A Convergence of Friends

This spring I hosted an unusual dinner party: nine Quakers from Ohio, Oregon, and California, gathered for fellowship, dialogue, and take-out pizza at my apartment in San Francisco. Our ages ranged from four to 60-something. We were polite, charming, and friendly, yet we asked and answered some hard questions. We talked about Jesus and gay rights, about fear and righteousness, about finding our own paths within the Quaker tradition, sometimes on well-worn tracks and sometimes by blazing new trails.

What did we all have in common?—a concern for classic Quakerism and the all-encompassing love of God. People whom I call "convergent Friends" are seeking a deeper understanding of our Quaker heritage and a more authentic life in the kingdom of God on Earth, and are radically inclusive of everyone who shares this wish. Linguistically, "convergent" alludes to an affinity for both the conservative branch of Friends and the Emergent Church, a movement emerging from Anglican and some evangelical denominations that seeks a more authentic relationship to God, Jesus, and humanity. Figuratively, it suggests that Friends are moving closer towards a common point on the horizon. Many of these Friends owe a great deal to the work of Lloyd Lee Wilson and his book, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order.

The party attenders came from five different corners of the Religious Society of Friends—a young couple from an Evangelical Friends International-Eastern Region church; the pastors of two different liberal West Coast Friends churches, one of which is a member of Friends United Meeting; a former clerk of North Pacific Yearly Meeting; and four members of San Francisco Meeting (Pacific Yearly Meeting), including myself and my two children.

So how did the nine of us come together across such distance, both physical and theological? We had all been to the annual Quaker Heritage Day (QHD) at Berkeley Friends Church earlier that day. Margery Post Abbott and Peggy Senger Parsons spoke about using our Quaker history to inspire us, to make us unafraid to listen to God, and to go out and change the world, both in our own little corner and as broadly as we dare. They helped us envision a future that will live up to our amazing history as Friends. They quoted Jesus’ most frequent command: "Fear not!"

It is noteworthy that Marge and Peggy are co-editors of Walk Worthy of Your Calling, a book about traveling ministry among modern Friends worldwide. A member of Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Oregon, Marge is also the author of Quaker Women Transcending Differences, a Pendle Hill Pamphlet about ongoing dialogue between evangelical and unprogrammed women in the Pacific Northwest. Peggy Parsons is the pastor of Freedom Friends Church, an intentionally LGBT-friendly evangelical Friends church in Salem, Oregon.

Such a gathering as we had at our dinner party seems far easier today than it would have ten years ago, for two reasons. First, we connected through Quaker blogs. Blogs, short for weblogs, are a rapidly growing form of personal, interactive website. A Quaker blog is one on which the writer, or "blogger," self-identifies as a Quaker and writes, or "posts," regularly about issues concerning the Religious Society of Friends. I wrote about QHD on my blog, What Canst Thou Say? including why I was excited about attending. On her blog, A Silly Poor Gospel, Peggy suggested that local bloggers get together after QHD for a conversation about convergent Friends, quoting my definition of that expression. Over on my blog, I offered to host dinner at my home, so that I could be sure the arrangements would be kid-friendly. C. Wess Daniels, an Ohioan who currently lives in Los Angeles and writes the blog Gathering in Light, first read about QHD on my blog, and I encouraged him and his wife Emily to attend. Max Hansen, the pastor of Berkeley Friends Church, e-mailed to thank me for publicizing his event and ended up invited to dinner. Would I have dared to just call these people up and invite them to my house? Probably not. But the low-key medium of blogs made it easy.

Second, as I’ve traveled more widely among Friends via the Internet, I’ve found that this convergence is happening more and more across the English-speaking Quaker world. I first began attending meetings for worship about 15 years ago in the eastern United States. It was not uncommon, even then, to hear vocal ministry make reference to Jesus or Christ, but it was often met with vocal resistance, right there in meeting for worship.

Times have changed. The Quakers I know in Pacific Yearly Meeting—an unaffiliated yearly meeting that is about as liberal as Quakers get—who are most at peace, who have the most depth of commitment and the most effective ministry, are comfortable with Christianity to some degree. They are reading the journals and epistles of early Friends, stretching their understanding of the Bible, experimenting with plainness, and giving up some of their economic activities to allow more devotion to their religious activities. Most of those who would identify themselves as Christian are quietly working away at solving the world’s problems, not arguing theology in print or online. Some wouldn’t call themselves Christians, but they will admit they are trying to follow Jesus’ example. Some are more like me, still teetering on the brink, but likely to swallow hard and identify as Christian if pushed. I am often more comfortable saying "Jesus" than "Christ." I feel that Jesus has come to have a personal relationship with me, even if it’s not in the exclusive sense that has come to be understood in wider U.S. culture.

These Quakerly Christians would not say God’s direct influence was finished 2000 years ago. They are careful to search themselves, their tradition, Scripture, and their flesh and blood communities for answers. They are following the ways of simplicity, integrity, peace, justice and care for all creation—flawed individuals, every one, doing their best to follow Christ Jesus.

There is a solid core of Christian Friends in my monthly meeting. My friend Stephen Matchett grew up in an essentially secular Quaker home and became a civil rights and peace activist. In our meeting’s Thursday night study group, he began reading more early Friends, especially Robert Barclay. He was struck by the presumed Christianity in those writings and started to believe that if he were going to engage his Quaker tradition seriously, he would have to engage Christianity. This engagement has given him a new lens through which to see his peace witness, and a new strength of conviction about the Source of All Peace. He leads workshops on the spiritual openings gained from reading early Quakers and the Bible, and trains facilitators for Alternatives to Violence Project in California prisons. In the last couple of years he has car-fasted, refusing to ride in privately-owned, fossil-fueled vehicles, to remove that particular seed of war from his life. His gentle witness that submission to God is the key to a life of greater integrity, simplicity, and peace is an abiding fruit in our meeting.

I also know there are many Friends who have been quietly practicing all of this for years—for as long as there have been Quakers. Quaker blogs have made it easier to find these Friends if they don’t happen to live near you. Richard Accetta-Evans, author of the blog Brooklyn Quaker, came to Quakers because of our peace witness. As I was preparing this article, Rich wrote to me, "I want to make clear that I don’t consider myself to fall into either category [of liberal or evangelical Friends]. The convergence I’ve experienced over the decades is more a convergence of a radical social justice/peace perspective and prophetic Christianity, as I find it in the writings of first-generation Friends. This began to open for me as far back as 1969 when I read articles and heard talks by Lewis Benson, T. Canby Jones, and Rob Tucker, and I started to live for awhile at the New Swarthmoor Community and participated in the Quaker draft resistance movement spearheaded by Jeremy Mott and Peter Blood."

Through blogs I discovered that a converging process is also taking place for some pastoral and Evangelical Friends. Here are some convergences I see:

  • More unprogrammed Friends are getting over their Jesus-phobia. More pastoral Friends are infuriated and saddened that the name of Jesus is being used to spread fear and hate.
  • Many unprogrammed Friends are looking for more preparation and support for ministers and more Spirit-led vocal ministry. Many pastoral Friends are looking for ways to cultivate universal ministry and Spirit-led vocal ministry.
  • Unprogrammed Friends are turning to Quaker history to deepen their spiritual lives, going right into our Christian roots and the concept of Gospel Order. Evangelical Friends are turning to Quaker history in search of stronger connections to the Gospel message of Jesus’ relationship to the poor, outcasts, and sinners.

Friends of various branches don’t agree on everything in our online conversations, yet we have found ways to support each other’s leadings and spiritual growth. For example, Gregg Koskela, author of Gregg’s Gambles, and I are both convinced Friends. He became a Quaker because he wanted a better way to follow God, as did I. Over the last 15 years or so, our understanding of what that way is has grown. Gregg recognized a long time ago that Jesus Christ was moving in him, and has learned over time that Christ was moving him to live in the kingdom of God right now—reaching out to the poor, the stranger, the least of our brothers and sisters. I recognized a long time ago that I was called to serve the poor and excluded, and I have increasingly come to understand that Christ is a good name for these promptings in my heart. And part of this process for each of us has been learning to recognize a kindred spirit, a similar yearning for the Spirit, in others.

In the last 50 years or so, it hasn’t been popular to identify as a Christian in many unprogrammed meetings, or to be an activist in many Evangelical Friends churches. However, in my experience, even in the most liberal monthly or yearly meetings, there are some Friends who desire a deeper relationship with God and with Quaker traditions that include acknowledging our Christian heritage. I believe that even in the most nearly nondenominational Evangelical Friends Churches, there are also folks who desire more commitment to the Social Gospel, to the Peace Testimony, and to the radically inclusive love of Jesus of Nazareth.

A generational shift is also taking place—a new generation is arising among Friends that hungers for authentic spiritual experience and isn’t afraid of Jesus- and God-talk, a generation that isn’t defensive about using masculine and feminine and transcendent images of God, a generation that says it’s not enough to be saved in your heart if you are not transformed into a more loving and giving person. At the Chiquimula, Guatemala, meeting of Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas this spring, besides having more Central and South Americans because of the location, more young people attended. This is a direct result of the World Gathering of Young Friends, which brought a new generation of Friends together to discover how much they have in common. Young Friends were also intrigued to learn more about issues they didn’t agree on, yet still wanted to call Quaker. The World Gathering was both an effect and a cause of greater readiness to have these informal and institutional conversations. More young people are questioning the current Quaker orthodoxy that "never the twain shall meet" of evangelical and liberal, of unprogrammed and pastoral, of Christian and peace activist.

Convergence also attracts Friends who aren’t sure that they are really Christians. It appeals to some Friends who aren’t sure they accept a liberal political agenda. That’s okay. We don’t have to agree absolutely before we can listen to God together. I’m not so concerned with changing the minds of Friends who aren’t ready to talk to each other. I’m more interested in helping Friends to name this readiness inside them.

The time is ripe for Friends to find new ways of relating to each other. Today our Quaker history can give us the common ground to walk on, in order to reach a point of greater spiritual depth for all on the way to a deeper commitment to social justice. Along the way, I think liberals will have to name the Giver of spiritual gifts, as Lloyd Lee Wilson has said. I think evangelicals will have to accept that heterosexuals will not have exclusive rights to marriage and ministry in the Kingdom of Love. We will all have to face our struggles with racism.

We can start by learning how to be friends with each other. No more secretly believing that we are the only true heirs of Quakerism, just because we practice more silence than they do or because we proclaim Christ as King more loudly than they do. Not just by working together despite our differences, but acknowledging that we actually have more in common than we thought. Perhaps we need to just pick ourselves up and go to meeting for worship with a church from a different branch. And then maybe we can learn together how to discern the will of God among us as our foremothers and forefathers did. Maybe then we can learn how, together, we can be lights on the hill, patterns and examples to people in
all countries.

Before this article is printed, I will have had at least four more opportunities for in-person convergent dialogue: at an interest group at Friends General Conference in Tacoma, Washington; at Newberg Friends Church in Oregon; at Pacific Yearly Meeting in Redlands, California; and at another dinner party after PYM in Los Angeles. Quaker Heritage Day 2007 is coming up! However, you don’t have to wait for a formal conference or a written invitation. You could read one of the blogs listed above today. The winds of the Spirit are blowing across all the branches of Friends—blowing us in the same direction. Can you feel it?

Robin Mohr

Robin Mohr, a member of San Francisco (Calif.) Meeting, serves her monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings through religious education programs for adults and children.