Nancy’s Secret Garden

When we came here in fif­teen or so years ago, Nan­cy Forrester’s Secret Gar­den was a mag­i­cal oasis tucked in the mid­dle of a block in Key West, a small for­est said to be the last unde­vel­oped acre in the city’s Old Town neigh­bor­hood. Full of wind­ing paths and trees it was the rarest of spaces: loved, care­ful­ly tend­ed, and shared with the pub­lic as a gift of beau­ty. But even then it felt besieged. In 2012 tax­es and expens­es became too much and Nan­cy sold off parcels to devel­op­ers. From an arti­cle in Key News:

The tucked-away entrance to Nan­cy Forrester’s Secret Gar­den off Free School Lane in the 500 block of Simon­ton Street will be closed to the pub­lic after today, as finances and prop­er­ty tax­es have forced For­rester to sell the land parcels that have housed an artist’s cot­tage and gallery, par­rots, orchids, rare palms, mean­der­ing path­ways and a med­i­ta­tive gar­den for more than four decades.

These days the gar­den has been reduced to a small back­yard on Eliz­a­beth Street which Nan­cy uses as a res­cue par­rot refuge. In the morn­ings she gives edu­ca­tion­al lec­tures on the birds, full of facts about their bril­liant behav­ior, the destruc­tion of their native habi­tats, and gen­tle lec­tures about how we can all pro­tect native par­rot habi­tats by liv­ing more light­ly on the land (hint: no red palm oil or beef). From behind the fence came the sounds of a swim­ming pool being installed in the cut­down mid­dle of the for­mer gar­den. Nan­cy has life ten­an­cy on the ill-repaired house where she lives with the par­rots. 

I don’t know the details of the real estate trans­ac­tions or Forrester’s finances but I find it incred­i­ble that Key West couldn’t ral­ly around one of its liv­ing trea­sures. I’m glad that Nan­cy remains along with her par­rots and I’m grate­ful my kids got a chance to meet her. 

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.

Winter in America by Gil Scott-Heron

From 1974. Or today.

From the Indi­ans who wel­comed the pil­grims
And to the buf­fa­lo who once ruled the plains
Like the vul­tures cir­cling beneath the dark clouds
Look­ing for the rain
Look­ing for the rain

Just like the cities stag­gered on the coast­line
Liv­ing in a nation that just can’t stand much more
Like the for­est buried beneath the high­way
Nev­er had a chance to grow
Nev­er had a chance to grow
And now it’s win­ter
Win­ter in Amer­i­ca

Yes and all of the heal­ers have been killed
Or sent away, yeah
But the peo­ple know, the peo­ple know
It’s win­ter
Win­ter in Amer­i­ca

And ain’t nobody fight­ing
‘Cause nobody knows what to save
Save your soul, Lord knows
From Win­ter in Amer­i­ca

The Con­sti­tu­tion
A noble piece of paper
With free soci­ety
Strug­gled but it died in vain
And now Democ­ra­cy is rag­time on the cor­ner
Hop­ing for some rain
Looks like it’s hop­ing
Hop­ing for some rain

And I see the robins
Perched in bar­ren tree­tops
Watch­ing last-ditch racists march­ing across the floor
But just like the peace sign that van­ished in our dreams
Nev­er had a chance to grow
Nev­er had a chance to grow

And now it’s win­ter
It’s win­ter in Amer­i­ca
And all of the heal­ers have been killed
Or been betrayed
Yeah, but the peo­ple know, peo­ple know
It’s win­ter, Lord knows
It’s win­ter in Amer­i­ca

And ain’t nobody fight­ing
‘Cause nobody knows what to save
Save your souls
From Win­ter in Amer­i­ca
And now it’s win­ter
Win­ter in Amer­i­ca

And all of the heal­ers done been killed or sent away
Yeah, and the peo­ple know, peo­ple know
It’s win­ter
Win­ter in Amer­i­ca

And ain’t nobody fight­ing
‘Cause nobody knows what to save
And ain’t nobody fight­ing
Cause nobody knows, nobody knows
And ain’t nobody fight­ing
‘Cause nobody knows what to save

Wheat planting at Howell’s Living History Farm

We’ve got­ten into the habit of vis­it­ing Howell’s Liv­ing His­to­ry Farm up in Mer­cer Coun­ty, N.J., a few times a year as part of home­school­er group trips. In the past, we’ve cut ice, tapped trees for maple syrup, and seen the sheep shear­ing and card­ing. Today we saw the var­i­ous stages of wheat – from plant­i­ng, to har­vest­ing, thresh­ing, win­now­ing, grind­ing, and bak­ing. I love that there’s such a wide vocab­u­lary of spe­cif­ic lan­guage for all this – words I bare­ly know out­side of bib­li­cal para­bles (“Oh wheat from chaff!”) and that there’s great vin­tage machin­ery (Howell’s oper­a­tions are set around the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry).