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I was 15 when I remember my yearly meeting first beginning to talk about splitting. It was during our annual sessions, and I was a participant of its large and vibrant high school program. We were playing games, singing, giggling about crushes, telling jokes and stories, and wrestling in the Southern red clay that banked any scraped edges.
I didn’t know this time would be the beginning of the end for many, and that in the next two decades, our type of Friends—Friends United Meeting—would lose approximately 40 percent of its membership.
At yearly meeting sessions, we listened to inspired sharing from older (but surprisingly understanding) women and men. At that age, one is skeptical of adults and the world, but we saw authenticity here. We received guidances that would shape our hearts in all days going forward.
Our worship was alive and deep. We were moved by the silent worship times. The experience united us. Being normal self-conscious teens, we thought when someone spoke out of the quiet, it had to be because something greater than they had moved them. We found ourselves quivering and crying at times over how bright and real the truth was, made visible in that sacred space. Our identity was made in those spaces: God’s children—known, loved, in community, and humble and open before the One.
I don’t know all that happened in the adult sessions. The disagreements stemmed from differing views on homosexuality, which had to do in part with theology, but were also a cover for political beliefs, ideas of authority, past grievances against one another, interpretation of scripture, concern for other affiliations, and being tainted by poor company.
We young Friends wrote a minute that year asking that the adults consider us too when they spoke of splitting. We knew we would be affected by a divisiveness that we did not experience and found contrary to the forgiveness and peacemaking that we were being taught. Though younger, we did sympathize. We too had dealt with conflicts, fights, bullying, and popularity contests. We knew enough to know that there was passion and genuine care among the adults, mixed in with something that was telling them to cut off their brothers and sisters in Christ.
I am not sure what wound up happening. Some said peace was made. Others said things were swept under the rug. We didn’t split. But we began to shrink, slowly at first. But I couldn’t fully see it from my vantage point. In the high school program, and later through young adult Friends activities, I found spiritual depth, acceptance, tolerance, joyfulness, and unique tools for seeking the Divine and practicing discernment.
In the 20 years that followed that summer, there would be the birth of the Internet, Columbine and countless mass shootings, sunsets on tobacco fields, strawberry picking, the fall of the Twin Towers, dancing on shiny floors, road trips to glistening saltwater, more than a decade of war, my first serious boyfriend, the sudden death of my sister, mills sent overseas, notification that we face global extinction, climbs to mountain top vistas, mountaintop removal, sweet marzipan, dizzying wine, the fall of the middle class, laundry.
I hadn’t known much about unprogrammed Friends before college, and I was glad to have met some before they started pulling funding out of FUM’s vital ministries. It had to do with making a point about “continuing revelation” related to homosexuality, but receiving the cuts fell somewhere on the spectrum of passive to aggressive. Having financial challenges can easily strain relationships, and we weren’t immune.
In a turbulent senior year of high school, marked by upheaval, a violent assault, and the death of my younger sister, I applied only to Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and, for better or worse, I got in.
I didn’t know much about the school other than the smell of some of the dorm rooms (stale food and sweat mixed with the chemical perfume of spray cleaners) from our yearly meeting overnights, and where to find some of the sporting fields from our game days. Incredibly tender from grief and being away from home and close friends, I clung to my faith like a nursing baby—sustenance and comfort to make it through each day.
I had been accepted into a program called the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program (QLSP). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but needed the scholarship and figured I couldn’t go wrong with giving priority to something that was faith-based.
I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Most of the students in QLSP identified as Quaker, but not Christian. They said terrible things about Christians, Christianity, and even Jesus. I had faced some scrutiny before in the small towns I had lived in for being a Quaker. Other Christians were skeptical that we didn’t have a formal creed or doctrine, and that we didn’t practice communion or water baptism. We leaned toward pacifism enough to make people uncomfortable and didn’t get too flustered by people who were of different, non-Christian faiths. The silent part of the service was also out of the norm, even if it was short and sometimes confused with the announcement period.
I wanted to be sensitive toward my new peers, but in the first year, I often felt attacked. I saw that my classmates were struggling with their own fights, but my open-handed offering of Jesus in those low times was often swept away or met with insult.
I began to see things differently over the course of the program. I started to realize that these non-Christians were talking about very Jesus-y things, such as looking out for workers’ rights at a hog factory hours from campus and in our own college cafeteria. There was concern for God’s creation and how overconsumption would first affect the least protected workers, and then make its way up.
Why wasn’t my Quaker church talking about these things?
I heard new terminology from these “Liberal” Quakers which sounded outdated, yet familiar. There was a lot of mention of Light. As I listened more closely and learned more about early Friends history, I began noticing many of these unprogrammed Friends were drawing expression largely from the biblical book of John and Jesus’s teachings. Many had been taught this language without its biblical context. Why had they never learned the roots of their spirituality before? Some began to wrestle with this question. Some met Jesus again for the first time.
Years later, I am on a transatlantic flight to meet with other organizers of the 2005 World Gathering of Young Friends (a global summit of 18–35-year-old Quakers). Unable to rest on my flight, I watched a documentary about the ice age on the flickering square screen in front of my seat. The film was about the last generations to go into—and survive—the ice age. Research revealed that in these desperate times, groups of once warring tribes got together to exchange tools and survival tips, and then carry what they learned back to their regions. They also agreed to intermarry, thus sustaining life.
This is it, I thought, this is what we are doing. As people are leaving the church in droves, Quaker meetings are closing, splitting, swimming in controversy, or cutting their budgets.
I learned silly things on these trips, like recipes for foodstuffs I had never considered putting together and the words to new songs (sometimes in other languages). But I also learned new practices of conducting business and growing community; I gained a better understanding of the nature of the Divine and the development of spiritual disciplines; and I practiced methods for handling conflict.
In preparation for World Gathering, I spent four years traveling amongst Friends coast to coast in the United States, as well as throughout Europe, East Africa, Canada, and Central and South America. I stayed in homes and huts and asked Friends, “What is working in your community? Where are you finding life and where are you finding struggle?”
I heard similar perspectives, some particular to certain branches, others a general watercolor wash across the groups:
- a fascination with early Friends and the birth of Quakerism
- a longing to be part of a faith tradition that is still as creative and relevant as that of early Friends
- a feeling of isolation, as a result of being a young adult Quaker or Friend in a mostly aging population and/or identifying as a Quaker in the broader world
- current engagement had come largely from a foundation built to include youth activities, programs, and camps
- enjoyment of music
- a deep appreciation for silence and contemplative worship (notably mentioned by programmed Friends who wanted more of both and unprogrammed Friends who, obviously perhaps, saw the two as essential)
The events related to this World Gathering of Young Friends took a lot of time, energy, and preparation, but a community was forming, and the Spirit was moving. We sought transformation—to be shaped by one another and the Divine—in intentional settings that were quite different from the places in which we had emerged. And it happened. We were changed. Only, this experience created more problems in some cases.
We no longer fit into the places we returned.
I was flipping through photo albums in the living room of a boyfriend’s family home when I got the call that Randy Cockerham had died. Randy had been the clerk of our Young Friends program and someone I had known since I was 12. We had gone through camps together and toured with North Carolina Yearly Meeting’s Serenity Youth Choir several summers in a row. He was just 37 years old, and his death was unexpected. I paced the hallway before sitting, teary and dizzy, on the sofa, unable to comprehend the news.
Days later, I wandered a cemetery courtyard with the group of Friends with whom I had grown up. It was an overcast March day with a bit of chill in the air. We formed into rotating clumps, not unlike the black soil around us, spindly with blades of yellow grass.
We caught up on life: where we were living now, and whether we attended Quaker meeting any more. Most did not. Either there wasn’t a meeting in their current city or the local one was lacking in some way (no child care, no kids’ program, or the worship didn’t feel alive, relevant, or vibrant). We mourned our friend Randy, as well as the loss of our faith community and parts of our identities.
It was a variation on a conversation I had been having for many years in my travels amongst Friends. By then, I had visited many communities, screening my film on Quaker diversity, speaking on panels regarding the future of Friends, sharing messages at conferences, and bringing content to workshops. Everywhere I went, I encountered Friends who had experienced “transformation” or “opening” from cross-branch dialogues only to return home feeling further isolated.
The emails, phone calls, and even written letters continue to accumulate. These Friends express a desire to live more fully into the life they have been called to live, yet they struggle with spiritual communities that are self-obsessed rather than God-obsessed, that hold too rigidly onto decayed forms, that suffer from dysfunctional patterns of conflict, and that are deteriorating from the physical death of their members.
I discovered Circle of Hope while I was doing a six-month residency at Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center, just outside Philadelphia. I had heard about Circle of Hope from a few people I deeply respected, and then I began to meet Circle members at radical churchy events around the city. They were mostly young adults—articulate, intelligent, and sturdy—hailing from all parts of the country. It seemed many of them could be doing anything with their lives, but they chose to be in some of the most desolate parts of Philadelphia, to be Love in action.
People were singing, entering into silent contemplation, and everyone was invited to participate in creative, interactive learnings, all while the pastor and congregants spoke honestly. They held up the gospel while exploring climate change, ongoing war, job insecurities, student loan debt, and human suffering.
People were friendly. The values, priorities, and much of the language were familiar. They seem like Quakers, I thought. But they aren’t. Circle of Hope is a 17-year-old congregation that has become aligned with another historic peace church, the Brethren in Christ.
This can’t be real, I thought. So I kept coming back, continuing to attend services throughout my time at Pendle Hill. At the end of six months, I returned to North Carolina and began to tell others about the community I had found. Now, almost four years later, I am back in Philadelphia. I have an apartment here. I am active in a Circle of Hope congregation.
People frequently ask me if I’ve left Quakerism. I feel that Quakerism left me and many others like me. I identify as part of a wandering generation. We have to rebuild this spirituality for ourselves and for the future.
I gave up a lot to be here. I am exploring whether Circle of Hope is interested in cross-pollinating. I hope to start a new faith community back in North Carolina, drawing from the best that Quakerism and Circle of Hope have to offer. I am immersing myself in the workings of Circle of Hope, creating relationships, growing, learning, and if I am able, teaching as well. I do believe our tradition has much to offer. We take pride in our connections to accomplishments and movements that have changed the course of history. And I hope to prevent others from going down the paths where we may make mistakes. It’s important to admit that we’ve done that too.
I spent Saturday evening with a makeshift choir, recording one of the songs we sing in our services for an album that the congregation will be putting out later this year. In my home meeting, I am used to singing the European hymns of dead people from the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At Circle, local congregants and related friends from other cities have written some of our hymns—these love poems to God. The passion is fresh, understood, and shared.
On this particular night, we have just finished a potluck, vegan chili and kale salad on my plate. I sit with my friend Becca, who has come from Northwest Yearly Meeting. Her husband stops to gently hug her from behind and quickly kisses her on the lips when she looks up. They are making Circle of Hope their home now. We are recording a song written by Seth Martin, a friend of the congregation and a graduate of George Fox University (and a “friend of Friends” as it has been said). We sing the song again and again; lyrics becoming stale. I am reminded of the time when I was a child in Arba Friends Meeting near Richmond, Indiana, and I had a clear vision of Jesus stopping in to visit our service. Wanting to maintain freshness in our repetitions, I stand up to say, “Hey! Imagine Jesus has come into the room and we are serenading him.” Everyone likes this image very much, and my idea is sweetly cheered.
We sing these words:
And my hands are open, and my feet are bare,
And my heart is hoping, make my life a prayer.
Feed us with your soil, as we mold and bend,
Freed from sin and toil, root us in again.
Give us eyes to see you, bring your fire and wind!
In ourselves and others, only you again.
Thanks to all before us, YES to what will come,
Ocean’s raging chorus sings, “Thy will be done!”
Sings, “Thy will be done!”
40 thoughts on “Quakerism Left Me”
Personally, I accept responsibility for leaving the Quakers, rather than them leaving me. I was originally drawn to the Quakers by a biography of G. Fox written for children that my wife got out of the library for our kids. After attending a local meeting, I was introduced to the powerful writings of Lewis Benson and Joseph Pickvance, who encouraged me in reading G. Fox, Barclay, and John’s Gospel. Betsy’s several mentions of “silent” worship remind me of the sign outside Merion meeting in the Philly area that says that’s what they practice. They apparently do not know that the early Friends did not practice silent worship. They practiced speaking from the spirit. G. Fox could hold forth for 3 hours straight and often did. He was not known for silent worship. That’s why he spent so much time in jail. What Lewis Benson called the modern liberal Quakers have almost nothing to do with the radical Christianity of 17th century Friends. I once wrote an article about Benson’s life and ministry, which opened with his amazingly poignant observation that while he never expected to impact the course of modern Quakerism, nevertheless, he threw his lot in with it. I made a different choice. Today, I still seek to live in spirit and in truth. But I am cognizant that the ideal of Gospel order is not compatible with a go-it-alone walk. I have no answer to offer others, but continue to walk in what limited light I can see.
My dear Betsy —
I stumbled into a Friends meeting in Colorado in college… There was no yearly meeting — a Friends’ Gathering in New Mexico became a yearly meeting five years after I left for continuing work and graduate school. That was 45 years ago.
I began as a semi-agnostic with background in many denominations (from Brethren to Lutheran, Anglican and Roman Catholic, with a sojourn among Unitarian Universalists and reconstructionist Jews). I came to Friends through the writings of Martin Buber and the advice of a Benedictine priest, not the writings of George Fox. What I found was a community that lived lives of faith and faithfulness.
I learned from dedicated Friends who encouraged me to get to know “the variety possible among Friends” before applying for membership. What became the yearly meeting remained unaffiliated with any umbrella group until a few years ago when they joined FGC.
The active Friends when I was there included some weighty Friends like the Bouldings, the Powellsons, Martin Cobin, and the Whites. They were skeptical of FGC, FUM, EFI because of more rigid boundaries between “liberal” and “Christian”. When I moved to Canada, I found similar diversity — often in a single meeting.
I moved to Philadelphia in 1983; it took me nearly a decade to find a suitable meeting, and I have since transferred membership again. I became active in yearly meeting in 1991; many people my age or slightly younger have left the yearly meeting for reasons you have given.
I attended Friends United Meeting in 1993 with the support of Christian Friends (the Hadleys and the Nicholsons). That year, the splits were obvious within FUM… Troubling for the clerks, difficult for all of us. All the while folks asking what Jesus would do… I began to learn how to really pray that divine will could descend on the proceedings… there was a lot of corporate self-will that week.
Among the gifts was meeting two evangelical Friends who were leading the Bible Half-Hour that year…At a Bible study in a local meeting north of Philadelphia shortly afterwards I found myself almost literally face to face with the Living Christ… or at least my intellectual nose was thrust into a text that convicted my sense of things as not being the path I should continue. WOW!
I was truly changed by the experience. I can accept all sorts — Christians or other, believers or not. But I am serious about my own faith and accepting of my Christian understanding. I have an inward sense of what Jesus would really do… it would not be exclusion, but embrace.
It was not until I moved to Philadelphia 30 years ago that I experienced in full the liberal rigidities that still trouble me. This was not what I expected when I first encountered Friends, though I would not have identified as Christian at the time. I was a wistful unbeliever… something that my evangelical Friends seem to understand better than more liberal Friends…
I am bothered by the lack of deep worship in some meetings and the emphasis on history rather than living Christ’s message here and now. I am distressed by clinging to institutional structures. I’m now in a meeting that talks about differences, and accepts diversity — though not always easily. I still yearn for a composite Quaker experience. If that’s going to happen, I need to encourage it.
Unless my faith as a Friend is vibrant and alive here and now, it’s not faithfulness. What I’m given changes from day to day.
I know many Friends and former Friends in the Philadelphia area who find themselves equally distressed by the rigidities, by the self-absorption, by the secular nature of our institutions. We need to become more G*d-possessed… or more concerned about others so we can unite with the Other.
Betsy – good to read your story, thought provoking .. as are the comments. Right now I am experiencing the both Quakers leaving me, and me leaving the Quakers.
Raised in the American Anglican Church and in hindsight, in the manner of Friends by my parents .. I attended my first meeting for worship thirty years ago when I was in my early thirties, Albany, NY .. and as many converts to Quakerism experience, I felt I had come home. It was a silent meeting .. and later learned was what is called a gathered meeting.
Not comfortable with programmed meetings or pastoral Friends, or regular Protestant churches and becoming increasing uncomfortable with my FGC liberal eastern unprogrammed meeting .. who are making icons of historic meetinghouses .. what I percieve as secular speaking in meeting for worship, rather than waiting on Spirit to speak thru us, unwillingness to share experiences of God .. secularization of meeting for worship for business .. most of all, unwillingness to meet that of God in everyone, and treating others, both in and outside my meeting as lesser persons .. violence of word, if not deed .. Not growing in testimonies, but more concerned with growing the congregation for money, not for the Divine Realm..
My spiritual needs are better met through friends who are not quakers (or even Christian or even theists) and through my spiritual readings .. But I am coming to the conclusion that churches are just organizations made up of unperfect human beings (only God is Perfect) .. so all this is okay, as long as I keep true to my measure of the Inner Light,
And I am closer to That Which Is when I am In Silence, Alone with God, in Nature .. rather than in a man-made building with other Human Beings .. most importantly I am learning about tolerance and forgiveness, and the live-long endeavor of learning how to Love.
It’s a familiar story. Someone very active in Friends, and as they grow, they find the Friends meetings they know unfulfilling and not where they belong. I know dozens of such people who have left Friends, and many of them were very active and in important positions among Friends before they left. The key is that the power of Christ found in the early Friends doesn’t seem very present in a lot of places among Friends.
I followed such a route. After decades of activity, including being on the board of FUM, 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, this year I became involved in Friends of Jesus which is not affiliated with any of the branches and freely learns from those outside Quakerism – including Circle of Hope (was it you, Betsy, who gave the Circle of Hope information to folks in what was then Capitol Hill Friends?). I am finding this very valuable, although of course I do not know what will happen to this effort in the future (I was part of an earlier effort to start a Christian Quaker fellowship in my area, and am well aware of the difficulties in doing this).
Like watching a friend try to box their way out of a paper bag with their hands tied behind their back, it seems to me that Friends have largely lost a sense of the “thou” in the “I/Thou” relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Anymore I am struck that Friends seem collectively to worship Quakerism more than they worship Jesus, or God or the Holy Spirit. I suppose it is because Friends had trouble with the words having multiple meanings and potential to cause pain that they lost their grasp of worship. These days it all feels rather self-reverential” in just the worst way.
I wonder if Friends were to eschew all messages about Quakerism and Friends in meeting for worship, and were to instead use their spoken ministry to attest to the power of mystery and grace in this life…Perhaps this would help?
I offer these thoughts with tender care.
Quakers vary greatly, and our experiences are likely different. The Quaker form of spiritual worship and sharing works better for me than anything else. I am a convinced friend who came as an adult and am now one of those old timers of whom you speak. Sounds like you were very involved in the organizations of Quakerism. I admire those who can maintain a viable organization, because I do not have the temperament for it. While I have done some organizational work, I try to focus on the resultant practice beyond the meeting house. I am the “activist” in my meeting, but I do not feel out of place for it. I have a good support structure, both of Quakers and non-Quakers. I am impressed with Circle of Hope and other revitalized groups of young people and sorry that Quakers have so little of this. But in my experience, the average Brethren is comparable to the average Quaker in terms of faith and practice. I have found deep spirituality and resultant leadings among individual Quakers of all ages. Focus on a loving community, not the organizational structure per se. For example, the Quaker presence at Occupy Philly was a significant spiritual and practical presence. Of course I wish there had been more Quakers involved, but there were some of us. EQAT is hardly representative of the average Quaker, but its existence points to a continuing Quaker vitality.
Hi Betsy, thanks for narrating the problem with idealizations(whether “United”, “Equality”, “Christian”) as well as the tension between large and small families/circles. I compare this to my parents’ experience of greater difficulty trying to “live up to” the ideal of Marriage Encounter. I also see how individual Fiends are tempted to abdicate responsibility for the grueling process of spiritual development by looking to their family/circle/monthly Meeting, just as the smaller groups can abdicates their responsibility to the larger. The fact is divorce is not about the parents only; anymore than a monthly, quarterly or yearly Meeting can forget about how decisions(avoidance or criticisms) affect the smaller members and circles of the family. Your personal effort/leading to ReverseEVOLUTION is held in the Light by a fellow ‘Alternative Seminarian’. Peace, my Friend.
Greetings Betsy! Not sure if you will remember me, but I was very active as a leader in NCYM youth activities in the days of your youth, and I certainly remember you and your friends. Your words bring back many memories, and remind me of what could have been for so many of us. Even in the midst of all the struggles I watched the Yearly Meeting go through during my active years (1975-1994) I had hope that there would be brighter days- and much of that hope was founded in your generation of Young Friends. There was such vitatlity, such commitment and such a spirit of seeking unity in diversity. I watched as “leaders” pushed aside so many things that were important to you guys, and it saddened my heart. To read your words now reminds of many of the reasons I departed for warmer climates and the UMC in 1994, but also of why Quakerism is still so near and dear to my heart. Thank you so much for sharing your journey.
And one personal note- I too was deeply saddened at Randy’s passing, and I blogged about it that day. His warm heart and huge spirit personified so much of what was RIGHT about the Young Friends program in those days. I know he is still missed by so many.
To pour out yourself in this way is a gift. It is like Paul writing to a small congregation that he is being “poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith” (Phil. 2:17). It is evidence that you still have a lot to *give*, even as your “institutional” path has taken many twists and turns. I appreciate this energy in you and hope to offer my humble support, however that may be possible.
I am saddened to hear christian friends who are unsatisfied with silent worship. I certainly understand how it can sometimes be unfulfilling to be constantly seeking when sometimes you just wish to be found. Unfortunately it seems Quakerism is just that, a constant journey looking to find something you dont know what to expect. For me, I personally am happy among secular friends as christianity was never a comfortable fit for me. At a discussion at FCNL’s general meeting this year, Reza Azlan said something that made those who had a preferred religious belief make sense to me finally. He said that he didn’t confuse Faith with Religion. Those words were excruciatingly powerful for me. He said he had been born a muslim and that he converted to christianity at one point in his life, but then stated that islam made more sense to him based on his ethnic origin and the cultural life ways he lived by. He said Religion isn’t the true meaning, religion is language we use to speak about the true meaning. That true meaning is faith. I think for all quakers, that faith is the belief that we as human beings are all equal in whatever terms you wish to name it. For those more religious friends they speak about finding god in others. For spiritual friends they say light, and for me im perfectly content to say that I look for the common humanity that I share with others. I recognize that my way doesn’t work for everyone. After all you’re the seeker. I find it gravely distressing however, this sense of antagonizing rhetoric from religious friends about how young people leaving the church is a problem. I think it’s problematic to frame it like that, as if people leave the church but are still able to maintain morality and the bonds of community through other means, then who are we to judge what makes them happy? And i prefer to say the same to the more secular friends about those who maintain a religious tradition. Hopefully our more religious friends might someday find the happiness and comfort that unprogrammed meeting has given me. My life isn’t perfect, but its given me something to anchor myself onto.
The whole seeking thing is very elitist and classist. Where is the place in the RSOF for people like my disabled son? Or for my quiet husband, who isn’t much of a seeker, or a thinker, but is a simple man of integrity, honesty, kindness? Everything about Quakerism is about exclusion, not inclusion. It’s very dogmatic when you get down to it. I haven’t tried going to my local Meeting, now that I moved. I emailed a few people and although they seem absolutely lovely, I just don’t know what to think of a faith that doesn’t seem very welcoming of the working class, blue collar, minimally educated and in our case, intellectually disabled families. One look at the schools says it all. Only for the wealthy, the intellectually gifted, and well connected.
I am the last of an unbroken chain of Quakers in America that is 350 years long. The path between my ancestors and my parents is riddled with upheaval. I ended up at the end of a branch that had become just another Evangelical Church, with young people, including myself, leaving at the first opportunity. I have read extensively about the faith of the early Quakers and I am in awe of their wisdom as I confront current issues. My conclusion is that the focus on the form of Worship has pushed the basic beliefs that my ancestors suffered to protect out of the picture. When they were imprisons in England and murdered at the hands of New England Puritans, no one was debating the merits of silent worship. They were living their faith every minute of every day and perhaps in the end that is all that we can realistically strive for.
It is good and appropriate that there are such a variety of options for people’s religious and non-religious spiritual expression. This article and many comments focus on those who have found that their Quaker experiences did not speak to their condition. It is interesting that I have spoken to many Quakers who likewise say that they found their prior religious experiences (including membership in other peace churches) to be unsatisfying, and as a result found their best spiritual home to be with the Quakers. There is a great deal of testing and searching related to all religious and non-religious spiritual organizations. Some leave other religions to become life-long Quakers; some leave Quakers for other spiritual homes. It is good that folks find what does speak best to their particular condition.
Friend Betsy articulates for me what I have come to believe deeply about Quakerism. We have no common narrative! Which is not a creed. But a shared story about who we are, and whose we are… What has replaced a common narrative is a hyphenated religion and a political ideology. I don’t want Quakerism to be the Democratic Party at prayer. Like Queen Elizabeth I, I have no desire to make windows into men[women] souls. Liberty of conscience in matters of religion and having a common narrative is not oxymoron.
That being said, my heart resonate with the words from Ted Grimsrud a Mennonite pastor wrote a wonderful article I read this summer He said, “Jesus did not save me from sorrow or intervene to fix my problems. Jesus did not lift me out of history into a place of tranquility and bliss. What Jesus did do is enter into my circumstances, remind me of the path of love as the path to sustenance, walk with me in my sorrow, loneliness, and confusion.”
He continues “To speak of Jesus as God is a statement about God more than a statement about Jesus. Jesus’ humanity, Jesus’ passion for justice, Jesus’ offer of unconditional mercy, Jesus’ vulnerability, Jesus’ confronting abusive power, Jesus’ gathering friends around himself to share in his work, Jesus’ refusal to rely on coercion and retaliation even in the face of great suffering and eventual death—all of these show us what God is like. “
I Paul Ricketts wrote the last response…
The article made me think about why I left Quakerism after being very enthusiastic 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.”
The Quaker activist George Lakey made a sympathetic critique of Quakerism in his 2011 William Penn lecture (available at Vimeo). Here’s a review:
Wow, what a collection of responses to Betsy Blake’s thoughtful essay!!
My wife and I were *involuntarily* “released” from our meeting. It is so much easier to put committed people out that it is to get them in. 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) of the back door!
A healthy church will pay lots of attention to the care and nurture of its congregants. When more people are leaving (or, in the case of children, not signing on or staying) than are coming in, that’s very bad news!
I visited a meeting in another state where they were trying all sorts of gimmicks to get their young people involved (e.g. 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 with the group.
The best way to succeed in keeping members and youth is to build a strong spiritual life and fellowship in the meeting. When the current participants are really satisfied with the meeting, attracting outsiders and keeping youth will usually not be a problem. Conversely, neglect the spiritual life and fellowship of your meeting’s members, and you will lose out as a group.
Several years ago my wife and I began attending another non-resistant 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.
At this point in my advancing age, I am a little wary of any statement that “it’s *their* fault that I left Friends.” It’s not that such a statement cannot be true. But it’s often not the whole story.
In the early 1990s I myself left a Quaker meeting where I had been involved for twenty years, and where I had even become a member, because of its judgmentalism and hurtful behavior. It 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, too, and in retrospect I think 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 it not to 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 — but 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 18:15ff.
• 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 not to 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 those 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. Honestly, at the time I left that meeting, I think I flunked two of those tests myself and didn’t even realize. And I may actually have spent more time, in the average day of my young and middle adulthood, taking credit for being a Friend (how virtuous!) than earning the title by doing the self-denying thing. I have learned that I am often blind to my own blindnesses, and that I cannot rightly assess the faithfulness of any meeting or its members when I do not fully understand the Quaker Gospel and the path of Friends myself. And above all, I have learned that I cannot effectively address the problems in any meeting I am involved with, that falls short of true Quakerism, so long as my own behavior also falls short of the mark.
This commented is not intended to pass judgment on the author of this article, nor on anyone who has commented. But I offer these criticisms, that I now apply to myself, in the thought that others might feel moved to try them on as well. Perhaps that might help us become a better and truer Society of Friends *together*.
I find this a useful contribution. I realize that I probably spend a lot of time ranting at other Friends to think more like I do, which is not a helpful or a Christian attitude. Consciously seeking to move away from that did a lot to deal with my anger at other Friends, but being able to accept them as they are also helped clarify that I didn’t belong with them – despite they very much wanting me.
One of the things that happened out of this was exploring some non-Quaker faith communities. This made me much less Quaker-centric. So Marshall’s 3rd point does bother me with its reference to the “Gospel of the first Friends.” What the heck is that? I understand Friends changed greatly during their first generation, and they didn’t all think exactly alike. But more deeply than that, I don’t feel called to be a good Quaker or to be necessarily consistent with the historical views of Friends (and I think there are very few contemporary Friends who are comfortable with all those views – so almost all of us would be “cafeteria Quakers” to borrow a way of expressing often found among Catholics). I would more like to follow the first Friends in not feeling a need to fit into the box of any existing faith grouping. My interest is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ not the “Gospel of the first Friends.”
I identify as a Christian. There are certain aspects of Quakerism which I find particularly helpful, but other aspects which I don’t, and definitely areas where I learn from other Christian faith traditions (including those that early Quakers railed at as apostate). There is a certain tension within my own little Quaker faith community about how much to identify ourselves as Quaker. I like to think of ourselves as informed by Quakerism but not bound by it.
Some people talk about identifying yourself with a “tribe.” There are those who feel a part of the tribe or Quakers. I went to the Wild Goose Festival, and I felt “this is my tribe” much more than I do among Quakers at large.
Good article, and one that speaks much about the problem facing both the Religious Society of Friends and further all forms of organized religion. As someone who was once a member of the Society of Friends, I find myself in the position of not wishing that I was still a member of the Society and still having the sense of a void within myself. I am the last of my family that had a membership with the Society, and this included kinship with some of the ‘greats’ of Quaker history. Such as Levi Coffin and others, and the one thing that I would say that is facing the crisis for the future of the Religious Society of Friends (indeed – for organized religion) is that today the structure of religion is one of some (frequently in positions of authority) lacking the honestly to stand plainly before others and act plainly. Certainly, there is a hidden thought, a hidden agenda being served that only divides and sets into motion the wish to be free of it by those not included. Sad – given the core history of Friends. Some are more equal than others, to use a expression of Orwell.
I do not see reason that this would change, and instead the meetinghouse/church will grow more and more empty as people in general leave (or never consider at all) these structures as having a meaning to be bothered by. Harsh terms – I know, and even more – tragic as there is a spiritual side to the human needing to be tended. However, the state of the times does not have leaders of organized faith able to speak to this need in people. Too many of those are elsewhere busy – with themselves, and the growing sound is one of the empty air…. Sad.
Having been convinced young in the liberal tradition I’m fortunate my own meeting is lovingly accepting of my increasing interest in the more rigorous practices of programmed and evangelical Friends. My partner who is also in a liberal meeting is marginalised because he points out the Emperor’s new clothes in his meeting because of their failure to understand that 350 years of history has value when looking to solve problems.
Those who have left – consider if you have the capacity to start a meeting in your home – remember our fellowships began in small convinced groups
Thanks, Betsy and others, for raising these heartfelt questions. I am not offering an answer. Sometimes I think we are talking monkeys on an organic spaceship circling a minor star. Sometimes I feel held up, surrounded, filled by unlooked-for grace. Sitting in Montreal meeting a few weeks back, watching the last blaze of autumn, I thought, we’re like those leaves, soaking up all that light, all summer, and if we’re lucky we get to shine some of it back before we fall.
I would be interested to know how the author responds to the concerns in this article http://citypaper.net/article.php?Circle-of-Hope-church-comes-under-fire-for-silencing-gay-congregants-16995. I am aware of but not personally familiar with Circle of Hope, so I cannot myself speak to the article’s substance, but I was struck by the coincidence of the FJ article starting with a recounting of how the youth of FUM, of which she was a member, pleaded with the adults to not split over their “differing views of homosexuality,” and now it appears that there are differing views of homosexuality within Circle of Hope.
[…] the alternative Circle of Hope church. Quakerism lost a lot of momentum at that time (Betsy Blake see also: Betsy Blake’s account). It took the creation of a whole new organization, Quaker Voluntary Service, to get a lively and […]
[…] about in The Lost Quaker Generation (turning fifteen this year) and 2013’s Quakerism Left Me by Betsy Blake. Should the kind of Friends community Susanna’s looking for […]
I realize that this is an older post — I read it in 2013 and it has just come back to mind. My own experience has been similar in certain ways including trying Quakers in many meetings for a period of time to try to find SOMEONE letting it be the Christ version of unprogrammed meeting for worship. My needs were never sufficiently met within this particuar search. However, in the past year (2019-2020) I have realized that what I needed is being practiced by North Carolina Yearly Meeting(Conservative) — there are 2 NC yearly meetings now and the Conservative branch is practicing Christ-centered, unprogrammed worship AND is branch of Quakerism that is gay-friendly. These are essential values of mine and it was a relief to find them represented.
They are slowly growing beyond NC as a Yearly meeting, as there is at least one Virginia meeting associated with them (VA Beach) and a new Christian worship group in Washington, DC that has some interest in affiliating with them, maybe others outside of NC that I’m not aware of. The NCYM(C) branch of Quakerism appears to return to these fundamental values that many of us on this post may share. I was led to start the Washington, DC worship group…. Others may find ways to start their own Christ-centric unprogrammed Quaker meetings in their area, and associate with NCYM(C) if you still feel the need of Christian Quakerism tugging at you.
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