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.