A gathered people is not just an association of individuals who happen to share overlapping values or interests. It is formed by the raising and quickening of a new spiritual life and power within each person.
Cheap Quakerism results in pseudo-communities – groups of people who have made no commitment to each other, and therefore don’t spend any time cultivating interpersonal relationships. How can we trust each other if we hardly know each other? How can we be a Society of Friends?
Last weekend I was invited to speak to Abington (Pa.) Meeting’s First-day school (n.b. proper FJ stylesheet) to talk about vocal ministry in worship. I haven’t been to worship at that meeting for eons and can’t speak to the condition of its ministry, but I do know that vocal ministry can be something of a mystery for unprogrammed Friends. Many of us are “convinced,” coming to the Society as adults and often have a nagging feeling we’re play-acting at being Friends, but I’ve met many life-long Quakers who also wonder about it.
Perhaps as a response to these feelings, we sometimes get rather pedantic that whatever way we’ve first encountered is the Quaker way. The current fashion of vocal ministry in the Philadelphia area is for short messages, often about world events, often confessional in nature. What I wanted to leave Abington with was the radically different ways unprogrammed Friends have worshipped over time and how some of our practices outside worship were developed to help nurture Spirit-led ministry.
(written this a.m. but only posted to limited circles, cut and pasted when I saw the mix-up)
Readers over on QuakerQuaker.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.
I’ve been lucky enough to have two houseguests this week: Micah Bales and Faith Kelley (no relation). They’ve come up to the Philadelphia area to help publicize a gathering of young adult Friends that will take place in Wichita in a few months. Before they left, I got them to share their excitement for the conference in front of my webcam.
Interview with Faith Kelley & Micah Bales, two of the organizers of the upcoming young adult Friends conference in Wichita Kansas.
FAITH: This is an invitation for a gathering for young adult Friends ages 18–35 from all the branches of the Religious Society of Friends from all across the continent. It’s going to be in Wichita Kansas from May 28–31. It’s a time to get together and learn about each other, to hear each other’s stories and worship together. We’re really excited by this opportunity to have people who have never been to these before and to have people who have been to other gatherings to come back.
MICAH: A lot of the advance material is already up online so you can get a good idea what this conference is going to be about and to get a sense of how to prepare yourself for a gathering like this. We’ll be getting together with folks from all over the country, Canada and Mexico–we’re hoping a lot of Hispanic Friends show up and we’ve already translated the website into Spanish. Registration is set up already; early registration goes until April 15. Airfare to Wichita is looking pretty good at the moment; if you register early you’re likely to get a fairly decent plane ticket out.
FAITH: We’re hoping people will choose to carpool together. So get organized, register early and look at the advance materials online.
I don’t know enough of the details of their lives to write the obituary (a Wikipedia page was started this morning) but I will say they always seemed to me like the Forrest Gump’s of peace activism–at the center of every cool peace witness since 1950. You squint to look at the photos at there’s George and Lil, always there. Or maybe pop music would give us the better analogy: you know how there are entire b-rate bands that carve an entire career around endlessly rehashing a particular Beatles song? Well, there are whole activist organizations that are built around particular campaigns that the Willoughby’s championed. Like: in 1958 George was a crew member of the Golden Rule (profiled a bit here), a boatload of crazy activists who sailed into a Pacific nuclear bomb test to disrupt it. Twelve years later some Vancouver activists stage a copycat boat sailing which became Greenpeace. Lillian was concerned about rising violence against women and started one of the first Take Back the Nightmarches. If you’ve ever sat in an activist meeting where everyone’s using consensus, then you’ve been influenced by the Willoughby’s!
For many years I lived deeply embedded in communities co-founded by the Willoughbys. There’s a recent interview with George Lakey about the founding of Movement for a New Society that he and they helped create. In the 1990s I liked to say how I lived “in its ruins,” working at the publishing house, living in a coop house and getting my food from the coop that all grew out of MNS. I got to know the Willoughbys through Central Philadelphia meeting but also as friends. It was a treat to visit their house in Deptford, NJ—it adjoined a wildlife sanctuary they helped protect against the strip-mall sprawl that is the rest of that town. I last saw George a few months ago, and while he had a bit of trouble remembering who I was, that irrepressible smile and spirit were very strong!
When news of George’s passing started buzzing around the net I got a nice email from Howard Clark, who’s been very involved with War Resisters International for many years. It was a real blast-from-the-past and reminded me how little I’m involved with all this these days. The Philadelphia office of New Society Publishers went under in 1995 and a few years ago I finally dropped the Nonviolence.org project that I had started to keep the organizing going.
I’ve written before that one of the closest modern-day successor to the Movement for a New Society is the so-called New Monastic movement–explicitly Christian but focused on love and charity and often very Quaker’ish. Our culture of secular Quakerism has kept Friends from getting involved and sharing our decades of experience. Now that Shane Claiborne is being invited to seemingly every liberal Quaker venue, maybe it’s a good opportunity to look back on our own legacy. Friends like George and Lillian helped invent this form.
I miss the strong sense of community I once felt. Is there a way we can combine MNS & the “New Monastic” movement into something explicitly religious and public that might help spread the good news of the Inward Christ and inspire a new wave of lefty peacenik activism more in line with Jesus’ teachings than the xenophobic crap that gets spewed by so many “Christian” activists? With that, another plug for the workshop Wess Daniels and I are doing in May at Pendle Hill: “New Monastics and Covergent Friends.” If money’s a problem there’s still time to ask your meeting to help get you there. If that doesn’t work or distance is a problem, I’m sure we’ll be talking about it more here in the comments and blogs.
Here’s my working theory: I think Liberal Friends have a good claim to inventing the “new monastic” movement thirty years ago in the form of Movement for a New Society, a network of peace and anti-nuclear activists based in Philadelphia that codified a kind of “secular Quaker” decision-making process and trained thousands of people from around the world in a kind of engaged drop-out lifestyle that featured low-cost communal living arrangements in poor neighborhoods with part-time jobs that gave them flexibility to work as full-time community activists. There are few activist campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s that weren’t touched by the MNS style and a less-ideological, more lived-in MNS culture survives today in borderline neighborhoods in Philadelphia and other cities. The high-profile new monastics rarely seem to give any props to Quakers or MNS, but I’d be willing to bet if you sat in on any of their meetings the process would be much more inspired by MNS than Robert’s Rules of Order or any fifteen century monastic rule that might be cited.
For a decade I lived in West Philly in what I called “the ruins of the Movement for a New Society.” The formal structure of MNS had disbanded but many of its institutions carried on in a kind of lived-in way. I worked at the remaining publishing house, New Society Publishers, lived in a land-trusted West Philly coop house, and was fed from the old neighborhood food coop and occasionally dropped in or helped out with Training for Change, a revived training center started by MNS-co-founder (and Central Philadelphia Meeting-member) George Lakey It was a tight neighborhood, with strong cross-connections, and it was able to absorb related movements with different styles (e.g., a strong anarchist scene that grew in the late 1980s). I don’t think it’s coincidence that some of the Philly emergent church projects started in West Philly and is strong in the neighborhoods that have become the new ersatz West Philly as the actual neighborhood has gentrified.
So some questions I’ll be wrestling with over the next six months and will bring to Pendle Hill:
Why haven’t more of us in the Religious Society of Friends adopted this engaged lifestyle?
Why haven’t we been good at articulating it all this time?
Why did the formal structure of the Quaker-ish “new monasticism” not survive the 1980s?
Why don’t we have any younger leaders of the Quaker monasticism? Why do we need others to remind us of our own recent tradition?
In what ways are some Friends (and some fellow travelers) still living out the “Old New Monastic” experience, just without the hype and without the buzz?
It’s entirely possible that the “new monasticism” isn’t sustainable. At the very least Friends’ experiences with it should be studied to see what happened. Is West Philly what the new monasticism looks like thirty years later? The biggest differences between now and the heyday of the Movement for a New Society is 1) the Internet’s ability to organize and stay in touch in completely different ways; and 2) the power of the major Evangelical publishing houses that are hyping the new kids.
I’ll be looking at myself as well. After ten years, I felt I needed a change. I’m now in the “real world”–semi suburban freestanding house, nuclear family. The old new West Philly monasticism, like the “new monasticism” seems optimized for hip twenty-something suburban kids who romanticized the gritty city. People of other demographics often fit in, but still it was never very scalable and for many not very sustainable. How do we bring these concerns out to a world where there are suburbs, families, etc?
RELATED READING: I first wrote about the similarity between MNS and the Philadelphia “New Monastic” movement six years ago in Peace and Twenty-Somethings, where I argued that Pendle Hill should take a serious look at this new movement.