I propose a little amendment to the modern Quaker testimonies. I think it’s time for a moratorium of the word “community” and the phrases “faith community” and “community of faith.” Through overuse, we Friends have stretched this phrase past its elasticity point and it’s snapped. It’s become a meaningless, abstract term used to disguise the fact that we’ve become afraid to articulate a shared faith. A recent yearly meeting newsletter used the word “community” 27 times but the word “God” only seven: what does it mean when a religious body stops talking about God?
The “testimony of community” recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. It was the centerpiece of the new-and-improved testimonies Howard Brinton unveiled back in the 1950s in his Friends for 300 Years (as far as I know no one elevated it to a testimony before him). Born into a well-known Quaker family, he married into an even more well-known family. From the cradle Howard and his wife Anna were Quaker aristocracy. As they traveled the geographic and theological spectrum of Friends, their pedigree earned them welcome and recognition everywhere they went. Perhaps not surprisingly, Howard grew up to think that the only important criteria for membership in a Quaker meeting is one’s comfort level with the other members. “The test of membership is not a particular kind of religious experience, nor acceptance of any particular religious, social or economic creed,” but instead one’s “compatibility with the meeting community.” ( Friends for 300 Years page 127).
So what is “compatibility”? It often boils down to being the right “kind” of Quaker, with the right sort of behavior and values. At most Quaker meetings, it means being exceedingly polite, white, upper-middle class, politically liberal, well-educated, quiet in conversation, and devoid of strong opinions about anything involving the meeting. Quakers are a homogenous bunch and it’s not coincidence: for many of us, it’s become a place to find people who think like us.
But the desire to fit in creates its own insecurity issues. I was in a small “breakout” group at a meeting retreat a few years ago where six of us shared our feelings about the meeting. Most of these Friends had been members for years, yet every single one of them confided that they didn’t think they really belonged. They were too loud, too colorful, too ethnic, maybe simply too too for Friends. They all judged themselves against some image of the ideal Quaker – perhaps the ghost of Howard Brinton. We rein ourselves in, stop ourselves from saying too much.
This phenomenon has almost completely ended the sort of prophetic ministry once common to Friends, whereby a minister would challenge Friends to renew their faith and clean up their act. Today, as one person recently wrote, modern Quakers often act as if avoidance of controversy is at the center of our religion. That makes sense if “compatibility” is our test for membership and “community” our only stated goal. While Friends love to claim the great eighteenth century minister John Woolman, he would most likely get a cold shoulder in most Quaker meetinghouses today. His religious motivation and language, coupled with his sometimes eccentric public witness and his overt call to religious reform would make him very incompatible indeed. Sometimes we need to name the ways we aren’t following the Light: for Friends, Christ is not just comforter, but judger and condemner as well. Heavy stuff, perhaps, but necessary. And near-impossible when a comfy and non-challenging community is our primary mission.
Don’t get me wrong. I like community. I like much of the non-religious culture of Friends: the potlucks, the do-it-yourself approach to music and learning, our curiousity about other religious traditions. And I like the openness and tolerance that is the hallmark of modern liberalism in general and liberal Quakerism in particular. I’m glad we’re Queer friendly and glad we don’t get off on tangents like who marries who (the far bigger issue is the sorry state of our meetings’ oversight of marriages, but that’s for another time). And for all my ribbing of Howard Brinton, I agree with him that we should be careful of theological litmus tests for membership. I understand where he was coming from. All that said, community for its own sake can’t be the glue that holds a religious body together.
So my Testimony Against “Community” is not a rejection of the idea of community, but rather a call to put it into context. “Community” is not the goal of the Religious Society of Friends. Obedience to God is. We build our institutions to help us gather as a great people who together can discern the will of God and follow it through whatever hardships the world throws our way.
Plenty of people know this. Last week I asked the author of one of the articles in the yearly meeting newsletter why he had used “community” twice but “God” not at all. He said he personally substitutes “body of Christ” everytime he writes or reads “community.” That’s fine, but how are we going to pass on Quaker faith if we’re always using lowest-common-denominator language?
We’re such a literate people but we go surprisingly mute when we’re asked to share our religious understandings. We need to stop being afraid to talk with one another, honestly and with the language we use. I’ve seen Friends go out of their way to use language from other traditions, especially Catholic or Buddhist, to state a basic Quaker value. I fear that we’ve dumbed down our own tradition so much that we’ve forgotten that it has the robustness to speak to our twenty-first century conditions.
I talk about what a bold Quaker community of faith might look like and why we need one in my essay on the “Emergent Church Movement” I talk about our fear of meeting unity in “We’re all Ranters Now.”