One has to applaud the sheer honesty of the group of leading Quakers who have recently proposed turning the grounds of Philadelphia’s historic Arch Street Meetinghouse into a retirement home. It makes perfect sense. Arch Street is the host for our annual sessions, where the average age is surely over 70. Why not institutionalize the yearly meeting reality?
The Arch Street Meetinghouse grounds are also a cemetery. In about ten years time we can raze the meetinghouse for more headstones and in about twenty years time we can have a big party where we cash out the yearly meeting funds and just burn them in a big bonfire (there’s a fire station across the street), formally laying down Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The fifteen of us who are left can go attach ourselves to some other yearly meeting.
This year’s annual sessions continue their tradition of self-parody: the featured speakers are the umpteenth gray-hair professional Quaker talking about the peace testimony and a psychologist who appears on NPR. It’s safe to assume neither will stray beyond the mildest communities of faith talk to mention God, gospel order or naming of gifts, and that neither will ask why there’s almost no one under forty involved in the yearly meeting. The last time I went to a nominating committee workshop at annual sessions, members openly explained to me why Friends under forty couldn’t serve on committees. Later during that session we learned the average new attender was in their thirties yet the yearly meeting clerk didn’t think it was appropriate than any Friend under fifty comment on that (about 40 older Friends were recognized to share their thoughts, natch).
The generational freefall is coming to the yearly meeting. Arch Street Meeting is smack in the middle of one of the premier hip young neighborhoods of Philadelphia yet they’ve been resistant to doing any serious outreach or adult religious ed (I could tell stories: don’t get me started). This weekend I learned that the other downtown meeting, Central Philadelphia, continues its practice – almost policy – of not supporting emerging ministry in long-time young attenders (I could really tell stories). I wouldn’t be surprised if Philadelphia has the lowest per-capita yearly meeting attendance.
So why not just admit that the yearly meeting is irrelevant to younger Friends? Why not turn our meetinghouses into retirement homes?
PS: How I wish I weren’t so cynical about the yearly meeting. I don’t want to feel like it’s a state of all-out generational warfare. I’ve tried, really I have. I’m even willing to try again. But no where have I found a space to have these discussions, at yearly meeting or anywhere else. Other Phila. YM Friends concerned with these issues are welcome to email me – maybe we can figure out some forum for this either inside or outside of the official structures.
PPS: There are a lot of wonderful Friends involved with the yearly meeting. They have good ideas and sincerely try to make it a more welcoming place. The best part of the yearly meeting sessions I’ve attended have been the unexpected conversations. It’s the institution I am frustrated with: the sense that it’s bigger and dumber than all of us.
PPPS: What if I took my own words to heart and considered a PhYM renewal as part of the fifty-year plan? If I just stopped complaining and just attended patiently and faithfully year after year for those “teachable moments” that might inch it forward?