Talking like a Quaker: does anyone really care about schism anymore?

Over on my design blog I’ve just post­ed an arti­cle, Bank­ing on rep­u­ta­tions, which looks at how the web­sites for high-profile cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions are often built with­out regard to nat­ur­al web pub­lic­i­ty – there’s no focus on net cul­ture or search engine vis­i­bil­i­ty. The sites do get vis­it­ed, but only because of the rep­u­ta­tion of the insti­tu­tion itself. My guess is that peo­ple go to them for very spe­cif­ic func­tions (look­ing up a phone num­ber, order­ing tick­ets, etc.). I fin­ish by ask­ing the ques­tion, “Are the audi­ences of high brow insti­tu­tions so full of hip young audi­ences that they can steer clear of web-centric marketing?”

I won’t bela­bor the point, but I won­der if some­thing sim­i­lar is hap­pen­ing with­in Friends. It’s kind of weird that only two peo­ple have com­ment­ed on Johan Maurer’s blog post about Bal­ti­more Year­ly Meeting’s report on Friends Unit­ed Meet­ing. Johan’s post may well be the only place where online dis­cus­sion about this par­tic­u­lar report is avail­able. I gave a plug for it and it was the most pop­u­lar link from Quak­erQuak­er, so I know peo­ple are see­ing it. The larg­er issue is dealt with else­where (Bill Samuel has a par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful resource page) but Johan’s piece seems to be get­ting a big yawn.

It’s been super­seded as the most pop­u­lar Quak­erQuak­er link by a light­heart­ed call for an Inter­na­tion­al Talk Like a Quak­er Day put up by a Live­jour­nal blog­ger. It’s fun but it’s about as seri­ous as you might expect. It’s get­ting picked up on a num­ber of blogs, has more links than Johan’s piece and at cur­rent count has thir­teen com­menters. I think it’s a great way to poke a lit­tle fun of our­selves and think about out­reach and I’m hap­py to link to it but I have to think there’s a les­son in its pop­u­lar­i­ty vis-a-vis Johan’s post.

Here’s the inevitable ques­tion: do most Quak­ers just not care about Friends Unit­ed Meet­ing or Bal­ti­more Year­ly Meet­ing, about a mod­ern day cul­ture clash that is but a few degrees from boil­ing over into full-scale insti­tu­tion­al schism? For all my brava­do I’m as much an insti­tu­tion­al Quak­er as any­one else. I care about our denom­i­na­tion­al pol­i­tics but do oth­ers, and do they really?

Year­ly meet­ing ses­sions and more entertainment-focused Quak­er gath­er­ings are lucky if they get three to five per­cent atten­dance. The gov­ern­ing body of my year­ly meet­ing is made up of about one per­cent of its mem­ber­ship; add a per­cent or two or three and you have how many peo­ple actu­al­ly pay any kind of atten­tion to it or to year­ly meet­ing pol­i­tics. A few years ago a Quak­er pub­lish­er com­mis­sioned a promi­nent Friend to write an update to lib­er­al Friends’ most wide­ly read intro­duc­to­ry book and she man­gled the whole thing (down to a total­ly made-up acronym for FWCC) and no one noticed till after pub­li­ca­tion – even insid­ers don’t care about most of this!

Are the bulk of most con­tem­po­rary Friends post-institutional? The per­cent­age of Friends involved in the work of our reli­gious bod­ies has per­haps always been small, but the divide seems more strik­ing now that the inter­net is pro­vid­ing com­pe­ti­tion. The big Quak­er insti­tu­tions skate on being rec­og­nized as offi­cial bod­ies but if their par­tic­i­pa­tion rate is low, their recog­ni­tion fac­tor small, and their abil­i­ty to influ­ence the Quak­er cul­ture there­fore min­i­mal, then are they real­ly so impor­tant? After six years of mar­riage I can hear my wife’s ques­tion as a Quaker-turned-Catholic: where does the reli­gious author­i­ty of these bod­ies come from? As some­one who sees the world through a sociological/historical per­spec­tive, my ques­tion is com­ple­men­tary but some­what dif­fer­ent: if so few peo­ple care, then is there author­i­ty? The only time I see Friends close to tears over any of this is when
a schism might mean the loss of con­trol over a beloved school or camp­ground – fac­tor out
the sen­ti­men­tal fac­tor and what’s left?

I don’t think a dimin­ish­ing influ­ence is a pos­i­tive trend, but it won’t go away if we bury our heads in the sand (or in com­mit­tees). How are today’s gen­er­a­tion of Friends going to deal with chang­ing cul­tur­al forces that are threat­en­ing to under­mine our cur­rent prac­tices? And how might we use the new oppor­tu­ni­ties to advance the Quak­er mes­sage and Christ’s agenda?

  • I read Johan’s piece and the report from the BYM rep­re­sen­ta­tives, one of whom I’ve even met before. I was glad to read it, one of the things I appre­ci­ate about Quak­er blogs is the win­dow into oth­er Quak­er insti­tu­tions, the points of view that I might nev­er have heard from before. But I didn’t have any­thing help­ful to add to the dis­cus­sion. I’m con­scious of not being a mem­ber of any of the insti­tu­tions under con­sid­er­a­tion. It felt more right to just read and lis­ten and learn. BECAUSE this is seri­ous business.
    My own year­ly meet­ing ses­sions get about 1/4 of the mem­ber­ship in atten­dance. Which is still a minor­i­ty, but it’s a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion. If you got 1/4 of the Catholics in our region togeth­er, it would be enor­mous, because they start with a way big­ger pool. What per­cent­age of Catholics are involved in the lead­er­ship of their reli­gion? Just to be feisty.
    But I think you’re right to wor­ry that the large insti­tu­tions don’t have much author­i­ty. Our YM is wrestling with that. What is the point of hav­ing a YM? What are the ben­e­fits? And how do they com­pare to the costs? And WE’RE NOT COMING UP WITH ANY REAL ANSWERS! This is scary to me.
    Is the lead­er­ship weak because the insti­tu­tions are weak, or vice ver­sa? I don’t know which came first. But it’s been a long time in the mak­ing, and in the next gen­er­a­tion or so, we either have to fish or cut bait.
    (On read­ing this over, I espe­cial­ly like the sub­tle chris­t­ian ref­er­ence to fish­ing of ‘men’.)
    At the same time that I write this, I believe that the urge to “cut bait” and start over, else­where, to give up on Quak­erism, is a temp­ta­tion of evil in our hearts. Is that too dra­mat­ic a way to say it? It is not where God is lead­ing me, and it would be wrong.

  • “It’s kind of weird that only two peo­ple have com­ment­ed on Johan Maurer’s blog post about Bal­ti­more Year­ly Meeting’s report on Friends Unit­ed Meeting.”
    Make that three peo­ple, Mar­tin. I just added a com­ment of my own to it.
    But I take your point. I, too, have been mus­ing on the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the link to Johan’s blog con­trast­ed with the pauci­ty of comment.
    How­ev­er, I’m won­der­ing if the dearth of com­ment might be due to the fact that only two FUM board mem­bers are also active mem­bers of the Quak­er blog­ging com­mu­ni­ty – Will T and myself. And it’s the BYM reps’ fel­low board mem­bers who can speak to their report.
    In gen­er­al, I have been unclear what my role is in com­ment­ing on the blogs as a cur­rent board mem­ber. When am I (1) Car­ol, when am I (2) one of the three peo­ple rep­re­sent­ing New York Year­ly Meet­ing, and when am I (3) a mem­ber of the FUM gov­ern­ing board? (Nev­er mind. We are all three Ranters now.)
    How­ev­er, in this case I was pre­pared to sup­ply infor­ma­tion that would cor­rect an error of fact in the BYM rep­re­sen­ta­tives’ report.

  • Well, I read Johan’s post with inter­est. I’m not qual­i­fied to com­ment — my Year­ly Meet­ing doesn’t belong to FGC let alone FUM. So, it’s kin­da like eavesdropping.
    And, Johan is in a far bet­ter posi­tion than I to explain and review any­thing to do with FUM. Lack­ing first­hand per­spec­tive to make informed com­ments, I just lurk!

  • RichardM

    I didn’t com­ment on the FUM schism because we are not mem­bers of FUM. But your point is well tak­en. There are lots of Friends who read Quak­erquak­er who are in YM asso­ci­at­ed with FUM. Per­haps they don’t care.
    If they don’t care then those larg­er bod­ies real­ly don’t have any author­i­ty. They might have a lit­tle pow­er over bud­gets and such, but what­ev­er author­i­ty they have depends on peo­ple car­ing about what they say.
    Tra­di­tion­al­ly the struc­ture of Quak­erism is local. Indi­vid­ual mem­bers are mem­bers of month­ly meet­ings. In those month­ly meet­ings some Friends are rec­og­nized as weighty and their views are respect­ed. Ide­al­ly the weight­i­ness of a Friend is sole­ly a func­tion of what they say and do in the month­ly meet­ing. Less than ide­al­ly it is a func­tion of how many Quak­er rel­a­tives they have, the com­mit­tees they have served on, their edu­ca­tion, how lib­er­al their pol­i­tics etc. But when the meet­ing is in gospel order indi­vid­u­als can rec­og­nize real spir­i­tu­al depth. Ide­al­ly the weighty Friends faith­ful­ly attend the Year­ly Meet­ing ses­sions and par­tic­i­pate in the busi­ness. They then serve as the com­mu­ni­ca­tion link between the month­ly and year­ly meet­ing levels.
    I do feel that NCYM-C oper­ates this way gen­er­al­ly and for the most part. We can do so because the YM is small – just eight month­ly meet­ings and a cou­ple wor­ship groups. Per­haps some of the Year­ly Meet­ings are just too large for gospel order to be main­tained. I have nev­er been part of anoth­er YM so I can’t say from per­son­al expe­ri­ence, but some of the sto­ries that I hear from oth­er Friends sug­gests to me that most YM are just too large to be spir­i­tu­al­ly respon­sive and respon­si­ble. With size comes bureau­cra­cy and that is often a bad thing.

  • David Andrew

    I am fair­ly new to quak­erism and based in the UK have a dif­fer­ent view. I read a num­ber of quak­er blogs and the debates and argu­ments are help­ful to me to see the dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives of quak­ers but feel dis­tant from the pas­sion that some peo­ple express about the dis­putes — I guess oth­er peo­ple might feel the same. So I will con­tin­ue to read but am unlike­ly to comment.
    Love the day idea — am off to set up a face­book group for it!

  • Paul Rick­etts

    do most Quak­ers just not care about Friends Unit­ed Meet­ing or Bal­ti­more Year­ly Meet­ing, about a mod­ern day cul­ture clash that is but a few degrees from boil­ing over into full-scale insti­tu­tion schism?
    I am writ­ing arti­cle for Friends Jour­nal I close with these words…
    “My expe­ri­ence is many new seek­ers are search­ing for a faith com­mu­ni­ty that is prac­ti­cal and prophet­ic and not sep­a­rate form liv­ing and reli­gion in life.
    A faith of rad­i­cal hos­pi­tal­i­ty that wel­comes all God’s people,
    root­ed in shared val­ues and nour­ish in a com­mon heritage”.

  • Maybe we could start a big orga­ni­za­tion to fix this?
    Seri­ous­ly, the “influ­ence” of any orga­ni­za­tion depends on affil­i­a­tion with & agree­ment with its posi­tion by indi­vid­u­als. If we aren’t going to devote exces­sive effort to the pro­pa­gan­da game – which is both cor­rupt and stacked against us – the val­ue of larg­er bod­ies is main­ly in col­lect­ing a crit­i­cal spir­i­tu­al mass for mutu­al edu­ca­tion & inspi­ra­tion. We con­nect with indi­vid­ual humans main­ly at a local lev­el; that’s where we’ll reach peo­ple if we’re going to. Every­thing we do online, while it can reach peo­ple intel­lec­tu­al­ly, even move them, will main­ly be seen by peo­ple in the con­text of enter­tain­ment. (Not an intrin­sic prob­lem with medi­um, but cer­tain­ly a wide­spread prob­lem with the culture.)
    I think what you’re call­ing “more entertainment-focused Quak­er gath­er­ings” may be clos­er to our most essen­tial “busi­ness” than the Biggest Pos­si­ble Meeting’s pas­sage of any num­ber of fine “min­utes.” Because the move­ment is first of all about con­nect­ing to the Spir­it we need to guide our efforts – or to even let us see the need for them. And that’s right down at member-level!

  • I care about schism.
    I care about schism because we were called to be a peo­ple, “which in time past were not a peo­ple, but are now the peo­ple of God,” 1 Peter 2:10, whom George Fox and oth­er ear­ly Friends referred to as “the peo­ple of God in scorn called Quak­ers,” called to be “of one mind, hav­ing com­pas­sion of one anoth­er” (1 Peter 3:8). By the way, I use these scrip­ture quotes not because I think scrip­ture per se bears any author­i­ty among Friends today, but because these pas­sages speak for the wit­ness in my own heart, and I’m hop­ing for the wit­ness in my read­ers’ hearts also. But we’ve failed to live up to our call­ing and be a peo­ple. No, we don’t shoot at each oth­er with bul­lets, like Catholics and Protes­tants have done, or Sun­nis and Shi­ites are doing in Iraq today, but some­thing in us has failed — love? faith? mutu­al inter­est? truth­ful­ness? — and our backs are now turned on one anoth­er. I’m not angry with any­one in par­tic­u­lar about this; I’m just deeply sor­row­ful. I guess I want­ed to believe in our call­ing to be a peo­ple, and our col­lec­tive will to be one.
    “It is by your love for one anoth­er that every­one will rec­og­nize you as my dis­ci­ples,” Jesus is record­ed as say­ing (John 13:35, NJB). Turn that around and you’ll see that by our lack of love for one anoth­er we’ll be rec­og­nized as no Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends at all, but just a bunch of sub­tly com­pet­ing splin­ter groups that each like to trade on the name “Quak­er.” Unless we can turn that degen­er­a­tive process around. And I think we can.
    The sad­dest thing I saw in the BYM doc­u­ment about FUM was the state­ment “we’re not a unit­ed year­ly meet­ing, but a con­sol­i­dat­ed one.” Well, my own year­ly meet­ing, NYYM, is one of those con­sol­i­dat­ed ones, too, but God has late­ly enabled us to unite on some very pre­cious things — notably a “Minute on Eco-Spirituality and Action” that final­ly, at last, calls humanity’s war against the earth a war against the earth and calls on Friends to dis­en­gage from it. There’s no good rea­son why a con­sol­i­dat­ed meet­ing can’t also be a unit­ed meeting!
    I’m pray­ing that North America’s con­sol­i­dat­ed meet­ings will stay at the FUM table long enough for the anti-homosexual Friends from Africa and else­where to get to know and love some of the gay, les­bian, etc. Quak­er saints I know and love, and also for them, and more lib­er­al Friends gen­er­al­ly, to get to know and love the more social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive African Friends — who also include saints. There’s no telling what kinds of under­stand­ings can be reached when we care enough about the pain felt by the oth­er side.

  • I tend to lump this ques­tion with the broad­er ques­tion of how do we pass what’s impor­tant to us to the next generation?
    The insti­tu­tions we iden­ti­fy with are col­lec­tions of the con­nec­tions we’ve made and the val­ues we try to live by. It’s the “Soci­ety” in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends. When peo­ple real­ized they weren’t the last gen­er­a­tion on earth, they made it impor­tant to pass along what insights and advan­tages they had col­lect­ed, so they built these orga­ni­za­tions to car­ry it along.
    Per­son­al­ly, I’m inter­est­ed in how that process con­tin­ues from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, how free­doms and rad­i­cal insights have been main­tained in the “autonomous space” that Friends found for them­selves. So I do care about the schisms, even 8 – 10 gen­er­a­tions ago. I assume that each side had their own insights and advan­tages that were impor­tant to them, and the orga­ni­za­tions they sup­port­ed were unable to accom­mo­date every­one together.
    A favorite bible pas­sage comes to mind: “Lay not up for your­selves trea­sures upon earth, where moth and rust doth cor­rupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for your­selves trea­sures in heav­en, where nei­ther moth nor rust doth cor­rupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your trea­sure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19 – 21)
    In prac­tice it’s not easy. We don’t want to deprive our chil­dren of what we have found important.
    I think there’s a cul­tur­al shift, how­ev­er, which makes it hard­er over­all to main­tain insti­tu­tion­al con­ti­nu­ity, and that’s part of what you’re point­ing to. It’s not just the “next” gen­er­a­tion that’s asleep at the wheel, but our own.

  • lor­ran

    I am per­son of few words usually…all that comes to mind in regards to unit­ing is ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’…