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.

Bleak Batsto day

My wife Julie heard that the Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty geog­ra­phy club was hav­ing an open hike at one of our favorite local spots, his­toric Bat­sto Vil­lage. Our kids are all geog­ra­phy nerds and we’ve been won­der­ing if our 12yo Theo in par­tic­u­lar might be inter­est­ed in a geog­ra­phy degree come col­lege so we came along. It was a grey, bleak, late win­ter day large­ly void of col­or so I leeched what tiny bits of green and red that remained to take black and white shots.

Crows Woods in Haddonfield NJ

The blog­ger behind South Jer­sey Trails orga­nized a “dads’ hike” today in a small pre­serve along the upper reach­es of the Coop­er River.

The pre­serve is remark­ably inter­est­ing despite its rel­a­tive­ly small size and posi­tion­ing between soc­cer fields and train lines. There’s lots of hills ands wet­lands. We saw two turtles fight­ing and a snake of some sort swirling around an eddy in brack­ish iron-filled bog water. There was a lot of flow­er­ing moun­tain lau­rel, one of my favorite wood­land flow­ers.

Many local trails in deep woods are on land that has seen waves of devel­op­ment over the past two hun­dred years but a check of the 1930 New Jer­sey aeri­al sur­vey shows that this same patch was deep woods then.
      I

Expanding our concepts of pacifism

My blog­ging pal Wess Daniels wrote a provoca­tive piece this week called When Peace Pre­serves Vio­lence. It’s a great read and blows some much-needed holes in the self-satisfaction so many of us car­ry with us. But I’d argue that there’s a part two need­ed that does a side-step back to the source…

Eric Moon wrote some­thing that’s stuck with me in his June/July Friends Jour­nal piece, “Cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly Not the Tes­ti­monies.” His arti­cle focus­es on the way we’ve so cod­i­fied the “Quak­er Tes­ti­monies” that they’ve become ossi­fied and tak­en for grant­ed. One dan­ger he sees in this is that we’ll not rec­og­nize clear lead­ings of con­science that don’t fit the modern-day mold.

Moon tells the anec­dote of a Friend who “guilti­ly lament[ed] that he couldn’t attend protest march­es because he was busy all day at a cen­ter for teens at risk for drop­ping out of school, a pro­gram he had estab­lished and invest­ed his own sav­ings in.” Here was a Friend doing real one-on-one work chang­ing lives but feel­ing guilty because he couldn’t par­tic­i­pate in the largely-symbolic act of stand­ing on a street cor­ner.

I don’t think that we need to give up the peace tes­ti­mony to acknowl­edge the entan­gle­ment of our lives and the hypocrisy that lies all-too-shallowly below the sur­face of most of our lifestyles. What we need to do is rethink its bound­aries.

A mod­el for this is our much-quoted but much-ignored “Quak­er saint” John Wool­man. While a sense of the equal­i­ty of humans is there in his jour­nal as a source of his com­pas­sion, much of his argu­men­ta­tion again­st slav­ery is based in Friends by-then well-established tes­ti­mony again­st war (yes, again­st war, not for peace). Slav­ery is indeed a state of war and it is on so many lev­els – from the indi­vid­u­als treat­ing each oth­er hor­ri­bly, to soci­etal norms con­struct­ed to make this seem nor­mal, to the economies of nation states built on the trade.

Woolman’s con­cep­tu­al leap was to say that the peace tes­ti­mony applied to slav­ery. If we as Friends don’t par­tic­i­pate in war, then we sim­i­lar­ly can’t par­tic­i­pate in the slave trade or enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of that trade – the war prof­it of cot­tons, dyes, rum, etc.

Today, what else is war? I think we have it hard­er than Wool­man. In the sev­en­teen­th cen­tu­ry a high per­cent­age of one’s con­sum­ables came from a tight geo­graph­ic radius. You were like­ly to know the labor that pro­duced it. Now almost noth­ing comes local­ly. If it’s cheap­er to grow gar­lic in Chi­na and ship it halfway around the world than it is to pay local farm­ers, then our local gro­cer will sell Chi­ne­se gar­lic (mine does). Books and mag­a­zi­nes are sup­plant­ed by elec­tron­ics built in locked-down Far East­ern sweat­shops.

But I think we can find ways to dis­en­gage. It’s a never-ending process but we can take steps and sup­port oth­ers tak­ing steps. We’ve got­ten it stuck in our imag­i­na­tion that war is a protest sign out­side Dunk­in Donuts. What about those tutor­ing pro­grams? What about reduc­ing our cloth­ing con­sump­tions and find­ing ways to reduce nat­u­ral resource con­sump­tion (best done by lim­it­ing our­selves to lifestyles that cause us to need less resources).

And Yoder? Wess is dis­heart­ened by the sex­u­al mis­con­duct of Men­non­ite paci­fist John Howard Yoder (short sto­ry: he reg­u­lar­ly groped and sex­u­al­ly pres­sured wom­en). But what of him? Of course he’s a fail­ure. In a way, that’s the point, even the plan: human heroes will fail us. Cocks will crow and will we stay silent (why the denom­i­na­tion kept it hush-hush for 15 years after his death is anoth­er whole WTF, of course). But why do I call it the plan? Because we need to be taught to rely first and sec­ond and always on the Spir­it of Jesus. George Fox fig­ured that out:

And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had noth­ing out­ward­ly to help me, nor could I tell what to do; then, oh! then I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy con­di­tion’: and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. …and this I knew exper­i­men­tal­ly. My desires after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowl­edge of God, and of Christ alone, with­out the help of any man, book, or writ­ing.

If young Fox had found a human hero that actu­al­ly walked the talk, he might have short-circuited the search for Jesus. He need­ed to expe­ri­ence the dis­heart­ened fail­ure of human knowl­edge to be low enough to be ready for his great spir­i­tu­al open­ing.

We all use iden­ti­ty to prop our­selves up and iso­late our­selves from cri­tique. I think that’s just part of the human con­di­tion. The path toward the divine is not one of retrench­ment or dis­avowal, but rather focus on that one who might even now be prepar­ing us for new light on the con­di­tions of the human con­di­tion and church uni­ver­sal.

Cornerstone Fellowship

Cornerstone FellowshipCor­ner­stone is a rel­a­tive­ly new church plant in Smithville, Atlantic Coun­ty, New Jer­sey. They’re site is a sim­ple design built in Mov­able Type using off-the-shelf tem­plates to keep the bud­get down. The most excit­ing part of the site is the pod­cast ser­mons and the abil­i­ty to ask Bible ques­tions and make prayer requests from the home­page. I’m most hap­py to see the church using the site and updat­ing it reg­u­lar­ly!

Pas­tor Fred Schwenger also has a new local con­nec­tion: he and a part­ner have just opened Supe­ri­or Auto­mo­tive here in Ham­mon­ton at 880 S White Horse Pike! 

Vis­it: Cor​ner​stone​Fel​low​shipOn​line​.com

Conflict in meeting and the role of heartbreak and testing

A few weeks ago a newslet­ter brought writ­ten reports about the lat­est round of con­flict at a local meet­ing that’s been fight­ing for the past 180 years or so. As my wife and I read through it we were a bit under­whelmed by the accounts of the newest con­flict res­o­lu­tion attempts. The medi­a­tors seemed more wor­ried about alien­at­ing a few long-term dis­rup­tive char­ac­ters than about pre­serv­ing the spir­i­tu­al vital­i­ty of the meet­ing. It’s a phe­nom­e­na I’ve seen in a lot of Quak­er meet­ings.

Call it the FDR Prin­ci­ple after Franklin D Roo­sevelt, who sup­pos­ed­ly defend­ed his sup­port of one of Nicaragua’s most bru­tal dic­ta­tors by say­ing “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Even casu­al his­to­ri­ans of Lat­in Amer­i­can his­to­ry will know this only led to fifty years of wars with rever­ber­a­tions across the world with the Iran/Contra scan­dal. The FDR Prin­ci­ple didn’t make for good U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy and, if I may, I’d sug­gest it doesn’t make for good Quak­er pol­i­cy either. Any dis­cus­sion board mod­er­a­tor or pop­u­lar blog­ger knows that to keep an online discussion’s integri­ty you need to know when to cut a dis­rup­tive trouble-maker off – polite­ly and suc­cint­ly, but also firm­ly. If you don’t, the peo­ple there to actu­al­ly dis­cuss your issues – the peo­ple you want – will leave.

I didn’t know how to talk about this until a post called Con­flict in Meet­ing came through Live­jour­nal this past First Day. The poster, jan­drewm, wrote in part:

Yet my recog­ni­tion of all that doesn’t negate the painful feel­ings that arise when hos­til­i­ty enters the meet­ing room, when long-held grudges boil over and harsh words are spo­ken.  After a few months of reg­u­lar atten­dance at my meet­ing, I came close to aban­don­ing this “exper­i­ment” with Quak­erism because some Friends were so con­sis­tent­ly ran­corous, divi­sive, dis­rup­tive.  I had to ask myself: “Do I need this neg­a­tiv­i­ty in my life right now?”

I com­ment­ed about the need to take the tes­ti­monies seri­ous­ly:

I’ve been in that sit­u­a­tion. A lot of Friends aren’t very good at putting their foot down on fla­grant­ly dis­rup­tive behav­ior. I wish I could buy the “it even­tu­al­ly sorts out” argu­ment but it often doesn’t. I’ve seen meet­ings where all the sane peo­ple are dri­ven out, leav­ing the dis­rup­tive folks and arm­chair ther­a­pists. It’s a sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship, per­haps, but doesn’t make for a healthy spir­i­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty.

The unpop­u­lar solu­tion is for us to take our tes­ti­monies seri­ous­ly. And I mean those more speci­fic tes­ti­monies buried deep in copies in Faith & Prac­tice that act as a kind of col­lec­tive wis­dom for Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty life. Tes­ti­monies again­st detrac­tion and for right­ly ordered deci­sion mak­ing, etc. If someone’s actions tear apart the meet­ing they should be coun­seled; if they con­tin­ue to dis­rupt then their decision-making input should be dis­re­gard­ed. This is the real effect of the old much-maligned Quak­er process of dis­own­ing (which allowed con­tin­ued atten­dance at wor­ship and life in the com­mu­ni­ty but stopped busi­ness par­tic­i­pa­tion). Lim­it­ing input like this makes sense to me.

The trou­ble that if your meet­ing is in this kind of spi­ral there might not be much you can do by your­self. Peo­ple take some sort of weird com­fort in the­se pre­dictable fights and if you start talk­ing tes­ti­monies you might become very unpop­u­lar very quick­ly. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the bick­er­ing isn’t help­ful (of course) and just eats away your own self. Dis­tanc­ing your­self for a time might be help­ful. Get­ting involved in oth­er Quak­er venues. It’s a shame. Month­ly meet­ing is sup­posed to be the cen­ter of our Quak­er spir­i­tu­al life. But some­times it can’t be. I try to draw lessons from the­se cir­cum­stances. I cer­tain­ly under­stand the val­ue and need for the Quak­er tes­ti­monies bet­ter sim­ply because I’ve seen the prob­lems meet­ings face when they haven’t. But that doesn’t make it any eas­ier for you.

But all of this begs an awk­ward ques­tion: are we real­ly build­ing Christ’s king­dom by drop­ping out? It’s an age-old ten­sion between puri­ty and par­tic­i­pa­tion at all costs. Tim­o­thy asked a sim­i­lar ques­tion of me in a com­ment to my last post. Before we answer, we should rec­og­nize that there are indeed many peo­ple who have “aban­doned” their “Quak­er exper­i­ment” because we’re not liv­ing up to our own ide­als.

May­be I’m more aware of this drop-out class than oth­ers. It some­times seems like an email cor­re­spon­dence with the “Quak­er Ranter” has become the last step on the way out the door. But I also get mes­sages from seek­ers new­ly con­vinced of Quak­er prin­ci­ples but unable to con­nect local­ly because of the diver­gent prac­tices or juve­nile behav­ior of their local Friends meet­ing or church. A typ­i­cal email last week asked me why the plain Quak­ers weren’t evan­gel­i­cal and why evan­gel­i­cal Quak­ers weren’t con­ser­v­a­tive and asked “Is there a place in the quak­ers for a Plain Dress­ing, Bible Thump­ing, Gospel Preach­ing, Evan­gel­i­cal, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Spir­it Led, Charis­mat­ic fam­i­ly?” (Any­one want to sug­gest their local meet­ing?)

We should be more wor­ried about the peo­ple of integri­ty we’re los­ing than about the grumpy trouble-makers embed­ded in some of our meet­ings. If some­one is con­sis­tent­ly dis­rup­tive, is clear­ly break­ing speci­fic Quak­er tes­ti­monies we’ve lumped under com­mu­ni­ty and intergri­ty, and stub­born­ly immune to any coun­cil then read them out of busi­ness meet­ing. If the peo­ple you want in your meet­ing are leav­ing because of the peo­ple you real­ly don’t want, then it’s time to do some­thing. Our Quak­er tool­box pro­vides us tool for that action – ways to define, name and address the issues. Our tra­di­tion gives us access to hun­dreds of years of expe­ri­ence, both mis­takes and suc­cess­es, and can be a more use­ful guide than con­tem­po­rary pop psy­chol­o­gy or plain old head-burying.

Not all meet­ings have the­se prob­lems. But enough do that we’re los­ing peo­ple. And the dynam­ics get more acute when there’s a vision­ary project on the table and/or some­one younger is at the cen­ter of them. While our meet­ings sort out their issues, the inter­net is pro­vid­ing one type of sup­port life­line.

Blog­ger jan­drewm was able to seek advice and con­so­la­tion on Live­jour­nal. Some of the folks I spoke about in the 2003 “Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion” series of posts are now lurk­ing away on my Face­book friends list. May­be we can stop the full depar­ture of some of the­se Friends. They can drop back but still be involved, still engag­ing their local meet­ing. They can be read­ing and dis­cussing tes­ti­monies (“detrac­tion” is a won­der­ful place to start) so they can spot and explain behav­ior. We can use the web to coör­di­nate work­shops, online dis­cus­sions, local meet-ups, new work­ship groups, etc., but even email from a Friend thou­sands of miles away can help give us clar­i­ty and strength.

I think (I hope) we’re help­ing to forge a group of Friends with a clear under­stand­ing of the work to be done and the tech­niques of Quak­er dis­cern­ment. It’s no won­der that Quak­er bod­ies some­times fail to live up to their ide­als: the jour­nals of  olde tyme Quak­er min­is­ters are full of dis­ap­point­ing sto­ries and Chris­tian tra­di­tion is rich with tales of the road­blocks the Tempter puts up in our path. How can we learn to  cen­ter in the Lord when our meet­ings become too polit­i­cal or dis­func­tion­al (I think I should start look­ing hard­er at Anabap­tist non-resistance the­o­ry). This is the work, Friends, and it’s always been the work. Through what­ev­er comes we need to trust that any test­ing and heart­break has a pur­pose, that the Lord is using us through all, and that any suf­fer­ing will be pro­duc­tive to His pur­pose if we can keep low and lis­ten­ing for follow-up instruc­tions.