March 23, 2023

The Quaker corporate community and technology

When I began serving on a large Quaker meeting's Ministry & Counsel Committee (M&C)--the meeting had three Meetings for Worship (MfW) a week--I had an inward sense that it was important to at least visit each of the other two that I had never participated in previously. After all, the committee served the whole meeting and not just the Friends who attended the largest worship. In addition, it seemed odd to me that occasionally during Meetings for Worship for Business, some Friends would speak about what occurred at "the 8:30 worship," at the "midweek worship", or at "the 11:00 worship." Each subgroup of Friends seemed to be experiencing something different, despite being all part of the larger Meeting.

Granted, I had enough flexibility in my life to attend more than one MfW a week, and my visits to the "other" meetings helped me know experientially what it meant to be part of one body. My life, committee service, worship, and f/Friendships were enriched unexpectedly, because of all the additional Friends known to me back then who were actively seeking Truth and striving to be faithful to the Guide. They simply did so at different times on First Day and during the week. Had I stayed only at the worship where I was most comfortable and what was most convenient to me individually, I would never have appreciated the other parts of the body that were just as indispensable as the one I had been attending.


I raise this story because recently I read several articles and comments within the March 2023 online edition of Friends Journal, focused on the impact of the first 2-3 years of the Covid-19 pandemic. There were expressions of deep loneliness and of gratitude, seemingly caused by the technology that arose out of a need to "keep our meetings" and to stay connected to our social networks when so much else around us was on short- or long-term lockdown. For some of us, the screens brought greater emotional distance; for others of us, they brought us together in unexpected ways.

Many of the writings seem to propose one of two paths forward as the Covid-19 pandemic evolves to becoming endemic, each of the two main proposals being on opposite sides of the coin:

    Continuing to use video conferencing technology* helps us, therefore continue the use of online and hybrid meetings


    Continuing to use video conferencing hurts us, therefore discontinue hybrid meetings and restore only in-person meetings.
What we lose sight of, though, in the debates of hybrid worship vs in-person only; to mask or not to mask is that we are still part of one larger body, regardless. It is a form of spiritual violence to hold disdain toward someone who yearns to belong and to be in deep community with others and then to press them to conform, change, or go away. It is a form of spiritual generosity, on the other hand, to express care for someone who yearns to belong and then welcome them into deep community with us. This is one part of acting as if we truly are indispensable to one another:

As a corporate body, gathered by the Shepherd,
    we have to become willing

    to be willing

    to change the culture of our worship community

    in order to be wholely inclusive.

But more directly as a result of this particular issue of Friends Journal, I found myself wondering about how earlier technology may have impacted the peculiar people called Friends; and how did Friends stay in community... or did they? I draw on these questions because one principle of Quakerism is that there is Truth based on direct experience, as well as Truth written into sacred texts. Is there something that we can learn and test from other eras of Quakerism?


My thoughts quickly turn to the printing press, which made the Bible more widely available to many in Europe, especially to those in the middle class; and Quakers began publishing their thoughts as tracts and pamphlets. In the back of my mind, though, I wondered about illiterate Friends and seekers who might have been attracted to the faith:

If ministry and testimony weren't accessible by the written or printed word, wouldn't worshipers and traveling ministers rely more heavily on recounting what they knew from their own direct experience of the Divine, in addition to what they remembered having heard? Did those early Quakers have conflict about whether the printed word -- being able to read and write -- was supremely valuable in helping Friends feel "nearer to Thee"? Further, did wealthier, better educated Friends like George Fox and Margaret Fell extend any sort of welcome intentionally to illiterate seekers?

It's a wonder I've had for a while. I'm not a historian, so these questions just float in my brain as I seek to connect the dots and learn from the past. And of course I count on other Friends whose gifts and knowledge include sharing Quaker history and related tidbits.


I want to stop and also consider the automobile and its impact on Quakers. I imagine that having mobility among at least some of its members--those who could afford a car as well as its maintenance--may have changed the nature of the worship community. Wouldn't access to a car mean access and opportunity to attend meetings a bit farther than a few hours walk or buggy ride? Did cars begin to fracture meetings as a result? Or did meetings expand because more Friends were able to participate on First Days and even visit among one another during the week?

Did increased convenience interfere with or aid in preparing heart and mind for worship? Did cars intrude on an individual's or household's sense of simplicity, given the need for maintenance and gasoline? For my rural midwestern yearly meeting in the U.S., I imagine that families had much discussion, discernment, and tension around whether to support growing children who might wish to leave the farm for higher education or for better work opportunities, now that they could with relative ease.


I had a dear older Quaker friend who had been asked to co-clerk a large committee in the late 1990s for a North American Quaker organization. She cautiously accepted, making it clear that she had no intention of communicating by email for committee work, despite how convenient and widespread email had become by then. Apparently there was much frustration expressed by others on the committee and by some personnel on staff, but my friend held her ground. The committee got its work done very effectively, as far as I know, with thanks to phone calls, letters, and the occasional face-to-face meeting.

My friend's experience became a lesson for me on how to stay connected, especially when serving our meetings, when not everyone has the same access to or comfort with the technology that is available. I've clerked a handful of committees for my yearly meeting and monthly meeting, as well as other ad hoc groups, being mindful of when a Friend is dyslexic, can't afford a computer, or is neurodivergent. It remains important to me to demonstrate "equal concern for one another," and so I spend a few extra minutes in preparing for a committee meeting with a variety of accessibility needs, like making calls ahead of time in addition to sending emails.

I'm also thinking about vocal ministry that has arisen in my rural yearly meeting, and ministry that I have been witness to from Friends who were raised on farms or who have done manual labor. Some of those messages have centered on metaphors of farming or of the trades, like the importance of measuring a piece of wood based on an initial "master" piece, in order to make other pieces the same length--and needing to go back to the orginal piece, the master piece, from time to time instead of relying on the secondary pieces... being certain we are listening for the Truth and not for some substitute of it.

My yearly meeting's culture is such that these messages ground us in some ways that more abstract messages cannot. And yet, I more often hear messages that allude to the value of college degrees or white collar work, or how our intention of being welcoming or inclusive comes across as being paternalistic rather than out of a reciprocal relationship. I struggle to put my finger on what doesn't sit well with me...

My yearly meeting's culture includes some oral history and personal experiences of how Friends have dreaded the idea of not being in unity when the tension at a Meeting for Worship for Business is terribly thick and palpable. ("dread" is the word I am using). The struggle to keep all of us in the Fold despite different beliefs and differing values seems to touch all of us eventually. And that includes moments when we ourselves may feel that we do belong, as well as moments when we may feel that we don't.


Although I am not steeped in Scripture, and I don't identify as a Christian Quaker, I have known experimentally the discipline required to live into what Corinthians 12:22-26 requires of us:

    ...those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.

    But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.

    If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.


*My yearly meeting has a practice that we not name specific corporations, businesses, or brands, lest Friends be misunderstood as somehow supporting a particular company.

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