies had shift­ed over time to address chang­ing world­ly con­di­tions.

And that’s the key. So many of us are try­ing to under­stand what it would be like to be “authen­ti­cal­ly” Quak­er in a world that’s very dif­fer­ent from the one the first band of Friends knew. In the com­ment to the last post, Alice M talked about recov­ered the Quak­er charism (http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​h​a​r​ism). I didn’t join Friends because of the­ol­o­gy or his­to­ry. I was a young peace activist who knew in my heart that there was some­thing more moti­vat­ing me than just the typ­i­cal paci­fist anti-war rhetoric. In Friends I saw a deep­er under­stand­ing and a way of con­nect­ing that with a nascent spir­i­tu­al awak­en­ing.

What does it mean to live a chris­t­ian life (again, low­er­case) in the 21st Cen­tu­ry? What does it mean to live the Quak­er charism in the mod­ern world? How do we relate to oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions both with­out and now with­in our reli­gious soci­ety and what’s might our role be in the Emer­gent Church move­ment? I think Clark­son gives clues. And that’s what this series will talk about.

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1840 Anti-Slavery Society Convention

This is a cool painting that we'll be using to accompany an upcoming Friends Journal (friendsjournal.org) article on Lucretia Mott.

Lots of cool things about this. #1 is that we made positive ID of the picture via Google Goggles image search (technology FTW!). #2 is that the image map on the linked page lets you pick out a number of the participants; Lucretia's not labeled but presumably she's the woman next to James Mott, who's near the right side looking down. #3 is that the fiery speaker is none other than Thomas Clarkson, the Anglican whose "Portraiture of Quakerism" is a must-read for the Quaker geek set. #friendsjournal #art

Embedded Link

Template:Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[edit] Using an Imagemap. The image map is mostly obvious as it will show you what will happen if you just move your cursor over the picture. The one thing that does confuse is trying to see a full vi...

Posted December 13th, 2011 , in Uncategorized. Tagged

Early Friends as reference, not justification

My response to the excellent Greg Woods' If I wanted to live by 1600s standards, I would be Amish. Greg talks about the over-obsession with Early Friends and the tendency to use them as ways to accuse others of un-Quakerism. 

The academic obsession with Quaker history is about 100 years old or so. From the beginning the rise of "Quaker history" has been tied to the arguments of the day. We want to boil "Quakerism" down to it essentials and separate out what is core from what was an artifact of 17th century England. Each branch raises up historians who argue that its churches' focus is the essential of those early Friends.

I consciously try not to use early Friends as justification. But I do use them for reference. I think a lot of the problem is we all have stereotypes about them. When I go back and read the old Books of Discipline, I find them much more nuanced and interior-focused than we give them credit for. 

Greg mentioned taverns, for example. It's not that earlier Friends thought everyone couldn't handle their liquor. They saw that some people couldn't and that spending a lot of time there tended to affect one's discernment and God-centeredness. They also saw that some people got really messed up by alcohol and eventually came to the conclusion that the safest way to protect the most vulnerable in the spiritual community was to stay out. 

The observations and logic are still valid. I've known senior members of past Quaker communities who have had alcohol problems but we don't know how to talk about it because we've decided it's a personal decision. 

What I try to do is not focus on the conclusions of early Friends but to drop into the conversations of early Friends. As I said, the old Books of Discipline are surprisingly relevant. And I love Thomas Clarkson, an Anglican who explained Quaker ways in 1700 and talked about the sociology of it more than Friends themselves did. It's a good way of separating out rules from knowledge. When we ground ourselves that way, we can more readily decide which of the classic Quaker testimonies are still relevant. That keeps us a living community testifying to the people of today. For what it's worth, there's quite a bit of mainstream interest in the stodgy traditions most of us have cast off as irrelevant....

Blogging for the Kingdom

Warn­ing: this is a blog post about blog­ging.

It’s always fas­ci­nat­ing to watch the ebb and flow of my blog­ging. Quak­er­ran­ter, my “main” blog has been remark­ably qui­et. I’m still up to my eye­balls with blog­ging in gen­er­al: post­ing things to Quak­erQuak­er, giv­ing help­ful com­ments and tips, help­ing oth­ers set up blogs as part of my con­sult­ing busi­ness. My Tum­blr blog and Face­book and Twit­ter feeds all con­tin­ue to be rel­a­tive­ly active. But most of these is me giv­ing voice to oth­ers. For two decades now, I’ve zigzagged between writer and pub­lish­er; late­ly I’ve been focused on the lat­ter.

When I start­ed blog­ging about Quak­er issues sev­en years ago, I was a low-level cler­i­cal employ­ee at an Quak­er orga­ni­za­tion. It was clear I was going nowhere career-wise, which gave me a cer­tain free­dom. More impor­tant­ly, blogs were a near­ly invis­i­ble medi­um, read by a self-selected group that also want­ed to talk open­ly and hon­est­ly about issues. I start­ed writ­ing about issues in among lib­er­al Friends and about missed out­reach oppor­tu­ni­ties. A lot of what I said was spot on and in hind­sight, the archives give me plen­ty of “told you so” cred­i­bil­i­ty. But where’s the joy in being right about what hasn’t worked?

Things have changed over the years. One is that I’ve resigned myself to those missed oppor­tu­ni­ties. Lots of Quak­er mon­ey and human­ly activ­i­ty is going into projects that don’t have God as a cen­ter. No amount of rant­i­ng is going to dis­suade good peo­ple from putting their faith into one more staff reor­ga­ni­za­tion, mis­sion rewrite or clever program.It’s a dis­trac­tion to spend much time wor­ry­ing about them.

But the biggest change is that my heart is square­ly with God. I’m most inter­est­ed in shar­ing Jesus’s good news. I’m not a cheer­leader for any par­tic­u­lar human insti­tu­tion, no mat­ter how noble its inten­tions. When I talk about the good news, it’s in the con­text of 350 years of Friends’ under­stand­ing of it. But I’m well aware that there’s lots of peo­ple in our meet­ing­hous­es that don’t under­stand it this way any­more. And also aware that the seek­er want­i­ng to pur­sue the Quak­er way might find it more close­ly mod­eled in alter­na­tive Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties. There are peo­ple all over lis­ten­ing for God and I see many attempts at rein­vent­ing Quak­erism hap­pen­ing among non-Friends.

I know this obser­va­tion excites some peo­ple to indig­na­tion, but so be it: I’m trust­ing God on this one. I’m not sure why He’sgiven us a world why the com­mu­ni­ties we bring togeth­er to wor­ship Him keep get­ting dis­tract­ed, but that’s what we’ve got (and it’s what we’ve had for a long time). Every per­son of faith of every gen­er­a­tion has to remem­ber, re-experience and revive the mes­sage. That hap­pens in church build­ings, on street cor­ners, in liv­ing rooms, lunch lines and nowa­days on blogs and inter­net forums.We can’t get too hung up on all the ways the mes­sage is get­ting blocked. And we can’t get hung up by insist­ing on only one chan­nel of shar­ing that mes­sage. We must share the good news and trust that God will show us how to man­i­fest this in our world: his king­dom come and will be done on earth.

But what would this look like?

When I first start­ed blog­ging there weren’t a lot of Quak­er blogs and I spent a lot more time read­ing oth­er reli­gious blogs. This was back before the emer­gent church move­ment became a wholly-owned sub­sidiary of Zon­der­van and wasn’t dom­i­nat­ed by hype artists (sor­ry, a lot of big names set off my slime-o-meter these days). There are still great blog­gers out there talk­ing about faith and read­ers want­i­ng to engage in this dis­cus­sion. I’ve been intrigued by the his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of Thomas Clark­son, the Angli­can who wrote about Friends from a non-Quaker per­spec­tive using non-Quaker lan­guage. And some­times I geek out and explain some Quak­er point on a Quak­er blog and get thanked by the author, who often is an expe­ri­enced Friend who had nev­er been pre­sent­ed with a clas­sic Quak­er expla­na­tion on the point in ques­tion. My track­ing log shows seek­ers con­tin­ue to be fas­ci­nat­ed and drawn to us for our tra­di­tion­al tes­ti­monies, espe­cial­ly plain­ness.

I’ve put togeth­er top­ic lists and plans before but it’s a bit of work, maybe too much to put on top of what I do with Quak­erQuak­er (plus work, plus fam­i­ly). There’s also ques­tions about where to blog and whether to sim­pli­fy my blog­ging life a bit by com­bin­ing some of my blogs but that’s more logis­tics rather than vision.

Inter­est­ing stuff I’m read­ing that’s mak­ing me think about this:

Hanging with the high schoolers

At the PYM High School Friends retreat, Fall 2009Had a good time with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting high school Friends yesterday, two mini-session on the testimonies in the middle of their end-of-summer gathering. The second session was an attempt at a write-your-own testimonies exercise, fueled by my testimonies-as-wiki idea and grounded by passages from an 1843 Book of Discipline and Thomas Clarkson's "Portraiture". My hope was that by reverse-engineering the old testimonies we might get an appreciation for their spiritual focus. The exercise needs a bit of tweaking but I'll try to fix it up and write it out in case others want to try it with local Friends.

The invite came when the program coordinator googled "quaker testimonies" and found the video below (loose transcript is here):

Sorting Quaker peculiarities in the modern world

Friends nev­er set out to start to their own reli­gion; what became seen as the more “pecu­liar” Quak­er prac­tices were sim­ply their inter­pre­ta­tion of the prop­er mode of chris­t­ian liv­ing. At some point some of these prac­tices became forms, things done because that’s what Quak­ers are sup­posed to do. The empti­ness of this ratio­nale led some of those in lat­er gen­er­a­tions to aban­don them alto­geth­er. Nei­ther path is very sat­is­fac­to­ry. Those of us inspired by the Quak­er tra­di­tion and have to sift through the half-remembered ancient forms to under­stand their ratio­nale and con­tin­ued rel­e­van­cy.

When read­ing through Thomas Clarkson’s account of Friends cir­ca 1800, I was struck by the dif­fer­ing lengths of expla­na­tion need­ed for two cus­toms. read ear­li­er install­ments of my series you’ll know that Thomas Clark­son was a British Angli­can who  spent a lot of time with Friends around the turn of the 19th Cen­tu­ry and pub­lished an invalu­able multi-volumn apol­o­gy in 1806. “A Por­trai­ture of Quak­erism” explains con­tem­po­rary Friends prac­tices and defends them as legit­i­mate ways to lead a “chris­t­ian” life. 

The two prac­tices that struck me were 1: the Quak­er cus­tom of using “thee” in speech and, 2: of using num­bers for the names of days of the week and months of the year. Clark­son makes a good defense of the rea­sons behind the prac­tices:

Many of the expres­sions, then in use, appeared to him to con­tain gross flat­tery, oth­ers to be idol­a­trous, oth­ers to be false rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the ideas they were intend­ed to con­vey… Now he con­sid­ered that chris­tian­i­ty required truth, and he believed there­fore that he and his fol­low­ers, who prefessed to be chris­tians in word and deed, and to fol­low the chris­t­ian pat­tern in all things, as far as it could be found, were called upon to depart from all the cen­surable modes of seech, as much as they were from any of the cus­toms of the world, which chris­tian­i­ty had deemed obje­tion­able. (p. 275 – 6, my edi­tion, p. 199 in this edi­tion in Google Books).

Clark­son takes the next four pages to explain some gram­mat­i­cal his­to­ry. In Fox’s time, “thee” was still at the tail end of being replaced by the grammatically-incorrect “you” for the sec­ond per­son sin­gu­lar, a cul­tur­al change that was a “trick­le down” of the courtier’s desire to flat­ter so-called supe­ri­ors in church and state. To a band of reli­gious reform­ers large­ly drawn from rur­al North Eng­land, the reap­pro­pri­a­tion of “thee” was a bold cul­tur­al state­ment. It spoke to both a gram­mat­i­cal integri­ty and a desire to flat­ten social class­es in a rad­i­cal­ly ide­al­is­tic reli­gious soci­ety.

Fol­low­ing the his­to­ry les­son, Clark­son turns to names of the days of the week and months of the years. Most are pagan names. Good chris­tians seek­ing to hon­or the one true God and deny any false gods shouldn’t spend their days invok­ing the Norse gods Tyr and Woden or the Roman gods Janus, Mars. Replac­ing them by Third Day, Fourth Day, First Month and Third Month strips them of their roots in non-christian cul­tures.

As Clark­son well knew, the ques­tion 150 years lat­er (and now 350 years lat­er) is whether these old pecu­liar cus­toms car­ry any weight beyond a kind of 17th Cen­tu­ry Quak­er nos­tal­gia. As he writes:

There is great absur­di­ty, it is said, in sup­pos­ing, that per­sons pay any respect to hea­then idols, who retain the use of the ancient names of the divi­sions of time. How many thou­sands are there, who know noth­ing of their ori­gin? The com­mon peo­ple of the coun­try know none of the rea­sons.

When I look at old cus­toms I ask two ques­tions:

  1. The Ele­va­tor rule: could I explain to my pecu­liar­i­ty to a non-Quaker “aver­age Joe” in under two min­utes?
  2. The Chris­t­ian rule: could I make the argu­ment that this prac­tice is not just a Quak­er odd­i­ty but some­thing that every faith­ful and earnest Chris­t­ian should con­sid­er adopt­ing?

In these cas­es, thee fails and num­bered days pass­es.

Let me explain: I can’t real­ly explain why I would use thee with­out going into a expla­na­tion of pre-17th Cen­tu­ry gram­mar, talk­ing about dif­fer­ent forms of sec­ond per­son sin­gu­lar in the his­to­ry of the Eng­lish lan­guage and the reten­tion of the sec­ond per­son sin­gu­lar in most romance lan­guages. By the time I’d be done I’d come off as an over-educated bore. 

In con­trast I can say “Wednes­day is named after the Norse god Woden, Thurs­day after Thor, Jan­u­ary after the Roman Janus, etc., and as a one-God Chris­t­ian I don’t want to spend my days invok­ing their names con­stant­ly.” A one-sentence expla­na­tion works even in mod­ern Amer­i­ca. I’ll still be seen as an odd duck (noth­ing wrong with that) but at least peo­ple will leave the con­ver­sa­tion know­ing there’s some­one who thinks we real­ly should be seri­ous about only wor­ship­ping one God: mis­sion accom­plished, real­ly.

I know faith­ful Friends who do use thee. I’m glad they do and don’t want to double-guess their lead­ings. But for me the test of keep­ing it real (which I think is a ancient Quak­er prin­ci­ple) means hold­ing onto odd­i­ties that still point to their ori­gins.

Tempations, shared paths and religious accountability

Some­times it seems as if mod­erns are look­ing back at his­to­ry through the wrong end of the tele­scope: every­thing seems soooo far away. The effect is mag­ni­fied when we’re talk­ing about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. The ancients come off as car­toon­ish fig­ures with a com­pli­cat­ed set of worked out philoso­phies and pro­hi­bi­tions that we have to adopt or reject whole­sale. The ide­al is to be a liv­ing branch on a long-rooted tree. But how do we intel­li­gent­ly con­verse with the past and nego­ti­ate changes?

Let’s talk Friends and music. The car­toon Quak­er in our his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion glares down at us with heavy dis­ap­proval when it comes to music. They’re squares who just didn’t get it.

Get­ting past the car­toons

Thomas Clark­son, our Angli­can guide to Quak­er thought cir­ca 1700, brings more nuance to the scru­ples. “The Quak­ers do not deny that instru­men­tal music is capa­ble of excit­ing delight. They are not insen­si­ble either of its pow­er or of its charms. They throw no impu­ta­tion on its inno­cence, when viewed abstract­ly by itself.” (p. 64)

“Abstract­ly by itself”: when eval­u­at­ing a social prac­tice, Friends look at its effects in the real world. Does it lead to snares and tem­pa­tions? Quak­ers are engaged in a grand exper­i­ment in “chris­t­ian” liv­ing, keep­ing to lifestyles that give us the best chance at moral liv­ing. The warn­ings against cer­tain activ­i­ties are based on obser­va­tion borne of expe­ri­ence. The Quak­er guide­lines are wikis, notes com­piled togeth­er into a col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of which activ­i­ties pro­mote – and which ones threat­en – the lead­ing of a moral life.

Clark­son goes on to detail Quaker’s con­cerns about music. They’re all actu­al­ly quite valid. Here’s a sam­pling:

  • Peo­ple some­times learn music just so they can show off and make oth­ers look tal­ent­less.
  • Reli­gious music can become a end to itself as peo­ple become focused on com­po­si­tion and play­ing (we’ve real­ly decon­tex­tu­al­ized: much of the music played at orches­tra halls is Mass­es; much of the music played at folk fes­ti­val is church spir­i­tu­als).
  • Music can be a big time waster, both in its learn­ing and its lis­ten­ing.
  • Music can take us out into the world and lead to a self-gratification and fash­ion.

I won’t say any of these are absolute rea­son to ban music, but as a list of neg­a­tive temp­ta­tions they still apply. The Catholic church my wife belongs to very con­scious­ly has music as a cen­ter­piece. It’s very beau­ti­ful, but I always appre­ci­ate the pastor’s reminder that the music is in ser­vice to the Mass and that no one had bet­ter clap at some per­for­mance! Like with Friends, we’re see­ing a delib­er­ate bal­anc­ing of ben­e­fits vs temp­ta­tions and a warn­ing against the snares that the choice has left open.

Con­text con­text con­text

In sec­tion iv, Clark­son adds time to the equa­tion. Remem­ber, the Quak­er move­ment is already 150 years old. Times have changed:

Music at [the time of ear­ly Quak­ers] was prin­ci­pal­ly in the hands of those, who made a liveli­hood of the art. Those who fol­lowed it as an accom­plish­ment, or a recre­ation, were few and those fol­lowed it with mod­er­a­tion. But since those days, its progress has been immense… Many of the mid­dle class­es, in imi­ta­tion of the high­er, have received it… It is learned now, not as a source of occa­sion­al recre­ation, but as a com­pli­cat­ed sci­ence, where per­fec­tion is insist­ed upon to make it worth of pur­suit. p.76.

Again we see Clarkson’s Quak­ers mak­ing dis­tinc­tions between types and moti­va­tions of musi­cian­ship. The labor­er who plays a gui­tar after a hard day on the field is less wor­ri­some than the obsessed ado­les­cent who spends their teen years locked in the den prac­tic­ing Stair­way to Heav­en. And when music is played at large fes­ti­vals that lead youth “into com­pa­ny” and fash­ions, it threat­ens the reli­gious soci­ety: “it has been found, that in pro­por­tion as young Quak­ers mix with the world, they gen­er­al­ly imbibe its spir­it, and weak­en them­selves as mem­bers of their own body.”

Music has changed even more rad­i­cal­ly in the suceed­ing two cen­turies. Most of the music in our lives is pre-recorded; it’s ubiq­ui­tious and often invol­un­tary (you can’t go shop­ping with­out it). Add in the drone of TV and many of us spend an insane amount of time in its semi-narcotic haze of iso­lat­ed lis­ten­er­ship. Then, what about DIY music and sin­ga­longs. Is there a dis­tinc­tion to be made between testoterone power-chord rock and twee singer-songwriter strums? Between are­nas and cof­fee­house shows? And move past music into the oth­er media of our lives. What about movies, DVS, com­put­ers, glossy mag­a­zines, talk shows. Should Friends waste their time obsess­ing over Amer­i­can Idol? Well what about Prairie Home Com­pan­ion?

Does a social prac­tice lead us out into the world in a way that makes it hard for us to keep a moral cen­ter? What if we turned off the medi­at­ed con­sumer uni­verse and engaged in more spir­i­tu­al­ly reward­ing activ­i­ties – con­tem­pla­tive read­ing, ser­vice work, vis­it­ing with oth­ers? But what if music, com­put­ers, radio, is part of the way we’re engag­ing with the world?

How to decide?

Final­ly, in Clarkson’s days Friends had an elab­o­rate series of courts that would decide about social prac­tices both in the abstract (whether they should be pub­lished as warn­ings) and the par­tic­u­lar (whether a par­tic­u­lar per­son had strayed too far and fall­en in moral dan­ger). Clark­son was writ­ing for a non-Quaker audi­ence and often trans­lat­ed Quak­erese: “courts” was his name for month­ly, quar­ter­ly and year­ly meet­ing struc­tures. I sus­pect that those ses­sions more close­ly resem­bled courts than they do the mod­ern insti­tu­tions that share their name. The court sys­tem led to its own abus­es and start­ed to break down short­ly after Clarkson’s book was pub­lished and doesn’t exist any­more.

We find out­selves today pret­ty much with­out any struc­ture for shar­ing our expe­ri­ences (“Faith and Prac­tice” sort of does this but most copies just gath­er dust on shelves). Month­ly meet­ings don’t feel that over­sight of their mem­bers is their respon­si­bil­i­ty; many of us have seen them look the oth­er way even at fla­grant­ly egre­gious behav­ior and many Friends would be out­raged at the con­cept that their meet­ing might tell them what to do – I can hear the howls of protest now! 

And yet, and yet: I hear many peo­ple long­ing for this kind of col­lec­tive inquiry and instruc­tion. A lot of the emer­gent church talk is about build­ing account­able com­mu­ni­ties. So we have two broad set of ques­tions: what sort of prac­tices hurt and hin­der our spir­i­tu­al lives in these mod­ern times; and how do we share and per­haps cod­i­fy guide­lines for twenty-first cen­tu­ry right­eous liv­ing?

Reach up high, clear off the dust, time to get started

It’s been a fas­ci­nat­ing edu­ca­tion learn­ing about insti­tu­tion­al Catholi­cism these past few weeks. I won’t reveal how and what I know, but I think I have a good pic­ture of the cul­ture inside the bishop’s inner cir­cle and I’m pret­ty sure I under­stand his long-term agen­da. The cur­rent lightening-fast clo­sure of sixty-some church­es is the first step of an ambi­tious plan; man­u­fac­tured priest short­ages and soon-to-be over­crowd­ed church­es will be used to jus­ti­fy even more rad­i­cal changes. In about twen­ty years time, the 125 church­es that exist today will have been sold off. What’s left of a half mil­lion faith­ful will be herd­ed into a dozen or so mega-churches, with the­ol­o­gy bor­rowed from gener­ic lib­er­al­ism, style from feel-good evan­gel­i­cal­ism, and orga­ni­za­tion from con­sul­tant cul­ture.

When dioce­san offi­cials come by to read this blog (and they do now), they will smile at that last sen­tence and nod their heads approv­ing­ly. The con­spir­a­cy is real.

But I don’t want to talk about Catholi­cism again. Let’s talk Quak­ers instead, why not? I should be in some meet­ing for wor­ship right now any­way. Julie left Friends and returned to the faith of her upbring­ing after eleven years with us because she want­ed a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty that shared a basic faith and that wasn’t afraid to talk about that faith as a cor­po­rate “we.” It seems that Catholi­cism won’t be able to offer that in a few years. Will she run then run off to the East­ern Ortho­dox church? For that mat­ter should I be run­ning off to the Men­non­ites? See though, the prob­lem is that the same issues will face us wher­ev­er we try to go. It’s mod­ernism, baby. No focused and authen­tic faith seems to be safe from the Forces of the Bland. Lord help us.

We can blog the ques­tions of course. Why would some­one who dis­likes Catholic cul­ture and wants to dis­man­tle its infra­struc­ture become a priest and a career bureau­crat? For that mat­ter why do so many peo­ple want to call them­selves Quak­ers when they can’t stand basic Quak­er the­ol­o­gy? If I want­ed lots of com­ments I could go on blah-blah-blah, but ulti­mate­ly the ques­tion is futile and beyond my fig­ur­ing.

Anoth­er piece to this issue came in some ques­tions Wess Daniels sent around to me and a few oth­ers this past week in prepa­ra­tion for his upcom­ing pre­sen­ta­tion at Wood­brooke. He asked about how a par­tic­u­lar Quak­er insti­tu­tion did or did not rep­re­sent or might or might not be able to con­tain the so-called “Con­ver­gent” Friends move­ment. I don’t want to bust on any­one so I won’t name the orga­ni­za­tion. Let’s just say that like pret­ty much all Quak­er bureau­cra­cies it’s inward-focused, shal­low in its pub­lic state­ments, slow to take ini­tia­tive and more or less irrel­e­vant to any cam­paign to gath­er a great peo­ple. A more suc­cess­ful Quak­er bureau­cra­cy I could name seems to be doing well in fundrais­ing but is doing less and less with more and more staff and seems more inter­est­ed in donor-focused hype than long-term pro­gram imple­men­ta­tion.

One ene­my of the faith is bureau­cra­cy. Real lead­er­ship has been replaced by con­sul­tants and fundrais­ers. Finan­cial and staffing crises – real and cre­at­ed – are used to jus­ti­fy a water­ing down of the mes­sage. Pro­grams are dri­ven by donor mon­ey rather than clear need and when real work might require con­tro­ver­sy, it’s tabled for the façade of feel-goodism. Quak­er read­ers who think I’m talk­ing about Quak­ers: no I’m talk­ing about Catholics. Catholic read­ers who think I’m talk­ing about Catholics: no, I’m talk­ing about Quak­ers. My point is that these forces are tear­ing down reli­gios­i­ty all over. Some cheer this devel­op­ment on. I think it’s evil at work, the Tempter using our leader’s desires for posi­tion and respect and our the desires of our laity’s (for lack of a bet­ter word) to trust and think the best of its lead­ers.

So where does that leave us? I’m tired of think­ing that maybe if I try one more Quak­er meet­ing I’ll find the com­mu­ni­ty where I can prac­tice and deep­en my faith as a Chris­t­ian Friend. I’m stumped. That first batch of Friends knew this feel­ing: Fox and the Pen­ing­tons and all the rest talked about iso­la­tion and about reli­gious pro­fes­sion­als who were in it for the career. I know from the blo­gos­phere and from count­less one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions that there are a lot of us – a lot – who either drift away or stay in meet­ings out of a sense of guilt.

So what would a spir­i­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty for these out­sider Friends look like? If we had real vision rather than donor vision, what would our struc­tures look like? If we let the gener­ic church­es go off to out-compete one oth­er to see who can be the bland­est, what would be left for the rest of us to do?

20080608-xcjchpscnwekhsh85kg2hr7nbf.previewI guess this last para­graph is the new revised mis­sion state­ment for the Quak­er part of this blog. Okay kids, get a step stool, go to your meet­ing library, reach up high, clear away the dust and pull out vol­ume one of “A por­trai­ture of Quak­erism: Tak­en from a view of the edu­ca­tion and dis­ci­pline, social man­ners, civ­il and polit­i­cal econ­o­my, reli­gious prin­ci­ples and char­ac­ter, of the Soci­ety of Friends” by Thomas Clark­son. Yes the 1806 ver­sion, stop the grum­bling. Get out the ribbed pack­ing tape and put its cov­er back togeth­er – this isn’t the frig­ging Library of Con­gress and we’re actu­al­ly going to read this thing. Don’t even waste your time check­ing it out in the meeting’s log­book: no one’s pulled it down off the shelf in fifty years and no one’s going to miss it now. Real­ly stuck?, okay Google’s got it too. Class will start short­ly.