October 2, 2005

Things I learned from Friends
from Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative

Over the weekend, Laughing Waters Friends Worship Group met with two couples from Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). This intervisitation was arranged as part of the worship group's ongoing discernment around "what sort of Quakers we are"--Hicksite or Conservative.

It was delightful to have four Friends, as a committee from the yearly meeting, visit with us. Such a visit reinforces my growing sense that, for IYM(C) Friends, intervisitation among meetings and between Friends is highly valued--in addition to exchanging letters, postcards, epistles, phone calls, emails, and blog postings. Such intervisitation seems to help prevent meetings from becoming insular or from getting caught in a loop of all-too-comfortable thinking or "same-old, same-old" activity.

Well, I am left with these memories and snippets.

  • Worship is at the center. Worship comes first.

  • Extending from worship, Friends consider and address secular concerns.

  • IYM(C) "is still evolving from a center."

    [I loved seeing a number of us from the worship group nod our heads, as if this statement spoke viscerally to us, surpassing intellectual understanding...]

  • In the late 1860s, as part of the Gurneyite-Wilburite split, Friends who preferred a more "traditional" form of Quaker worship walked out of Iowa Yearly Meeting sessions and met elsewhere, away from Friends who had grown to prefer a more "active" worship that had greater emotional fervor. Apparently, this second group of Friends referred to those who had walked out as being "conservative."

    [Until I heard this story, I had always heard that Conservative Friends are so named because they wish to conserve the early practices and forms of Quakerism. Which I suppose points to the same thing...]

  • One of the more recent pieces of history among Iowa Conservative is that as universities grew, so did urban populations, which increased the attendance of younger people at Meeting for Worship. These younger people didn't always know what the unspoken "rules" were among Iowa Conservative Friends, especially when it came to answering queries, a part of the Conservative tradition. Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) found itself being challenged by these younger Friends about the growing acceptance of use of tobacco and alcohol, which is now reflected in a query on personal responsibility.

  • The Iowa visitors asked the worship group, "Do you have any Friends in the worship group who have grown up in a Quaker family?" We all automatically answered "No." And then someone added: Wait, that's not true. All of the kids have grown up in a Quaker family!" That got a nice chuckle all around.
  • Perhaps the most poignant moment of the weekend happened during the reflection and sharing that occurred just after worship on First Day. One Friend, whose Quaker lineage extends backward several generations, spoke with tears in his eyes:
    When we settled into worship, I felt something I hadn't felt in a long time: like I was home.

    I remembered back to 45 years ago, when I was a boy... Daddy, why are they all sitting there...? "They are listening," he answered.

    To what? Nobody's talking. "They're listening to that still, small voice inside."

    But why are they so quiet? "It's hard to listen when we're talking."
    I had felt this to be a witness, a testimony to the Living Presence having been among us, and I was greatly moved by this Friend's quiet words...

    By the way, First Day worship was attended by a total of 18 adult Friends and 5 young Friends. That's nine regular adult attenders of Laughing Waters Friends Worship Group, four Friends visiting from Iowa, and five other visiting Friends, plus one visiting young Friend. WoW!

    Overall, with these Friends from Iowa, there was an ease in talking about God and about God's loving presence in our lives. After the events of the weekend, and the conversations and the worship, I find it hard to imagine myself returning to a more liberal form of Quaker worship and practice.

    But that's "me" talking, and I have some more listening to do!

    Blessings,
    Liz

    11 comments:

    Martin Kelley said...

    Oh Liz,
    Come on, you don't have to choose between being a Hicksite or a Conservative! All of these labels cover over complicated meeting histories and splits. I sense that what the visiting Iowans brought was an ease of talking about God and a care in attending to the spiritual needs of the members.

    The most fascinating snippet from your post was the sense that the yearly meeting had a host of unwritten norms that it struggled to convey to newcomers and younger Friends. It seems like this is one of the struggles all faithful Quaker bodies have had and continue to have. Did you sense this was something they've overcome (at least partially?).
    Your friend,
    Martin

    Craig said...

    Liz,

    Wonderful post! I would encourage you and the Meeting you attend to continue to look at Conservative Friends. I agree with Friend Martin that one doesn't have to chose between Conservative and Hicksite Friends. However, in the larger Hicksite movement (FGC), it seems to me that the Conservative Wilburite voice is mutted.

    I admire those who are a Christocentric prophetic witness within FGC. My worry is that Christians within FGC spend a lot of energy defending their position. A united Conservative movement allows for a "clear voice" within both Christianity and the larger Quaker movement.

    Having this years North Carolina Yearly Meeting-Conservative, I can tell you how rich the fellowship and communion was at this gathering. FGC Gathering was good, but it doesn't come close to the fellowship of like-minded Friends in a Christ centered spiritual community.

    Aj Schwanz said...

    Sounds like you're listening well! I hope the Light of Christ continues to infuse your understanding. Blessings!

    Liz Opp said...

    Aj, thanks for your affirmation. I can always have more practice in listening, of course, but I do feel like I'm "listening well" overall.

    I appreciate the other comments too, in part because I now have the opportunity to reflect further and to have my thinking and my articulation of my experience honed.

    For example: Martin and Craig, I am not sure I agree entirely with you about labels... There is something about this remark, though, that reminds me of my inward "ouchiness" when white people, talking about people of color, say, "I don't see color; there's no such thing as race/racism; we're all just people."

    To me--and maybe this is an extension of my being a woman (read: member of an historically oppressed group)--to me, being seen and validated for who I believe I am is HUGE. I feel a visceral connection to the Conservative Friends I have met over the years, a connection that has to do with faith, practice, covenant...

    So yes, a Friend is a Friend is a Friend. And also there are needs related to self-concept, belonging, and group affiliation, too.

    ...Shall I say to you, "You don't have to choose between being an Evangelical Friend and a liberal Friend" and expect you not to react inwardly?

    I would add that some of us choose every day, and especially every First Day, which branch of Friends we affiliate with. And yet, we are all part of God's realm; we are all part of the One Body.

    Perhaps some day in the future, the desire I have to claim a label for myself among Friends will dissipate, but for now, this question--am I a liberal Conservative Friend or a Conservative liberal Friend?--is an important one for me to carry.

    Another item I want to touch on is prompted by Craig, who writes in part: "My worry is that Christians within FGC spend a lot of energy defending their position."

    Since I am gearing up to go to FGC's Central Committee later this month, I am reading this comment very differently from what was likely intended. I want to say that my experience serving on Central Committee is probably one of the key experiences I've had that has opened the door for me to Conservative Quakerism!

    FGC is not intended to be an organization that sets policy about faith and practice for a particular group of Friends. It is an organization that intends to provide resources and opportunities for Friends and seekers, and it happens to focus primarily on the needs of Friends who worship in the unprogrammed tradition.

    (Though I confess: I believe FGC needs to take a serious look at changing its name and face entirely if it ever wants to shed the perception of being a governing body of Hicksite Friends.)

    Back to my point:

    I have experienced a greater discipline at Central Committee of waiting on the Holy Spirit for guidance; a greater willingness for Friends to hold one another, and the committees of FGC, accountable for seeking and discerning the right order of a thing; a greater sense of seeking God's guidance together than I have at my yearly meeting sessions.

    Granted, Central Committee is far from being perfect. There are personality conflicts and individual desires and the occasional power struggle. But the three-and-a-half-day business sessions of which I have been a part in recent years have done nothing but grown me in my Quakerism.

    The annual FGC Gathering has grown me as well, but not as much in my practice and in my understanding of that practice as has FGC's Central Committee.

    And yes: the Gathering is a completely different form of spiritual fellowship from smaller like-minded Friends' groups.

    Whew. Glad I got all that off my chest! And yes, Martin, the Iowa Friends DID bring "an ease of talking about God and care in attending to the spiritual needs" of us... Of course I want to be part of sharing that same ease and care with others, regardless of whatever label helps me feel a sense of belonging...

    Blessings,
    Liz

    david said...

    To me--and maybe this is an extension of my being a woman (read: member of an historically oppressed group)--to me, being seen and validated for who I believe I am is HUGE.

    I have had similar feelings as a disabled man. And i have tried to say so -- affirming that our differences do count despite the sort liberal-universalist hope that we can get by without them. But if someone is to say -- disability doesn't matter -- it really needs to be a disabled person.

    And still. No matter what. The people who get what I'm trying say -- were there before I spoke it. And those who weren't there already don't seem to get it.

    Rob said...

    "So yes, a Friend is a Friend is a Friend. And also there are needs related to self-concept, belonging, and group affiliation, too.

    ...Shall I say to you, "You don't have to choose between being an Evangelical Friend and a liberal Friend" and expect you not to react inwardly?

    I would add that some of us choose every day, and especially every First Day, which branch of Friends we affiliate with. And yet, we are all part of God's realm; we are all part of the One Body."

    Perhaps my reaction to the idea that labels shouldn't matter is somewhat strong too. I want to believe that they shouldn't, and they are often unnecessarily divisive, but I don't think they HAVE to be. We let them be divisive.

    However much the post-modern movement wants to resist it, I am in fact gay. Not just a little bit. Not just a lot bit. The whole bit. That's who I am. It's not a label I choose.

    This gets to the heart of what identity means to me. Who is choosing what? Do we choose our faith? Or is something else at work here? And if the latter is true, why don't we celebrate it, rather than draw lines in the sand and forbidding each other's passage?

    "Ye did not choose me, but I chose you..." John 15:16

    Blessings and love to all of you.

    Rob
    Consider the Lilies

    Dave Carl said...

    Hi Liz,

    I was in your FGC workshop and have been following your journey with interest. I've been thinking a lot about the identities of my meeting in Fayetteville, Arkansas and the Ark/OK quarterly as well. I've long thought of them (us) as sort of in the Hicksite, liberal camp, but when you really start scratching the surface, individual Friends here run the gamut from Christ centered (of various flavors) to more-generically-god-centered to universalist, new age, etc. Although its sometimes hard to tell as we don't have a lot of theological discussions! I'm wondering if in our neck of the woods we have more conservatism in the mix than might be the case in larger metro areas. My interest lies in more "genuine spirituality" for all, and I believe Conservative Friends have a lot to offer. I just read Wilmer Cooper's book "Growing Up Plain" which gives both an affectionate and cautionary look at the author's Ohio conservative quaker background.

    At any rate, your involvement with Conservative Friends along with vistits to Iowa YM by members of our meeting (as FWCC reps) has piqued my interest. I'm hoping to get there myself or visit a local meeting sometime in the not distant future.

    Take care,

    Craig said...

    Liz,

    I hear what you are saying. Like Rob I am a gay man. Being a woman, being gay, and/or being disabled is something we do not choose. With whom we fellowship(and yes, even the labels we use) is a choice.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with a Meeting that is theologically pluralistic. Indeed, my MM has quite the diversity. However, the overall "feel" of the Meeting is Christian.

    Two years ago, if someone had said I would be attending a "Christian Meeting", I would have said they were crazy. Now, I cannot imagine that I would feel comfortable any other place. For me, and this is just for me, it is comfortable to be in an environment where Jesus is central. This environment has aided my "healing" from the fundamentalism in which I was reared.

    I think that if my Meeting were a place where Christianity were debated or where Christians were constantly on the defense, I would not have been able to meet Jesus again. Perhaps that makes no sense. But if I am in a beautiful forest, I can see the trees, the birds, etc. If there is smoke, I cannot see them...I pay more attention to the smoke than to the beauty of the forest.

    My zeal for Conservative Quakerism is rooted in the fact that this group has embraced my partner and I. They have allowed us to grow spiritually at our own pace. They are patient when we question or falter. Most of all, they have helped take away the hatred for anything Christian and replaced it with a love for the Gentle Shepherd.

    Interestingly enough, I have found that Meetings which are less than Christ-centered have come to many of the same conclusions about life as those Meetings which are Christ-centered. It reminds me of something I recently read: "It isn't true because Jesus said it, Jesus said it because it is true."

    So, after all that rambling, it doesn't matter what "label" we use. It does matter that we can find community where we are comfortable and where we can grow spiritually. For me, labels help identify where my partner, my Jesus and myself are welcome.

    Liz Opp said...

    Thank you, everyone, for your comments. I continue to believe that wrestling with such topics, and getting to the underside of them, helps us grow, deepen, and strengthen our individual and corporate character.

    Rob writes: This gets to the heart of what identity means to me. Who is choosing what? Do we choose our faith? Or is something else at work here? And if the latter is true, why don't we celebrate it, rather than draw lines in the sand and forbidding each other's passage?

    Identity and its formation is complex and dynamic. I believe there is a core identity within me--maybe it is akin to the Light Within--that is constant but that I seldom am able to touch or maintain. I also believe that our identity is shaped by external factors, such as family, peer group, cohort, media, religious affiliation, &c.

    For me, my labels change as my awareness of that inner core identity and my externally shaped identity come "closer" to one another, in a variety of ways and sometimes depending on what oppression I might be experiencing--or learning about.

    My "timeline of identity shifts" might look like this:

    childhood to college: Jewish woman
    young adulthood: bisexual white woman
    30s-40s: Quaker; owning class; white

    To Dave, I want to say Hey! Thanks for dropping by! As for IYM(C), there is a "Midyear Meeting" each year in early spring, for fellowship and more workshop-oriented things. The 2006 IYM(C) Midyear Meeting will be April 9-10 (Fri & Sat), and Deborah Fisch will be the primary speaker. She is very grounded and a terrific storyteller: Her stories illuminate some very rich, hard-to-articulate principles and practices of Friends. Look at Iowa's website for more info.

    And Craig, I'm out of time! I have to re-read your comment and make a separate reply later.

    Blessings,
    Liz

    Dave Carl said...

    Thanks for the midyear info Liz. I'll definitely try to make it. I met Deborah at our last yearly (SCYM), where she led worship-sharing and a workshop I attended, and was wonderful in both.

    David

    Liz Opp said...

    Back to the comment from Craig: You sound like you have come full circle in your faith, and I have heard similar stories. In my case, parts of Scripture and the stories that are there have gained significance in my own journey, especially among Friends. And that has completely caught me off-guard, but in a good way.

    I wish also to comment on the "theological pluralism."

    For me, such pluralism in Quaker meeting has been spiritually hurtful to me. I am healing from that unintended hurt, which in turn has helped me affirm that yes, some meetings have the ministry of being accepting and welcoming to all varieties of belief and unbelief.

    For me, though, I have wanted firm boundaries about who Quakers are and who Quakers are not; about what Quakers practice and what Quakers do not practice; about how Quakers nurture ministry and gifts; about how Quakers respond to one another when a Friend experiences a crisis of faith; about how Quakers discern the way forward, together.

    This is not to say that a meeting that is theologically diverse is "wrong," as much as I am saying that I wish to caution us from the notion that "there is absolutely nothing wrong" with such diversity of belief.

    In this way, two truths must be allowed to coexist, and the two seekers must be able to stand together in the seeking and the finding. The theological pluralism of your meeting works for you; the theological pluralism of my meeting has not worked for me.

    I am not angry, nor do I feel defensive. I simply want to lift up the care of declaring absolutes in a faith that has many shades of gray.

    Blessings,
    Liz