Ways Quakers differ from other Christians

Admittedly, it’s hard to generalize. And not everyone agrees we’re even Christian, though our historic roots certainly are. In addition, for some of these, it’s more a matter of degree in comparison to some other faith traditions.

With that, let me suggest that those of us in the Society of Friends (Quakers) are distinguished by our:

  1. Open worship conducive to reflection or even meditation, at least for some part of the service. This is best seen in the traditional hour of silent Meeting.
  2. Personal direct experience of the Divine, rather than what I’ll call speculative theology.
  3. Queries to guide personal daily practice and awareness rather than recitation of dogma or creed.
  4. Emphasis on what we do in all facets of our lives rather than on what we believe or are supposed to believe.
  5. Metaphor rather than law as the language of our faith.
  6. Corporate decision-making. No vote. (This could lead to a whole other Tendrils entry!)
  7. No outward sacraments. Baptism is of the Holy Spirit, not water.
  8. Shared discipleship. We learn to listen to each other openly, sometimes even as “listening in tongues.”
  9. Pacifism and non-violence as essential tenants of faithfulness. Here, we unite with Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren as historic peace denominations, though Quakers are more likely to take public action.
  10. We find our name appropriated by whole lines of products we don’t make, starting with Quaker Oats. What other denomination is so, uh, honored, apart from some later applications of Amish in recent years? Seriously!

 

Care to share in my field notes from a lifetime’s zigzag trip?

Writing has been a means for me to investigate the question, “Who am I,” and of recollecting fragments, especially those that might eventually coalesce into a larger perspective. Unlike many adults, I have few vivid childhood memories, but what I am piecing together is often troubling. I grew up in Ohio in a mainstream Protestant tradition, became an Eagle scout, loved chemistry, hiked and camped, that sort of thing. I can blame becoming a hippie on my first lover, and thank her, too, for pointing my life in an unanticipated direction even after she flew ever so far away.

In the years since, I’ve followed a zigzag journey that’s been rich in many ways excepting money. Let’s just say it’s been off-beat.

Now retired from a career in daily newspaper journalism, I’ve married for the second time, live in a historic mill town in the seacoast region of New Hampshire, and am an active Quaker. It’s a full plate. What I didn’t expect was how much of my own “contemporary” fiction is now history – so much has changed so quickly in my own lifetime.

It’s hardly the end of the story, though. Not if we can help it.

 

Passing the plate 53

As our parade of vanity auto tags continues, it’s time for me to confess. For years, this was mine. My Friends were always happy the state motto didn’t appear at the top.

At contradances, I sometimes parked next to pianist and tunesmith Bob McQuillan, whose plate was off by one letter to read QUACKER. Seems one of the students at the school where he taught carpentry kept telling him that all she heard when he was angry was Quack, Quack, Quack.

Wish I had a shot of the two parked side by side.

 

Speaking Truth to power

We’ve heard the phrase a lot lately, but few know that it originated as a Quaker expression.

Most of us Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, assumed it was one of those many great expressions from the beginning of the movement, back in the upheavals of the mid-1600s.

Not so, it turns out. Nor even the 1700s or 1800s. It’s much more recent than that.

The expression originated with a 1955 pamphlet published by the American Friends Service Committee titled “Speak Truth to Power: a Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,” which promoted pacifism.

Still, it rings true to the early Quakers, who spoke boldly with an alternative Christianity that  brought many changes to British and American society. The faith and its practice went far beyond mere religion. It extended through one’s relationships, including labor, possessions, business, politics, education, leisure, and nearly everything else.

For them, Truth was Christ, so speaking Truth to those in authority was to challenge the rulers and oppressors, countering them with the greater life and dominion of Jesus.

This goes way, way beyond being factually correct.

It’s more like invoking what others might do when they form a sign of the Cross when facing a demon.

Let’s not forget that authority.

Coming to unity on a boiling issue

In the Society of Friends, or Quakers, we never vote on the  issues before us as a community but rather pursue a more difficult route of finding unity in which everyone is in agreement. It’s not exactly consensus but rather trying to find the leading of the Holy Spirit.

It’s an amazing practice, actually, even though one person can hold up the motion of everyone else. Sometimes, as we’ve each discovered, that one person is closer to Truth than the rest of us. And so we labor together until clarity appears.

Without going into the details now, I’ll turn to a recent example of that discipline.

As we Friends in my congregation considered our response to recent racial affronts in America, we realized our reaction needed to go far beyond putting up a banner on the meetinghouse wall facing a busy downtown street or, for that matter, reciting certain trendy catchphrases.

As some among us observed, we needed to go to the spiritual heart of the conflict.

Here’s what emerged, a proclamation we recorded, after months of deep reflection, in our monthly meeting for business records. We do not do such things easily.

~*~

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2, RSV)

Dover Friends Meeting affirms the deep truth we find in Black Lives Matter. It aligns with our conviction that there is that of God in each person.

Within our Meeting, we have Friends who have benefitted from racial privilege based on whiteness and those who have experienced pain, privation, and even peril because, as people of color, the onerous weight of institutional racism has been heaped upon them. Together, we reject the cultural fiction that “whiteness” has intrinsic value.

We hear, instead, a call to unity across our differences in our Meeting and in our society at large. This unity is a foundational truth of our lives. It stands firm on the bedrock of our primary experience that the Divine dwells within each.

In our entanglement with institutional racism, we have run afoul of Paul’s advice, “Do not be conformed to this world.” We sense a divine invitation to open ourselves to the revealing of ways we must cast off conformity to systems that unfairly benefit some and prepare ourselves for transformation through the renewing of our minds and hearts.

We come to this moment humble and ready. The rigor of the task ahead necessitates that we do this work, individually and collectively, in faithful Quaker community. We pledge to each other mutual accompaniment.

Dover Friends Meeting commits to proceed actively, following Spirit’s leading, to live into new ways to manifest equality and unity in our meeting, the Religious Society of Friends, and in our secular society.

For the first time since 1661, we won’t be gathering face-to-face

The clerks’ table in a previous year in Vermont. The presiding clerk, standing, is flanked by reading clerks and recording clerks as he attempts to summarize the “sense of the meeting” and recognize Friends in the auditorium who wish to speak to the item at hand.

The top level of governance in the Society of Friends is the yearly meeting, so-named because it gathers once a year in decision-making sessions. The constituent local congregations, in contrast, are termed monthly meetings, since they gather in business sessions once a month. (Yes, it’s confusing, since we sit together in worship at least once a week as well.) Everyone active at the local level is welcome to participate in the annual sessions.

Rather than having a single overarching yearly meeting, ours exist independently, originally on a regional basis. Something like the various strands of Eastern Orthodox, for that matter, with the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox the best known of many.

Among Quakers, New England Yearly Meeting is the world’s oldest, founded in 1661, and was held in Newport, Rhode Island, until 1903. Since then we’ve gathered for a week each August on college campuses or other residential sites around the six-state region. In my time here, that’s been Hampshire in Massachusetts, Bowdoin in Maine, and Castleton in Vermont, and I’ve heard tales of the years the event was held in a camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

It’s a solemn and joyous occasion, one that many participants – and many families – schedule their work vacation time around. It’s something like a huge class reunion, too, where you reconnect with many people you hold dear. And living in a college dorm, as most of us do, it’s not uncommon to find that random pairings among those of us who go solo turn into regular roommates, year after year.

So I’m still stunned by the announcement a few weeks ago that we will not be meeting in person this summer, due to the coronavirus. Yes, we will be attempting something online, but it won’t be the same.

Among the faces and late-night conversations I’ll be missing.

Just as jarring is the more recent cancellation of summer sessions at Friends Camp in Maine. For many of our kids, it’s a highlight of their year, and friendships they form there sustain them through high school and college. As one of our neighbors says, a camper who became a counselor, the news is a bummer.

Amen.

 

Ten things I like about being Quaker

Coming to join the Society of Friends, or Quakers, puts me in a unique religious circle.

Here are ten examples.

~*~

  1. Nobody bosses me around. Well, not if the mutual discipleship we know as eldering is conducted in a loving and good order. In the old days, though, it was often quite restricting.
  2. Deep roots. We have a rich history, originating in the mid-1600s social and political upheavals in Britain, and a distinctive lifestyle to draw on for inspiration. Yes, lifestyle. While most Friends have dropped the distinctive Plain clothing and speech, we do hew to simplicity, honesty, integrity, equality, and non-violence in our daily lives. There are good reasons many modern Quakers drive a Prius.
  3. Mystical renewal. The core of Quaker worship is open worship, which is part of even pastoral Friends’ services, admittedly in a shortened form. In the traditional “silent” worship, it can be an hour of profound group meditation and rejuvenated awareness of the Holy Spirit.
  4. The timeless aesthetic. I hate to admit there were times in Quaker history where the restrictions would have been unbearable for me. But I am drawn to the witness that arose in it as demonstrated in the architecture of our old meetinghouses or the accounts of tender family life or the amazing prose of the ministry.
  5. Room to keep growing. Quaker faith is multifaceted. Spiritually, one can move about from Bible study to prayer to silent reflection to “mutual irradiation” with other faith traditions and back. Socially, there are many ways to serve within the congregation – in fact, volunteer service is crucial to the existence of the Meeting and the wider world of Friends. On top of that, our faith draws us to public witness, especially in matters of peace, equality, environmental action, and the like.
  6. We have only three degrees of separation – not seven. You’d be surprised how quickly you can find answers through Meeting connections.
  7. It’s my core community. Here are my kindred spirits, the people I respect and treasure.
  8. I have friends nearly everywhere. When I go to a new place, I quickly connect through Quaker Meeting – even if I’m just visiting. In fact, Friends in Cuba and Kenya open my eyes to Third World awareness.
  9. My family history and lost identity. When I joined Friends, I had no idea my father’s side had been Quaker from the outbreak of the movement right up to the 20th century. Reclaiming that identity gives me an internal perspective.
  10. Social justice issues. There’s no way I can address all of the world’s ills, but it is comforting to know that Friends are tackling key issues and deserve my support.

~*~

What do you like about your own path of faith?

Looking into the past

Apponegansett Friends meetinghouse in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts

Sometimes when I stop at old Quaker meetinghouses, I’ll try to take a photo of the interior through the windows. Reflections make it tricky, in this case casting an image of me and my camera back at  us. What remains is the rustic interior of the 1790 Apponegansett Friends meetinghouse in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, viewed from the former women’s side of the house, with a set of cedar dividing shutters lifted out of sight in the middle. The gallery for ministers and elders is at the left, and seating for the general membership is at the right. Does it get any simpler than this?