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Dusting off the Elders of Balby

One of the blueprints for Quaker community is the “Epistle from the Elders at Balby” written in 1656 at the very infancy of the Friends movement by a gathering of leaders from Yorkshire and North Midlands, England.

It’s the precursor to Faith and Practice, as it outlines the relationship between individuals and the meeting. If remembered at all today, it’s for its postscript, a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians that warns readers not to treat this as a form to worship and to remain living in the light which is pure and holy. That postscript now starts off most liberal Quaker books of Faith and Practice.

But the Epistle itself is well worth dusting off. It addresses worship, ministry, marriage, and how to deal in meekness and love with those walking “disorderly.” It talks of how to support families and take care of members who were imprisoned or in need. Some of it’s language is a little stilted and there’s some talk of the role of servants that most modern Friend would object to. But overall, it’s a remarkably lucid, practical and relevant document. It’s also short: just over two pages.

One of the things I hear again and again from Friends is the desire for a deeper community of faith. Younger Friends are especially drawn toward the so-called “New Monastic” movement of tight communal living. The Balby Epistle is a glimpse into how an earlier generation of Friends addressed some of these same concerns.

Quaker Heritage Press:
Street Corner Society:

Brooklyn Quaker post & discussion (2005):

Remembering George Willoughby

There’s a nice remembrance of George Willoughby by the Brandywine Peace Community’s Bob Smith over on the War Resisters International site. George died a few days ago at the age of 95 [updated]. It’s hard not to remember his favorite quip as he and his wife Lillian celebrated their 80th birthdays: “twenty years to go!” Neither of them made it to 100 but they certainly lived fuller lives than the average couple.

George in 2002, from War Resisters International

I don’t know enough of the details of their lives to write the obituary (a Wikipedia page was started this morning) but I will say they always seemed to me like the Forrest Gump’s of peace activism–at the center of every cool peace witness since 1950. You squint to look at the photos at there’s George and Lil, always there. Or maybe pop music would give us the better analogy: you know how there are entire b-rate bands that carve an entire career around endlessly rehashing a particular Beatles song? Well, there are whole activist organizations that are built around particular campaigns that the Willoughby’s championed. Like: in 1958 George was a crew member of the Golden Rule (profiled a bit here), a boatload of crazy activists who sailed into a Pacific nuclear bomb test to disrupt it. Twelve years later some Vancouver activists stage a copycat boat sailing which became Greenpeace. Lillian was concerned about rising violence against women and started one of the first Take Back the Nightmarches. If you’ve ever sat in an activist meeting where everyone’s using consensus, then you’ve been influenced by the Willoughby’s!

The Golden Rule, 1959, from the Swarthmore Peace Collection.

For many years I lived deeply embedded in communities co-founded by the Willoughbys. There’s a recent interview with George Lakey about the founding of Movement for a New Society that he and they helped create. In the 1990s I liked to say how I lived “in its ruins,” working at the publishing house, living in a coop house and getting my food from the coop that all grew out of MNS. I got to know the Willoughbys through Central Philadelphia meeting but also as friends. It was a treat to visit their house in Deptford, NJ—it adjoined a wildlife sanctuary they helped protect against the strip-mall sprawl that is the rest of that town. I last saw George a few months ago, and while he had a bit of trouble remembering who I was, that irrepressible smile and spirit were very strong!

When news of George’s passing started buzzing around the net I got a nice email from Howard Clark, who’s been very involved with War Resisters International for many years. It was a real blast-from-the-past and reminded me how little I’m involved with all this these days. The Philadelphia office of New Society Publishers went under in 1995 and a few years ago I finally dropped the project that I had started to keep the organizing going.

George at Fort Gulick in Panama (undated), also from Swarthmore.

I’ve written before that one of the closest modern-day successor to the Movement for a New Society is the so-called New Monastic movement–explicitly Christian but focused on love and charity and often very Quaker’ish. Our culture of secular Quakerism has kept Friends from getting involved and sharing our decades of experience. Now that Shane Claiborne is being invited to seemingly every liberal Quaker venue, maybe it’s a good opportunity to look back on our own legacy. Friends like George and Lillian helped invent this form.

I miss the strong sense of community I once felt. Is there a way we can combine MNS & the “New Monastic” movement into something explicitly religious and public that might help spread the good news of the Inward Christ and inspire a new wave of lefty peacenik activism more in line with Jesus’ teachings than the xenophobic crap that gets spewed by so many “Christian” activists? With that, another plug for the workshop Wess Daniels and I are doing in May at Pendle Hill: “New Monastics and Covergent Friends.” If money’s a problem there’s still time to ask your meeting to help get you there. If that doesn’t work or distance is a problem, I’m sure we’ll be talking about it more here in the comments and blogs.

2010 update: David Alpert posted a nice remembrance of George.

August 2013 updates from the pages of Friends Journal: The Golden Rule Shall Sail Again and Expanding Old Pine Farm.

Going lowercase christian with Thomas Clarkson

Visting 1806’s “A portraiture of Quakerism: Taken from a view of the education and discipline, social manners, civil and political economy, religious principles and character, of the Society of Friends”

Thomas Clarkson wasn’t a Friend. He didn’t write for a Quaker audience. He had no direct experience of (and little apparent interest in) any period that we’ve retroactively claimed as a “golden age of Quakerism.” Yet all this is why he’s so interesting.

The basic facts of his life are summed up in his Wikipedia entry (, which begins: “Thomas Clarkson (28 March 1760 – 26 September 1846), abolitionist, was born at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England, and became a leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire.” The only other necessary piece of information to our story is that he was a Anglican.

British Friends at the end of of the Eighteenth Century were still somewhat aloof, mysterious and considered odd by their fellow countrymen and women. Clarkson admits that one reason for his writing “A Portraiture of Quakerism” was the entertainment value it would provide his fellow Anglicans. Friends were starting to work with non-Quakers like Clarkson on issues of conscience and while this ecumenical activism was his entre–“I came to a knowledge of their living manners, which no other person, who was not a Quaker, could have easily obtained” (Vol 1, p. i)– it was also a symptom of a great sea change about to hit Friends. The Nineteenth Century ushered in a new type of Quaker, or more precisely whole new types of Quakers. By the time Clarkson died American Friends were going through their second round of schism and Joseph John Gurney was arguably the best-known Quaker across two continents: Oxford educated, at ease in genteel English society, active in cross-denominational work, and fluent and well studied in Biblical studies. Clarkson wrote about a Society of Friends that was disappearing even as the ink was drying at the printers.

Most of the old accounts of Friends we still read were written by Friends themselves. I like old Quaker journals as much as the next geek, but it’s always useful to get an outsider’s perspective (here’s a more modern-day example). Also: I don’t think Clarkson was really just writing an account simply for entertainment’s sake. I think he saw in Friends a model of christian behavior that he thought his fellow Anglicans would be well advised to study.

His account is refreshingly free of what we might call Quaker baggage. He doesn’t use Fox or Barclay quotes as a bludgeon against disagreement and he doesn’t drone on about history and personalities and schisms. Reading between the lines I think he recognizes the growing rifts among Friends but glosses over them (fair enough: these are not his battles). Refreshingly, he doesn’t hold up Quaker language as some sort of quaint and untranslatable tongue, and when he describes our processes he often uses very surprising words that point to some fundamental differences between Quaker practice then and now that are obscured by common words.

Thomas Clarkson is interested in what it’s like to be a good christian. In the book it’s typeset with lowercase “c” and while I don’t have any reason to think it’s intentional, I find that typesetting illuminating nonetheless. This meaning of “christian” is not about subscribing to particular creeds and is not the same concept as uppercase-C “Christian.” My Lutheran grandmother actually used to use the lowercase-c meaning when she described some behavior as “not the christian way to act.” She used it to describe an ethical and moral standard. Friends share that understanding when we talk about Gospel Order: that there is a right way to live and act that we will find if we follow the Spirit’s lead. It may be a little quaint to use christian to describe this kind of generic goodness but I think it shifts some of the debates going on right now to think of it this way for awhile.

Clarkson’s “Portraiture” looks at peculiar Quaker practices and reverse-engineers them to show how they help Quaker stay in that christian zone. His book is most often referenced today because of its descriptions of Quaker plain dress but he’s less interested in the style than he is with the practice’s effect on the society of Friends. He gets positively sociological at times. And because he’s speaking about a denomination that’s 150 years old, he was able to describe how the testimonies had shifted over time to address changing worldly conditions.

And that’s the key. So many of us are trying to understand what it would be like to be “authentically” Quaker in a world that’s very different from the one the first band of Friends knew. In the comment to the last post, Alice M talked about recovered the Quaker charism ( I didn’t join Friends because of theology or history. I was a young peace activist who knew in my heart that there was something more motivating me than just the typical pacifist anti-war rhetoric. In Friends I saw a deeper understanding and a way of connecting that with a nascent spiritual awakening.

What does it mean to live a christian life (again, lowercase) in the 21st Century? What does it mean to live the Quaker charism in the modern world? How do we relate to other religious traditions both without and now within our religious society and what’s might our role be in the Emergent Church movement? I think Clarkson gives clues. And that’s what this series will talk about.

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What is this QuakerQuaker thing?

There’s been some head-scratching going on about QuakerQuaker over the last few weeks. In the service of transparency I’ve posted my contributor guidelines on the “About QuakerQuaker page“. Here they are:

Post should be explicitly Quaker: Any thoughtful posts from any branch of Friends that wrestles in some way with what it means to be a Quaker is fair game. While we all have our own issues that connect deeply with our understanding of our faith, the Blogwatch only seems to work if it keeps focused on Quakerism, on how we our faith and lives interact. Back when this was just a links list on my personal site I would get complaints when I added something that seemed related to my understanding of Quakerism but that wasn’t specifically written from a Quaker standpoint (when we want to make this kind of link we should do so on our personal blogs where we can put it in better context).

Post should be timely: I’ve billed QuakerQuaker as “a guide to the Quaker conversation” and links should go to recently-written articles with strong voices. We’re not trying to create a comprehensive list of Quaker websites, so no linking to organizational homepages. While most links should go to blog posts, it’s fine to include good articles from Quaker publications. A link to something like a press release or new book announcement should only be made if it’s extraordinary. Remember that QuakerQuaker posts will only appear on the main site for a few days (if the initial setup goes well I can start work on some ideas to giave a more timeless element to the site).

Post should be Interesting: Don’t bookmark everything you find. If the post feels predictable or snoozy, just ignore it (even if the writer or topic is important). The Quaker bloggers all have their audiences and we don’t need to highlight every post of every blogger. Only make the link if the post speaks out to you in some way (it’s quite possible that one of the other contributors will pick up, finding something you didn’t and highlighting it in their description). That said, the posts you link to don’t have to be masterpieces; they can have grammatical and logical mistakes. What’s important is that there’s some idea in there that’s interesting. It might be a good discipline for each of us not to add our the posts from our own personal blogs but to let one of the other contributors do it for us.

That’s it. While there are some vague assumptions in all this about the role of tradition and community, discipline and individualism, there’s nothing about theology or who gets linked. This is a publication, with something of an editorial voice in that I’ve chosen who gets to add links and asked them to be subjective, but its very mellow and I’ve been happy to see contributors range far afield. Google tells us that this is one of 18.7 million “Quaker” websites and $10/month will get you your own so let’s not do too much navel-gazing about what’s linked or not linked. If you don’t find it interesting, there are plenty of non-subjective Quaker blogs lists out there. I do listen to feedback and am always twiddling with the site so feel free to send email to me at

A time of sadness and prayer

Sad news coming over the internet: after 100 days of captivity, Christian Peacemaker Tom Fox was found dead yesterday in Iraq, the status of his three companions unknown.

The Christian Peacemaker Teams issued an elegant and heartfelt statement beginning “In grief we tremble before God who wraps us with compassion.” Fox knew the risk he was taking going to Iraq unarmed. But he also knew that this witness  would mean more to the Iraqi people than a hundred tanks. He knew the war we Friends wage is the Lamb’s War, a war won not through strength but through meekness, our only weapon our humilty before God and our love of neighbor. My prayers are with his family and friends, may Christ’s comfort continue to hold them through these aching times.
More history and resources on my “Christian Peacemaker Team Watch”:

It’s witness time

Hi QuakerRanter friends: I’ve been busy today covering the Quaker response to the Christian Peacemakers Teams hostages. Two sites with a lot of overlapping content:

  • Quaker Blog Watch page focused on the hostages
  • “ statement and list of responses

Both of these feature a mix of mainstream news and Quaker views on the situation. I’ll keep them updated. I’m not the only busy Friend: Chuck Fager and John Stephens have a site called Free the Captives — check it out.

It’s always interesting to see the moments that I explictly identify as a Friend on As I saythere, it seems quite appropriate. We need to explain to the world why a Quaker and three other Christians would needlessly put themselves in such danger. This is witness time, Friends. The real deal. We’re all being tested. This is one of those times for which those endless committee meetings and boilerplate peace statements have prepared us.

It’s time to tell the world that we live in the power that “takes away the occasion for war and overcomes our fear of death” (well, or at least mutes it enough that four brave souls would travel to dangerous lands to witness our faith).

Two Years of the Quaker Ranter and Quaker Blogs

An amazing thing has happened in the last two years: we’ve got Friends from the corners of Quakerism sharing our similarities and differences, our frustrations and dreams through Quaker blogs. Disenchanted Friends who have longed for deeper conversation and consolation when things are hard at their local meeting have built a network of Friends who understand. When our generation is settling down to write our memoirs — our Quaker journals — a lot of us will have to have at least one chapter about becoming involved in the Quaker blogging community.

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Strangers to the Covenant

A workshop led by Zachary Moon and Martin Kelley at the 2005 FGC Gathering of Friends.


This is for Young Friends who want to break into the power of Quakerism: it’s the stuff you didn’t get in First Day School. Connecting with historical Quakers whose powerful ministry came in their teens and twenties, we’ll look at how Friends wove God, covenants and gospel order together to build a movement that rocked the world. We’ll mine Quaker history to reclaim the power of our tradition, to explore the living testimonies and our witness in the world. (P/T)

Percentage of time: Worship 20 / Lecture 30 / Discussion 50


Extended Description

We hope to encourage Friends to imagine themselves as ministers and elders and to be bold enough to challenge the institutions of Quakerism as needed. We want to build a community, a cohort, of Friends who aren’t afraid to bust us out of our own limited expectations and give them space to grow into the awareness that their longing for deeper spiritual connection with shared widely among others their age. Our task as workshop conveners is to model as both bold and humble seekers after truth, who can stay real to the spirit without taking ourselves either too seriously or too lightly.

Martin and Zachary have discovered a Quaker tradition more defined, more coherent and far richer than the Quakerism we were offered in First Day School. In integrity to that discovery, we intend to create a space for fellowship that would further open these glimpses of what’s out there and what possibilities exist to step out boldly in this Light.

Sunday: Introductions
The most important task for today is modeling the grounded worship and spirit-led ministry that will be our true curriculum this week. In a worship sharing format we will consider these questions:

  • What brought me to this workshop?
  • What did they fail to teach me in First Day School that I still want to know?

Monday: What is this Quakerism?
Today will be about entering this grounded space together as Friends, beginning to ask some questions that reveal and open. How do I articulate what Quakerism is all about? What ideas, language, and words (e.g. “God”, “Jesus” “Light”) do use to describe this tradition? Today we start that dialogue. At the end of session we will ask participants to seek out an older Friend and ask them for their answers on these queries and bring back that experience to our next gathering.

  • Worship. Reading of selected texts from journal and Bible
  • Present question: When someone asks me “what is Quakerism?” how do I respond.
  • Martin and Zachary will share some thoughts on this question from other Friends
  • Journaling on Query
  • Discussion of ideas and language.

Tuesday: The Mystical Tradition and Gospel Order
We enter into the language and fabric of our Tradition at its mystical roots. Asking the questions: What does God feel like? Introduce early Quaker’s talk about God. What does it feel like to be with God? What is Gospel Order?

  • Worship. Reading of selected texts from journals and Bible
  • Follow-up on previous day’s discussion/homework what new came into the Light overnight?
  • Journaling on Query: When have I felt the presence of God? Describe it in five senses?
  • Initial discussion and sharing of thoughts and ideas.
  • Introduce some ideas from early Friends and others on this Query. How have others (Jesus, Isaiah, Merton, Fox, Day) spoken of this experience?
  • Introduce themes of Spiritual Practice: If Quakerism is about asking the right questions, how do we get into the place to hear those questions and respond faithfully? We have already been incorporating devotional reading into our time together each morning but we will introduce into the Light of Discipline as such here. Naming of other practices, previously acknowledged and otherwise, within the group.
  • Introduce ‘Spiritual Discernment’ themes for the following day’s session.

Wednesday: The Roots of Friends’ Discernment Tradition and the Testimonies
We delve into the archives, the dusty stuff, the stuff First Day School didn’t get to: the preaching from the trees, the prison time, the age George Fox was when he was first incarcerated for his beliefs, what the testimonies are really about and where they came from. Today is about taking the skeletons out of the closet and cleaning house.

  • Worship. Reading of selected texts from journals and Bible
  • ‘Let’s talk history’: Early Friends, the Making of The Society, and the Discernment Tradition. [Martin and Zachary may cover this, or we may arrange to have another Friend come and share some thoughts and infuse a new voice into our dialogue]
  • There are lots of testimonies: what are ours? Name some. How to they facilitate our relationship with God?
  • What’s up with “Obedience”, “Plainness”, and “Discipline”? How do we practice them?

Thursday: Friends in a Covenanted Relationship
We grow into our roles as leaders in this community by considering the opportunities and the hurdles in deepening our covenant relationship. We begin with considering spiritual gifts, and then consider questions around ministry, its origin and its discernment. We will take up the task of considering what our work, what piece of this responsibility is ours to carry.

  • Worship. Reading of selected texts from journals and Bible
  • Journaling on the Queries: What is alive inside of me? How are my spiritual gifts named and nurtured?
  • What are the tasks of ministry?
  • What are the tasks of eldering?
  • What are the structures and practices in our monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings that we can use to test out and support leadings? How do these structures work and not work. Clearness committees? Traveling Friends? Spiritual nurture/affinity groups?
  • What is holding us back from living this deepened relationship? What is our responsibility to this covenant and this covenant community?

Friday: The Future of Quakerism
We begin the work that will occupy the rest of our lives. The participants of this workshop will be around for the next fifty or more years, so let’s start talking about systematic, long-term change. We have something to contribute to this consideration right now.

  • Worship. Reading of selected texts from journals and Bible
  • Where do we go from here? Martin will present on emergent church. Zachary will present some thoughts on ‘Beloved Community’.
    Many have talked about deep communion with God and about covenant community. Many have spoken our hearts and given voice to the passion we experience; now it’s on us what are we going to do about it? Where is it happening?
  • Discussion (maybe as a fishbowl) Where do we envision Quakerism 50 years from now? 100 years from now?

External Website: Quaker Ranter, Martin’s site.

Aggregating our Webs

On Beppeblog, Joe talks about starting a clearness committee [link long gone]to assist him with his struggles with Friends. But he also touches on something I’ve certainly also experienced: the important role this electronic fellowship has been playing:

Just the other day I realized that I felt more comfortable being a Friend since not attending Meeting on an ongoing basis. My ongoing “e-relationships” via the blogosphere has helped me stay “connected”. Observe how pleased I responded to Liz’s recent post (the one that I quoted in the post before this one). It’s as if I’m starving for good fellowship of some kind or another.

There’s even more talk about internet-mediated discernment/fellowship in the “comments to his followup.

Given all this, I’m not sure if I’ve ever highlighted a “vision for an expanded Quaker Ranter site” that I put together for a “youth leadership” grant in Third Month:

I’ve been blessed to meet many of my [age] peers with a clear call to inspired ministry. Most of these Friends have since left the Society, frustrated both by monthly meetings and Quaker bodies that didn’t know what to do with a bold ministry and by a lack of mentoring eldership that could help season these young ministers and deepen their understanding of gospel order. I would like to put together an independent online publication… This would explicitly reach out across the different braches of Friends and even to various seeker movements like the so-called “Emergent Church Movement.”

As I’ve written I was selected for one of their fellowships (yea!!) but for an amount that was pointedly too low to actually fund much (huh??). There’s something in the air however. “Quaker Dharma” is asking similar questions and Russ Nelson’s “PlanetQuaker” is a sometimes-awkward automated answer (do its readers really want to see the ultrasounds?). I’m not sure any of these combo sites could actually work better than their constituent parts. I find myself uninterested in most group blogs, aggregators, and formal websites. The invididual voice is so important.

And don’t we already have a group project going with all the cross-reading and cross-linking we’re doing. Is that what Joe was talking about? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found some new interesting blogger and went to post a welcome in their comments only to have found that Joe or LizOpp had beaten me to it. (Some of us are to the point of reading each other’s minds. I think I could probably write a great Beppe or LizOpp post and vice-versa.) Is this impulse to formalize these relationships just a throwback to old ideas of publishing?

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 have nothing to announce, no clear plan forward and no money to do anything anyway. But I thought it’d be interesting to hear what others have been thinking along these lines.