Friends: An Elite Group or a People to Be Gathered?

I believe that Friends are called to be a gathered people. As I have explored what this means, one image that has come to me is that of Jesus crying over Jerusalem before Palm Sunday. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing." (Matt. 23:37-8) Being gathered by God is like that. It is a gathering together in love, not a mustering of the Army of God to conquer. So why do we resist the call to gather under the sheltering wings? Why do we resist God’s love? This is not just a rhetorical question. In many ways, my spiritual journey is a struggle against my own resistance to God’s love.

Another image that came to me is a gathered meeting. Think of a whole people gathered in that same palpable presence of God. That is the power that can transform the world. It requires individual piety but it also requires a community. This is part of what Jesus was getting at when he said, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." George Fox would have been just one of many 17th century itinerant preachers if people hadn’t gathered around his preaching. Gandhi would have been just another Hindu holy man without the tens of thousands who gathered to march to the sea to make salt and who committed their lives to nonviolence. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been just another minister without the people who gathered to march and fill the jails. God is too big to be fully manifested in one person. God requires an entire people.

The part in Matthew about stoning the prophets applies to us as well. My experience among Friends has been that when someone speaks out of a strong and certain faith, there are people who will say words to the effect of, "Who are you to tell me how to run my spiritual life " But in fact, God doesn’t always speak to us inwardly. Sometimes God speaks to us through the mouths of others. This is the point of vocal ministry. Quaker writings are full of anecdotes about the well-timed word from a Quaker minister that pierced a listener to the heart and produced a great transformation. My sense is that Quakers today are afraid to hear anyone speak with power and authority. We only want to hear words couched in meek, mild, and tentative phrasing. This is a betrayal of our tradition. Friends started out as a band of prophets. They were a people who were not only gathered, but then were sent out to proclaim the truth they had found. We have lost that prophetic voice and we are living with the consequences. When I was growing up, the common figure for the number of Friends in the United States were 125,000 out of a population of 180 million. The latest figures I have seen from FWCC show about 95,000 Quakers out of a total population of about 265 million. As a percentage of population, we are about half of what we were 35 or 40 years ago. We need to recover our voice or there will be no Religious Society of Friends for our children.

Our personal faithfulness and our personal relationship with God are the foundation of our lives and of all religion. A religious and holy life can be lived in any faith tradition. But this does not mean that they are all equal. Theology matters because it shapes how we think about God and how we structure our communities. Traditional Quakerism, with silent worship, free ministry, elders specifically charged to nurture the ministers, and business meetings that are a communal seeking for the will of God grew out of the Quaker view of the nature of God and the relationship between God and humanity. The current crisis in the Catholic church over pedophile priests is related to the nature of their church structure, which is related to their theology. The idea that a priest is needed to mediate between people and God, the limitation of that priesthood to celibate males, and the insistence on absolute authority and obedience to the hierarchy are theological positions which have led to a certain structure (or maybe the structure has led to the theology). This structure has led to a situation in which the church became more concerned about protecting the priests than in protecting the children.

Maybe these beliefs and practices make me arrogant and elitist. Our actions and beliefs have consequences and sometimes we have to see the consequences to understand their nature. Mostly the situation makes me sad to see so much pain, and also to see Christianity thrown into disrepute again. But then Quakerism rose out of the disrepute of Christianity. The early Quakers claimed that the entire Christian church, Catholic and Protestant, had fallen into error in 400 CE and continued in that error. Maybe that was elitist, too.

But following on that was the claim that Christ had come to teach his people himself, that he was gathering the church again, and it was available to everyone. In fact, it is our quiet, inward looking meetings that are elitist. Our attitude that only certain people can appreciate Quakerism is elitist. The idea that silent waiting is not for everyone is elitist. The evangelical attitude that we have found something of great value, which has transformed our lives, which we are passionate about, and which is available to absolutely everyone in the world who has the ears to hear is the antithesis of elitism. It is the gospel, the good news, which we are called to proclaim. It is the call that can yet again gather a great people.

William Taber

William Taber, raised as a Friend, is a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. Active among Friends for the past 20 years, he is married with two children and is a software engineer.