August 25, 2010

Why I am still a Quaker

a. Why are you a Quaker?
b. How are you a Quaker?
c. Please give an example of how a Meeting for Worship is conducted in your tradition.

These are three questions that a friend of Wess' asks and for which she seeks answers from a wide variety of Quakers. My answers are below, and I acknowledge that I skimmed a few earlier posts I've written, believing I had covered some of these topics... and curious to know what, if anything, still holds true.

a. Why am I a Quaker?

When I am asked to consider this question, I often think of when I was in elementary school, and some classmates of mine would ask me things like, "Be honest! Do you like my new dress?" ...or "Tell me the truth: Am I your best friend?"

I don't know why, but I was never taught to tell even a white lie, so when I discovered a people of faith who--as human and as flawed as we all are--do their best to be honest in all their affairs, well, I was relieved to learn that I wasn't the only person in the whole world who believed it was more important to be honest than it was to be liked.

There are other reasons why I'm a Quaker, like this one:

    Doing something that feels right, even if no one else around me is doing it, is more important to me than doing what my peers--or my mother!--want me to do.  
    I yearn to be faithful to the leadings I am given.
Or this one:
    I believe that all of us have more potential and magnificence in ourselves than we ourselves believe. We just don't always know how to help one another get there. A lot of times, only God can do that.  
    We can help one another live up to our measure of the Light. And if we can't, then the Light itself can.
But perhaps a more important question for long-time Friends to answer with one another is this:

Even after a number of painful experiences and disillusionments, why am I still a Quaker?

After each painful experience, I certainly reassess if I am to remain among Friends or not! But I believe I have remained among Friends because I have reached outside of my monthly meeting when I have been hurt or disillusioned by something that's happened--I've reached out to other Quakers to hear me out, give me counsel, and hear a bit about how they themselves "came out the other side."

I'm still a Quaker simply because I have chosen to stay--to stay in worship, to stay engaged with the pain until God shows me the way through, to stay involved in the life of the meeting that exists outside of the painful incident.

And I'm still a Quaker because so much of Quakerism brings me emotional and spiritual fulfillment.

b. How are you a Quaker?

This question reminds me of the query, If you were accused of being a Quaker, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

I hope my life as a Friend reflects the practice of living according to how we are led by the Spirit; that I live from a place of Love in my life, even and especially through conflict; that I fall into worship when I have large and small decisions to make; that I seek out others when I am not clear of the way forward; that I place God at the center of my days, of my worship, of my faith.

There are certain Quaker practices and traditions I engage in, like (most recently) intervisitation among Friends, along with seeking and receiving eldership from seasoned Friends.

Most important, I am a Quaker because I place myself in Quaker contexts--not exclusively, but primarily: be it with other Quakers for socialization; or reviewing Quaker writings for inspiration and guidance; or engaging in corporate worship, even on a sometimes irregular basis.

But as I read over what I've already offered, I find myself returning to this:

I am Quaker because of how I open myself to listen for and follow God's guidance. The "how" is based on 350 years of practice by my Quaker predecessors.

c. An example of how a Meeting for Worship is conducted in your tradition.

In recent years, in addition to worshiping with Liberal Friends, I have had the opportunity to worship with Conservative Friends in the U.S., mostly during their yearly meetings. As a result, I have learned to talk about how both Conservative and Liberal Friends worship in the unprogrammed tradition. I worry that there's a misconception that Conservative Friends are more fundamentalist in theology than Liberal Friends (more fundamentalist, not entirely; a bit more Christocentric, yes) and therefore there's the misconception that Conservative Friends have programmed or highly structured worship with a pastor of some sort (they don't).

From the outside looking in, Meetings for Worship have looked the same in these two U.S. branches* of Friends: people gather in a meetingroom that has chairs roughly in a circle, or in concentric circles, and quietly take it upon themselves to "center down"--with no outward direction by a person or a chime.

"Centering down" is not a phrase I often use, but what I mean by it is that the worshipers begin to get less fidgety; their mind-racing usually slows down; maybe their breathing even deepens or becomes more intentional for a time. If we could get a glimpse into the most invisible workings of these worshipers, we might understand that their hearts, souls, and minds all turn away from the rush of the outside world and turn toward the Light.

Ideally, we become entrained to one another and to the Living Presence that has been awaiting us.

Among a group of Friends who know one another very well, I have found this shared or corporate centering to be nearly palpable and somewhat invigorating, and I feel like we are all leaning forward, spiritually, as if someone is whispering something to us and we strive to hear...

And when in fact a worshiper confirms for herself or himself, in a wordless, internal discernment process, that she or he has heard God's message, that person speaks out of the silence, being mindful of staying close to the message that was given and keeping away from, as much as possible, the temptation to change the message, lest it be made "nice" if it's a challenge to the community, or lest it become needlessly "polished" if there are parts that seem uneven.

For about an hour, unless someone has specifically convened an "extended" Meeting for Worship, the worship continues in this manner, mostly worshiping in a cohesive and active silence (ie. corporate worship), with perhaps one or more spoken messages adding to the experience--that is, ideally, deepening the stillness in which we listen for the Loving Principle that many Friends call God or Christ or the Inner Light.

At the close of the hour, Friends shake hands and quietly greet one another. A number of monthly meetings then move into an added bit of time to share of their experience--either what they experienced during the worship itself, the sense of the Spirit among them; or about thoughts and reflections that emerged for them in the worship but "didn't rise to the level of vocal ministry" in their own hearts and minds. Some meetings share prayer requests during this time or share news of how the Spirit and Truth has been moving among them during the previous week. Usually then there is a time for announcements, fellowship, and maybe a bit to eat.

A final reflection

Putting words to the experience of Meeting for Worship is a difficult task, because there is a qualitative difference between the words I use (and you read) and the experience of worship itself. It's like searching for words to describe the water that one might swim in, as compared to swimming in the water itself.


*Because of my service on the Central Committee of Friends General Conference, I know not to call FGC a "branch." There are FUM Friends, Conservative Friends, Liberal Friends, and even friends of Friends who participate in programs or otherwise use the services that FGC offers. But because of how FGC talks about affiliation and constituent meetings, there remains a persistent misconception that meetings in the U.S. or Canada might be "FGC meetings." Not so: Monthly meetings belong to a yearly meeting, which typically has its roots of one branch of Quakerism or another; and monthly meetings are accountable to their yearly meeting (and vice versa), not to FGC.

Ten Reasons Why I'm Quaker
I Should Have Known I Was a Quaker


Anonymous said...

If I were accused of being a Quaker, would there be enough evidence to convict me? There wouldn't even be enough evidence to take the case to trial, I'm afraid. I'm beginning to believe God has some non-Quakerly purpose for me; one of those hard-hearted examples He makes...

Isabel Penraeth said...

Thee said: "Because of my service on the Central Committee of Friends General Conference, I know not to call FGC a "branch."

It depends upon how thee counts thy branches which, as much everything is, appears to be a matter for debate:

The delineation as described at QuakerInfo is the one I use in my understanding of the branches.

ben said...

yep, yer a quaker allright. The experience of quiet meeting has made you want to publish and talk about it all incredibly important.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

I appreciate Liz's point that FGC is not a "branch" of Friends.

The quakerinfo link that Isabel referenced is interesting, but I think that quakerinfo would do well to re-think the whole idea of saying Quakerism is divided into branches. What "branch" would I be part of? My meeting is an unprogrammed meeting consisting mostly liberal Friends (itself a wide category) but also including some Friends with distinctly orthodox or conservative theologies. My meeting is part of New York Yearly Meeting, which is affiliated with both FUM and FGC. A number of individuals in the Meeting, including me, feel strongly drawn to at least some aspects of Conservative Quakerism a la Ohio YM Conservative or Iowa YM Conservative.

To me, the wider Quaker bodies such as FUM and FGC are just affiliations, not "branches". I also resist the tendency among some Friends to refer to any difference of theological conviction as a "split", notwithstanding that those who thus differ may be closely united - not split apart - in Spirit.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

I want to add to my previous comment that while Friends are not neatly divided into distinct "branches", I acknowledge that there are lots of different Quaker visions and Quaker practices: among various Yearly Meetings, among local meetings within any given yearly meeting, and even among Friends in a given local meeting. Instead of speaking of "branches" I sometimes say that Friends come in several "flavors".

Mixing these flavors can sometimes be a good thing and sometimes not so much. I'm not a fan of diversity for its own sake, but I think the "flavors" metaphor gives a more accurate picture of what I actually see (or taste) among Friends than the "branches" metaphor does.

Liz Opp said...

Anonymous -

Granted, I am not in your shoes, but I have a nudge to encourage you to be gentle with yourself: God calls us to go where we are needed. I support you in your faithfulness, hard as it may be, especially if you are "wanting to want to be Quaker."

Hope that makes sense.

Isabel -

Nice to see you here! Thanks for pointing me and others to the Quaker Info site. Their description of what FGC does is accurate, but even FGC's Minute of Purpose (currently) addresses all of the RSoF:

"Friends General Conference, with Divine guidance, nurtures the spiritual vitality of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) by providing programs and services for Friends, meetings, and seekers." (emphasis mine)

Also, there are at least two Conservative Friends who work for FGC. I don't know if the other branches that have offices--FUM and EFI--would seek Friends from other branches to work there...

And yes, I'll admit that FGC has done a poor job of carving out and making visible a solid identity for itself, making it clear that it doesn't see itself as a branch within the RSoF. Hence the confusion. *sigh*

Ben -

I am sitting with how or whether to respond.

Rich -

I understand your question about where monthly meetings "fit" when the theology of each of its members are part of the wide continuum of belief within the RSoF--but I would say, there is a difference between the individuals who worship there and the corporate sense of the meeting itself.

And one of the important distinctions I'm aware of between FUM and FGC is that FUM sets policy for its constituent meetings ("affiliates," if you will), such as the "no non-celibate gays for hire" policy or the recent reaffirmation of the Richmond Declaration as that body's expression of faith.

FGC has gone so far as to include language in at least one of its (rare) epistles that makes explicit its limited reach over affiliated meetings:

"...Friends General Conference is not a denominational body. The Central Committee of FGC may speak to but not for its affiliated meetings...."

My apologies for going on, Rich. If there is an opportunity for you (or Isabel, or others!) to attend a meeting of FGC's Central Committee--not its summer Gathering--I believe the experience will speak for itself, as it did for me back then.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Liz, I hear your statement that FGC is not a branch of Friends, but the more I think about it, the more I disagree.

FGC began as the conference uniting the Hicksite yearly meetings, and although it is almost entirely Beanite nowadays, it is still the umbrella organization tying together a body of people whose collective history has made them sharply different from most FUM Friends, from EFI Friends, from Holiness Friends, and from most Conservative Friends. When people say “FGC Quakers” we know immediately that it is this body of people who are being referred to.

Sure, there are some people who participate in FGC Gatherings, or who work on the FGC staff, who are not Quakers at all, but that does not mean that there is no such thing as an FGC branch of Quakerism with its own distinct character — any more than the fact that there are Pakistani taxi drivers in New York City proves that there is no such thing as a distinctive New York cultural style. Anyone who doubts that there is a distinctive New York style should watch a few Woody Allen movies.

In point of fact, the Baptists have a set-up quite comparable to FGC. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, is free to lay down dicta declaring (for example) that the Bible is totally inerrant and evolution is a lie, but individual congregations affiliated with the SBC are free to disagree on grounds of conscience, and some of them do. And so the SBC, too, just like FGC, “may speak to but not for its affiliated meetings”. And yet we all know that the SBC is a denomination.

Let me speak plainly. In my observation, it is very common for religious liberals to deny the differences between themselves and others — and, even as they do so, to pressure others into giving up their own non-liberal distinctives and become as liberal and culturally ungrounded as themselves. “We are all worshiping the same God,” they say as they gather at interreligious festivals; and “isn’t that right?” they add meaningfully, looking at Buddhists whose religious heritage teaches them not to worship any god at all. FGC’s efforts to deny its own distinctiveness, even as its members pressure culturally right-wing Friends to become liberals like themselves, are a clear example of this same phenomenon.

This, however, does not mean that liberals do not have distinctives of their own, that make them recognizably such, or that FGC Quakers do not have such distinctives. It only means that most liberals, and most FGC Quakers, find it inconvenient to admit the existence of such distinctives. Witness the inability of most FGC Quakers to speak freely of the forces that discourage American blacks from joining their meetings —

Conservatives tend to be clearer about such distinctives, because their own distinctives are precisely what they are committed to conserve.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I tire of words and talk of concepts. What is the heart of what was said? What is the spirit?

Paul L said...

Whether FGC is a "branch" of Quakerism may depend on the metaphor you're working from. A branch of a tree is connected to the tree trunk and roots but grows outwardly separately, building from the newer parts, adding to its own distinct identity. (Think Goeffry Kaiser's wonderful graphic poster of the Quaker tree.) Its unity with the tree is in the past, though it certainly depends on the trunk and roots for its vitality and continued viability. Common roots; unique future. But trees eventually die.

But a branch of a river starts in a unique place upstream and joins ever-growing streams until it becomes merged into a river. It's unity with the river is in the future. Sometimes, what starts as a branch of a river becomes the mainstream into which all other branches flow. Unique source; common future. But rivers only seem to grow bigger and stronger (at least until they merge into the ocean).

My observation is that FGC is, or at least represents, a branch in both senses. As a branch of the Quaker tree, growing away from the roots and trunk into more and more its own thing.

On the other hand, I also see it as representing a branch of a river that is flowing downhill to join some larger stream into which it will merge and (eventually) lose its unique identity.

Neither is particularly comforting to me, I must say.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for the continued thoughtful comments...

Ben -

I look very intentionally at the title of this blog when I respond to comments that challenge me or that I find potentially harmful. I ask all readers and commenters to do the same and I'll continue to remove comments that I feel are destructive to the community-building that The Good Raised Up has been engaged in over the years.

Marshall -

We may be splitting hairs about the origin of Friends General Conference... My own understanding is similar to what is described as a coming together of several smaller conferences and gatherings--yes, gatherings of Liberal Friends.

I often wonder about who has the ultimate right to declare what is or isn't the identity of a person or group: the person (or group), or others who know the person (or group)? Or others even further removed who believe they know the person or group, based on what others have told them?

Since FGC administrators and staff have declared more than once that FGC isn't a branch of Quakerism, it's an organization that serves primarily unprogrammed Liberal Friends in Canada and the U.S., I'm likely to give FGC the benefit of the doubt.

That said, I think that having affiliation through yearly meetings--and with a few directly affiliated monthly meetings--harms FGC's image of not of being a branch.

Anonymous -

I've been holding your remark as a piece of ministry, emerging out of worship.

Do you know about the online worship that is available...? Quaker blogs are certainly not a place to go for verbal tranquility.

Paul L -

Thanks for these two metaphors. I like how you relate each to the sense of time and connectedness, be it in the past (tree's roots and trunk) or in the future (creeks to streams to rivers to ocean).

When I wanted to create a visual image to represent FGC's history (see above link I offer in my reply to Marshall), I actually used the river metaphor in just the way you described: each separate, smaller conference was a creek that eventually joined with a larger stream, which was called FGC in 1900.

Nice to hear from all of you; thanks for the food for thought.