Apparently Micah Bales wasn’t calling for twenty-something Friends to engage in a reign of terror, of kerosene and matches. He was engaging in something called he calls metaphor. Micah reminds us that the living church needs to be able to ask questions:
A living, breathing community cannot be perfect in this sense. True life is found in dynamic tension. Living communities change and grow; they reproduce themselves in a diverse array of shapes and sizes, suited to their own times and places.
I myself would have avoided the burn-baby-burn pose, even rhetorically, if only because I’ve had too much personal experience of Quakers who completely lack a sense of irony. But it’s certainly not without precedent for Friends to challenge our connection to material space (Micah aint’ got nothing on Benjamin Lay!). This critique is why we call them meetinghouses, not churches, and it’s why their most prominent architectural style in the Delaware Valley resembles nothing so much as a barn – the most generic of open structures in the eyes of the farmers who built them.
There have been some good reactions among the commentaries on Micah’s post. Isabel P. wrote from the perspective of a “spiritual vagabond”:
For those of us with no meetinghouses, who wander from place to place trying to find a home for our worship groups, this sort of hyperbole (metaphor though it may be) is just painful. Is tradition and heritage really such an awful weight? Try being a spiritual vagabond …
Elsewhere, Mackenzie paints the picture of a not-atypical wealthy East Coast meeting that focuses on structure:
The meeting room is larger than needed for how few people show up weekly (about 70 on a “good” day, while the room can hold about 250). The campus is larger than the participants are willing to put in the sweat equity to maintain. You’d think working together to maintain it would go under the category of building community, which our First Day School claims is a testimony. Instead, the budget must be ever-expanded to hire someone else to fix things up, rather than have anyone get their hands dirty. Never mind that the meeting is running on endowments from long-dead Friends as it is. So much paid maintenance puts a strain on the budget, making for persistent calls for more money.
Further down in that same thread, Tricia shares the heartfelt thank-you notes of Philadelphia-area Occupy activists who found refuge in Quaker structures:
Dearest Quaker Friends, Thank you for harboring us in a safe place in your parking lot. We appreciate it, in solidarity — the 99%.
I’m so grateful that you opened your hearts and your space to us. (catastrophe averted!) I want to be a Quaker. Love and Peace, Barbara.
There have also been some obnoxious reactions, all too-typical dismissals citing some supposedly-inherent inability of younger Friends to be trusted in discernment or leadership. Of course our own tradition proves this wrong. When we talk about Quaker theology, the starting point for Friends of all flavors is an essay written by a twenty-eight year old. When George Fox had his famous opening that “there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition,” he was a twenty-three years old talking about a son-of-God that never left what Friends would call his “young adult” years. William Penn co-founded his first Quaker colony at age 33, and even old Margaret Fell earned her nickname “the mother of Quakerism” for the organizing work she began at age thirty-eight. By counter-example, I’m sure we find some older Friends who lack something in the discernment or self-control department. The moral of the examples: age is not the most important factor in Quaker spiritual discernment.
Now I want to turn back to the meetinghouse question and put things in a bit of perspective. There are probably only five or six dozen unprogrammed meetings in North America that are so large they couldn’t simply squeeze into the nearest volunteer fire hall. If calamity struck the meetinghouse, the great majority of our congregations could take a quick phone poll of members to determine who has the largest living room and relocate there the following First Day. Yes, of course it’s nice to provide space to the occasional protesters (and local yoga group, battered women’s shelter etc.), but it’s fair to ask if this is what we’re called to do with this time and money. There would be certain opportunities gained if a monthly meeting sold or long-term leased its property and re-established itself as a network of house churches. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good option for most meetings but it would be an intriguing experiment. And it’s definitely worth imagining.