The print magazine’s Viewpoint was adapted from the New Year’s Top Five, a listing of the most-read articles on the Friendsjournal.org website.
The role of a meetinghouse
I think Micah Bales has an interesting perspective (“Let God Out of the Meetinghouse,” FJ Dec. 2013), but I will speak from a different one. My meeting met for many years in a daycare center before deciding to build its own meetinghouse. We found that we were mostly invisible in the community. If we had an important speaker or event, we would rent a nearby church. We were a bit hard to find on First Days even with our sign out front.
We searched for alternatives for many years in our small community. We found nothing. Programs that could have enlightened the nearby community were inaccessible to outsiders. Eventually we decided to build our own building. Working together for this goal made us a stronger community. Much love and forgiveness was needed and shared.
Now people come to our meetinghouse. They seek us out, find us on our website, and see our sign on the highway. They appreciate our green building: super insulated; heated with wood pellets; sited for future solar; cabinets made by local businesses and prison workshops using repurposed materials; and work we did ourselves. This is a message in itself of our values.
Now we have resources we can share with the community as well. We have partnered with a local nonprofit that mentors at-risk youth. Most importantly, it is a place where young families can come and teach these values to a new generation. New people report on how important it is for them to be able to sit and worship, mostly in silence, and feel the Spirit.
What are we selling?
Though never a Quaker and a lapsed Catholic for much of my adult life, I am one of the “nones” that Jeavons describes (“Sharing Our Faith with the Nones,” Dec. 2013).
I define myself as a spiritual junkie, and I am an earnest student of mystical literature, particularly the Christian mystics from Meister Eckhart to Jakob Böhme (whose writings bring me as close to Quaker-like thought as I shall ever attain).
Yet it seems (and I say this with as much respect as possible) that, like most members of major religious institutions, Quakers stumble in trying to account for the decline in membership, particularly among the young. They seek resolution in the very element that provokes the alienation: the privileging of the theological and congregation above the individual experience of the Divine.
North Andover, Mass.
Why do some people feel a need to control the way other people live their lives? Why do they “really want to share” the “treasures” or “best” or “wonderful” ways to express or experience spirituality? Why are they desperate to have their preferred religion survive and thrive?
For decades I have heard no good answers to these questions. I will not unite with any evangelism, marketing, or similar campaign of persuasion to increase attendance or membership in the Religious Society of Friends.
I remember my emptiness and my feelings of being used and manipulated, caused when people in my life have tried to convert me to their religions. Out of that experience, I reject the idea that spirituality is a commodity to be sold in the market. The life I live in the community of the Quaker meeting (that your magazine cover appears to denigrate as “the Quaker Bubble”) is not to be bottled and sold as a spiritual elixir. I do not wish to share a house of prayer with vendors.
Our meeting works hard to ensure that all seekers who are led by their search to our meeting are made welcome. However, numbers-building under the guise of welcome is not truthful.
Paul C. Pratt
Berea (Ky.) Meeting has a website, a Facebook page, and members active in peace and environmental groups outside “Quakerdom,” and we have an active youth program that draws in both “nones” and “others.” We have Buddhists, Wiccans, Pagans, agnostics, scientific atheists, and Christian Quakers: we are a welcoming community. And still our membership declines.
I have been a member of the Outreach Committee for both our local and yearly meetings. We have studied Quaker Quest, and several meetings (including Berea) have engaged Friends General Conference for formal training. It made our meeting stronger, but the decline continues.
What I have noticed is that we have “nones” coming in the door, but our retention rate stinks (to put it bluntly). Our meetings for worship feel filled with Spirit, but the newcomers are not experiencing what we are experiencing. I have read two accounts in Friends Journal in the last two years where the author went to Quaker meeting, did Quaker work or wrote admiringly about Quakers, and left after three meetings for worship of staring out the window. In early Quakerism, worship continued until it was clear Spirit had been present, in a way that was noticeable to anyone present. There was no way to miss the quaking or the Quaker thunder.
There may be a way: what if we could teach people how to consciously engage Spirit, by whatever name, using whatever symbology, and through whatever method? What if we could help them see the patterns in their lives where they already engage Spirit, that which is in self, but is not self? The process of continuing revelation is the core of Quakerism; it is the foundation from which the rest (Quaker process, leadings on social justice, peace, equality, environment, and so on) emerges. We needn’t have a theistic name for what Thomas Merton called “the inner spirit infused with God.”
Coming toward the middle
As an Evangelical Friend who has recently migrated to Friends United Meeting, I have come to Anthony Manousos’s article from the opposite direction (“Are Quakers Christian, Non-Christian, or Both?” FJ Feb. 2013). I feel we have much to learn from each other, yet theology is profoundly important to me. It has been said that Evangelical Friends are a politically diverse group bound together by a unified theology, and Liberal Friends are a theologically diverse group bound together by the politics of social justice. I am one of those who want to have it both ways.
While we have divided further along a spectrum over time, I find it odd to be accused by Liberal Friends of not being Quaker-enough because I have definitive theological beliefs and attend a programmed meeting, when they have virtually turned their back on the theology of early Friends. While many Liberal Friends have been more faithful to social justice concerns and the worship practices of early Friends, I have found a lot of intolerance for someone who gets to the same sorts of practices theologically through the Bible.
Shane Claiborne and Ron Mock are heroes to me. They take the Bible seriously and let it shape them with its redemptive message. I too have been shaped powerfully by God through the Bible, as well as by mystical experience. For me, doing good alongside a non-Christocentric Quaker is still good, but what I would rather have is a shared vision of what it means to be working toward the in-breaking Kingdom of God. I want a shared vision of servant evangelism, where service and gospel are working together as they did in the days of early Friends. Frankly, I refuse to settle for anything less.
Discussions on “Quakerism Left Me”
Betsy Blake’s story is a familiar one (“Quakerism Left Me,” FJ Dec. 2013). I know dozens of such people who have left Friends. Many of them were very active and in important positions among Friends before they left. I recommend Friends take sabbaticals in other churches (reasonably healthy churches). It will help you better understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of Friends, and allow you to re-engage with a broader perspective.
I followed such a route. After decades of activity, including being on the board of Friends United Meeting, I formally left Friends in 2005 for a vital, unaffiliated church that shared many Quaker values. Still yearning for some of the Quaker particulars like waiting worship, I became involved in Friends of Jesus this year, a group which is not affiliated with any of the branches. There are certain aspects of Quakerism that I find to be particularly helpful, and other aspects that I don’t. I learn from other Christian faith traditions, including those that early Quakers railed at as apostate.
Some people talk about identifying yourself with a “tribe.” There are those who feel a part of the tribe of Quakers. I went to the Wild Goose Festival, and I felt “this is my tribe” much more than I do among Quakers at large.
Silver Spring, Md.
Like watching a friend try to box his way out of a paper bag with his hands tied behind his back, it seems to me that Friends have largely lost a sense of the “thou” in the I/Thou relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Friends seem to collectively worship Quakerism more than they worship Jesus, God, or the Holy Spirit. I suppose it is because Friends had trouble with the words having multiple meanings and the potential to cause pain, but these days it all feels self-referential in just the worst way.
I have a good friend, a carpenter, who was never able to warm to Quakers or the practice. He is a deeply spiritual person, living his life guided by the Spirit. Quakerism seemed like a natural choice, but he felt out of place. Perhaps it was a class issue or perhaps it was a difference between the verbally adept and the physically adept. He was once asked to help a meeting in the next state over make some needed repairs to their meetinghouse. He was repelled by the idea that the people in that meeting knew no construction workers in their own community who they could turn to for help. His observation was that “they need to make some new friends!”
The article made me think about why I left Quakerism after being very enthusiastic for it as a young person. It was gradual, as I had several encounters with people who came off as stuffy and smug. Quakerism was like a small town that I was attached to, but had to leave in order to explore the bigger world. I found much to admire in Catholicism, Judaism, Marxism, Buddhism, green thought, and science.
Looking back, I think I absorbed values from Quakerism (and especially my Quaker grandmother) that informed the rest of my life: simple living, social justice, seeking to understand different points of view. That I did not take part in formal Quakerism was irrelevant. As a Buddhist teacher said, “It’s not important to Buddhists whether we call ourselves Buddhists.”
Palo Alto, Calif.
I was very active as a leader in North Carolina Yearly Meeting youth activities in the 1990s and certainly remember Betsy Blake and her friends. The article brings back many memories and reminds me of what could have been. Even in the midst of the yearly meeting’s struggles, I had hope that there would be brighter days. Much of that hope was founded in Blake’s generation of young Friends. There was vitality, commitment, and a spirit of seeking unity in diversity. I watched as “leaders” pushed aside so many things that were important to younger Friends, and it saddened my heart. To read Blake’s words now reminds me not only of the reasons I departed for warmer climates and the United Methodist Church in 1994, but also why Quakerism is still so near and dear to my heart.
My impression is that unprogrammed Friends are fixated on getting newcomers through the front door, but they pay very little attention to the dynamics involved in committed participants slipping out (or being pushed out) the back door!
A healthy church will pay lots of attention to the care and nurture of its congregants. I visited a meeting in another state where they were trying all sorts of gimmicks to get their young people involved (for example, appointing them to positions and committees). When I talked to some of the adults in the meeting, I found that many of them were dissatisfied. The best way to succeed in keeping members and youth is to build a strong spiritual life and fellowship in the meeting; when you neglect the spiritual life and fellowship of your meeting’s members, you will lose out as a group.
Several years ago my wife and I began attending another nonresistant church. What an eye-opener! If you want a clearer view of your own meeting, try attending other meetings or churches. You will learn a lot about what your own group could be doing better.
Blue Grass, Va.
At this point in my advancing age, I am a little wary of any statement that says, “It’s their fault that I left Friends.” It’s not that such a statement cannot be true, but that it’s often not the whole story.
In the early 1990s, I myself left a Quaker meeting where I had been involved for 20 years and where I had even become a member; I left because of its judgmentalism and hurtful behavior. Leaving hurt as much as a divorce; I grieved for at least ten years. I know, in retrospect, that I was right to depart. But the pain of the parting impelled me to ponder my own behavior as well, and I think, again in retrospect, that I looked nearly as bad as the meeting.
I now have expectations of any meeting I encounter, that I did not have back then:
- I expect the meeting to not have an insider class of especially privileged members, because I know such a thing does great harm. There will always be some Friends in any meeting who are weightier than others. Christ himself would find that weight insufferable, were it not expressed in meekness and service.
- I expect the meeting to know better than to treat any of its members as second class, let alone as suspects. A member should be, by very definition, loved by all the other members as they love their own selves; and differences should be resolved in the traditional Quaker way, not with rumors and suspicions but by applying Matthew 18:15.
- I expect the meeting to be active and honest in hearing and wrestling with the gospel of the first Friends, including all the hard parts, and to not be merely “inclusive” of members who are striving to live by that gospel. A meeting whose members think they already understand, or already are worthy of being counted as Friends, is incapable of learning to correct its faults.
The meeting I left failed two of these tests, at least at the time I departed, and was badly challenged by the third. But I have also learned that I have seldom been any great exemplar of Quakerism myself.
The publisher of Yeshu: A Novel for the Open-Hearted was listed incorrectly in the November 2013 Books department. Yeshu: A Novel by Charles David Kleymeyer was published by Quaker Heron Press. Readers may find more information about the book, which includes four stories that appeared in past issues of Friends Journal, at yeshunovel.com.