When we came here in fifteen or so years ago, Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden was a magical oasis tucked in the middle of a block in Key West, a small forest said to be the last undeveloped acre in the city’s Old Town neighborhood. Full of winding paths and trees it was the rarest of spaces: loved, carefully tended, and shared with the public as a gift of beauty. But even then it felt besieged. In 2012 taxes and expenses became too much and Nancy sold off parcels to developers. From an article in Key News:
The tucked-away entrance to Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden off Free School Lane in the 500 block of Simonton Street will be closed to the public after today, as finances and property taxes have forced Forrester to sell the land parcels that have housed an artist’s cottage and gallery, parrots, orchids, rare palms, meandering pathways and a meditative garden for more than four decades.
These days the garden has been reduced to a small backyard on Elizabeth Street which Nancy uses as a rescue parrot refuge. In the mornings she gives educational lectures on the birds, full of facts about their brilliant behavior, the destruction of their native habitats, and gentle lectures about how we can all protect native parrot habitats by living more lightly on the land (hint: no red palm oil or beef). From behind the fence came the sounds of a swimming pool being installed in the cutdown middle of the former garden. Nancy has life tenancy on the ill-repaired house where she lives with the parrots.
I don’t know the details of the real estate transactions or Forrester’s finances but I find it incredible that Key West couldn’t rally around one of its living treasures. I’m glad that Nancy remains along with her parrots and I’m grateful my kids got a chance to meet her.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I had a nice video chat with my friend Greg Woods, whose article, Organizing Young Adult Friends Online, appeared in November’s Friends Journal. Greg and I have been having variations on this conversation for years. Back in 2011, we worked together alongside Stephen Dotson to put together a now-dated Young Adult Friends website (watch us eat in double-time in its promotional video!). I believe it was the fourth YAF organizing website I had built since the mid-90s. Greg is now putting together a network of Quaker campus ministries. It’s one of those obvious needs that I hope Friends will support.
Here are the two pieces that strike me: The “top 10 percent of drinkers account for over half of the alcohol consumed in any given year” and this top 10 represents people who drink an average of 10 drinks per day.
I’m not a teetotaler and I’m glad stats also show that most Americans are light on the alcohol — 30 percent don’t drink and another 30 percent are moderate. But 10 drinks per day average is a serious alcohol problem — with serious social implications and costs. Half of the industry profits come from these drinkers. The article quotes an expert:
If the top decile somehow could be induced to curb their consumption level to that of the next lower group (the ninth decile), then total ethanol sales would fall by 60 percent.”
A growing list of stories is suggesting that black churches in the South are being targeted for arson once again (although one of the more publicized cases seems to be lightning-related). This was a big concern in the mid-1990s, a time when a Quaker program stepped up to give Friends the chance to travel to the South to help rebuild. From a 1996 Friends Journal editorial:
Sometimes a news article touches the heart and moves people to reach out to one another in unexpected ways. So it was this winter when the Washington Post published a piece on the rash of fires that have destroyed black churches in the South in recent months… When Friend Harold B. Confer, executive director of Washington Quaker Workcamps, saw the article, he decided to do something about it. After a series of phone calls, he and two colleagues accepted an invitation to travel to western Alabama and see the fire damage for themselves. They were warmly received by the pastors and congregations of the three Greene County churches. Upon their return, they set to work on a plan.
I’m not sure whether Confer’s plan is the right template to follow this time, but it’s a great story because it shows the importance of having a strong grassroots Quaker ecosystem. I don’t believe the Washington Quaker Workcamps were ever a particularly well-funded project. But by 1996 they had been running for ten years and had built up credibility, a following, and the ability to cross cultural lines in the name of service. The smaller organizational size meant that a newspaper article could prompt a flurry of phone calls and visits and a fully-realized program opportunity in a remarkably short amount of time.
Update: another picture from 1996 Alabama, this time from one of my wife Julie’s old photo books. She’s second from the left at the bottom, part of the longer-stay contingent that Roberts mentions.
The Golden Rule project is an improbable accomplishment by unlikely volunteers. Members of Veterans For Peace, they are a motley bunch that might have appalled the original crew, all conscientious Quakers. They smoke, drink and swear like the sailors, though most of them are not. Aging and perpetually strapped for money, the mostly retired men sought to banish their war-related demons as they ripped out rotten wood and replaced it plank by purpleheart plank.