It’s time to explain why I call this site “The Quaker Ranter” and to talk about my home, the liberal branch of Quakers. Non-Quakers can be forgiven for thinking that I mean this to be a place where I, Martin Kelley, “rant,” i.e., where I “utter or express with extravagance.” That may be the result (smile), but it’s not what I mean and it’s not the real purpose behind this site.
Friends and Ranters
The Ranters were fellow-travelers to the Friends in the religious turmoil of seventeenth-century England. The countryside was covered with preachers and lay people running around England seeking to revive primitive Christianity. George Fox was one, declaring that “Christ has come to teach his people himself” and that hireling clergy were distorting God’s message. The movement that coalesced around him as “The Friends of Truth” or “The Quakers” would take its orders directly from the Spirit of Christ.
This worked fine for a few years. But before long a leading Quaker rode into the town of Bristol in imitation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Not a good idea. The authorities convicted him of heresy and George Fox distanced himself from his old friend. Soon afterwards, a quasi-Quaker collection of religious radicals plotted an overthrow of the government. That also didn’t go down very well with the authorities, and Fox quickly disavowed violence in a statement that became the basis of our peace testimony. Clearly the Friends of the Truth needed to figure out mechanisms for deciding what messages were truly of God and who could speak for the Friends movement.
The central question was one of authority. Those Friends recognized as having the gift for spiritual discernment were put in charge of a system of discipline over wayward Friends. Friends devised a method for determining the validity of individual leadings and concerns. This system rested on an assumption that Truth is immutable, and that any errors come from our own willfulness in disobeying the message. New leadings were first weighed against the tradition of Friends and their predecessors the Israelites (as brought down to us through the Bible).
Ranters often looked and sounded like Quakers but were opposed to any imposition of group authority. They were a movement of individual spiritual seekers. Ranters thought that God spoke directly to individuals and they put no limits on what the Spirit might instruct us. Tradition had no role, institutions were for disbelievers.
Meanwhile Quakers set up Quarterly and Yearly Meetings to institutionalize the system of elders and discipline. This worked for awhile, but it shouldn’t be too surprising that this human institution eventually broke down. Worldliness and wealth separated the elders from their less well-to-do brethren and new spiritual movements swept through Quaker ranks. Divisions arose over the eternal question of how to pass along a spirituality of convincement in a Society grown comfortable. By the early 1800s, Philadelphia elders had became a kind of aristocracy based on birthright and in 1827 they disowned two-thirds of their own yearly meeting. The disowned majority naturally developed a distrust of authority, while the aristocratic minority eventually realized there was no one left to elder.
Over the next century and a half, successive waves of popular religious movements washed over Friends. Revivalism, Deism, Spiritualism and Progressive Unitarianism all left their mark on Friends in the Nineteenth Century. Modern liberal Protestantism, Evangelicalism, New Ageism, and sixties-style radicalism transformed the Twentieth. Each fad lifted up a piece of Quakers’ original message but invariably added its own incongruous elements into worship. The Society grew ever more fractured.
Faced with ever-greater theological disunity, Friends simply gave up. In the 1950s, the two Philadelphia Yearly Meetings reunited. It was celebrated as reconciliation. But they could do so only because the role of Quaker institutions had fundamentally changed. Our corporate bodies no longer even try to take on the role of discerning what it means to be a Friend.
We are all Ranters now
Liberal Quakers today tend to see their local Meetinghouse as a place where everyone can believe what they want to believe. The highest value is given to tolerance and cordiality. Many people now join Friends because it’s the religion without a religion, i.e., it’s a community with the form of a religion but without any theology or expectations. We are a proud to be a community of seekers. Our commonality is in our form and we’re big on silence and meeting process.
Is it any wonder that almost everyone today seems to be a hyphenated Quaker? We’ve got Catholic-Quakers, Pagan-Quakers, Jewish-Quakers: if you can hyphenate it, there’s a Quaker interest group for you. I’m not talking about Friends nourished by another tradition: we’ve have historically been graced and continue to be graced by converts to Quakerism whose fresh eyes let us see something new about ourselves. No, I’m talking about people who practice the outward form of Quakerism but look elsewhere for theology and inspiration. If being a Friend means little more than showing up at Meeting once a week, we shouldn’t be surprised that people bring a theology along to fill up the hour. It’s like bringing a newspaper along for your train commute every morning.
But the appearance of tolerance and unity comes at a price: it depends on everyone forever remaining a Seeker. Anyone who wants to follow early Friends’ experience as “Friends of the Truth” risks becomes a Finder who threatens the negotiated truce of the modern Quaker meeting. If we really are a people of God, we might have to start acting that way. We might all have to pray together in our silence. We might all have to submit ourselves to God’s will. We might all have to wrestle with each other to articulate a shared belief system. If we were Finders, we might need to define what is unacceptable behavior for a Friend, i.e., on what grounds we would consider disowning a member.
If we became a religious society of Finders, then we’d need to figure out what it means to be a Quaker-Quaker: someone who’s theology and practice is Quaker. We would need to put down those individual newspapers to become a People once more. I’m not saying we’d be united all the time. We’d still have disagreements. Even more, we would once again need to be vigilant against the re-establishment of repressive elderships. But it seems obvious to me that Truth lies in the balance between authority and individualism and that it’s each generation’s task to restore and maintain that balance.
Over the years a number of older and wiser Friends have advised me to live by Friends’ principles and to challenge my Meeting to live up to those ideals. But in my year serving as co-clerk of a small South Jersey Meeting, I learned that almost no one else there believed that our business meetings should be led by the real presence of the living God. I was stuck trying to clerk using a model of corporate decision-making that I alone held. I would like to think those wiser Friends have more grounded Meetings. Perhaps they do. But I fear they just are more successful at kidding themselves that there’s more going on than there is. I agree that the Spirit is everywhere and that Christ is working even we don’t recognize it. But isn’t it the role of a religious community to recognize and celebrate God’s presence in our lives?
Until Friends can find a way to articulate a shared faith, I will remain a Ranter. I don’t want to be. I long for the oversight of a community united in a shared search for Truth. But can any of us be Friends if so many of us are Ranters?
ps: for those interested, “We all Ranters Now” paraphrases (birthright Friend) Richard Nixon’s famous quote about the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes.
Bill Samuel has an interesting piece called “Keeping the Faith” that addresses the concept of Unity and its waxing and waning among Friends over the centuries.
Samuel D. Caldwell gave an interesting lecture back in 1997, Quaker Culture vs. Quaker Faith. An excerpt: “Quaker culture and Quaker faith are… often directly at odds with one another in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting today. Although it originally derived from and was consistent with Quaker faith, contemporary Quaker culture in this Yearly Meeting has evolved into a boring, peevish, repressive, petty, humorless, inept, marginal, and largely irrelevant cult that is generally repugnant to ordinary people with healthy psyches. If we try to preserve our Quaker culture, instead of following the leadings of our Quaker faith, we will most certainly be cast out of the Kingdom and die.”
I talk a bit more about these issues in Sodium Free Friends, which talks about the way we sometimes intentionally mis-understand our past and why it matters to engage with it. Some pragmantic Friends defend our vagueness as a way to increase our numbers. In The Younger Evangelicals and the Younger Quakers I look at a class of contemporary seekers who would be receptive to a more robust Quakerism and map out the issues we’d need to look at before we could really welcome them in.