I became a Liberal unprogrammed Friend in a conservative state. The small, family-like meeting I eventually joined was a little queasy about Christian expression. The Bible Belt maintains its dominant stature over the region, even though its pervasiveness has eroded some with time. Prior to then, I had spent eight years as a Unitarian Universalist, where the response to Jesus was often hostile and judgmental. I knew what I didn’t want. Quakerism, as rendered in Birmingham, Alabama, seemed to be a good compromise.
When I started worshipping with Friends, “FGC” (Friends General Conference) and “FUM” (Friends United Meeting) were meaningless acronyms. I had no idea of what each entailed or of the vast differences and contrast between the two. It wasn’t until I fled north a year or so later to Washington, D.C., that I was properly introduced. I began to attend worship at the oldest monthly meetings in the D.C. area, which retained a dual affiliation, though an FGC attitude was affixed to most of the vocal ministry I heard. In time, I learned that Christian Friends were slightly covert, often not inclined to call attention to the fact. My first halting attempts at Christ-centered ministry were received without much commentary, or perhaps not much comprehension.
Friends who have been raised unprogrammed Quaker often talk about the comfort of silence. After a period of inactivity, for whatever reason, they return to meeting for worship. For them, the quiet holds fond memories of childhood and adolescence. Some convinced Friends, like me, hold this same warmth of feeling for our own traditions of an earlier time in life. Specifically, I mean Christian discourse and church. If one should throw in lukewarm juice and slightly stale donuts before worship, then it truly would be Sunday School all over again.
Over the past few years, I’ve spoken to Friends more allied with Friends United Meeting as well as those more in the Friends General Conference camp. Each has its own set of common concerns. FUM Friends are easily exasperated as to why other Friends don’t appear to emphasize the centrality of religion in their daily lives. FGC Friends, by contrast, are often wary of a philosophy that seems old-fashioned and not appropriately broad enough in scope for their liking. FUM Friends sometimes believe they are fighting for their right to worship as they choose. FGC Friends blanch at the idea of missionary work, and are very uncomfortable with the notion of proselytizing, at any time, for any reason.
Speaking for myself, I believe in a strongly providential deity that intervenes in every human life. I ascribe my successes and daily guidance to God, believing that I ought not and should not try to interject my own selfishness into the process. This is a way of thinking, or a system of phraseology more in line with my FUM brothers and sisters. Yet, I do seek to understand and not to discount the beliefs of Friends who are not monotheistic or even theistic at all. As a member of my monthly meeting, I feel that I have a responsibility to honor both sides and to favor neither.
Friends have an odd relationship with corporate discernment. Our primary concern would seem to be the relation between self and Spirit. Even so, if we had no outlines for everyone to take into account, we would cease to function as a faith. Friends would be too vague, too unfocused, and too subjective. Sometimes I believe that my vocal ministry takes the role of a defense attorney’s closing argument. My words will be analyzed and weighed by those in attendance. The persuasiveness of my argument will be either accepted or rejected. If I am faithful, how will I be received?
The evolution of the Religious Society of Friends will take many forms over time. Some of us consistently engage and re-engage with each other, with various degrees of success. In this eternal joust, patience and love are what is needed in massive quantity. Should we not reach unity, we often pull back and circle the wagons. Friends are very much in the Protestant tradition in their temptation to split apart and break into factions. In opposition to that outcome, I would hope that we recognize our worth as one body. Each of us has a role within it.
The currents that push us apart are not modest ones. We ponder the same queries as anyone else. These are the very questions of belief itself. Is religion dying out or merely changing form? Are current and future generations resistant to our basic message, or able to be persuaded to join and participate? We are responsible for the answers. If we can speak across branches and between theological divides without schism, our numbers will reflect it. The sixteenth-century Hungarian theologian Francis David concluded that we do not have to think alike to love alike.