A Family of Friends?

Photo by Drazen

This author was featured in the May 2024 episode of the Quakers Today podcast.

If the Quaker community were a household, who would be the owners and who would be the guests? Even a small meeting is usually bigger than the nuclear family household we often picture today, so it might be useful to think about communal living, extended families, or the sort of large household described in nineteenth-century novels. Those groups often center around a few people: a central couple, perhaps, or a core group who set things up. If your meeting was a big household, all living together, what would you feel your role to be? Are you an adult member of the core family, secure in your position and able to have a say in what happens? Perhaps you feel like a family member but not part of the core, perhaps like a child or an in-law or a distant cousin: acknowledged but sometimes ignored, not taken seriously for whatever reason, and sometimes anxious about whether you can stay or not. Perhaps you know you are a guest, only present on a temporary basis and happy with that. Perhaps you would like to join the family but get treated as a guest. Some big households have actual staff, and some treat certain members of the family like employees. There can be deeply ambiguous positions in such households: senior staff might be said to feel like part of the family, but what looks one way to the family may not seem the same to the staff.

Many of these things could be said of Quaker meetings. For example, I know small meetings that revolve around a strong couple who effectively leads the “family,” holding the community together in ways that can be both beneficial and constraining. It can be easy for a group to slip into treating willing and competent members of the community—people who have been nominated and agreed to serve—like staff: taking their work for granted, assigning them extra tasks without due consideration, and even being surprised if they choose to withdraw their gift of service. Similarly, many people feel the anxiety of the edge: from one perspective, firmly ensconced in the community and often providing significant service, they are nevertheless insecure about their position or how well they are accepted. Some of them feel that if their real views (theological, political, emotional, etc.) were known, they would not be welcome in a particular meeting any longer, even when those views are more generally recognized and accepted in the Quaker community. Others feel not fully accepted because of their background or social location: their class, gender, age, racial or ethnic identity, disability, neurotype, or something else about them.

From the perspective of my meeting, which I don’t manage to attend as often as would be ideal, I’m probably like an older teenager who stops by unpredictably to sleep for 12 hours and eat an entire box of cereal before rushing off again to a friend’s house: perhaps demanding, regarded with affection and confusion, and full of strange new ideas but trusted with the keys and able to trust the community to be there when needed.

Photo by fottoo 

I find exploring an analogy like this helpful because it can move us in the direction of identifying not just patterns of behavior but also feelings about being in these positions. We could provide a similar analysis in more literal terms, too, and that might be useful because it requires the identification and naming of some of the key features of belonging. To be a member of a family is a status that is widely recognized socially but also has gray areas: relationships by birth and marriage, by adoption and choice, or by long familiarity. There are different ways of deciding who counts as a member of a family, and sometimes we can put someone inside or outside that circle simply by how we treat them. (In your family, how literally are the terms “aunt” and “uncle” used? It varies a lot.)

Similarly, to be a Quaker or not is a position influenced by multiple factors. For example, we might talk about formal membership, about self identification and whether the person feels themselves to be a Quaker, and about behaving like a Quaker in all sorts of ways ranging from participation in Quaker events to holding Quaker views to the way someone acts in relation to social and moral issues. A simple Venn diagram that gets at a few of the questions might have three circles: behavior, self-identification, and membership. In that diagram, we would find—as we did in the household analogy—all sorts of situations in which someone is a bit Quaker but not fully. There are some people in the middle, whose membership, self-identification, and behavior all line up, but what about the others? There are people who act Quaker and feel Quaker but don’t hold formal membership. There are some who are doing Quaker stuff and holding formal membership but don’t really feel like Quakers, whether through their own insecurities or the way they are treated by the community. There are those who feel Quaker and are in membership but don’t act Quaker, and given how broadly I described the category of Quaker behavior, this could be anything from not attending worship to joining the army, including all sorts of ideas and actions affecting any part of life.

With that analysis in mind, I want to return to how this feels. Some of these positions can be incredibly emotionally difficult, both for the individual and the community. They often involve making judgements about ourselves and others. Do I act Quaker enough? This is not an area in which we can expect perfection. If we are very aware of the ways in which we fail to do what we are led to do, we may feel that we are not—and perhaps never will be—good enough to be a real Quaker, whatever that means: to call ourselves that, or to apply for membership, or both. Does Jane Doe at my meeting act perfectly Quaker? If I’m sure that she does, I’m probably missing some vice she doesn’t talk about; if I’m sure that in some particular way she doesn’t, I may not be aware of the factors that have led to her decision or the things that keep her doing whatever it is that seems unquakerly to me. Are my views and opinions welcome? Why does someone else with whom I share worship hold such apparently opposed views? It is easy to silence ourselves and others in the effort to avoid conflict, and there are times when it’s right to set something aside, but there also need to be times for open sharing, vulnerability, being truly known, and challenging harmful ideas: all of those times can hurt. Do I look and sound like the other Quakers in my community? If I am like all of them, I probably should be looking at the barriers to inclusion that are being put up. If I’m not like any of them at all, that in itself may be a barrier that prevents me from feeling entirely comfortable. All of these questions and many other related ones can cause anxiety; discomfort; the fear of judgment; negative judgments about ourselves; the frustration of wanting to share insights or advice and rightly or wrongly holding back; and, in many cases, also remind us of other previous painful situations.

If that makes it sound like this community thing isn’t worth it and we’d all be better off selling our huge, metaphorical house and buying one-bedroom flats instead, I can see your point. To keep going, we also need to connect with the benefits of community. A household that works well can be very supportive: family and friends provide emotional support; shared resources and chores provide practical and financial support; and some households play and worship together. In the Quaker community, the starting point is typically worship and spiritual support and learning together and providing moral support. In my own life, being part of such communities has provided all sorts of wonderful chances, including multigenerational friendships that helped me feel less alone as a teenager who didn’t get on with teens, opportunities to share and develop skills of all sorts, opportunities to learn from encounters that were difficult or upsetting at the time, times of worship that felt like peaceful connection, times of worship that challenged me, moments when I reached life-changing decisions, and moments when I was on the right track but needed rest or reassurance. For me, these have often been linked to Quaker worship and our practices of deep listening, expectant waiting, and valuing each individual as a child of God, although they can also appear in other places.

Photo by Monkey Business

So what can we do in order to make our communities households in which guests can become family? We need to be clear that the communities we build are for the benefit of those who join them, and not the other way around. We need to be ready to change—not just in theory but ready to actually practice change. We need to test whether what has served us in the past is continuing to serve: not to throw out something good just because it’s old, but not to keep something old when it isn’t working.

One step is to be invitational. By this I mean that each step in joining and participating in our communities should be something we invite people to, not something we close away. Let’s not assume that people will ask. Let’s not assume that they don’t want to take a full role (even if we ourselves are overburdened and exhausted by our own roles). Instead, let’s ask. Would you like to come to meeting for worship with me? Would you like to come to a study group, borrow a book, or meet someone for coffee and a chat? What would nurture your spiritual life at the moment? How would you like to participate in our discernment? Given your skills and life circumstances at the moment, what can you offer to the community? Now that this is your house too, what would make you feel more at home?

Another step is to be honest. This takes many forms, and here are some that feel important at the moment. We need to be honest about what is involved in belonging to a community, and in particular, we need to reflect both the benefits and costs fairly. It’s easy to swing into constant complaint or into sugar-coating, but reality is usually more complex: If your community is really all sunshine and rainbows, great, and is it time for some awkward questions about helping other people? If your community is really causing you constant pain, are you being led to leave? We also need to be honest about our shortcomings, past and present, and what we can do to repair the harms we do. This is something we can practice as individuals but also need to work on collectively in an ongoing process of naming the ways in which the evils that surround us are also enacted in our own hearts and communities. Through prejudice, assumptions, stereotyping, and exclusion, we can fall short of the true equity we aspire to. The ways in which these harms occur is often hidden from those who cause them, sometimes with the best of intentions. Naming the patterns we observe, anything from outright hatred to accidental microaggressions, helps us to bring them into the community’s consciousness and address them. Often this will be a gift brought to us by people who are not properly heard in wider society, and we need to be mindful to hear the prophetic voice rather than blaming the messenger.

We can also take bold steps to adjust our practice when appropriate. This is not to compromise our core practices but to enhance our central commitment to recognizing that of God in everyone. In thinking about something like how to hold our worship or organize our membership processes, we need to balance many requirements. We need to know our tradition—not just what we do but why we do it and the history that has shaped it. We need to know the people in our community—not just what they tolerate but what they really need and what would set their spirits free to connect with Divine Love, however they understand it. We need to avoid shallow assumptions (for example, that people’s cultural background, class, race, or age dictates what kind of worship practices they will prefer) and automatic defensiveness (for example, instead of viewing a proposed change as a threat to the way things are, we can be curious about a new experiment). We need to learn from others, experiencing worship in other communities and sharing ideas that have worked elsewhere, and also maintain the specificity of our own communities, because what has worked for one group may not work for another.

Finally, we can look for ways to embrace the paradox of sitting on our own doorsteps. When we are in charge of the institution—the rules for membership, the ways of participating, perhaps a physical building—we become the establishment, at least for that specific community. But we also know that we are led to side with the oppressed, with outsiders, and to sit as Jesus would have done with the tax collectors, sex workers, asylum seekers, benefit claimants, trans people, and everyone else who is reviled and blamed by wider society more or less explicitly. In setting up an institution, we often fall into the same patterns of exclusion that are embedded in the world around us. Institutions are extremely useful, and we should maintain them so that we have the consistency, the accountability, the funding, and the safety to do exciting work. At the same time, we need to find ways to visit the outside of our institutions and to sit on our own doorsteps: to be with, to listen to, to welcome into our households, and to put first the people who are often left until last.

Rhiannon Grant

Rhiannon Grant is a member of Central England Area Meeting and Woodbrooke staff who writes extensively about Quakerism. She explored “Deep Hospitality” in a virtual keynote for the Testimonies to Mercy series cosponsored by Powell House in 2023, and has a Pendle Hill pamphlet on the same theme coming out this year: Pendlehill.org/product/deep-hospitality.

1 thought on “A Family of Friends?

  1. I was SO happy to read this piece. Rhiannon’s mentioned keynote on this topic was such an inspiration to me at last year’s final Testimonies to Mercy retreat. Luckily, it is recorded! You can hear more from Rhiannon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_M8nj4tRHw&t=61s

    Additionally, Rhiannon and I are co-leading a multi-week course on this and related topics sometime in the next year. Please keep an eye out for it in the Woodbrooke catalog.

    Such important points! Yay Rhiannon!

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