The Quaker Ecosystem

An upcoming theme of Friends Journal is one I’m particularly interested in. It’s called “Reimagining the Quaker Ecosystem” and addresses countless conversations I think many of us have had over the years. Here’s the description:

Many of our traditional decision-making structures are under tremendous stress these days. There are few nominating committees that don’t bemoan the difficulties finding volunteer leadership. In the face of this, a wave of questioning and creativity is emerging as Friends reinvent and regenerate Quaker structures. Previously unasked questions about power and decision-making models are on the agenda again.

I think this begs the question of the whole why and how of our organizing as a religious society. One of the most read posts on my blog in 2003 was a based on a review of a book by Robert E. Webber called The Younger Evangelicals. Webber was talking about mainstream Evangelicals, who he divided into three generational phases,

  • Traditional Evangelicals 1950-1975
  • Pragmatic Evangelicals 1975-2000
  • Younger Evangelicals 2000-

I was working at Friends General Conference back in 2003 and Webber’s descriptions felt surprisingly familiar despite the very different context of liberal Quakerism.

Take for example youth ministry: Webber says Pragmatic Evangelicals tend to prefer “outreach programs and weekend fun retreats,” which is what the eventual FGC Youth Ministries Program mostly morphed into (before going into permanent hiatus). Webber suggests that the Younger Evangelicals cohort sought “prayer, Bible study, worship, social action” and sure enough many progressive spiritual types in Philly left meetinghouses for the alternative Circle of Hope church. Quakerism lost a lot of momentum at that time (Betsy Blake see also: Betsy Blake’s account). It took the creation of a whole new organization, Quaker Voluntary Service, to get a lively and sustainable youth ministries running (you can read QVS’s Ross Hennesy’s journey from the 2013 FJ to see Webber’s chart come to life).

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think many Quaker orgs are stuck in a rut trying everything they can to make the Pragmatic Evangelical model work. There’s a hope that just one more reorganization will solve their systemic longterm problems—new people will come into committee service, meetinghouses will start filling, etc. But the more we try to hold onto the old framework, the more creative energy dissipates and Friends get lost or leave.

My personal hunch is that structure (almost) doesn’t matter. What we need is a shift in attention. How can we back up and ask the big questions: Why are we here? What is our prophetic role and how do we encourage and support that in our members? How do we care for our church community and still reach beyond the meetinghouse walls to serve as healers in the world?

A few years ago I dropped in on part of my yearly meeting sessions. In one room, mostly-older members were revising some arcane subsection of Faith and Practice while across the hall mostly-younger members were expressing heartbreak about a badly-decided policy on trans youth. The disconnect between the spirit in the rooms was beyond obvious.

I think we need to be able to stop and give attention to direct leadings of needed ministry. I often return to the Good Samaritan story. In my mind’s eye the Levite is the Friend who can’t stop because they’re late for a committee meeting. If we could figure out a way to get more Friends to pivot into Good Samaritan mode, I suspect we’d find new life in our religious society. Perennial questions would transform.

Signs of new life are abundant but unevenly distributed. How do you imagine the ecosystem in 10, 20, or 50 years? Submission due date 3/6 officially though we may have a chance to review later pieces.

AMA: Conservative and Liberal Friends?

Marlborough (Pa.) Friends meetinghouse at dusk. c. 2006.
A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:

I’ve read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between “conservative” friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I’m in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don’t identify as such?

Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I’ve noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they’ll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it’s not the right type. That’s so tragic.

What the terms don’t mean

The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don’t refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.

Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can’t think of any that doesn’t span some diversity of theologies.

Historically (and currently) we’ve had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we’d append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).

In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side’s labelled appendage is “Conservative,” giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.

A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting’s clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).

All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio’s gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.

I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you’ll find people who are very attached to labels. That’s what the comment section is for.

The meanings of the terms

Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.

But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).

Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.

If you like the sociology of such things, Isabel Penraeth wrote a fascinating article in Friends Journal a few years ago, Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences. More recently in FJ a Philadelphia Friend, John Andrew Gallery, visited Ohio Friends and talked about the spiritual refreshment of Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring. Much of the discussion around the modern phrase Convergent Friends and the threads on QuakerQuaker has focused on those who span a Liberal and Conservative Quaker worldview.

The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It’s all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.

But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.

Worshipping?

Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn’t bound by any of our silly words.

Thanks to James for the question!

Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.

Bring people to Christ / Leave them there

It’s one of those quotes we fre­quent­ly hear: that George Fox said a minister’s job was “to bring peo­ple to Christ, and to leave them there.” But when I go to Google, I only find sec­ond­hand ref­er­ences, sand­wiched in quote marks but nev­er sourced. It turns up most fre­quent­ly in the works of British Friend William Pol­lard, who used it as kind of a catch phrase in his talks on “An Old Fash­ioned Quak­erism” from 1889. Sus­pi­cious­ly miss­ing is any search result from the jour­nal or epistles of Fox him­self. It’s pos­si­ble Pol­lard has para­phrased some­thing from Fox into a speech-friendly short­hand that Google miss­es, but it’s also pos­si­ble it’s one of those passed-down Fox myths like Penn’s sword.

London Yearly Meeting, 1865.
Lon­don Year­ly Meet­ing, 1865.

So in mod­ern fash­ion, I posed the ques­tion to the Face­book hive mind. After great dis­cus­sions, I’m going to call this a half-truth. On the Face­book thread, Allis­tair Lomax shared a Fox epistle that con­vinces me the founder of Friends would have agreed with the basic con­cept:

I’m guess­ing it is para­phrase of a por­tion of Fox’s from epistle 308, 1674. Fox wrote “You know the man­ner of my life, the best part of thir­ty years since I went forth and for­sook all things. I sought not myself. I sought you and his glo­ry that sent me. When I turned you to him that is able to save you, I left you to him.”

Mark Wutka shared quo­ta­tions from Stephen Grel­let and William Williams which have con­vince me that it describes the “two step dance” of con­vince­ment for ear­ly Friends:

From Stephen Grel­let: “I have endeav­oured to lead this peo­ple to the Lord and to his Spir­it, and there is is safe to leave them.” And this from William Williams: “To per­suade peo­ple to seek the Lord, and to be faith­ful to his word, the inspo­ken words of the heart, is what we ought to do; and then leave them to be direct­ed by the inward feel­ings of the mind;”

The two-step image comes from Ange­la York Crane’s com­ment:

So it’s a two step dance. First, that who we are and how we live and speak turns oth­ers to the Lord, and sec­ond, that we trust enough to leave them there.

But: as a pithy catch phrase direct­ly attrib­ut­ed to Fox it’s anoth­er myth. It per­haps bor­rowed some images from a mid-19th cen­tu­ry talk by Charles Spur­geon on George Fox, but came togeth­er in the 1870s as a cen­tral catch phrase of British reformer Friend William Pol­lard. Pol­lard is a fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ure in his own right, an ear­ly pro­po­nent of mod­ern lib­er­al­ism in a Lon­don Year­ly Meet­ing that was then large­ly evan­gel­i­cal and mis­sion­ary. Even his pam­phlet and book titles were telling, includ­ing Prim­i­tive Chris­tian­i­ty Revived and A Rea­son­able Faith. He had an agen­da and this phrase was a key for­mu­la­tion of his argu­ment and vision.

He is hard­ly the first or last Friend to have lift­ed an inci­den­tal phrase or con­cept of George Fox’s and given it the weight of a mod­ern tenet (“That of God” springs to mind). More inter­est­ing to me is that Pollard’s work was fre­quent­ly reprint­ed and ref­er­enced in Friends Intel­li­gencer, the Amer­i­can Hick­site pub­li­ca­tion (and pre­de­ces­sor of Friends Jour­nal), at a time when Lon­don Friends didn’t rec­og­nize Hick­sites as legit­i­mate Quak­ers. His vision of an “Old Fash­ioned Quak­erism” rein­cor­po­rat­ed qui­etism and sought to bring British Friends back to a two-step con­vince­ment prac­tice. It paved the way for the trans­for­ma­tion of British Quak­erism fol­low­ing the trans­for­ma­tion­al 1895 Man­ches­ter Con­fer­ence and gave Amer­i­can Friends inter­est­ed in mod­ern lib­er­al philo­soph­i­cal ide­als a blue­print for incor­po­rat­ing them into a Quak­er frame­work.

The phrase “bring peo­ple to Christ/leave them there” is a com­pelling image that has lived on in the 130 or so odd years since its coinage. I sus­pect it is still used much as Pol­lard intend­ed: as a qui­etist brak­ing sys­tem for top-down mis­sion­ary pro­grams. It’s a great con­cept. Only our tes­ti­mony in truth now requires that we intro­duce it, “As William Pol­lard said, a Quak­er minister’s job is to…”

And for those won­der­ing, yes, I have just ordered Pollard’s Old Fash­ioned Quak­erism via Vin­tage Quak­er Books. He seems like some­thing of a kin­dred spir­it and I want to learn more.

QuakerQuaker on the move

Crossposting from QuakerQuaker:

Cardboard boxes in apartment, moving day

The biggest changes in half a decade are coming to QuakerQuaker. The Ning.com service that powers the main website is about to increase its monthly charge by 140 percent. When I first picked Ning to host the three-year-old QuakerQuaker project in 2008, it seemed like a smart move. Ning had recently been founded by tech world rock stars with access to stratospheric-level funds. But it never quite got traction and started dialing back its ambitions in 2010. It was sold and sold again and a long-announced new version never materialized. I’ve been warning people against starting new projects on it for years. Its limitations have become clearer with every passing year. But it’s continued to work and a healthy community has kept the content on QuakerQuaker interesting. But I don’t get enough donations to cover a 140 percent increase, and even if I did it’s not worth it for a service stuck in 2010. It’s time to evolve!

There are many interesting things I could build with a modern web platform. Initial research and some feedback from fellow Quaker techies has me interested in BuddyPress, an expanded and social version of the ubiquitous WordPress blogging system. It has plugins available that claim to move content from existing Ning sites to BuddyPress, leaving the tantalizing possibility that eight years of the online Quaker conversation can be maintained (wow!).

I will need funds for the move. The subscriptions to do the import/export will incur costs and there will be plugins and themes to buy. I’m mentally budgeting an open-ended number of late Saturday nights. And the personal computer we have is getting old. The charge doesn’t hold and keys are starting to go. It will need replacement sooner rather than later.

Any donations Friends could make to the Paypal account would be very helpful for the move. You can start by going to http://bit.ly/quakergive. Other options are available on the donation page at http://www.quakerquaker.org/page/support. Thanks for whatever you can spare. I’m as surprised as anyone that this little DIY project continues to host some many interesting Quaker conversations eleven years on!

In Friendship,
Martin Kelley for QuakerQuaker.org

The Quaker Wars?

Over on Quo­ra, a ques­tion that is more fas­ci­nat­ing than it might at first appear: What wars in his­to­ry were fought in the name of Quak­erism (Soci­ety of Friends)?:

This ques­tion is nei­ther sar­cas­tic nor rhetoric. As many peo­ple insist that vio­lence and atroc­i­ties are an inher­ent part of reli­gions, that reli­gions would cause wars, I real­ly want to know  if that is the truth. Per­son­al­ly I believe reli­gions can be peace­ful, such as in the cas­es of the Quak­ers and the Baha’i, but I might  be wrong. 

The obvi­ous answer should be “none.” Quak­ers are well-known as paci­fists (fun fact: fake can­non used to deceive the ene­my into think­ing an army is more for­ti­fied than it actu­al­ly is are called “Quak­er guns.”) Indi­vid­u­al Quak­ers have rarely been quite as unit­ed around the peace tes­ti­mony as our rep­u­ta­tion would sug­gest, but as a group it’s true we’ve nev­er called for a war. I can’t think of any mil­i­tary skir­mish or bat­tle waged to ral­ly­ing cries of “Remem­ber the Quak­ers!”

Quaker guns at Manassas Junction, 1862. Via Wikimedia.
Quak­er guns at Man­as­sas Junc­tion, 1862. Via Wiki­me­dia.

And yet: all of mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion has been shaped by war. Our polit­i­cal bound­aries, our reli­gions, our demo­graph­ic make-up – even the lan­guages we speak are all rem­nants of long-ago bat­tles. One of the most influ­en­tial Quak­er thinkers, the eigh­teen­th cen­tu­ry min­is­ter John Wool­man, con­stant­ly remind­ed his brethren to con­sid­er those lux­u­ries that are the fruit of war and slav­ery. When we broad­en the scope like this, we’ve been involved in quite a few wars.

  • We like to remem­ber how William Penn found­ing the colony of Penn­syl­va­nia as a reli­gious refuge. But the king of Eng­land held Euro­pean title to the mid-Atlantic seaboard because of small wars with the Dutch and Swedes (and lat­er held onto it only after a much larg­er war with the French New World set­tle­ments).
  • The king’s grant of “Penn’s Woods” was the set­tle­ment of a very large war debt owed to Penn’s father, a wealthy admi­ral. The senior William Penn was some­thing of a scoundrel, play­ing off both sides in every-shifting royalist/Roundhead see­saw of pow­er. His longest-lasting accom­plish­ment was tak­ing Jamaica for the British (Bob Mar­ley sang in Eng­lish instead of Span­ish because of Sir William).
  • By most accounts, William Penn Jr. was fair and also bought the land from local Lenape nations. Most­ly for­got­ten is that the Lenape and Susque­han­nock pop­u­la­tion had been dev­as­tat­ed in a recent region­al war again­st the Iro­quois over beaver ter­ri­to­ries. The Iro­quois were skill­ful­ly play­ing glob­al pol­i­tics, keep­ing the Eng­lish and French colo­nial empires in enough strate­gic ten­sion that they could pro­tect their land. They want­ed anoth­er British colony on their south­ern flank. The Lenape land reim­burse­ment was sec­ondary.

The thou­sands of acres Penn deed­ed to his fel­low Quak­ers were thus the fruits of three sets of wars: colo­nial wars over the Delaware Val­ley; debt-fueled Eng­lish civil wars; and Native Amer­i­can wars fought over access to com­mer­cial resources. Much of orig­i­nal Quak­er wealth in suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions is indebt­ed to this huge land trans­fer in the 1680s, either direct­ly (we still hold some valu­able real estate) or indi­rect­ly (the real estate’s sale could be fun­neled into promis­ing busi­ness­es).

Not all of the fruits of war were sec­ond­hand and coin­ci­den­tal to Friends them­selves. Many wealthy Friends in the mid-Atlantic colonies had slaves who did much of the back­break­ing work of clear­ing fields and build­ing hous­es. That quaint old brick meet­ing­house set back on a flower-covered field? It was prob­a­bly built at least in part by enslaved hands.

And today, it’s impos­si­ble to step free of war. Most of our hous­es are set on land once owned by oth­ers. Our com­put­ers and cell phones have com­po­nents mined in war zones. Our lights and cars are pow­ered by fos­sil fuel extrac­tion. And even with solar pan­els and elec­tric cars, the infra­struc­ture of the dai­ly liv­ing of most Amer­i­cans is still based on extrac­tion and con­trol of resources.

This is not to say we can’t con­tin­ue to work for a world free of war. But it seems impor­tant to be clear-eyed and acknowl­edge the debts we have.