Maybe the web’s form of hyperlinking is actually superior to Old Media publishing. I love how I can put forward a strong vision of Quakerism without offending anyone – any put-off readers can hit the “back” button. And if a blog I read posts something I don’t agree with, I can simply choose not to comment. If life’s just too busy then I just miss a few weeks of posts. With my “Subjective Guide to Quaker Blogs” and my “On the Web” posts I highlight the bloggers I find particularly interesting, even when I’m not in perfect theological unity. I like that I can have discussions back and forth with Friends who I don’t exactly agree with.
I’ve been meaning to get more into the habit of sharing upcoming Friends Journal issue themes. We started focusing on themed issues back around 2012 as a way to bring some diversity to our subject matter and help encourage Friends to talk about topics that weren’t as regularly-covered.
The next issue we’re looking to fill is a topic I find interesting: Quaker Spaces. I’ve joked internally that we could call it “Meetinghouse Porn,” and while we already have some beautiful illustrations lined up, I think there’s a real chance at juicy Quaker theology in this issue as well.
One of my pet theories is that since we downplay creeds, we talk theology in the minutia of our meetinghouses. Not officially of course—our worship spaces are neutral, unconsecrated, empty buildings. But as Helen Kobek wrote in our March issue on “Disabilities and Inclusion,” we all need physical accommodations and these provide templates to express our values. Earlier Friends expressed a theology that distrusted forms by developing an architectural style devoid of crosses, steeples. The classic meetinghouse looks like a barn, the most down-to-early humble architectural form a northern English sheepherders could imagine.
But theologies shift. As Friends assimilated, some started taking on other forms and Methodist-like meetinghouse (even sometimes daringly called churches) started popping up. Modern meetinghouses might have big plate glass windows looking out over a forest, a nod to our contemporary worship of nature or they might be in a converted house in a down-and-out neighborhood to show our love of social justice.
But it’s not just the outsides where theology shows up. All of the classic Northeastern U.S. meetinghouses had rows of benches facing forward, with elevated fencing benches reserved for the Quaker elders. A theologically-infused distrust of this model has led many a meeting to rearrange the pews into a more circular arrangement. Sometimes someone will sneak something into the middle of the space—flowers, or a Bible or hymnal—as if in recognition that they don’t find the emptiness of the Quaker form sufficient. If asked, most of these decisions will be explained away in a light-hearted manner but it’s hard for me to believe there isn’t at least an unconscious nod to theology in some of the choices.
I’d love to hear stories of Friends negotiating the meeting space. Has the desire to build or move a meetinghouse solidified or divided your meeting? Do you share the space with other groups, or rent it out during the week? If so, how have you decided on the groups that can use it? Have you bickered over the details of a space. Here in the Northeast, there are many tales of meetings coming close to schism over the question of replacing ancient horsehair bench cushions, but I’m sure there are considerations and debates to be had over the form of folding chairs.
You can find out more about submitting to this or any other upcoming issue our the Friends Journal Submissions page. Other upcoming issues are “Crossing Cultures” and “Social Media and Technology.”
Aug 2016: Quaker Spaces
What do our architecture, interior design, and meetinghouse locations say about our theology and our work in the world? Quakers don’t consecrate our worship spaces but there’s a strong pull of nostalgia that brings people into our historic buildings and an undeniable energy to innovative Quaker spaces. How do our physical manifestations keep us grounded or keep us from sharing the “Quaker gospel” more widely? Submissions due 5/2/2016.
Here’s another installation of mom stories, originally written for a longer obituary than the one running in today’s paper.
A single parent, she earned an associates degree at Rider College in Trenton and worked as a secretary at a number of Philadelphia-area based, include Women’s Medical College and the Presbyterian Board of Publications. In the mid-1960s she became an executive secretary at the newly-formed Colonial Penn Life Insurance Company. An office feminist, she liked recounting the story of the day in the 1970s when the women of the office united to break the dress code by all wearing pant suits. A senior vice president was on the phone when she walked into his office and is said to have told his caller “My secretary just walked in wearing pants…. and she looks terrific!”
When Colonial Penn later started an in-house computer programmer training program, she signed up immediately and started a second career. She approached programs as puzzles and was especially proud of her ability to take other programmers’ poorly-written code and turn it into efficient, bug-free software.
In the early 1990s, she moved into her own apartment in Jenkintown, Pa. She reclaimed a shortened form of her maiden name and swapped “Betsy” for “Liz.” During this time she became a committed attender at Abington Friends Meeting. As clerk of its peace and justice committee, she worked to build the consensus needed for the meeting to produce a landmark statement on reproductive rights. As soon as it was passed she said, “next up, a minute on same-sex marriage!” In the late 90s, that was still controversial even with LGBTQ circles and I imagine that even the progressive folks at Abington were dreading the thought she might put this on the agenda!
In her late 60s, she bought her first house, in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood. She loved fixing it up and babysitting her grandchildren. She never made any strong connections with any of the nearby Quaker Meetings only attending worship sporadically after the move. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2010, she took the news with dignity. She moved into an independent living apartment in Atco, N.J. and continued an active lifestyle as long as possible.
A growing list of stories is suggesting that black churches in the South are being targeted for arson once again (although one of the more publicized cases seems to be lightning-related). This was a big concern in the mid-1990s, a time when a Quaker program stepped up to give Friends the chance to travel to the South to help rebuild. From a 1996 Friends Journal editorial:
Sometimes a news article touches the heart and moves people to reach out to one another in unexpected ways. So it was this winter when the Washington Post published a piece on the rash of fires that have destroyed black churches in the South in recent months… When Friend Harold B. Confer, executive director of Washington Quaker Workcamps, saw the article, he decided to do something about it. After a series of phone calls, he and two colleagues accepted an invitation to travel to western Alabama and see the fire damage for themselves. They were warmly received by the pastors and congregations of the three Greene County churches. Upon their return, they set to work on a plan.
I’m not sure whether Confer’s plan is the right template to follow this time, but it’s a great story because it shows the importance of having a strong grassroots Quaker ecosystem. I don’t believe the Washington Quaker Workcamps were ever a particularly well-funded project. But by 1996 they had been running for ten years and had built up credibility, a following, and the ability to cross cultural lines in the name of service. The smaller organizational size meant that a newspaper article could prompt a flurry of phone calls and visits and a fully-realized program opportunity in a remarkably short amount of time.
Update: another picture from 1996 Alabama, this time from one of my wife Julie’s old photo books. She’s second from the left at the bottom, part of the longer-stay contingent that Roberts mentions.
“I want to suggest that there is a living tradition of spiritual teaching and practice that makes up the Quaker Way, which is not defined by a particular social group, behavioural norms, or even values and beliefs.”
As usual Craig clearly articulates his premise: that Friends have become something of a content-less, lowest-common-denominator group that fears making belief statements that some of our membership would object to.
I agree with most of his analysis, though I would add some pieces. I don’t think one can understand what it means to be a Quaker today without looking at different types of definitions. Belief and practices is one part but so is self-identification (which is not necessarily membership). We are who we are but we also aren’t. There’s a deeper reality in not being able to separate Quaker philosophy from the people who are Quaker.
In this light, I do wish that Craig hadn’t resorted to using the jargony “Quaker Way” ten times in a short piece. For those who haven’t gotten the memo, liberal Friends are no longer supposed to say “Quakerism” (which implies a tradition and practice that is not necessarily the denominator of our member’s individual theologies) but instead use the vaguer “Quaker Way.” In my observation, it’s mostly a bureaucratic preference: we want to imply there is substance but don’t want to actually name it for fear of starting a fight. Contentless language has become its own art form, one that can suck the air out of robust discussions. A truly-vital living tradition should be able to speak in different accents.
The notion for the “commonplace book” comes from Thomas Jefferson, who used just such a book to capture pretty much anything: passages from books he was reading, notes, sketches, you name it.
Wikipedia takes it further back in its entry on Commonplace books. The name comes from the latin locus communis and the form got its start in a new form of fifteen-century bound journal:
Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator\’s particular interests.
I really like this idea. I\’ve been thinking a lot about workflows recently (and listening to way too many geek podcasts on my commute). I\’ve been muddling my way toward something like this. I\’m currently using Evernote to log a lot of my life but there\’s scraps of interesting tidbits that have no home. An example from half an hour ago: I was listening to Pandora the train when along came an unfamiliar song I wanted to remember for later. A Commonplace book would be a natural place to record this information (First Aid Kit\’sLion\’s Roar if you must know, think Bonnie Raitt steps out with Townes van Zandt for a secret assignation at a Stockholm open mic night.)
Of course, being a twenty-first century digital native, my workflow would be electronic. What I imagine is a single Evernote page that holds a month\’s worth of the bits that come along. I have something similar with a log, a single file with one line entries (lots of Ifttt automations like logged Foursquare check-ins, along with notes-to-self of milestones like issues sent to press, etc.). I\’ll start setting this up.