I have been involved with Conservative Friends, sometimes more and sometimes less, for 50 years.  Many times I have pondered what it would take to revitalize our faith and faith-community, and make them more responsive to Christ.  Several attempts have been made to nurture renewal, and most of them have failed.  The continuing decline of Conservative Friends seems to outstrip these various efforts to foster renewal.

 Failure is discouraging, but it can also teach us lessons if we are willing to learn.  Snoopy once observed that “we have met the enemy and he is us.”  Smug self-satisfaction and a “business as usual” attitude are among the greatest obstacles to renewal among Conservative Friends, in my experience.  But failure and dissatisfaction can help us to overcome our own inertia and resistance to change, if we will allow them to.

 Wisdom From a “Rocket Scientist”

 Albert Einstein once ventured a definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”  We should consider whether he was “speaking to our condition.”  How Conservative Friends lost numbers and spiritual vitality is really not a mystery.  Our faith-community has deteriorated because of some very specific circumstances, quite apart from those that affect all religious groups in our society.  Let me cite a few of these problems: lack of effective ministry and structures to nurture it, failure to understand and transmit the Christian basis of our faith, “ritual flattening” of Conservative worship and the lack of sustained evangelistic outreach.

I know that it will seem like bitter medicine, but let’s also acknowledge that Conservative Friends have borne a heavy burden of institutionalism.  The preoccupation with operating institutions has sapped Friends’ energy, attention and other scarce resources.  One consequence has been the neglect of local meetings as the basic building blocks of Conservative Quakerism.  A prominent Friend once told me that OYM folks were “bored” with their local meetings.  We should not be surprised!  Local meetings are exciting and interesting ONLY if we have a vision for them, and if we INVEST our time and spiritual gifts in their corporate faith and life.

 It is all too easy to criticize and complain about what others have and haven’t done.  More difficult is the task of putting together a program for renewal, and implementing it.  I do not pretend to have all of the answers, BUT I do think I can envision a few goals we need to strive for.

Looking Toward Renewal  

Rick Warren wrote The Purpose-Driven Church, a book some of us read several years ago.  I think we missed one of his most basic points.  According to Warren, a healthy church is one that tries to be balanced, rather than being lopsided.  He went on to identify five facets of church life where balance is needed.  These included worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry to those in need, and evangelism.  Most of our meetings do not achieve much balance.  We have meetings for worship and business, and the occasional potluck, and that’s about it.  The few meetings that really seem to be vital and growing are those that go beyond this “bare bones” format and emphasize spiritual nurture, fellowship and evangelism.

With our limited resources, achieving the kind of balance Rick Warren has in mind is probably too ambitious a goal for many of our meetings.  On the other hand, taking the first few steps in this direction is something even very small meetings could do.  Planning a “brown bag lunch” after meeting, with a previously distributed article as a basis of discussion, should be feasible for even the smallest meeting.  This would foster spiritual sharing and focused but informal fellowship, which are elements of a healthy meeting.

Bible study is another step virtually any meeting can take.  There are plenty of written resources to draw from.  And there is no reason why a meeting could not ask someone from a neighboring fellowship to help in getting the process started.  In a Christian meeting, Bible study nurtures ministry.  Without it, ministry will tend to be shallow and unedifying.   I know from experience that weekly group Bible study can overburden those involved.  Instead of abandoning the idea, however, I would propose biweekly, or even monthly, study sessions.  A good understanding of the Bible will go a long way toward nurturing ministry in our meetings.

There is nothing like gathering occasionally in each other’s homes to build fellowship in a local meeting.  The format need not be anything in particular.  Gathering for a social or to celebrate a special event or holiday is a good way to share together, and it builds a sense of community.

We also need to reverse the “ritual flattening” of Conservative Quaker worship.  This would mean examining again the rich ritual life of Conservative Friends in the past and rediscovering elements from our tradition which would infuse new life into our worship.  I have nearly completed a paper on this topic after seventeen years of work.  When it is published, it should stimulate plenty of discussion if we are honest in facing our present situation.

Efforts have been made over the years to revitalize evangelism among Conservative Friends.  Unfortunately, this effort has been intermittent and only partially effective.  All too readily, we retreat to insularity and isolation from the world’s glaring need for the Gospel.  Evangelistic opportunities right at the doorstep of our meetings are too easily ignored.

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William, your experience you describe is unlike what I've observed at a liberal Quaker meeting, where the culture is to continue listening to a Friend who has a different opinion - even for many years if needed, before the Spirit moves all to unite in the Light.

Disfellowshipping a Friend is the easy, dark, unkind, unbeneficial way to handle such a situation. It always leaves scars for the meeting.

For example, the liberal Quaker meeting I attend listened for five years to a persistent Friend about a matter she was led to bring to the meeting's attention; a matter that the meeting didn't want to change because most (if not all) saw it differently. At times Friends got frustrated, but the meeting always manifested patience and love - even correcting any who acted unloving to the Friend who stuck to her leading. The final result after 5 years was a grasping of the spiritual basis for this Friend's leading, and the entire meeting became united in her leading and embraced it joyfully and gratefully.

I would venture that only a Quaker meeting that minimizes the use of forms (procedures, doctrines, human leadership, etc.) in favor of the fruits of the Spirit which demonstrate Love (no matter who displays them) would be in a collective state of heart and mind to forego such a thing as disfellowshipping. Because, if the Spirit (Christ, if you prefer) is truly our guide, he/she will bring us the right one to manifest his/her guidance, and the meeting should always be open to that guidance based on the fruits of the spirit (Love) - no matter who offers it  and no matter how uncomfortable it is to our egos at first.

Hello again, Howard!  Disfellowshipping is a formal procedure, traditionally called "disownment" but nowadays in our politically correct world rebranded as "releasing" the "offender(s)" involved.

It would be nice if liberal Friends were not guilty of "releasing" unrepentant troublemakers.  Unfortunately, liberals can do the same thing without using formal procedures.  Dissidents are often "frozen" out if they do not conform!  That this does not always happen is good news!

Friends have a hard time dealing with disunity in their ranks, and they have a harder time admitting that they are frequently unsuccessful in resolving ingroup conflict.  Before a group can deal with casting out dissidents, they must admit that they do this.

And dissidents may often deserve to be cast out.

I know of a meeting in XXX where a minority was frozen out for singing hymns at the end of the meeting for worship.  When they persisted in singing at the "rise of meeting" despite criticism, they became persona non grata!  And this was a liberal meeting.

Thanks William. I have heard of what you speak of.  It is sad.

Thanks.

Howard, I think you would be above such stuff!

"The evidence suggests that Friends need the counsel of one another to implement their commitment to Christ."

William,

I appreciate your affirmation that you and other Friends "need the counsel of one another to implement their commitment to Christ." I suggest to you that the evidence not only shows that there are Friends who need the counsel or reflected content of others, but that there are Friends who, through the continuous presence of Christ in there conscience, are drawn out of the need for reflected content to govern and rule human relations.

There is a long historical record within the Friends gathering, of those of us who are drawn out of participation in and identification with the reflective process to guide and inform our relationships and interactions. We are come into the sufficency of the immanent, unreflected, and continuous life of Christ itself in itself as our sole guide in matters of human relations.

The immanent presence of Christ in my consciousness and conscience is discovered to me a different way than the way of human relations being guided and informed through the agency or reflections of others. I do not deny or oppose the way of reflected forms gleaned through the reflective process, I am drawn out of that way through the everliving, immanent presence of God.

Thank you for this good conversation. It has deepened my awareness of the power of immanent Life itself in my consciousness and conscience.

Keith Saylor said:

"The evidence suggests that Friends need the counsel of one another to implement their commitment to Christ."

William,

I appreciate your affirmation that you and other Friends "need the counsel of one another to implement their commitment to Christ." I suggest to you that the evidence not only shows that there are Friends who need the counsel or reflected content of others, but that there are Friends who, through the continuous presence of Christ in there conscience, are drawn out of the need for reflected content to govern and rule human relations.

There is a long historical record within the Friends gathering, of those of us who are drawn out of participation in and identification with the reflective process to guide and inform our relationships and interactions. We are come into the sufficency of the immanent, unreflected, and continuous life of Christ itself in itself as our sole guide in matters of human relations.

The immanent presence of Christ in my consciousness and conscience is discovered to me a different way than the way of human relations being guided and informed through the agency or reflections of others. I do not deny or oppose the way of reflected forms gleaned through the reflective process, I am drawn out of that way through the everliving, immanent presence of God.

Thank you for this good conversation. It has deepened my awareness of the power of immanent Life itself in my consciousness and conscience.

Keith:  Thanks for your contributions to the dialogue!

William, I am curious to know what rituals Conservative Friends hold dear,  when you talk about "ritual flattening."  Perhaps I am a Liberal Quaker because I do not like "ritual". I found it disturbing even to the extent it was added lately into Unitarian Universalist worship after they united into the UU Brand.  Before that I had considered Unitarians and Quakers were similar religions in that neither espoused a creed.  Now the UU's have "principles, " that they post just in case folks don't know what they believe.  Unitarians used to be considered Christian, but it seems that some UU's could espouse "goddess worship" and feel at home.  The difference in the name seems to have created a lot of confusion, and I am not sure whether broadening the base actually added to membership or vitality in UU Churches.

Some Quaker Meetings I have attended in years past would not extend membership to atheists or Goddess-worshippers. On the other hand, some Quakers don't want to hear about Jesus Christ or God. In fact,  a man in our Meeting says he is an atheist but he has been a member of several Meetings, including ours.  Do we belong to the same religion if we call ourselves by the same name?  Maybe calling oneself a Conservative Friend is enough to indicate a certain credal assumption, or maybe not, based on what William is saying.

I am not sure whether anything in this addresses what Primitive Quakerism demands if we are seeking to revive it.

Wow, Marcia!  Your email is packed with issues we could discuss.  I am still laboring over my paper on "Wilburite Quaker Worship: A Ritual Analysis."  If I write too much about "ritual flattening," I'll be letting the cat out of my bag!   I'll simply quote a piece of it in my description of Lucretia Mott: "In the 1840s Lucretia Mott, the radical Hicksite minister and social reformer, abandoned kneeling to offer supplication, declined to chant her sermons, and refused to stand while others prayed."[i]  Mott’s behavior exhibits a “ritual flattening” of Quaker worship, which was to become the norm in later liberal Quaker practice."[i] Bacon, Margaret Hope, Valiant Friend.  Peter Collins wrote: "?There would seem to be nothing of interest to say about Quaker worship, its liturgy exhibiting an apparently absurd minimalism." Worship, 1998.

Jonathan Stoll wrote recently: “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” [i] quoted in The Budget (Sugarcreek OH) 8-26-2020, 44   In my paper, I attempt to describe and explain "old-timey" Quaker worship as it was practiced by traditional Wilburite Friends,  For better or for worse, it took me 26 or so pages to do the job!  I can't capture it in a few paragraphs here!  I am fixing to submit my paper to a Quaker academic journal in the next week or so.  If it is accepted for publication, it should hit the presses sometime in 2021, maybe!

In the meantime, I would like to challenge the idea that we can (or should) have as our goal, asking "what Primitive Quakerism demands if we are seeking to revive it."

I haven't really addressed your questions about "ritual flattening"; I can't in this forum.

 

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