Visit to Vineland Mennonite Church

Yes­ter­day the fam­ily vis­ited Vineland NJ Men­non­ite Church.

We were com­ing after 8:30 Mass at Julie’s church and arrived a few min­utes before the wor­ship ser­vice while they were doing their reli­gious edu­ca­tion pro­gram. But the dis­tinc­tion between reli­gious ed and wor­ship was min­i­mal, almost non-existent. Atten­dance at both was near-universal (about 110 total) and much of the wor­ship itself was reli­gious edu­ca­tion. There was a series of 15 minute’ish ser­mons (deliv­ered by var­i­ous men), bro­ken up by some four-part a capella singing (beau­ti­ful), recita­tions from a Bible verse they were mem­o­riz­ing and kneel­ing prayer (a sur­prise the first time, as they all spin around sud­denly to face the back, kneel and pray).

It’s prob­a­bly one of the most reli­giously con­sci­en­tious com­mu­ni­ties I’ve seen. A lot of the ser­vice involved review­ing belief struc­ture. Their book of dis­ci­pline is very slim, not much more than a tract, but it’s some­thing they use and they spent part of the time read­ing from it. Much of the wor­ship hour was meant to rein­force who they were, why they were and how they were–to explain over and over why they led their dis­tinc­tive life. Theirs is a vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tion for those who agree to fol­low the author­ity of the group’s teach­ings. I sus­pect that every adult in the room could give a detailed pre­sen­ta­tion on con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite faith and give detailed answers about points of doc­trine. At the risk of insert­ing my own opin­ion I will ven­ture that the wor­ship ser­vice felt a bit dry (as Julie said, there wasn’t a ounce of mys­ti­cism in the whole pro­ceed­ing) but I don’t think the mem­bers there would feel offended by this obser­va­tion. Excit­ing the senses is less impor­tant than review­ing the val­ues and liv­ing the moral life.

Visu­ally, the group is strik­ing. Every man in the room wore a long-sleeved white dress shirt but­toned all the way up, dark pants and black shoes; all had short hair and only one or two had facial hair. I was more dis­tinc­tively plain in my broad­falls and sus­penders but the effect of sixty-or-so men and young boys all dressed alike was visu­ally stun­ning. Like a lot of plain peo­ples, the women were more obvi­ously plain and all but one or two wore lightly-colored cape dresses and head cov­er­ings (I later learned that the excep­tions were new­com­ers who weren’t yet mem­bers). Seated was seg­re­gated, women on the left, men on the right. Gen­der roles are very clear. There were kids–lots of kids–all around, and a big focus of the ser­mons was fam­ily liv­ing. One extended ser­mon focused on dis­cern­ing between pro­vid­ing well for one’s fam­ily vs. greed and the bal­ance between work­ing hard for your fam­ily vs. giv­ing up some things so you can spend time with them. Kids were present through­out the ser­vice and were rel­a­tively well behaved.

The church itself was called a meet­ing­house and was plain–no crosses of course. Peo­ple sat in pews and there was a raised area up front for min­is­ters and elders. The build­ing dou­bled as a school­house dur­ing the week and its school­rooms had a lot of Rod and Staff books, famil­iar from our own home school­ing. A mem­ber described the school as one leg of the three-legged stool, along with church and fam­ily. If any one part of the equa­tion was lack­ing in some way, the other two could help insure the child’s moral wel­fare. School was free for church mem­bers but was open on a tuition basis to non-Mennonites. These out­siders were required to make cer­tain lifestyle choices that would insure the school stayed rel­a­tively pure; the most impor­tant require­ment was that the fam­ily not have a tele­vi­sion at home.

My reg­u­lar read­ers will have one ques­tion on their mind right about now: did any­one invite us to lunch? Why yes they did! We didn’t even have to prompt it. We knew a cou­ple there–M and J, who run a restau­rant in the local farmer’s mar­ket, a favorite Sat­ur­day morn­ing stop for us. They took us under their wing when they rec­og­nized us, sit­ting with us dur­ing wor­ship and then show­ing us the school. J said that if we came back again we could come over for lunch. Then she back­tracked and offered that we could come now, explain­ing that the church had had recent dis­cus­sions over whether it was too pushy to ask first-time atten­ders to lunch or whether they should restrain them­selves and invite them on the sec­ond visit. Wow, a church that thinks about this?!

So we fol­lowed them to their place for lunch. It was a won­der­ful oppor­tu­nity to ask more ques­tions and get to know one another. Meals are impor­tant. Julie and I had won­dered why there were Men­non­ites in Vineland NJ of all places–and two Men­non­ite churches at that! Short story is that there had been a civil­ian pub­lic ser­vice facil­ity in Vineland for con­sci­en­tious objec­tors and Lancaster-area Men­non­ites decided that “the boys” sta­tioned there needed the ground­ing of a local church com­mu­nity (appar­ently other C.O. camps were scenes of debauchery–Mennonite drag rac­ing in Col­orado Springs was cited). This became Norma Men­non­ite Church, which still exists and is another local church I’ve been mean­ing to visit for years (hi Mandy!). In the 1960s, there was a great round of lib­er­al­iza­tion among Men­non­ites, an unof­fi­cial aban­don­ment of the dis­tinc­tives cod­i­fied in their books of dis­ci­plines. Many churches split and the Vineland Church was formed by those mem­bers of Norma who wanted to main­tain the discipline.

This prob­a­bly explains the strong focus on the rules of the dis­ci­pline. For those want­ing more of the his­to­ries, I com­mend Stephen Scott’s excel­lent “An Intro­duc­tion to Old Order and Con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite Groups” along with any­thing else Stephen Scott has writ­ten. The Vineland con­gre­ga­tion is part of the East­ern Penn­syl­va­nia Men­non­ite Church con­fer­ence, pro­filed on pages 173–176. A lot of the Men­non­ite issues and splits are echoed among Friends and we’d do well to under­stand these cousins of ours.

The result is a church that’s big on group prac­tice: the dress, the lifestyle. M. told me that they don’t believe in the­ol­ogy but in Bib­li­cism. He explained that they don’t think the Bible con­tains the word of God but instead that it is the Word of God and he paused to let the dis­tinc­tion sink in. The Bible is not to be inter­preted but read and fol­lowed, with spe­cial atten­tion given the gospels and the let­ters of Paul.

So no, I’m not going to go Con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite on you all. I have a TV. My pro­fes­sion is web design (they’re not into the inter­net, natch). I’m mar­ried to a pracitic­ing Catholic (I don’t know how they would bend on that) and at this point my brain is wired in a curi­ous, out­ward way that wouldn’t fit into the nor­ma­tive struc­tures of a group like this. Doctrinally-speaking, I’m a Friend in that I think the Word of God is the Inward Christ’s direct spirit and that the Bible needs to be read in that Light. There’s a lot of peo­ple who wouldn’t fit for var­i­ous rea­sons, peo­ple who I would want in my church (they main­tain a hard line against remar­riage after divorce and I didn’t even ask about gay issues). But I have to admit that the process and struc­ture puts together a really great com­mu­nity of peo­ple. They’re hard-working, kind, char­i­ta­ble and not nearly as judg­men­tal as you might imagine–in prac­tice, less judg­men­tal than a lot of pro­gres­sive reli­gious peo­ple I know. Non-resistance is one of the pil­lars of their prac­tice and they were gen­uinely inter­ested in Julie’s Catholic church and my expe­ri­ences among Friends and we talked a fair bit about Islam.

Nor­mally I’d give a big thanks to the church and M & J here, except I know they won’t read this. I am grate­ful to their kind­ness in shar­ing their church, beliefs and fam­ily meal with us.

Communities vs Religious Societies

Over on Tape Flags and First Thoughts, Su Penn has a great post called “Still Think­ing About My Quaker Meet­ing & Me.” She writes about a process of self-identity that her meet­ing recently went through it and the dif­fi­cul­ties she had with the process.

communitysocietyI won­dered whether this dif­fi­culty has become one of our modern-day stages of devel­op­ing in the min­istry. Both Samuel Bow­nas (read/buy) and Howard Brin­ton (buy) iden­ti­fied typ­i­cal stages that Friends grow­ing in the min­istry typ­i­cally go through. Not every­one expe­ri­ences Su’s rift between their meeting’s iden­tity and a desire for a God-grounded meet­ing com­mu­nity, but enough of us have that I don’t think it’s the foibles of par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­u­als or monthly meet­ings. Let me tease out one piece: that of indi­vid­ual and group iden­ti­ties. Much of the dis­cus­sion in the com­ments of Su’s post have swirled around rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions of this.

Many mod­ern Friends have become pretty strict indi­vid­u­al­ists. We spend a lot of time talk­ing about “com­mu­nity” but we aren’t prac­tic­ing it in the way that Friends have under­stood it–as a “reli­gious soci­ety.” The indi­vid­u­al­ism of our age sees it as rude to state a vision of Friends that leaves out any of our members–even the most het­ero­dox. We are only as united as our most far-flung believer (and every decade the sweep gets larger). The myth of our age is that all reli­gious expe­ri­ences are equal, both within and out­side of par­tic­u­lar reli­gious soci­eties, and that it’s intol­er­ant to think of dif­fer­ences as any­thing more than language.

This is why I cast Su’s issues as being those of a min­is­ter. There has always been the need for some­one to call us back to the faith. Con­trary to modern-day pop­u­lar opin­ion, this can be done with great love. It is in fact great love (Quaker Jane) to share the good news of the directly-accessible lov­ing Christ, who loves us so much He wants to show us the way to right­eous liv­ing. This Quaker idea of right­eous­ness has noth­ing to do with who you sleep with, the gas mileage of your car or even the “cor­rect­ness” of your the­ol­ogy. Jesus boiled faith­ful­ness down into two com­mands: love God with all your might (how­ever much that might be) and love your neigh­bor as yourself.

A “reli­gious soci­ety” is not just a “com­mu­nity.” As a reli­gious soci­ety we are called to have a vision that is stronger and bolder than the lan­guage or under­stand­ing of indi­vid­ual mem­bers. We are not a per­fect com­mu­nity, but we can be made more per­fect if we return to God to the full­ness we’ve been given. That is why we’ve come together into a reli­gious society.

“What makes us Friends?” Just fol­low­ing the mod­ern tes­ti­monies doesn’t put us very squarely in the Friends tradition–SPICE is just a recipe for respect­ful liv­ing. “What makes us Friends?” Just set­ting the stop­watch to an hour and sit­ting qui­etly doesn’t do it–a wor­ship style is a con­tainer at best and false idol at worst. “How do we love God?” “How do we love our neigh­bor?” “What makes us Friends?” These are the ques­tions of min­istry. These are the build­ing blocks of outreach.

I’ve seen nascent min­is­ters (“infant min­is­ters” in the phras­ing of Samual Bow­nas) start ask­ing these ques­tions, flare up on inspired blog posts and then tail­dive as they meet up with the cold-water real­ity of a local meet­ing that is unsup­port­ive or inat­ten­tive. Many of them have left our reli­gious soci­ety. How do we sup­port them? How do we keep them? Our answers will deter­mine whether our meet­ing are reli­gious soci­eties or communities.

QuakerQuakers in the World

I was able to make up this list that dis­plays Quak​erQuaker​.org mem­ber­ship pro­files and upcom­ing gath­er­ings in a geography-focused way.





Select Cities



New York








San Francisco

U.S. Regions



South­east US

Great Plains



North Pacific

U.S. States

of Colum­bia













Gath­er­ings by Theme




Young Adult

Gath­er­ings by Location


United King­dom

Mid Atlantic



Great Plains



Sustaining the purpose for which we were peculiarly raised up

Marlborough meetinghouseJust fin­ished: Ken­neth S.P. Morse’s “A His­tory of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends” from 1962. Like most his­to­ries of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends, it’s both heart­en­ing and depress­ing. It’s great to read the quotes, which often put the dilemma very clearly, like this one from Iowa Friends in 1877:

In con­sid­er­a­tion of many and var­i­ous depar­tures in Doc­trine, Prin­ci­ple and Prac­tice, brought into our beloved Soci­ety of late years by mod­ern inno­va­tors, who have so rev­o­lu­tion­ized our ancient order in the Church, as to run into views and prac­tices out of which our early Friends were lead, and into a broader, and more self-pleasing, and cross-shunning way than that marked out by our Sav­ior, and held to by our ancient Friends.… And who have so approx­i­mated to the unre­gen­er­ate world that we feel it incum­bent upon us to bear testimony…and sus­tain the Church for the pur­pose for which is was pecu­liarly raised up.

I love this stuff. You’ve got the­ol­ogy, polity, cul­ture and an argu­ment for the eter­nal truths of the “pecu­liarly raised” Quaker church. But even in 1962 this is a story of decline, of gen­er­a­tions of min­is­ters pass­ing with no one to take their place and monthly and yearly meet­ings wink­ing out with dis­arm­ing reg­u­lar­ity as the con­cept of Friends gets stretched from all sides. “It is cer­tainly true that most of those who call them­selves Friends at the present time are only par­tial Friends in that they seem not to have felt called to uphold var­i­ous branches of the Quaker doctrine.”

Putting the book down the most remark­able fact is that there are any Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends around still around almost fifty years later.

The task of shar­ing and uphold­ing the Quaker doc­trine is still almost impos­si­bly hard. The mul­ti­plic­ity of mean­ings in the words we use become stum­bling blocks in them­selves. Friends from other tra­di­tions are often the worst, often being blind to their own inno­va­tions, oftener still just not car­ing that they don’t share much in com­mon with early Friends.

Then there’s the dis­unity among present-day Con­ser­v­a­tives. Geog­ra­phy plays a part but it seems part of the cul­ture. The his­tory is a maze of tra­di­tion­al­ist splin­ter groups with carefully-selected lists of who they do and do not cor­re­spond with. Today the three Con­ser­v­a­tive Yearly Meet­ings seem to know each another more through carefully-parsed read­ing of his­to­ries than actual vis­i­ta­tion (there is some, not enough). There’s also the human messi­ness of it all: some of the flaki­est lib­eral Quak­ers I’ve known have been part of Con­ser­v­a­tive Yearly Meet­ings and the inter­net is full of those who share Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends val­ues but have no yearly meet­ing to join.

No answers today from me. Maybe we should take solace that despite the tra­vails and the his­tory of defeat, there still remains a spark and there are those who still seek to share Friends’ ways. For those want­ing to learn more the more recent “Short His­tory of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends” (1992) is online and a good introduction.

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Conservative Friends Gathering 2009

Pic­tures from this weekend’s gath­er­ing of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends (Quak­ers), held in Lan­caster County PA and hosted by Key­stone Fel­low­ship Friends Meet­ing of Ohio Yearly Meet­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive.


Arthur Berk on “Basic Chris­t­ian Quakerism”

The Con­vince­ment Story of John L.: a par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing story of a family’s jour­ney from the LDS (Mor­mon) Church to Friends.

Quaker video outreach, a talk with Raye Hodgson

An inter­view with Raye, a mem­ber of Ohio Yearly Meet­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive who serves on their Elec­tronic Out­reach Com­mit­tee. You can also watch it on Quak­erQuaker: Quaker Video and Elec­tronic Out­reach.

Raye: Ohio Yearly Meet­ing holds our yearly meet­ing in Bar­nesville Ohio–some peo­ple know us as those Bar­nesville folks. We have an elec­tronic Out­reach Com­mit­tee and that includes the over­sight and min­istry asso­ci­ated with our web­site. We spend time think­ing about how to open up to peo­ple who might be inter­ested in Friends’ ways and might want to know more about us whether or not they’ve ever read the Jour­nal of George Fox. We’re try­ing to expand our wit­ness, if you will.

One of the ques­tions that has come up in this elec­tronic out­reach group is: what types of com­mu­ni­ca­tion or video are use­ful for some­one to get to know us but also respect­ful of the fact that we do wor­ship and that wor­ship is a spir­i­tu­ally inti­mate time. We’re try­ing to bridge and deal with respect­ing the wor­ship­pers, the Friends them­selves, to not put on a per­for­mance and yet to try to com­mu­ni­cate what it is that is edi­fy­ing in prac­tice and worship.

Mar­tin: How do you give new­com­ers a taste of Quak­ers with­out direct­ing it too much? If you just have that silent empty box it’s hard for new­com­ers to know what should be fill­ing that box.

Raye: One of the things Friends have done for hun­dreds of years is to pub­lish, to keep jour­nals and to share that. But that’s not all there is to the Friends expe­ri­ence. There are those quiet times and those moments of min­istry that we believe are Spirit-inspired. Many of us wish we could give peo­ple a lit­tle taste of that because that doesn’t show up in a lot of pub­lished writ­ings. That spon­ta­neous and timely, and at times prophetic, wit­ness that we see in our Meet­ings. We have con­sid­ered dig­i­tal video as a way to do that.

Mar­tin: I love the video pos­si­bil­i­ties here. Video can be a way of reach­ing out to more people.

Raye: It’s not just any­thing that can be writ­ten. Cer­tainly the writ­ings that have been pub­lished are very help­ful in get­ting some sort of a glim­mer of where we have been, or in some cases where we are headed or where we are. But there is noth­ing like that expe­ri­ence of being with Friends in meet­ing. It doesn’t always hap­pen but there are these moments called a cov­ered meet­ing or a gath­ered meet­ing where every­body seems to be in the same place spir­i­tu­ally and when seems to be mes­sages and gifts com­ing through peo­ple. That’s dif­fi­cult to get across.

We’re hop­ing that with video we can dis­cuss these kinds of things after the fact. We don’t want to turn it into a spec­ta­tor sport or performance.

Mar­tin: Authen­tic­ity is a key part of the Quaker mes­sage. You’re not prac­tic­ing what you’re going to say for First Day or Sun­day. You’re sit­ting there and wait­ing for that imme­di­ate spirit to come upon you.

Raye: We don’t know when that will hap­pen. There are meet­ings where every­body is very quiet, where there’s a sense of that spirit and unity but it may be an out­wardly quiet meet­ing. I have been in meet­ings where some­one stood up and began to sing their mes­sage or a psalm or some­one had a won­der­ful ser­mon that was per­fect for the moment. These things hap­pen but we don’t know when they will.

Impromput Hammonton area Friends worship

My F/friend Raye Hodg­son is tak­ing a train from Con­necti­cut to South Jer­sey next week for a visit, and locals and would-be vis­i­tors are invited to my house for some wor­ship! Raye’s involved with Ohio Con­ser­v­a­tive and New Eng­land Friends and seems to be doing a cool sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture project these days (which I didn’t know except for Google!)

It’s next Thurs­day, the 19th at 7:30pm in Ham­mon­ton. If you want to join but don’t have my address just send me an email and I’ll pro­vide details. There’s also a Face­book event list­ing for this. If enough peo­ple are inter­ested we can have more occa­sional Conservative/Convergent/Emergent Quak­erly wor­ship in this part of South Jer­sey! If you can’t make it but are intrigued by the idea, let me know and I’ll keep you in the loop.

UPDATE: The wor­ship went well, about half a dozen peo­ple showed up. If you want to be alerted to any follow-up wor­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties in the Ham­mon­ton area send me an email and I’ll add you to my list.

When Isaac Penington, Margaret Fell and Elizabeth Bathurst join the reading group

Not some­thing I’ll do every day, but over on Quak­erQuaker I cross-referenced today’s One Year Bible read­ings with Esther Green­leaf Murer’s Quaker Bible Index. Here’s the link to my post about today: First Month 20: Joseph rises to power in Egypt; Jesus’ para­ble of wheat & tares and pearls. It’s a par­tic­u­larly rich read­ing today. Jesus talks about the wheat and the weeds aka the corn and the tares, an inter­est­ing para­ble about let­ting the faith­ful and the unfaith­ful grow together.

As if know­ing today is Inau­gu­ra­tion Day, Isaac Pen­ing­ton turned it into a polit­i­cal ref­er­ence: “But oh, how the laws and gov­ern­ments of this world are to be lamented over! And oh, what need there is of their ref­or­ma­tion, whose com­mon work it is to pluck up the ears of corn, and leave the tares standing!”

Mar­garet Fell sees the wheat and tares as an exam­ple of jeal­ousy and false min­istry: “Oh how hath this envi­ous man got­ten in among you. Surely he hath come in the night, when men was asleep: & hath sown tares among the wheat, which when the reapers come must be bound in bun­dles and cast into the fire, for I know that there was good seed sown among you at the first, which when it found good ground, would have brought forth good fruit; but since there are mixed seeds­men come among you & some hath preached Christ of envy & some of good will, … & so it was easy to stir up jeal­ousy in you, you hav­ing the ground of jeal­ousy in your­selves which is as strong as death.”

We get poetry from the sev­en­teen cen­tury Eliz­a­beth Bathurst (ahem) when she writes that “the Seed (or grace) of God, is small in its first appear­ance (even as the morn­ing –light), but as it is given heed to, and obeyed, it will increase in bright­ness, till it shine in the soul, like the sun in the fir­ma­ment at noon-day height.”

The para­ble of the tares became a call for tol­er­ance in George Fox’s under­stand­ing: “For Christ com­mands chris­t­ian men to “love one another [John 13:34, etc], and love their ene­mies [Mat 5:44];” and so not to per­se­cute them. And those ene­mies may be changed by repen­tance and con­ver­sion, from tares to wheat. But if men imprison them, and spoil and destroy them, they do not give them time to repent. So it is clear it is the angels’ work to burn the tares, and not men’s.”

A cen­tury later, Sarah Tuke Grubb read and wor­ried about reli­gious edu­ca­tion and Quaker drift: “But for want of keep­ing an eye open to this pre­serv­ing Power, a spirit of indif­fer­ence hath crept in, and, whilst many have slept, tares have been sown [Mat 13:25]; which as they spring up, have a ten­dency to choke the good seed; those ten­der impres­sions and reproofs of instruc­tion, which would have pre­pared our spir­its, and have bound them to the holy law and tes­ti­monies of truth.”

I hope all this helps us remem­ber that the Bible is our book too and an essen­tial resource for Friends. It’s easy to for­get this and kind of slip one way or another. One extreme is get­ting our Bible fix from main­stream Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian sources whose view­points might be in pretty direct oppo­si­tion from Quaker under­stand­ings of Jesus and the Gospel (see Jeanne B’s post on The New Calvin­ism or Tom Smith’s very rea­son­able con­cerns about the lit­er­al­ism at the One Year Bible Blog I read and rec­om­mend). On the other hand, it’s not uncom­mon in my neck of the Quaker woods to describe our reli­gion as “Quaker,” down­grade Chris­tian­ity by mak­ing it optional, unmen­tion­able or non-contextual and turn­ing to the Bible only for the oblig­a­tory epis­tle ref­er­ence.

This was first made clear to me a few years ago by the mar­gins in the mod­ern edi­tion of Samuel Bow­nas’ “A Descrip­tion of the Qual­i­fi­ca­tions Nec­es­sary to a Gospel Min­istry,” which were pep­pered with the Bib­li­cal ref­er­ences Bow­nas was casu­ally cit­ing through­out. On my sec­ond read­ing (yes it’s that good!) I started look­ing up the ref­er­ences and real­ized that: 1) Bow­nas wasn’t just mak­ing this stuff up or quot­ing willy-nilly; and 2) read­ing them helped me under­stand Bow­nas and by exten­sion the whole con­cept of Quaker min­istry. You’re not read­ing my blog enough if you’re not get­ting the idea that this is one of the kind of prac­tices that Robin, Wess and I are going to be talk­ing about at the Con­ver­gent work­shop next month. If you can fig­ure out the trans­port then get your­self to Cali pronto and join us.

Quakers and Christmas aka the annual Scrooge post

It’s that sea­son again, the time when unpro­grammed Friends talk about Christ­mas. Click Ric has posted about the seem­ing incon­gruity of his meeting’s Christ­mas tree and LizOpp has reprinted a still-timely let­ter from about five years ago about the meeting’s chil­dren Christ­mas pageant.

Scrooge McDuckFriends tra­di­tion­ally have lumped Christ­mas in with all of the other rit­u­al­is­tic boo-ha that main­stream Chris­tians prac­tice. These are out­ward ele­ments that should be aban­doned now that we know Christ has come to teach the peo­ple him­self and is present and avail­able to all of us at all times. Out­ward bap­tism, com­mu­nion, planned ser­mons, paid min­is­ters, Christ­mas and Easter: all dis­trac­tions from true Chris­t­ian reli­gion, from prim­i­tive Chri­tian­ity revived.

One con­fu­sion that arises in lib­eral meet­ings this time of year is that it’s assumed it’s the Chris­t­ian Friends who want the Christ­mas tree. Argu­ments some­time break out with “hyphen­ated” Friends who feel uncom­fort­able with the tree: folks who con­sider them­selves Friends but also Pagan, Non­the­is­tic, or Jew­ish and won­der why they’re hav­ing Chris­tian­ity forced on them. But those of us who fol­low what we might call the “Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion as under­stood by Friends” should be just as put out by a Christ­mas tree and party. We know that sym­bolic rit­u­als like these spark dis­unity and dis­tract us from the real pur­pose of our com­mu­nity: befriend­ing Christ and lis­ten­ing for His guid­ance.

I was shocked and star­tled when I first learned that Quaker schools used to meet on Christ­mas day. My first response was “oh come on, that’s tak­ing it all too far.” But it kept bug­ging me and I kept try­ing to under­stand it. This was one of the pieces that helped me under­stand the Quaker way bet­ter and I finally grew to under­stand the ratio­nale. If Friends were more con­sis­tent with more-or-less sym­bolic stuff like Christ­mas, it would be eas­ier to teach Quakerism.

Theo and the Christmas treeI don’t mind Christ­mas trees, per se. I have one in my liv­ing room (right). In my extended fam­ily Christ­mas has served as one of the manda­tory times of year we all have to show up together for din­ner. It’s never been very reli­gious, so I never felt I needed to stop the prac­tice when I became involved with Friends. But as a Friend I’m care­ful not to pre­tend that the con­sumerism and social rit­u­als have much to do with Christ. Christ­mas trees are pretty. The lights make me feel good in the dol­drums of mid-winter. That’s rea­son enough to put one up.

Unpro­grammed lib­eral Friends could use the ten­sions between tra­di­tional Quak­erly sto­icism and main­stream Chris­t­ian nos­tal­gia as a teach­ing moment, and we could use dis­com­fort around the rit­ual of Christ­mas as a point of unity and dia­log with Pagan, Jew­ish and Non-theistic Friends. Chris­t­ian Friends are always hav­ing to explain how we’re not the kind of Chris­tians oth­ers assume we are (oth­ers both within and out­side the Soci­ety). Being prin­ci­pled about Christ­mas is one way of show­ing that dif­fer­ence. Peo­ple will surely say “oh come on,” but so what? A lot of spir­i­tual seek­ers are crit­i­cal of the kind of crazy com­mer­cial spend­ing sprees that marked Christmas’s past and I don’t see why a group say­ing Christ­mas isn’t about Christ would be at a par­tic­u­lar dis­ad­van­tage dur­ing this first Christ­mas sea­son of the next Great Depression.

I’ve been talk­ing about lib­eral unpro­grammed Friends. For the record, I under­stand Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions among “pas­toral” and/or “pro­grammed” Friends. They’ve made a con­scious deci­sion to adopt a more main­stream Chris­t­ian approach to reli­gious edu­ca­tion and min­istry. That’s fine. It’s not the kind of Quaker I prac­tice, but they’re open about their approach and Christ­mas makes sense in that context.

When­ever I post this kind of stuff on my blog I get com­ments how I’m being too Scroogey. Well I guess I am. Bah Hum­bug. Hon­estly though, I’ve always like Quaker Christ­mas par­ties. They’re a way of mix­ing things up, a way of com­ing together as a com­mu­nity in a warmer way that we usu­ally do. Peo­ple stop con­fab­bing about com­mit­tee ques­tions and actu­ally enjoy one another’s com­pany. One time I asked my meet­ing to call it the Day the World Calls Christ­mas Party, which I thought was kind of clever (every­one else surely thought “there goes Mar­tin again”). The joy of real com­mu­nity that is filled once a year at our Christ­mas par­ties might be symp­tom of a hunger to be a dif­fer­ent kind of com­mu­nity every week, even every day.