In late January 2004, I went to a gathering on “Quaker Faith and Practice: The Witness of Our Lives and Words,” co-sponsored by the Christian Friends Conference and the New Foundation Fellowship. Here are some thoughts about the meeting.
I heard about this conference almost by accident, from a listing on Quakerinfo’s Christian Renewal page. It was hard to get details about it, as my emails to the organizers kept getting lost, but finally I did hear back. Sessions included:
- The Simplicity of Our Witness to That Which We Know Within
- The Witness of Our Meetings, Our Lives, and Our Words
- Being a Witness to Christ’s Presence and Power in a Time of Strife
- Living Our Witness in a Secular Age.
- Our Witness in Scripture and Friends Writing
So what did I think of the conference?
I liked meeting the workshop leaders and fellow participants. There are very sincere, devote Friends who are aware of the need to have the Society of Friends look more closely at our roots. The New Foundation Fellowship has been around since the mid-70s and gathered around a series of Lewis Benson’s talks about George Fox and early Friends. They publish a number of interesting books and pamphlets. The Christian Friends Conference is relatively new and I never found how quite how it differed from NFF: there was so much overlap between the two groups that that it was hard for this outsider to figure out the difference.
I felt very welcomed, especially by the event organizer (who went out of her way to attend to my strange vegan diet). The weekend’s agenda was upended at the last moment by the absence of NFF organizer Terry Wallace, who was too ill to come.
Many of the sessions were on the intellectual side – prepared speeches read from notes. I suspect this is the legacy of Lewis Benson, who was very much a presence at the conference even though he died over fifteen years ago. I missed the kind of mystical, don’t-speak-unless-led spirit of old quietist conservatives and the extended worship sessions that are becoming popular with post-liberal conservative Friends. Somewhere between these extremes there’s a balance and I wondered if NFF could reach the larger audience it deserves with just this lecture format.
Size, aka there are more Christian Friends than this:
The first impression was how small the gathering was. I suspected this would be the case when I saw so little publicity. As the weekend came near, I mentioned it to a few Philadelphia-area Christian Friends, who were surprised to hear that such an event was happening. Most sessions had about eight people and maybe two dozen or so Friends circulated through during the weekend. Most of the participants already knew each other and were members of New Foundation Fellowship and/or Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative).
This was kind of a shame. With almost 12,000 members, there are certainly more Christians embedded in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting than there are in New Foundation Fellowship and Ohio Yearly Meeting combined. This kind of a conference could have easily attracted more people than this. Many small Quaker organizations act more as support groups for a core group of people who share interests and a desire to see each other regularly (I’ve joined these kinds of groups in the past, mistakenly thinking they would get excited if they realized how many people they could attract with only a little outreach). I don’t know if this was the dynamic with NFF/CFC but no one seemed to be too concerned at the small turnout or limited publicity in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The NFF never put this event up on their website calendar and the CFC doesn’t even have a website, which has become a crucial outreach tool for any small, geographically-dispersed new initiative that wants to reach its intended audience.
Divides and Reaching Across:
I also felt sort of sad for the self-imposed divide going on here. In between sessions, Seth Hinshaw, clerk of Ohio Yearly Meeting, asked me about FGC and then asked each of the other people there at the time if they had ever been to the FGC Gathering. Almost none had. I know the Gathering can be a depressing place for a Christian Friend, but if you want to go fishing for new disciples, there’s nothing like it. Just the presence of grounded traditionalist Friends at the Gathering does a lot to dispel stereotypes and generate good will.
When Jack Smith (Ohio YM, CFC) gave his spiel on the Christian Friends Conference, it sounded very much in the same spirit as FGC’s Traveling Ministries Program. There’s a shared impulse to look anew at traditions and to make the time to tell stories with one another, one on one, in an authentic sharing sprit. Call this the spirt of the age and label it post-liberal, emergent church, whatever – there is a lot more kinship here than we think and a lot of opportunities to go beyond our circles to connect with others.
Geographically Scattered Meetings:
From conversations and reading the Ohio Yearly Meeting minute book I learned more about a very geographically diverse meeting–Rockingham Friends. Although there’s a physical town in Virginia after which it’s named, only a few members of the meeting actually live nearby. The great majority live across the country and around the world, made up of Quaker Christian Friends holding dual membership in a local yearly meeting and in Rockingham. I’ve had wonderful fellowship in the Spirit with the Rockingham Friends I’ve met (I spent some time with the London cohort last Spring). While many meetings have long-distance members on the books (it’s not uncommon to find a Philadelphia-area meeting that claims hundreds of members but only has a few dozen people on First Day), Rockingham Friends outside Virginia seem to value and affirm their “affiliate membership”:http://www.ohioyearlymeeting.org/discipline.htm#Affiliate (link to the Ohio book of discipline). It would be fascinating to hear more about how business meeting works and to understand the impulse and benefits of being part of a geographically-diverse meeting like this.
I find it fascinating that the most socially-conservative yearly meeting in the U.S. would have one of the most ground-breaking concept of membership. Perhaps it’s part of an evolving twenty-first century model. Many people within the Religious Society of Friends and in the larger religious world have a closer sense of identity with an intentionally-defined identity group than they do with their local meeting. Perhaps the most lively, spirit-led example in the Quaker world had its mid-winter gathering in the same Burlington meetinghouse a few weeks later: FLGBTQC, Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns. I didn’t attend but all reports were that it was a much bigger gathering. (I can also guarantee that there were more Christian Quakers in the meetinghouse that weekend, an irony that deserves some chewing over sometime in the future).
I’d certainly go again. There was some very good, thought-provoking conversations there. Is this the springboard of a Christian renewal that will sweep throughout all branches of the Religious Society of Friends? Well, probably not. But it is another rivulet making its way into the future and a interesting group to go paddling downstream with on a weekend in January.