Hedges, transformations, and breaking points
There is no doubt that Quakers in all four branches (Pastoral, Conservative, Evangelical, and Liberal) are in transition (“Finally Breaking Down the Hedge?” by Thomas Hamm, FJ June/July). The result may well be a “convergence” rather than a “breaking point.” Here are some changes happening in the Quaker world that I’ve observed that will be just fine once clarity emerges.
Liberal yearly meetings are under pressure to simplify their structures, so their constituent monthly meetings are not burdened with huge apportionments placed on them by their yearly meetings. Newly created Liberal yearly meetings are using modern structures like the Internet to either eliminate apportionments or reduce them greatly.
Conservative Friends (with perhaps the exception of Ohio Yearly Meeting) are fast abandoning the old Conservative Quaker ways and are looking more like Liberal Quakers in their thinking and openness to non-Christian spirituality. This is especially true as Liberal Quaker meetings are doing the reverse: re-embracing the teachings of Jesus as a respected and valued spiritual path in their meetings’ universal spirituality.
Many pastoral Quaker meetings and churches (programmed and semi-programmed) are finding they have more in common with Liberal unprogrammed meetings than they do with many other pastoral Quaker meetings, and they are associating (as individuals or congregations) with Friends General Conference.
Thomas Hamm presents a good case that Friends Society might be at a crossroads or even a crisis point. He states that the Hicksite approach was that “purely theological views” belong to the individual and thus are “not a matter for church discipline or disownment.”
I am a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.), a Hicksite meeting, and currently an active attender of Duluth-Superior (Minn.) Meeting, and that view strikes an approving chord.
I became a convinced Quaker after years of attendance, principally because it offered a haven for someone with my beliefs and philosophy. I can fully share in the communal observances and still maintain my own personal vision.
It is unfortunate to think, as this article says, that the Quaker community can get so hung up on divisive issues that the whole institution might collapse. “The breaking point may have been reached,” Hamm says. This may reflect contemporary politics, which have forged the country into rigidly partisan camps. Perhaps, too, Hamm is right: we might not be able to continue as Quakers any longer. Bear in mind that, while it is not an appealing idea to entertain, the Religious Society of Friends is an institution created by human beings, and all institutions so created ultimately fail. It could also be a very good time for the Society to evolve.
Around 1946 my father, who had been superintendent of Indiana and Jamaica Yearly Meetings as well as a pastor and missionary, cautioned against the admittance of non-Quakers as pastors—or at least those without major education in Friends faith and practice. I would interpret this as a “hedge” against non-Quaker influences, which increased in the latter half of the twentieth century. Another aspect of my father’s “prophetic nature” was his goal in his pastoral and missionary work to work himself out of a job. On the mission field, this meant teaching and training local individuals to take over all aspects of the mission. At the local meeting level, it meant that congregations should be led to recognize and develop the ministry of every member, so that the pastor might become a “servant leader” rather than anything more.
His feelings about this became so great that in the last few years before his death (at age 57 in 1976), he believed that the pastoral system had ruined Quakerism. I would suggest that in the last 50-plus years his warnings that the “hedge” (not his word, but I suspect he would have agreed) was dying out only became much clearer. I would also suggest that the “other wing” of Friends similarly has lost much of its Friends identity.
Our diverse liveries
Thanks for Marisa Johnson’s “Membership as Commitment and Belonging” (FJ June/July online). I did not choose my birth family, but I choose every other relationship. The number one community is humanity, and I learn to move forward toward it through every relationship, group, and community I choose to commit to. I like William Penn’s reflection of 1693: “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers.”
The good news is that Marisa Johnson’s essay is a sound, eloquent, and reasonably comprehensive account of what Friends consider when they contemplate membership in the Religious Society of Friends. The bad news is that there is usually something missing in our short-sighted, one-sided conception of membership. Ideally it should be, in the Friend’s words, “a mutually supportive, contented companionship; a daily struggle for adjustment and compromise; or an all consuming passion to know and be known.” But Johnson asks, “what kind of marriage” is it in reality?
The answer is that all too often membership in meeting is no more spiritual than membership in any secular volunteer organization. We all know the drill. A secular organization will come to you and say, “Greetings! We think you’re wonderful, and because our organization is wonderful, too, we want you to join us. We want your time, money, and devotion to enable us to do all the cool things we want to do.” But the grim fact is that this is a one-way street. You join the society. There is no promise that the society will join you back.
Your accomplishments and triumphs, no matter how great, will not necessarily be embraced and nurtured. Your sorrows and frustrations, no matter how grave, will not necessarily be taken to heart as a call to action in the community. Now, it is true that the system works splendidly for some people: mostly middle-class, straight Anglo families, and of course, this is why the system survives. But there is little provision made for the differing needs of young and old singles, particularly those without family networks, and Friends are invited here to insert their own awareness of other estranged classes. Families with busy and rewarding social lives find it impossible to imagine the sheer alienation of city life for the average person. Meetings, if they are to be spiritual, are called to respond to such practical and ongoing challenges with an extension of true friendship, in a way that, for example, a neighborhood association is not.
Therein may lie the answer to the old question about why attenders often do not commit to membership. Even though the matter may never rise to enough recognition to be articulated, unconsciously, do you suppose that, perhaps, Spirit recognizes the fraudulent social contract that is being offered, and wants no part of it? Johnson, in a perfectly telling example of the prevailing attitude, asks, “Perhaps membership should allow the exercise of accountability, but how? Should we ensure applicants are well-versed in ‘Quaker ways’—at least as we understand and practice them?”
All this can—and I would suggest, must—be turned around: It may sound revolutionary, or even heretical, but perhaps meetings should exercise accountability to their members. I say this with the authority of a Friend who has intentionally disowned two meetings for their faithlessness, but have now returned to one to seek precisely such accountability. I left meeting to save my Quakerism, and I succeeded, brilliantly. But something calls me back.
Mitchell Santine Gould
To whom do we belong?
There are many reasons to retain the important concept of “membership.” I particularly appreciate the acknowledgement of the initial reason of the founders: “they needed to know for whom they were responsible,” as stated in Margaret Fraser’s “Turning Somersaults in the Quaker Ecosystem” (FJ June/July). While that need was different in the founders’ days, I feel strongly that it is still real and will become more real. My generation, the baby boomers, have experienced an unusually prosperous era. It does not take a historian to be aware of life before my generation, and the prospects for our descendants are extremely disconcerting.
Parker Palmer asks all of us two questions: “Who am I?,” which we are all familiar with. And he asks, “To whom do we belong?” To belong to any group, that group must, by definition, identify or separate itself. The purpose of membership should be thought through carefully before discarding.
We are called Quakers after all
I do tremble quietly in the silent meeting, pretty much every time (“Do Quakers Quake?” QuakerSpeak.com, May). It’s the way that my body responds to the presence of the Spirit, and the experience is very peaceful and comforting. At times it can intensify to a stronger shaking, but I try to keep it down, so as not to be a distraction to others in the meeting. Having experienced this for years in worship settings, when I started attending Quaker meetings, I thought it might be appropriate, since the group is indeed called “Quakers.”
Yes, I have quaked on occasion. In yoga, these are called kriyas, cleansings. We can think of the nervous system, especially the parasympathetic trunk lines that run in a pair of spirals around the central spinal cord, as pipes, as in plumbing. Karma is the buildup of tension stored in the neuroendocrine and muscular systems, deposits in the pipes that obstruct the flow of prana, life force, holy spirit. In plumbing running too much water through the pipes makes them shake. When centering deeply, when a lot of spirit gets moving in the nervous system, it shakes. My transcendental meditation teachers said that this shaking was the release of this tension, of this accretion karma in the nervous system.
This is part of our Pentecostal, charismatic, mystical Christian roots that parts of the Quaker family no longer know about. I call myself a Quaking Quaker, but since switching my yearly meeting I no longer quake as much as I used to.
Coming to meeting for worship with heart and mind prepared is harder for me. Also, my current worship group contains less people who come to worship in “expectant waiting.” We rarely gather as a majority in the Spirit and go deeper together.
I still quake three to four times per year, and the cleansing it brings helps me a lot. Sometimes the revelation is just for myself, and other times for the group or someone else in the group.
We know from our past that it takes sensitive souls to act as prophetic witnesses and that these concerns are then tested by the worshiping community. If we are to see the changes we are called to bring about then should we not be encouraging more quaking?
Finding a deeper sense of purpose
A couple of thoughts on Mackenzie Morgan’s “We Need a YAF” (FJ June/July online), one tactical and one more strategic.
The tactical one is about naming things. Our rural Lopez Island (Wash.) Meeting is relatively new. A few years back we had the luxury of creating and naming committees from scratch. We gave those names some discernment as we wanted the name to help remind us what the committee was actually about. So good old Ministry and Oversight Committee was named the Spiritual Life Committee. Nominating was renamed (echoing one of Morgan’s themes), the Gifts and Talents Committee. Does the name solve all problems? Of course not. Do we now perfectly discern gifts and place Friends in the perfect role? No. But I will say that being more intentional about the naming of things does provide us with a touchstone to come back to when we struggle. It is a way of being intentional and public about what our current hope and charge is for that committee.
The second more strategic thought is also about mission and purpose, but at a broader level. In what might come as a surprise to some Friends, the Religious Society of Friends does not exist to provide Friends with committees that they can struggle to fill. The committees are absolutely not the end. We seem to continually forget that. We forget that when we name our committees. We forget that in how we staff our committees. We forget that when we never lay down committees or bring new ones to life.
If we could recapture the deeper sense of purpose and prophetic calling for the Religious Society of Friends—or as I like to refer to it, the Quaker Movement—then what committees we need would become much clearer. If you know your purpose and why it is important, then organizing to fulfill that purpose becomes pretty straightforward, and the energy to do those necessary things rises up.
Lopez Island, Wash.
If Morgan’s intention was to stimulate thought about what gifts one has and how to use them, she was successful with me. I hope others will be similarly inspired. I remember using these considerations when I served on a nominating committee in the past, but I haven’t practiced much discernment about my roles since then. Thanks for reminding me of the essence of committee work.
We seem to want new people without actually wanting to be affected by their difference or changing ourselves to actually be more welcoming. We need to reflect on our actual “openness and understanding in what we’re unfamiliar with.” We need to be Friendly with being uncomfortable. Always sticking with what’s comfortable is really un-Quaker-like as well as a recipe for actively reducing new members.