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Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences

Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences

Quakers sometimes view conflicts between the branches of our faith as trivial. These conflicts, however, express real differences, and we should neither dismiss nor ignore them; rather, we should understand them. If we were to recognize the different moral viewpoints, visions, and definitions of Quakerism held within the different branches, we would have a useful perspective from which to understand this conflict.

While all the branches lay claim to the spiritual inheritance of our Quaker forebears, each one wishes to uphold a legacy that is fundamentally different from the others. In his book A Short Introduction to Quakerism, Ben Pink Dandelion describes the different branches of Quakerism in this way: Evangelical Friends are those Friends who hold “Scripture as primary, which they sometimes balance with revelation”; while Conservative Friends hold “revelation as primary, but find it confirmed by Scripture”; and Liberal Friends hold “with experience alone.” In this article, I will use Dandelion’s description as defining the three branches of Quakerism.

Differing Moral Viewpoints

According to this Moral Foundation Theory, there are six categories or foundations that inform morality. Those with a liberal viewpoint focus their moral concern primarily on the following three foundations:

  1. care/harm
  2. liberty/oppression
  3. fairness/cheating

While sharing a moral concern with liberals for these three foundations, those with a conservative viewpoint add three more:

  1. authority/subversion
  2. sanctity/degradation
  3. loyalty/betrayal

Broadly speaking, Friends of the Liberal branch tend to hold liberal moral viewpoints, and Friends of the Evangelical and Conservative branches tend to hold conservative moral viewpoints. Differing moral viewpoints are a significant source of conflict for Friends both within and between branches. The following account of an incident within a Liberal Friends worship group illustrates the causal connection between differing moral viewpoints and conflict.

A Conservative-branch recorded minister and I felt led to attend a small, Liberal-branch worship group. During worship, this gospel minister regularly shared biblically based Christian ministry. After attending for about 10 weeks, the visiting minister was asked at the rise of meeting by a group of Friends to amend the Christian messages to more neutral language. The content of the gospel minister’s ministry was neither hateful nor obviously harmful. It was, however, from the perspective of the Liberal Friends unacceptable for her to offer and appropriate for them to curtail.

Some Liberal Friends view Christianity as a historic as well as an ongoing cause of harm. Furthermore, Liberal Friends often believe that any distress felt when Christian language is heard constitutes real harm. Thus, Christianity violates the care/harm moral foundation, one of the foundations listed in the Moral Foundation Theory. Additionally, some view Christianity as oppressive (violating the liberty/oppression foundation). As a result, Christianity is seen by some Liberal Friends as fundamentally immoral.

From this perspective, it may be a moral violation to give ministry using Christian language, particularly if anyone expresses discomfort in response to it. The Liberal Friends functionally invoked the care/harm foundation when they said they knew that the gospel minister, as a kind and caring person, would want to stop offering ministry that was causing others discomfort.

The viewpoint of the gospel minister, on the other hand, was that it would be immoral to adjust a message that was given: It would be disobedient to God (violating the authority/subversion foundation). Also, it would be unloving to withhold gospel ministry because sharing God’s message is the most loving thing to do (invoking the care/harm foundation). The gospel minister believed that the ministry offered could mean salvation for someone in the room, and therefore, the ministry was never to be tampered with by the messenger. The gospel minister knew that the messages would not be welcomed by all present, but she was nonplussed that Friends wanted to ban Christian ministry from meeting for worship.

The Liberal Friends decided, ultimately, that the gospel minister had to be “true to herself,” (invoking the liberty/oppression foundation). This conclusion was unsatisfactory to the gospel minister: it showed no indication that they understood the gospel minister’s perspective.

Tragic Versus Utopian Vision

In the account given above, the validity of the ministry, for Liberal Friends, was assessed by the results of the ministry, that is, how the message impacted those present. Conversely, for the Conservative Friend, the validity of the ministry was found in the process, that is, how the message was faithfully delivered. In each case, an underlying vision of Quaker faith presupposed the different evaluations of the gospel ministry.

“A vision is our sense of how the world works,” writes Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions. In the preceding account, two different visions were present. Examining each of the visions, each undergirding a particular moral viewpoint, gives us insight into the conflict that arose between the Liberal Friends and the Conservative minister. The Liberal Friends vision is one that is described as a utopian vision in the book The Blank Slate. Author Steven Pinker describes utopian vision in this way:

human nature changes with social circumstances, so traditional institutions have no inherent value. . . . Traditions are the dead hand of the past, the attempt to rule from the grave.

Conversely, the tragic vision, held by Conservative Friends, is described by Pinker in this way:

human nature has not changed. Traditions such as religion, the family, social customs, sexual mores . . . are a distillation of time-tested techniques that let us work around the shortcomings of human nature.

As an expression of the utopian vision, Liberal Quakers emphasize new Light, while Conservative Quakers express their tragic vision by emphasizing the Everlasting Gospel. Each vision seems obvious, right, and true to those who hold it; the other vision will correspondingly seem bizarre, benighted, and a source of a great many of the ills in society.

Holding the tragic vision, Conservative Friends may see little need to engage in discussion with Friends who don’t “get” it..I’ve found that this can be a weakness. These Friends are less likely to even sit down at the table during conflicts, as they are sure that talking won’t change anyone’s mind.

Liberal Friends with their utopian vision also have a weakness in their believing that anyone who is intelligent, good, and reasonable will come to the same conclusion that they themselves have come to. And if anyone has not come to that conclusion, then that person must not be reasonable, intelligent, or good. These Friends are eager to sit down at the table, as they are sure other Friends really must be reasonable, intelligent, and good, and therefore a discussion will bring them over to their side.

Defining Quakerism

Differing definitions of Quakerism create a significant challenge for inter-branch communication. Some Friends have only a vague definition of their faith, and yet they are perfectly clear that other branches aren’t really Quaker.

Liberal Quakerism, according to Dandelion, was created as “an explicit reaction to both Quietist and Evangelical Quakerism and was constructed on four main ideas”:

  1. that experience, not scripture, should be primary
  2. that faith should be relevant to the age
  3. that Friends needed to be open to new ideas
  4. that in each age, Friends would know more about the nature and will of God, a doctrine called progressivism, and that, as such, revelation has a chronological authority.

Further, Dandelion offers this analysis:

Liberal Quakerism is now bounded . . . by a particular approach to theologizing, what I have termed “the absolute perhaps.” The ideas of progressivism and of being open to new Light have become translated into the notion that the group cannot know truth, except personally, partially, or provisionally. Thus Liberal Quakerism is not just about the possibility of seeking, it is about the certainty of never finding.

Liberal Friends, says Dandelion, are defined by the communal experience of silent worship and concurrence with “the absolute perhaps.” Their identity as Quakers is central to their faith, and defining Quakerism in a way that excludes them can deeply trouble Liberal Friends.

For Conservatives, both the traditional faith of Quaker-Christianity and the practice of waiting worship under the headship of Christ define Quakerism. They identify as Quakers first, Christians second.

For Evangelical Friends, doctrine is central and Christian belief is primary. They consider themselves to be Christians first and Quakers second. Neither traditional Conservatives nor Evangelicals see any way to define Quakerism without Christianity.

The progressivism of Liberal Friends can appear to be a Liberal Quaker manifest destiny: they are the future of Quakerism, while those Friends clinging to Christ are the dead past of Quakerism that will be sloughed off. Meanwhile, some Liberal Friends experience the firm Christian witness of Conservative and Evangelical Friends as condemnatory, as though Liberal Friends will be consigned to hell in the afterlife and are not true Quakers.

Dandelion goes on to offer a foundational definition of Quakerism that lists traditional distinctives that all three branches continue to share. He seems to suggest that because we hold these distinctives in common, we can embrace each other as Friends. For me, his formulation evoked Gertrude Stein’s “there is no there there.” While it might describe what we all share as Friends, this least-common-denominator included so little substance that is important to my life as a Friend that it did not seem to be a way forward.

Unique Witness of Each Branch

Considering the differences in the three branches of Quakerism, I see that there is more than one coherent way to understand Quaker faith. And by understanding my place within Quakerism, I feel strengthened. Each branch’s vision and viewpoint has its strengths and weaknesses, and the branches are in balance with the others. The greater good that is accomplished by each branch could not be done by either of the others. For example, both the Liberal and Evangelical branches have followed paths that create more comfortable places for seekers. Evangelical Friends have developed a Quakerism with a more comfortable outward practice for seekers, and Liberal Friends have developed a more intellectually comfortable Quakerism seekers.

In addition, Liberal Friends offer a safe place for those uncomfortable with traditional Christian language and forms. They actively claim the social justice witness and societal reform that they see in historic Quakerism, and they pursue those aims energetically. Friends in this tradition see a great deal of work that needs to be done in the world to bring about peace, justice, and environmental balance, and they enjoy ministry that speaks to those concerns. They seek to support one another in living their Quaker faith in the world. Their ministry, at its best, is based on personal experience that offers insights into living a life in which their Quaker ideals are pursued with integrity.

Conservative Friends have substantially preserved the traditional faith and practice of Friends, with the Everlasting Gospel at its heart. Still finding their unity in Christ, they seek the fruition within themselves of the historic Quaker project of bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. They perceive Quakerism as a faith and practice worth preserving essentially intact; they believe that the spiritual insights of founding Friends are as vital today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow. Friends in this tradition describe powerful spiritual experiences of the Living Word, Christ, and often feel led to offer ministry that speaks to those experiences using biblical references. Their ministry, at its best, powerfully speaks to the condition of those present and brings about authentic spiritual transformation: a new life in Christ.

Evangelical Friends are able to speak to those who seek more in their Christian walk than the silence and staid ministry of traditional Quaker meetings, and they’ve set aside the special forms and language of Quakerism in an effort to reach as many potential Christians as possible. They have considerable interest in social justice but ground that ideal in a clear, biblically based Christian doctrine. They speak the name of Jesus Christ with authentic joy, actively seek to support one another’s calls to faithfulness, and eagerly strive in their mission work to bring their Christian witness to the world. Friends in this tradition describe powerful spiritual experiences of Jesus Christ present in their lives, ardently study the Bible, and seek to be obedient and faithful Christian disciples. Their ministry, at its best, shows Friends how to live into their Christian faith with love.

A Caution about Superiority

My closing caution to Friends is a word from the Lord given to me several years ago as I began my exploration of the conflicts between Friends: “In thy sense of superiority is thy condemnation.”

In my dealings with others, I have been reminded that real superiority is only to be found in God, because human brokenness is universal. More broadly, this Word reminds me that each branch of Quakerism has its strengths and weaknesses, and each might do well to attend to the timber in its own eye. We’re all caught in the moral force field of our group and tend not to notice our moral foundations until one has been violated. In those situations, we can be unaware that a conflict between moral viewpoints is at the core of our anger and distress.

An ever-present temptation is to have contempt for those who have a different viewpoint or vision. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers the following:

contempt [is] a moral emotion that gives feelings of moral superiority while asking nothing in return. With contempt you don’t need to right the wrong (as with anger) or flee the scene (as with fear or disgust). And best of all, contempt is made to share. Stories about the moral failings of others are among the most common kinds of gossip . . . and they offer a ready way for people to show that they share a common moral orientation. Tell an acquaintance a cynical story that ends with both of you smirking and shaking your heads and voilà, you’ve got a bond.

Haidt continues, “Well, stop smirking. One of the most universal pieces of advice from across cultures and eras is that we are all hypocrites, and in our condemnation of others’ hypocrisy we only compound our own.”

I believe that Friends can concede one small step to cross-branch peace that would be one large step for inter-branch communication: acknowledge that there are other branches by avoiding phrases such as “Quakers believe . . .” when one really means “Liberal Quakers believe. . .” or “Evangelical Friends believe.” This distinction is omitted almost everywhere on the web and in the published writings of Friends. It might seem unnecessarily complicated and even a little embarrassing to have to admit to the divisions in Quakerism. But in America, aren’t we used to this? One might not know what the differences are between a Southern Baptist and an American Baptist, but one knows there are differences. Can we not, then, in the interest of peace and clarity, add the proper branch designation in our writings and conversations? We would thereby respect the other branches by acknowledging their existence and allowing for their inclusion in our formulations of worldwide Quakerism.


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  1. AMA: Conservative and Liberal Friends? - February 22, 2017

    […] Pen­raeth wrote a fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle in Friends Jour­nal a few years ago, Under­stand­ing Our­selves, Respect­ing the Dif­fer­ences. More recent­ly in FJ a Philadel­phia Friend, John Andrew Gallery, vis­it­ed Ohio Friends […]

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