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.


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.

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.

“Mainline denominations can seem to “enforce” a scripted liturgy that “must be finished” and surely…”

“Main­line denom­i­na­tions can seem to “enforce” a script­ed litur­gy that “must be fin­ished” and sure­ly the stripped down way in which Quak­ers — even pro­grammed ones — wor­ship might seem like a breath of fresh air to intro­verts who love to reflect and refo­cus on God’s Pres­ence.”

James Tow­er: Is Quak­erism “Wor­ship for Intro­verts?” http://​bit​.ly/​Y​a​j​MEU

Posted February 6th, 2013 , in Uncategorized Tagged , ,

Syrup that Masks the Salt

Wor­ship at the Med­ford (N.J.) Meet­ing start­ed this morn­ing with queries for the upcom­ing “Salt and Light” gath­er­ing of world Friends. Med­ford is send­ing a del­e­gate to the Kenyan event, and in prepa­ra­tion they’re read­ing the queries from the Salt and Light mate­ri­al dur­ing the mon­th of March, along with some pas­sages from the Gospel of Mark(“Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his salt­ness, where­with will ye sea­son it? Have salt in your­selves, and have peace one with anoth­er.” http://​bible​.us/​M​a​r​k​9​.​4​9​.​KJV). I spoke in wor­ship to a recent omis­sion of salt.

A Sat­ur­day rit­u­al in the house­hold is morn­ing pan­cakes. One of the boys likes choco­late chips in his pan­cakes; anoth­er likes vanil­la chips; I myself like blue­ber­ries. What all the pan­cakes have in com­mon is salt: just one and half t-spoons in the mix­ing bowl is enough to trans­form the bat­ter.

A few Sat­ur­days ago I for­got the salt. The results looked like pan­cakes but when we bit into them we knew they weren’t right. Rather than give them up, we poured them extra-heavy with syrup. Enough syrup masked the bland taste­less­ness of the pan­cakes – the emp­ty form of the­se almost pan­cakes – and allowed us to eat it.

How many of the reli­gious bod­ies descend­ed from Mark’s ear­ly gospel have masked our salt­less­ness (or a fear of it) with extra heap­ings of syrup? Cer­tain­ly, the cur­rent fash­ion for charis­mat­ic preach­ers and praise rock bands can act as a kind of mask­ing syrup. But there’s all sorts of ways of com­pen­sat­ing for miss­ing salt.

As Jon Watts and Mag­gie Har­rison have been remind­ing us though the http://​www​.clothey​our​selfin​right​eous​ness​.com project, ear­ly Friends opt­ed for spir­i­tu­al naked­ness: peo­ple gath­er­ing with­out props or dis­trac­tions, one-on-one and togeth­er wait­ing for the Holy Spir­it to lift up and gath­er the wor­ship. The salt is the Liv­ing Spir­it, here to guide, direct, com­fort and scold. In the qui­et of a Friends meet­ing you’ve either got it or you don’t. We’re work­ing with­out nets and there’s not much room to hide. The ques­tion fac­ing the par­tic­i­pants in Kenya – and the gath­er­ers in every Friends meet­ing­house and church in the world – is whether we have the salt.

There are many types of mask­ing syrup. Even once-radical Friends have found ways to side­step the salt ques­tion, pre-empting the emp­ty naked­ness of our wor­ship with caus­es, busy-ness, his­tor­i­cal fes­tishism, etc. When Friends gath­er in Kenya, I hope they will ask one anoth­er about the salt, the Liv­ing Spir­it. May­be they can bring back a re-appreciation of naked­ness. For the good news is that Jesus is always ready to bring salt to the sim­plest of meals: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (http://​bible​.us/​R​e​v​3​.​2​0​.​KJV).

Embed­ded Link

Wel­come to the World Con­fer­ence of Friends 2012 Web­site

The largest world­wide con­fer­ence of Friends since 1967 comes togeth­er from 17 – 25 April 2012 in Kenya. The the­me is Being Salt and Light – Friends liv­ing the King­dom of God in a bro­ken world. One thous…

Last weekend I was invited to speak to Abington (Pa.) Meeting’s First-day school…

Last week­end I was invit­ed to speak to Abing­ton (Pa.) Meeting’s First-day school (n.b. prop­er FJ stylesheet) to talk about vocal min­istry in wor­ship. I haven’t been to wor­ship at that meet­ing for eons and can’t speak to the con­di­tion of its min­istry, but I do know that vocal min­istry can be some­thing of a mys­tery for unpro­grammed Friends. Many of us are “con­vinced,” com­ing to the Soci­ety as adults and often have a nag­ging feel­ing we’re play-acting at being Friends, but I’ve met many life-long Quak­ers who also won­der about it.

Per­haps as a respon­se to the­se feel­ings, we some­times get rather pedan­tic that what­ev­er way we’ve first encoun­tered is the Quak­er way. The cur­rent fash­ion of vocal min­istry in the Philadel­phia area is for short mes­sages, often about world events, often con­fes­sion­al in nature. What I want­ed to leave Abing­ton with was the rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent ways unpro­grammed Friends have wor­shipped over time and how some of our prac­tices out­side wor­ship were devel­oped to help nur­ture Spirit-led min­istry.

(writ­ten this a.m. but only post­ed to lim­it­ed cir­cles, cut and past­ed when I saw the mix-up)

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