Over on One Quaker Take, Timothy is surprised to read a definition of “Convergent Friend” that sounds a lot like a certain flavor of West Coast liberal Quakerism. It doesn’t seem so surprising for me as it comes from Gregg Koskela, a pastor at an Evangelical Friends church. It was five years ago this month that I went to a loud pizza shop in Philadelphia to attend a “Meet-Up” of readers of emerging church blogs and realized I had more common ground with these younger Evangelicals than I would have ever thought:
Just about each of us at the table were coming from different theological starting points, but it’s safe to say we are all “post” something or other. There was a shared sense that the stock answers our churches have been providing aren’t working for us. We are all trying to find new ways to relate to our faith, to Christ and to one another in our church communities. There’s something about building relationships that are deeper, more down-to-earth and real. Perhaps it’s finding a way to be less dogmatic at the same time that we’re more disciplined. For Friends, that means questioning the contemporary cultural orthodoxy of liberal-think (getting beyond the cliched catch phrases borrowed from liberal Protestantism and sixties-style activism) while being less afraid of being pecularily Quaker.
Rich the Brooklyn Quaker was recently asking about early Friends views of atonement and heaven and hell and it’s a great post, but so is Marshall Massey’s comment about how later Friends altered the message in distinctly different ways. The different flavors of Friends have spent a lot of energy minimizing certain parts of the Quaker message and over-emphasizing others and maybe the truth lies in some of the nuances we long ago paved over.
I have a working theory that a movement of “Convergence” will feel suspiciously liberal in evangelical circles, suspiciously evangelical in liberal circles, and suspiciously worldly in Quaker conservative circles. But that’s almost to be expected. The work to be done is different depending on where we’re starting from.
I don’t think Friends are alone in these kinds of matters. I see this phenomenon in other religious denominations – the post-Evangelicals I broke pizza with back in 2003 weren’t Quakers. But Friends might have a better way out of the existential puzzles that arise. For we (generally) believe that our action should be motivated first and foremost by the direct instruction of the risen Christ working on us now. That means we can’t rely on canned answers. What worked in the past might not work now. The faith is the same. But what needs to be done and what needs to be preached is very much a here-and-now kind of proposition.
I can’t help but think of Howard Brinton. Back in the 1950s his generation managed a reunification of East Coast Quaker factions that had been warring for over a century. One way they did it was hanging out together and then redefining what it meant to be a Friend. In Friends for 300 Years, Brinton argued that tests for membership shouldn’t look at one’s beliefs or practices. It was a truce and I’m sure it made sense at the time: there was a fairly strong consensus on what Quakerism meant and the fights at the edges over details were distracting. Fifty years later, there’s little consensus among Philadelphia Friends and even those in leadership positions are loathe to talk about faith or practice except in a kind of code. I can’t think of a single Philadelphia Friend who publicly expresses Quaker belief with the clarity or passion of mid-century figures like Brinton, Thomas Kelly or Rufus Jones.
What worked in the past might not work now. What sounds like old hat to to us might be very liberating for others. Convergence isn’t very new. It’s just keeping ourselves from ossifying into our own human concepts and staying open to the direct Christ. It’s finding a way to maintain that crazy balance between tradition and the inward light. Same as it ever was.