July 24, 2009

FGC Gathering 2009: Ben Pink Dandelion

I suppose I'm not ready to write about the workshop I took, Quakers & Social Class, because I'm still integrating the experience to a significant degree. That is, I'm wrestling with doing so.

Opening night at the Gathering provides the traditional welcome to the 1,500 participants, and more often than not, I've been skipping that first night, since it's usually a preview of the week, a massive "roll call" of affiliated yearly and monthly meetings, and other things that I'm less interested in.

But this year, I was especially curious to hear two of the plenary speakers: British Friend Ben Pink Dandelion and American Methodist-born preacher-author Shane Claiborne, just because their names have been around the block and then some.

Ben Pink Dandelion spoke the second night; Shane Claiborne the next. Their styles and presentations were quite different.

Ben wore a dress shirt and slacks and spoke with a thick, upper-class British accent, Enunciating Every Consonant And Every Word Completely And Clearly. Shane wore baggy pants and a loose fitting shirt--maybe an undershirt or plain white cotton T-shirt, like what I might wear for doing housework, and his vernacular was clearly "from the South," as we Yankees in the States say. He strung sentences together in a flurry and laughed easily and raised his voice regularly to make his points.

Ben had his humorous moments, to be sure, but it was an "acceptable" humor that White, middle-class, and upper-class Americans could appreciate. Shane's humor was more visceral, more graphic, more let's-get-real, this-is-how-it-is girls-and-boys. I needed to take more deep breaths when I was listening to Shane than to Ben. Chalk it up to differences in social class. (See? It's everywhere.)

Both men called us to greater faithfulness and greater care to looking at what we possess and what we profess.

Below and (hopefully) in the next post are a number of quips, ideas, and stories I jotted down during the two plenaries. Too much time has passed between having heard each one and writing about it now, so I giving myself permission to type things into a list of what I noted, rather than formulating a cohesive blogpost.

By the way, FGC will likely have all the plenaries available in CD later in 2009, through its QuakerBooks. And some of what Ben covered is in this teeny tiny pamphlet of his, Celebrating the Quaker Way, as well as in his 2003 presentation, Convinced Quakerism.

Ben Pink Dandelion

After making a few opening remarks about his background and his name, Ben launched into sharing some of his own spiritual journey, traveling from a life of hedonism to one of faithfulness.

At one point early on in his remarks, he spoke about his sense of having lived "an accompanied life," a sentiment I can often relate to, that there is a Spirit, a Principle that accompanies me...

He spoke about how the desire for a faithful life leads to a more serious life, which in turn leads to a more joyful life, and one with more laughter.

Ben described what he sees as the six stages of convincement, much of which he's also delineated in Convinced Quakerism, pp. 11-12:

1. The breaking-in of God in our lives, allowing us direct and immediate access to the Divine.

2. The Light showing us how things really are, being "convicted of our sin."

3. Our understanding that there is a choice and a possibility for change.

4. Being given the power to live that life, to be transformed.

5. The pulling together of others (Friends) into a community.

6. Sharing with one another and with others what we have found.
Since I am a "process queen"--I love how we develop and move through stages of understanding, of personal and spiritual growth--I was eager to hear more from Ben about these six stages. Sadly, as Ben went spinning into historical quotations by Fox, Penington, and others, I no longer could track which quote was related to what stage. Perhaps I'll take a closer look at his pamphlet...

Some other things Ben spoke to:

The more we surrender, the more we are given.

Fox's experience was inward, not outward and not "inner." Fox's was an interiorized experience.

Early Friends had an intimate relationship with God. We seek a sort of replacement of our old self with God's power, coming through us...

Fox believed in original sin and that all of us can be saved. That is what is meant by "perfectability."

Formal membership in the Religious Society of Friends began in the 1730s as a way to record which Quaker meetings would offer up "poor relief" to Friends who were suffering because of their convictions.

Quakers historically refused to engage in the manners of the world in order to further God's purposes on Earth (plain dress, plain speech; no hat honor, no tithes, no pagan-named months and days; keeping fixed prices... "No eBay!" declared Ben).

Today, many of us and many of our meetings are in fact caught up in the manners of the world, without accountability to our monthly meetings about what is or isn't Quaker.

These days, modern Friends "opt in and out" of certain testimonies, such as saying, "I support the testimony of simplicity but I have trouble with the peace testimony." But in the early days, Friends' Books of Discipline pointed to life as Testimony.

Once convinced, the sense of transformation continued day after day, and every day and every place was seen as sacred.

At one point, Ben spoke directly to us:
    At this Gathering, we look like a luxuried people.
Ben offered a few queries, related to pulling us into community as part of the convincement experience:
How is community realized for us? How do we take the mountaintop experience into our life? How do we transcend the individualism of society?

Why are we always learning to "go elsewhere" and always going away via technology? Why talk about being a 21st Century Friend? Why separate ourselves from the past and the future?
Again, he spoke to us:
    We're not Friends because we're good. We need each other to help us along in our faithfulness and activism.
Defining Liberal Friends... and our creedal ways

Ben draws on John Wilhelm Rowntree and Rufus Jones to look at the characteristics of Liberal Quakers, and these are also explained in Convinced Quakerism, p. 3:
    1. Experience as primary, not Scripture.
    2. Faith is relevant to the age we are in.
    3. Friends are open to new Light.
    4. We know more of God in each age, therefore the new Light we are given has more authority than what came before.
Today as Liberal Friends, we're cautious about what place belief has in Quakerism.

We know we don't have a creed, but we have a credal attitude toward what we believe and how we are.

It is a powerful source of our identity, to have a doctrine of seeking. The tTruth is personal, or it is somehow apportioned to individuals.

Today's Quaker message [from Liberal Friends] is that we are certain that we are a little uncertain of our belief. An "absolute perhaps," if you will.

Total "finders" will be in tension with a group of Liberal Friends. Those Friends who have been eldered [sic: admonished] for certain ministry may in fact have been [admonished] for their certainty.

It may be the "absolute perhaps" that will allow us to transcend the schisms among Friends.

What binds us together
    1. Direct encounter of the Spirit.
    2. Meeting for Worship for Business.
    3. The priesthood of all believers.
    4. Our Testimony [I'm not sure if he meant our life as testimony or "the" testimonies, or something else].
A Young Adult Friend during another presentation or discussion elsewhere pointed out that there are a few other, less pleasant things that also bind us together as a religious society:
    1. Self-righteousness and pride.
    2. Superficial witness in the world.
    3. Ungrounded worship.
A few closing thoughts by Ben

Be careful: Quakerism is the vehicle of our life, not the object of our worship.

We need incarnational spirituality: Are we living in the Power, or are we just saying we are?

We need to be possessing while we are professing.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

In case that isn't enough to chew on, I hope to be sharing some of Shane's comments in the subsequent post.

As always, thanks for reading me.



Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

"Be careful: Quakerism is the vehicle of our life, not the object of our worship."

I don't know about you, but I could stand having those words tattooed on the insides of my eyelids...

Robin M. said...

Seeing that Ben Pink Dandelion and Shane Claiborne were both speaking was the one thing that made me regret a little bit that we weren't going to the FGC gathering this year.

BPD's six stages of convincement could be illustrated by my life.

"Those Friends who have been eldered [sic: admonished] for certain ministry may in fact have been [admonished] for their certainty." This I believe.

"It may be the "absolute perhaps" that will allow us to transcend the schisms among Friends." This I will have to think about.

Can't wait to hear your take on the Claiborne talk.

Robin M. said...

There are also differences in how we interpret class from different regions. It's my understanding that Shane Claiborne doesn't come from a working class background, despite how he might dress, but people often interpret anyone with a southern accent as being from a lower socio-economic class.

Anonymous said...

"There are also differences in how we interpret class from different regions."

Oh, yes, indeedy. I had to slow down my speech very considerably, drop English regional words and phrases, and make my (pretty ordinary) north-western English accent as neutral as I could in order to be understood when I lived in America. And I still kept being asked if I was Irish.

BPD has an ordinary, southern English-type educated middle class accent. It's not a thick accent, and it's not upper class, but I can understand that Americans generally don't have enough exposure to a range of English accents to detect that. I lived in the US for over a decade, and had real trouble distinguishing between accents beyond the obvious New York, Boston, north vs south, west coast vs east coast thing.

Martin Kelley said...

My mother grew up in the Pennsylvania coal region in a factory town in the middle of the Great Depression--does this established working class bone fides? She would be shocked if I went to a speaking engagement in a ratty t-shirt. She would see it as a sign of total disrespect. In my high school it was the rich kids who dressed the most casual--sloppiness is often its own form of entitlement. I assume Shane is doing his own form of plain dress. I myself will stick to my extravagant $20 dress shirts from Sears.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to the Shane Claiborne videos. I'd never heard of him, but he strikes me as someone of integrity and joy, and it's a pleasure to see him speak.

Something struck me while I was watching him: here in Britain, we're so used to American TV, films, and music being part of our mainstream culture that it's easy to relate to a speaker like him. When I moved to the US, it took a couple of years to learn how to pitch my humour to the people I knew from the east coast and west coast; the midwesterners seemed to be closer to the humour I grew up with, veering between slapstick and the more caustic, deadpan stuff. Over the years I discovered that Americans have different ways of presenting humour according to where they hail from, that regional humour had layers that people from other regions got or missed. British people are fond of claiming that Americans don't do irony, which is clearly wrong - you people gave us The Onion, for pity's sake. What they're really describing is being in America and the people around them not realising they were making jokes, or not understanding the jokes they made because they were just outside the cultural norm.

I can't speak for BPD, but if he was playing it safe as a speaker in the US, I wouldn't blame him. It took me ages to learn to telegraph my humour or that I wasn't offended in a way that the people around me understood, and to learn to recognise their signals. It was a big lesson in having my assumptions shaken, and it did me the world of good.

RichardM said...

"Those friends who have been admonished for their ministry may have been admonished for their certainty." My reaction to this quote is that this may very well be true in some meetings and if so is a sign that those meetings are in trouble. Such eldering strikes me as the intellect trying to tell the Spirit to shut up. Was the context of this quote that such eldering is somehow a good thing?

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for all the comments. It's nice to be back in touch this way again, though my reading of blogs remains on the burner that is behind all of those other back burners...

Cat -

A few Friends over the years have lifted up a similar caution in both the monthly meeting and the worship group I attend. It's often a good exercise for me to consider just what it is that I have placed at the Center--of my worship, of my life, etc.

Robin -

I too have been thinking about whether the "absolute perhaps" will allow Friends to transcend our schisms. I'm not so sure. I'm thinking that a greater Love will allow us to do that... That the deeper we each come to know and integrate that Love that surpasses understanding, the less divisive our differences will become.

As to how Shane presents himself, he had a number of stories about growing up in rural eastern Tennessee. At the same time, Martin's comment about "sloppiness" being a marker of higher social class rings true for me, too. It would be a very interesting experience, to have a 1-on-1 with Shane and hear more about who he is and how he was raised...

Karen -

Thanks for your comments about Ben's accent and the regional/national variety of accents that can make it a challenge for a listener who isn't accustomed to the regional/national accent. I hadn't considered that when I wrote about Ben's speech pattern.

I'm also glad you found the videos of Shane helpful. When I set up a link to a person or topic I'm not familiar with, I usually look at a few of the websites and strive to pick one that most closely reflects what it is I want the reader to "get." In Shane's case, I was hoping there'd be a more definitive (authoritative? autobibliographic?) website, but no such luck...

Martin -

I had a similar question/confusion about Shane: is it his take on plain dress? is he making a statement about simplicity? or does he believe he has so much privilege as a White man as well as a well-known author/speaker that he believes he can get away with dressing down?

Richard -

I know you continue to carry this concern about eldering and its use among modern Friends... It was my sense and my interpretation that what Ben was saying was that as modern Liberal Quakers become more secularized, we are attaching more value to the seeking and less value to the finding.

So when someone declares they have an Understanding, that something has been Given them or has come to them with a degree of certainty, there are times when the Friend is criticized for being too narrow or close-minded.

But I believe, from my own experience, that there are times when it is the body of Friends gathered who are to be counseled/encouraged/eldered to listen for the kernel (or fullness) of Truth in what they are hearing, rather than clamping down on someone who might be the Truthsayer among us.

Perhaps when the CD of the plenary is made available, you and I will purchase a copy and listen for the context out of which Ben speaks... smile

Thanks for writing, everyone!


Mark Wutka said...

Hi Liz,
Thanks for sharing your experiences from the Gathering. I am having some trouble with these two characteristics of Liberal Quakers:

3. Friends are open to new Light.
4. We know more of God in each age, therefore the new Light we are given has more authority than what came before.

Part of my difficulty is the capitalization of Light in reference to "new Light". Light is one of those words that is so overloaded with meaning that it invites the various meanings to be mingled. As I read #3, it seems to be treating the Light not as a source of revelation, but the revelation itself - it makes it sound like an idea. From my understanding, the Light is not new, but because it reveals things to us directly, we can come to new understandings.

In the 1660 declaration against war/sedition, Friends wrote "That the spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing, as evil, and again to move unto it. We certainly know and testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world."

It sounds to me like B.P.D. is suggesting otherwise, and that surprises me.

I am also troubled by the implication in #4 that because we live in a later time we somehow are better at listening to God than those in the past. This is especially dangerous in this age in which we are surrounded by noise and distractions.

The "more authority" thing to me is that because we rely on direct inspiration from God, those divine revelations have more authority than what was written down by those who came before us, as long as we are discerning rightly.

With love,

RichardM said...


Setting the issue of eldering aside I still think the attitude or practice described is a serious mistake. Sometimes we listen to the Spirit and it whispers and we can't be sure we've heard it correctly, but sometimes it is loud and clear and the only hard part is being obedient. Now this is not to say that every time someone THINKS that the Spirit has spoken to them loudly and clearly that it has. The community, whether in the person of elders or in other weighty Friends not explicitly recognized as such, needs to listen carefully and use discernment. If the individual Friend is wrong about what the Spirit is saying to them, the community needs to offer some gentle correction. What I am bothered by is the suggestion that every Friend who feels clear about what the Spirit has given them is wrong and should be counseled to pretend that they are unsure. Fox and the early Friends were not hesitant to express the truth that they were given.

I know you are sensitive to the way social class creeps into and distorts Quakerism. Isn't this a very clear instance of that? The upper social class in America does indeed look down its collective nose at anyone who speaks in tones of certainty. That is felt to be oh so primative and unsophisticated in those circles. It is this social snobbery that motivates the kind of eldering we are talking about here.

Linda said...

I'm so glad you posted this here- I should have made notes of the plenary and didn't, and you captured the parts of BPD's talk that I found moving.

With regards to Shane Claiborne's attire- he was asked about it in the question and answer session afterwards. He spoke a bit of how he and his mom get together every year to make the pants that he wears (he likes lots of pockets) and that he wears the same thing all the time so he doesn't have to think about what to wear. He also mentioned the "lilies of the field" verse as his grounding for this attitude. So I would say it's some version of plain dress to him, though he did not use this phrase to describe it.