Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I recall my first clearness committee for membership twenty-three years ago. Six months earlier, I had attended my first Quaker meeting, "Unprogrammed," and that was a parenthetical part of the title on the nondescript sign in front of the meeting house. Having read various writings by George Fox, Howard Brinton, John Punshon, Elton Trueblood, and Robert Barclay's Apology in addition to many early Pendle Hill Pamphlets, I embraced the basic theology that existed among early Friends. When I explored that theology with the clerk of the meeting and a couple of older women, the clerk was appalled because as he said, "Not all Friends believe that way." The couple found my view refreshing though they also did not subscribe.
Through the years working with Friends in FWCC, FGC, FUM and Conservative Friends I discovered that Friends meetings are reflections of early Christian orthodoxy. Based on community presence Christians and Friends developed their local theologies based on community acceptance. Saul of Tarsus following his conversion experienced this community myopia during his travels and even from imprisonment in Rome was sending out disciples to put out theological fires and chime in on disputes. Taken broadly his epistles can seem contradictory, though the problems he dealt with were rather specific in nature. Much of the problem of spreading out across Asia Minor and the Mediterranean states was fitting Christianity to the customs and mores of previously pagan communities. After the fall of Jerusalem the nearest large Jewish communities were in Damascus, Persia and Rome; so much for judeo-christianity in Palestine! The same thing has been happening among Friends.
American Friends, up until the French Indian War, had been as cosmopolitan as their mentors in Britain. Certainly, Friends abandoning the Pennsylvania legislature when Ben Franklin was arranging for transport of supplies and munitions to the front stretching from the Great Lakes to New England did much to bring on Quietude, which was not shared with English Friends. American friends developed in isolated communities often more than a day's ride from individual home steads. Many of their non-Friend contemporaries were quite the opposite from Friends, proudly illiterate, boorish, addicted to whiskey (which also was used for currency in the wild), and given to brutal violence. American Friends turned in on themselves as if there had been an epidemic of depression and would have died out had controversy not arisen in the 1820s. Hence the Wilburite-Hicksite split,the Wilburite, Hicksite, Guerneyite split, and the twentieth century split that eventually gave us Evangelical Friends. Yet, even within current yearly meetings there are Friends that do not want to be associated with "Quakers," taking on a community church manner of autonomy and co-opting the Friend's name.
Perhaps the greatest dividing issue since I became a Friend is homophobia. Though Pendle Hill Pamphlets published in the 1970s explored homosexuality and worship, and gave its de facto blessing, it is still an issue of contention, even among liberal friends. When my home meeting, which advertised in the local gay bar news throughout the 1980s, finally minuted in the 1990s that our meeting would be accepting and nurturing of same gender relationships, it was not without losing long time members. During my years in seminary, I both worshipped and ministered among FUM Friends and though it was an issue open for discussion in Eastern Indiana, and discovered yearly meetings farther west would not even engage in discussion. It was difficult serving congregations that spoke out about dissent and alternative life styles like the Ayatollahs of modern day Iran.
During my sojourn at Earlham School of Religion (E.S.R.), I did not feel the pressure of controversy from the students, faculty, or administration. Gay and lesbian Friends did attend and graduate from E.S.R. and were respected members of student government and ministry teams. Yet, the churches in the hinterlands wanted their Yearly Meeting to disconnect from Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion because they did not actively discourage GLBTQ folks from attending. Many churches closed their doors rather than reaching out to a wider community. It was sad, too, because several of the children of pillars in such churches were deep in the closet. Having many contacts in the transgender community it was not hard to find out who was who. I, too, was in a closet, being a transgender person that had dismissed the idea of extreme makeover. Not sharing my own feelings in that area may have been dishonest, but I had good reason to fear being open. Not a day went by that some "Friend" was making some threat against the queer community. Of course, I experienced similar elitism regarding work teams to Native American Quaker missions. My Mohawk-Cherokee spouse had an interesting time speaking truth to power in that situation. I think that the holier-than-thou attitude of people less invested in the theology of George Fox is a closet that Jesus tried to expose in his concerns about the Sadducees and Pharisees in their hypocritical attempt to feel in control. In my own life, I was ministering to people without addressing the immorality of homophobia, a hypocrisy I will always regret. At one point, I was called on the carpet by women Friends who objected to my belief in the testimony of equality of genders. Trying to find a silver lining in that cloud, I often imagined how Lucretia Mott would have gotten on with this congregation.
Finally I resigned and went on disability due to medical issues that hung like a sword over my head when I had been candidating for a pastoral position. When a home was made available for us in Oregon we moved there. I went to one meeting at an EFI church nearby, and was told that I was lucky that I had not gone to Freedom Friends Church "which caters to gay people." That was enough to guide us to Freedom Friends, where I was delighted to find the fruition of a dream I once heard about at E.S.R. when Alivia Biko and Peggy Parsons were present for Common Meal. Little did I know that my comment of "If there was a Friends church like that where I live, I'd want to be a part of it" would give me the opportunity to put my money and presence where my mouth was. Like the early Christians another community has emerged, one that accepts the spiritual gifts of people more often than not disenfranchised from the wider body of Friends.
Christianity emerged from various forces, empires and indigenous communities. Many of those communities were labeled as dangerous and heretical. Many disappeared over time, others evolved and adapted to the environment which engendered them. The Nestorians are gone as are the Gnostics, their line of legitimacy sputtered out like a candle. The various Orthodox churches evolved th0roughly tied to the politics of their region. The Roman church more often than not blundered through history and somehow managed to survive. Protestants are relatively short lived but their contributions to austerity, polity and theology helped redefine the older sects. Quakers are no different. Is the autonomous monthly meeting the Religious Society of Friends a strength or is it a defect that will cause the Society to fade into oblivion in the western world? Is the lack of a central authority to interpret the testimonies of Friends as a whole through nearly four centuries going precipitate a watering down of the testimonies to the point that they are unknown to the membership? Is it not time for the entire Society to see GLBTQ Friends as partners in ministry? When Friends attempt to understand the differences beyond the gut reaction based on homogeneous community, they will finally become a heterogeneous one.
Always the questions,