Quakers acting badly

Friends don’t have a particularly good track record with regards to controversy. There’s no reason we need to pretend to be talking historically. We’ve had two major yearly meetings break up in this summer (meet Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting and North Carolina Fellowship of Friends), with at least one more “at bat” for some future long hot summer.

Controversies flare up in many places. Friend Sa’ed Atshan just broke his media silence to talk about the cancelation of his talk at Friends’ Central School in February and the subsequent walk-outs, firings, and litigations. The controversy around Avis Wanda McClinton’s disownment by Upper Dublin Meeting continues to incense large numbers of Philadelphia Friends, with fuel to the fire coming from the role that the Undoing Racism Group does or doesn’t have in the yearly meeting structure. Last year a majority of Friends of color boycotted public events at the FGC Gathering over frustration at the site selection process and the underlying issues extend to other Quaker venues.

The most-commented recent article in Friends Journal is “It Breaks My Heart” by Kate Pruitt from the online June/July issue. Many readers related to her sense of alienation and loss. Two comments that hit me the hardest were:

Not all Friends are found in Quaker Meetings. You’re better off without your meeting.

Gone now is the hope… of finding community among Quakers. To be frank, why bother? There’s plenty of brokenness right where I am.

And I get enough “Why I’m leaving Friends” manifestos in my email inbox every month that I could turn it into a regular Friends Journal column.

It seems to me that are a number of underlying issues that tie these controversies together. What do we do when a group of Friends starts acting in a manner that seems contrary to our understanding of Quaker testimonies and practices? How do we balance love and judgement when conflict arises among us? When do we break out of Quaker niceness? Maybe even more challenging, how do we maintain our integrity and accountability when controversy breaks us into camps willing to engage in exaggeration? And just what do we say when the outside public only gets half the story or thinks that one side is speaking for all Friends?

So this is a plug for submissions for December's Friends Journal.  The theme is “Conflict and Controversy" and the submission deadline is September 9. We’re not looking for blow-by-blow accounts of being mistreated, and we’re not terribly interested (this time) in manifestos about Quaker cultural norms. I'm less interested in specific issues than I am the meta of discernment: How do individuals or small groups of Friends move forward in the heat of controversy. What do we do when the easy solutions have failed? How do we decide when it's time to break out of Quaker niceness to lay down some truth—or time to kick the dust off your sandals and move along?

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.

Writing Opp: Race and Anti-Racism

We're less than two weeks from the deadline for writing about "Race and Anti-Racism" for Friends Journal and I'd love to see more submissions. It was two years ago that we put out the much-talked-about issue on Experiences of Friends of Color. That felt like a really-needed issue: no triumphalism about how white Friends sometimes did the right thing as Abolitionists or posturing about how great we are, forgetting the ways we sometimes aren't: just a collection of modern Friends talking about what they've experienced first-hand.

I think it's a good time to talk now about how Friends are organizing to unlearn and subvert institutional racism. It was an important issue before November--ongoing mass incarceration, Standing Rock, and the disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans was all taking place before the election. But with racial backlashes, talk of a religious or nationality-based registries, and the coziness of "alt-right" white nationalists with members of the Trump campaign it all seems time to go into overdrive.

The Messy Work Begins

One of the take­aways of this elec­tion this is that we’ve all siloed our­selves away in our self-selected Face­book feeds. We lis­ten to most our news and hang out pri­mar­i­ly with those who think and talk like us. One piece of any heal­ing will be open­ing up those feeds and doing the messy work of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with peo­ple who have strong­ly dif­fer­ent opin­ions. That means real­ly respect­ing the world­view peo­ple are shar­ing (and that’s as hard for me as for any­one) and lis­ten­ing through to emo­tions and life expe­ri­ences that have brought peo­ple into our lives. Basic lis­ten­ing tips apply: try not to judge or accuse or name call. If some­one with less priv­i­lege tells you they’re scared, con­sid­er they might have a valid con­cern and don’t inter­rupt or tell them they’re being alarmist. 

But all this also means apol­o­giz­ing and for­giv­ing each oth­er and being okay with a high lev­el of messi­ness. It’s not easy and it won’t always work. We will not always have our opin­ion pre­vail and that’s okay. We are all in this togeth­er.

New Yorker New Yorker New Yorker

Web­sites are start­ing to talk about a Don­ald Trump pres­i­den­tial cab­i­net and the names high­light a curios­i­ty of this elec­tion: many of the prin­ci­ple insid­ers come from North­east Cor­ri­dor states that vot­ed for Hillary Clin­ton. Rudolph Giu­liani and Chris Christie, are, like the whole Trump fam­i­ly, metro New York­ers and as far as I know Newt Gin­grich lives in north­ern Vir­ginia.

I’ve lived in Chris Christie’s New Jer­sey since he was elect­ed gov­er­nor and I find it real­ly hard to believe he’s sud­den­ly going to have a strong inter­est in the Mid­west­ern red states that gave Trump the win. You can point to VP-elect Mike Pence of Indi­ana, but as far as I can tell he was only brought on for strate­gic rea­sons and is not part of the Trump cir­cle.

What real­ly can Trump do to bring back the good pay­ing jobs that dis­ap­peared decades ago? Our econ­o­my has been shift­ing regard­less of which par­ty occu­pies the Oval Office. There’s sops and pork to be doled out, but the nation­al econ­o­my has been cen­tral­iz­ing in the big coastal cities that our new polit­i­cal lead­ers call home (the same would have been true with a Clin­ton pres­i­den­cy). What if Trump’s elec­tion is the ulti­mate prank: red states sell­ing their vote to a New York devel­op­er who will most­ly con­tin­ue to devel­op the New York-to-DC cor­ri­dor?

Upcoming FJ submission: “Quaker Spaces”

I've been meaning to get more into the habit of sharing upcoming Friends Journal issue themes. We started focusing on themed issues back around 2012 as a way to bring some diversity to our subject matter and help encourage Friends to talk about topics that weren't as regularly-covered.

One of the Greenwich, N.J., Meetinghouses.

One of the Greenwich, N.J., meetinghouses, Sept 2009

The next issue we're looking to fill is a topic I find interesting: Quaker Spaces. I've joked internally that we could call it "Meetinghouse Porn," and while we already have some beautiful illustrations lined up, I think there's a real chance at juicy Quaker theology in this issue as well.

One of my pet theories is that since we downplay creeds, we talk theology in the minutia of our meetinghouses. Not officially of course—our worship spaces are neutral, unconsecrated, empty buildings. But as Helen Kobek wrote in our March issue on "Disabilities and Inclusion," we all need physical accommodations and these provide templates to express our values. Earlier Friends expressed a theology that distrusted forms by developing an architectural style devoid of crosses, steeples. The classic meetinghouse looks like a barn, the most down-to-early humble architectural form a northern English sheepherders could imagine.

But theologies shift. As Friends assimilated, some started taking on other forms and Methodist-like meetinghouse (even sometimes daringly called churches) started popping up. Modern meetinghouses might have big plate glass windows looking out over a forest, a nod to our contemporary worship of nature or they might be in a converted house in a down-and-out neighborhood to show our love of social justice.

Top photo is a framed picture of the Lancaster U.K. Meetinghouse from the early 20th century--long benches lined up end to end, balcony. By the time of my visit, there were cushioned independent chairs arranged in a circle.
Top photo is of a framed picture of the Lancaster UK Meetinghouse from the early 20th century--long benches lined up the length of the space. By the time of my visit in 2003, the balcony was gone and the few remaining benches were relegated to an outer ring outside of cushioned chairs arranged in a circle surrounding a round table with flowers and copies of Faith and Practice.

But it's not just the outsides where theology shows up. All of the classic Northeastern U.S. meetinghouses had rows of benches facing forward, with elevated fencing benches reserved for the Quaker elders. A theologically-infused distrust of this model has led many a meeting to rearrange the pews into a more circular arrangement. Sometimes someone will sneak something into the middle of the space—flowers, or a Bible or hymnal—as if in recognition that they don't find the emptiness of the Quaker form sufficient. If asked, most of these decisions will be explained away in a light-hearted manner but it's hard for me to believe there isn't at least an unconscious nod to theology in some of the choices.

I'd love to hear stories of Friends negotiating the meeting space. Has the desire to build or move a meetinghouse solidified or divided your meeting? Do you share the space with other groups, or rent it out during the week? If so, how have you decided on the groups that can use it? Have you bickered over the details of a space. Here in the Northeast, there are many tales of meetings coming close to schism over the question of replacing ancient horsehair bench cushions, but I'm sure there are considerations and debates to be had over the form of folding chairs.

You can find out more about submitting to this or any other upcoming issue our the Friends Journal Submissions page. Other upcoming issues are "Crossing Cultures" and "Social Media and Technology."

Aug 2016: Quaker Spaces

What do our architecture, interior design, and meetinghouse locations say about our theology and our work in the world? Quakers don’t consecrate our worship spaces but there’s a strong pull of nostalgia that brings people into our historic buildings and an undeniable energy to innovative Quaker spaces. How do our physical manifestations keep us grounded or keep us from sharing the “Quaker gospel” more widely? Submissions due 5/2/2016.