March 16, 2005

Quakerism, from generation to generation

Over at Quaker Ranter, there are some comments about whether or not the tide is changing among Friends, if there is a slow renewal occurring within Quakerism.

One reader, James, makes this comment:

This is the problem a small faith community that doesn’t hedge itself well constantly [has] to face: that the religious milieu in its congregations/meetings depend on the cultural melieu of different generations of its members.
I've been coming to understand that Quakerism is passed onto younger people in a pattern similar to how Deaf culture and native sign language is transmitted across Deaf generations.

In my earlier professional life, I learned that about 90% of deaf children are born into non-deaf families. These deaf children, if they are to acquire and learn a natural, native sign language, if they are going to learn about Deaf culture, they will do so primarily by interacting with other deaf children, a few of whom will have been born to Deaf parents. In addition, deaf children will learn about their own identity secondarily through their teachers in school, many of whom are not deaf themselves.

Many contemporary Friends are convinced Friends and not born into or raised by Quaker families. We learn about our faith and the beliefs and practices therein from our peers or from others who are older than us but who likely are also convinced Friends. If we are exposed to Quakerism in only a limited way and through only a few individuals; if there is no reinforcement of Quaker values and principles by our family and by our wider societal structures (schools, community programs, etc.); and if Quaker meetings are inundated with young non-Quaker families because of strong First Day School programs that focus on interpersonal values and peacemaking, is it a wonder that Quakerism seems to lose its edge, lose its hedge, for long stretches at a time?

As a convinced Friend, I first was exposed to unprogrammed worship when I was in college, and I embraced it. It took me years to understand that there was much, much more to Quakerism than just meeting for worship. After graduating, I ended up moving to a completely different city and later got re-engaged with Friends, and even then it still took me a few years to attend my first Meeting for Worship for Business and to join my first committee. And despite the new involvement, I had yet to understand the concepts of corporate discernment or Gospel Order or waiting on the Spirit for guidance. None of my peers or spiritual friends at the time were talking with me about this stuff; and I have no recollection of anyone making the Quaker decision-making process more explicit at the time--which doesn't mean it didn't happen, just that I don't remember learning about it til much later.

My own grasp of certain Quaker principles--the centrality of the Divine, the reliance on corporate discernment, the significance of testing a leading--came first from individual Friends who had already done the same seeking (and finding) that I was then doing; and it came from serving on a certain committee at just the right time, when its clerk was the type who took advantage of "teachable moments," making transparent for me and for others just what we were doing as Friends and why we doing it the way we were. I was beginning to understand how the Quaker faith was put into Quaker practice.

One of the most significant periods of my Quaker journey was when I asked a woman who was about 40 years my senior if she would be an elder for me. But my request came before I knew that the word and concept of "elder" held for many at the time a sting of discomfort. The Friend I approached took a breath before answering and said, "Well... Just what do you mean by 'elder'? What would that look like?" I innocently replied that it would mean that the two of us would get together, maybe over lunch once a month, and trade stories about our experiences among Friends; that I had questions about my spiritual development and she seemed like someone I could turn to for support and spiritual nurturing.

We met monthly for lunch over the next four years.

I think early on in our get-togethers, she explained to me what her experience was around the word "elder," and we had a good laugh. My friend was there for me as an elder when I had questions about money and possessions; about relationships falling apart; about how things were evolving at meeting; about our shared experience at FGC's Gathering. Later, when I moved yet again, she and I would have long talks on the phone, and we'd run into each other at other Quaker events. In many ways, this Friend held Quaker doors open for me long enough for me to walk through them and into new Quaker territory that I could then explore on my own.

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

I've been reading Mary Pipher's book Another Country. The book is about navigating the generation gap between adult children and their aging parents. But tucked away in the early pages of the book is a description of how our parents and grandparents lived through most of the 20th century, where communal life was instrumental, and when it was perhaps closer to the ideal:
Margaret Mead defined an ideal community as one that has a place for every human gift. An ideal community would somehow keep the best of the old ways and add the best of the new. We would have a mixing of races, generations, and viewpoints... We'd have privacy and potluck dinners, freedom and civic responsibility. All the adults would take responsibility to help all the children. We would have connection without clannishness, accountability without autocratic control. The ideal community would support individual growth and development and foster loyalty and commitment to the common good.
I couldn't help but think of what Lloyd Lee Wilson, Sandra Cronk, Marty Grundy and others call covenant community, a place where our collective desire for knowing God and for a commitment to Right Relationship are the pillars of a faith community; where elders would help us conserve "the best of the old ways"; young adult Friends and younger Friends would help us "add the best of the new." We'd experience a balance of private seeking and corporate worship; we'd hold community-wide meals and share our food with those in need. We'd support one another in our well-tested individual leadings and engage in corporate witness in accordance to our beliefs.

These days, I yearn for a sustainable and vibrant Quakerism. I engage in more Quaker contexts as I explore what that means: I spend more time within my Quaker community. I communicate much more regularly with Quaker friends. I read more Quaker books. And I am passing the gift of eldership onto others so perhaps the thread will not be so easily lost between generations. There are wee Friends in the worship group I attend, and I make it a point to greet each of them and ask to share a hug hello or goodbye; there are those new to Friends who serve on committees that I clerk, and during our meetings, I look for teachable moments that I can lean into; and there are chance Opportunities here and there, where the Spirit puts me and another in the same place and the same time, and we meet in the Light of the moment and we leave the experience mutually made tender by one another.

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

UPDATE, 31 Third Month 2005
Here are additional posts related to sustaining or reviving Quakerism.

RW at The Contrarian Quaker: no longer active "A Concern for Resonance"
Rob at Consider the Lilies: no longer active "What Keeps Us Quaker"
Martin at Quaker Ranter: Uh-Oh: Beppe’s Doubts
Carol, a reader of Quaker Ranter: You Don’t Want to Be Ranters Anymore
Martin, again at Quaker Ranter: It's My Language Now: Thinking About Youth Ministry

UPDATE, 4 Eighth Month 2005
Scott at Quaker Renewal Forum. Look through the archives for any number of worthwhile topics. Here's one, for example: Quaker Culture or Quaker Faith - It's Time to Choose


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. :) It was helpful for me to read, as a very new and inexperienced Quaker with very little guidance. There isn't a meeting in my area for good hour or so, and I've been finding online Quakers extremely helpful to my somewhat lonely journey. :) I've added your RSS Feed to my Bloglines list, so I can continue to read.

Anonymous said...

Hello, thank you for this wonderful description of growing into Quakerism.

I too am convinced that there is a growing movement of Quaker renewal happening, across the United States at least, I wouldn't really know about elsewhere. As I grow in my own understanding of the depths of Quakerism and my participation in the wider Quaker world, I see this as a swing of the pendulum of history that seems to happen every hundred years or so in the Religious Society of Friends.

I think that because we (at least here in Pacific Yearly Meeting) have become largely a Society of convinced Friends, we have an opportunity to reconsider the best of the old and the best of the new. It is more possible for us to separate what are the traditions and testimonies of Quakerism from the traditions of our families.

However, we will have to be more explicit in our articulation of our faith for our young people and all newcomers. Since (in my Meeting) most of us did not grow up Quaker and those who did are largely unimpressed with the religious education they received, we will have to try to be very clear, if not hyper-conscious, about what we believe so that we can be clear as we teach it to others.

Thank you again for this writing. It comes at just the right time for me.

Robin Mohr

Anonymous said...

Nice job, Liz. I especially resonate with the jab at First Day Schools built around "interpersonal values & peacemaking" (rather than growing into those themes from a more solid religious foundation).

At least part of what you're putting your finger on is that Quakerism has for many modern Friends become an -ism, a set of vaguely religious beliefs but more importantly social values and practices.

What's missing is the sense of being part of a People, a tribe, in a living relationship with the Living God. (Can one "believe" in Judaism or "join" a synagog without "being" a Jew with all that entails?)

I think it's natural for newcomers to any group to relate to the group in terms of themselves rather than themselves in terms of the group. Children first see themselves at the center of reality (my parents exist to make me happy). But as they grow, they learn (absorb, really), that they are part of a much larger Family with a history and more members than they can count. Hearing stories of the ancestors teaches them that the Family existed before they did and gives them the terms with which to live more meaningful lives by placing them in a more comprehensive, cosmic narrative.

But this is a lifelong learning process. It's rare that anyone gets it immediately (though most converts think they do; what they really do is make their God [or church] into an image of themselves rather than the other way around). Rather, they (we) grow and mature into understanding that being part of a People requires as much a commitment from me to be faithful the People as it does from the People to be faithful to me.

So I find nothing alarming per se that new Friends relate to their meetings in the secular social and cultural terms they are familiar with. What's alarming is if they don't grow and mature as Friends and thereby be transformed into New People.

Liz Opp said...

Brandice, thanks for stopping by. Reading certainly has its place in our spiritual and Quaker journeys, but I hope Way will open for you to connect with more and more Friends face to face. Living among and worshipping with a faith community is very different from reading about doing so, as it sounds like you already know!

I might suggest that you check with QuakerFinder as it gets closer to August: I hear that FGC, which coordinates, manages, and updates QuakerFinder, is hoping to add a feature to allow isolated Friends to discover and connect with one another if they are geographically close.

Robin, you speak well to my condition, and I began writing so much in response that I decided to make my response a separate post.

And Paul: much of what you write speaks to me of covenant community. ...Why is it that you and I have had to wait til now to have these exchanges...? smile


Lynn Fitz-Hugh said...

Hi Liz: I know you wrote this a long time ago but I wish you would think about submitting it to FJ. I think that this struggle with how we transmitt or own culture is a very key struggle for Meeting right now. I think you shed some light on the issue.

Liz Opp said...

Lynn -

Nice to hear from you; I didn't see your comment awaiting moderation until more than 6 weeks after you submitted it--sorry!

I occasionally think about submitting this to Friends Journal, yes. I also think about creating a pamphlet or another self-published book like the previous one I did, dedicated just to posts I've written that I'd want to have made more readily accessible.

One of the things that stops me is the push-pull between pride and humility. Another thing, very current today in 2011, is my state's stance on marriage equality and my engagement in that particular struggle.

That aside, I appreciate the affirmation and will continue to test how I'm led to share these concerns about conveying our faith to one another.