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.

Baby name popularity trendsetters?

The most pop­u­lar post on my blog, year after year (and now decade after decade), is a 2005 piece on baby names: Unpop­u­lar Baby Names: Avoid­ing the Jacobs, Emilys and Madis­ons. We used the tech­niques list­ed to aid in our attempt to give our own kids clas­sic names that wouldn’t be overused among their peers. The 2015 num­bers are out from the Social Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion. How did we do? The charts below shows the respec­tive rank­ings from 2015 to the year they were born.

theodore

francis

gregory

laura

The names of our two “babies” — Gre­go­ry, 5, and Lau­ra, 4, are both less pop­u­lar now than they were the year we named them. Yea! They’re both in the low 300s – viable names but far from overused.

Fran­cis, now 10, was drop­ping in pop­u­lar­i­ty and drop­ping into the low 600s. With that trend, we actu­al­ly wor­ried about the name becom­ing too unpop­u­lar. But an uptick start­ed in 2010 and became pro­nounced in 2013 when an Argen­tini­an named Jorge Mar­io Bergoglio decid­ed to start call­ing him­self Fran­cis. The name is now in the high 400s.

The pop­u­lar­i­ty of our eldest son’s name, Theodore (“I’m Theo!, don’t call me Theodore!”), start­ed off in the low 300s was hold­ing steady with­in a 20-point range for years until around 2009. In 2015 it cracked the top 100. It’s only at 99 but clear­ly something’s hap­pen­ing. Equal­ly dis­turbing, “Theo” wasn’t even on the top 1000 until 2010, when it snuck in at posi­tion 918. Since then it’s leap 100 spots a year. It’s cur­rent­ly at 408 with no sign of slow­ing.

And for those of you look­ing to spot trends: did we just call our names ear­ly? May­be “Fran­cis” isn’t a slow climb but is about the go shoot­ing for the top 100 in two years time. May­be “Gre­go­ry” and “Lau­ra” will be all the rage for moth­ers come 2020. Yikes!

Liz (Betsy) Klein(top) aka Mom

My mom Liz just passed away tonight. It’s not unex­pect­ed. And sad­ly, given her health, it’s per­haps not even so trag­ic; she’s been declin­ing for years from Alzheimer’s and all but stopped eat­ing in recent weeks. I’m sure I’ll find voice to tell some sto­ries in the months ahead, but for now I’ll share some pic­tures. She would have turned 85 next mon­th.

A note about names: she was born in late sum­mer 1930 as Eliz­a­beth Ann Klein­top. In her adult life she went as Bet­sy and took the last names of her part­ners. In her late 60s she decid­ed to take back a vari­a­tion of her last name and overnight Bet­sy Kel­ley became Liz Klein.

A modern-day Commonplace Book?

From a post by Jamie Todd Rubin, \”Going Paperless: How Penultimate and Evernote Have Replaced My Pocket Notebook,\” I\’ve learned the concept of the \”Commonplace Book,\” which he attributes it to Jefferson:

The notion for the “commonplace book” comes from Thomas Jefferson, who used just such a book to capture pretty much anything: passages from books he was reading, notes, sketches, you name it.

Wikipedia takes it further back in its entry on Commonplace books. The name comes from the latin locus communis and the form got its start in a new form of fifteen-century bound journal:

Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator\’s particular interests.

I really like this idea. I\’ve been thinking a lot about workflows recently (and listening to way too many geek podcasts on my commute). I\’ve been muddling my way toward something like this. I\’m currently using Evernote to log a lot of my life but there\’s scraps of interesting tidbits that have no home. An example from half an hour ago: I was listening to Pandora the train when along came an unfamiliar song I wanted to remember for later. A Commonplace book would be a natural place to record this information (First Aid Kit\’s Lion\’s Roar if you must know, think Bonnie Raitt steps out with Townes van Zandt for a secret assignation at a Stockholm open mic night.)

Of course, being a twenty-first century digital native, my workflow would be electronic. What I imagine is a single Evernote page that holds a month\’s worth of the bits that come along. I have something similar with a log, a single file with one line entries (lots of Ifttt automations like logged Foursquare check-ins, along with notes-to-self of milestones like issues sent to press, etc.). I\’ll start setting this up.

Reach up high, clear off the dust, time to get started

It’s been a fas­ci­nat­ing edu­ca­tion learn­ing about insti­tu­tion­al Catholi­cism the­se past few weeks. I won’t reveal how and what I know, but I think I have a good pic­ture of the cul­ture inside the bishop’s inner cir­cle and I’m pret­ty sure I under­stand his long-term agen­da. The cur­rent lightening-fast clo­sure of sixty-some church­es is the first step of an ambi­tious plan; man­u­fac­tured priest short­ages and soon-to-be over­crowd­ed church­es will be used to jus­ti­fy even more rad­i­cal changes. In about twen­ty years time, the 125 church­es that exist today will have been sold off. What’s left of a half mil­lion faith­ful will be herd­ed into a dozen or so mega-churches, with the­ol­o­gy bor­rowed from gener­ic lib­er­al­ism, style from feel-good evan­gel­i­cal­ism, and orga­ni­za­tion from con­sul­tant cul­ture.

When dioce­san offi­cials come by to read this blog (and they do now), they will smile at that last sen­tence and nod their heads approv­ing­ly. The con­spir­a­cy is real.

But I don’t want to talk about Catholi­cism again. Let’s talk Quak­ers instead, why not? I should be in some meet­ing for wor­ship right now any­way. Julie left Friends and returned to the faith of her upbring­ing after eleven years with us because she want­ed a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty that shared a basic faith and that wasn’t afraid to talk about that faith as a cor­po­rate “we.” It seems that Catholi­cism won’t be able to offer that in a few years. Will she run then run off to the East­ern Ortho­dox church? For that mat­ter should I be run­ning off to the Men­non­ites? See though, the prob­lem is that the same issues will face us wherever we try to go. It’s mod­ernism, baby. No focused and authen­tic faith seems to be safe from the Forces of the Bland. Lord help us.

We can blog the ques­tions of course. Why would some­one who dis­likes Catholic cul­ture and wants to dis­man­tle its infra­struc­ture become a priest and a career bureau­crat? For that mat­ter why do so many peo­ple want to call them­selves Quak­ers when they can’t stand basic Quak­er the­ol­o­gy? If I want­ed lots of com­ments I could go on blah-blah-blah, but ulti­mate­ly the ques­tion is futile and beyond my fig­ur­ing.

Anoth­er piece to this issue came in some ques­tions Wess Daniels sent around to me and a few oth­ers this past week in prepa­ra­tion for his upcom­ing pre­sen­ta­tion at Wood­brooke. He asked about how a par­tic­u­lar Quak­er insti­tu­tion did or did not rep­re­sent or might or might not be able to con­tain the so-called “Con­ver­gent” Friends move­ment. I don’t want to bust on any­one so I won’t name the orga­ni­za­tion. Let’s just say that like pret­ty much all Quak­er bureau­cra­cies it’s inward-focused, shal­low in its pub­lic state­ments, slow to take ini­tia­tive and more or less irrel­e­vant to any cam­paign to gath­er a great peo­ple. A more suc­cess­ful Quak­er bureau­cra­cy I could name seems to be doing well in fundrais­ing but is doing less and less with more and more staff and seems more inter­est­ed in donor-focused hype than long-term pro­gram imple­men­ta­tion.

One ene­my of the faith is bureau­cra­cy. Real lead­er­ship has been replaced by con­sul­tants and fundrais­ers. Finan­cial and staffing crises – real and cre­at­ed – are used to jus­ti­fy a water­ing down of the mes­sage. Pro­grams are dri­ven by donor mon­ey rather than clear need and when real work might require con­tro­ver­sy, it’s tabled for the façade of feel-goodism. Quak­er read­ers who think I’m talk­ing about Quak­ers: no I’m talk­ing about Catholics. Catholic read­ers who think I’m talk­ing about Catholics: no, I’m talk­ing about Quak­ers. My point is that the­se forces are tear­ing down reli­gios­i­ty all over. Some cheer this devel­op­ment on. I think it’s evil at work, the Tempter using our leader’s desires for posi­tion and respect and our the desires of our laity’s (for lack of a bet­ter word) to trust and think the best of its lead­ers.

So where does that leave us? I’m tired of think­ing that may­be if I try one more Quak­er meet­ing I’ll find the com­mu­ni­ty where I can prac­tice and deep­en my faith as a Chris­tian Friend. I’m stumped. That first batch of Friends knew this feel­ing: Fox and the Pen­ing­tons and all the rest talked about iso­la­tion and about reli­gious pro­fes­sion­als who were in it for the career. I know from the blo­gos­phere and from count­less one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions that there are a lot of us – a lot – who either drift away or stay in meet­ings out of a sense of guilt.

So what would a spir­i­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty for the­se out­sider Friends look like? If we had real vision rather than donor vision, what would our struc­tures look like? If we let the gener­ic church­es go off to out-compete one oth­er to see who can be the bland­est, what would be left for the rest of us to do?

20080608-xcjchpscnwekhsh85kg2hr7nbf.previewI guess this last para­graph is the new revised mis­sion state­ment for the Quak­er part of this blog. Okay kids, get a step stool, go to your meet­ing library, reach up high, clear away the dust and pull out vol­ume one of “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” by Thomas Clark­son. Yes the 1806 ver­sion, stop the grum­bling. Get out the ribbed pack­ing tape and put its cov­er back togeth­er – this isn’t the frig­ging Library of Con­gress and we’re actu­al­ly going to read this thing. Don’t even waste your time check­ing it out in the meeting’s log­book: no one’s pulled it down off the shelf in fifty years and no one’s going to miss it now. Real­ly stuck?, okay Google’s got it too. Class will start short­ly.