Torching Meetinghouses Ctd.

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.

  • Let­ters From The Street

    Speak­ing as a “meet­ing planter” (our small Friends meet­ing here was found­ed two years ago by me and one oth­er Friend), I can tell you with­out reser­va­tion that, while we could meet in people’s homes, it would strict­ly lim­it the abil­i­ty to reach out with our mes­sage and attract oth­ers to par­tic­i­pate. You can pret­ty well be cer­tain that only those who already feel com­fort­able with you will come back to someone’s home, which may not include the seek­ers who real­ly are look­ing for some­thing they can be part of. 

    I have seen this with oth­er church­es as well; the local UU fel­low­ship grew from ten to 15 peo­ple in the 5 years that they met in liv­ing rooms; they grew from 30 to 60 in two years when they had their own meetinghouse.

    I am try­ing hard to raise the mon­ey to allow us to pur­chase and main­tain an appro­pri­ate build­ing for a meet­ing­house. Until we do, our Meet­ing will con­tin­ue to hide its light under a bushel, despite all our efforts to the con­trary. The desire to have a “home” is deep with­in the human heart, whether it is where we reside or where we worship. 

    The argu­ment that we could sell our meet­ing­hous­es and use the funds to help the poor and dis­ad­van­taged makes some sense, unless you think it through all the way. First, there is the fact that hav­ing a meet­ing­house for a “home” for the faith­ful does ful­fill a deep human need. Sec­ond, if we sold every Quak­er struc­ture in North Amer­i­ca, how much would we real­ly have and how much could we do with it? Can we be good stew­ards of what we have been giv­en, and not apply some kind of a means test? Would what we could do with the mon­ey real­ly be that much bet­ter than what we are doing with it now? I’m sure all kinds of anec­dotes could be shared about meet­ing­hous­es with small con­gre­ga­tions that suck up a lot of the avail­able funds, but I’m not inter­est­ed in anec­dotes here. I’m talk­ing about spread­ing the Good News: what would real­ly work better?

    On the top­ic of a need for a spir­i­tu­al renew­al with­in the RSOF, there is a lot I’d like to say. Suf­fice it to say that for my beloved Soci­ety to expe­ri­ence a new vig­or would be won­der­ful. On that much, I believe most of us would agree. But the dev­il is in the details, and that’s one for anoth­er time.