What do you love about your Quaker space?

We’re extend­ing the dead­line for the August issue on Quak­er Spaces. We’ve got  some real­ly inter­est arti­cles com­ing in – espe­cial­ly geeky things in archi­tec­ture and the the­ol­o­gy of our clas­sic meet­ing­hous­es.

So far our prospec­tive pieces are  weight­ed toward East Coast and clas­sic meet­ing­house archi­tec­ture. I’d love to see pieces on non-traditional wor­ship spaces. I know there new­ly purpose-built meet­ing­hous­es, adap­ta­tions of pre-existing struc­tures, and new takes on the Quak­er impulse to not be churchy. And wor­ship is where we’re gath­ered, not nec­es­sar­i­ly where we’re mort­gaged: tell us about your the rent­ed library room, the chairs set up on the beach, the room in the pris­on wor­ship group…

Sub­mis­sion guide­li­nes are at friend​sjour​nal​.org/​s​u​b​m​i​s​s​i​ons. The new dead­line is Mon­day, May 16. My last post about this issue is here.

Spiritual self-understanding as pretext to organizational renewal

Brent Bill is con­tin­u­ing his “Mod­est Pro­pos­al” series on Quak­er “revi­tal­iza­tion” on his blog Holy Ordi­nary. Today’s install­ment (part sev­en) is great but I’m not sure where it leaves us. He starts by talk­ing about how some Quak­er body’s books of dis­ci­plines (“Faith and Prac­tice“) are becom­ing more legal­is­tic as they pick up ideas from oth­er reli­gious bod­ies. He then chal­lenges year­ly meet­ings and oth­er Friends bod­ies to a “seri­ous exam­i­na­tion of their pur­pose and pro­grams” in which they ask a series of ques­tions about their pur­pose.

I agree with a lot of his obser­va­tion. But at the same time I’m not sure what a seri­ous exam­i­na­tion would look like or would pro­duce. In recent years my own year­ly meet­ing has devel­oped a kind of cir­ca­di­an rhythm of con­stant reor­ga­ni­za­tion, tin­ker­ing with orga­ni­za­tion­al charts, leg­isla­tive process­es design to speed up deci­sions, and chang­ing times and fre­quen­cies of events hop­ing to attract new peo­ple. And yet, as I wrote a few weeks ago, when I went to sit in on a meet­ing of the gov­ern­ing body, I was the third or fourth youngest per­son in a room of about 75 Friends. It was pret­ty much the same group of peo­ple who were doing it ten years and mul­ti­ple reforms ago, only now they are ten years old­er. We actu­al­ly ripped through busi­ness so we can spend an hour naval-gazing about the pur­pose of this par­tic­u­lar gov­ern­ing body and I can report it wasn’t the breath of fresh air that we might have hoped for.

A big part of the prob­lem is we’ve for­got­ten why we’re doing all this. We’ve split the faith from the prac­tice – and I don’t mean Chris­tian vs non-Christian, but the whole kit-and-kaboodle that is the Quak­er under­stand­ing of gospel order, a world view that is dis­tinct from that of oth­er Chris­tian denom­i­na­tions. Lloyd Lee Wilson calls it the “Quak­er gestalt” in Essays on the Quak­er Vision of Gospel Order. When a spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion has an inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy, and the process and the­ol­o­gy rein­force each oth­er. Archi­tec­ture and demeanor, cul­tur­al and busi­ness val­ues fit togeth­er. It’s nev­er per­fect, of course, and main­tain­ing the con­sis­ten­cy again­st new influ­ences and chang­ing cir­cum­stances is often the source of unnec­es­sary pet­ty squab­bling. But even some­thing as innocu­ous as a meetinghouse’s bench arrange­ments can tell you a lot about a group’s the­ol­o­gy and its bal­ance towards author­i­ty and indi­vid­u­al­ism.

It’s our under­stand­ing of our faith and our con­cept of body-of-Christ com­mu­ni­ty which under­girds our insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures. When we don’t have a good grasp of it, we do things mere­ly because “we’re sup­posed to” and the process feels dry and spirit-less. We defend par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tions as nec­es­sary because they’re cod­i­fied in our books of doc­trine and lose our abil­i­ty to pos­i­tive­ly explain their exis­tence, at which point frus­trat­ed mem­bers will call for their aban­don­ment as unnec­es­sary bag­gage from a bygone age.

As an exam­ple, about sev­en years ago my quar­ter­ly meet­ing went through a naval-gazing process. I tried to be involved, as did my then-Quaker wife Julie. We asked a lot of big ques­tions but oth­ers on the vision­ing com­mit­tee just want­ed to ask small ques­tions. When Julie and I asked about divine guid­ance at ses­sions, for exam­ple, one fel­low con­de­scend­ing­ly explained that if we spent all our time ask­ing what God want­ed we’d nev­er get any­thing done. We real­ly didn’t know what to say to that, espe­cial­ly as it seemed the con­sen­sus of oth­ers in the group. One thing they were com­plain­ing about was that it was always the same few peo­ple doing any­thing but after a few rounds of those meet­ings, we ran scream­ing away (my wife right out of the RSoF alto­geth­er).

Re-visioning isn’t just decon­struct­ing insti­tu­tions we don’t under­stand or tin­ker­ing with some new process to fix the old process that doesn’t work. If you’ve got a group of peo­ple active­ly lis­ten­ing to the guid­ance of the Inward Christ then any process or struc­ture prob­a­bly can be made to work (though some will facil­i­tate dis­cern­ment bet­ter). Our books of “Faith and Prac­tice” were nev­er meant to be inerrant Bibles. At their core, they’re our “wiki” of best prac­tices for Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty dis­cern­ment – tips earned through the suc­cess­es and fail­ures of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. I think if we under­stand our spir­i­tu­al roots bet­ter we’ll find our musty old Quak­er insti­tu­tions actu­al­ly still have impor­tant roles to play. But how do we get there? I like Brent’s ques­tions but I’m not sure you can just start with them. Any­one want to share sto­ries of spir­i­tu­al deep­en­ing in their meet­ings or faith com­mu­ni­ties and how that fed into a renewed appre­ci­a­tion of Quak­er bod­ies and process?

Mind​ful​walk​er​.com

Mindful WalkerNew York City Jour­nal­ist Susan DeMark looks for the sto­ries behind the archi­tec­ture, build­ings, his­to­ry, and nature of NYC and beyond. She and a graph­ic design­er put togeth­er the look of the site and I per­formed the CSS mag­ic to trans­late their vision into a Word­Press blog.

Vis­it: Mind­ful Walk­er


Con­tin­ue read­ing

What makes a Quaker meeting house?

An Atlantic County Methodist Episcopal Meetinghouse. Picture from NJChurschape
An Atlantic Coun­ty Methodist Epis­co­pal Meet­ing­house. Pic­ture from NJChurschape

One of my favorite sites is the amaz­ing NJChurch​scape​.com—that’s New Jer­sey Church­scapes, put togeth­er large­ly through the efforts of Frank L. Greenagel. It’s a true labor of love, a cat­a­loging of church and meet­ing archi­tec­ture in New Jer­sey. It has beau­ti­ful pho­tos, great sto­ries, read­able essays on archi­tec­ture. In a state where every­thing below Cher­ry Hill often gets ignored, South Jer­sey gets good cov­er­age and there’s a lot from the old Quak­er colony of West Jer­sey. This month’s fea­ture is on the meet­ing­house, a build­ing of endear­ing sim­plic­i­ty and it rais­es a lot of ques­tions for me of how we relate to our church build­ings.

We modern-day Friends tend to think of the term meet­ing­house as unique­ly ours, but go back in his­to­ry and you’ll find just about every­one using the term to describe the non-showy build­ings they erect­ed for reli­gious ser­vices and town life. Dri­ve around South Jer­sey and you’ll see old Methodist church­es that start­ed out life as meet­ing­hous­es and look sur­pris­ing­ly Quak­er. Greenagel looks at the style and then asks:

At what point does a struc­ture cease being a meet­ing­house and become a church?.. With the ris­ing afflu­ence and increased mobil­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion came a demand for more spe­cial­ized places to meet, as well as more of the basic com­forts and style which hereto­fore were dis­missed as too world­ly, so many church­es added small­er lec­ture rooms, class­rooms for Sun­day school, and oth­er assem­bly rooms dis­tinct from the main audi­to­ri­um.

By this mea­sure, how many of our beloved East Coast Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es should real­ly just be called “church­es?” In the nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry the Protes­tant “Sun­day School Move­ment” was picked up by Gur­neyite and Pro­gres­sive Hick­site Friends, with the class­es sim­ply renamed “First Day School” in def­er­ence to Quak­er sen­si­bil­i­ties (I’ve always won­dered if the name switch actu­al­ly fooled any­one, but that’s anoth­er sto­ry). By the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the new mod­ern lib­er­al Friends had picked up the lec­ture for­mat, which like the First Day School move­ment had been adopt­ed from edu­ca­tion­al mod­els via oth­er reli­gious groups. Many of our larg­er month­ly meet­ings have fel­low­ship halls, class­rooms, kitchens, etc. The­se build­ings have become spe­cial­ized reli­gious wor­ship build­ings and many of them sit emp­ty for most of the week. But not all.

Nowa­days many Quak­er meet­ings with build­ings open them mid-week for use by com­mu­ni­ty groups. Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es host peace groups, bat­tered wom­en hot­li­nes, yoga class­es, reli­gious con­gre­ga­tions in need of a tem­po­rary home and sim­i­lar caus­es. There’s often an ele­ment of good works in the group’s char­ter.

Per­haps this will­ing­ness to open our build­ings up earns us the right to con­tin­ue using the meet­ing­house name. If so, we should be care­ful to resist the pres­sure of the insur­ance indus­try to close our­selves up in the name of lia­bil­i­ty. One unique­ness to our wor­ship spaces is that they are not con­se­crat­ed and there should be no spe­cial rules for their use. They are over­sized barns and we should cher­ish that. We should remem­ber not to get fetishis­tic about their his­to­ry and we shouldn’t tie up our busi­ness meet­ings in end­less dis­cus­sions over the col­or of the new seat cush­ions. When we turn our build­ings over for oth­ers’ use, we shouldn’t wor­ry over­ly much if a chair or clock gets damanged or stolen. Friends know that our reli­gion is not our build­ings and that the mea­sure of our spir­it is sim­ply how far we’ll fol­low God, togeth­er as a peo­ple.

Related Reading:

  • There’s a very hand­some book about the HABS work on Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es in the greater Philadel­phia area called Silent Wit­ness: Quak­er Meet­ing Hous­es In The Delaware Val­ley, 1695 To The Present. (only $10!).
  • My friend Bob Bar­nett has been putting a lot of great work into a new West Jer­sey web­site.