Over on my design blog I’ve just posted an article, Banking on reputations, which looks at how the websites for high-profile cultural institutions are often built without regard to natural web publicity – there’s no focus on net culture or search engine visibility. The sites do get visited, but only because of the reputation of the institution itself. My guess is that people go to them for very specific functions (looking up a phone number, ordering tickets, etc.). I finish by asking the question, “Are the audiences of high brow institutions so full of hip young audiences that they can steer clear of web-centric marketing?”
I won’t belabor the point, but I wonder if something similar is happening within Friends. It’s kind of weird that only two people have commented on Johan Maurer’s blog post about Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s report on Friends United Meeting. Johan’s post may well be the only place where online discussion about this particular report is available. I gave a plug for it and it was the most popular link from QuakerQuaker, so I know people are seeing it. The larger issue is dealt with elsewhere (Bill Samuel has a particularly useful resource page) but Johan’s piece seems to be getting a big yawn.
It’s been superseded as the most popular QuakerQuaker link by a lighthearted call for an International Talk Like a Quaker Day put up by a Livejournal blogger. It’s fun but it’s about as serious as you might expect. It’s getting picked up on a number of blogs, has more links than Johan’s piece and at current count has thirteen commenters. I think it’s a great way to poke a little fun of ourselves and think about outreach and I’m happy to link to it but I have to think there’s a lesson in its popularity vis-a-vis Johan’s post.
Here’s the inevitable question: do most Quakers just not care about Friends United Meeting or Baltimore Yearly Meeting, about a modern day culture clash that is but a few degrees from boiling over into full-scale institutional schism? For all my bravado I’m as much an institutional Quaker as anyone else. I care about our denominational politics but do others, and do they really?
Yearly meeting sessions and more entertainment-focused Quaker gatherings are lucky if they get three to five percent attendance. The governing body of my yearly meeting is made up of about one percent of its membership; add a percent or two or three and you have how many people actually pay any kind of attention to it or to yearly meeting politics. A few years ago a Quaker publisher commissioned a prominent Friend to write an update to liberal Friends’ most widely read introductory book and she mangled the whole thing (down to a totally made-up acronym for FWCC) and no one noticed till after publication – even insiders don’t care about most of this!
Are the bulk of most contemporary Friends post-institutional? The percentage of Friends involved in the work of our religious bodies has perhaps always been small, but the divide seems more striking now that the internet is providing competition. The big Quaker institutions skate on being recognized as official bodies but if their participation rate is low, their recognition factor small, and their ability to influence the Quaker culture therefore minimal, then are they really so important? After six years of marriage I can hear my wife’s question as a Quaker-turned-Catholic: where does the religious authority of these bodies come from? As someone who sees the world through a sociological/historical perspective, my question is complementary but somewhat different: if so few people care, then is there authority? The only time I see Friends close to tears over any of this is when
a schism might mean the loss of control over a beloved school or campground – factor out
the sentimental factor and what’s left?
I don’t think a diminishing influence is a positive trend, but it won’t go away if we bury our heads in the sand (or in committees). How are today’s generation of Friends going to deal with changing cultural forces that are threatening to undermine our current practices? And how might we use the new opportunities to advance the Quaker message and Christ’s agenda?