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.

Mix up a little Evangelical fire and liberal progressivism and you get?

There are a lot of good con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen­ing around Rachel Held Evans’s lat­est piece on the CNN Belief Blog, “Why mil­len­ni­als are leav­ing the church.” One cen­ters on the rela­tion­ship between Evan­gel­i­cals and Main­line Protes­tants. As is often the case, the place of Quak­ers in this is com­pli­cat­ed.

Some his­to­ri­ans cat­e­go­rize the orig­i­nal Quak­er move­ment as a “third way” between Catholi­cism and Protes­tanta­n­tism, com­bin­ing the mys­ti­cism of the for­mer and the search for per­fec­tion of the lat­ter. It’s a con­ve­nient the­sis, as it pro­vides a way to try to explain the odd­i­ties of our lack of priests and liturgies.

But Quak­ers trad­ed much of our pecu­liar­i­ty for a place set­ting at the Main­line Protes­tant table a long time ago. The “Quak­er val­ues” taught in First-day schools aren’t real­ly all that dif­fer­ent than the lib­er­al post-Christian val­ues you’d find post­ed on the bul­let­in board in the base­ment of any pro­gres­sive Methodist, Pres­by­te­ri­an, or Epis­co­palian church. We share a focus on the social gospel with oth­er Main­line denom­i­na­tions.

In a follow-up post, Evans re-shares a piece called The Main­line and Me that tries to hon­est­ly explain why she finds the­se church­es admirable but bor­ing. The lack of artic­u­la­tion of the why of beliefs is a big rea­son, as is the the fire-in-the bel­ly of many younger Evan­gel­i­cals and a cul­ture adverse to step­ping on toes.

One of the peo­ple she cites in this arti­cle is Robert E. Web­ber, a reli­gious Evan­gel­i­cal of anoth­er gen­er­a­tion whose spir­i­tu­al trav­els brought him back to Main­line Protes­tantism. I first dis­cov­ered him ten sum­mers ago. The cross-polination of that book helped me bridge the Quak­er move­ment with the pro­gres­sive Evan­gel­i­cal sub­cul­ture that was start­ing to grow and I wrote about it in the Younger Quak­ers and the Younger Evan­gel­i­cals.

I sup­pose I should find it heart­en­ing that many of the threads of GenX loss and redis­cov­ery we were talk­ing about ten years ago are show­ing up in a pop­u­lar reli­gion blog today (with the sub­sti­tu­tion of Mil­lenials). But I won­der if Friends are any more able to wel­come in pro­gres­sive seek­ers now than we were in 2003? I still see a lot of the kind of lead­er­ship that Web­ber iden­ti­fied with the “prag­mat­ic” 1975 – 2000 gen­er­a­tion (see chart at the end of my “Younger Quak­ers” post). 

Web­ber might not have been right, of course, and Evans may be wrong. But if they’re on to some­thing and there’s a pro­gres­sive wave just wait­ing for a Main­line denom­i­na­tion to catch a lit­tle of the Evangelical’s fire and artic­u­late a clear mes­sage of lib­er­al pro­gres­sive faith, then Friends still have some inter­nal work to do.

Have Friends lost their cultural memory?

In Amer­i­ca today our sense of spir­i­tu­al fel­low­ship in Lib­er­al meet­ings, the feel­ing of belong­ing to the same tribe, is dimin­ish­ing. We no longer live in the same com­mu­ni­ties, and we come from diverse faith tra­di­tions. Our cul­tur­al val­ues are no longer entwined at the roots, as were those of our founders. As a body we share less genet­ic and cul­tur­al mem­o­ry of what it means to be Quak­ers. Dif­fer­ent view­points often pre­vent us from look­ing in the same direc­tion to find a point of con­ver­gence. We hold beliefs rang­ing from Bud­dhism to non-theism to Chris­tian­i­ty, or we may sim­ply be eth­i­cal human­ists. Just imag­ine a mix­ture of wild seeds cast into a sin­gle plot of land, pro­duc­ing a pro­fu­sion of col­or. A wide vari­ety of plants all bloom­ing togeth­er sym­bol­ize our present con­di­tion in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends. Dis­cern­ing which is a wild­flow­er and which is a weed is not easy. We are liv­ing a great exper­i­ment of reli­gious diver­si­ty.

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Max Carter talk on introducing the Bible to younger Friends

Max Carter gave the Bible Asso­ci­a­tion of Friends this past week­end at Moorestown (NJ) Friends Meet­ing. Max is a long-time edu­ca­tor and cur­rent­ly heads the Quak­er Lead­er­ship Schol­ars Pro­gram at Guil­ford Col­lege, a pro­gram that has pro­duced a num­ber of active twenty-something Friends in recent years. The Bible Asso­ci­a­tion is one of those great Philadel­phia relics that some­how sur­vived a cou­ple of cen­turies of upheavals and still plugs along with a mis­sion more-or-less craft­ed at it’s found­ing in the ear­ly 1800s: it dis­trib­utes free Bibles to Friends, Friends schools and any First Day School class that might answer their inquiries.

Max’s pro­gram at Guil­ford is one of the recip­i­ents of the Bible Association’s efforts and he began by jok­ing that his sole qual­i­fi­ca­tion for speak­ing at their annu­al meet­ing was that he was one of their more active cus­tomers.

Many of the stu­dents going through Max’s pro­gram grew up in the big­ger East Coast year­ly meet­ings. In the­se set­tings, being an involved Quak­er teen means reg­u­lar­ly going to camps like Catoct­in and Onas, doing the FGC Gath­er­ing every year and hav­ing a par­ent on an impor­tant year­ly meet­ing com­mit­tee. “Quak­er” is a speci­fic group of friends and a set of guide­li­nes about how to live in this sub­cul­ture. Know­ing the rules to Wink and being able to craft a sug­ges­tive ques­tion for Great Wind Blows is more impor­tant than even rudi­men­ta­ry Bible lit­er­a­cy, let alone Barclay’s Cat­e­chism. The knowl­edge of George Fox rarely extends much past the song (“with his shag­gy shag­gy locks”). So there’s a real cul­ture shock when they show up in Max’s class and he hands them a Bible. “I’ve nev­er touched one of the­se before” and “Why do we have to use this?” are non-uncommon respons­es.

None of this sur­prised me, of course. I’ve led high school work­shops at Gath­er­ing and for year­ly meet­ing teens. Great kids, all of them, but most of them have been real­ly short­changed in the con­text of their faith. The Guil­ford pro­gram is a good intro­duc­tion (“we grad­u­ate more Quak­ers than we bring in” was how Max put it) but do we real­ly want them to wait so long? And to have so rel­a­tive­ly few get this chance. Where’s the bal­ance between let­ting them choose for them­selves and giv­ing them the infor­ma­tion on which to make a choice?

There was a sort of built-in irony to the scene. Most of the thirty-five or so atten­dees at the Moorestown talk were half-a-century old­er than the stu­dents Max was pro­fil­ing. I pret­ty safe to say I was the youngest per­son there. It doesn’t seem healthy to have such sep­a­rat­ed worlds. 

Con­ver­gent Friends

Max did talk for a few min­utes about Con­ver­gent Friends. I think we’ve shak­en hands a few times but he didn’t rec­og­nize me so it was a rare fly-on-wall oppor­tu­ni­ty to see firsthand how we’re described. It was pos­i­tive (we “bear watch­ing!”) but there were a few minor mis-perceptions. The most wor­ri­some is that we’re a group of young adult Friends. At 42, I’ve grad­u­at­ed from even the most expan­sive def­i­n­i­tion of YAF and so have many of the oth­er Con­ver­gent Friends (on a Face­book thread LizOpp made the mis­take of list­ed all of the old­er Con­ver­gent Friends and touched off a lit­tle mock out­rage – I’m going to steer clear of that mis­take!). After the talk one atten­dee (a New Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship reg­u­lar) came up and said that she had been think­ing of going to the “New Monas­tics and Con­ver­gent Friends” work­shop C Wess Daniels and I are co-leading next May but had second-thoughts hear­ing that CF’s were young adults. “That’s the first I’ve heard that” she said; “me too!” I replied and encour­aged her to come. We def­i­nite­ly need to con­tin­ue to talk about how C.F. rep­re­sents an atti­tude and includes many who were doing the work long before Robin Mohr‘s Octo­ber 2006 Friends Jour­nal arti­cle brought it to wider atten­tion.

Tech­niques for Teach­ing the Bible and Quak­erism

The most use­ful part of Max’s talk was the end, where he shared what he thought were lessons of the Quak­er Lead­er­ship Schol­ars Pro­gram. He

  • Demys­ti­fy the Bible: a great per­cent­age of incom­ing stu­dents to the QLSP had nev­er touched it so it seemed for­eign;
  • Make it fun: he has a newslet­ter column called “Con­cor­dance Capers” that digs into the deriva­tion of pop cul­ture ref­er­ences of Bib­li­cal phras­es; he often shows Mon­ty Python’s “The Life of Bri­an” at the end of the class.
  • Make it rel­e­vant: Give inter­est­ed stu­dents the tools and guid­ance to start read­ing it.
  • Show the geneal­o­gy: Start with the parts that are most obvi­ous­ly Quak­er: John and the inner Light, the Ser­mon on the Mount, etc.
  • Con­tem­po­rary exam­ples: Link to con­tem­po­rary groups that are liv­ing a rad­i­cal Chris­tian wit­ness today. This past semes­ter they talked about the New Monas­tic move­ment, for exam­ple and they’ve pro­filed the Sim­ple Way and Atlanta’s Open Door.
  • The Bible as human con­di­tion: how is the Bible a sto­ry that we can be a part of, an inspi­ra­tion rather than a lit­er­al­ist author­i­ty.

Ran­dom Thoughts:

A cou­ple of thoughts have been churn­ing through my head since the talk: one is how to scale this up. How could we have more of this kind of work hap­pen­ing at the local year­ly meet­ing lev­el and start with younger Friends: mid­dle school or high school­ers? And what about bring­ing con­vinced Friends on board? Most QLSP stu­dents are born Quak­er and come from prominent-enough fam­i­lies to get meet­ing let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion to enter the pro­gram. Grad­u­ates of the QLSP are fun­neled into var­i­ous Quak­er posi­tions the­se days, leav­ing out con­vinced Friends (like me and like most of the cen­tral Con­ver­gent Friends fig­ures). I talked about this divide a lot back in the 1990s when I was try­ing to pull togeth­er the mostly-convinced Cen­tral Philadel­phia Meet­ing young adult com­mu­ni­ty with the mostly-birthright offi­cial year­ly meet­ing YAF group. I was con­vinced then and am even more con­vinced now that no renewal will hap­pen unless we can get the­se com­ple­men­tary per­spec­tives and energies work­ing togeth­er.

PS: Due to a con­flict between Feed­burn­er and Dis­qus, some of com­ments are here (Wess and Lizopp), here (Robin M) and here (Chris M). I think I’ve fixed it so that this odd spread won’t hap­pen again.


PPS: Max emailed on 2/10/10 to say that many QLSPers are first gen­er­a­tion or con­vinced them­selves. He says that quite a few came to Guil­ford as non-Quakers (“think­ing we had “gone the way of the T-Rex”) and came in by con­vince­ment. Cool!

Flashbacks: Aging Youth, Vanity Googling, War Fatigue

I occa­sion­al­ly go back to my blog­ging archives to pick out inter­est­ing arti­cles from one, five and ten years ago.

ONE YEAR AGO: The Not-Quite-So Young Quak­ers

It was five years ago this week that I sat down and wrote about a cool
new move­ment I had been read­ing about. It would have been Jor­dan Coop­er‘s blog that turned me onto Robert E Web­ber‘s The Younger Evan­gel­i­cals, a look at gen­er­a­tional shifts among Amer­i­can Evan­gel­i­cals. In ret­ro­spect, it’s fair to say that the Quak­erQuak­er com­mu­ni­ty gath­ered around this essay (here’s Robin M’s account of first read­ing it) and it’s follow-up We’re All Ranters Now (Wess talk­ing about it).

And yet? All of this is still a small demo­graph­ic scat­tered all around. If I want­ed to have a good two-hour caffeine-fueled bull ses­sion about the future of Friends at some local cof­feeshop this after­noon, I can’t think of any­one even vague­ly local who I could call up. I’m real­ly sad to say we’re still large­ly on our own. Accord­ing to actu­ar­i­al tables, I’ve recent­ly crossed my life’s halfway point and here I am still ref­er­enc­ing gen­er­a­tional change. How I wish I could hon­est­ly say that I could get involved with any com­mit­tee in my year­ly meet­ing and get to work on the issues raised in “Younger Evan­gel­i­cals and Younger Quak­ers”. Some­one recent­ly sent me an email thread between mem­bers of an out­reach com­mit­tee for anoth­er large East Coast year­ly meet­ing and they were debat­ing whether the inter­net was an appro­pri­ate place to do out­reach work – in 2008?!?

Pub­lished 9/14/2008.

FIVE YEARS AGO: Van­i­ty Googling of Caus­es

A poster to an obscure dis­cus­sion board recent­ly described typ­ing a par­tic­u­lar search phrase into Google and find­ing noth­ing but bad infor­ma­tion. Repro­duc­ing the search I deter­mined two things: 1) that my site topped the list and 2) that the results were actu­al­ly quite accu­rate. I’ve been hear­ing an increas­ing num­ber of sto­ries like this. “Cause Googling,” a vari­a­tion on “van­i­ty googling,” is sud­den­ly becom­ing quite pop­u­lar. But the inter­est­ing thing is that the­se new searchers don’t actu­al­ly seem curi­ous about the results. Has Google become our new proof text?

Pub­lished 10/2/2004 in The Quak­er Ranter.

TEN’ISH YEARS AGO: War Time Again
This piece is about the NATO bomb­ing cam­paign in Ser­bia (Wikipedia). It’s strange to see I was feel­ing war fatigue even before 9/11 and the “real” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

There’s a great dan­ger in all this. A dan­ger to the soul of Amer­i­ca. This is the fourth coun­try the U.S. has gone to war again­st in the last six months. War is becom­ing rou­tine. It is sand­wiched between the soap operas and the sit­coms, between the traf­fic and weath­er reports. Intense cruise mis­sile bom­bard­ments are car­ried out but have no effect on the psy­che or even imag­i­na­tion of the U.S. cit­i­zens.

It’s as if war itself has become anoth­er con­sumer good. Anoth­er event to be pack­aged for com­mer­cial tele­vi­sion. Given a the­me song. We’re at war with a coun­try we don’t know over a region we don’t real­ly care about. I’m not be face­tious, I’m sim­ply stat­ing a fact. The Unit­ed States can and should play an active peace­mak­ing role in the region, but only after we’ve done our home­work and have basic knowl­edge of the play­ers and sit­u­a­tion. Iso­la­tion­ism is dan­ger­ous, yes, but not near­ly as dan­ger­ous as the emerg­ing cul­ture of the­se dilet­tan­te made-for-TV wars.

Pub­lished March 25, 1999, Non​vi​o​lence​.org

Check out KD’s defense of organized (Quaker) religion

It’s up on the side­bar and fea­tured on Quak­erQuak­er, but I want to give an added boost to my friend Kevin-Douglas’ post “Why I both­er with reli­gion.” I’ve writ­ten about the Emer­gent Church / Quak­er exper­i­ment that Kevin-Douglass is help­ing to orga­nize down in Bal­ti­more. Check out their new’ish web­site, http://​www​.seton​hill​friends​.org/
Here’s a snip­pet of today’s post:

Orga­nized reli­gion is based in com­mu­ni­ty. Being in a com­mu­ni­ty chal­lenges me. Sim­ply hang­ing out with my friends and engag­ing my fam­i­ly isn’t enough. The risks of such an inten­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty and the sup­port avail­able there­in offer so much more than if I just do what comes eas­i­ly or go along with what exists around me. I’m chal­lenged in com­mu­ni­ty. I’m held account­able. And while it could be said that I could get this out of a gay rights group, or being part of an eth­i­cal soci­ety, the truth is that in a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty, we all seek to go much deep­er than the psy­cho­log­i­cal or emo­tion­al lev­els. We seek to under­stand that Mys­tery — God. We seek to under­stand that trans­for­ma­tive and heal­ing pow­er that comes from that Mys­tery.

Kevin-Douglas orig­i­nal­ly post­ed it to Face­book ear­lier today and I asked if he would sign up to Quak­erQuak­er and post it there. There’s a lot of great stuff that goes up on Face­book and it’s a use­ful tool for keep­ing in touch with friends, but most posts are not vis­i­ble beyond your own Face­book friends list (it depends on your pri­va­cy set­tings). If you post some­thing real­ly good about Friends or belief on Face­book, seri­ous­ly con­sid­er whether you might repost it some­where more pub­lic. If you don’t have a blog handy, you can do what KD did and post it on Quak­erQuak­er, where every reg­is­tered user has blog­ging capa­bil­i­ties (it cre­ates a bit of a meta­phys­i­cal con­nun­drum for the Quak­erQuak­er edi­tors, as it means we’ll be link­ing QQ posts to the QQ site, but that’s fine).