I guess folks might wonder why the son of the Quaker Ranter is getting baptized in a Roman Catholic church…
An updated note before I start: I don’t want this to be seen as a critique or put-down of any particular individuals but to point out what seems to me to be a pretty obvious larger dynamic within Quakerism: our religious education programs have not been doing a very good job at transmitting our faith to our young people. One measure of such programs is how many children we retain as actively-participating adults; by such measures I think we can say Quakers are failing.
And, a few perhaps obvious disclaimers: 1) there are deeply faithful people who grew up in Young Friends programs; 2) there are religious ed instructors who are worried about the message we’re giving our young people and fret as I do; 3) there are a lot of members of the RSoF who just don’t think teaching distinctly Quaker faithfulness is important and wouldn’t agree that there’s a problem.
I don’t think it’s useful to read this without also looking to my early article, The Lost Quaker Generation, which mourns the friends I’ve seen drop out of Quakerism (many of them “birthright,” i.e., born into Quaker families), and We’re all Ranters Now, which argues that our society of seekers needs to become a society of finders if we are to be able to articulate a faith to transmit.
On June 30, 2000, Julie and I met at a national gathering of Quakers. Fourteen months later we were married at the Woodstown Friends Meetinghouse under the care of the Atlantic City Area Friends Meeting. Roughly fourteen months later, when the sparkles in our eyes were meeting with an approving nod from God and our baby was conceived, I was co-clerk of Atlantic City Area Meeting and Julie was clerk of its Outreach Committee. Ten months later, our infant son Theo was baptized at Mater Ecclesiae Roman Catholic Church in Berlin, N.J. It’s Julie’s new church; I myself remain Quaker, but without a Meeting I can quite call home. What happened?
I don’t want to try to speak for Julie and why she left Friends to return to the faith she was brought up in. But I do have to testify that the reverence, spirit and authenticity of the worship at Mater Ecclesiae is deeper than that in most Friends Meetinghouses. It’s a church with a lot of members who seem to believe in the real presence of Christ. A disclaimer that Mater Ecclesiae is unusual, one of the few churches in the country that uses the traditional Tridentine Mass or Roman Rite, and that it attracts ardent followers who have self-selected themselves, in that they’re not going to their local parish church. I don’t think it’s the Catholicism alone that draws Julie–I think the purposefulness of the worshipers is a large piece. Despite all the distractions (chants, Latin, rote confessions of faith: I’m speaking as a Friend), the worship there is unusually gathered. But more: there’s a groundedness to the faith. In a one-on-one conversation the priest explained to me the ways he thought Quakerism was wrong. I wasn’t offended–quite the contrary, I loved it! It was so refreshing to meet someone who believed what he believed, (Hey, if I didn’t believe in the degeneration of the Roman Catholic Church or the empty professions of hireling priests, I might join him. I also feel comfortable predicting that he would welcome my jousting here.)
What I can talk about is my misgivings about the prospect of raising up Theo as a Quaker in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The weakest element of the Religious Society of Friends is its children’s religious education. This is something I’ve seen manifested in two different kinds of ways: content and results.
Quakers have remarkably few expectations of their children. It’s considered remarkable if older children spend a whole ten minutes in Meeting for Worship (I’ve heard adult birthright Friends boast that they’ve never sat through a whole hour of Quaker worship). Quakers are obsessed about listening to what children have to say, and so never share with them what they believe. I’ve known adults birthright Friends who have never had conversations with their parents about the basis of their faith.
Quaker religious education programs often forgo teaching traditional Quaker faith and practice for more faddish beliefs. The basement walls of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting youth center is painted over with dancing gods, while of the big events of the Young Friends’ annual calendar is a “Quaker sweat lodge”. A culture of touch and physicality (“cuddle puddles”, backrubs) is thought charming and immodest dress is considered a sign of rebellious individuality. Quaker schools publish brochures saying Meeting for Worship is all about “thinking, with God given little notice.” When Quakers want to have “intergenerational” worship, they feel they have to program it with some sort of attention-keeping playtime activity (Mater Ecclesiae echoes Quaker tradition here: “intergenerational” means children sitting through and participating in Mass with the adults).
Too many of the people my age and Julie’s who were brought up at Friends are ignorant of basic Quaker beliefs and are unaware of Quaker traditions (FUM, EFI, Conservatives) outside the easy-going East Coast liberalism they were raised in. For them being a Friend is acting a certain way, believing a certain brand of political philosophy and being part of a certain social group. Too many Young Adult Friends I’ve known over the years are cliquish, irreligious, and have more than their share of issues around intimacy and sexuality.
Don’t get me wrong: these kids are often really good people, children to be proud of, doing great things in the world. Many of them are open-hearted, spiritually-sensitive, and in deeply grounded relationships. But only a very few are practicing Quakers. And when I look at the religious education they get, I can’t say I’m surprised. If I were to raise Theo as a Quaker, I would have to “home school” him away from most of the religious education programs offered locally. When all the kids scramble out of worship after ten minutes I’d have to say “no” and tell him to keep sitting–how weird would that be?
Theo has a better chance of sharing the traditional Quaker values of the presence of Christ, of Holy Obedience, and of bearing the cross by being raised as a Catholic in a traditionalist church. It’s more likely he’ll turn out Quaker if he’s baptised at Mater Ecclesiae. Julie and I will be teaching him reverence by example. I’ll share my Quaker faith with him. I’m sure he’ll participate in Quaker events, but consciously, selectively, guardedly (in the old Quaker sense).
If Friends believe they have a faith worth holdling, they should also believe they have a faith worth passing on. Do we?
- Beckey Phipps conducted a series of interviews that touched on many of these issues and published it in FGConnections. FGC Religious Education: Lessons for the 21st Century asks many of the right questions. My favorite line: “It is the most amazing thing, all the kids that I know that have gone into [Quaker] leadership programs–they’ve disappeared.”
- I touch on these issues from the other side in The Lost Quaker Generation, which is about the twenty– and thirty-something Friends that have drifted away