Inclusiveness is one of the cornerstones of Liberal Quaker identity. How often have we heard—or said—”Friends believe that God speaks to all people of all faiths,” or “Friends don’t have doctrines or dogmas,” or even “As a Friend, you can believe whatever you want”? Given our focus on erasing the boundaries around our faith, it seems paradoxical that our meetings often struggle to attract and retain non-white members. People of color may visit for a while, but they seldom make the leap into membership. Even when they are raised in a Friends meeting, children of color—like their white peers—often drift away from their Quaker roots as they enter adulthood. Our meetings are often located in small, predominantly white towns rather than in more populous and diverse cities, and even when they are located in urban areas and have some members of color, they almost never reflect the rich racial diversity of the communities in which they sit.
For such a tolerant, open-ended faith, the frequently monoracial character of our meetings seems surprising at first blush—but is it really?
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that sharing values is a fundamental part of human community. We naturally group around objects or beliefs that we circle around and hold sacred—whether that is God, the Torah, or the Ka’aba in the spiritual context, or devotion to the right to have an abortion or bear arms in the political one. Early Friends gathered around the conviction that Christ Jesus, and only Christ Jesus, could lead them into a new life that would bring their relationships with each other, with the world, and with God in line with the commands and promises of the Bible and the Holy Spirit. And they were dedicated to sharing that good news with the people they met, whether those people wanted to hear it or not. That message incensed and provoked the people who heard it, sometimes to the point of violence. However, in its clarity and vision, it also inspired men, women, and even children from every geographic region and class in England and many locations abroad to risk social alienation and even legal penalties to join the fledgling movement.
While the skeleton of Quaker doctrine remains strong among Liberal Friends, the connective tissue of vibrant, dense theology that once held together the bones of teaching has largely withered.
The message of contemporary Liberal Friends is radically different. At our best, Liberal Friends come together as a people listening for God together, affirming that God speaks to everyone and may speak through anyone. This faith—that we can come together and know God’s will in a way that is inaccessible to us as individuals, and that we can be empowered to do God’s will, not just know it—is one that I believe continues to have power and relevance in our time. Yet this faith is much sparser than the faith of early Friends.
As the Bible itself has come to be seen as optional, irrelevant, or even offensive, the images that spoke so strongly to early Friends—the cross and the crown of Christ, the old and the new Adam, the nursing mothers and fathers of Israel, Jesus as the Lamb of God—hold less and less power to speak to our corporate condition, even as they continue to inspire individual Friends.
While the skeleton of Quaker doctrine remains strong among Liberal Friends, the connective tissue of vibrant, dense theology that once held together the bones of teaching has largely withered. What has taken its place in many quarters is a focus on the primacy of subjective experience and the individual—rather than communal—faith journey, as well as a belief that faith is more about reaching greater personal enlightenment than about being formed and transformed by God. As the shared foundation of our faith has eroded, we may have become less comfortable speaking with authority and conviction about matters of spiritual significance, and less devoted to the practices that nurture such authority and conviction.
It is important to recognize that these common beliefs about the primacy of the individual and the purpose of faith and our discomfort with theological certainty are not immutable facts about Quakerism: to the contrary, they are in tension, if not in outright conflict, with Friends traditional doctrine. However, these beliefs do fit neatly with white, middle-to-upper class, liberal culture, which in turn becomes part of what we circle around, what we make sacred. The same individual-honoring impulse that ultimately led to practically universal support for gay marriage among white, well-educated progressives also frequently undermines attempts by Liberal Friends to come together around a shared vision of what it means to be a Friend (“What about Christian/non-theist/pagan Friends?”), allows dysfunctional behaviors to derail worship (“Who are you to tell me I’m not being faithful to the Spirit?”), and guts outreach initiatives before they get off the ground (“Who are we to claim unique access to Truth?”).
Moreover, the more our meetings insist on an orientation typical of a certain segment of white culture, the more alienating they will be to people who are not full participants in that culture. This culture gap is all too relevant in the religious sphere. According to the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Study, my fellow Black Americans, for example, are significantly more likely than white people to be “absolutely certain” of the existence of God (83 versus 61 percent), to pray daily (73 versus 52 percent), to read the Bible at least once a week (54 versus 32 percent), to believe the Bible should be read literally (51 versus 26 percent), to believe in heaven (86 versus 70 percent), and to believe in hell (73 versus 55 percent).
I have often met discomfort or even hostility for reasons that I believe are more cultural than theological. In my experience, Liberal Friends, for all our openness, often have difficulty receiving people and ministry reflecting traditional theological perspectives.
I would never suggest that Quaker doctrine be changed to be more appealing to people who look like me. However, the problem is not our Quaker doctrine: it’s our Quaker culture. The early Friends who saw that of God in “the Turk and the Jew” have much in common with the Black Americans in the Pew study: they cherished the Bible, prayed frequently, and believe firmly in God’s presence, power, and judgment. Their message spoke to people of all races, which is remarkable given the ungracious welcome people of color often experienced in Friends meetings. But do Liberal Friends today know how to welcome people—of any color—who sound like George Fox and Elizabeth Hooton and William Penn?
I came to Friends as a Baptist, in love with Jesus and the Holy Spirit but disenchanted with a vision of the gospel that, for me, did not have the power to transform. In the Journal of George Fox, in Penn’s No Cross, No Crown, in my experience of the Spirit of Christ in meeting for worship, I met a different vision of what it meant to follow the Light of Christ. I am still passionate about the message of early Friends after a decade as a Quaker, and I believe it can speak to people of all colors and ethnicities. Unfortunately, in sharing that vision among Liberal Friends, I have often met discomfort or even hostility for reasons that I believe are more cultural than theological. In my experience, Liberal Friends, for all our openness, often have difficulty receiving people and ministry reflecting traditional theological perspectives, and these perspectives are disproportionately likely to be held by people who are Black or, to a lesser degree, Latino.
This is both bad news and good news. It is bad news because urging Friends to resist the surrounding culture is a bit like telling a fish to resist water: many of us spend our whole lives being completely oblivious to the fact that we are swimming in ideologies that undermine our ability to see and appreciate the insights of others and God’s work in them. In order to uncover the many ways we may need to stand against the surrounding culture, we can only rely on the work of the Spirit—in ourselves and in others—to open our eyes, as our spiritual ancestors did. However, this is great news in another way. Although some people try to explain away our lack of racial diversity by saying “Quakerism isn’t for everyone,” if I am correct—if much of our lack of racial diversity is grounded in enculturated habits of mind rather than in theological conviction—there is much that we could do to be more welcoming to people of color.
We can educate ourselves about Friends’ traditional faith and practice so that we can better explain our unique approach to faith both to visitors to our meetings and those we encounter in our daily lives. We can challenge ourselves to engage with Scripture as early Friends did, which will provide a better understanding of where people who have more “orthodox” beliefs may be coming from so that we can all learn from each other. We can look at our practices, such as responding to vocal ministry in afterthoughts, with an eye to how such practices may be experienced by visitors. Do we come across as earnestly seeking God’s will together or as cynical or skeptical perpetual “seekers” who have no interest in actually finding Truth and being transformed by it? Is the image we present consistent with whom we truly want to be?
Once we recognize that much of whom we are is culturally conditioned rather than doctrinally required, we can give ourselves permission to reflect on what we are doing; imagine alternative approaches; and, ultimately, change our patterns of belief and behavior into something more welcoming, more God-honoring, and more faithful to the particular mission of the Religious Society of Friends in the world.