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.

Posted February 22nd, 2017 , in Uncategorized 3 Comments

Mixing it up

Back in Novem­ber I start­ed a blog post that ran out of umph and stayed in my drafts. At time time I was react­ing to the pro­gres­sive debates about safe­ty pins as a sym­bol but it seems we’re are in anoth­er round of self-questioning, this time around the Women’s March and oth­er ini­tia­tives. As I find myself fre­quent­ly say­ing, we need lots of dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple orga­niz­ing in lots of dif­fer­ent styles. So may­be this blog posts’s time has come again.

May­be this is just anoth­er stages of grief but I’ve been notic­ing a num­ber of online dis­cus­sions in which pro­gres­sives are shut­ting down oth­er pro­gres­sives for not being pro­gres­sive enough. Every time I see a pos­i­tive post, I can pre­dict there’s going to be about three enthu­si­as­tic “yes!” com­ments, fol­lowed by a 500-word com­ment explain­ing why the idea isn’t rad­i­cal enough.

Folks, we’ve got big­ger prob­lems than try­ing to fig­ure out who’s the most woke per­son on our Face­book feed.

Suc­cess­ful social change move­ments are always a spec­trum of more or less politically-correct and rad­i­cal voic­es. It’s like a chord in music: strings vibrat­ing on dif­fer­ent fre­quen­cies sound bet­ter togeth­er. Some­times in pol­i­tics you need the crazy rad­i­cals to stir things up and some­times you need the too-cautious lib­er­als to legit­imize the protest mes­sage.

Some years ago I was part of an cam­paign in Philly that tar­get­ed what many of us felt was a pro­pa­gan­da push around Colum­bus Day. An attempt by all of the con­cerned activists to come togeth­er pre­dictably went nowhere. There were too many dif­fer­ences in style and tac­tics and lan­guage and cul­ture. But that break­down in coör­di­na­tion allowed each sub­cul­ture to pick a tac­tic that worked best for them.

The Quak­ers did their vis­i­ble agit­prop lead­ing and got detained. The anar­chists made cre­ative posters and set off sur­rep­ti­tious stink devices. Some anony­mous pranksters sent out fake press releas­es to dis­rupt media cov­er­age. The resul­tant news cov­er­age focused on the sheer diver­si­ty of the protests.

If protest had indeed come from a sin­gle group fol­low­ing a sin­gle tac­tic, the dis­sent would have been buried in the fourth para­graph of the cov­er­age. But the cre­ativ­i­ty made it the focus of the cov­er­age. Diver­si­ty of tac­tics works. Mis­takes will be made. Some pro­gres­sives will be clue­less – may­be even some of the ones con­sid­er­ing them­selves the most woke. It’s okay. We’ll learn as we go along. We might laugh at how we used to think wear­ing safe­ty pins was effec­tive – or we might won­der why we ever thought it was mean­ing­less sym­bol. What­ev­er hap­pens, let’s just encour­age wit­ness wherever and when­ev­er it’s hap­pen­ing. Let’s be gen­tler on each oth­er.

Posted January 20th, 2017 , in Uncategorized

Joan Baez cites Quaker upbringing in presidential endorsement

From the musician’s Face­book page:

My choice, from an ear­ly age, has been to engage in social change from the ground up, using the pow­er of orga­nized non­vi­o­lence. A dis­trust of the polit­i­cal process was firm­ly in place by the time I was 15. As a daugh­ter of Quak­ers I pledged my alle­giance not to a flag or a nation state but to humankind, the two often hav­ing lit­tle to do with each oth­er.

Posted April 7th, 2016 , in Uncategorized

A reply to The Theology of Consensus

L.A. Kauffman’s cri­tique of con­sen­sus deci­sion mak­ing in The The­ol­o­gy of Con­sen­sus is a rather peren­ni­al argu­ment in lefty cir­cles and this arti­cle makes a num­ber of log­i­cal leaps. Still, it does map out the half-forgotten Quak­er roots of activist con­sen­sus and she does a good job map­ping out some of the pit­falls to using it dog­mat­i­cal­ly:

Con­sen­sus decision-making’s little-known reli­gious ori­gins shed light on why this activist prac­tice has per­sist­ed so long despite being unwieldy, off-putting, and inef­fec­tive.

All that said, it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes while read­ing this. Per­haps I just sat in on too many meet­ings in my twen­ties where the Trot­sky­ists berat­ed the paci­fists for slow process (and tried to take over meet­ings) and the black bloc anar­chists berat­ed paci­fists for not being brave enough to over­turn dump­sters. As often as not the­se shenani­gans tor­pe­doed any chance of real coali­tion build­ing but the most bor­ing part were the inter­minable hours-long meet­ings about styles. A lot of it was fash­ion, real­ly, when you come down to it.

This piece just feels so…. 1992 to me. Like: we’re still talk­ing about this? Real­ly? Like: real­ly? Much of evi­dence Kauff­mann cites dates back to the frig­ging Clamshell Alliance—I’ve put the Wikipedia link to the 99.9% of my read­ers who have nev­er heard of this 1970s move­ment. More recent­ly she talks about a Food Not Bombs man­u­al from the 1980s. The lan­guage and con­tin­ued cri­tique over large­ly for­got­ten move­ments from 40 years ago doesn’t quite pass the Muham­mad Ali test:

Con­sen­sus deci­sion mak­ing is a tool, but there’s no mag­ic to it. It can be use­ful but it can get bogged down. Some­times we get so enam­ored of the process that we for­get our urgent cause. Clev­er peo­ple can use it to manip­u­late oth­ers, and like any tool those who know how to use it have an advan­tage over those who don’t. It can be a trib­al mark­er, which gives it a great to pull togeth­er peo­ple but also intro­duces a whole set of dynam­ics that dis­miss­es peo­ple who don’t fit the trib­al mod­el. The­se are uni­ver­sal human prob­lems that any sys­tem faces.

Con­sen­sus is just one mod­el of orga­niz­ing. When a com­mit­ted group uses it for com­mon effect, it can pull togeth­er and coör­di­nate large groups of strangers more quick­ly and cre­ative­ly than any oth­er orga­niz­ing method I’ve seen.

Just about every suc­cess­ful move­ment for social change works because it builds a diver­si­ty of sup­port­ers who will use all sorts of styles toward a com­mon goal: the angry youth, the African Amer­i­can cler­gy, the paci­fist vig­ilers, the shout­ing anar­chists. But change doesn’t only hap­pen in the streets. It’s also swirling through the news­pa­per rooms, attor­neys gen­er­al offices, investor board­rooms. We can and should squab­ble over tac­tics but the last thing we need is an enforce­ment of some kind of move­ment puri­ty that “calls for the demise” of a par­tic­u­lar brand of activist cul­ture. Please let’s leave the lefty puri­ty wars in the 20th cen­tu­ry.

Posted May 29th, 2015 , in Uncategorized

Remembering Juanita Nelson

juanita04One of the coolest activists of her (or any) gen­er­a­tion is gone. Juani­ta Nelson’s obit­u­ary is up on the nation­al war tax coalition’s site. My favorite Juani­ta sto­ry was when some agents came to arrest her at home and found her dressed only in a bathrobe. They told her it was okay to go into her bed­room to change but she refused. She told them that any shame was theirs. She forced them to car­ry her out as her clothes fell off. Talk about rad­i­cal non-coöperation!

Update

Pam McAl­lis­ter point­ed out on her Glob­al Non­vi­o­lence: Sto­ries of Cre­ative Action Face­book page that this sto­ry is online. Here’s a bit more of Juani­ta her­self telling that bit:

Sev­en law enforce­ment offi­cers had stalked in. I sat on the stool beneath the tele­phone, my back lit­er­al­ly to the wall, the sev­en hem­ming me about in a semi­cir­cle. All of them appeared over six feet tall, and all of them were annoyed.

“Look,” said one, “you’re gonna go any­way. You might as well come peace­ful.”

There they stood, ready and able to take me at any moment. But no move was made. The rea­son was obvi­ous.

“Why don’t you put your clothes on, Mrs. Nel­son?” This was a soft spo­ken plea from the more benign deputy. “You’re not hurt­ing any­body but your­self.” His pained expres­sion belied the asser­tion.

The essay where that came from is much longer and well worth read­ing.

Posted March 10th, 2015 , in Uncategorized

Reblogging

My long-running blog over at http://​quak​er​ran​ter​.org has been out of the loop for awhile. I don’t often have the time for long-form blog­ging. The style of clas­sic blog­ging feels less imme­di­ate nowa­days: Face­book, Google Plus, Tum­blr, etc. are eas­ier to post to and get more respons­es. The imme­di­a­cy of the social net­works pro­vides mini ego boosts. The staff at the hos­pi­tal where my daugh­ter Lau­ra was born last week invit­ed me to bring my cam­era phone into the oper­at­ing room to take pic­tures of the new one. The hos­pi­tal had pub­lic wifi so it was just a click of a but­ton to share it to Face­book. I was receiv­ing my first rounds of aww’s and con­grat­u­la­tions before my wife has even been stitched up.

But being an ear­ly blog­ger (start­ing near­ly a decade before Face­book became an open net­work), I know that the most influ­en­tial posts took months and even years to make a dif­fer­ence. It’s not very rev­o­lu­tion­ary to find out your friends are your friends, which is 90% of Face­book com­men­tary. Per­son­al change hap­pe­na when you meet some­one new; cul­tur­al change hap­pens when you’re exposed to peo­ple whose ideas are new to you. On the inter­net that hap­pens at two in the morn­ing when you won­der whether any­one has made a con­nec­tion between two ideas obsess­ing you – the unex­pect­ed results in a Google search can change how you under­stand the world. It can starts you down the path of a new self-identity. It doesn’t mat­ter if the post is a cou­ple of years old: what mat­ters is that it’s speak­ing to the spir­i­tu­al con­di­tion of that searcher. 

I know this (and I’ve writ­ten about it before) but I still tend toward short social media posts. So I’m going to inte­grate my Google Plus account with my WordPress-powered blog at Quak​er​ran​ter​.org. I’m pick­ing Google Plus because it’s where I’ve found myself writ­ing the more thought­ful bits and pieces. A neat Word­Press plug in called Google Plus Blog (link below) will help the inte­gra­tion.

Embed­ded Link

The Google+ mus­ings of Daniel Tread­well
Google+ Blog Con­cept – Daniel Tread­well. View your Google+ Posts in the form of a clean and sim­ple blog. Also home of the Google+Blog Word­Press plug­in.

Posted February 1st, 2012 , in Uncategorized