Predictions on the ‘new evangelical’ movement

Read­ers over on Quak​erQuak​er​.org will know I’ve been inter­est­ed in the tem­pest sur­round­ing evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor Rob Bell. A pop­u­lar min­is­ter for the Youtube gen­er­a­tion, con­tro­ver­sy over his new book has revealed some deep fis­sures among younger Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians. I’ve been fas­ci­nat­ed by this since 2003, when I start­ed real­iz­ing I had a lot of com­mon­al­i­ties with main­stream Chris­t­ian blog­gers who I would have nat­u­ral­ly dis­missed out of hand. When they wrote about the authen­tic­i­ty of wor­ship, decision-making in the church and the need to walk the talk and also to walk the line between truth and com­pas­sion, they spoke to my con­cerns (most of my read­ing since then has been blogs, pre-twentieth cen­tu­ry Quak­er writ­ings and the Bible).

Today Jaime John­son tweet­ed out a link to a new piece by Rachel Held Evans called “The Future of Evan­gel­i­cal­ism.” She does a nice job pars­ing out the dif­fer­ences between the two camps squar­ing off over Rob Bell. On the one side is a cen­tral­ized move­ment of neo-Calvinists she calls Young, Rest­less, Reformed after a 2006 Chris­tian­i­ty Today arti­cle. I have lit­tle to no inter­est in this crowd except for mild aca­d­e­m­ic curios­i­ty. But the oth­er side is what she’s dub­bing “the new evangelicals”:

The sec­ond group — some­times referred to as “the new evan­gel­i­cals” or “emerg­ing evan­gel­i­cals” or “the evan­gel­i­cal left” is sig­nif­i­cant­ly less orga­nized than the first, but con­tin­ues to grow at a grass­roots lev­el. As Paul Markhan wrote in an excel­lent essay about the phe­nom­e­non, young peo­ple who iden­ti­fy with this move­ment have grown weary of evangelicalism’s alle­giance to Repub­li­can pol­i­tics, are inter­est­ed in pur­su­ing social reform and social jus­tice, believe that the gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and are eager to be a part of inclu­sive, diverse, and authen­tic Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties. “Their broad­en­ing sense of social respon­si­bil­i­ty is push­ing them to rethink many of the fun­da­men­tal the­o­log­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tions char­ac­ter­is­tic of their evan­gel­i­cal tra­di­tions,” Markham noted.

This is the group that intrigues me. There’s a lot of cross-over here with some of what I’m see­ing with Quak­ers. In an ide­al world, the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends would open its arms to this new wave of seek­ers, espe­cial­ly as they hit the lim­its of denom­i­na­tion­al tol­er­ance. But in real­i­ty, many of the East Coast meet­ings I’m most famil­iar with wouldn’t know what to do with this crowd. In Philly if you’re inter­est­ed in this con­ver­sa­tion you go to Cir­cle of Hope (pre­vi­ous posts), not any of the estab­lished Quak­er meetings.

Evans makes some edu­cat­ed guess­es about the future of the “new evan­gel­i­cal” move­ment. She thinks there will be more dis­cus­sion about the role of the Bible, though I would say it’s more dis­cus­sion fo the var­i­ous Chris­t­ian inter­pre­ta­tions of it. She also fore­sees a loos­en­ing of labels and denom­i­na­tion­al affil­i­a­tions. I’m see­ing some of this hap­pen­ing among Friends, though it’s almost com­plete­ly on the indi­vid­ual lev­el, at least here on the East Coast. It will be inter­est­ing to see how this shakes out over the next few years and whether it will bypass, engage with or siphon off the Soci­ety of Friends. In the mean­time, Evans’ post and the links she embeds in it are well worth exploring.

Opening Doors and Moving on Up

Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence has announced that Bar­ry Cross­no will be their new incom­ing Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary. Old time blog­gers will remem­ber him as the blog­ger behind The Quak­er Dhar­ma. FGC’s just pub­lished an inter­view with him and one of the ques­tions is about his blog­ging past. Here’s part of the answer:

Blog­ging among Friends is very impor­tant.  There are not a lot of Quak­ers.  We’re spread out across the world.  Blog­ging opens up dia­logues that just wouldn’t hap­pen oth­er­wise.  While I laid down my blog, “The Quak­er Dhar­ma,” a few years ago, and my think­ing on some issues has evolved since then, I’m clear that blog­ging is what allowed me to give voice to my call.  It helped open some of the doors that led me to work for Pen­dle Hill and, now by exten­sion, FGC.  A lot of cut­ting edge Quak­er thought is being shared through blogs.

I thought it might be use­ful to fill in a lit­tle bit of this sto­ry. If you go read­ing through the back com­ments on Barry’s blog you’ll see it’s a time machine into the ear­ly Quak­er blog­ging com­mu­ni­ty. I first post­ed about his blog in Feb­ru­ary of 2005 with Quak­er Dhar­ma: Let the Light Shine and I high­light­ed him reg­u­lar­ly (March, April, June) until the proto-QuakerQuaker “Blog Watch” start­ed run­ning. There I fea­tured him twice that June and twice more in August, the most active peri­od of his blogging.

It’s nos­tal­gic to look through the com­menters: Joe G., Peter­son Toscano, Mitchell San­tine Gould, Dave Carl, Bar­bara Q, Robin M, Brandice (Quak­er Mon­key), Eric Muhr, Nan­cy A… There were some good dis­cus­sions. Barry’s most exu­ber­ant post was Let’s Begin, and LizOpp and I espe­cial­ly labored with him to ground what was a very clear and obvi­ous lead­ing by hook­ing up with oth­er Friends local­ly and nation­al­ly who were inter­est­ed in these efforts. I offered my help in hook­ing him up with FGC  and he wrote back “If you know peo­ple at oth­er Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions that you wish me to speak to and coör­di­nate with or pos­si­bly work for, I will.”

And that’s what I did. My super­vi­sor, FGC Devel­op­ment head Michael Waj­da, was plan­ning a trip to Texas and I start­ed talk­ing up Bar­ry Cross­no. I had a hunch they’d like each oth­er. I told Michael that Bar­ry had a lot of expe­ri­ence and a very clear lead­ing but need­ed to spend some time grow­ing as a Quak­er – an incu­ba­tion peri­od, if you will, among ground­ed Friends. In the first part of the FGC inter­view he mov­ing­ly talks about the ground­ing his time at Pen­dle Hill has giv­en him.

In Octo­ber 2006 he announced he was clos­ing a blog that had become large­ly dor­mant. It’s worth quot­ing that first for­mal goodbye:

I want to thank those of you who chose to active­ly par­tic­i­pate. I learned a lot through our exchanges and I think there were many peo­ple who ben­e­fit­ed from many of the posts you left. On a pure­ly per­son­al note, I learned that it’s good to tem­per my need to GO DO NOW. Some of you real­ly helped men­tor me con­cern­ing effec­tive­ly lis­ten­ing to guid­ance and help­ing me under­stand that act­ing local­ly may be bet­ter than try­ing to take on the whole world at once.

I also want to share that I met some peo­ple and made con­tacts through this process that have opened tremen­dous doors for me and my abil­i­ty to put myself in ser­vice to oth­ers. For this I am deeply grate­ful. I feel sure that some of these ties will live on past the clos­ing of the Quak­er Dharma.

Those of you famil­iar with pieces like The Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion and Pass­ing the Faith, Plan­et of the Quak­ers Style know I’ve long been wor­ried that we’ve not doing a good job iden­ti­fy­ing, sup­port­ing and retain­ing vision­ary new Friends. Around 2004 I stopped com­plain­ing (most­ly) and just start­ed look­ing for oth­ers who also held this con­cern. The online orga­niz­ing has spilled over into real world con­fer­ences and work­shops and is much big­ger than one web­site or small group. Now we see “grad­u­ates” of this net­work start­ing to take on real-world responsibilities.

Barry’s a bright guy with a strong lead­ing and a healthy ambi­tion. He would have cer­tain­ly made some­thing of him­self with­out the blogs and the “doors” opened up by myself and oth­ers. But it would have cer­tain­ly tak­en him longer to crack the Philadel­phia scene and I think it very like­ly that FGC would have announced a dif­fer­ent Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary this week if it weren’t for the blogs.

Quak­erQuak­er almost cer­tain­ly has more future Gen­er­al Sec­re­taries in its mem­ber­ship rolls. But it would be a shame to focus on that or to imply that the pin­na­cle of a Quak­er lead­ing is mov­ing to Philadel­phia. Many parts of the Quak­er world are already too enthralled by it’s staff lists. What we need is to extend a cul­ture of every­day Friends ready to bold­ly exclaim the Good News – to love God and their neigh­bor and to leap with joy by the pres­ence of the Inward Christ. Friends’ cul­ture shouldn’t focus on staffing, flashy pro­grams or fundrais­ing hype.  At the end of the day, spir­i­tu­al out­reach is a one-on-one activ­i­ty. It’s peo­ple spend­ing the time to find one anoth­er, share their spir­i­tu­al jour­ney and share oppor­tu­ni­ties to grow in their faith.

Quak­erQuak­er has evolved a lot since 2005. It now has a team of edi­tors, dis­cus­sion boards, Face­book and Twit­ter streams, and the site itself reach­es over 100,000 read­ers a year. But it’s still about find­ing each oth­er and encour­ag­ing each oth­er. I think we’ve proven that these over­lap­ping, dis­trib­uted, largely-unfunded online ini­tia­tives can play a crit­i­cal out­reach role for the Soci­ety of Friends. What would it look like for the “old style” Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions to start sup­port­ing inde­pen­dent Quak­er social media? And how could our net­works rein­vig­o­rate cash-strapped Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions with fresh faces and new mod­els of com­mu­ni­ca­tion? Those are ques­tions for anoth­er post.

That of God via William Penn

Asked what we believe many mod­ern Friends will reply “That there is that of God in every­one.” It’s an ear­ly Quak­er phrase but what exact­ly do we mean by it? Part of its cur­rent pop­u­lar­i­ty is its ambi­gu­i­ty. We live in a fierce­ly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic age and it can be read as a call to per­son­al inde­pen­dence: “I don’t need to care what you think because I’ve got that of God in me!”

So it’s use­ful to read William Penn’s thoughts on spir­i­tu­al indi­vid­u­al­ism in The Rise and Progress of the Peo­ple Called Quak­ers. He’s talk­ing about those mem­bers of the still-new Soci­ety of Friends who had become the “great­est trou­ble,” who “fought domin­ion over conscience”:

They would have had every Man inde­pen­dent, that as he had the Prin­ci­ple in him­self, he should only stand and fall to that, and no Body else: Not con­sid­er­ing that the Prin­ci­ple is one in all and though the Mea­sure of Light or Grace might dif­fer, yet the Nature of it was the same; and being so, the struck at the Spir­i­tu­al Uni­ty, which a Peo­ple, guid­ed by the same Prin­ci­ple, are nat­u­ral­ly led into: So that what is an Evil to one, is so to all, from the Sense and Savour of the one uni­ver­sal Prin­ci­ple which is com­mon to all, and which the Dis­af­fect­ed also pro­fess to be the Root of all true Chris­t­ian Fel­low­ship, and that Spir­it into which the Peo­ple of God drink, and come to be Spiritually-minded, and of one Heart and one Soul.

For Penn, that of God is the spir­it of the inward Christ – a spir­it we can drink from to find spir­i­tu­al uni­ty. It is an author­i­ty root­ed not in our own human weak­ness but in  uni­ver­sal spir­i­tu­al truths that are acces­si­ble to all.

Going lowercase christian with Thomas Clarkson

Vist­ing 1806’s “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”

Thomas Clark­son wasn’t a Friend. He didn’t write for a Quak­er audi­ence. He had no direct expe­ri­ence of (and lit­tle appar­ent inter­est in) any peri­od that we’ve retroac­tive­ly claimed as a “gold­en age of Quak­erism.” Yet all this is why he’s so interesting.

The basic facts of his life are summed up in his Wikipedia entry (http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​T​h​o​m​a​s​_​C​l​a​r​k​son), which begins: “Thomas Clark­son (28 March 1760 – 26 Sep­tem­ber 1846), abo­li­tion­ist, was born at Wis­bech, Cam­bridgeshire, Eng­land, and became a lead­ing cam­paign­er against the slave trade in the British Empire.” The only oth­er nec­es­sary piece of infor­ma­tion to our sto­ry is that he was a Anglican.

British Friends at the end of of the Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry were still some­what aloof, mys­te­ri­ous and con­sid­ered odd by their fel­low coun­try­men and women. Clark­son admits that one rea­son for his writ­ing “A Por­trai­ture of Quak­erism” was the enter­tain­ment val­ue it would pro­vide his fel­low Angli­cans. Friends were start­ing to work with non-Quakers like Clark­son on issues of con­science and while this ecu­meni­cal activism was his entre – “I came to a knowl­edge of their liv­ing man­ners, which no oth­er per­son, who was not a Quak­er, could have eas­i­ly obtained” (Vol 1, p. i)– it was also a symp­tom of a great sea change about to hit Friends. The Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry ush­ered in a new type of Quak­er, or more pre­cise­ly whole new types of Quak­ers. By the time Clark­son died Amer­i­can Friends were going through their sec­ond round of schism and Joseph John Gur­ney was arguably the best-known Quak­er across two con­ti­nents: Oxford edu­cat­ed, at ease in gen­teel Eng­lish soci­ety, active in cross-denominational work, and flu­ent and well stud­ied in Bib­li­cal stud­ies. Clark­son wrote about a Soci­ety of Friends that was dis­ap­pear­ing even as the ink was dry­ing at the printers.

Most of the old accounts of Friends we still read were writ­ten by Friends them­selves. I like old Quak­er jour­nals as much as the next geek, but it’s always use­ful to get an outsider’s per­spec­tive (here’s a more modern-day exam­ple). Also: I don’t think Clark­son was real­ly just writ­ing an account sim­ply for entertainment’s sake. I think he saw in Friends a mod­el of chris­t­ian behav­ior that he thought his fel­low Angli­cans would be well advised to study. 

His account is refresh­ing­ly free of what we might call Quak­er bag­gage. He doesn’t use Fox or Bar­clay quotes as a blud­geon against dis­agree­ment and he doesn’t drone on about his­to­ry and per­son­al­i­ties and schisms. Read­ing between the lines I think he rec­og­nizes the grow­ing rifts among Friends but gloss­es over them (fair enough: these are not his bat­tles). Refresh­ing­ly, he doesn’t hold up Quak­er lan­guage as some sort of quaint and untrans­lat­able tongue, and when he describes our process­es he often uses very sur­pris­ing words that point to some fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between Quak­er prac­tice then and now that are obscured by com­mon words.

Thomas Clark­son is inter­est­ed in what it’s like to be a good chris­t­ian. In the book it’s type­set with low­er­case “c” and while I don’t have any rea­son to think it’s inten­tion­al, I find that type­set­ting illu­mi­nat­ing nonethe­less. This mean­ing of “chris­t­ian” is not about sub­scrib­ing to par­tic­u­lar creeds and is not the same con­cept as uppercase-C “Chris­t­ian.” My Luther­an grand­moth­er actu­al­ly used to use the lowercase-c mean­ing when she described some behav­ior as “not the chris­t­ian way to act.” She used it to describe an eth­i­cal and moral stan­dard. Friends share that under­stand­ing when we talk about Gospel Order: that there is a right way to live and act that we will find if we fol­low the Spirit’s lead. It may be a lit­tle quaint to use chris­t­ian to describe this kind of gener­ic good­ness but I think it shifts some of the debates going on right now to think of it this way for awhile.

Clarkson’s “Por­trai­ture” looks at pecu­liar Quak­er prac­tices and reverse-engineers them to show how they help Quak­er stay in that chris­t­ian zone. His book is most often ref­er­enced today because of its descrip­tions of Quak­er plain dress but he’s less inter­est­ed in the style than he is with the practice’s effect on the soci­ety of Friends. He gets pos­i­tive­ly soci­o­log­i­cal at times. And because he’s speak­ing about a denom­i­na­tion that’s 150 years old, he was able to describe how the tes­ti­monies had shift­ed over time to address chang­ing world­ly conditions. 

And that’s the key. So many of us are try­ing to under­stand what it would be like to be “authen­ti­cal­ly” Quak­er in a world that’s very dif­fer­ent from the one the first band of Friends knew. In the com­ment to the last post, Alice M talked about recov­ered the Quak­er charism (http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​h​a​r​ism). I didn’t join Friends because of the­ol­o­gy or his­to­ry. I was a young peace activist who knew in my heart that there was some­thing more moti­vat­ing me than just the typ­i­cal paci­fist anti-war rhetoric. In Friends I saw a deep­er under­stand­ing and a way of con­nect­ing that with a nascent spir­i­tu­al awakening. 

What does it mean to live a chris­t­ian life (again, low­er­case) in the 21st Cen­tu­ry? What does it mean to live the Quak­er charism in the mod­ern world? How do we relate to oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions both with­out and now with­in our reli­gious soci­ety and what’s might our role be in the Emer­gent Church move­ment? I think Clark­son gives clues. And that’s what this series will talk about.

Tech­no­rati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

The Quaker time capsule

I’m read­ing Bill Taber’s fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry of Ohio Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends called The Eye of Faith. Like any good his­to­ry there’s a lot of the present in there. There’s a strong feel­ing of deja-vu to the scenes of Friends in con­flict and var­i­ous char­ac­ters come to life as much for their foibles as their strength of char­ac­ter (there’s more than a few blog­gers echoed there). I’m now a few years into the sec­ond great sep­a­ra­tion, the Wilburite/Gurneyite split that brewed for years before erupt­ing in 1854.

I’m not one of those Friends who bemoan the var­i­ous schisms. The diver­si­ty of those call­ing them­selves Friends today is so great that it’s hard to imag­ine them ever hav­ing stayed part of the same body. Only a strong author­i­tar­i­an con­trol could have pre­vent­ed the sep­a­ra­tions and even then, large mass­es of the “los­ing” par­ty would have sim­ply left and regrouped else­where: the only real dif­fer­ence is that one par­ty stops using the Quak­er name. Here in South Jer­sey, where the only Gur­neyite meet­ing wasn’t rec­og­nized by either Philadel­phia year­ly meet­ing for almost a hun­dred years, we’ve got dozens of Methodist “meet­ing hous­es” with grave­yards full of old Quak­er fam­i­ly names. Fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ries could be writ­ten of Friends who didn’t both­er to squab­ble over meet­ing­house deeds and sim­ply decid­ed to con­gre­gate under anoth­er banner.

One con­cept I’m chew­ing on is that of the “rem­nant.” As I under­stand it, the doc­trine comes large­ly from Rev­e­la­tion 12 and is used by small theologically-conservative Chris­t­ian sects to explain why their small size isn’t a prob­lem; it’s kind of like Mom say­ing it’s bet­ter to do the right thing than to be pop­u­lar. When the rem­nant com­mu­ni­ty is a rel­a­tive­ly iso­lat­ed locale like Bar­nesville, there’s also the image of the Land That Time For­got, the place where the old time ways has come down to us most ful­ly intact. There’s truth to the pre­serv­ing pow­er of iso­la­tion: lin­guists claim the Ozark hill­bil­ly accent most clear­ly mir­rors Shakespeare’s. But Ohio Friends aren’t sim­ply Jed Clampett’s Quak­er cousins.

Like most rur­al Quak­er year­ly meet­ings, Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive has lost much of its mem­ber­ship over the last hun­dred years. I don’t have sta­tis­tics but it seems as if a good per­cent­age of the active mem­bers of the year­ly meet­ing hail from out­side south­east­ern Ohio and a great many are con­vinced Friends. This echoes the most sig­nif­i­cant change in U.S. Quak­erism in the past fifty years: the shift from a self-perpetuating com­mu­ni­ty with strong local cus­toms and an almost eth­nic sense of self, to a soci­ety of con­vinced believers.

The keen sense of self-sufficiency and iso­la­tion that held togeth­er tight-knit Quak­er com­mu­ni­ties over the cen­turies are large­ly non-sustainable now. In our media-saturated lives even Bar­nesville teens can get the lat­est Hol­ly­wood gos­sip and New York fash­ions in real time. Yes it’s pos­si­ble to ban the TV and live as a media her­mit in a com­mune some­where, but even that only gets you so far. Once upon a time, not so long ago, a Friend could sit­u­ate them­selves in the wider Quak­er uni­verse sim­ply by com­par­ing fam­i­ly trees and school ties but that’s becom­ing less impor­tant all the time. For those of us who enter into the Soci­ety of Friends as adults – majori­ties in many year­ly meet­ings now – there’s a sense of choice, of don­ning the clothes. We play at being Quak­er until voila!, some mys­ti­cal alchem­i­cal process hap­pens and we iden­ti­fy as Quak­er – even if we’re not always quite so made-over into Quak­er­ness as we imag­ine ourselves. 

At the Ohio ses­sions a few Friends real­ly loved Wess Daniel’s state­ment that “A tra­di­tion that los­es the abil­i­ty to explain itself becomes an emp­ty form” (see his wrap-up post here). One Ohio Friend said he had heard it pos­tu­lat­ed that iso­lat­ed and inward-focused com­mu­ni­ties like Ohio Con­ser­v­a­tive were God’s method of pre­serv­ing the old ways against the onslaught of the mod­ernist age (with its mock­ing dis­be­lief) until they could be rein­tro­duced to the wider world in a more for­giv­ing post-modernist era. Looked at that way, Quak­erism isn’t a quaint rel­ic in need of the same botox/bleach blond “NOW!” makeover every oth­er spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion is get­ting. Think of it instead as a time cap­sule ready to be opened. An inter­est­ing the­o­ry. Are we ready to look at this pecu­liar thing we’ve dug up and reverse-engineer it back into meaningfulness?

Update:

Kirk W. over at Street Cor­ner Soci­ety emailed me that he had recent­ly put the Jour­nal of Ann Bran­son online. She fea­tures heav­i­ly in the mid­dle part of Taber’s book, which is the sto­ry of Con­ser­v­a­tive Ohio find­ing its own iden­ti­ty. Kirk sug­gests, and I agree, that her jour­nal might be con­sid­ered one of the arti­facts of the Ohio time cap­sule. I hope to find some time to read this in the not-too-distant future.