Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I recently wrote this for my blog The Liberal Quaker.
In Liberal Quaker community I came to know myself. I was fully accepted and encouraged to become who I am. My elders were patient with me. They asked hard questions and at times made tough observations, but let me do the work to answer and respond. I have sifted through a great deal of thinking about Liberal Quakerism, and continue to sense that I have merely scratched the surface. There remains, however, this basic fact. Questions of ultimate concern (spiritual questions) were left largely for me to decide on my own. It was my job and no one else’s to determine who I am, where I belong, and what my life’s purpose might be. I did certainly have to “buy into” a few basic premises (some beliefs). I did certainly (if only tacitly) accept a particular mode of seeking my own answers. I also became acquainted with the Liberal Quaker proposal that the divine is quite mysterious. I came to want nothing less from a God of whom my most acute awareness went beyond words.
I discovered that I hadn’t a clue as to how to articulate the gifts afforded me as a member of the Liberal Quaker faith. It has become a small part of my mission on earth to make this right. Benjamin Pink Dandelion has helped me a great deal on my mission. His article “The Creation of Coherence,” Peter Collins’ “The Problem of Quaker Identity,” and Caroline Pluss’s article “Analyzing Non-Doctrinal Socialization,”  are most notably concerned with understanding the mechanics of Quaker boundary formation, socialization and cohesion. Dandelion and his compatriots lay keystone foundations. I will integrate them here in hopes of clarifying the now “age old” question and of beginning to provide more thorough answers to it. “What is at the core of Liberal Quaker faith?”
Why is this question so important to me? I want to spread the good news, yes, and I want to set down my own reasons for continuing to call myself a Liberal Quaker. I hope that this blog and that this post can help others on their own journeys, as Dandelion has helped with mine.
It wouldn’t be quite correct to ask a Liberal Quaker what they believe and leave it there. It would likewise remain too simplistic to regard the so called “permissive” belief culture  as an excuse to avoid asking about belief altogether. If the question were reframed and asked again, this time as: “What is at the core of Liberal Quaker faith,” then we would indeed have to talk a little about belief. Our answer would be in four parts. 1) Liberal Quakers have a few underlying principles (some beliefs) that inform how they practice their faith and how they live in the world, 2) Liberal Quakers practice and live in the world somewhat differently than, say, Methodists or Baptists, although they might be considered a Protestant Christian denomination. There is a direct correspondence, usually, between Liberal Quaker practice and belief. 3) Liberal Quakers cultivate a mystical spirituality that prioritizes non-linguistic experience of the divine. Not until the fourth and last point will a potential interlocutor become completely confounded, because, fourthly, such experience of the divine seems simultaneously to generate and to override the very same aforementioned principles and practices that give it birth. For example, when I wrote that Liberal Quakerism could probably be loosely categorized as a Protestant Christian denomination, it is clear that many Liberal Quakers would disagree on grounds that their experience of the divine is not Christian and so utterly unconcerned with the Protestant Reformation and its subsequent iterations through the last half of the last millennium. So it should come as no surprise to contemporary Liberal Quakers that confusion abounds not merely among outsiders who would acquaint themselves with Liberal Quakerism but also among Liberal Quakers themselves. To help clear up the confusion, I will take each part of the four-part answer in turn.
1) Liberal Quakers have a few underlying principles (some beliefs) that inform how they practice their faith and how they live in the world…
Liberal Quakers don’t usually set down a meaningful list of beliefs that when adhered to equal inclusion. Any inkling within Liberal Quaker community of maneuvers similar to those The New York Times reported last week (that Catholic bishops have made against American nuns over creedal adherence) would provoke swift reactions from Liberal Quaker communities. In the Liberal Quaker faith, the sort of questioning of doctrine over which American nuns now face scathing critique is quite highly valued. There are, however, reasons why questioning is more highly valued for Liberal Quakers than for Pope Benedict XVI. The reasons reveal a set of principles undergirding Liberal Quaker faith.
The “reasons” are more accurately principles than beliefs because they are not situationally specific, which means they are frequently left to the interpretation of individuals. The “reasons” could also easily be called moral frameworks after Charles Taylor. However, I will use the word “principle” and the word “belief” interchangeably in this post. Liberal Quaker principles rest in the background of the faith, and are frequently melded with politically left-leaning secular Western ideas. They also occasionally parallel educated middle-class cultural repertoires. They are nevertheless distinct. I identify six of them: One) intimate experience of the divine, Two) discernment, Three) journeying, Four) community, Five) silence and Six) testimony, witness and ministry.
One: Intimate experience of the divine
Firstly, Liberal Quakers will commonly agree that there is that of God in everyone, which is a basic idea shared almost uniformly across all Liberal Quaker communities. Because there is that of God in everyone, we also maintain an unmediated connection to and experience of the divine. Liberal Quakers do not require the trappings of traditional Christian liturgy to facilitate this connection since God already dwells within, and merely waits patiently for attention. Thus, we need only to turn our attention toward God. These ideas lead to a basic principle—the most fundamental to the Liberal Quaker Faith—intimate experience of the divine. One needs very little beyond the boundaries of the mind and the body to encounter the divine. Concepts like “the gathered meeting” are used to describe collective experiences of the divine, when all are tuned into the same intimate experience in the same way. Some Liberal Quakers, and progressively more, have replaced the word God with the word Light or Spirit or Guide. Phrases like, “Inner Light,” and, “Inner Guide,” are commonly used to reference this unmediated access to divine experience. The Inner Light is an especially important term because it dates back to the Early Quakers who often referred to the divine good (sinlessness) within each person as the Inward Light.  “Inward” and “Inner” have now become synonymous with the innate good within all people, the innate wisdom available to all people, or simply, “individual divinity.”
Dandelion discusses what he calls liberal-Liberal Quakers. Liberal-Liberal Quakers may even express discomfort with a term like “experience of the divine.” At this moment, however, most Liberal Quakers will accept at minimum that there is something experienced and mysterious that affords us answers to questions of ultimate concern. Speaking from anecdotal experience, I will add that even for those who do not reference, “the divine,” Liberal Quakers have a deep concern for spirituality and for discovering answers to questions of ultimate concern.
Secondly, the experience of the divine can also thrust upon us the burden of truth. The burden of truth is traditionally referred to as “the will of God.” This is where discernment enters the fray. How can we be sure that this “burden of truth,” is coming from experience of the divine and not our egos or some other mundane thing? We employ discernment—the process through which we figure out whether we are experiencing the divine and what the divine might be leading us to do. Thus the concept of a leading and of being led is frequently employed in Liberal Quaker communities. One is led or has a leading to action. Faith is involved because we are not always confident about how to do whatever we are being led to do. We have to trust that the means will open up, or that the end result will one day become clear. Another phrase, “way will open,” or, “way opens,” is often employed in this context to mean that we know what we need to do but haven’t any idea how (or vice versa). Scully defines discernment as attending to, “the promptings of love and truth in our hearts.” She equates discernment with Aristotelian phronesis, or the wisdom acquired through experience and practice. Identifying when one is actually experiencing the divine is much like falling in love. You know it because you feel it, and describing the feeling is possible. Dandelion quotes a qualitative study in which an experienced Liberal Quaker responded, “‘It’s a verbal silence but is not just silence, more like a calm awareness….” Yet, as one only really understands a love song once one has fallen in love, one only really understands the above words when in correspondence with the experience they describe.
Why so concerned with discernment—with whether or not we are actually experiencing the divine? Within such experience we discover leadings, as above discussed. We also find our answers to questions of ultimate concern (spiritual questions) like: “who am I, where do I belong, and what is the purpose of my life?” Still, we are always uncertain about our leadings, which require a degree of faith. Likewise, answers to questions of ultimate concern are never complete. After Rufus Jones and J.W. Rowntree, Liberal Quakerism retains a modernist twist, which embraces what Dandelion calls an “absolute perhaps.” We are absolutely certain that certainty is never absolute. We each walk different paths, which constantly yield new answers because, of course, there are always new opportunities for experiencing the divine. In other words, there is a fundamental mystery inherent to experiencing the divine because we can never be totally sure whether and what the divine is communicating, and such communication is doubly confounded when put into words. Orienting religious life in terms of a journey frames, then, not what a Liberal Quaker is to believe, but how she is to believe. Dandelion calls this way of believing orthocredence. It is also traditionally called continuing revelation. So any “burdens of truth” are framed as temporary realizations on the path to further clarity—like pit stops on horizon-destined road trips.
Additionally, the journey is usually more successful when traversed with the support of spiritual community. Liberal Quakerism identifies a strong conceptual relationship between individual discernment and communal (a.k.a. corporate) discernment. Individual members support other individual members through a kind of spiritual teamwork. We coach each other toward deeper understanding of ourselves, our community, and the forward motion of our lives. Only community coupled with attention to our individually endowed divine wisdom together make our journey possible. Yet, there remains a tension between individual discernment and corporate discernment. To what extent can a community claim ownership of an individual members’ experience of the divine and any resulting burden of truth, or vice versa? There are stories about individual Quakers fighting slavery in the 18th and 19th century (like John Woolman) whose various Quaker Meetings ignored them as much as they heard them. There were many schisms between Quakers who disagreed with each other, and one of these schisms has led to present day Liberal Quakerism. For contemporary Liberal Quakers, individuals and their spiritual community are ideally in balance. Different roles exist, which individuals fill primarily to care for the spiritual wellness, lives and leadings of other individuals. Potential burdens of truth and their subsequent paths are tested in myriad formats to ensure that they are really results of divine experience. Dandelion and others identify more informal ways through which Liberal Quakers also manage potential tensions in their Meetings, as through the regulation of silence in Meeting for Worship. I will discuss these and other aspects more fully in the next section.
Experience of the divine is most readily possible and palpable in the stillness of silence. Liberal Quakers commonly quote Scripture: “Be still and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46: 10). God is experiential and non-linguistic, so also most readily accessed from within silence. In many respects the silence and the regulation of silence in the context of Liberal Quaker worship is analogous to the incense, priestly garb, procession and timing of the organ music, etc in traditional Catholic and/or Protestant Christian liturgies. Over the years, the functioning of silence in Liberal Quaker worship has become quite complicated.  It would, however, be inaccurate to equate Liberal Quaker faith with the worship of silence. Silence is not the thing worshiped. Still, most Liberal Quakers will agree that they are attempting to access something through the silence. Silence is the ground upon which we may build everything else.
Six: Testimony, Witness and Ministry
Liberal Quakers have codified what they call The Testimonies into important pillars for Liberal Quaker faith. Traditionally, testimony was an outcome of corporate discernment. Testimonies date back to Early Quakerism. They were usually strongly worded advices and eventually behavioral codes or binding theological statements not unlike creeds. Presently, Liberal Quakerism does not have testimony in the way it did in the past. It has moved from specific precept-like regulations to general principle-like concepts. The Testimonies no longer function doctrinally—meaning that non-adherence to them would not result in excommunication. The Testimonies are merely easy ways of relating more fundamental Liberal Quaker principles. The Testimonies are also typically treated as guidelines for how to conduct one’s day-to-day affairs. They are sometimes colloquially called the SPICES: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship (or earth care). There are different variations. Individuals are left to interpret the application and content of The Testimonies specifically for their own lives. Of the six Testimonies, the Peace Testimony retains unique prominence. Quakerism is a traditional peace church—denying that war and violence are ever solutions to any given problem. Thus many Liberal Quakers also identify as pacifists, or are at the very least partial to nonviolent solutions to the world’s problems. After the Peace Testimony, the Equality Testimony is prominent. The idea that all people are equal at least in terms of how they should be treated prevails among Liberal Quakers (as it does among most Westerners). Increasingly, the Testimonies on Simplicity and Stewardship have been framed in terms of Earth care and environmental sustainability.
Liberal Quaker communities do not issue testimonies as they did in the past. They now issue, “calls to witness,” or, “calls to action.” Liberal Quakers also issue epistles, which traditionally echo those Paul sent to various communities in Scripture. Epistles may include calls to action, and other general descriptions of the current status of the corporate leadings of whatever group of Quakers. Secondly, Liberal Quakers use the term “witness.” Witness is action-oriented, and is often associated with a more activist branch of Liberal Quakerism. Witness is grounded in the same processes of discernment discussed above, thus witness ostensibly originates in powerful corporate and/or individual leadings. If one were to ask a Liberal Quaker how she lives out her faith, she might respond through references to witness. If not to witness, then she might make reference to her ministry. Ministry is a broader term used to describe a more robust leading in which one is called to combine a passion and a gift/talent to benefit others, to support a cause, to start a movement, etc. Ministry may involve witness, and might be justified partly in terms of The Testimonies.
2) Liberal Quakers practice and live in the world somewhat differently than, say, Methodists or Baptists, although they might be considered a Protestant Christian denomination. There is a direct correspondence, usually, between Quaker practice and Quaker belief.
It is probably controversial to argue that Liberal Quaker practice corresponds directly to Quaker belief. Yet, if we accept that Liberal Quakers really do have beliefs, and if we define the beliefs in the way that I have, then a direct correspondence to practice is not only theoretically obvious, but also empirically accurate. I will present some general patterns of Liberal Quaker practice and demonstrate their correspondence to the principles identified above. I begin with the assertion that worship is the most basic practice in Liberal Quakerism. I explain that worship is a ritual with silence at its center, which structures expertise and authority uniquely in Liberal Quakerism. I will then elucidate four main rituals that in some way incorporate worship in Liberal Quaker community—Meeting for Worship, Business Meeting, Committees, and Clearness.
Worship, Ritual and Authority
Worship is magical. When worship “works” it creates solidarity, a felt sense of connection between participants. Individuals become one community. How such moments are achieved cannot be explained completely rationally. Dandelion unravels silence in his book The Liturgies of Quakerism. He shows that the technical components of worship are identifiable, but they do not integrate into a full picture. Ritual is a good name for human activities like this. There are observable patterns, but the patterns amount, as they say, to a thing beyond the sum of its parts.
As direct experience of the divine is fundamental to Liberal Quaker belief, so worship is fundamental to Liberal Quaker practice. Worship is where the magic happens. It undergirds all the different sorts of Liberal Quaker ritual. Worship for Liberal Quakerism means facilitating a process through which access to experience of the divine may be practiced. The “magic” is a metaphor for the lack of satisfying explanations of the nature of divine experience and how one approaches and expresses such experience.
Silence is at the center of the ritual of Liberal Quaker worship. Silence is the basic sign of worship. In the context of Liberal Quaker ritual, silence almost always means, “Now we are worshiping.” This in turn almost always means, “Now we are turning our attention to the divine (however one defines it), to the potential experience of it, thus to a search for whatever wisdom might emerge as a result.”
The said term “ministry” has another meaning. When one “gives ministry,” one breaks the silence in worship to report on their experience of the divine. There are other terms for giving ministry like “offering a message,” or simply, “speaking out of the silence.” Given that experience of the divine is particular to the individual person experiencing it, to her own interpretation, it makes quite a bit of sense that Liberal Quaker worship should be minimalist. Why fill worship with anything at all if divine experience comes in unexpected, mysterious and myriad ways? Worship needs to be devoid of content so that it can indeed accommodate a variety of expressions of the divine. The minimalist approach also echoes the Simplicity Testimony. Too many distractions direct our attention away from the divine. It also echoes the Equality Testimony—that everyone has equal access to divine experience. Most importantly, Liberal Quaker Meeting for Worship encapsulates the principle of Community. Without worshiping with others, a Liberal Quaker cannot learn how to engage the ritual correctly.
Dandelion writes that new attenders learn how to worship not by following along on a printed program, but by gleaning the procedure in situ. That is, by participating in worship repeatedly, a neophyte becomes an experienced Friend. This process could take ten or more years of regular attendance because so much of worship is left unelaborated. Dandelion identifies informal aspects of Liberal Quaker worship that have become normative. He writes: “Seven aspects of normative ministry are readily identifiable. They are length, style, frequency, timing, content, thematic association and linguistic construction.” He follows each aspect in depth. I will not recount the full explanation here because it is not essential to my argument. It suffices to quote Dandelion’s discussion of the consequences of this informal, unelaborated, yet highly sophisticated way of managing the worship, the core of Liberal Quaker spiritual practice and ritual. He writes:
Quaker worship is not merely silence: there are the four consequences to the rules around speech and silence in worship mentioned above. The first is that silence is an active entity and that the correct use of silence and speech is a skill to be learned. The second is that the skill can be misused or ignored resulting in the abuse of the operation of the free ministry. Third, fear of not having learnt the normative style [of speech acts, or of misusing them, is a] self-censor within worship. In other words, the management of the unmediated [ministry] constrains entry into the means of accessing and expressing the sacred. Newcomers have to learn the rules and language in which the sacred is wrapped…Combined with the value placed on silence, the strictures on speech within silent worship viewed from the outside undermine the concept of the free ministry and foster a normative silence rooted in fear rather than obedience. They legitimate the status quo and lend power to those vested with the maintenance and interpretation of the rules. In this way, the sect limits the progress of participants in gaining expertise, and thereby limits the ability of any one individual to influence the group.
Gaining expertise, then, is a decades-long affair. Because there are no priests or pastors—because there are no established lines of authority as we might find in doctrinal religions like Catholicism—there has to be some other way of handling the management of community. To whom do we look when we are confused about what to do next or when there is a conflict? As in any other community, we look to our experts. How does one become an expert? One attends worship regularly, one asks lots of questions of current experts, and perhaps one studies Liberal Quakerism by reading Thomas Kelly, Rufus Jones, Ben Pink Dandelion, George Fox’s journal, etc. How are experts identified? There are unique positions of authority in Meetings. They are generally the Meeting’s clerk—the person who facilitates the business process and manages the Meeting’s everyday affairs. In British Meetings there are elders who care for the worship. In the United States elders go by a variety of different names (although recently there is a resurgence of the term). In British Meetings there are Overseers who care for the members of Meeting (who provide pastoral care). In the United States Overseers also go by a variety of different names. Yet, again, those who fill these roles generally do not police belief content or even belief, but the processes through which belief claims are made and the practices and rituals in which they are made. Clerks, elders and overseers regulate the different rituals through which Liberal Quaker faith is expressed. They are, as some of have said, guardians of process. Each meeting has a few people who formally or informally fill these roles. Experts are also sometimes called weighty Friends, especially when they lack a formal position in the meeting. Fortunately, regulation of rituals and leadership in the Meeting is not left entirely to experts.
Earlier I compared Liberal Quaker community to a team. We coach each other through ceaseless experimentation with myriad possibilities. As we experiment, we connect our truest callings to the knowledge and skills necessary for living them out. There are lesser and more experienced experts in any Meeting, but people in these roles are not solely responsible for the regulation and cohesion of Liberal Quaker community. Jeffrey Stout in his book Democracy and Tradition writes that, “…we are all keeping track of our interlocutors’ attitudes, as well as our own.” Everyone is participating in the maintenance of Liberal Quaker community at some level. Stout argues that there is no actual singular source of authority in democratic community. Liberal Quaker community is a sort of spiritual democratic community, in which there are always multiple sources of authority, each contingent, but functional in their particular contexts and uses. Authority is also imputed and exchanged repeatedly even within individual interactions. Stout conceives of authority as a tool in social navigation. If I express an “ought,” like, “you ought to stop talking,” I indicate a belief (apparent in the context in which I express this “ought”) which then provides you the authority to attribute that commitment to me and to use it for your own reasoning. Then you begin keeping track of the beliefs I assert along with my self-presentation, and I begin keeping track of the beliefs you assert along with your self-presentation. Stout calls this, “…in part a matter of keeping track of oneself and one’s fellow participants.”
This process mirrors the interaction ritual, conceived by Erving Goffman. The maintenance of “face” (an element of self-presentation) involves the formation of an expressive order in the context of others’ self-presentations. This is face-work. Goffman argued, essentially, that people work very hard to maintain a coherent face, and lapses in this coherence are met with correctional action or with conflict. We keep each other accountable by requiring consistency, so that in claiming authority in some way, we do so from within a system of coherent self-presentations rather than at random. We can’t simply claim to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, philosophers, or experts of Liberal Quaker worship. Among other things, we need to be capable of utilizing proper jargon. Indeed, throughout this post I have outlined a complex array of terms specific to Liberal Quaker community—i.e. Liberal Quaker jargon. It has also been called “Quakerese.” In Liberal Quaker community authority is diffuse; it is fragmentally sourced in changing definitions of what does and does not attribute authority to claims. Authority is not a concept unfamiliar to Liberal Quakerism. Rather Liberal Quakerism, as a sort of spiritual democracy, supplants the need for a clearly defined and transcendent source of authority. If that aspect remains unclear, then Liberal Quakers need to build a different sort of scaffolding, which they certainly have done. Liberal Quakerism in this way mirrors present day democratic discourse in its approach to religious life—a result perhaps of the modernism injected into Quakerism by Rufus Jones and J.W. Rowntree.
Specifically, Caroline Plüss observed in her ethnographic work a few specific ways in which Liberal Quakers keep each other accountable and thereby share authority. Whereas Dandelion identifies structural components of the maintenance of authority in worship through silence, Plüss identifies this maintenance for Liberal Quaker interaction often outside of worship. Members of Liberal Quaker Meetings withdraw affection and reciprocity in instances when novices in the community do not follow expected institutional behavior. The members implicitly, “motivate novices to imitate members’ conduct without members needing to refer to objective and authoritative explanations of this conduct.” Secondly, explanations of what is institutionally expected from novices in their conduct are, “highly flexible,” meaning that members, “are able to validate a wide variety of novices’ subjective identification with institutional conduct…” Plüss in a more technical way articulates what I have already argued. Members of contemporary Liberal Quaker communities relate the expected institutional conduct to their own subjective experience, and they identify with the principles that underlie these expected behaviors in their own way. She uniquely specifies some precise instances of the indirect use of authority.
However, I want to guard against equating the process Plüss identifies to passivity, or to passive-aggressive behavior. It is possible to use authority indirectly, whilst continuing to allow for a variety of forms of its use and the sort of accounting that Goffman and Stout elucidate. Passivity is dysfunctional and leads to conflict whose cause is often unclear. The latter is a functional way to structure community. Many neophytes conflate the earlier dysfunctional type of behavior with the latter. Yet, ideally, Liberal Quakers do not avoid expressing themselves, but do so lightly—acknowledging (again) that they’re perspective may not include the full picture. Passivity, however, remains a common tendency for a community with such a complicated way of structuring authority. Experts like clerks, elders, and weighty Friends, need especially to make themselves aware of this tendency (even in their own ways of communicating).
Meeting for Worship
This is the traditional time, almost always for an hour on Sundays in addition to a variety of times on other days, during which Liberal Quakers gather solely to worship. There are no established rules about how to conduct oneself in Meeting for Worship, but there are many informally acknowledged rules. Generally, Meeting for Worship lasts for one hour. People sit in benches or in chairs, usually formatted to look as much like a circle as possible. The meeting room is simple, with few or no decorations of any kind. A few Liberal Quaker Meetings have established the practice of placing flowers in the middle of the meeting room for the duration of Meeting for Worship. The setup of the room is often framed in terms of the Simplicity Testimony. Discernment also takes place in Meeting for Worship; one of the main tasks for participants is to decide whether any thoughts or other inspirations are meant to be spoken aloud as ministry. Whether and what to offer as ministry is a perennial concern.
Because there is no way to tell for sure whether a message is really ministry, a report on an experience of the divine, there are informally established signals that it is. Ministry is expected to be short and to reference experience and usually some kind of wisdom gleaned from said experience. Such ministry reflects the idea, again, that truth is never permanent and that experience of the divine occurs along a journey without a foreseeable destination. Speakers are expected to speak only one time during the meeting, if at all. Speakers are also expected to leave a relatively long amount of silence between messages to give sufficient time for the previous one to be absorbed by listeners. Speakers often subdue their voices, and: “Displays of emotion are rare.”
Dandelion writes that there also tend be a set of unmentionable topics during Meeting for Worship. Firstly, if there are any beliefs held particularly strongly among the members of the local Meeting, they are not likely to be deviated from. Such deviations would count as unmentionables. For example, if a meeting has many members particularly partial to peace activism, then messages that critique some aspect of the Peace Testimony or peace activism are not likely to be well received. Similarly, ministry that denies that that there is that of God in everyone would be largely unpopular because, as aforementioned, this is a keystone Liberal Quaker belief. Thirdly, messages are not likely to relate to topics, “which might offend the secular sensibilities of other participants. For example, subjects such as abortion or contraception are rarely, if ever, mentioned in ministry.” Each type of unmentionable is likely, “to be countered, by a reactive ministry or, more gently, by an additional contribution later in the Meeting.” These rules are indeed operative and adherence to them is also regulated by those formally or informally responsible for the care of Meeting for Worship.
Business Meeting has a variety of additional, longer names. A few well-used names are: Meeting for Worship for Church Affairs, Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business, and Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business. These longer names more accurately encapsulate the intention of Liberal Quaker Meetings for Business, which is to employ discernment (as I define it above) towards reaching collective decisions. Here, again, the principle of Community takes precedence. Corporate discernment is said, usually, to take precedence over individual discernment in Business Meeting. This in turn reinforces the idea of Liberal Quakerism as spiritual democracy. As with Meeting for Worship, a complex system of usually informal rules guides the process of Business Meeting. Less work has been done to investigate these informal rules social scientifically. However, Business Meeting is undergirded by worship and usually considered an extension of Meeting for Worship. Thus many of the same rules identified above apply to Business Meeting.
Unlike democracy, Liberal Quakers do not vote. Instead they worship. They turn their attention to a particular business question, like: How do we want to spend our money? Then they use discernment to see if there might be a divinely inspired answer. Clerks facilitate the decision making process in Business Meeting, and elders continue to mind the quality of worship. Two terms are used most frequently in Business Meeting: “unity” and “sense of the meeting.” Unity is the shared experience of the divine. Neophytes are often confused about the term “unity” because it seems to imply that Liberal Quakers only make decisions when they have reached unanimous agreement. No, unity is required before a decision is ever made. Unity is the felt gathering of shared experience of the divine. Earlier, I discussed the “gathered meeting,” which is a term for a shared sense of the divine in the context of Meeting for Worship. So unity is a synonym for “gathered meeting,” specific to Business Meeting.
The sense of the meeting comes after unity. The sense of the meeting is a general agreement on the nature of the unity, of the shared divine experience. Notice that neither unity nor sense of the meeting refer to agreement about a specific decision or action step. For example, unity might emerge out of ministry in worship related to service, to loving one’s neighbors, or to the value of giving. Then, a sense of the meeting might emerge that the community would like to engage in service projects with other faith groups in the area. Then from there, a clerk can propose an action step. This outlines the ideal situation, but more often than not unity is incomplete, so any sense of the meeting is hazy at best. What to do in these situations or when there is impasse, comes from the wisdom of a gifted clerk supported by gifted elders and/or weighty Quakers.
Most importantly, when there is unity or a gathered meeting, powerful solidarity emerges. Individual members achieve the intended magic of worship—to become one community rather than a group of different individuals. Some Liberal Quakers even report their most acute experiences of solidarity in Business Meeting rather than Meeting for Worship.
Much of the life of the Meeting community outside of Worship and Business Meeting occurs in the context of committees. In addition to informal socialization, the committee is a ritual of its own. It is the Business Meeting in miniature form, thus worship still undergirds decision making in committees. The same sorts of themes and informal rules also emerge. Most importantly the committee provides a smaller venue where fewer people come together to connect. In committees, the ritual processes discussed above, in miniature, facilitate and catalyze the sort of solidarity rarer in larger Meetings for Worship and Business Meetings. Committees also do more specific work for their Meeting. A few examples are: property committee, finance committee, or worship & ministry committee. As an off shoot of committees, Meetings also sometimes organize either worship sharing or anchor groups. These can go by other names. They do not involve decision making, but instead take on some aspects of the format of worship (namely silence and the informal rules that come along with it). Unlike committees, worship sharing and anchor groups are expressly intended for this last most important function of committees. They are rituals in which solidarity is the aim and in which community is the focus.
Clearness is a ritual in which discernment is the aim and the focus. It is explicitly devoted to helping the individual come to clarity on a particular question by cultivating their attention to the divine wisdom open to them. There are two good sources for understanding this ritual more deeply: Friends General Conference and Parker Palmer. Basically, a focus person tells a story to a gathered group, and then communicates a rising concern or query. Usually someone facilitates or clerks the process. Those gathered make observations and ask questions of the focus person, but don’t give express advice. The focus person comes to clarity on her own with the help of those gathered to support her. The specific group gathered to help is usually called a clearness committee. But clearness committees are sufficiently different from most other committees that it is worth giving them a different category. Relatedly, there are accountability committees or support groups. These groups, rather than helping a person come to clarity, help the focus person remain true to an intended action step or new responsibility, which is perhaps a result of Clearness. Clearness committees and support groups are concerned with an individual focus person and her discernment.
Clearly, Liberal Quakerism in belief and form greatly differs from traditional Protestant Christian denominations and especially from Catholicism. Quakerism is originally Christian. It might continue to be classified as a Protestant Christian denomination, but, if so, then by the skin of its teeth. Because of its openness to truth and the priority placed on journeying, new truths often have priority over old truths. This means that perhaps in a few decades the Christian twinges may have all but dissipated.
3) Liberal Quakers cultivate a mystical spirituality that prioritizes non-linguistic experience of the divine.
This point has been referenced throughout the previous two sections given the interconnection of the system of Liberal Quaker faith. It is difficult to focus on one element of Liberal Quaker belief and practice without at least referencing the other elements. We have not explicitly discussed the mystical nature of Liberal Quakerism, however. I have previously argued that Liberal Quakerism is primarily mystical. This is a point that coincides with the first principle of Liberal Quakerism: intimate experience of the divine. I will add that, as with many other mystical traditions, a discipline accompanies access to the experience of the divine. The more that discipline is engaged, the deeper the insights and the more prolonged the experience of the divine. With this, there is the goal of progressively more profound wisdom. It begins with one seed, but could lead to a Giant Sequoia.
Discipline is reinforced and aided when practiced in community. Yet additionally, discipline needs to be practiced regularly outside of communal rituals. In regular Liberal Quaker fashion, spiritual disciplines can be a variety of things. They can range from traditional prayer and Scripture study to mindful exercise and meditation. Lastly, experience of the divine does not involve words in its most essential form. It is non-conceptual, non-linguistic and non-dual. Liberal Quaker theology is truly apophatic in that it claims that God cannot be named; experience of God is diminished when communicated. We communicate about our experiences of God anyway, but such communication is always inadequate.
…fourthly, such experience of the divine seems simultaneously to generate and to override the very same aforementioned principles and practices that give it birth.
I began this post with the assertion that Liberal Quakerism and Quaker community has formed me. I have realized an identity that was not imposed upon me but encouraged to bloom from within me. My little light is beautiful, perfect, and when attended to will lead me right where I am meant to be. My Godmother always says, and she is right, that all one needs to do is follow the heart, and everything else will fall into place. This is an expression of the sort of faith required of a Liberal Quaker. Do, be, and become whatever gives you meaning, and way will open. It is not simply, ask and you shall receive, but: come to know what you need and you shall receive.
Dandelion quotes another author who asserts that in Liberal Quakerism new light takes priority over the old—that new truths override the old. This is not entirely correct, as there are truths of old that remain relevant for Liberal Quakers today. Liberal Quakerism is more accurately described as a continually renewing faith, one that pauses to question even itself. This may seem at the least contradictory if not even paradoxical. It is, however, also beautiful. I am certain in fact that as soon as I publish this blog post, many will take issue with some if not most of my claims (if they can even read all the way to this point). If not, then my claims are certainly temporary, and will not likely reflect the state of Liberal Quakerism fifty years from now. So, too, Dandelion quotes the same author again to show that Liberal Quaker faith needs be relevant to the age. This is not quite correct, either. Liberal Quaker faith simply is relevant to the age given that its theology results in such a predicament.
So the possibility that new revelation could completely override everything that has come before is quite palpable in Liberal Quaker worship. Indeed, we are waiting on a springing up of the divine, a spark of Life, of Christ, of Spirit. We are excited and deeply anxious in equal measure. The courage to see when new light has come is the most important discipline of them all—especially when it has bubbled up in you, when Spirit intends for you to show it. Yet this is exactly the point, isn’t it? It turns out the “new Light” isn’t at all what we thought it would be, so it is not the most important thing about Liberal Quaker faith.
The theology is both primary and secondary. It provides a framework through which we may understand our belief and practice, but at the core of our belief and practice is a search for truth that never ceases being revealed to us. The logic is circular, and so ultimately useless. Liberal Quaker belief and practice, Liberal Quaker theology, is empty in the end.
Ultimate authority comes from mystery. Because such an idea approaches paradox, so apparently does God. We contingently accommodate mystery as a center of faith by constructing diffuse and contingent lines of authority, by cultivating discipline, and by emphasizing a practice that accommodates openness to unexpected beauty. Most confusing of all, I contend that it is indeed possible to sense when someone is in touch with the divine. It is difficult to quantify, much as love songs are difficult to understand without the aid of having fallen in love oneself.
Liberal Quaker theology is apophatic. Thus Liberal Quakerism is truly dynamic because it does not emphasize the what but the how. What we believe, and what we practice are trivial concerns when compared to how we believe and how we practice. There are limitations to this orientation. The boundaries are marked by tradition and by belief. Yet the boundaries remain permeable and self-reflective. They evolve over time, and require continual evaluation and renewal. Those who travel into our midst find a container within which to answer their own questions in their own ways. There is available help at every step. Truly everyone must ultimately take each step with their own two feet, but no one stands quite as tall as when they find themselves in the company of others struggling just the same.
Perhaps, in the end, what I have believed and done won’t matter. Perhaps when I die, I will sail away unaware. Perhaps, then, I will truly know. Perhaps my tongue, brain and toes will feed strange, simple life forms. Perhaps my bones will become part of a nest for an eventual star. Perhaps that very same star will spark unimagined sorts of life for incomprehensibly new and distant quarters of space and time. What is at the end of a black hole? What am I that knows I am? What does death bring? How have I become this thing? Questions better left to mystery, whose wisdom is far beyond me…I am awed to glimpse just one of its untangled strands.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. “Cultural Pragmatics: Social Performance Between Ritual and Strategy.” In Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics, and Ritual, edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Jason L. Mast, and Bernhard Giesen, 29–90. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Bellah, Robert N. “The Ritual Roots of Society and Culture.” In Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, 31–44. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Best, Simon. “Adolescent Quakers: A Community of Intimacy.” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 192–215. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Chambers, Helena. “Modern Testimonies: The Approach of Quakers to Substance Use and Gambling.” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 88–106. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Collins, Peter. “The Problem of Quaker Identity.” Quaker Studies 13, no. 2 (2009): 205–219.
Dandelion, Benjamin Pink. An Introduction to Quakerism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
———. “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps’.” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 22–37. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
———. The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.
Frith, Judy. “The Temporal Collage: How British Quakers Make Choices About Time.” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 158–172. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Goffman, Erving. “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction.” In Interaction Ritual - Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. 1st Pantheon Books ed. Pantheon, 1982.
Gwyn, Douglas. “Apocalypse Now and Then: Reading Early Friends in the Belly of the Beast.” In The Creation of Quaker Theory: Insider Perspectives, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion, 127–148. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.
Lamont, Michèle, David J. Harding, and Mario Luis Small. “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, no. 629 (May 2012): 6–27.
Pink Dandelion, Benjamin, ed. The Creation of Quaker Theory. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.
Plüss, Caroline. “Analysing Non-doctrinal Socialization: Re-assessing the Role of Cognition to Account for Social Cohesion in the Religious Society of Friends.” The British Journal of Sociology 58, no. 2 (2007): 253–275.
Punshon, John. “The End of (Quaker) History? Some Reflections on the Process.” In The Creation of Quaker Theory: Insider Perspectives, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion, 32–47. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.
Robson, Susan. “Grasping the Nettle: Conflict and the Quaker Condition.” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 140–157. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Scully, Jackie Leach Scully. “Virtuous Friends: Morality and Quaker Identity.” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 107–122. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Spencer, Carole D. “Holiness: The Quaker Way of Perfection.” In The Creation of Quaker Theory: Insider Perspectives, 149–171. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.
Stout, Jeffrey. Democracy and Tradition. Princeton University Press, 2005.
Vincett, Giselle. “Quagans: Fusing Quakerism with Contemporary Paganism.” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 174–191. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Whitehouse, Derrick. “Congregational Culture and Variations in ‘Gospel Order’.” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 124–139. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
 Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps’.”
 Collins, “The Problem of Quaker Identity.”
 Plüss, “Analysing Non-doctrinal Socialization: Re-assessing the Role of Cognition to Account for Social Cohesion in the Religious Society of Friends.”
 Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps’”; Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 98; Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 129–145.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 69; Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 138; Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps’,” 35.
 Scully, “Virtuous Friends: Morality and Quaker Identity,” 107–108.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 124–125.
 See, for a succinct description of what I mean by cultural repertoires, Lamont, Harding, and Small, “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty.”
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 100; Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps’,” 35.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 5–6, 93, 116, 124–125.
 Ibid., 5–6, 124–125.
 Ibid., 116.
 Ibid., 93, 100, 124–125; Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 134.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 3, 96, 108–109; Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 141–142; Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps’,” 33.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 96.
 Usually, a technical distinction is made between a leading and being led. A leading is a broad stroke—something that is not immediate and remains a goal, where the means to the goal is unclear. Being led is a fine stroke—something that is immediate, where the end result of the immediate action is unclear. In either case, something remains unclear. Lastly, these two phrases, although ideally used distinctly in workshops and keynote addresses, are often employed indistinctly in everyday Liberal Quaker community. It is better always to listen more to the context within which the phrase is being spoken than to the phrase itself.
 Scully, “Virtuous Friends: Morality and Quaker Identity,” 118.
 Ibid., 117.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 102.
 Ibid., 65–66, 116; Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 119–123; Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps’,” 34–36.
Of course there is a bit of a paradox here. It is the paradox of liberal democracy, which at the same time utterly accepts and utterly rejects itself. For further elucidation of this point, read: Stout, Democracy and Tradition.
 Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 136, 141.
 Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps’,” 36.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society; Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism.
 That would be between Orthodox and Hicksite Quakers in 1827, which led to further splits through the 19th century, eventually leading to what we currently recognize as Liberal Quakerism. See: Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 87–88, 117–119, 129–130.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 99–109; Plüss, “Analysing Non-doctrinal Socialization: Re-assessing the Role of Cognition to Account for Social Cohesion in the Religious Society of Friends”; Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 142–145.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 2–3, 21, 31, 67, 94–96, 101–102, 109, 116–125.
 Ibid., 99–109; Plüss, “Analysing Non-doctrinal Socialization: Re-assessing the Role of Cognition to Account for Social Cohesion in the Religious Society of Friends”; Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 142–145.
 Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 45.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 50; Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 92, 127–128, 139.
 I elevated community to a higher status perhaps due to my own bias, but also because community today plays a larger role than The Testimonies. Spiritual community is paramount to the system of Liberal Quaker faith because without it there would be no way to legitimate the highly particularized experience of the divine. Indeed much of the authority that emerges from the relating of Liberal Quaker divine experience comes in the context of worship, which cannot happen without at least training in the proper way to worship. That training, of course, comes from worshiping with other more experienced Liberal Quakers in community. I will discuss this more in the next section.
 Whitehouse, “Congregational Culture and Variations in ‘Gospel Order’,” 128.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 123–124.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society.
 For succinct explanations of what I mean by ritual see: Bellah, “The Ritual Roots of Society and Culture”; Alexander, “Cultural Pragmatics: Social Performance Between Ritual and Strategy.”
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 102.
 Ibid., 108–109.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 98–109.
 Ibid., 109.
 Whitehouse calls experts cultural architects: Whitehouse, “Congregational Culture and Variations in ‘Gospel Order’,” 131.
 In the United States Liberal Quakers dropped the term “overseer” because of its connotations. The same word was used for those who supervised and frequently brutally abused slaves during the nearly 300 years of North American slavery.
 There might also be evidence that a great deal of social and political cohesion already exists for Liberal Quaker Meetings—providing ground upon which further cohesion becomes much easier. Additionally, many Liberal Quakers (at least in the United States) are members of the middle class, and thereby possess particular orientations and perceptions of the world unlikely to be shared by members of other socioeconomic strata. Further study is required on the parallels between Liberal Quakers and the social and political attitudes and strata from whence they come to worship.
 Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 272.
 Ibid., 210.
 Goffman, “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction.”
 And of course the problem with this premise is that people, without intentionally cultivating discourses that stress fairness, integrity and restraint, will tend to want to increase their authority and influence. People do make claims strategically to amass as much authority available to them. This keeps open the possibility of the emergence of an elite class in democratic society, or of some privileged group, which hoards most of the resources and thereby wields most of the influence. This tendency of democratic culture has been critiqued by the likes of Michel Foucault. It is part of the reality of the present day imperfections in our democratic systems. This tendency is part of what many Liberal Quaker activists (and Quaker activists of the past have struggled and) continue to struggle against.
 Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism, 136, 141.
 Plüss, “Analysing Non-doctrinal Socialization: Re-assessing the Role of Cognition to Account for Social Cohesion in the Religious Society of Friends,” 269.
 Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism: Liturgy, Worship and Society, 98–109.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 100.
 This may be what the support group or accountability group is useful for. An individual can ask others to check in formally or informally about whether she has continued the spiritual disciplines she believes will most aid in her attention to the divine.
 Mathew 7:7 and Mathew 21:22
 Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps’,” 23.