In terms of the Quaker ecosystem, I have turned somersaults. First, I had certainty; then my convictions were challenged; third, I had the rug pulled from under me. Now I live in ecological fluidity, and that’s fine.
The illusion of certainty
When I first became a Friend, I tried to make the Quaker system fit into my existing understanding. I grew up in a church that had clear steps along the way: infant baptism followed by confirmation, when the child was able to make the commitment. For a man with a call to ministry, there was ordination. Women were not permitted to be priests, but a number of other volunteer options were available; none of which appealed to me.
To attend Quaker meeting for worship was a powerful experience of participating in communion, true communion with the Divine. I knew I would never need bread and wine again, because in gathered worship, I came into the presence of the Living God. Not only did I try to make my new Quaker faith fit into the landmarks of my previous experience, I also had to articulate it to others: to my family, and later in ecumenical and interfaith settings.
I took several years to apply for membership, because to me membership was like confirmation and ordination rolled into one. It was a sign of public ministry and of becoming fully part of a People. This People was not just the global web of Quakers. I was also stepping into more than 400 years of history, standing in the footsteps of people who had been willing to risk everything for their faith. Was I ready? Could I ever be ready?
When I became a Quaker, I joined not just a local meeting but also a yearly meeting of thousands. The book of Christian Faith and Practice amazed me: Wow, what a precious document! Yes, it had all the procedures, but primarily it provided inspiration through historical accounts of Quakers living faithfully and making ethical choices. It was the story of how God had worked in their lives.
My convictions are challenged
After 30 years of membership in two yearly meetings (first in Britain and later in Philadelphia), I moved to northern Michigan and joined Friends of the Light, which was part of Indiana Yearly Meeting. Its roots were in two meetings, both of which had been set off from Long Lake Friends Church. One meeting was re-established in Maple City (previously laid down in the early 1920s), and the other began in Traverse City as a worship group of people in recovery who had named themselves “Friends of the Light.” Long Lake member Joseph Kelly pastored both groups. Since the Maple City members made a 40-mile round trip every Sunday to Traverse City to support Friends of the Light, the groups decided after a few years to merge in one location under the name “Friends of the Light.”
It was in the DNA of Friends of the Light that everyone was welcome. I have never attended a recovery group, but I imagine that anyone who shows up encounters friendship, maybe a cup of tea or coffee, and encouragement to stick around. That’s how it was with Friends of the Light. History, theology, or any other baggage did not matter; there was always a welcome. The children, apparently, first challenged the issue of membership. They saw it as against the founding spirit of the meeting to have insiders and outsiders. The meeting for business agreed, and from that moment on, anyone who showed up and came back a second time was a member. I think after a while even the requirement to come back a second time was dropped.
This really challenged my carefully worked-through theories of membership and ordination, but I was able to see their point. Church isn’t a matter of who is in and who is out. The earliest Friends had designated membership because they needed to know for whom they were responsible. Someone who chose not to be part of the Church of England became an “outlaw”; there was no parish relief for the destitute and infirm in the 1600s, if they were not part of the established Church. For Friends at that time, membership was a practical measure, rather than an expression of a grounded theology or ecclesiology.
The rug is pulled
The history of Christianity over the centuries has often been marked by questions of who is in, and who is out. In the twentieth century, many yearly meetings in the United States were affected by the Fundamentalist and Holiness movements, and even by Calvinist ideas, which spilled over from other traditions. Some of the ideas of right doctrine have remained. It was perhaps inevitable that the sweeping welcome and broad inclusiveness of some of the meetings in Indiana Yearly Meeting would be resisted strongly by others. In 2013, reconfiguration happened—more of a purge, in truth—and 15 meetings, including mine, left. It was devastating to lose my yearly meeting. But out of the shipwreck, something new happened.
While half a dozen or so of the meetings that left the yearly meeting would probably be seen as progressive, that doesn’t account for the rest that left. Meetings were comfortable with a level of diversity, wanting no one to dictate what they should believe or how they should worship. The meetings that left Indiana Yearly Meeting and formed The New Association of Friends are different from each other in size, history, culture, and theology, and it has been a remarkable opportunity to get to know each other and to build something new. As we started out of the crisis, the right people came forward, just as they were needed. People with experience as trustees, attorneys, and accountants stepped-up to get things organized. Some who had not been “yearly meeting Friends” took on leadership, excited to be part of something fresh. We did not form a new yearly meeting, because many saw the term to signify a top-down system of governance. We did not rush to develop a Faith and Practice, because many had experienced the previous one as a set of rules and doctrines to which people should assent or leave.
I have encountered meetings that, regardless of their history, no longer fit into their yearly meeting. Some meetings are too progressive for their yearly meeting. I know of one Christ-centered unprogrammed worship group that was too open and affirming for the yearly meeting that it asked to join. The group was advised to look to a neighboring yearly meeting. The latter was fine with their inclusivity but not their Christ-centeredness. Too gay for one yearly meeting and too Christian for the other, they are still independent. Another small cluster of meetings left their yearly meeting because they wanted to stay affiliated to Friends United Meeting when their yearly meeting chose to affiliate with Evangelical Friends. Another meeting remains independent because it suspects its semi-programmed worship would be an issue for the neighboring unprogrammed yearly meeting. All these meetings would be leaven to a larger group. I would worship with any of them in a heartbeat, but the barriers to membership in a yearly meeting exist. In our last few years before leaving Indiana, many us felt rejected, not cherished and nurtured.
Possible ways forward
There is no single organizational formula in this complexity. The New Association of Friends is an association of independent meetings. There is no higher authority than each monthly meeting, and we don’t make public statements on behalf of the association. That is for monthly meetings to do, if they feel led. The New Association is a fellowship of people and meetings that care about and support each other and our ministries, even when we don’t share the same political, social, or theological views. We are incorporated in the state of Indiana, and as an association, we are affiliated with organizations that we value: Friends Committee on National Legislation, Friends United Meeting, and Friends World Committee for Consultation. We are unencumbered by offices; debt; and, conversely, endowments. This has turned out to be a blessing because we can focus on building relationships and visiting each other, rather than maintaining structures. Thankfully, we have the Internet and social media for our communication platform to supplement face-to-face connections. We didn’t choose this path; it chose us. Each time we meet, another part of our journey becomes real. We are still grappling with our geographical boundaries. Should we extend beyond our current Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio area? How do we most effectively support each other, as congregations and individuals?
Yearly meetings in other areas are facing schism. Would our model work for them? Maybe, and maybe there are other solutions. I’m not a big fan of Friends meetings and churches trying to go it alone. They can too easily lose connection with the history and tradition of the movement from which they were formed and become independent community churches. We have to find ways to build relationships and maintain our Quaker tradition; it’s too precious to lose.
Autocracy and top-down governance are still alive in nations and religious bodies, but so is community-based, grass-roots energy. Seeking our identity is a lifelong quest: for people, for organizations, and for faith communities. As we see in the wider world of nations and people groups, claiming and expressing an identity is healthy, so long as we can say who we are and what we value without belittling or dismissing others. That truth applies to individuals and, thankfully, also for congregations. Building a network of connections from that foundation is important work. We need each other, and the world needs the witness of Friends. I can now say wholeheartedly that fluidity is fine.