Author’s note: I have taken the liberty of making use of Ben Pink Dandelion’s reference to a specific manner of Quaker practice as “liberal-liberal” Friends. As one who identifies closely with Conservative Friends, I am a Hicksite and identify as an FGC liberal Friend. My comments are more concerned with identity and intelligibility than an overarching critique of FGC Friends, which has a far different character.

 

It is important that I find a way to speak to a Friend whom I am very close to in a gentle way. I was pained, and even somewhat hurt, by this individual’s generalizing about Quaker faith and practice, and perhaps unwittingly making claims on behalf of all Friends that were simply not true, even in our own meeting. It has come to a point in my journey with liberal-liberal Friends that I have come to feel that, not only is my experience not trusted by Friends due to my Christ-centered faith and love of the Bible. It has also come to a point where I begin to realize that the nature of the broader spectrum of Friends in the United States is rendered insignificant due to the projection of individual experience and opinion onto Quaker faith and practice as a whole.

 

In the midst of ongoing conflict in our monthly meeting, a conversation occurred between me and another Christ-centered Friends who has been with the meeting for more than 40 years. During a dialogue between us, she indicated that a particular action undertaken be me was particularly hurtful. In listening to her, and reflecting on my behavior – I confessed that I was wrong and had sinned against her because I was acting in a manipulative manner. My confessing to her in a public manner is foundationally biblical, and meant to begin a reconciliation process by agreeing to be held accountable to a community and corporate authority in a time of conflict. Unfortunately, my confession that made use of a language familiar to Christ-centered Friends was rejected by a long-time member of our meeting who was trying to “keep peace.” She stated, in response to my reflection and reaching out to another, that “Quakers don’t believe in sin, and we don’t need to get down on ourselves.”

 

In fact (and I am not insistent upon facticity), many, if not most of the people who call themselves Quakers do believe that sin exists, even amongst Friends, and that evil exists in our experience. However, because an exchange between two Friends made another individual uncomfortable – it was simply disregarded as a necessary aspect of reconciliation. It is my belief that our measure of Light cleanses us of sin, that sanctifying process that Quakers have historically called convincement. We may be perfected – ever closer to our goal of spiritual maturity – but this is no indication that sin does not exist, nor is there any historical evidence that Quakers did not believe in sin. It is simply a preferred way for many liberal Friends to understand the nature of humanity (and, I do not believe in depravity or the potential for a human being to be “evil’) and avoid judging another individual’s behavior. Liberal-liberal Friends seem to eschew the nature of accountability, and when I made use of Christian narrative to ask forgiveness from a member of our community, one person rejected a key component of that narrative according to a personal understanding of Quakerism.

 

I have been absent from worship for some time, being released from ministry to work with a Methodist Church. Upon return to worship, we had some visitors, and this individual shared a little about Quaker faith and practice while we were still gathered after worship. Again, she identified Quaker practice according to her own beliefs, and not only ignored the beliefs or understandings of many individual in our meeting, but seemed to obliviate the nature of Friends diversity. She also swept 350+ years of Quaker witness into a dark corner. “We don’t believe in baptism” she stated firmly.

 

Not only is this statement untrue of Friends historically, it is untrue in differing ways of Friends today. Historically, and in the beliefs of many liberal Friends, and most every conservative Friend, we do experience baptism. Friends have traditionally rejected the necessity of water baptism, and historically, Friends only accepted spirit baptism as legitimate. However, spirit baptism has always been a major component of Friends faith and practice, and has simply been ignored as archaic and unnecessary in the beliefs of a growing number, if not a majority, of liberal-liberal Friends.

 

More importantly, an increasing number of liberal-liberal Friends refuse to maintain relationships, or even a working knowledge, or the diverse nature of Quakerisms that exist today. Just south of our state line, FUM Friends are practicing water baptism. They indeed call themselves Quakers. Evangelical Friends also practice water baptism in some of their churches. Sweeping generalizations about Friends that do little more than self-justify our own preferences not only reject the need for dialogue with others who call themselves Quakers, but limits participation in our own meeting. Especially when someone speaks out about testimonies in a manner that conflicts with entrenched practices of those who are considered “elders.”

 

During this sharing time, I also learned that Friends do not practice communion but have potlucks instead. Table fellowship is certainly a necessary aspect of Friends faith and practice, and it may be considered an act of communion. More importantly, however, is the tragedy that this Friend rejected the most important aspect of worship; that being the belief of Friends far and near that waiting worship is an act of communion – inwardly and without form. To reduce inward sacraments to potlucks, or to simply reject them out of hand and ignore the very real potential for the Holy Spirit to welcome an individual into new relationship and life-changing spiritual awareness is detrimental to the community as a whole. The suggestion that “Quakers don’t baptized” is to marginalize the very nature of what Friends found to be foundational. That Christ is our inward Light that will wash away sin and make known to us our own measure of Light.”

 

Truly, the sudden recognition of this transformative grace is indicative a baptism by fire and Spirit, and indicative of early Friends experience. The painful aspect of my perception is that this conversation cannot be had. Liberal-liberal Friends refuse to be held accountable for their beliefs or understandings, yet insist on shaping the nature of Friends faith and practice to suit their own assumptions and preferences. At least six individuals left meeting thinking that all present at the meeting were represented by the statements of one Friend.

 

Perhaps we should simply begin to qualify every statement we make to others as related to the nature of Quaker beliefs. I often find myself doing that, mostly to prepare folks who might visit meeting that they will hear a lot of ideas that do not represent the meeting as a whole, even though they are stated in a manner that suggests the opinion is universally held. A question I ask of myself is: How can we begin to talk, when certain concepts are immediately rejected as illegitimate. I don’t mind if folks who attend meeting simply reject the experience of baptism out-of-hand, but please don’t generalize or project.

 

A final plea.

 

It is impossible to have discussions when others say that “I’m not like that, and my meeting isn’t like that.” I am grateful if your FGC meeting “is not like that.” But, please understand that for years, many Friends have experiences like those stated in this blog, and it is a very common occurrence. The “fact” that the critique is not representative of your liberal Quaker belief does not mean it does not exist.

A statement meant to exonerate your own practice and belief, as well as the belifs or practices of your meeting, It immediately cuts the conversation short by discrediting the experiences and observations of those who are challenging the liberal-liberal Quakerism.. In fact, I rarely if ever hear liberal-liberal Friends challenge such blanket statements, However, these Friends who are “not like that” will certainly be quick to challenge Christ-centered critiques.

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Comment by Stephanie Stuckwisch on 11th mo. 4, 2012 at 11:55pm

As a Christocentric Friend in a Liberal yearly meeting, I have witnessed and experienced the narrowness that you are describing.

My meeting tries to not fall into the open opposition, but the shifting discomfort can be seen when a message gets "too Christian".

I don't have an answer for the problem. I'm not sure there is one.

Many liberal Friends have lost touch with our roots and spiritual underpinning.

I do see hope when I speak with other liberal Friends who are reaching beyond our narrow confines.

Comment by scot miller on 11th mo. 5, 2012 at 8:08am

Thanks Stephanie. One of the reasons that I use the rather boorish moniker of "liberal-liberal" Friends is that I do find many FGC Quakers that are more than willing to have a discussion on Faith and Practice. It is the more liberal wing (but seemingly never radical) of FGC that is uncomfortable with the very thought of theological discussion or challenges to their assumptions. It is my belief that this significantly numbered portion of Friends do their best to eliminate the potential for Friends to have experienced God in a forthright and informative manner that provides a hermeneutic through which to give meaning to experience. Many Friends wish Quaker practice to be a "seeking only" practice with a deep distrust of those who are comfortable with our peculiar story.

Comment by Randy Oftedahl on 11th mo. 5, 2012 at 8:58am
Friend Scot;

Thank you for your post. I too have been frustrated by when Friends sometimes make categorical statements about “what Quakers believe” that seem very different from my understanding of Quakerism as I have experienced it - and sometimes radically different from how early Friends appear to have understood it. I have nothing at all against the diversity of belief and practice within the Society of Friends - in fact, I wonder if it is not one of our distinctive strengths, or should be. I have often pondered on the notion that if Friends - a theological microcosm of the Christian Church and beyond - can find a way to communicate in love across our numerous boundaries, what a powerful witness we might give the world about the way God can speak to each of our conditions.

But my hope would be that Friends would try to remain kind and considerate to where others are in their spiritual journey. As one very dear Friend put it, Christ is fully multilingual and multicultural and can meet everyone where they are at. So why not try and train ourselves to say, “this is what I believe,” or “this is where the Light has led me,” instead of trying to make assumptions about what other Friends believe or what God has revealed to them. It would be wonderful if we could remember to keep humble and remember we are all just Children of the Light - young, immature, and with very limited understanding. I agree with your point that Liberal Friends can miss this, but not just Liberal Friends.

Let me say again, Friend, that I am thankful for your thoughtful and thought-provoking words. They are most helpful.
Comment by scot miller on 11th mo. 5, 2012 at 10:49am

Thank thee kindly Friend Randy. I believe that I might consider thy thoughts and apply them to my tendency to use language as a weapon. Thy observations of how Friends might fall away from the use of loving communication may not have been directed at me, but has convicted me.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 11th mo. 5, 2012 at 10:58am

Friend Scot:

I appreciate your post.  It reflects similar experiences I have had and have observed at other times.

I was particularly drawn to your comments about people simply asserting that their own beliefs are 'Quaker' when such beliefs diverge from hundreds of years of Quaker Faith and Practice and do not reflect the majority of Quakers today.  You referrred to this as projecting individual experience onto the Quaker community as a whole.  I have thought of this kind of projection as a form of hyper-individualism.  In my own case I have experienced it in relationship to the peace testimony.  I had a discussion with what you refer to as a liberal-liberal Friend who asserted that the peace testimony was not incumbent upon Quakers; that it was merely a matter of individual conscience.  When I pointed out that older Quaker Disciplines asserted that members could be disowned for not adhering to the peace testimony, this meant nothing to the Friend I was talking with.  Quoting past Friends, referring to Quaker history, is irrelevant to this kind of hyper-individualist.  My sense is that such a person does not really join a Quaker Community; rather they join an organization which is structured in such a way as to allow them to express their opinion in an environment where they are unlikely to be challenged.  And that is why they find a home in a Quaker Meeting.

My sense is that there is at this time no process for introducing to people the basics of Quaker Faith and Practice as it has been historically understood.  Lacking any such process, people understandably feel free to inject their own opinions no matter how wildly at variance with the tradition.  I don't have any solution for this, just tentative speculations, but I do see it as a problem.

Thanks again,

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Randy Oftedahl on 11th mo. 5, 2012 at 11:51am

Friend Jim;

You have raised a couple of very good points here. How much of our identity as Friends have we sacrificed in our attempts to be open and sensitive to divergent beliefs and the individual wanderings of Friends? We may not want to return to the rigidity of the Quietist period, but how much have we lost in the way of remaining a "gathered" community? I’m thinking specifically of the "liberal liberal Friends", but again, not only. How do we strike a balance a dogmatic Quakerism and a "formless formless form"? And what happens when that hyper-individualism is the lone Christian Friend in the liberal liberal Meeting, or the Universalist Friend in the Evangelical Friends Church? Can we imply that the individualism of these Friends (though perhaps not ‘hyper’) might not have a prophetic witness to bring to their communities?

I think I’ve come to the position where I’m not very worried about the hyper-individual Friend as long as that Friend remains faithful to active listening and Quaker process. I truly believe, as Caroline Fox said, that if we live up to the Light we have, more will be granted us, and this leading will eventually bring us in unity; in other words, the hyper-individualist will become a little less hyper. But also, are we supposed to "adhere" to the Testimonies, as though they are some necessary creeds, or do we wait until they are revealed to us through waiting worship and faithfulness?

I am also intrigued by your statement about there being no process for introducing people to the basics of Quaker faith and practice - we do seem to ask a lot from osmosis sometimes, don’t we? I agree it’s a weighty problem.

Comment by Steven Davison on 11th mo. 6, 2012 at 8:56am

Lots of good stuff here. Though I am not a Christian myself by any of my own definitions, I am clear that as a nonChristian Friend I am a guest in Christ's house, and I am extremely grateful that I've been welcomed. I also am extremely exercised, as you Friends are, by the liberal-liberal tendency to take over the master bedroom and put Christ out on the couch. We have always been and still are a Christian community by virtue of our past history, our current demographics, and the practice of retaining our traditions until we formally lay them down in meetings gathered by the Holy Spirit. No meeting I know of has ever come to unity in a unity of the Spirit that it no longer is Christian.

That having been said, it's not at all clear that our liberal meetings are still gathered in Christ. Which maybe is why gathered meetings are now so rare that many Friends (in my experience) don't really know what it means anymore. As you might imagine, feeling this way leaves me personally feeling uncomfortable. If I believe that Quakerism is essentially Christian, then what am I doing here if I'm not? But that takes me away from my point.

I agree with Friend Oftedahl that this problem of ignorance and ignore-ance regarding our tradition calls for focused and energetic religious education, though in my experience, very often the people who most need to learn it are least likely to come to such a program. The only solution, it seems to me, is to pray that some Friends who do know it will feel called to a ministry of teaching in their vocal ministry. Then, at least, most everybody hears it. And it might open up a conversation, even though that conversation is likely to start with a bit of inappropriate eldering.

One more thing about sin. I'm not big on sin myself. Sure it exists. It would be ridiculous to say it didn't, really. But I understand the liberal resistance to the sin-salvation framework of traditional Christianity. The emphasis on God's nature and role as judge (rather than creator, healer, parent, friend, sustainer, etc), the expectation of a judgment in which my paltry sins could cast me into an eternal, pornographically violent punishment unless I believe that Jesus has taken my place on the cross as a divine and human sacrifice—this just isn't my experience of God or my reading of the gospel of Jesus himself (though I love the Bible in general, I do not trust John the evangelist on this matter, and John the revelator even less). It seems to me, in fact, actually religiously pathological. It warps human nature into a disease and defines the cure in bizarrely necromantic terms. I think this is what liberal Friends are reacting to when they hear the word "sin".

Nevertheless, we do sin, and we do need help in overcoming the temptation to do wrong—we do need the Light to show us our shadows. It is a big human problem. But at least as big is the problem of positive inspiration and guidance for life, and liberal Quakerism is actually pretty good at providing for a spirituality focused on positively opening to Gods/Christ's/the Holy Spirit's love, guidance, healing, and inspiration. And this, again, I think, is what excites the Liberal Friend—the experience of the Light as guide.

We need both. And I am grateful for both the traditional Quaker discovery of the redeeming power of the Light and for the more modern Liberal Quaker discovery of the Inner Light as Guide.

Comment by Gail Koehler on 11th mo. 6, 2012 at 9:09am

Friends, I appreciate this conversation, and am pained that you have experienced marginalization in any way.  Would that we might be in such a place of tenderness for each other and always speak out of a sense of deep connection to Spirit and each other--to carry with us a small piece of the most gathered worship we have ever experienced--so that such marginalization would not happen.  

When this ideal not always realized, I plea, however, for caution in labeling and talking about other Quaker Friends rather than to them.  And yes, I hear in the anecdotes shared that in spite of discomfort some who write here are engaging in continuing conversation and continuing relationship. It may be that I am over-sensitive to the hint of an "us vs. them" direction this discussion may be taking.  

That over-sensitivity may be defensive: if reported in a forum such as this, it may be that I would be seen as "liberal-liberal" by someone who heard a single comment of mine through the years.  What has saved both me and my meeting from that "being stuck" is the reaching out by others, and conversations, sometimes with more Christo-centric Friends, which have been very helpful to me over time.  Now, I would not presume to characterize my own individual orientations and struggles and consolations as being the received "Quaker" belief system.  Gentle engagement and an especially adept form of guidance  that became mutual discovery -- that is likely what did the trick.  In the spirit of continuing revelation, Friends who were clearly motivated by that first motion, love, offered books, articles, and an opportunity to discuss the material when I was ready and interested.  This generosity of spirit, and a sense that belief might not yet be fixed, is different than insisting on only seeking; these Friends enlarged my sense of what was possible by sharing their own experiences, and suggesting that there is a finding that aims to be Spirit-led and grounded in experience.  Again, never was there a didactic tone, from a lofty, weighty Friend to a lowly, less-experienced one: instead, I experienced  mutual respect, discovery, sharing, pursuit to find the best words at the time to capture experiences and leadings that lay beyond the reach of words.

I want also to note: within my household alone anyone polling the members might find very different responses to questions of theology or belief--what drew my family to unprogrammed Quaker worship 15 years ago was that it was not credal: we could belong to community and participate in worship without passing a test.  My children are now teenagers, and I hear them sometimes erring in presenting their fairly narrow experience as being "what Quakers believe," but exposure at yearly meeting and in RE discussions, to other views and ways of being Quaker, are moderating those teenage tendencies.  

As to how meetings introduce people to the basics of Quaker faith and practice, even here in the wilds of Kentucky, without proximity to established institutions such as colleges and Quaker schools, our monthly meeting offers frequent and recurring study sessions.  These used to be called "Quakerism 101" but that name rankled some as it was agreed that we are all still learning more deeply about our traditions.  Newcomers' packets are made available; both the teens and the adult RE sessions include shared readings and an opportunity to "try on" different experiences and approaches to Quakerism. 

I recently read a blog post about eldering (perhaps someone can remind  me whose?) where the author posited that we cannot elder those we do not love (I am paraphrasing).  My own take-away from this article, Friend Scot, and these thoughtful comments is that my own words come from very different places when I search my heart to find some love, first, before throwing my words into the mix.  Perhaps (as one not raised Quaker nor able to read and study as much as would be beneficial) this is obvious.  But I appreciate the space to share them.   

We are none of us finished products.  Perhaps that is the point of my too-many words.  Sometimes, what most unsettles me in another's comments turns out to be where Spirit is leading me to be open to interactions I cannot currently imagine.    In fact this is what drew me to Quaker worship: a sense that the miraculous is possible.

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 6, 2012 at 12:02pm
Many Friends - whether they be Christ-centered or not, liberal or evangelical, programmed or unprogrammed - have limited Quaker exposure. This is in regards to both our history and diversity of worship and belief. Therefore many statements are indeed made out of ignorance, rather than smugness.

I will readily admit that I have so erred. This is why a forum such as QuakerQuaker is so valuable. It acquaints us with the variety of Quaker thought and practice that is out there.

Friend Scot, I encourage you to speak openly from your Christ-centered vantage point within your meeting. In an important way, it is a gift of ministry I believe you are providing to your meeting. I sense from your comments that when you do so, you are not doing it with an aire of judgement. For we all are entitled to our choice of language to express the experience of the Light that is universal and available to all.

Before becoming a Quaker I was very Christ-centered. Quakerism (my meeting to be more specific) opened me up to the reality that the Light of Christ is the nourishing Light that is in the heart of all - just waiting to be experienced. Even though I now routinely use non-Christian language to describe my journey, I also still use Christian terminology as well. Kind of like someone who has become fluent in several languages (i.e., English, French, and Chinese) to describe the same experience. The experience is the same, even if the languages are different. I haven't forgotten my original language and still love it - I am now also aware and open to the validity of other languages.

The above paragraph describes what I believe is the great gift liberal Quakerism gives to the Christian dialogue. However, to wholesale ignore and reject Christian terms is to turn our backs on our original "language", as though it has no value. When individual Friends attempt to do so in the name of the whole meeting, or in the name of Quakerism, all of us are obligated to lovingly and gently correct this ignorance, as we also respect the language of others.
Comment by John Vechey on 11th mo. 7, 2012 at 4:23pm

I posted this on Reddit, and thought it was only fair to post it here to hear other people's thoughts who aren't there, as well as the original author.

One of the things that has appealed to me about Quakerism is how the verbal description of beliefs take second fiddle to the actions of the said quaker.

This article/post sort of angered me even. I felt like there was a hypocrisy of labeling a group as "liberal-liberal" and pointing out problems or issues with how a group acts or talks, without trying to understand where the people are coming from.

For example, the author is doing to "liberal-liberals" what he is complaining about. Namely his personal view of quakerism (there is sin), with an argument against someone's else's view (there isn't sin).

One of the great things that appeal to me about quakerism as I understand it is that it's not about the words, and that while there is no doctrine there are right and wrong ways to live and exist in the world and in the light.

I'm a pretty liberal Quaker-attendee, thinking about being a member, but I also expend a lot of emotional, mental, and spiritual energy trying to listen to and see the beauty, truth and light in Christian language as I have had a rough history with Christianity as I've experienced it. Perhaps I'm being unfair or being as one sided as the author is.

Would love thoughts from others.

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