AMA: Conservative and Liberal Friends?

Marlborough (Pa.) Friends meetinghouse at dusk. c. 2006.
A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:

I've read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between "conservative" friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I'm in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don't identify as such?

Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I've noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they'll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it's not the right type. That’s so tragic.

What the terms don't mean

The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don't refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.

Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can't think of any that doesn't span some diversity of theologies.

Historically (and currently) we've had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we'd append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).

In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side's labelled appendage is "Conservative," giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.

A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting's clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).

All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio's gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.

I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you'll find people who are very attached to labels. That's what the comment section is for.

The meanings of the terms

Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.

But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).

Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.

If you like the sociology of such things, Isabel Penraeth wrote a fascinating article in Friends Journal a few years ago, Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences. More recently in FJ a Philadelphia Friend, John Andrew Gallery, visited Ohio Friends and talked about the spiritual refreshment of Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring. Much of the discussion around the modern phrase Convergent Friends and the threads on QuakerQuaker has focused on those who span a Liberal and Conservative Quaker worldview.

The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It's all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.

But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.

Worshipping?

Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn't bound by any of our silly words.

Thanks to James for the question!

Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.

Two Theories of Change and Liberal Friends

Over in the NYTimes colum­nist David Brooks talks about Two The­o­ries of Change. He’s talk­ing about mod­ern Amer­i­can pol­i­tics but it seems rel­e­vant to Friends. Here’s his sum­ma­ry of a new paper by Yuval Levin of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go:

paineburke

[Thomas] Paine believed that soci­eties exist in an “eter­nal now.” That some­thing has exist­ed for ages tells us noth­ing about its val­ue. The past is dead and the liv­ing should use their pow­ers of analy­sis to sweep away exist­ing arrange­ments when nec­es­sary, and begin the world anew. He even sug­gest­ed that laws should expire after 30 years so each new gen­er­a­tion could begin again

[Edmund] Burke, a par­tic­i­pant in the British Enlight­en­ment, had a dif­fer­ent vision of change. He believed that each gen­er­a­tion is a small part of a long chain of his­to­ry. We serve as trustees for the wis­dom of the ages and are oblig­ed to pass it down, a lit­tle improved, to our descen­dents. That wis­dom fills the gaps in our own rea­son, as age-old insti­tu­tions implic­it­ly con­tain more wis­dom than any indi­vid­ual could have.

For Brooks, the Paine fol­l­low­ers are Tea Par­ty activists who think it’s fine to “sweep away 100 years of his­to­ry and return gov­ern­ment to its prein­dus­tri­al role.” 

But for Friends, espe­cial­ly Lib­er­al Friends, this touch­es on the nature of “Con­tin­u­al Rev­e­la­tion” that has been at the cen­ter of much of our delib­er­a­tions for about a hun­dred years now. Are we in an “eter­nal now,” ready to rein­vent lib­er­al Quak­erism every thir­ty years and only will­ing to read old Friends to pull quotes out of con­text? Or are we tin­ker­ers of tra­di­tion, trustees keep­ing the parts oiled for the next gen­er­a­tion? 
I can think of par­tic­u­lar Friends who fol­low Paine’s con­tin­u­al rev­o­lu­tion mod­el and oth­ers who fol­low Burke’s long chain mod­el. Some­how both feel lim­it­ed. To sub­scribe strong­ly to either is a kind of fun­da­men­tal­ism. We are in an eter­nal now (Christ has come to teach the peo­ple him­self) but we have 350 of expe­ri­ences and tech­niques that have taught us how to be ready to act in that now. Insist­ing on both seems impor­tant.

Blogging for the Kingdom

Warn­ing: this is a blog post about blog­ging.

It’s always fas­ci­nat­ing to watch the ebb and flow of my blog­ging. Quak­er­ran­ter, my “main” blog has been remark­ably qui­et. I’m still up to my eye­balls with blog­ging in gen­er­al: post­ing things to Quak­erQuak­er, giv­ing help­ful com­ments and tips, help­ing oth­ers set up blogs as part of my con­sult­ing busi­ness. My Tum­blr blog and Face­book and Twit­ter feeds all con­tin­ue to be rel­a­tive­ly active. But most of these is me giv­ing voice to oth­ers. For two decades now, I’ve zigzagged between writer and pub­lish­er; late­ly I’ve been focused on the lat­ter.

When I start­ed blog­ging about Quak­er issues sev­en years ago, I was a low-level cler­i­cal employ­ee at an Quak­er orga­ni­za­tion. It was clear I was going nowhere career-wise, which gave me a cer­tain free­dom. More impor­tant­ly, blogs were a near­ly invis­i­ble medi­um, read by a self-selected group that also want­ed to talk open­ly and hon­est­ly about issues. I start­ed writ­ing about issues in among lib­er­al Friends and about missed out­reach oppor­tu­ni­ties. A lot of what I said was spot on and in hind­sight, the archives give me plen­ty of “told you so” cred­i­bil­i­ty. But where’s the joy in being right about what hasn’t worked?

Things have changed over the years. One is that I’ve resigned myself to those missed oppor­tu­ni­ties. Lots of Quak­er mon­ey and human­ly activ­i­ty is going into projects that don’t have God as a cen­ter. No amount of rant­i­ng is going to dis­suade good peo­ple from putting their faith into one more staff reor­ga­ni­za­tion, mis­sion rewrite or clever program.It’s a dis­trac­tion to spend much time wor­ry­ing about them.

But the biggest change is that my heart is square­ly with God. I’m most inter­est­ed in shar­ing Jesus’s good news. I’m not a cheer­leader for any par­tic­u­lar human insti­tu­tion, no mat­ter how noble its inten­tions. When I talk about the good news, it’s in the con­text of 350 years of Friends’ under­stand­ing of it. But I’m well aware that there’s lots of peo­ple in our meet­ing­hous­es that don’t under­stand it this way any­more. And also aware that the seek­er want­i­ng to pur­sue the Quak­er way might find it more close­ly mod­eled in alter­na­tive Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties. There are peo­ple all over lis­ten­ing for God and I see many attempts at rein­vent­ing Quak­erism hap­pen­ing among non-Friends.

I know this obser­va­tion excites some peo­ple to indig­na­tion, but so be it: I’m trust­ing God on this one. I’m not sure why He’sgiven us a world why the com­mu­ni­ties we bring togeth­er to wor­ship Him keep get­ting dis­tract­ed, but that’s what we’ve got (and it’s what we’ve had for a long time). Every per­son of faith of every gen­er­a­tion has to remem­ber, re-experience and revive the mes­sage. That hap­pens in church build­ings, on street cor­ners, in liv­ing rooms, lunch lines and nowa­days on blogs and inter­net forums.We can’t get too hung up on all the ways the mes­sage is get­ting blocked. And we can’t get hung up by insist­ing on only one chan­nel of shar­ing that mes­sage. We must share the good news and trust that God will show us how to man­i­fest this in our world: his king­dom come and will be done on earth.

But what would this look like?

When I first start­ed blog­ging there weren’t a lot of Quak­er blogs and I spent a lot more time read­ing oth­er reli­gious blogs. This was back before the emer­gent church move­ment became a wholly-owned sub­sidiary of Zon­der­van and wasn’t dom­i­nat­ed by hype artists (sor­ry, a lot of big names set off my slime-o-meter these days). There are still great blog­gers out there talk­ing about faith and read­ers want­i­ng to engage in this dis­cus­sion. I’ve been intrigued by the his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of Thomas Clark­son, the Angli­can who wrote about Friends from a non-Quaker per­spec­tive using non-Quaker lan­guage. And some­times I geek out and explain some Quak­er point on a Quak­er blog and get thanked by the author, who often is an expe­ri­enced Friend who had nev­er been pre­sent­ed with a clas­sic Quak­er expla­na­tion on the point in ques­tion. My track­ing log shows seek­ers con­tin­ue to be fas­ci­nat­ed and drawn to us for our tra­di­tion­al tes­ti­monies, espe­cial­ly plain­ness.

I’ve put togeth­er top­ic lists and plans before but it’s a bit of work, maybe too much to put on top of what I do with Quak­erQuak­er (plus work, plus fam­i­ly). There’s also ques­tions about where to blog and whether to sim­pli­fy my blog­ging life a bit by com­bin­ing some of my blogs but that’s more logis­tics rather than vision.

Inter­est­ing stuff I’m read­ing that’s mak­ing me think about this:

Movement for a New Society and the Old New Monastics

Robin wrote a lit­tle about the New Monas­tic move­ment in a plug for the Pen­dle Hill work­shop I’m doing with Wess Daniels this Fall. 

Here’s my work­ing the­o­ry: I think Lib­er­al Friends have a good claim to invent­ing the “new monas­tic” move­ment thir­ty years ago in the form of Move­ment for a New Soci­ety, a net­work of peace and anti-nuclear activists based in Philadel­phia that cod­i­fied a kind of “sec­u­lar Quak­er” decision-making process and trained thou­sands of peo­ple from around the world in a kind of engaged drop-out lifestyle that fea­tured low-cost com­mu­nal liv­ing arrange­ments in poor neigh­bor­hoods with part-time jobs that gave them flex­i­bil­i­ty to work as full-time com­mu­ni­ty activists. There are few activist cam­paigns in the 1970s and 1980s that weren’t touched by the MNS style and a less-ideological, more lived-in MNS cul­ture sur­vives today in bor­der­line neigh­bor­hoods in Philadel­phia and oth­er cities. The high-profile new monas­tics rarely seem to give any props to Quak­ers or MNS, but I’d be will­ing to bet if you sat in on any of their meet­ings the process would be much more inspired by MNS than Robert’s Rules of Order or any fif­teen cen­tu­ry monas­tic rule that might be cit­ed.

For a decade I lived in West Philly in what I called “the ruins of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety.” The for­mal struc­ture of MNS had dis­band­ed but many of its insti­tu­tions car­ried on in a kind of lived-in way. I worked at the remain­ing pub­lish­ing house, New Soci­ety Pub­lish­ers, lived in a land-trusted West Philly coop house, and was fed from the old neigh­bor­hood food coop and occa­sion­al­ly dropped in or helped out with Train­ing for Change, a revived train­ing cen­ter start­ed by MNS-co-founder (and Cen­tral Philadel­phia Meeting-member) George Lakey It was a tight neigh­bor­hood, with strong cross-connections, and it was able to absorb relat­ed move­ments with dif­fer­ent styles (e.g., a strong anar­chist scene that grew in the late 1980s). I don’t think it’s coin­ci­dence that some of the Philly emer­gent church projects start­ed in West Philly and is strong in the neigh­bor­hoods that have become the new ersatz West Philly as the actu­al neigh­bor­hood has gen­tri­fied.

So some ques­tions I’ll be wrestling with over the next six months and will bring to Pen­dle Hill:

  • Why haven’t more of us in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends adopt­ed this engaged lifestyle?
  • Why haven’t we been good at artic­u­lat­ing it all this time?
  • Why did the for­mal struc­ture of the Quaker-ish “new monas­ti­cism” not sur­vive the 1980s?
  • Why don’t we have any younger lead­ers of the Quak­er monas­ti­cism? Why do we need oth­ers to remind us of our own recent tra­di­tion?
  • In what ways are some Friends (and some fel­low trav­el­ers) still liv­ing out the “Old New Monas­tic” expe­ri­ence, just with­out the hype and with­out the buzz?

It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that the “new monas­ti­cism” isn’t sus­tain­able. At the very least Friends’ expe­ri­ences with it should be stud­ied to see what hap­pened. Is West Philly what the new monas­ti­cism looks like thir­ty years lat­er? The biggest dif­fer­ences between now and the hey­day of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety is 1) the Internet’s abil­i­ty to orga­nize and stay in touch in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent ways; and 2) the pow­er of the major Evan­gel­i­cal pub­lish­ing hous­es that are hyp­ing the new kids.

I’ll be look­ing at myself as well. After ten years, I felt I need­ed a change. I’m now in the “real world” – semi sub­ur­ban free­stand­ing house, nuclear fam­i­ly. The old new West Philly monas­ti­cism, like the “new monas­ti­cism” seems opti­mized for hip twenty-something sub­ur­ban kids who roman­ti­cized the grit­ty city. Peo­ple of oth­er demo­graph­ics often fit in, but still it was nev­er very scal­able and for many not very sus­tain­able. How do we bring these con­cerns out to a world where there are sub­urbs, fam­i­lies, etc?


RELATED READING: I first wrote about the sim­i­lar­i­ty between MNS and the Philadel­phia “New Monas­tic” move­ment six years ago in Peace and Twenty-Somethings, where I argued that Pen­dle Hill should take a seri­ous look at this new move­ment.

Christian revival among liberal Friends

There’s an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion in the com­ments from my last post about “Con­ver­gent Friends and Ohio Con­ser­v­a­tives” and one of the more inter­est­ing comes from a com­menter named Diane. My reply to her got longer and longer and filled with more and more links till it makes more sense to make it its own post. First, Diane’s ques­tion:

I don’t know if I’m “con­ver­gent,” (prob­a­bly not) but I have been involved with the emerg­ing church for sev­er­al years and with Quak­erism for a decade. I also am aware of the house church move­ment, but my expe­ri­ence of it is that is is very tan­gen­tial­ly relat­ed to Quak­erism. I real­ly, real­ly hope and pray that Chris­t­ian revival is com­ing to lib­er­al Friends, but per­son­al­ly I have not seen that phe­nom­e­nom. Where do you see it most? Do you see it more as com­mit­ment to Christ or as more peo­ple being Christ curi­ous, to use Robin’s phrase?

As I wrote recent­ly I think con­ver­gence is more of a trend than an iden­ti­ty and I’m not sure whether it makes sense to fuss about who’s con­ver­gent or not. As with any ques­tion involv­ing lib­er­al Friends, whether there’s “Chris­t­ian revival” going on depends on what what you mean by the term. I think more lib­er­al Friends have become com­fort­able label­ing them­selves as Christ curi­ous; it has become more accept­able to iden­ti­fy as Chris­t­ian than it was a decade or two ago; a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of younger Friends are very recep­tive to Chris­t­ian mes­sages, the Bible and tra­di­tion­al Quak­er tes­ti­monies than they were.

These are indi­vid­ual respons­es, how­ev­er. Turn­ing to col­lec­tive Quak­er bod­ies there are few if any beliefs or prac­tices left that lib­er­al Friends wouldn’t allow under the Quak­er ban­ner if they came wrapped in Quak­erese from a well-connected Friend; the social tes­ti­monies stand in as the uni­fy­ing agent; it’s still con­sid­ered an argu­ment stop­per to say that any prof­fered def­i­n­i­tion would exclude some­one.

I’d argue that lib­er­al Quak­erism is becom­ing ever more lib­er­al (and less dis­tinc­tive­ly Quak­er) at the same time that many of those in influ­ence are becom­ing more Chris­t­ian. It’s a very pro­scribed Chris­tian­i­ty: cod­ed, ten­ta­tive and most of all indi­vid­u­al­is­tic. It’s okay for a lib­er­al Friend to believe what­ev­er they want to believe as long as they don’t believe too much. Whether the qui­et influ­ence of the ris­ing gen­er­a­tion of conservative-friendly lead­er­ship is enough to hold a Quak­er cen­ter in the cen­trifuge that is lib­er­al Quak­erism is the $60,000 ques­tion. I think the lead­er­ship has an inflat­ed sense of its own influ­ence but I’m watch­ing the exper­i­ment. I wish it well but I’m skep­ti­cal and wor­ry that it’s built on sand.

Some of the Christ-curious lib­er­al Friends are form­ing small wor­ship groups and some of these are seek­ing out recog­ni­tion from Con­ser­v­a­tive bod­ies. It’s an aching­ly small move­ment but it shows a desire to be cor­po­rate­ly Quak­er and not just indi­vid­u­al­is­ti­cal­ly Quak­er. With the inter­net tra­di­tion­al Quak­er view­points are only a Google search away; sites like Bill Samuel’s “Quakerinfo.com”:www.quakerinfo.com and blogs like Mar­shall Massey’s are break­ing down stereo­types and doing a lot of invalu­able edu­cat­ing (and I could name a lot more). It’s pos­si­ble to imag­ine all this cook­ing down to a third wave of tra­di­tion­al­ist renew­al. Ohio Year­ly Meeting-led ini­tia­tives like the Chris­t­ian Friends Con­fer­ence and All Con­ser­v­a­tive Gath­er­ings are steps in the right direc­tion but any real change is going to have to pull togeth­er mul­ti­ple trends, one of which might or might not be Con­ver­gence.

Our role in this future is not to be strate­gists play­ing Quak­er pol­i­tics but ser­vants ready to lay down our iden­ti­ties and pre­con­cep­tions to fol­low the prompt­ings of the Inward Christ into what­ev­er ter­ri­to­ry we’re called to:

From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his dis­ci­ples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suf­fer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, say­ing, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Then said Jesus unto his dis­ci­ples, If any man will come after me, let him deny him­self, and take up his cross, and fol­low me. Matthew 16:21 – 28.

For other uses, see Light (disambiguation)

Even though my last post was a five minute quick­ie, it gen­er­at­ed a num­ber of com­ments. One ques­tion that came up was how aware indi­vid­ual Friends are about the spe­cif­ic Quak­er mean­ings of some of the com­mon Eng­lish words we use — “Light,” “Spir­it,” etc.(dis­am­bigua­tion in Wiki-speak). Mar­shall Massey expressed sad­ness that the terms were used uncom­pre­hend­ing­ly and I sug­gest­ed that some Friends know­ing­ly con­fuse the gener­ic and spe­cif­ic mean­ings. Mar­shall replied that if this were so it might be a cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence based on geog­ra­phy.

If it’s a cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence, I sus­pect it’s less geo­graph­ic than func­tion­al. I was speak­ing of the class of pro­fes­sion­al Friends (heavy in my parts) who pur­pose­ful­ly obscure their lan­guage. We’re very good at talk­ing in a way that sounds Quak­er to those who do know our spe­cif­ic lan­guage but that sounds gener­i­cal­ly spir­i­tu­al to those who don’t. Some­times this obscu­ran­tism is used by peo­ple who are repelled by tra­di­tion­al Quak­erism but want to advance their ideas in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends, but more often (and more dan­ger­ous­ly) it’s used by Friends who know and love what we are but are loathe to say any­thing that might sound con­tro­ver­sial.

I’ve told the sto­ry before of a Friend and friend who said that every­time he uses the word com­mu­ni­ty he’s mean­ing the body of Christ. New­com­ers hear­ing him and read­ing his arti­cles could be for­giv­en for think­ing that com­mu­ni­ty is our reason-for-being, indeed: what we wor­ship. The prob­lem is that ten years lat­er, they’ll have signed up and built up an iden­ti­ty as a Friend and will get all offend­ed when some­one sug­gests that this com­mu­ni­ty they know and love is real­ly the body of Christ.

Lib­er­al Friends in the pub­lic eye need to be more hon­est in their con­ver­sa­tion about the Bib­li­cal and Chris­t­ian roots of our reli­gious fel­low­ship. That will scare off poten­tial mem­bers who have been scarred by the acts of those who have false­ly claimed Christ. I’m sor­ry about that and we need to be as gen­tle and hum­ble about this as we can. But hope­ful­ly they’ll see the fruits of the true spir­it in our open­ness, our warmth and our giv­ing and will real­ize that Chris­t­ian fel­low­ship is not about tel­e­van­ge­lists and Pres­i­den­tial hyp­ocrites. Maybe they’ll even­tu­al­ly join or maybe not, but if they do at least they won’t be sur­prised by our iden­ti­ty. Before some­one com­ments back, I’m not say­ing that Chris­tian­i­ty needs to be a test for indi­vid­ual mem­ber­ship but new mem­bers should know that every­thing from our name (“Friends of Christ”) on down are root­ed in that tra­di­tion and that that for­mal mem­ber­ship does not include veto pow­er over our pub­lic iden­ti­ty.

There is room out there for spiritual-but-not-religious com­mu­ni­ties that aren’t built around a col­lec­tive wor­ship of God, don’t wor­ry about any par­tic­u­lar tra­di­tion and focus their ener­gies and group iden­ti­ty on lib­er­al social caus­es. But I guess part of what I won­der is why this doesn’t col­lect under the UUA ban­ner, whose Prin­ci­ples and Pur­pos­es state­ment is already much more syn­cretis­tic and post-religious than even the most lib­er­al year­ly meet­ing. Evolv­ing into the “oth­er UUA” would mean aban­don­ing most of the valu­able spir­i­tu­al wis­dom we have as a peo­ple.

I think there’s a need for the kind of strong lib­er­al Chris­tian­i­ty that Friends have prac­ticed for 350 years. There must be mil­lions of peo­ple parked on church bench­es every Sun­day morn­ing look­ing up at the pul­pit and think­ing to them­selves, “sure­ly this isn’t what Jesus was talk­ing about.” Look, we have Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians com­ing out against the war! And let’s face it, it’s only a mat­ter of time before “Emer­gent Chris­tians” real­ize how lame all that post-post can­dle wor­ship is and look for some­thing a lit­tle deep­er. The times are ripe for “Oppor­tu­ni­ties,” Friends. We have impor­tant knowl­edge to share about all this. It would be a shame if we kept qui­et.

Love is unconditional and accepts us for who we are

I tried to post this as a com­ment on “this piece by James Riemermann”:http://feeds.quakerquaker.org/quaker?m=299 on the Non­the­ist Friends web­site but the site expe­ri­enced a tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ty when I tried to sub­mit it (hope it’s back up soon!). James describes his post as a “rant” about “conservative-leaning lib­er­al Friends,” and one theme that got picked up in the com­ments was how he and oth­ers felt exclud­ed by us (for that is a term I use to try to describe my spir­i­tu­al con­di­tion). Rather than loose the com­ment I’ll just post it here.
Hi James and every­one,
Well, I think I was one of the first of the Quak­er blog­gers to talk about conservative-leaning lib­er­al Quak­ers back in July 2003. I too am not sure it’s any­thing worth call­ing a “move­ment.”
I hear this feel­ing of being exclud­ed but I’m not sure where that’s com­ing from. When James had a real­ly won­der­ful, thought-provoking response to my “We’re All Ranters Now” piece, I asked him if I could “reprint” the com­ment as its own guest piece. It got a lot of atten­tion, a lot of com­ments. I didn’t real­ize you were using non​the​ist​friends​.org as a blog these days but “Robin M”:http://www.quakerquaker.org/contributors_robin_m/ of “What Canst Thou Say”:http://robinmsf.blogspot.com/ did and has added a link to your post from “QuakerQuaker.org”:www.quakerquaker.org, which again is a val­i­da­tion that yours is an impor­tant voice (I can pret­ty much guar­an­tee that this is going to be one of the more fol­lowed links). You and every­one here are part of the fam­i­ly.
Yes, we have some dis­agree­ments. I don’t think Quak­erism is sim­ply made up of who­ev­er makes it into the meet­ing­house. I think we have a tra­di­tion that we’ve inher­it­ed. This con­sists of prac­tices and val­ues and ways of look­ing at the world. Much of that tra­di­tion comes from the gospel of Jesus and the epis­tles between the ear­li­est Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties. Much of what might feel like neu­tral Quak­er prac­tice is a clear echo of that tra­di­tion, and that echo is what I talk about that in my blogs. I think it’s good to know where we’re com­ing from. That doesn’t mean we’re stuck there and we adapt it as our rev­e­la­tion changes (this atti­tude is why I’m a lib­er­al Friend no mat­ter how much I talk about Christ). These blog con­ver­sa­tions are the ways we share our expe­ri­ences, min­is­ter to and com­fort one anoth­er.
That peo­ple hold dif­fer­ent reli­gious under­stand­ings and prac­tices isn’t in itself inher­ent­ly exclu­sion­ary. Diver­si­ty is good for us, right? There’s no one Quak­er cen­ter. There’s muli­ti­ple con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen­ing in mul­ti­ple lan­guages, much of it glo­ri­ous­ly over­lap­ping on the elec­tron­ic path­ways of the inter­net. That’s won­der­ful, it shows a great vital­i­ty. The reli­gious tra­di­tion that is Quak­erism is not dead, not moth­balled away in a liv­ing his­to­ry muse­um some­where. It’s alive, with its assump­tions and bound­aries con­stant­ly being revis­it­ed. That’s cool. If a par­tic­u­lar post feels too carp­ing, there’s always the “elder­ing of the back but­ton,” as I like to call it. Let’s try to hear each oth­er from where we are and to remain open to the min­istry from those who might appear to be com­ing from a dif­fer­ent place. Love is the first move­ment and love is uncon­di­tion­al and accepts us for who we are.
I bet­ter stop this before I get too mushy, with all this talk of love! See what I mean about being a lib­er­al Quak­er?
Your Friend, Mar­tin

We Quakers should be cooler than the Sweat Lodge

I have just come back from a "Meeting for Listening for Sweat Lodge Concerns," described as "an opportunity for persons to express their feelings in a worshipful manner about the cancellation of the FGC Gathering sweat lodge workshop this year." Non-Quakers reading this blog might be surprised to hear that Friends General Conference holds sweat lodges, but it has and they've been increasingly controversial. This year's workshop was cancelled after FGC received a very strongly worded complaint from the Wampanoag Native American tribe. Today's meeting intended to listen to the feelings and concerns of all FGC Friends involved and was clerked by the very-able Arthur Larrabee. There was powerful ministry, some predictable "ministry" and one stunning message from a white Friend who dismissed the very existance of racism in the world (it's just a illusion, the people responsible for it are those who perceive it).

I've had my own run-in's with the sweat lodge, most unforgettably when I was the co-planning clerk of the 2002 Adult Young Friends program at FGC (a few of us thought it was inappropriate to transfer a portion of the rather small AYF budget to the sweat lodge workshop, a request made with the argument that so many high-school and twenty-something Friends were attending it). But I find myself increasingly unconcerned about the lodge. It's clear to me now that it part of another tradition than I am. It is not the kind of Quaker I am. The question remaining is whether an organization that will sponsor it is a different tradition.

How did Liberal Friends get to the place where most our our younger members consider the sweat lodge ceremony to be the high point of their Quaker experience? The sweat lodge has given a generation of younger Friends an opportunity to commune with the divine in a way that their meetings do not. It has given them mentorship and leadership experiences which they do not receive from the older Friends establishment. It has given them a sense of identity and purpose which they don't get from their meeting "community."

I don't care about banning the workshop. That doesn't address the real problems. I want to get to the point where younger Friends look at the sweat and wonder why they'd want to spend a week with some  white Quaker guy who wonders aloud in public whether he's "a Quaker or an Indian" (could we have a third choice?). I've always thought this was just rather embarrassing.  I want the sweat lodge to wither away in recognition of it's inherent ridiculousness. I want younger Friends to get a taste of the divine love and charity that Friends have found for 350 years. We're simply cooler than the sweat lodge.

* * * *

And what really is the sweat lodge all about? I don't really buy the cultural appropriation critique (the official party line for canceling it argues that it's racist). Read founder George Price's Friends Journal article on the sweat lodge and you'll see that he's part of a long-standing tradition. For two hundred years, Native Americans have been used as mythic cover for thinly disguised European-American philosophies. The Boston protesters who staged the famous tea party all dressed up as Indians, playing out an emerging mythology of the American rebels as spiritual heirs to Indians (long driven out of the Boston area by that time). In 1826, James Fenimore Cooper turned that myth into one of the first pieces of classic American literature with a story about the "Last" of the Mohicans. At the turn of the twentieth century, the new boy scout movement claimed that their fitness and socialization system was really a re-application of Native American training and initiation rites. Quakers got into the game too: the South Jersey and Bucks County summer camps they founded in the nineteen-teens were full of Native American motifs, with cabins and lakes named after different tribes and the children encouraged to play along.

Set in this context, George Price is clearly just the latest white guy to claim that only the spirit of purer Native Americans will save us from our Old World European stodginess. Yes, it's appropriation I guess, but it's so transparent and classically American that our favorite song "Yankee Doodle" is a British wartime send-up of the impulse. We've been sticking feathers in our caps since forever.

In the Friends Journal article, it's clear the Quaker sweat lodge owes more to the European psychotherapy of Karl Jung than Chief Ockanickon. It's all about "liminality" and initiation into mythic archetypes, featuring cribbed language from Victor Turner, the anthropologist who was very popular circa 1974. Price is clear but never explicit about his work: his sweat lodge is Jungian psychology overlaid onto the outward form of a Native American sweatlodge. In retrospect it's no surprise that a birthright Philadelphia Friend in a tired yearly meeting would try to combine trendy European pop psychology with Quaker summer camp theming. What is a surprise (or should be a surprise) is that Friends would sponsor and publish articles about a "Quaker Sweat Lodges" without challenging the author to spell out the Quaker contribution to a programmed ritual conducted in a consecrated teepee steeplehouse.

(Push the influences a little more, and you'll find that Victor Turner's anthropological findings among obscure African tribes arguably owes as much to his Catholicism than it does the facts on the ground. More than one Quaker wit has compared the sweat lodge to Catholic mass; well: Turner's your missing philosophical link.)

* * * *

Yesterday I had some good conversation about generational issues in Quakerism. I'm certainly not the only thirty-something that feels invisible in the bulldozer of baby boomer assumptions about our spirituality. I'm also not the only one getting to the point where we're just going to be Quaker despite the Quaker institutions and culture. I think the question we're all grappling with now is how we relate to the institutions that ignore us and dismiss our cries of alarm for what we Friends have become.