We’re now casting about for articles for a Friends Journal issue on “The Art of Dying and the Afterlife.” I’m interested to see what we’ll get. Every so often someone will ask me about Quaker belief in the afterlife. I’ve always found it rather remarkable that I don’t have any satisfying canonical answer to give them. While individuals Friends might have various theories, I don’t see the issue come up all that often in early Friends theology.
But Friends has folk customs and beliefs too. The deceased body wasn’t unduly venerated. They recycled grave plots without much concern. I can think of a couple of historic Quaker burial grounds in Philly that have been repurposed for activities deemed more practical to the living. The philosophy of green burial is catching up with Quakers’ practice, a fascinating coming-around.
It also seems there’s a strong old Quaker culture of face impeding death with equanimity. That makes sense given Friends’ modesty around individual achievements. There’s a practicality that I see in many older Friends as they age. I’d be curious to hear from Friends who have had insights on aging as they age and also caretakers and families and hospice chaplains who have accompanied Friends though death.
Writing submissions for our issue on “The Art of Dying and the Afterlife” are due May 8. You can learn about writing for us at:
How do Friends approach the end of life? We’re living longer and dying longer. How do we make decisions on end-of-life care for ourselves and our loved ones? Do Quakers have insight into what happens after we die? Submissions due 5/8/2017.
ps: But of course we’re not just a dead tradition. There are many healers who have revived ideas of Quaker healing. We have a high proportion of mainstream medical healers as well as those following more mystical healing paths. If that’s of interest to you, never fear: October 2017 will be an issue on healing!).
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.
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.
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.
Here at Friends Journal, we're very lucky to have some very committed volunteers. Karie Firoozmand and Eileen Redden sends books out to dozens of volunteer readers and pull the results together into our monthly books column. Rosemary Zimmerman reads through all the poetry that comes in, carefully selecting pieces to appear in the magazine. Mary Julia Street reworks the birth notices and obituaries that come in to include more interesting details than you get in most newspaper listings.
Last year we won the "Best in Class" award from the Associated Church Press. We're proud, of course, but I was pleasantly. Compared to most denominational magazines, Friends Journal is crazily understaffed. Forgive the pugilistic metaphor, but these volunteer editors are a big reason we punch above our weight. Cutting through cultural static and the manufactured busyness of modern life and reach seekers is a never-ending challenge. Think about whether you might be led to work with us on this
The extended deadline is January 16th. MLK Day. Learn more at:
The new issue of Friends Journal is available online. This month looks at Giving and Philanthropy. There’s some good reflections from Friends on why they give to the causes and institutions they do. There’s also a nice piece from Quaker fundraiser Henry Freeman on the “language of Quaker values.” If you’re trying to unpack what it means to be Quaker, this on-the-ground perspective is one way to parse out the reality of Quaker testimonies.
Yesterday I had a nice video chat with my friend Greg Woods, whose article, Organizing Young Adult Friends Online, appeared in November’s Friends Journal. Greg and I have been having variations on this conversation for years. Back in 2011, we worked together alongside Stephen Dotson to put together a now-dated Young Adult Friends website (watch us eat in double-time in its promotional video!). I believe it was the fourth YAF organizing website I had built since the mid-90s. Greg is now putting together a network of Quaker campus ministries. It’s one of those obvious needs that I hope Friends will support.
A Quaker educator recently told me he had appreciated something I wrote about the way Quaker culture plays out in Quaker schools. It was a 2012 blog post, Were Friends part of Obama’s Evolution?
It was a bit of a random post at the time. I had read a widely shared interview that afternoon and was mulling over the possibilities of a behind-the-scenes Quaker influence. This sort of randomness happens frequently but in the rush of work and family I don’t always take the time to blog it. That day I did and a few years later it influence spline on some small way.
It reminds me of an old observation: the immediate boost we get when friends comment in our blog posts or like a Facebook update is an immediate hit of dopamine — exciting and ego gratifying. But the greater effect often comes months and years later when someone finds something of yours that they’re searching for. This delayed readership may be one of the greatest differences between blogging and Facebooking.