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.


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.

First thoughts about convergent weekend

Hey all, the Reclaim­ing Prim­i­tive Quak­erism work­shop at California’s Ben Lomond Cen­ter wrapped up a few hours ago (I’m post­ing from the San Jose air­port). I think it went well. There were about thir­ty par­tic­i­pants. The make­up was very inter­gen­er­a­tional and God and Christ were being named all over the place! 

Group shot

I myself felt stripped through­out the first half, a sense of vague but deep unease – not at how the work­shop was going, but about who I am and where I am. Christ was hard at work point­ing out the lay­ers of pride that I’ve used to pro­tect myself over the last few years. This morning’s agen­da was most­ly extend­ed wor­ship, begun with “Bible Read­ing in the Man­ner of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends” (video below) and it real­ly lift­ed the veil for me – I think God even joked around with me a bit.

As always, many of the high points came unex­pect­ed­ly in small con­ver­sa­tions, both planned and ran­dom. One piece that I’ll be return­ing to again and again is that we need to focus on the small acts and not build any sort of move­ment piece by piece and not wor­ry about the Big Con­fer­ence or the Big Web­site that will change every­thing that we know. That’s not how the Spir­it works and our push­ing it to work this way almost invari­ably leads to fail­ure and wast­ed effort.

Anoth­er piece is that we need to start focus­ing on real­ly build­ing up the kind of habits that will work out our spir­i­tu­al mus­cles. Chad of 27Wishes had a great anal­o­gy that had to do with the neo-traditionalist jazz musi­cians and I hoped to get an inter­view with him on that but time ran out. I’ll try to get a remote inter­view (an ear­li­er inter­view with him is here, thanks Chad for being the first inter­view of the weekend!)

Wess and Martin computeringI con­duct­ed a bunch of video inter­views that I’ll start upload­ing to my Youtube account and on the “reclaiming2009” tag on Quak­erQuak­er. When you watch them, be char­i­ta­ble. I’m still learn­ing through my style. But it was excit­ing start­ing to do them and it con­firmed my sense that we real­ly need to be burn­ing up Youtube with Quak­er stuff.

I need to find my board­ing gate but I do want to say that the oth­er piece is putting togeth­er col­lec­tions of prac­tices that Friends can try in their loca­tion Friends com­mu­ni­ty. Gath­er­ing in Light Wess led a real­ly well-received ses­sion that took the Lord’s Prayer and turned it into an inter­ac­tive small group even. We took pho­tos and a bit of video and we’ll be putting it togeth­er as a how-to some­where or other.

Pic­tures going up on Flickr, I’ll orga­nize them soon. Also check out Con​ver​gent​Friends​.org and the Reclaim­ing Prim­i­tive Quak­erism work­shop page on QuakerQuaker.

A Quaker model for emergence?

Robin M over at What Canst Thou Say? has been hang­ing out with emer­gent church folks recent­ly and reports back in a few posts. It’s def­i­nite­ly worth read­ing, as is some of what’s been com­ing out of the last week’s youth gath­er­ing at Bar­nesville (includ­ing Mic­ah Bales report) and the annu­al Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends gath­er­ing near Lan­cast­er Pa., which I’ve heard bits and pieces about on var­i­ous Face­book pages.

It sound like something’s in the air. I wish I could sit in live in some of these con­ver­sa­tions but just got more dis­ap­point­ing news on the job front so I’ll con­tin­ue to be more-or-less home­bound for the fore­see­able future. Out to pas­ture, that’s me! (I’m say­ing that with a smile on my face, try­ing not to be tooooo whiny!)

Robin’s post has got me think­ing again about emer­gent church issues. My own dab­bling in emer­gent blogs and meet-ups only goes so far before I turn back. I real­ly appre­ci­ate its analy­sis and cri­tique of con­tem­po­rary Chris­tian­i­ty and Amer­i­can cul­ture but I rarely find it artic­u­lat­ing a com­pelling way forward.

I don’t want to mere­ly shoe­horn some appro­pri­at­ed Catholic rit­u­als into wor­ship. And pic­tures of emer­gent events often feel like adults doing vaca­tion bible school. I won­der if it’s the “gestalt” issue again (via Lloyd Lee Wil­son et al), the prob­lem of try­ing to get from here to there in an ad hoc man­ner that gets us to an mish­mash of not quite here and not quite there. I want to find a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty where faith and prac­tice have some deep con­nec­tion. My wife Julie went off to tra­di­tion­al Catholi­cism, which cer­tain­ly has the uni­ty of form and faith going for it, while I’m most drawn to Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends. It’s not a tradition’s age which is the defin­ing fac­tor (Zoroas­tri­an­ism any­one?) so much as its inter­nal log­ic. Con­se­quent­ly I’m not inter­est­ed in a Quak­erism (or Chris­tian­i­ty) that’s mere­ly nos­tal­gic or legal­is­tic about sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry forms but one that’s a liv­ing, breath­ing com­mu­ni­ty liv­ing both in its time and in the eter­ni­ty of God.

I’ve won­dered if Friends have some­thing to give the emer­gent church: a tra­di­tion that’s been emer­gent for three hun­dred years and that’s main­tained more or less reg­u­lar cor­re­spon­dence with that 2000 year old emer­gent church. We Friends have made our own mess­es and fall­en down as many times as we’ve soared but there’s a Quak­er vision we have (or almost have) that could point a way for­ward for emer­gent Chris­tians of all stripes. There’s cer­tain­ly a min­istry there, per­haps Robin’s and per­haps not mine, but someone’s.


  • Indi­ana Friend Brent Bill start­ed a fas­ci­nat­ing new blog last week after a rather con­tentious meet­ing on the future of Friends lead­er­ship. Friends in Fel­low­ship is try­ing to map out a vision and mod­el for a pas­toral Friends fel­low­ship that embod­ies Emer­gent Church leader Bri­an McLaren’s idea of a “gen­er­ous ortho­doxy.” Inter­est­ing stuff that echos a lot of the “Con­ver­gent Friends” con­ver­sa­tion (herehere, and here) and mir­rors some of the dynam­ics that have been going on with­in lib­er­al Friends. The Quak­erQuak­er con­ver­sa­tion has thus far been most intense among evan­gel­i­cal and lib­er­al Friends, with mid­dle Amer­i­can “FUM” Friends most­ly sit­ting it out so it’s great to see some con­nec­tions being made there. Read “Friends in Fel­low­ship” back­wards, old­est post to newest and don’t miss the com­ments as Brent is mod­el­ing a real­ly good back and forth process with by answer­ing com­ments with thought­ful posts.
  • Famous­ly unapolo­get­i­cal­ly lib­er­al Friend Chuck Fager has some inter­est­ing cor­re­spon­dence over on A Friend­ly Let­ter about some of the ele­phants in the Friends Unit­ed Meet­ing clos­et. Inter­est­ing and con­tentious both, as one might expect from Chuck. Well worth a read, there’s plen­ty there you won’t find any­where else.
  • Final­ly, have I gushed about how fab­u­lous the new’ish Con​ser​v​a​tive​Friend​.org web­site is? Oh yes, I have, but that’s okay. Vis­it it again anyway.