Not since 1946, when I was a senior at Westtown (Pa.) Friends School and attended Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sessions, have I been present at a large gathering of Friends. It was a marvelous and lasting experience to be part of meaningful worship with that number of people. I felt a sense of common purpose and shared values that exemplified the essence of Quakerism.
Now, many years later, the advance program of the Friends General Conference 2002 Gathering suggests a different kind of gathering, in that much of what is to be found in the program testifies to the growing influence of the wider culture on Quaker thinking. Assuming that the descriptions of the workshops offered at the Gathering are a representative sample of current interests in constituent meetings, it might be useful to ask ourselves what kinds of activities members of the Religious Society of Friends want to foster.
What appears to be of most concern to present-day Quakers, exemplified by the program, falls into three categories: a core of traditional topics, considered either on their own terms or as problems in application to a different world than that in which they first originated; a variety of nontraditional topics, said to be spiritual in nature; and topics that focus on content that does not claim to be particularly relevant to Quakerism, or in some cases, to have any religious connotations.
There is abundant proof of our continuing interest in Quaker faith and practice. Sessions on the Peace Testimony, alternatives to violence, experiencing the Inner Light, witnessing for Truth, exploring Scripture, the carrying out of ministry of various kinds, and other familiar issues all bear witness to the fact that there is a defined body of historic subject matter that still speaks to present-day Friends. Of note are the workshops that explore the relationship of Quaker testimonies to various aspects of contemporary life such as competitive sports, employment, civic responsibilities, and consumerism. Their inclusion clearly indicates that such traditional topics are relevant to the world around us, as has been evident in the work of Quaker outreach organizations for many years.
Many of the offerings in the second category involve activities such as dance, walking, movement, chanting, working in clay, painting, conversation—alone or in combination. What they have in common is that they are designed to promote spiritual awareness and growth. Examples include two opportunities for bicycle riding, one including worship, the other offering a spiritual experience. A workshop for women involves "gathering in celebration of the Goddess and Feminism." The Quaker Sweat Lodge Experience, described as "an integral part of the Gathering," provides participants with an opportunity to "build the lodge, sweat, and discuss the history and spiritual nature of the sweat experience."
Departures from traditional ideas of what has been important to Friends as members of a religious community can be seen even more clearly in subjects that seem to have neither explicit nor implicit connection to Quakerism. Training in therapeutic touch is directed toward natural healing. Familial problems are addressed in workshops on parenting and couples’ relationships. A workshop is offered on concerns of aging, such as death and dying, health, sexuality, finances, jobs, etc. Another involves dealing with negative aspects of ourselves. Still another is directed toward planning for the future of society.
From these examples, one can conclude that the Religious Society of Friends has become increasingly porous to influences from the secular world, mirroring many of the attitudes that are prevalent in the popular culture. An increasing absorption with the self is evident as participants are invited to share their feelings, tell their stories, and engage in activities to heighten their experiences in a variety of contexts. Related to this concern with our own well-being, we may note the urge for self-improvement, although no workshop description promises therapy.
Without questioning the value for individuals of the kinds of activities represented by the latter two categories, it still is possible to ask whether such interests could not better be pursued without the need to justify them as falling under the rubric of Quaker concerns.
Another reflection of the culture at large, and a distinct change from the Quakerism of 50 years ago, is that one can now define oneself as a young adult, gay or lesbian, a person of color, male, female, in recovery from drug use, or single, as well as a Friend. To my mind, these kinds of identity-based groups differ in kind from Quaker interest groups such as, for example, Friends in Unity with Nature. In contrast to groups such as this, formed by voluntary association, identity-based groups, defined by gender, sexual preference, skin color and the like, are based on unattainable criteria for those who don’t qualify, and I believe we should ask ourselves why we encourage them. What does the emergence of such groups within Quakerism tell us about the state of our Religious Society? Do we want to reinforce our culture’s reification of the self by focusing on our own attributes as people? When workshops are exclusionary, are we admitting at the outset that we are not capable of treating one another tenderly? Do such groups serve to fragment our communal activities as Friends?
It is a truism that all institutions change as the culture changes, and therefore not surprising that this is true of the Religious Society of Friends. But as we seek to do God’s will on Earth and work for a world free of war and oppression of all kinds, we should ask what elements of the culture we live in today should be incorporated into Friends’ practices to best advance these goals.