Changing the “Me” to “We”

lloydOnce upon a time I belonged to a Quaker meeting within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. My membership at this meeting has formed the foundation of my Quaker spirituality, my experience of the living Christ, and the way I understand Quaker meetings, membership and authority—both human and divine. I love this meeting and many people in it, even though I have moved on. It was not only the love I experienced there that helped shape the “Quaker me,” however; it was also the hardship.

While a member of this meeting, I was bullied, shouted at and intimidated by one or more members. I witnessed behavior so shocking that my friend on the receiving end nearly called the police for protection. The behavior in and of itself was not a surprise to me—after all, we’re all human and imperfect. What was most shocking was that the meeting had no system by which to deal with such behavior, so that it could be processed, acknowledged, and understood in a manner acceptable to the meeting community.

Long ago, Quakers did have that kind of system. Early Friends understood that the community of a Friends meeting was fragile and needed protection. They cherished the community of the meeting more than the individuals within it. In the twenty-first century, we have flipped that equation. Now, we seem to think the individual is more important than the community. And not only do we have a problem with human authority, we have a hard time with divine authority as well.

If you read the minutes of Quaker meetings past, you will see that the disturbances caused by Friends’ behavior have been a sore spot for meetings since meetings began. Even before there were “meetings” as we know them today, one of George Fox’s closest followers, James Nayler, created a crisis for the fledgling religion by riding naked on a donkey into Bristol, England in imitation of Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. It was that event that convinced Fox and Margaret Fell to create collective structures of Friends that would hold individuals accountable. Since the misbehavior of Friends has been vexing us for almost 400 years, it should be comforting for us to know that our struggle to balance the individual and the community is nothing new.

Yet I believe we have a unique set of challenges in our intensely secular and individualistic twenty-first century America. A dear Friend I know in my yearly meeting jokes that the T-shirt we sell at annual sessions should read “You’re Not The Boss Of Me.” We have made a fetish of individuality in our Quaker meetings, and it has cost us our collective identity and safety. We have become a school with no teachers, a team with no coaches, a community with no leaders.

There is no longer human authority in our Quaker meetings, no longer a group of people that the meeting has put in a position of power and authority to pass judgment on individual behavior that Friends might find impossible to deal with in other ways. Meetings used to have these groups; they were usually called the Meeting of Ministers and Elders, a group within the meeting composed of Friends of great collective experience and spiritual gravitas who dealt with the thorny issues of bullying, lying, name-calling and other behavior outside the bounds of our testimonies. This behavior is part and parcel of any spiritual community; indeed, it is part of being human.

What happened to the Meeting on Ministers and Elders? They were felled by one simple flaw: they became self-perpetuating groups. In other words, the only Friends who could nominate Friends to join this select Meeting were the Friends already in that Meeting. They ironically became the kind of priestly class George Fox was trying to abolish. Common Friends did abolish them, but not before the abuse of power by these Meetings of Ministers and Elders had wrought enormous damage in Quaker communities, mostly in nineteenth century in America, by imposing rigid codes of conduct and running the transgressors out of the meetings. In the wake of their demise, we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. We live in the other extreme now, with individuality reigning supreme. We must find a balance. It has become close to impossible to deal with issues of personal conduct in our meetings, since the individual’s accountability to the meeting is implicit rather than explicit. We assume that everyone should know what the community expectations are and just behave. Yet these expectations should be made explicit—stated in clear language in a document approved at meeting for business and distributed throughout the meeting community. It should say something along the lines of If you are among us, here is what we expect from you in terms of behavior, and here is what will happen if someone complains about you. Unfortunately, when I have been critical of another Friend’s behavior in my meeting, I have been told that my criticism is the problem, and that I need to learn to love and forgive more. The problem with that message is that it leads to a meeting with only two kinds of people: the boors and the people who forgive them.

“Elder” is another word for “leader.” It is a person to whom one looks for guidance, a person who represents the qualities of a communal group. By imitating an elder, a person can get the first-hand experience of “walking the walk.” Since there is a direct connection between leadership and authority, old-fashioned leadership has been in the Quaker doghouse for about the last 75 years. We no longer have formally identified elders in our monthly meetings who are granted authority as an acknowledgement of a particular skill-set, much in the way meetings acknowledge the gifts of other Friends—accountants, teachers, gardeners. How tragic, that a religious movement based on the valiant strivings of leaders like Fox, Penington, Penn, Mott, Fry, Hicks, and Jones should be rendered so passive by a nearly hysterical mistrust of authority.

Earlier, I said the problem is two-fold. I have described the first part of it—a rejection of human authority in Quaker meetings. But that is the symptom of the real problem, the deeper and more troubling problem: we have no shared and collective understanding of God.

One of the ways our faith is being infected by the secular culture we live in is that we have installed the primacy of “self” in our unprogrammed Quaker meetings. What seekers find most attractive about this type of Quaker meeting is that they get to come and be left alone on their individual islands on the benches, to develop whatever hodgepodge, quasi-Quaker, semi-theology they are comfortable with. That upsets me.

In a well-functioning Quaker meeting, all Friends are bound by some basic beliefs held in common. These beliefs supersede their individual desires and define them as a distinct community. One of these beliefs is (or used to be) that God is real, not theoretical. And every choice we make is witnessed by and affects God. This brings real meaning to Fox’s injunction to “answer that of God in those we meet.” It isn’t just a pretty phrase to Quakers in the kind of meeting I am describing. This belief means that God is staring at us through another’s eyes, feeling us when we touch our Friend, speaking to us through our Friend’s ministry. In the Meeting I am talking about, Friends affirm this collective “God-experience” working in their lives among each other, and they like to talk about it, without shame or embarrassment.

Having been saved from addiction by divine intercession, I have had this transformational experience, so this part of the equation has never been a reach for me. I understand, however, that it is for many in the twenty-first century. Our task in Quaker meetings today is to help everyone who comes to us have this kind of real and transformational experience with God. And we must be willing to say to those who come to us: Quakerism is not for everyone. We are here to help you see if it is for you. But first, we need to know what the “it” is. We have to get clear with each other about God. The conflict and insecurity in our meetings will only continue to rise if we diminish the affirmation of God’s transforming power.

I fear that today, Quakers stand for nothing in the public eye other than vaguely defined pacifism, and even that belief is sorely tested when the bully in the meeting is allowed to call people names and faces no consequence for doing so. Experience has shown us that bullies continue to trouble us until they decide it is in their best interest not to. Absent an authoritative structure and a shared belief in God—which can speak sternly to those of us who transgress (and we all transgress)—our meetings will risk becoming psychologically unsafe places.

Recently, there has been energy around a set of “Core Beliefs” for Quakers in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting that my friend created. It attempts to help us answer this question: Who are we and what do we stand for as a people of faith? Notice the pronoun. Until we can turn the “me” to “we,” conflicts will be hard to manage, and that safe and loving faith community we long for will remain just around the corner

Benjamin Lloyd

Benjamin Lloyd is a professional actor and teaches theater at Penn State Brandywine campus. He founded White Pines Productions in 2009, "dedicated to creating a place where community members and artists come together to make new work in the performing arts." He is a member of Abington (Pa.) Meeting.

9 thoughts on “Changing the “Me” to “We”

  1. I read this article with an increasing sense of sadness. Benjamin Lloyd’s experience of Quaker meetings proceeds with details of dysfunction and misbehavior and then an analysis of this poor state concluding that it is due both to the loss of old traditions of naming ministers and elders and the leadership they provided and also to a loss of a common core of clear stated beliefs about the role of God and the importance bringing Friends to a transformational experience with God.

    Friend Benjamin advocates that meetings should produce a document given to each member of the community where unacceptable behavior is spelled out along with consequences to be expected of such behavior. He relates that in reaction to his criticism of others’ behavior, the meeting urged him to focus more on forgiveness and love and he feels that this would only lead to “boors and the people who forgive them.” He says that “Quakerism is not for everyone. We are her help you see if it is for you.” (Clearly the “we” want to see if you qualify.) He concludes that “Absent an authoritative structure and a shared belief in God — which can speak sternly to those of us who transgress (and we all transgress)– our meetings will risk becoming psychologically unsafe places.”

    This article saddens me for several reasons. First, I am sorry for the obvious pain and distress out of which Friend Benjamin writes. Second, I am saddened by thinking that it is precisely what he advocates (authoritative structure and required shared specific beliefs about God) that makes most Friends I know feel unsafe. I am saddened to remember that because this kind of “we and they” thinking and the promotion of correct theology, Quakers have experienced schisms that have been terribly painful and destructive.

    But I would like to share that the good news is that there are many Quaker meetings that are healthy and vibrant and whose members and attenders are happy to be there. A good proportion of such meetings are inclusive of different theological views and have no named elders and ministers but have a cadre of leaders who are long-time welcoming and open Quakers .

  2. I share Friend Ben’s concerns about the state of our meetings. I have now been an adult member of three different Quaker meetings, one in New York Yearly Meeting and two in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. I grew up in a PYM meeting and attended Westtown School.

    We are the Religious Society of Friends. I find it challenging, difficult, mind-boggling and semi-ridiculous that in some meetings ‘God’ is a prohibited word. We must go out of our way to avoid hurting the feelings of the Pagans, the atheists, the non-theists, but criticism of the Christians and the theists is common and acceptable. We must not speak of our spiritual, metaphysical or mystical experience for fear of making others uncomfortable. We must not pray in meeting. In one meeting I was told that my vocal ministry was not welcome because it ‘interrupts our meditation’. The idea that Meeting for Worship with a concern for Business is an exercise in discerning God’s will is not only unknown, it is rejected out of hand when the idea is proposed.

    This question of the lack of a common understanding of God is, in my opinion, central to the dysfunction of many monthly meetings. What are we if not a religious community? I have characterized one meeting I knew as the historical society meditation club. Quakerism is so much more than a bunch of people sitting together for an hour on Sunday mornings finding a moment’s island of peace in a busy world.

    This is not to say that we should have a creed, God forbid. I’m not even certain that a document of expected behavior is an appropriate tool. But rejecting a creed does not require that we have no faith, no experience of the Divine, no way to talk about spiritual experience.

    Early Friends wrote in their journals of being convicted by the Spirit and that the conviction then led to conversion and conversion leading to convincement. When my father returned from Europe after World War II, he experienced this path. He was broken, heart and soul, by what he had witnessed and what he had done in the war. My mother was one of those “You’re not the boss of me” Quakers. Notably, Dad was an elder in Goshen Meeting and Mother was not.

    My personal experience and language for this process is that I have been transformed as I have surrendered myself to the living God. I, like my friend Ben, have been rescued from addiction by divine intervention. My experience is that when I speak of this process with other friends who have experienced it, we find a mutual joy and a companionship on the journey that is indescribable. On the other hand, when I speak of this process with Friends who have not experienced it, I am sometimes viewed as slightly cracked.

    In my opinion, it is impossible to resurrect a successful eldering model as long as we lack a shared spiritual experience. How can we choose elders? The pragmatists and non-theists in a meeting will not choose a spirit-led elder and the spirit-led member is unlikely to choose an atheist.

    I am troubled that faith is not a primary component of Quakerism in some (many?) of our meetings. I don’t think we need unity around what that faith looks like or what we call the divine. However if we accept as normal that there is no religion in the Religious Society of Friends, then we become the historical society meditation club. We must change the name if that is our accepted norm.

  3. I read this article with an increasing sense of peace and of intrigue! (I cheered because I felt it is certainly a message our American Society needs to embrace; furthermore it was a “religious society of friends” that I sought when I first stepped into a meeting house.)

    I am one of those late comers. I need more spiritual guidance, without the judgment and straight jacket of Catholicism, and more discussion of interpretation, foundations and core beliefs. (Additionally, I do not think anyone can expect a ‘norm of behavior’ in our century of travel and communication. I have met too many adults who are reconsidering the behavior they have been exposed to, and the behavior they want to carry themselves into the world.)

    In the meeting house I joined, I felt closest to and moved (enriched, touched) by the Friends Meeting when I have had the opportunity to listen to the people (I have observed as the elders – mentors) of the meetinghouse talk of: courtesies of a meeting, what is a covered meeting, how to listen to God (not yourself!), and the presence and works of God around us/thru us; I feel distracted by vocal ministries which only reveal the presence of pain and frustration related to the presence of rape, war and political conflict in the world.

    From Benjamin’s article, I cried when I read the premise to”answer that of God to those we meet”, attributed to Fox. (It was a pain of awareness, like a chastisement or a guiding hand of a parent who hopes for more out of me.)

    Thank you. I may not be able to remain with you, but I appreciate the touch and glimpse of God working among us and I hope I can continue to hold this close to my surface and consciousness as I continue to grow. I appreciate your example. I also agree with Maia that respect for others, does not require a dilution of core values or a weakening of integrity of purpose. Respect of another’s beliefs (non-theists) is more genuine (candid, sincere) when you know who you are and where a compromise is made. Please continue to guide.

  4. Friend Benjamin’s experience at various meeting’s is not mine within Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Although the meetings I’ve participated in have not had authoritative leaders, there has been a loving circle of Friends that accept, nurture, and guide each other on their spiritual journeys. Although disruptive Friends have not always been delt with as quickly as I would like, they have been corrected in a loving, patient way; perhaps not in a way I alone would have handled it. But in hindsight, in the way I’d expect God to handle it.

    These meetings have also had room for all types of spiritual approaches, from Friends who are Christ-centered to Friends who are not, and everything in between. They have been environments of support and growth that have made a big difference in my life.

  5. First, let me say that I’m sorry that the author has had such negative experiences with Friends behaving badly. Fortunately that has not been my experience.

    The reason I’m moved to respond has to do with what seems to me to be the author’s conclusion that we need a stated set of commonly-help beliefs to move from individuality to community. I don’t agree. It is possible to be religious without that religion being based on beliefs. In my meeting and the meetings I’ve visited, our shared practice of worship and the experience of the gathered meeting is what holds us together.

    I find it possible to be in very strong, loving community, to submit to the accountability that such a community provides and to share deeply and spiritually with people who interpret are shared experiences through a very different lens than mine.

    My basis of my Quaker faith is to be open to Truth and its leadings, whatever it turns out to be and to share that discovery and its process within my meeting community. When I place belief in the center of that, I have already decided what Truth looks like and that limits my vision and closes me off from the prophetic stream.

    The choice between secular individualism and collective ‘Core Beliefs’ misses the real opportunity and excitement – a faith based on collective experience and experimentation.

  6. The biggest glaring flaw in the authors argument is not that he is wrong about individualism, but that the solution is renewal of human authority. The foundation of Quakerism is a submission to Holy purpose and discipline, not which of us gets to be boss of each other. Even if we are atheists (as I am), the purpose of gathering needs to be about listening for and waiting upon the Sacred—God is the idea we’ve been using for most of the last 370 years, but if we as individuals or groups need to find other language for it, that isn’t the issue. The issue is whether we let ourselves fall under the discipline of what is larger than us individually or corporately. And too often, modern liberal Friends, in an effort to get things done and to not have to wrestle over what words to use AGAIN, just shrug and take the responsibility on ourselves.

    Those elders of old weren’t chosen (or weren’t supposed to be, anyway) for talent and leadership. They were chosen by the meeting for being “full of the spirit” and “rightly led” and otherwise evidently under the strong and guiding hand of God.

    It would be simpler if we could all just decide we are fully Christian as a community again, but we’ve accepted the task of being a genuinely, deeply Spirit-led entity that admits folks with different external language form that (again, including me, for which I am grateful). But maybe sometimes, if we don’t want to make that the only thing we do, it’s too much to ask.

  7. I think the article greatly overstates the significance of belief per se — that is, assent to particular facts about the universe. To take an example at random, I don’t think anything specific within the filioque as a belief in se provides unifying power to a community. Demonstrably so: how many different kinds of Baptists, Calvinists, and even “Catholics” have there been, all of whom fundamentally agree theologically?

    That said, one belief is utterly indispensable: the existence of some force other than yourself where moral authority lies. In this sense, God absolutely *is* King, and we are God’s subjects. That kind of language is anathema to many Quakers, although it is precisely what provides the theological justification and conceptual framework for stepping outside of human authority systems, whether clan systems, social contracts, or “might-makes-right” authoritarianism. America can make no claim on me except as a sojourner in “its” territory, because I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom, and as such, there is nowhere that I am in an alien land.

    That language, however, is understandably scary to a lot of Quakers. In my experience, this often stems from the fact that Quakers became a last resort for a person who loves Jesus and the religion of God’s love but suffered religious abuse at the hands of nominal Christianity. As a result, they develop an allergy to any authority outside of themselves, because they don’t believe they can trust that authority to avoid becoming abusive. While this is very understandable, it’s also spiritual damage — to put it bluntly, it’s the ravages of sin. Such damage perpetuates itself and prevents its own healing, and so it is the responsibility of the faithful community to help cure that disease. And that’s where Quakerism’s “fetish for individuality” becomes a perpetuation of sin and damaging to our own communities.

    Of course, the means of curing disease need to reflect the way that God has ordained faith to work, not authoritarian and abusive structures that humanity have constructed and called “church”. While spiritual disciplines are vital, magic words won’t do it. While respecting the inherent dignity of every human being is vital, wooly-headed relativism won’t do it. While all who were baptized in the Spirit know God directly, abandoning individuals to make sense of God on their own won’t do it. We need loving communities who live in relationship, knowing that we are all sinners, but not accepting the sin. We need to be a community of prophets to ourselves, speaking truth to the non-God powers that hold sway over us — whether those powers be conservative religious ideology-idolatry or American political liberalism.

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