Among Friends: Getting Over Ourselves

@ milotus


Unprogrammed Friends will often tell visitors we have no creeds or set practices in worship. Our worship is spontaneous, open-ended, and free to follow the unexpected promptings of the Living Spirit. Yet there are all sorts of expectations and unwritten rules when we come together on First-day mornings. Who can give ministry? How long should a message go? What themes should it follow? We’re very full of opinions that might not matter very much.

The March issue takes a look at some of the unwritten rules of unprogrammed Friends. If rules seems like too strict a word, then think of them as the norms and expectations that we rarely notice until someone breaks or crosses them.

Margaret Fell, sometimes dubbed the “Mother of Quakerism” for her critical support work in the founding decades of Friends, was once famously rebuked for wearing a red dress to Quaker worship. Her response was that even a sartorial leading shouldn’t be subject to catty, snap judgments of Friends walking out of the meetinghouse (she argued it should only be questioned using formal Quaker process).

While relatively few Friends today observe the historic Quaker testimony of plain dressing, a distinct plainness of dress is still often evident in our lives. The best place to ID a Quaker crowd may be at foot level, which is where Suzanne W. Cole Sullivan starts us off. “Thou shalt wear comfy shoes” is this unnamed creed they identify.

While there’s an undeniable humor in the observation, Suzanne assures us that snarky, judgmental commentary directed at high-heeled visitors does indeed happen and warns that this kind of conformity comes at a cost. Our opinions on suitable footwear can be a barrier to those who choose to dress more formally. This is of acute concern for those trans and genderqueer visitors who want to come dressed in a way that expresses their gender. “It’s one of those pains that seem trivial only because it has never occured to most of us,” Suzanne tells us.

Cultural conformity also shows up in food choices, and Kat Griffith brings her sharp eye for detail to the potluck table. She counted seven bowls of hummus at one particular Quaker gathering, yet culturally populist foods like Kool-Aid and Pop-Tarts can be rare sightings. Our uniform food culture can divide us from neighbors and Quakers from other parts of the world. How can we be more conscious and humble about our opinions on food?

Valerie Brown helps us along by giving us some advice on learning the skills to identify those unwritten norms. “Without awareness and critical inquiry,” she writes, “we risk isolating and distancing whole groups of people.” Our best intentions are of little comfort if they are driving potential Friends away.

We also have a return from UK Friend Rhiannon Grant, who identifies the creed behind unprogrammed Friends’ creedlessness: uncertainty. How do we make group decisions under the weight of an “absolute perhaps” that mocks any solid ground we declare? Andrew Huff also looks at the challenges of Quaker decision making and suggests a new creed: democracy. He thinks Friends in particular have the chance to model “a new kind of Christian governance,” one that uplifts the human spirit and pushes back against authoritarian impulses.

I hope the issue will bring both chuckles and a better resolve to understand the sometimes-unnecessary opinions that divide us from others.

1 thought on “Among Friends: Getting Over Ourselves

  1. Although we may not have specific detailed creeds which newcomers are expected to learn and be tested on to become a member; we do have one basic belief, passed on to us from George Fox (and also attested to in many Bible verses) which is that there is that of the Divine in every person. This can be interpreted as: there is that of God in everyone; there is something spiritual in everyone; there is good in everyone; everyone can have direct contact with the Divine without the need of an intermediary. How we interpret this belief typically depends upon our own spiritual experience and our insights and culture. But from this belief comes other values: equality of all persons; continuing revelation; the possibility of redemption of those who fall into error; and so on. Originally simple dress, like simple speech, was intended to reduce the outward in-equality and different statuses of rich and poor, high and low.There were actually laws in the middle ages dictating that a person’s dress must reflect their status. Quakers, by assuming simple undecorated clothing, speech and customs of greeting supported equality of persons by their acts. Today many schools use uniforms to reduce the affects of wealth, and have students treated equally. However, there are other ways of treating eachother equally, which perhaps are more important that dress. Refraining from criticizing eachother’s dress or shoes would be one act of emphasizing equality! As Quakerism evolves, the inner becomes more important than the outer. In my Great-aunt’s time, the 1890s, music, dance, and the arts were considered by some Philadelphia Quakers to be frivolous, not worth wasting time on, and perhaps even somewhat sinful! As a student of concert singing, she was rejected by a Friends Meeting! We have evolved since then! Now the arts are seen as one way of expressing spirituality. Personally, I prefer flat shoes, and cannot manage high heels. But I have never heard any Friends criticize high heels. I do put on my nicer clothes for Meeting and like to wear bright colours – and often am complimented on my colourful outfits – so in my Meeting (Halifax, Nova Scotia) Friends do not seem to have a set “Quaker” uniform! For newcomers, we do have an “Order of Service” card which explains about the silence and that anyone can speak out of the silence when moved, and that we do not have discussions in Meeting, but allow a silent space between testimonies. This helps newcomers understand our customs. We explain the last 15 minutes of Worship Sharing, when people are encouraged to share their thoughts even if they were not moved to spoken ministry. I think it would be helpful for Meetings to have discussions (not in Meeting, but in study sessions,) about unspoken customs and how we may be excluding people by holding to excluding customs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.