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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 GoDaddy.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.
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.
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.”