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.

How and why we gather as Friends (in the 21st Century)

On a recent evening I met up with Gath­er­ing in Light Wess, who was in Philadel­phia for a Quaker-sponsored peace con­fer­ence. Over the next few hours, six of us went out for a great din­ner, Wess and I test­ed some tes­ti­monies,
and a revolv­ing group of Friends end­ed up around a table in the
conference’s hotel lob­by talk­ing late into the night (the links are
Wess’ reviews, the­se days you can reverse stalk him through his Yelp
account). 

Of all of the many peo­ple I spoke with, only one had any kind of
fea­tured role at the con­fer­ence. With­out excep­tion my con­ver­sa­tion
part­ners were fas­ci­nat­ing and insight­ful about the issues that had
brought them to Philadel­phia, yet I sensed a per­vad­ing sense of missed
oppor­tu­ni­ty: hun­dreds of lives rearranged and thou­sands of air miles
flown most­ly to lis­ten to oth­ers talk. I spent my long com­mute home
won­der­ing what it would have been like to have spent the week­end in the
hotel lob­by record­ing ten min­ute Youtube inter­views with as many
con­fer­ence par­tic­i­pants as I could. We would have end­ed up with a
snap­shot of faith-based peace orga­niz­ing cir­ca 2009.

Next week­end I’ll be burn­ing up more of the ozone lay­er by fly­ing to Cal­i­for­nia to co-lead a work­shop with Wess and Robin M. (details at Con​ver​gent​Friends​.org,
I’m sure we can squeeze more peo­ple in!) The par­tic­i­pant list looks
fab­u­lous. I don’t know every­one but there’s at least half a dozen
peo­ple com­ing who I would be thrilled to take work­shops from. I real­ly
don’t want to spend the week­end hear­ing myself talk! I also know there
are plen­ty of peo­ple who can’t come because of com­mit­ments and costs.

So we’re going to try some exper­i­ments – they might work, they might not. On Quak­erQuak­er, there’s a new group for the event and a dis­cus­sion thread open to all QQ mem­bers (sign up is quick and pain­less). For those of you com­fort­able with the QQ tag­ging sys­tem, the Deli­cious tag for the event is “quaker.reclaiming2009”. Robin M has pro­posed using #con­ver­gent­friends as our Twit­ter hash­tag.

There’s all sorts of mad things we could try (Ustream video or live
blog­ging via Twit­ter, any­one?), wacky wacky stuff that would dis­tract
us from what­ev­er mes­sage the Inward Christ might be try­ing to give us.
But behind all this is a real ques­tions about why and how we should
gath­er togeth­er as Friends. As the bank­ing sys­tem tanks, as the envi­ron­ment
strains, as com­mu­ni­ca­tions costs drop and we find our­selves in a curi­ous new econ­o­my, what chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties open up?

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.

Focused blogs and side trips

Over on Eileen Flanagan’s Imper­fect Seren­i­ty, there’s an inter­est­ing post on blog pub­lic­i­ty, “Blog­ging dilem­mas,” inspired in part by Robin M”‘s recent “How did you get here?” post. Both bring up inter­est­ing ques­tions about the role of blogs in com­mu­ni­ty build­ing and the loca­tion of that line that sep­a­rates good blog­ging from mere self-promotion and pan­der­ing.

Read­ers will prob­a­bly be unsur­prised to learn that I use Tech­no­rati, Google Blog Search, etc., every day to keep track of the Quak­er blo­gos­phere. I act as a kind of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er and my search­es are for inter­est­ing posts talk­ing about Quak­ers (until read­ing Eileen’s post I hadn’t check my Tech­no­rati “rank” in months). Many people’s first intro­duc­tion to Quak​erQuak​er​.org is get­ting linked from it, and I sus­pect I’ve acci­den­tal­ly out­ed a few begin­ning blog­gers who hadn’t told any­one of their new blog!

I have a pro­fes­sion­al blog on web design and ana­lyt­ics (with a some­what off-topic but sat­is­fy­ing post on top at the moment) and sep­a­rat­ing that out has allowed me to use this per­son­al blog, Quak­er­Ran­ter, for what­ev­er I like. Most reg­u­lar­ly read­ers would say it focus­es on Quak­erism and cute kid pic­tures and while those are the most com­mon posts, the most read posts are the minor fas­ci­na­tions I indul­ge myself with occa­sion­al­ly. Quak­er plain dress is some­thing I prac­tice but don’t think about most of the time (806 read­ers in past mon­th). My wife and I love to bust on bad baby names and unfair­ly unpop­u­lar baby names (627 vis­its). I’ve also detailed some out­ings to semi-legendary South Jer­sey haunts (317) and score high on search­es to them.

The con­ven­tion­al wis­dom of the blog-as-publicity tool crowd would prob­a­bly say the­se off-topic posts are dis­tract­ing my core audi­ence. Per­haps, but they’re infre­quent on the blog and long-lived on Google. Besides, I think it helps peo­ple to know I’m not just obsessed with one top­ic. Being a part of a real com­mu­ni­ty means know­ing each oth­er in all of our quirks. I’m more ten­der and for­giv­ing of oth­er Quak­er blog­gers when I know more of their sto­ry: it puts what they say into a con­text that makes it sound more lived, less ide­o­log­i­cal. There’s cer­tain­ly good rea­sons for tightly-focused pro­fes­sion­al blogs (I’d drop Techcrunch from my blogroll if they start­ed post­ing kids pic­tures!), but as more peo­ple read posts through feeds and aggre­ga­tors I won­der if there’s going to be as much pres­sure for per­son­al, community-oriented blogs to be as single-minded in their focus. 

We all have diverse, quirky inter­ests so why not indul­ge them? I have seen blogs that try too hard to pan­der to par­tic­u­lar audi­ences and boy, are they bor­ing! A cer­tain degree of idio­syn­crasy and sub­jec­tive orner­i­ness is prob­a­bly essen­tial. Per­son­al­i­ty is at least as impor­tant as focus.

PS: I’m also inter­est­ed in mak­ing sure I don’t loose the core audi­ence with all my side trips, hence the “lat­est Quak­er posts” at the top of the page. I have at least one request for a Quaker-only RSS feed and will even­tu­al­ly get that going.
PPS: As if on queue, the next post in Google Read­er after Eileen’s is Avin­ish Kaushik’s Blog Met­rics: Six rec­om­men­da­tions for mea­sur­ing your suc­cess. Parts of it are prob­a­bly a bit tech­ni­cal for most QR read­ers but it’s use­ful for think­ing about blogs as out­reach.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”

Just fin­ished a quick read of Mal­colm Gladwell’s “The Tip­ping Point: How Lit­tle Things Can Make a Big Dif­fer­ence.” I remem­ber devour­ing some of the orig­i­nal pieces in _The New Yorker_ and was thrilled when a friend loaned me a copy of the book.

Con­tin­ue read­ing

Michael Kinsley: Did it matter if Iraq didn’t have WMD?

By now, WMD have tak­en on a mythic role in which fact doesn’t play much of a part. The phrase itself – ‘weapons of mass destruc­tion’ – is more like an incan­ta­tion than a descrip­tion of any­thing in par­tic­u­lar.”

Here’s a nos­tal­gic list­ing of Bush Admin­is­tra­tion quotes assur­ing us WMDs exist­ed. (Thanks toStuffed­Dog for the link)