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).

Some thoughts on the Twitter expansion

Twit­ter has always been a com­pa­ny that suc­ceeds despite its lead­er­ship. Many of its land­mark fea­tured start­ed as hacks by users. Its first apps were all cre­at­ed by third-party design­ers, whose good will to the curb when it about-faced and killed most of them by restrict­ed its API. Top-down fea­tures like Twit­ter Music have come and gone. The only inter­est­ing grass­roots inno­va­tion of recent years has been users using image attach­ments as a way of going past the 140 char­ac­ter lim­it.

I’ve been get­ting less patient with Twit­ter in recent months. Then-CEO Dick Costel­lo acknowl­edged their fail­ure han­dling abu­sive sit­u­a­tions ear­ly in 2015 but noth­ing much seems to have changed. Hav­ing co-founder Jack Dorsey come back this in Job­sian fash­ion has been encour­ag­ing but only to a point — there’s a lot of weird ego involved in it all. Twitter’s inabil­i­ty to pro­mote diver­si­ty and the tone-deafness of hir­ing a white man as diver­si­ty chief last mon­th makes me won­der if it’s just final­ly going to do a full Yahoo and implode in slow motion.

But today some­thing new: we’re look­ing at doing away with the 140 char­ac­ter lim­it. My ini­tial reac­tion was hor­ror but if done well it could be inter­est­ing. I’ve always won­dered why they didn’t part­ner with blog­ging plat­form Medi­um (found­ed by anoth­er co-founder, fea­tur­ing sim­i­lar core prin­ci­ples). The key will be keep­ing the feed at 2 – 3 lines so we can scan it quick­ly, with some sort of but­ton or link to expand past 140 or so char­ac­ters.

One could argue that the­se “fat­ter tweets” is Twitter’s way of build­ing the pop­u­lar long-text pic­ture hack into the sys­tem. Could Twit­ter man­age­ment be ready to look at users as co-creators of the wider Twit­ter cul­ture?

Crows Woods in Haddonfield NJ

The blog­ger behind South Jer­sey Trails orga­nized a “dads’ hike” today in a small pre­serve along the upper reach­es of the Coop­er River.

The pre­serve is remark­ably inter­est­ing despite its rel­a­tive­ly small size and posi­tion­ing between soc­cer fields and train lines. There’s lots of hills ands wet­lands. We saw two turtles fight­ing and a snake of some sort swirling around an eddy in brack­ish iron-filled bog water. There was a lot of flow­er­ing moun­tain lau­rel, one of my favorite wood­land flow­ers.

Many local trails in deep woods are on land that has seen waves of devel­op­ment over the past two hun­dred years but a check of the 1930 New Jer­sey aeri­al sur­vey shows that this same patch was deep woods then.
      I

Listening in on our Quaker conversations

On Twit­ter ear­lier today, Jay T asked “Didn’t u or some­one once write about how Q’s behave on blogs & oth­er soc. media? Can’t find it on Qran­ter or via Google. Thx!” Jay sub­se­quent­ly found a great piece from Robin Mohr cir­ca 2008 but I kept remem­ber­ing an descrip­tion of blog­ging I had writ­ten in the ear­li­est days of the blo­gos­phere. It didn’t show up on my blog or via a Google search and then I hit up the won­der­ful Inter­net Archive​.org Way­back Machine. The orig­i­nal two para­graph descrip­tion of Quak­erQuak­er is not eas­i­ly acces­si­ble out­side of Archive​.org but it’s nice to uncov­er it again and give it a lit­tle sun­light:

Quak­erism is an expe­ri­en­tial reli­gion: we believe we should “let our lives speak” and we stay away from creeds and doc­tri­nal state­ments. The best way to learn what Quak­ers believe is through lis­ten­ing in on our con­ver­sa­tions.

In the last few years, dozens of Quak­ers have begun shar­ing sto­ries, frus­tra­tions, hopes and dreams for our reli­gious soci­ety through blogs. The con­ver­sa­tions have been amaz­ing. There’s a pal­pa­ble sense of renewal and excite­ment. Quak­erQuak­er is a dai­ly index to that con­ver­sa­tion.

I still like it as a dis­tinct­ly Quak­er phi­los­o­phy of out­reach.