Can Friends of diversified thinking remain united?

What a great week the Gathering was! I felt like a country boy attending his first county fair. There were multiple things happening constantly. And there were excellent classes on nearly every subject embraced by Quakerism. It was my chance to seek answers to questions about the practices of Friends that heretofore had eluded me. For instance, what is the definition of "convincement"?

Historically, the Peaceable Kingdom (Quakerism) has from time to time experienced disruptive schisms and internal strife regarding theological issues. Yet we’re a creedless people, and the values and beliefs of Friends are shared and examined by testimony and queries. Quakerism is thought by many to be an ongoing process of growth through spiritual revelation. Truth of spiritual leading traditionally has been held to be verified by the occurrence of the "gathered meeting" when several Friends seem to have been given the same worshipful thought. Why then do we have disagreements?

Even though Friends verbalize that each of us in our own way may discover life-directing truth, there is a tendency for individual Friends to think everyone should view spiritual matters the way they personally do. Consequently, differences occur because our people reflect various stages of development and various experiential insights. There should be room for diversity, but sometimes hurt feelings have occurred because the spiritual conclusions of one or more people aren’t thought to be respected by others in the meeting.

Such differences in some cases have resulted in individuals leaving their monthly meetings or monthly meetings being laid down. Probably the most dramatic of such separations occurred in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1827. It was then that the Hicksite and the Orthodox parting began. That yearly meeting division continued for 128 years as individual members of each group distanced themselves from their former friends in the other groups.

It appears Quakerism as a movement may be approaching a time of increased diversity of thought. The 2007 Friends General Conference Gathering included presentations or discussions by Nontheistic Friends, Universalist Friends, and Christ-centered Friends, as well as other variations. If everyone is to be accommodated, we need to set widely accepting membership standards. Maybe with a little preparation we can avoid hurt feelings and theological clashes.

Most yearly meeting Faith and Practice guidelines indicate that "convincement" is the requirement for acceptance into membership. However, I was unable to find a definition of convincement in any of several current Faith and Practice books I reviewed. A personal visit with Douglas Gwyn, author of Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox, helped me remember that early Quakers spoke of being "convinced of the Truth." I, therefore, began searching 18th and 19th century Quaker Rules of Discipline. There, I found such statements as the following 1796 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting membership criteria:

Wherefore, we desire, that on every application of persons to be received into membership with us, monthly meetings may be deep and weighty in their deliberations and result; and when united in believing that the applicants are clearly convinced of our religious principles, and in a good degree subject to the divine witness in their own hearts, manifested by a circumspect life and conduct, said meetings are at liberty to receive such into membership, without respect to nation or colour. (The Old Discipline—Nineteenth-Century Friends’ Disciplines in America, 1999, p.31)

It appears the Baltimore, Ohio, and Indiana (Orthodox) Yearly Meetings discontinued the following membership admission language in 1821, but it was preserved at that time by Hicksite Friends with the modification that "when united" be "should be united" and the final eight words of the paragraph be omitted:

. . . and when united in believing that the applicants are clearly convinced of our religious principles, and in a good degree subject to the government of the divine witness in their own hearts, manifested by circumspection of life and conduct, the said meetings should receive such into membership." (The Old Discipline, p.241)

The rules of Quaker membership clearly were changing by the early 1800s, yet we have retained to this day the term "convincement" as the standard of membership acceptance. It now may be an out-of-date qualification, for it makes no sense to have a standard that has no current definition. It also seems disrespectful to those who hold convincement to have special meaning to interpret it in any way the membership clearness committee decides. Lack of Faith and Practice guidance in defining the "convincement" requirement seems to invite theological rivalry.

As a member of Eric Moon’s 2007 FGC Gathering workshop on the importance and history of Friends testimony, I, like my colleagues in the workshop, was encouraged to visit with other Friends at the Gathering about what testimony means to them. I took that opportunity to inquire about the meaning of "convincement" from a half dozen or so friendly attenders. I received replies that ranged from, "If you don’t believe God leads people, you can’t be a Quaker," to, "As a birthright Quaker, I believe even birthright Quakers aren’t true Quakers until they’ve reached convincement," to, "Convincement only means you aren’t a birthright Quaker." It was apparent that the word convincement held at least a degree of importance to each of these people and some of them felt very strongly about its significance.

So what can be done to provide guidance to membership clearness committees as they try to be welcoming of sincere people with diverse thinking and also abide by the Faith and Practice committees to give some serious thought to this looming dilemma?

Nontheists have been recognized as Friends in at least some monthly meetings. They also were given presentation time at this year’s FGC Gathering. Despite my personal conviction that convincement is a testimony of believing that God leads people by influencing their thinking, that definition simply isn’t held by all Friends.

To embrace everyone at a common starting point, it may be best for Faith and Practice publications to openly state, "Convincement as used in this manual means Friends who have entered Quakerism by personal decision rather than birthright presence. The expectation is that they will respect Quaker traditions, practices, and testimonies and will acknowledge a desire to pursue seeing that of God and/or recognizing the goodness in everyone. Membership clearness committees are charged with instructing applicants in these expectations."

We can live best if we unite in kindness. The concept of seeing or willing the good was taken from Søren Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, translated by Douglass V. Steere of Haverford College, reprinted in 1956, p. 220.