In praise of an editor past

Frances William Browin from the September 15, 1968 Friends Journal.
When I became an editor at Friends Journal in 2011, I inherited an institution with some very strong opinions. Some of them are sourced from predictable wellsprings: William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s foundational mid-century style guide and the editorial offices of the Chicago Manual of Style. But some is all our own, logically tested for consistency with Chicago but adapted to Quaker idiosyncrasies.

One of our most invariable (and contested) formats comes from the way we list congregations. Quick aside for non-Quakers: you will often see a Quaker meeting listed as  Town Monthly Meeting, Town Friends Meeting, Town Quaker Meeting, etc. People often have strong opinions about the correct ways to write them out. Sometimes an author will insist to me that their meeting has an official name that is use consistently but I can usually find this isn't true within a few minutes with the help of Google.

To cut through this, Friends Journal uses “Town (State) Meeting” everywhere and always, with specific exceptions only for cases where that doesn’t work. Town, state abbreviation in parentheses, capital-M meeting. This formatting is unique to Friends Journal--other Philadelphia-based Quaker style sheets don't follow it. We’ve been doing it this distinctively and consistently for as long as I can remember.

Fortunately we have digital archives going back to the mid-1950s thanks to Haverford College's Quaker and Special Collections. So a few months ago I dug into our archives and used keyword searches to see how far back the format goes. Traveling the years back it time it's held remarkably steady as "Town (State) Meeting" until we scroll back into the fall of 1962. The October 15 issue doesn’t have consistent meeting listings. But it does announce that longtime Friends Journal editor William Hubben is going on a six-month sabbatical, with Frances Williams Browin filling in as acting editor.

It didn't take her long. The next issue sees a few parentheses unevenly applied. But by the November 15th issue, nineteen meetings are referenced using our familiar format! There’s the “member of Berkeley (Calif.) Meeting” who had just published a pamphlet of Christmas songs for children, an FCNL event featuring skits and a covered-dish supper at “Swarthmore (Pa.) Meeting” and the announcement of a prominent article by “Kenneth E. Boulding, a member of Ann Arbor (Michigan) Meeting.”

I've tried to imagine the scene... Browin situated in her new temporary office... going back and forth, forth and back on some listing... then finally surprising herself by shouting "enough!" so loudly she had to apologize to nearby colleagues. At the end of the six months, Hubben came back but only as a contributing editor, and Browin was named editor. Friends Journal board member Elizabeth B Wells wrote a profile of her upon her retirement in 1968:

Her remarks usually made sparks, whether she was expressing an opinion (always positive), exerting pressure (not always gentle), or making a humorous aside (often disturbing). For in her amiable way she can be tart, unexpected, even prejudiced (in the right direction), then as suddenly disarmingly warm and sensitive.

This sounds like the kind of person who would standardize a format with such resolve it would be going strong 55 years later:

She was so entirely committed to putting out the best possible magazine, such a perfectionist, even such a driver, that her closest colleagues often felt that we knew the spirited editor far better than the Quaker lady.

It’s a neat profile. And today, every time an author rewrites their meeting’s name on a copyedited manuscript, I say a quiet thanks to the driven perfectionist who gives me permission to be prejudiced in the right direction. Wells's profile is a fascinating glimpse into a smart woman of a different era and well worth a read.

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:

Quaker Quote of the Day

I’m exper­i­ment­ing with Quak­er Quote of the Day for the Quak­erQuak­er Twit­ter account. You should be able to read them on Twit­ter here. Extend­ed ver­sions will be on QuakerQuaker’s new QOTD blog.It’s hard to pack a good quote into only 140 char­ac­ters so there will be some short­en­ing, but the full piece should give it a bit more con­text.

I’ll be most­ly quot­ing his­tor­i­cal Friends but I might throw a liv­ing per­son in there once in awhile. I won’t use a quote book to deliv­er the same adage you’ve heard a mil­lion times before. I’ll also try not to chop it up into a mean­ing that goes against the author’s inten­tion.

The scent of communal religion

A recent arti­cle on the art and sci­ence of taste and smell in the New York­er had a para­graph that stood out for me. The author John Lan­ches­ter had just shared a moment where he sud­den­ly under­stood the mean­ing behind “grainy,” a term that had pre­vi­ous­ly been an eso­teric wine descrip­tor. He then writes:

The idea that your palate and your vocab­u­lary expand simul­ta­ne­ous­ly
might sound felic­i­tous, but there is a catch. The words and the
ref­er­ences are real­ly use­ful only to peo­ple who have had the same
expe­ri­ences and use the same vocab­u­lary: those ref­er­ences are to a
shared basis of sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence and a shared lan­guage. To peo­ple who
haven’t had those shared expe­ri­ences, this way of talk­ing can seem like
horse manure, and not in a good way.

How might this apply to Quak­erism? A post-modernist philoso­pher might argue that our words are our expe­ri­ence and their argu­ment would be even stronger for com­mu­nal expe­ri­ences. I once spent a long after­noon wor­ry­ing whether the col­ors I saw were real­ly the same col­ors oth­ers saw: what if what I inter­pret­ed as yel­low was the col­or oth­ers saw as blue? After turn­ing around the rid­dle I end­ed up real­iz­ing it didn’t mat­ter as long as we all could point to the same col­or and give it the same name.

But what hap­pens when we’re not just talk­ing about yel­low. Turn­ing to the Cray­ola box, what if we’re try­ing to describe the yel­low­ish col­ors apri­cot, dan­de­lion, peach and the touch-feely 2008 “super hap­py”. Being a Cray­ola con­nois­seur requires an invest­ment not only in a box of col­ored wax but also in time: the time need­ed to expe­ri­ence, under­stand and take own­er­ship in the var­i­ous col­ors.

Reli­gion can be a like wine snob­bery. If you take the time to read the old Quak­er jour­nals and reflect on your spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences you can start to under­stand what the lan­guage means. The terms stop being fussy and obscure, out­dat­ed and parochial. They become your own reli­gious vocab­u­lary. When I pick up an engag­ing nine­teenth jour­nal (not all are!) and read sto­ries about the author’s spir­i­tu­al up and downs and strug­gles with ego and com­mu­ni­ty, I smile with shared recog­ni­tion. When I read an engag­ing historian’s account of some long-forgotten debate I nod know­ing that many of the same issues are at the root of some blo­gos­pher­ic bruha­ha.

Of course I love out­reach and want to share the Friends “sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence.” One way to do that is to strip the lan­guage and make it all gener­ic. The dan­ger of course is that we’re actu­al­ly chang­ing the reli­gion when we’re change the lan­guage. It’s not the expe­ri­ence that makes us Friends – all peo­ple of all spir­i­tu­al per­sua­sions have access to legit­i­mate reli­gious expe­ri­ences no mat­ter how fleet­ing, mis­un­der­stood or mis­la­beled. We are unique in how we frame that expe­ri­ence, how we make sense of it and how we use the shared under­stand­ing to direct our lives. 

We can go the oth­er direc­tion and stay as close to our tra­di­tion­al lan­guage as pos­si­ble, demand­ing that any­one com­ing into our reli­gious society’s influ­ence take the time to under­stand us on our terms. That of course opens us to charges of spread­ing horse manure, in Lanchester’s words (which we do some­times) and it also means we threat­en to stay a small insid­er com­mu­ni­ty. We also for­get to speak “nor­mal,” start think­ing the lan­guage real­ly is the expe­ri­ence and start car­ing more about show­ing off our vocab­u­lary than about lov­ing God or tend­ing to our neigh­bors.

I don’t see any good way out of this conun­drum, no easy advice to wrap a post up. A lot of Friends in my neck of the woods are doing what I’d call wink-wink nudge-nudge Quak­erism, speak­ing dif­fer­ent­ly in pub­lic than in pri­vate (see this post) but I wor­ry this insti­tu­tion­al­izes the snob­bery and excus­es the manure, and it sure doesn’t give me much hope. What if we saw our role as taste edu­ca­tors? For want of a bet­ter anal­o­gy I won­der if there might be a Quak­er ver­sion of Star­bucks (yes yes, Star­bucks is Quak­er, I’m talk­ing cof­fee), a kind of move­ment that would edu­cate seek­ers at the same time as it sold them the Quak­er expe­ri­ence. Could we get peo­ple excit­ed enough that they’d com­mit to the high­er costs involved in under­stand­ing us? 

Military Intervention — For the Flu?

h3. By Johann Christoph Arnold
“If we had an out­break some­where in the Unit­ed States, do we not then quar­an­tine that part of the coun­try? And how do you, then, enforce a quar­an­tine? …One option is the use of the mil­i­tary… I think the pres­i­dent ought to have all…assets on the table to be able to deal with some­thing this sig­nif­i­cant.” — Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, news con­fer­ence, Octo­ber 4, 2005
For years, health offi­cials have warned that a vir­u­lent strain of avian influen­za could rapid­ly spread the globe, killing mil­lions. Head­lines about such an out­break now seem to pop up dai­ly, and there is rea­son for increas­ing con­cern. But Pres­i­dent Bush’s recent request to Con­gress, ask­ing for the author­i­ty to call in the mil­i­tary as part of the government’s response to such a dis­as­ter, is wrong.
To start with, call­ing in the troops would set a wor­ry­ing prece­dent, and not only because it would be yet one more step to a ful­ly mil­i­ta­rized state.
We already have pub­lic health sys­tems at both the state and fed­er­al lev­els, which, though weak­ened by years of under­fund­ing, could still be quick­ly strength­ened and expand­ed by an infu­sion of con­gres­sion­al aid. These agen­cies have been oper­a­tive for years, and the peo­ple who direct them are trained and expe­ri­enced in deal­ing with infec­tious dis­ease.
This is more than a med­ical issue. Have we learned noth­ing from the recent spate of nat­ur­al dis­as­ters that has wracked our shores? Have we not con­sid­ered that in the end, dis­ease, pesti­lence, and floods might be an inescapable part of life?
I am not sug­gest­ing that we should stand idly by. I myself have chil­dren and grand­chil­dren and friends whom I dear­ly love, and would be the first to call for pro­fes­sion­al med­ical assis­tance should such a dis­as­ter strike my fam­i­ly or com­mu­ni­ty. But aren’t we a lit­tle auda­cious in think­ing, in the after­math of two ter­ri­ble hur­ri­canes, that we can some­how avert or pre­vent such a tragedy?
Quar­an­tine and iso­la­tion may indeed be a nec­es­sary part of our response, but let us not for­get that fam­i­lies and pas­toral care­givers must also be part of the equa­tion when many peo­ple are dying. Does our gov­ern­ment real­ly care for human beings, or does it wor­ry more about the dev­as­ta­tion such a pan­dem­ic could wreak on the glob­al econ­o­my?
If wide­spread death is tru­ly immi­nent (some sources sug­gest that 150 mil­lion peo­ple could die of avian flu) wouldn’t it be bet­ter to pre­pare our­selves by pay­ing at least some atten­tion to the fact that we all must die one day, and that dying is going to be ter­ri­bly lone­ly, and fright­en­ing, if we are quar­an­tined? We need to con­cern our­selves with this issue because one day death will claim each one of us.
If we die alone, under the con­trol of the mil­i­tary, who will pro­vide the last ser­vices of love for us, and who will com­fort the loved ones we leave behind? Are we going to sit back while we are denied the chance to lay down our lives for each oth­er, which Jesus says is the great­est act of love we can ever per­form? A mil­i­tary response will not bring out the best in peo­ple, but only mag­ni­fy the fear and anx­i­ety we already have about death.
Why are we so ter­ri­bly afraid of dying? Only when we are ready to suf­fer – only when we are ready to die – will we expe­ri­ence true peace of heart. Dying always involves a hard strug­gle, because we fear the uncer­tain­ty of an unknown and unknow­able future. We all feel the pain of unmet oblig­a­tions, and we all want to be relieved of past regrets and feel­ings of guilt. But it is just here that we can reach out and help one anoth­er to die peace­ful­ly.
Once we rec­og­nize this, the specter of a world­wide flu epi­dem­ic will not make us fear death, but give us pause to con­sid­er how we can use our lives to show love, while there is still time.
Again, enforced iso­la­tion is wrong: sick and dying peo­ple are often lone­ly as it is, even in sit­u­a­tions where they have a fam­i­ly and friends. How will they feel when the gov­ern­ment forces us to treat them like lep­ers? How will they find com­fort, if they are not even allowed to talk about what is hap­pen­ing to them?
We should see it as a priv­i­lege to stand at their bed­sides at the hour of death, not a dan­ger – even if this means that we are even­tu­al­ly tak­en by the same plague. That is why I feel mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion would be such a tragedy.

Johann Christoph Arnold (“” is an author and a pastor with the Bruderhof Communities (“”

Jeffrey Hipp: My Feet Are on Solid Ground

A Guest Piece by Jef­frey Hipp
“I take this com­mit­ment of mem­ber­ship very seri­ous­ly – to labor, nur­ture, sup­port and chal­lenge my fel­low Friends; to walk in the Light togeth­er, and to give, receive, and pray with my fel­low sojourn­ers when the next step is unclear. My feet are on sol­id ground.”

Con­tin­ue read­ing

The Loss of a Faithful Servant

A hum­ble giant among mod­ern Friends passed away this week­end: Bill Taber. All of us doing the work of map­ping out a “con­ser­v­a­tive lib­er­al Quak­erism” owe a huge debt to Bill. Although oth­ers are more qual­i­fied to share his biog­ra­phy, I know he taught for many years at Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing (Conservative)‘s Olney Friends School and then for many more years at the Pen­dle Hill Cen­ter out­side Philadel­phia. He and his wife Fran were ins­tu­men­tal in the 1998 found­ing of the Friends Cen­ter retreat and con­fer­ence cen­ter on the cam­pus of Olney.
I had the hon­or of meet­ing Bill and Fran once, when they came to lead a meet­ing retreat. But like so many Friends, Bill’s strongest influ­ence has been his writ­ings. “Four Doors to Meet­ing for Worship”: – 87574-306 – 4 was his intro­duc­tion to wor­ship. I’ll quote from the “About the Author,” since it explains the root of much of his work:
bq. This pamphlet’s metaphor of the four doors grew out of his awar­ness of a need for a more con­tem­po­rary expla­na­tion of “what hap­pens” in a Quak­er meet­ing. He feels this lack of insturction in method has become an increas­ing prob­lem as mod­ern Friends move far­ther and far­ther away from the more per­va­sive Quak­er cul­ture which in ear­li­er gen­er­a­tions played such a pow­er­ful teach­ing role, allow­ing both birthright and con­vinced Friends to learn the nuances and spir­i­tu­al method­ol­o­gy of Quak­erism large­ly through osmo­sis. In shar­ing this essay Bill hopes to help nur­ture a trav­el­ing, teach­ing, and prophet­ic min­istry which could reach out and touch peo­ple into spir­i­tu­al growth just when they are ready to receive the teach­ing.
One of the spir­i­tu­al methodolgy’s Bill shared with his stu­dents at Pen­dle Hill was a col­lec­tion by a old Quak­er min­is­ter named Samuel Bow­nas – reg­u­lar read­ers of this site know how impor­tant Bownas’s “Descrip­tions of the Qualifications”: has been to me. But oth­er books of his have been inval­able too: his his­to­ry of Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing shared the old cul­ture of the year­ly meet­ing with great sto­ries and gen­tle insight.
Bill Taber might have passed from his earth­ly body Fri­day morn­ing but the work he did in the world will con­tin­ue. May we all have the grace to be as faith­ful to the Teacher as he was.