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?

Early “photo of summer” candidate

I writ­ten many times before that I like to find fam­i­ly pho­tos that encap­su­late a feel­ing — a time and place, a moment in our col­lec­tive lives. A few weeks ago I caught this shot, which I think will be one of my favorite pho­tos of this summer.

Tech­ni­cal note: this was only pos­si­ble with a water resis­tant phone, as I would not have dared wade out into a pool with pre­vi­ous phones. The 3D bokeh effect is cour­tesy of the iPhone 7 Plus “Por­trait” mode. It’s not per­fect: zoom in and there’s some dis­tor­tion around his left arm, both at the top where it fuzzes around the mid back­ground of the slide and on bot­tom where there are arti­facts in the con­trast with the far back­ground of the fence line. But I’m still pleased and amazed at how well the 3D imag­ing works.

In praise of an editor past

Frances William Browin from the Sep­tem­ber 15, 1968 Friends Journal.

When I became an edi­tor at Friends Jour­nal in 2011, I inher­it­ed an insti­tu­tion with some rather strong opin­ions. Some of them are sourced from the pre­dictable well­springs: William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s foun­da­tion­al mid-century style guide and the edi­to­r­i­al offices of the Chica­go Man­u­al of Style. But some is all our own, log­i­cal­ly test­ed for con­sis­ten­cy with Chica­go but adapt­ed to Quak­er idiosyncrasies.

One of our most invari­able (and con­test­ed) for­mats comes from the way we list con­gre­ga­tions. Quick aside for non-Quakers: you will often see a Quak­er meet­ing list­ed as  Town Month­ly Meet­ing, Town Friends Meet­ing, Town Quak­er Meet­ing, etc. Peo­ple often have strong opin­ions about the cor­rect ways to write them out. Occa­sion­al­ly an author will insist to me that their meet­ing has an offi­cial name that use con­sis­tent­ly across their pub­li­ca­tions, busi­ness min­utes, Face­book pages etc., but after a few min­utes with Google I can usu­al­ly find enough counter-examples to prove inconsistency.

To cut through this, Friends Jour­nal uses “Town (State) Meet­ing” every­where and always, with spe­cif­ic excep­tions only for cas­es where that doesn’t work (meet­ing is named after a street or a tree, etc.). Town/state abbre­vi­a­tion in parentheses/capital-M-meet­ing. This for­mat­ting is unique to Friends Jour­nal—even oth­er Philadelphia-based Quak­er style sheets don’t fol­low it. We’ve been doing it this dis­tinc­tive­ly and this con­sis­tent­ly for as long as I’ve been read­ing the magazine.

For­tu­nate­ly we have dig­i­tal archives going back to the mid-1950s thanks to Haver­ford College’s Quak­er and Spe­cial Col­lec­tions. So a few months ago I dug into our archives and used key­word search­es to see how far back the for­mat goes. Trav­el­ing the years back it time it’s held remark­ably steady as “Town (State) Meet­ing” until we get back to the fall of 1962. The Octo­ber 15 issue doesn’t have con­sis­tent meet­ing list­ings. But it does announce that long­time Friends Jour­nal edi­tor William Hubben was to begin a six-month sab­bat­i­cal, with Frances Williams Browin to fill in as act­ing editor.

It didn’t take her long. The next issue sees a few paren­the­ses uneven­ly applied. But by the Novem­ber 15th issue, nine­teen meet­ings are ref­er­enced using our famil­iar for­mat! There’s the “mem­ber of Berke­ley (Calif.) Meet­ing” who had just pub­lished a pam­phlet of Christ­mas songs for chil­dren, an FCNL event fea­tur­ing skits and a covered-dish sup­per at “Swarth­more (Pa.) Meet­ing” and the announce­ment of a promi­nent arti­cle by “Ken­neth E. Bould­ing, a mem­ber of Ann Arbor (Michi­gan) Meeting.”

I’ve tried to imag­ine the scene… Browin sit­u­at­ed in her new tem­po­rary office… going back and forth, forth and back on some list­ing… then final­ly sur­pris­ing her­self by shout­ing “enough!” so loud­ly she had to apol­o­gize to near­by col­leagues. At the end of the six months, Hubben came back, but only as a con­tribut­ing edi­tor, and Browin was named edi­tor. Friends Jour­nal board mem­ber Eliz­a­beth B Wells wrote a pro­file of her upon her retire­ment from that posi­tion in 1968:

Her remarks usu­al­ly made sparks, whether she was express­ing an opin­ion (always pos­i­tive), exert­ing pres­sure (not always gen­tle), or mak­ing a humor­ous aside (often dis­turb­ing). For in her ami­able way she can be tart, unex­pect­ed, even prej­u­diced (in the right direc­tion), then as sud­den­ly dis­arm­ing­ly warm and sensitive.

This sounds like the kind of per­son who would stan­dard­ize a for­mat with such resolve it would be going strong 55 years later:

She was so entire­ly com­mit­ted to putting out the best pos­si­ble mag­a­zine, such a per­fec­tion­ist, even such a dri­ver, that her clos­est col­leagues often felt that we knew the spir­it­ed edi­tor far bet­ter than the Quak­er lady.

It’s a neat pro­file. And today, every time an author rewrites their meeting’s name on a copy­edit­ed man­u­script I’ve sent them for review, I say a qui­et thanks to the dri­ven per­fec­tion­ist who gives me per­mis­sion to be prej­u­diced in the right direc­tion. Wells’s pro­file is a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse into a smart woman of a dif­fer­ent era and well worth a read.

Remembering Christine Greenland

Over email, the news that Chris­tine Manville Green­land has passed. In recent times I worked with Chris­tine most­ly through the Tract Asso­ci­a­tion of Friends but I’ve known her for so long I don’t know when I first met her.

When­ev­er she said some­thing it was well worth lis­ten­ing to. On online forums from Soc.religion.quaker to Face­book she was always encour­ag­ing to what Samuel Bow­nas had called “infant min­is­ters.” She had the rare abil­i­ty to slice through thorny Quak­er issues with unex­pect­ed obser­va­tion and wis­dom. She had a long view of recent Quak­er his­to­ry that put things in con­text and she would pull metaphors from her train­ing as a botanist to explain mys­ti­fy­ing behav­iors in our coreligionists.

She also had a wealth of insti­tu­tion­al mem­o­ry. There’s incred­i­ble val­ue in this. Friends, like most humans, give a lot of val­ue to the ways we’re doing things right now. It only takes a few years before a process feels time­less and essen­tial. We for­get that things once worked dif­fer­ent­ly or that oth­er Friends have a dif­fer­ent meth­ods. By being involved with Friends in dif­fer­ent areas — Cana­da and Col­orado — Chris­tine brought geo­graph­ic aware­ness and by being involved in Philadel­phia so long she brought a mod­ern his­tor­i­cal aware­ness. That dys­func­tion­al meet­ing everyone’s talk­ing about? She’ll remem­ber that every­one was talk­ing about it thir­ty years ago for anoth­er con­tro­ver­sy and point out the sim­i­lar­i­ties. That doubt you’ll have about a path? Chris­tine will tell you how oth­ers have felt the lead­ing and assure you that it’s genuine.

She did all this with such gen­tle­ness and mod­esty that it’s only now that she’s gone that I’m real­iz­ing the debt I owe her. More than any­thing per­haps, she showed how to live a life as a Friend of integri­ty through the pol­i­tics and foibles of our Reli­gious Society.

I used Google to find pre­cious gems of wis­dom she left on com­ment threads. It’s a long trail. She was active on soc.religion.quaker back in the day, com­ment­ed on most Con­ver­gent Friends blogs and was active on Face­book. She took the time to write many enlight­en­ing and warm com­men­tary. Here is a ran­dom sample.

Com­ment on my post “Vision and Leadership”

Yes­ter­day, I  clerked a small quar­ter­ly meet­ing work­ing group — I’m co-clerk, since it  isn’t my quar­ter… and the oth­er co-clerk is, which works well. We keep ask­ing the ques­tions and see­ing the poten­tials … but when it comes down to being faith­ful (a term I use instead of “account­able”) that needs con­sis­tent test­ing. It is impor­tant to cen­ter in wor­ship, no mat­ter what we are doing.

I had the expe­ri­ence of being chair of a group of biol­o­gists, and found that, even then, I con­duct­ed busi­ness in the same way… one of seek­ing guid­ance from oth­er mem­bers of the group — even though the group of which we were a small part used Robert’s rules of order. I felt our group was too small to make that approach work­able… Occa­sion­al­ly, I for­got I wasn’t among Friends until anoth­er mem­ber of the group (a Unit­ed Church grad­u­ate of Swarth­more Col­lege) remind­ed me… Church of the Brethren folks just grinned and allowed as how they pre­ferred the approach; we were, after all, both friends and biol­o­gists.  For most of us, the work had both a sci­en­tif­ic and a spir­i­tu­al basis.

To Mic­ah Bales’s “Is It Time to Get Rid of Year­ly Meetings?”

I checked in with Friends at our Quar­ter­ly Meet­ing pic­nic yes­ter­day; respons­es were mixed for a vari­ety of rea­sons, some hav­ing to do with resis­tance to chang­ing the ways in which we are Friends, and oth­er respons­es that I can only describe as “insti­tu­tion­al cheer-leading”.

Some of this has to do with expect­ed ten­sions as we grap­ple with mat­ters of both race and class; still oth­er mat­ters have to do with the fact that our struc­tures have changed at least twice in 30 years, as has the out­line of our faith and prac­tice. The ques­tion I have (of myself and oth­ers) is “How do we — indi­vid­u­al­ly and cor­po­rate­ly — show that we tru­ly love one anoth­er as Christ has loved us?” By that, I mean all others.

The most hope­ful exchange was speak­ing with a dear Friend in my for­mer meet­ing who had gone for the first time in decades, and feels strong­ly led to encour­age her meet­ing to assist in work going on at both the quar­ter and year­ly meet­ing lev­el; this will cross bound­aries. I was hope­ful in part because this Friend exudes con­sis­tent love. … and has in the 25 years I’ve known her. Love of God/neighbor are insep­a­ra­ble. She lives that bet­ter than I do.

It seems I have much to learn.

Com­ment on my “What Does it Mean to be a Quak­er?” (on an old site)

I cringe when I hear the word “Quak­erism” or “the Quak­er Way”… I find the two terms inter­change­able — both can lack sub­stance. It seems we have final­ly become the “bureau­crat­ic asso­ci­a­tion of dis­tant acquan­tances” rather than the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends. Some years ago, an expe­ri­enced Friend wrote that Integri­ty (say­ing what one means, mean­ing what one says) was at the heart of Quak­er Prac­tice — as a testimony.

If we’re just going for PR, that lacks integrity.

The ques­tion — for me — becomes “How can I live as a Friend?”

Com­ment on Eric Moon’s “Cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly Not the Testimonies”

When I first came to Friends, it was the way of life — not the intel­lec­tu­al con­struct — that drew me to meet­ing week after week (a uni­ver­si­ty meet­ing in what lat­er became Inter­moun­tain Year­ly Meet­ing). When I applied for mem­ber­ship, my com­mit­tee of clear­ness ques­tioned more whether I could live into a way of life, into the com­mu­ni­ty of that par­tic­u­lar meet­ing. Friends felt that wrestling with the under­stand­ing of the faith tra­di­tion was a part of my edu­ca­tion. Only after I moved to Philadel­phia did I begin hear­ing of the “pars­ing” of the faith tra­di­tion. It seemed too pat.

Still, the over­lap­ping cat­e­gories are still as use­ful by way of expla­na­tion, but it isn’t the whole story.

As with many mat­ters of faith, for those who pos­sess it, no expla­na­tion is nec­es­sary; for those who do not, no expla­na­tion is pos­si­ble. Howard Brin­ton did his best by way of expla­na­tion, but faith-wrestling is a task we all have.

Com­ment on Ash­ley Wilcox’s The Cost of Trav­el­ing Ministry

My ques­tion about younger Friends serv­ing as trav­el­ing min­is­ters is some­what more seri­ous: Are their meet­ings atten­tive to both the spir­i­tu­al gifts and the needs (cost of trav­el, etc.)as well as the spir­i­tu­al need for sup­port. If not, is the Friend with a con­cern for trav­el, teach­ing, or any oth­er min­istry) hum­ble enough to ask the ques­tions Jon is ask­ing. In my expe­ri­ence (as an old­er adult Friend)there is lit­tle com­mu­ni­ca­tion among age groups so that gifts of min­istry are ful­ly rec­og­nized… Young Friends are often left to their own devices. It may be that lack of spir­i­tu­al sup­port that is the “last door out.”

For instance, I would not trav­el with­out the full con­sent of my past com­mit­tee of care, all of whom know me well. They have gen­er­ous­ly sup­port­ed me this year (as well as my co-leader).

What con­cerns me is the ener­gy it takes (spir­i­tu­al and phys­i­cal), and that it most often takes an elder to attend to the mun­dane things — as well as to keep the min­is­ter on track.

She was also always one to think of the kids. Here she is com­ment­ing on Kath­leen Karhnak-Glasby’s “Bring­ing Chil­dren to Wor­ship: Trust­ing God to Take Over from There”

I recall one par­ent of a small meet­ing in Ontario at Cana­di­an Year­ly Meet­ing ses­sions try­ing to encour­age his daugh­ter to sit qui­et­ly dur­ing wor­ship… Her very rea­son­able response was “but Dad­dy, I can pray stand­ing on my head!” Her min­istry caused me to reflect on whether I could indeed pray/worship in all cir­cum­stances, and from what­ev­er posi­tion I was in at the time. I still reflect on that…

At anoth­er meet­ing, when Friends noticed the pow­er strug­gles between chil­dren and their par­ents, we asked elder Friends to serve as “adop­tive” grand­par­ents, with whom the chil­dren could sit… That defused the pow­er strug­gles, and mem­bers of meet­ing who had no chil­dren of their own were very help­ful to par­ents in that meeting.

I also recall learn­ing to sink deeply into wor­ship — and hear­ing a younger Friend’s grand­moth­er gig­gle. I looked down and there was the 1 – 2 year old peer­ing up in won­der at why/how I could sit so qui­et­ly when he was busy crawl­ing under the bench­es. it was just fine. He became a part of my prayers that day, and still is a part of them.

And this one has to be the last I’ll share, from a Quak­erQuak­er dis­cus­sion start­ed by Richard B Miller and titled “Elders’ Corner”

Like you, I learned about the role of elders from Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends (in Cana­da and Ohio).  In the con­text of my own meet­ing (and quar­ter), how­ev­er, there are Friends who can and do serve as guides and sound­ing boards — offer­ing cor­rec­tions as may be required.  Ide­al­ly, elders should arise from the month­ly meet­ings, and then be rec­og­nized in larg­er bod­ies of Friends, not nec­es­sar­i­ly being named by a year­ly meet­ing nom­i­nat­ing committee.

I was asked to serve as an elder for Year­ly Meeting/Interim Meet­ing… but because I was also on the nom­i­nat­ing com­mit­tee, had a “stop” about whether that was right­ly ordered. I con­sult­ed some North Car­oli­na Friends, who agreed with the “stop”.

One dif­fi­cul­ty that you raised is that many of the con­ser­v­a­tive Friends who held that tra­di­tion are no longer avail­able as guides… One effect is that the role elders once played is dimin­ish­ing among con­ser­v­a­tive Friends.

I’m feel­ing pret­ty bro­ken up right now. And I’m feel­ing the weight of this loss. I’ve found myself more and more to be the one giv­ing out advice and giv­ing his­tor­i­cal con­text that new­er Friends might not have. It’s the kind of perch that Chris­tine had. I’m only start­ing to appre­ci­ate that she formed a gen­tle men­tor­ing role for me — and I’m sure for many others.

A few years ago my wife and I lost our remain­ing par­ents (her dad, my mom) and we had the unescapable recog­ni­tion that we were now the old­est gen­er­a­tion. I know there are old­er Friends around still and some have bits of Christine’s wit and wis­dom. But one of our human guides have left us.

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.