Once 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