Is Quakerism a community limited by geographical constraint, or is it a spiritual understanding that can be shared and lived outside of that constraint? Is being a Quaker all about practice within the Quaker community, or is there a way to support like-hearted and like-minded Friends without direct face-to-face contact?
The plight of isolated Friends can easily go unnoticed by those Friends who have access to a meeting or church, but our small numbers scattered across a large world can mean real challenges for those convinced of the principles of Friends (of whatever branch) who seek to connect with welcoming, like-minded Friends. I am regularly contacted through my website by those seeking such connection, and while I assist as I am able, it is disheartening to them to find that in some cases “their” branch of Quakerism has no particular mechanism for helping them feel accepted into the fold.
The isolated Friends who contact me have all felt drawn to waiting worship or silent worship, which could be a function of the nature of my website. However, in my time among Evangelical Friends, I have not found that their isolated Friends feel the same sense of loss and longing for spiritual community as unprogrammed Friends. It is easy to speculate that those drawn to Evangelical Quakerism might more readily find an alternative spiritual home with other Evangelical Christians, but whatever the real reason, I will be primarily confining my discussion to those branches of Quakerism that preserve waiting or silent worship.
Membership is our primary mechanism for recognizing fellow travelers, and I believe Friends should recognize that the mutual responsibility of membership is possible even for isolated Friends who cannot enter the meetinghouse doors. Official membership has long been important in the Religious Society of Friends. Marshall Massey (Iowa Yearly Meeting-Conservative), in his incomplete but intriguing post at the Street Corner Society website (www.strecorsoc.org/docs/mbrshp1.html), posits that there were four stages in its development:
“If the first phase (1647-55) was one in which Friends developed the abstract idea of what a Quaker was, and the second phase (1656-59) was one in which Friends began separating themselves from those who did not fit that idea, then this third phase (1660-1695) was the one in which Friends had to make up their minds as to who, among their diverse attenders, down to the most oddball and the most ordinary, really did fit that idea enough to deserve the name ‘Friend.’”
“Thus, only thirty years after Quakerism was born—which was much sooner than most modern Friends realize—the need to know precisely who was a Quaker and who was not was already of real concern at a national, policy-making level.”
Notice Massey’s use of the phrase “deserve the name ‘Friend.’” Recognizing the difference between the historical and the modern conception of “deserving” the name Friend is pivotal. Early Friends had to concern themselves with how they were perceived more widely by “the authorities” in order to diminish the consequences to themselves of extreme behaviors by some who claimed to be Quakers. They also offered financial assistance to indigent members and those Friends suffering for their faith. They had to define who qualified for that assistance. Today, we don’t really have those concerns. The behavior of any particular member no longer has any real consequences to the wider community, and I know of no Quaker meetings that offer substantial financial assistance to members in difficulty, having ceded that to local, state, and federal government assistance programs. Yet even today, without those inducements, many Friends feel strongly about who does or does not “deserve” the name Friend. My concern here is not to parse deserving but to advocate for compassion for a subset of believers who are constrained from participating fully in our religious society. Can we not enlarge our sense of community to include those who, for whatever reason, cannot actually cross the threshold of a Quaker meetinghouse?
My own experience informs my sense that the answer to this question is “yes.” God “made” me a Quaker on a First-day morning, sitting by myself in a chair in my bedroom. I knew nothing of Quakerism beyond some vague impressions from a Lucretia Mott biography I had read in third grade. Shortly before my convincement, I was an active member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and, while I was intellectually satisfied, I felt deeply unsettled and unhappy. Each First-day, I felt strongly that there was someplace I was supposed to be, and not with the UUs. It is hard to describe the agony and frustration I felt. I was unable to satisfy or silence that unnameable longing. Finally, at the end of my spiritual rope, I told God that if God had something to say, God should just say it. Interestingly, God did. What God made clear was that I should become a plain, Christian Quaker. I knew nothing of Friends, of plain Friends, of the Christian faith as understood by Friends, or of any of the branches of Quakerism. Given my past intellectual comfort with universalism, the transition was challenging, but I complied and eventually found my real spiritual home with Conservative Friends.
I can report a deep sense of connection and satisfaction when reading George Fox, Robert Barclay, Elizabeth Stirredge, Thomas Kelly, and other Friends through the centuries. Although they lived in very different times and circumstances, it is clear to me that they describe the same Spiritual Reality I am experiencing and that the Everlasting Gospel they proclaimed is alive and well and living within me, a Seed of Truth waiting for nurturance.
It therefore makes perfect sense to me that the Lord will bring some to the Everlasting Gospel who have no direct access to a Quaker meeting but who have direct access to Christ Jesus, their Inward Guide. It also makes sense to me that such a person, sometimes called an isolated Friend, should have meaningful access to fellowship with others who have had the same spiritual experience. Though I have access to a small Conservative worship group, a healthy Liberal meeting, and a vibrant Evangelical Friends church, God has given me a heart for the plight of isolated Friends and led me to put forward a few web pages that they might find helpful. Unfortunately, the efforts of one small website are not sufficient. Isolated Friends long for the spiritual community of like-minded and like-hearted Friends, and when face-to-face fellowship is not possible, they desire to have meaningful connection with an official Quaker organization.
With the same understanding that the Everlasting Gospel can break into the lives of those who live nowhere near a meetinghouse, Ohio Yearly Meeting has developed a level of membership that accommodates those who believe they are experiencing the same spiritual reality described by early Friends. Called affiliate membership, it entails a slightly awkward process in which an individual contacts a monthly meeting to request membership. This request can be a little fraught with peril. Some monthly meetings have taken that responsibility on with enthusiasm, while others, feeling unable to offer care and support to a distant member, have declined to accept anyone into affiliate membership. Some monthly meetings of Ohio Yearly Meeting are also known for being conservative on matters of marriage and sexuality, so not everyone would feel comfortable affiliating.
Conservative Quakerism is a difficult row to hoe. The ranks of Conservative Friends are seriously depleted, with the majority of their historical meetings located in rural areas that have declining and aging populations with limited opportunities. Some within Ohio Yearly Meeting see contact with isolated Friends as a part of their Christian responsibility to raise one another up, and effort is made on the part of individual recorded ministers to visit such Friends. The Wider Fellowship of Conservative Friends began in the late 1960s as a Concern Committee within North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and emphasized intervisitation among the three Conservative yearly meetings (North Carolina, Iowa, and Ohio) by recorded ministers. Its management has since moved to Ohio Yearly Meeting, and its primary purpose now is to be a point of contact for isolated Friends who have a traditional understanding of Quakerism. The Wider Fellowship hosts a cherished biannual Gathering of Conservative Friends in Barnesville, Ohio, where isolated Friends can experience traditional Quaker worship and fellowship.
I don’t know how enthusiastically Liberal meetings would embrace something like this, as their understanding of Quakerism is quite different. In my experience, Liberal Friends emphasize the practice of Quakerism in determining membership: attending meeting for worship and committee work. They also pay considerable attention to private and communal activism on various issues and concerns. It might be hard to picture what a Liberal meeting would do for someone who felt consonance with its faith and practice but could not attend. Nevertheless, there are such people, and they may be the seeds of the future of Quakerism. Nurturing isolated Friends would be important not only for them but also for the organization as a whole.
My own spiritual experience, the spiritual experiences shared with me by readers of my website, and the experiences of our spiritual ancestors as shared in their journals and sermons, show us that when we reach the end of our own endeavors and finally plead with the Lord to show us our path, then does the gate through the narrow way open, and our duty and hope become clear. For all that may not be happening in our meetinghouses, there is an enlivening world of writings by Friends online, drawing seekers and believers to the Truth. Though that may not mean more people walking through the meetinghouse door due to geographical distribution, it can mean the multiplying of the Truth and the growth in love and discernment of Christ’s people in unity under God’s loving guidance. Perhaps that is the most important thing today and something that should not be left solely in the hands of individual Friends.
1. Have younger Friends improve the design of meeting websites. All branches of Quakerism suffer significantly from meetings and churches with poorly designed websites that can be bizarrely uninformative. Concern for the aesthetics of the meetinghouse is common, but many meetings do not seem to understand that a website leaves an impression as well. Unfortunately, by putting out such a poor public image on the web, individual meetings and churches are advertising their inability to understand the concerns and perspective of Gen Xers and Millennials. Challenges can range from having difficulty finding sufficient consensus on content to lack of budget or expertise, but these challenges must be taken seriously if any particular meeting wants to present itself respectably to younger seekers. Untidy and unhelpful websites prevent younger seekers from walking through the meetinghouse doors as much as an untidy landscaping job prevents others. Improved websites would also open improved avenues for isolated Friends to connect.
2. Have a special section on the website for seekers and isolated Friends. Even if a meeting has no official means of recognizing isolated Friends, it can express some hospitality to them through the website by acknowledging their existence and trying to speak to their needs. Most websites have been designed primarily for the needs of active members, so while there might be something for seekers, invariably there is nothing for non-attending Isolated Friends. I hear from many isolated Friends through my website, largely because I acknowledge their existence and my writings express that I have a heart for their concerns. I imagine monthly meetings would hear from isolated Friends, too, if they provided clear lines of communication.
3. Consider assigning a concern for isolated Friends to a committee. Sometimes isolated Friends are created by geographical isolation, but other times they are isolated by physical infirmity or other life circumstances. Even if a meeting feels unable to concern itself with isolated Friends who are at a geographical distance, they should take seriously a concern for those who are near but cannot attend for other reasons. Once an official mechanism is in place for these Friends, it might become more obvious how to be of assistance to those farther afield. An Evangelical Church I have attended has designated volunteer “Cheer-givers” whose sole task is to visit people who might be in need of Friendly Christian fellowship. As our membership continues to age, these sorts of isolated Friends become an obvious issue.