What do you love about your Quaker space?

We’re extend­ing the dead­line for the August issue on Quak­er Spaces. We’ve got  some real­ly inter­est arti­cles com­ing in – espe­cial­ly geeky things in archi­tec­ture and the the­ol­o­gy of our clas­sic meetinghouses.

So far our prospec­tive pieces are  weight­ed toward East Coast and clas­sic meet­ing­house archi­tec­ture. I’d love to see pieces on non-traditional wor­ship spaces. I know there new­ly purpose-built meet­ing­hous­es, adap­ta­tions of pre-existing struc­tures, and new takes on the Quak­er impulse to not be churchy. And wor­ship is where we’re gath­ered, not nec­es­sar­i­ly where we’re mort­gaged: tell us about your the rent­ed library room, the chairs set up on the beach, the room in the prison wor­ship group…

Sub­mis­sion guide­lines are at friend​sjour​nal​.org/​s​u​b​m​i​s​s​i​ons. The new dead­line is Mon­day, May 16. My last post about this issue is here.

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.

Friends and theology and geek pick-up hotspots

Wess Daniels posts about Quak­er the­ol­o­gy on his blog. I respond­ed there but got to think­ing of Swarth­more pro­fes­sor Jer­ry Frost’s 2000 Gath­er­ing talk about FGC Quak­erism. Aca­d­e­m­ic, theologically-minded Friends helped forge lib­er­al Quak­erism but their influ­enced wained after that first gen­er­a­tion. Here’s a snippet:

“[T]he first gen­er­a­tions of Eng­lish and Amer­i­ca Quak­er lib­er­als like Jones and Cad­bury were all birthright and they wrote books as well as pam­phlets. Before uni­fi­ca­tion, PYM Ortho­dox and the oth­er Ortho­dox meet­ings pro­duced philoso­phers, the­olo­gians, and Bible schol­ars, but now the com­bined year­ly meet­ings in FGC pro­duce weighty Friends, social activists, and earnest seekers.”

“The lib­er­als who cre­at­ed the FGC had a thirst for knowl­edge, for link­ing the best in reli­gion with the best in sci­ence, for draw­ing upon both to make eth­i­cal judg­ments. Today by becom­ing anti-intellectual in reli­gion when we are well-educated we have jet­ti­soned the impulse that cre­at­ed FGC, reunit­ed year­ly meet­ings, rede­fined our role in wider soci­ety, and cre­at­ed the mod­ern peace tes­ti­mo­ny. The kinds of ener­gy we now devote to med­i­ta­tion tech­niques and inner spir­i­tu­al­i­ty needs to be spent on phi­los­o­phy, sci­ence, and Chris­t­ian religion.”

This talk was huge­ly influ­en­tial to my wife Julie and myself. We had just met two days before and while I had devel­oped an instant crush, Frost’s talk was the first time we sat next to one anoth­er. I real­ized that this might become some­thing seri­ous when we both laughed out loud at Jerry’s wry asides and the­ol­o­gy jokes. We end­ed up walk­ing around the cam­pus late into the ear­ly hours talk­ing talk­ing talking.

But the talk wasn’t just the reli­gion geek equiv­a­lent of a pick-up bar. We both respond­ed to Frost’s call for a new gen­er­a­tion of seri­ous Quak­er thinkers. Julie enrolled in a Reli­gion PhD pro­gram, study­ing Quak­er the­ol­o­gy under Frost him­self for a semes­ter. I dove into his­to­ri­ans like Thomas Hamm and mod­ern thinkers like Lloyd Lee Wil­son as a way to under­stand and artic­u­late the implic­it the­ol­o­gy of “FGC Friends” and took inde­pen­dent ini­tia­tives to fill the gaps in FGC ser­vices, tak­ing lead­er­ship in young adult pro­gram and co-leading work­shops and inter­est groups.

Things didn’t turn out as we expect­ed. I hes­i­tate speak­ing for Julie but I think it’s fair enough to say that she came to the con­clu­sion that Friends ideals and prac­tices were unbridgable and she left Friends. I’ve doc­u­ment­ed my own set­backs and right now I’m pret­ty detached from for­mal Quak­er bodies.

Maybe enough time hasn’t gone by yet. I’ve heard that the per­son sit­ting on Julie’s oth­er side for that talk is now study­ing the­ol­o­gy up in New Eng­land; anoth­er Friend who I sus­pect was near­by just start­ed at Earl­ham School of Reli­gion. I’ve called this the Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion but at least some of its mem­bers have just been lying low. It’s hard to know whether any of these historically-informed Friends will ever help shape FGC pop­u­lar cul­ture in the way that Quak­er acad­e­mia influ­enced lib­er­al Friends did before the 1970s.

Reread­ing Frost’s speech this after­noon it’s clear to see it as an impor­tant inspi­ra­tion for Quak­erQuak­er. Parts of it act well as a good lib­er­al Quak­er vision for what the blo­gos­phere has since tak­en to call­ing con­ver­gent Friends. I hope more peo­ple will stum­ble on Frost’s speech and be inspired, though I hope they will be care­ful not to tie this vision too close­ly with any exist­ing insti­tu­tion and to remem­ber the true source of that dai­ly bread. Here’s a few more inspi­ra­tional lines from Jerry:

We should remem­ber that the­ol­o­gy can pro­vide a foun­da­tion for uni­ty. We ought to be smart enough to real­ize that any for­mu­la­tion of what we believe or link­ing faith to mod­ern thought is a sec­ondary activ­i­ty; to para­phrase Robert Bar­clay, words are descrip­tion of the foun­tain and not the stream of liv­ing water. Those who cre­at­ed the FGC and reunit­ed meet­ings knew the pos­si­bil­i­ties and dan­gers of the­ol­o­gy, but they had a con­fi­dence that truth increased possibilities.

Hey who am I to decide anything

Over on Non­the­ist Friends web­site, there’s an arti­cle look­ing back at ten years of FGC Gath­er­ing work­shops on their con­cern. There was also a post some­where on the blo­gos­phere (sor­ry I don’t remem­ber where) by a Pagan Friend excit­ed that this year’s Gath­er­ing would have a work­shop focused on their concerns.

It’s kind of inter­est­ing to look at the process by which new the­olo­gies are being added into Lib­er­al Quak­erism at an ever-increasing rate.

  • Mem­ber­ship of indi­vid­u­als in meet­ings. There are hun­dreds of meet­ings in lib­er­al Quak­erism that range all over the the­o­log­i­cal map. Add to that the wide­spread agree­ment that the­o­log­i­cal uni­ty with the meet­ing is not required and just about any­one believ­ing any­thing could be admit­ted some­where (or “grand­fa­thered in” as a birthright member).
  • A work­shop at the Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence Gath­er­ing and espe­cial­ly a reg­u­lar work­shop at suc­ces­sive Gath­er­ings. Yet as the very informed com­ments on a post a few years ago showed, the­ol­o­gy is not some­thing the plan­ning work­shop com­mit­tee is allowed to look at and at least one pro­po­nent of a new the­ol­o­gy has got­ten them­selves on the decid­ing com­mit­tee. The Gath­er­ing is essen­tial­ly built on the non­de­nom­i­na­tion­al Chau­taqua mod­el and FGC is per­fect­ly hap­py to spon­sor work­shops that are in appar­ent con­flict with its own mis­sion statement.
  • An arti­cle pub­lished in Friends Jour­nal. When the the Quak­er Sweat Lodge was strug­gling to claim legit­i­ma­cy it all but changed its name to the “Quak­er Sweat Lodge as fea­tured in the Feb­ru­ary 2002 Friends Jour­nal.” It’s a good magazine’s job to pub­lish arti­cles that make peo­ple think and a smart mag­a­zine will know that arti­cles that pro­voke a lit­tle con­tro­ver­sy is good for cir­cu­la­tion. I very much doubt the edi­to­r­i­al team at the Jour­nal con­sid­ers its agree­ment to pub­lish to be an inoc­u­la­tion against critique.
  • A web­site and list­serv. Fif­teen dol­lars at GoDad​dy​.com and you’ve got the web address of your dreams. Yahoo Group is free.

There are prob­a­bly oth­er mech­a­nisms of legit­i­ma­cy. My point is not to give com­pre­hen­sive guide­lines to would-be cam­paign­ers. I sim­ply want to note that none of the actors in these deci­sions is con­scious­ly think­ing “hey, I think I’ll expand the def­i­n­i­tion of lib­er­al Quak­er the­ol­o­gy today.” In fact I expect they’re most­ly pass­ing the buck, think­ing “hey, who am I to decide any­thing like that.”

None of these decision-making process­es are meant to serve as tools to dis­miss oppo­si­tion. The orga­ni­za­tions involved are not hand­ing out Impri­maturs and would be quite hor­ri­fied if they real­ized their agree­ments were being seen that way. Amy Clark, a com­menter on my last post, on this summer’s reunion and camp for the once-young mem­bers of Young Friends North Amer­i­ca, had a very inter­est­ing comment:

I agree that YFNA has become FGC: those pre­vi­ous­ly involved in YFNA have tak­en lead­er­ship with FGC … with both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive results. Well … now we have a chance to look at the lega­cy we are cre­at­ing: do we like it?

I have the feel­ing that the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of lib­er­al Quak­er lead­er­ship doesn’t quite believe it’s lead­ing lib­er­al Quak­erism. By “lead­er­ship” I don’t mean the small skim of the pro­fes­sion­al Quak­er bureau­cra­cy (whose mem­bers can get _too_ self-inflated on the lead­er­ship issue) but the com­mit­tees, clerks and vol­un­teers that get most of the work done from the local to nation­al lev­els. We are the inher­i­tors of a proud and some­times fool­ish tra­di­tion and our actions are shap­ing its future but I don’t think we real­ly know that. I have no clever solu­tion to the issues I’ve out­lined here but I think becom­ing con­scious that we’re cre­at­ing our own lega­cy is an impor­tant first step.

Emerging Church Movement hits New York Times

Today’s New York Times has an arti­cle called “Hip New Church­es Pray to a Dif­fer­ent Drum­mer” about post­mod­ern and emer­gent churhces. The arti­cle has some good obser­va­tions and inter­views many of the right peo­ple, but the pre­sen­ta­tion is skewed: there on the front cov­er of the print edi­tion are some New Agey hip­sters hold­ing their ears and hearts in some sort of mock-Medieval prayer, sit­ting in big chairs over the head­line about the “dif­fer­ent drum­mer.” Egads.

The pho­to reminds me of my New York Times moment, when the pho­tog­ra­ph­er insist­ed on a few shots of me hold­ing a gui­tar, which made it onto the “Cyber­Times” cov­er, but the para­graph describ­ing the move­ment is a good, con­cise one:

Called “emerg­ing” or “post­mod­ern” church­es, they are diverse in the­ol­o­gy and method, linked loose­ly by Inter­net sites, Web logs, con­fer­ences and a grow­ing stack of hip-looking paper­backs. Some reli­gious his­to­ri­ans believe the church­es rep­re­sent the next wave of evan­gel­i­cal wor­ship, after the boom in megachurch­es in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Still, much of the arti­cle talks about the super­fi­cial stuff, what Jor­dan Coop­er calls the “can­dles and cof­fee” super­fi­cial­i­ty of some of a form-only emer­gent church style. There cer­tain­ly is a lot of chaff with the wheat. Julie read the arti­cle and was real­ly turned off to the dumb side of the emer­gent church:

Hon­ey, I just can’t get with it. I empathize some­what, but I’m a tra­di­tion­al­ist, so I can’t say I don’t take just as much offense at “bor­row­ing” Catholic and Ortho­dox spir­i­tu­al prac­tices as I do at the import­ing of the sweat­lodge ripped off from Native Amer­i­cans. I’m not say­ing that all Emerg­ing Church groups do rip off, they’re try­ing to find some­thing legit­i­mate, I can see that. It’s just that they are set­tling for part of the truth with­out look­ing at the whole pic­ture. Lec­tio Div­ina is part of a larg­er Catholic the­ol­o­gy and real­ly shouldn’t be divorced from it, etc. I empathize with the unchurched and the unfriend­li­ness of tra­di­tion­al church­es to the com­plete­ly unchurched. I don’t know what the answer is, but this move­ment just strikes me as bizarre. Of course, again, I’m com­ing from a tra­di­tion­al Catholic per­spec­tive here, so “church” to me means some­thing utter­ly dif­fer­ent than to many, espe­cial­ly the unchurched and evan­gel­i­cals, for exam­ple, who see wor­ship as more open and dynam­ic and involv­ing the heart, not so much about form. I guess in the end, it’s just that some of this Emerg­ing Church stuff is just too “cool.” I’m glad that it puts some peo­ple in touch with God, and that’s a good thing. But church should nev­er be too cool or too com­fy or too sen­ti­men­tal. It should chal­lenge too. What I’d like to hear in one of these arti­cles is how these new forms and this new move­ment actu­al­ly chal­lenge peo­ple to com­mit to Christ and to change their lives. Hmmm.

So true, so true. What I’ve won­dered is whether tra­di­tion­al Quak­erism has a thresh­ing func­tion to offer the emergent-church seek­ers: we have the inti­mate meet­ings (part­ly by design, part­ly because our meet­ings are half-empty), the lan­guage of the direct expe­ri­ence with God, the warn­ing against super­fi­cial­i­ty. I can hear Julie laugh­ing at me say­ing this, as Friends have large­ly lost the abil­i­ty to chal­lenge or artic­u­late our faith, which is the oth­er half of the equa­tion. But I’d like to believe we’re due for some gen­er­a­tional renewals our­selves, which might bring us to the right place at the right time to engage with the emer­gent churchers and once more gath­er a new people.

Jesus goes Lo-Fi

Last night my wife Julie and I (and baby Theo) went to a ser­vice at Cir­cle of Hope church at 10th and Locust. Very Gen-X ori­ent­ed, it goes to some trou­ble to not look or feel too churchy. It meets on Sun­day night on fold­ing chairs in a spar­tan room above a con­ve­nience store. The min­is­ter gave a low-key non-sermon, played a clip from a pop movie, gave out index cards with scrip­ture vers­es for peo­ple to read aloud while music played. There are gui­tars and tam­borines but it’s more lo-fi/punk than folksy twelve-string. The lan­guage is Chris­t­ian but not churchy. It’s big into house-church “cells” as the small-scale com­mu­ni­ty build­ing block. The­ol­o­gy seemed sec­ondary to com­mu­ni­ty, which could also be described as the prac­tice of liv­ing a Chris­t­ian life.

The ele­ments I found inter­est­ing were the same ones I would find wor­ri­some were I to stay. Almost every­one was a twenty- and thirty-somethings and it had the feel of a “scene,” in that there was a dom­i­nant style and demo­graph­ic to the par­tic­i­pants. While I sus­pect there’s a lit­tle too much of a social com­po­nent to the com­mu­ni­ty, I have to admit to a cer­tain intox­i­ca­tion to being in the midst of so many age peers. There was a def­i­nite sense that I could belong there and that my par­tic­i­pa­tion would be wel­comed and encour­aged. It was quite a change from the invis­i­bil­i­ty I often feel among Friends as a con­vinced thirty-something with a con­cern for tra­di­tion­al Quakerism.

While I have been in large gath­er­ings of “young adult” Friends, they’ve tend­ed to be dom­i­nat­ed by non-practicing kids of Quak­ers who are there pri­mar­i­ly to see their high-school-era friends. The group at Cir­cle of Hope chose to be there and their pri­ma­ry iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with one anoth­er is through this wor­ship group, which allows for deep­er (and bold­er) fel­low­ship than the young adult Friends gath­er­ings I’ve been to.
But could I belong at a place like Cir­cle of Hope? Prob­a­bly not. I’m too Quak­er, crazy enough. I didn’t join in their com­mu­nion since I don’t believe in out­ward sacra­ments. I wouldn’t like the idea of a pre­pared min­istry, and the enter­tain­ment of show­ing video clips and play­ing music would grate on my beliefs. While I know there are many paths to the divine, I agree with Friends’ expe­ri­ence that the path least like­ly to become encum­bered with false idols and bar­ri­ers is the one that is most stripped of arti­fice and pro­gram­ming, the one that allows an unmedi­at­ed direct expe­ri­ence and obeyance of Christ as man­i­fest­ed in the moment.

But am I too hung up on Quak­er prac­tice? Many local Friends meet­ings could be more accu­rate­ly described as med­i­ta­tion groups, there being lit­tle com­mon faith and many mem­bers who don’t believe in the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the divine pres­ence dur­ing wor­ship. With Cir­cle, I’m con­front­ed with the one of the cen­tral dilem­mas behind the last 150 years of Quak­erism, name­ly: is it bet­ter to par­tic­i­pate with:

  • the pro­grammed (often younger) peo­ple bold­ly espous­ing faith who might be too social­ly ori­ent­ed and flighty; or
  • the silent wor­ship­pers who threat­en to replace faith with process , are tone-deaf to gen­er­a­tional change and have trou­ble trans­mit­ting faith to their chil­dren or respon­si­bil­i­ty to their sucessors.

You can’t quite reduce all the splits between Hick­sites, Gur­neyites, Bean­ites, etc. to this dichoto­my but it is a fac­tor in most of the schisms. I sus­pect I would even­tu­al­ly be as frus­trat­ed by Cir­cle as I cur­rent­ly am with cul­tur­al Quak­erism but for entire­ly dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Per­haps I should fol­low the advice of a cur­rent arti­cle in theooze and offi­cial take some time to “detox from the church.”