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​erQuak​er​.org membership profiles and upcoming gatherings in a geography-focused way.

Countries

Aus­tralia
Bel­gium
Canada
France
Ger­many
Greece
Ire­land
Kenya
Mex­i­co
Nether­lands
New
Zealand

Unit­ed
King­dom

Unit­ed
States

Select Cities

Lon­don

Philadel­phia


New York


Rich­mond


Greens­boro


Port­land


Seat­tle


Birm­ing­ham


Boston


Min­neapolis


San Fran­cis­co

U.S. Regions

New
Eng­land


Mid-Atlantic


South­east US


Great Plains


South­west


Mid­west


North Paci­fic

U.S. States

Alaba­ma
Alaska
Ari­zona
Arkansas
Cal­i­for­nia
Col­orado
Con­necti­cut
Delaware
Dis­trict
of Columbia

Flori­da
Geor­gia
Hawaii
Ida­ho
Illi­nois
Indi­ana
Iowa
Kansas
Ken­tucky
Louisiana
Maine
Mary­land
Mass­a­chu­setts
Michi­gan
Min­neso­ta
Mis­sis­sip­pi
Mis­souri
Mon­tana
Nebraska
Nevada
New
Hamp­shire

New
Jer­sey

New
Mex­i­co

New
York

North
Car­oli­na

North
Dako­ta

Ohio
Okla­homa
Ore­gon
Penn­syl­va­nia
Puer­to
Rico

Rhode
Island

South
Car­oli­na

South
Dako­ta

Ten­nessee
Tex­as
Utah
Ver­mont
Vir­ginia
Wash­ing­ton
West
Vir­ginia

Wis­con­sin
Wyoming

Gatherings by Theme

Con­ver­gent
Year­ly
Meet­ings


Gath­er­ings

Retreats
Online

Young Adult

Gatherings by Location

New
Eng­land


Unit­ed King­dom


Mid Atlantic


Bal­ti­more


Philadel­phia


Great Plains


North­west

Ohio

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.

Videos:



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.