Diversity and Unity in the Religious Society of Friends

One of the trickiest tasks before the Religious Society of Friends today is embracing our diversity without losing our center, that which defines us as a faith. Since the times of the great splits in Quakerism, we have not handled this well. The scar tissue is present, and in some cases contributes to our difficulties today.

A look at almost any page of George Fox’s Journal shows that our founder most definitely saw himself in a personal relationship with an Inward Christ, and that he had memorized the Bible, from which he quoted frequently. It is hard to argue anything other than that he defined himself as a Christian, which is why historians list Quakerism as a Christian church. Yet the heart of his message—that we could know the Truth experientially and personally—embraces a kind of tolerance that naturally allows for and includes a huge diversity of beliefs.

Among modern day unprogrammed Friends, we find those who identify as Christ-centered Christians, as God-centered Christians, as God-centered non-Christians, as Universalist or humanist Friends, or as Buddhists, Jews, and pagans, all of whom find the local Friends meeting to be their spiritual home. Most Friends meetings welcome and include all who come to worship there—cheerfully and peacefully, but not without tension and conflict.

Travel among unprogrammed Friends and you will quickly find that various meetings can become fairly polarized between at least two of the aforementioned groups. You will also see that some people can feel quite threatened over whether their brand of Quakerism is really welcomed and accepted in meeting and anxious about "those people" taking over the meeting and destroying that which the individual holds most precious and dear. The conflict is often especially sharp around language— whether the God/He, or Goddess/She, or God/no-gender pronoun should be used, and whether Christ or no Christ should be used in spoken messages.

One can also hear expressed fears that we have become so tolerant and accepting of divergent views that we’re in danger of becoming nothing but a group of nice, politically progressive people who all meet together on Sundays. This especially can be seen in the contentious dialogue about whether sweat lodges should be allowed at the Friends General Conference. Is it possible to stretch a religious view so far that it no longer means anything? In 2009, would George Fox still express himself in the same way, and what would he think about the diversity in our midst? This, after all, is a guy who went to other people’s churches, stood up in the pews while the minister was speaking, and preached his own Truth of the Inner Christ! Talk to anyone who has served on a committee to rewrite our Faith and Practice, and you will hear how hard it is for us to come to consensus on a statement of our beliefs. (Several yearly meetings have a Faith and Practice more than a dozen years old for this very reason, I fear.)

I can only speak to these questions in a personal way. I grew up in one meeting, sojourned among many, and then transferred my membership some 12 years ago to my current meeting. I feel that both my meetings have lovingly embraced the diversity of beliefs in our midst. When I was a child, my parents instructed me that Quakerism is a historically Christian religion, and that the correct answer to the question of whether I belonged to a Christian church was yes. My father taught me this, and he made it very clear that he did not believe in the divinity of Christ but only in the historical Jesus. For him, Jesus was as powerful a teacher of nonviolence as his other two cherished heroes, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. My father identified as a Universalist and a humanist. I identify as a non-Christian Quaker, with a devout belief in God, who belongs to a Christian church. This may be confusing for some, especially non-Friends, but it is not at all confusing to me.

Some of my closest Quaker friends have always identified as Christ-centered, and this is not troubling to them or me. It is not a problem because, when we speak to each other of our spiritual experiences, we find at the heart the same relationship to the Divine. In fact, I think when we read the great sacred texts of any religion, we can feel the experience of the Eternal One beneath the surface of the words. I wonder if we could learn to listen to each other in this way in meeting. If a speaker gives a message with different pronouns or descriptors of God than we might use—for example, the Christ, He, or the Goddess, She—could we learn to hear the Eternal One beneath those words?

The balancing act between tolerance of other Friends’ views and the abandonment of the essence of Quakerism is the most challenging thing before us. It’s good that Buddhist, Jewish, and pagan individuals feel they can come and worship with us—that our format is flexible and accepting enough for them to find the Truth as they know it in the silence.

However, I do not feel that being welcome means that one gets to change the nature of Quakerism. I do not expect that a welcome guest in my home may move the furniture around. Even though I do not identify as Christian, I do not get to change Quakerism from being a Christian religion, or claim to the world that it is a non-Christian one. I believe that Christ and Universalist mysticism were both central threads in the spirituality and practice of George Fox and early Friends. I do not believe that either group of current Friends can claim they are the only legitimate inheritors or practitioners of Quakerism. Both threads are woven throughout the history of Friends.

The influence of U.S. liberalism is one of the things that contributed to confusion among Friends about how to respond to our differences. For the most part, the U.S. education system is based upon liberalism, and U.S. social change organizations certainly are. Liberalism is a way of thinking about the rights of individuals, freedom of speech and self-expression, change, new ideas, tolerance, and coalition-building by finding common ground and find-ing value in all experiences. When wed to politics, these are very positive forces for change. These are all very valuable ideas, but they are not theological ones. Most Quakers in the United States are liberals in their lives outside of meeting, and tend to associate with liberals. Thus we bring a liberal mindset to meeting when issues of what to include and what to exclude from our meetings arise.

I hope if someone came to meeting and worshiped with us for a while, and one day wanted to perform animal sacrifice in the meeting fireplace because they had found this to be a very meaningful spiritual experience in another setting, we would say no! That is contrary to the spirit of the Peace Testimony and the practice of silent worship, and we would be clear to say no to this. However, many Friends associate the posture of liberalism so closely with the spirit of Quakerism that they are left struggling how to say no because to do so is counter to the spirit of individualism, tolerance, and coalition-building that is part of liberalism.

Unlike other churches, we do not have dogmas that claim we must believe this, and if you don’t, you are not one of us. We have testimonies—a more softly held set of beliefs. We instead say, "This is the Truth as we have so far been shown," humbly allowing that we may be shown new Light, and that our understanding of the Truth may evolve. I am delighted that we hold the Truth in this flexible way instead of as rigidly chiseled in stone. I am aware this makes it hard for many Friends to answer the question, "What do Quakers believe?" For years, I have encouraged other Friends in responding to this question to answer from the spectrum, and then personally; to say, "Some Friends believe X (one end of spectrum), other Friends believe Y (other end of spectrum), and I personally believe Z." This speaks to the power of Quakerism: it is flexible and a place for individual encounters with the Truth!

Our testimonies do not define the boundaries of Quakerism as dogmas do for other churches. Because Friends struggle to answer, "What do we believe?" Friends are often at a great loss as to how to respond to attenders who come to us with views or practices disparate from Quakerism, wishing to practice those beliefs within our meetings. Perhaps we have enough clarity to say no to animal sacrifice or other spiritual practices that are clearly foreign to Quakerism, but practices from the non-Quaker world, like voting, conducting a committee following Robert’s Rules of Order, or simply the secular assumption that our lives are private and not the business of our community—are all things that can creep in below the radar of a liberal stance and start to change the nature of Quakerism.

Thus we find ourselves in the very strange position of needing to be able to say to all in our midst: "You are welcome here, the Truth you find is welcome, and your expression of it is welcome, but we will not change our practice of Quakerism unless our whole group is led in discernment to change it."

Otherwise, any time someone dissented from any belief or practice we hold, and it had to be dropped, then in fairly short order we would have no belief or practice at our center at all! (In some of our very small meetings and worship groups around the country, I fear this sort of liberal desire to embrace everyone has indeed led to loss of belief or practice at the center.) If people are attracted to us for the beliefs and practices we have, then they need to be willing to either learn and adopt those beliefs and practices, or to not adopt them but co-exist in a spirit of tolerance and forbearance with those aspects with which they are not in unity (a posture somewhat like "standing aside" in a business meeting). In the end, this might be one of the most valuable things we have to teach the rest of the world, a model for how diversity, tolerance, and acceptance can coexist with a centered position rooted in Truth.