Convergence among Friends: From the ‘Kitchen’ to the ‘Parlor’

Have you ever sensed that the earliest Quakers had a fire that seems to be missing now? What do we need today that they never even envisioned because their world was so different from ours? Convergent Friends (like you?) are seeking a deeper understanding of our Quaker heritage and a more authentic life in the kingdom of God on Earth, radically inclusive of all who seek to live this life. It is a coming together of many strands of Quakerism, including, among others, Friends from the politically liberal end of the evangelical branch, the Christian end of the unprogrammed branch, and the more outgoing end of the conservative branch. Metaphorically, convergent Friends are moving closer together towards a radical understanding of the kingdom of God embodied in our postmodern culture.

The winds of the Spirit are blowing across all the branches of Friends—blowing us in the same direction. Linguistically, "convergent" alludes to an affinity for both Conservative Friends and the Emergent Church. Convergent Friends love the Truth more than we cherish our long-held assumptions about what is and what isn’t "real" Quakerism. Convergent Friends are willing to allow their perception of God’s will to be enriched by the perspective of others. We include folks who aren’t sure what they believe about Jesus and Christ but who aren’t afraid to wrestle with this question. There are people among us who think that a lot of Quaker anachronisms are silly but who are willing to experiment to see which ones still hold life and power to transform and improve us. Convergent Friends are willing to use our Quaker history to forge the common ground we need to walk on now, in order for all to reach a point of greater spiritual depth and commitment to social justice.

The Religious Society of Friends is uniquely qualified to address the spiritual challenges of our times, but only as we work to heal our own rifts and discard our own self-imposed limitations. We will listen deeply and lovingly to one another, as we speak courageously and gently about our own experiences of the Truth. We will explore what we can learn from each other’s stories, discover what it means to worship in Spirit and in Truth in the postmodern age, and share a lived faith as we serve all creation.

Would you have come to a workshop focused on this topic? The official title was "Convergent Friends: Reclaiming the Power of Primitive Quakerism in a Postmodern World." The two of us were invited by Shawna Roberts and David Male, two Friends from Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) to help them organize this workshop at the FWCC Section of the Americas annual meeting in March 2007. But more importantly, we were following a leading to begin a convergent conversation with other FWCC attenders—to bring the fire and enthusiasm of our informal "kitchen" conversations into the more formal "parlor" of FWCC.

As David Male tells it, one day he happened to surf the Friends United Meeting website and found a really interesting article by C. Wess Daniels. He forwarded the link to his friend Shawna Roberts because it spoke to a conversation that they had been having about how an authentic spiritual life might look within the Quaker tradition. A few days later, Shawna wrote to another friend about what she had learned from the article and cc’d David. He was impressed with her insights and especially with this new word she suggested they start using to describe themselves, "convergent" Friends. He e-mailed her to say "I love that word! How did you come up with that word, ‘convergent’?" She responded, "It was in the title of that article you sent me." He laughed and agreed that details were never his strong suit. Later that month, after a planning meeting for the FWCC Section of the Americas annual meeting, David sent a note to Shawna telling her he was planning a workshop on convergence. Shawna thought it was a fine idea and began researching it further. She found Robin’s article in Friends Journal, her blog post where the term was first used, and other blog posts written by Wess and other Friends on the topic. By the time David caught up with her, she had already been in contact with us, and we were considering coming to the FWCC meeting in Providence.

Thanks to modern technology, the four of us were able to work together even though we had never met David and Shawna, and none of us lived within 100 miles of each other. The Internet gave us a way to come together and share ideas, struggle through difficult questions, get mad, make up, and build friendships. Even though we have very different backgrounds, once we actually met up in Providence, we found that we really liked each other and working as a team.

One of the concepts we presented at the workshop was that our Quaker heritage offers us good techniques for being faithful to the Holy Spirit. These basic practices, tried over time, are useful, not because they’re traditional, but because they still have the power to transform us and the world. A number of the practices of postmodern churches look very similar to Quaker practices, updated and reworked for this new culture. They help point the way beyond various dualisms with which our own tradition has been plagued: contemplative vs. activist, faith vs. practice, Bible vs. experience—the list goes on. At its best, Quakerism has forged a "both/and" path.

We have noticed that among unprogrammed liberal meetings it is more widely acceptable to use Christian language in meeting for worship than it was ten years ago. It’s still acceptable not to as well, but Friends are more open to wrestling with this language, and this openness makes dialogue possible. Among pastoral and evangelical Friends there is also a reawakening in some corners of the value of their Quaker distinctives, as they refer to the beliefs and practices that separate them from other Christians, such as open worship and Quaker business processes. They are unwavering in their commitment to following Jesus, but they are interested in exploring these practices with other Quakers. Convergent Friends want to help other Friends name this readiness inside them. We want to encourage Friends to be brave in speaking our understanding of Truth among ourselves, for when you are brave, you give courage to others.

We were surprised and delighted to find that some people came to our FWCC workshop already enthusiastic about the idea of convergent Friends. Many brought serious questions, and that really helped the conversation go deeper. One question was, "Is this just an Internet thing?" It is true that the Web has acted as a meeting ground for Quakers all over the world. However, these are conversations that have been waiting to happen, and the Internet has facilitated conversations otherwise not physically possible. And now, these friendships are finding their way more and more into people’s living rooms, meetinghouses, and FWCC conferences, and being expressed in phone calls, mealtime conversations, e-mails, and blogs.

Another participant’s question referred to a line in the handout: "What do you mean by ‘living communally’?" Shawna answered from her personal experience: "It means that I’m here, while my husband is at home with five children under the age of ten and a list of half a dozen Friends who have offered to provide whatever material or moral support he needs while I’m away. It means paying attention to the people in your community, noticing what they might need, and being available to help." Wess answered from his personal experience: "For me and my wife it means living with a small group of friends in a house in a dodgy neighborhood of Los Angeles, and being present in the neighborhood instead of closed off from it: committed to knowing our neighbors, shopping at the local mercado, and riding the public transit with the people we live near."

Several times Robin used the phrase that as we get closer to God we get closer to each other, across various barriers. Someone asked, "What do you mean by getting closer to God?" She answered: "I mean finding ways of hearing and responding to the nudges from God in our own hearts and lives. For me, it involves stripping away the things that get in the way of hearing and obeying these nudges. For me that is the heart of plain living, in the old Quaker sense of plain. I find this reflects the experience of Friends from all parts of the spectrum."

This may all sound very similar to what FWCC has been doing for years, and it is. Over the last 70 years, FWCC has done important work facilitating communication among Friends of all persuasions. However, FWCC has approached the work from an institutional level, while the convergent Friends conversation has been at the personal level. It is as though FWCC is ordinarily about walking through the officially approved doors and talking in the formal parlors of our Religious Society, while convergence has been more like hanging out in the kitchen or on the back porch.

We were pleased to be able to talk with Friends at the FWCC annual meeting, both in the workshop and out of it. It was exciting to experience this informal hospitality and conversation within a formal setting with institutional support. It’s also exciting that current forms of communication can open new windows in the institutional walls. We felt that the formal parlor discussion of FWCC really complemented the informal kitchen conversation of convergence.

We believe that the Spirit of God is calling all of us to reach out to the world and share love in new and radical ways. Our encounter with the Friends at FWCC reminded us this isn’t just something we individually believe, but something that God is doing in the world among many different individuals and groups.

Come join us. Start a convergent conversation in your own kitchen or on your own back porch. Invite us over for a cup of tea and cookies. Plan a workshop of your own. Join one of the ongoing conversations on the Internet. Come sit in the parlor at the next FWCC Section of the Americas annual meeting, to be hosted by Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting in April 2008. Come and explore where the Holy Spirit would have us all go.

Robin Mohr and C. Wess Daniels

Robin Mohr, a member of San Francisco (Calif.) Meeting, has a weblog, What Canst Thou Say?. C. Wess Daniels, a member of Barberton (Ohio) Friends Church, currently lives in Los Angeles where he attends Fuller Seminary; he blogs at