March 7, 2006

Quaker preservatives?

In recent days, I've begun wondering what the difference is between preserving a thing and conserving a thing. Why do some Friends talk about "conserving Quaker tradition" but few Friends talk about "preserving" it?

I think of jams and preserves all jarred up on grocery store shelves in glass containers; and I thnk of someone who conserves energy by turning off unnecessary lights, biking instead of driving, or following the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle).

Maybe the first is an outward product, wonderful as it is, just sitting there waiting for a consumer, waiting for someone to discover its delight. Maybe the second is more of an inward lifestyle and attitude, something that others can observe and be influenced by; it is about keeping a thing alive and accessible.

Here are a few definitions, from

To maintain in safety from injury, peril, or harm; protect.
To keep in perfect or unaltered condition; maintain unchanged.
To keep or maintain intact.
To prepare (food) for future use, as by canning or salting.
To prevent (organic bodies) from decaying or spoiling.

To protect from loss or harm; preserve.
To use carefully or sparingly, avoiding waste.
To keep (a quantity) constant through physical or chemical reactions or evolutionary changes.
The two concepts are similar, as evidenced by the first definition of each, but in my thinking, I find I am making a few distinctions as related to Quakerism:

1. PRESERVATIVE QUAKERISM, hypothetically speaking: A Quaker set of disciplines, traditions, and beliefs that are captured, suspended, isolated, or practiced in such a way so as to prevent change in the way the faith is praticed or experienced.

I think of the Shakers. After all, the Shakers have a historical connection to Friends. Were they too committed to preserve their way of life, rather than working and practicing to conserve it?

2. CONSERVATIVE QUAKERISM: A Quaker set of disciplines, traditions, and beliefs that are adaptable as circumstances change and as leadings emerge; that promote mindfulness and disciplined action of how the faith is to be integrated, practiced, or, if deemed necessary, discarded.

While there is a genuine branch of Conservative Friends, can't the secular concept of conservation be applied to any branch of Friends or to individual meetings...?

It seems to me that a preservative form of Quakerism may allow us to study and replicate it, but it may die because of its rigidity ("keep in perfect or unaltered condition").

But a conservative form of Quakerism may live on, because the intention is not to preserve it unchanged until the end of time. Ours is to open ourselves to new Light in such a way that we ourselves are changed, that we can be responsive to the events of our day, and that Quakerism itself is not lost--To keep [it] constant through... evolutionary changes."



cherice said...


I was thinking about something similar this morning, about laws and customs being made for a purpose, and then being practiced beyond their usefulness because they become legalistic.

I like your definition of "conservative" here, which is to continue the essence of something without having to necessarily hang onto the form it's traditionally been practiced in. I think some traditional forms can be helpful: to know that people throughout the ages have found this helpful can allow us to enter in with confidence. But at the same time, to have to do something that way simply because that's how it's always been done isn't useful anymore. It's preserving ourselves in a little glass jar on the shelf, as you say--it's Quakerism becoming more associated with oatmeal than with living, active faith...

Martin Kelley said...

I'm reminded of a dear Friend at an old meeting of mine. Whenever someone asked why the Meeting did something the way it did her response was inevitably "well, that's the way we do it." Tradition can be a beautiful thing but only if its a living tradition that remembers its source.

earthfreak said...


I really appreciate this post! It sums up a number of things that have been buzzing around my thoughts lately.

I find it reassuring that conservative leaning folk are mulling this over.

I often feel as if I'm being excluded or dismissed as a non-christian, non-theist. I worry that this is happening (though I am aware that I may simply be experiencing my own sense of alienation more than anything that's happening externally) because people who are yearning for a deeper spiritual experience frame it in terms of traditional religion, rather than in true openness to the workings of the spirit.

Now, that is not to say that someone who is genuinely following the leadings of spirit wouldn't be led to something that excludes me (and others), but I hope and have faith that it is far less likely.

In any case, I do believe that this is an important distinction, and a pitfall that many in our community are currently called to navigate. Thank you.



Liz Opp said...

Cherice - I agree that some traditional forms can be helpful. I have been holding open the question of how the multigenerational nature of early and earlier Friends has impacted Quakerism... and how the huge number of convinced Friends in modern times has also impacted the faith. I very much want to write about those two things, but each time I start, I feel like I get caught up in the enormity of the topic and I simply stop pursuing it. For the time being.

Martin - "That's the way we do it." Sounds like a Jewish family I know! smile But again, for those Friends whose parents and grandparents grew up Quaker, it becomes that much harder for folks to articulate behaviors and attitudes that they have naturally internalized. This is why I sometimes consider Quakerism as a form of culture: it can be acquired and it can be learned.

Multigenerational Quakerism seems often to be acquired, and others can "acquire" the deeper nuances as well, when we "immerse" ourselves in a variety of Quaker contexts over time. But like any culture, those who acquire it can't always explain "why we do what we do."

But Quakerism can also be learned, studied, and taken up by others who are not born into the tradition. Those of us who learn it usually can explain it... but sometimes get the explanation--the historical root--wrong, and sometimes completely miss the deeper, more nuanced structures of the culture or faith.

At least, this would explain why it's taken me more than 10 years to understand more fully--but not entirely--the corporate nature of Quakerism, among other things.

Pam - I don't know about "conservative leaning folk mulling this over," but **I** am! I also want to say that as I've been reading through your blog and talking with you from time to time, I sense your deep faith and I think you'd have something to offer any Quaker group, in terms of how we talk about and frame what that spiritual Power or Presence is.

What you mirror for me in my own journey among Friends is that just because what you and I say might challenge Friends doesn't mean that Friends don't want us among them. But if we ask Friends to consider and reconsider what the Center of our shared faith is, and what behaviors and traditions emerge from that Center, we are bound to run into folks who interpret our question--our ministry--as being threatening, even if our intention is, in my case, to lift up the concern that we could be doing a better job at conveying our faith: what we do and why we do it and how all of that connects to Quakerism over 350 years.


Nancy A said...

I used to call it "museum quakerism" -- the way of thinking about ourselves as a sort of historic entity. Many churches do this too, especially about their buildings. Mustn't change anything! Even when it doesn't work anymore!

"Conserve" has two wonderful meanings: to reduce our use of in order to protect for the future (as in the environmental meaning), and to set aside and protect from deep change while still being useful (as in "conservation areas" -- do you have those in the States? park areas that are open to the public). I'm not sure how either of these meanings would apply to Quakerism, but they're darn good words.

Regrettably, "conservative" has little in common linguisically with its root word. It has come to mean "driving with the brakes on." Sometimes it's also a smoke screen for quick sneaky change. It comes with a certain sanctimoniousness that's kind of hard to swallow.

I think we gotta be careful about use of that word "conservative." In Canada, we used to have a party called the Progressive Conservative Party. People nicknamed it the Forward Backward Party because that's what the name means. More recently, they dropped the Progressive. Now they're just the Backward Party. (Sigh. They're in power now.)

Do we have Forward Backward Quakers?

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Nancy--

I'm caught off-guard by this particular remark: "I'm not sure how either of these meanings [for 'conserve'] would apply to Quakerism..."

In fact, I would say that my experience of Conservative Friends speaks closely to the two meanings you offer up. I am not ashamed to say that I find a "near sympathy" with that branch of Friends at this point in my Quakerism.

But perhaps the distinction needs to be made that the secular use of the word "conservative" has a different meaning from the Quaker word "conservative," as it relates to a particular branch of Friends.

I have heard this story from a lifelong Conservative Friend from Iowa:

Apparently the term "conservative" was attached to a group of Iowa Friends by revivalist Friends in the mid-to-late 1800s. Out of concern for keeping true to what they felt was how they were called to practice as Friends while revivalists were reshaping Quakerism in Iowa, as this subgroup of Friends walked out of Iowa Yearly Meeting sessions to form what would become IYM-Conservative, the remaining revivalist Friends (FUM Quakers now) commented to one another, "There go those conservative Friends..."

(I have written briefly about this story elsewhere.)

So I would say that the Friends in Iowa, and perhaps those in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative)--a few of whom I recently met--are more radical in putting their faith and principles into action.

These Friends are by no means going to be museum pieces, from what I have experienced!


P.S. By the way, at the 2005 annual sessions of IYM(C), this minute was approved:

As Friends, we believe in the Divine Light within each person, and we include the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals among us. State by state, the rights of these individuals are being eroded. We cannot bear to remain silent when fellow human beings are being used as scapegoats to divert people’s attention from our country’s ills. We wish to affirm that the life of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) has been enriched and strengthened by the spiritual gifts of all Friends, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We stand with people of faith across the United States against recent legislation that bans same gender marriages, partnerships and civil unions.

Not very "conservative" from a secular point of view!