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The journal of a divergent Friend by John Stephens.

Banned by QuakerQuaker.


From the Episcopal Church, with her imposing ritual and elaborate ceremonials, down to modern Quakerism, with its professed abjuration of all forms, its rustic garb and look of “meek simplicity,” all seem deluded with the idea that the Church, being made after a Divine pattern, is supernaturally preserved from error. Even the Quaker regards the decision of his Yearly Meeting with a superstitious reverence scarcely inferior to that which the Catholic awards to the decrees of the Pope and the Cardinals.

Do his reason and common sense suggest that the Yearly Meeting has decided erroneously or unjustly, he banishes the thought as little less than im-pious, becomes silent if not acquiescent, and mayhap lays his reason and common sense a sacrifice on the altar of the Church.

Poor man! let him be once fairly convinced that ecclesiastical bodies, however sacred their professions, however worthy of esteem within their legitimate sphere, are yet only human, and without authority to bind the conscience even of the humblest of God’s children, and he will no longer dare to offer such a sacrifice, to dishonor his Creator by debasing his powers.

from the Exposition of Sentiments, a seminal statement of the spiritual principles of liberal Friends

I’ve been thinking about the dangerous idolatry of asserting that prayerful Quaker process leads inexorably to finding “God’s will”. God’s will is God’s alone to know— the best we can do is follow the measure of revelation we are given, tempered by mature human will.

As the above authors point out, the Church is not “supernaturally preserved from error”, and when the Church falls into error, divergent Friends must be faithful to the leadings that God reveals to them, laboring with the remnant to follow the promptings of love and truth.


A dress code worthy of Friends gathering in Wichita

In light of the 2010 Young Adult Friends gathering this weekend, a friend of mine posted the following comment on Facebook, that I felt was worth repeating and considering with care:

Some people are concerned about the dress code for the YA Gathering in Wichita— here’s a thought. Dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength… and regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic all purpose garment. Never be without it. Col 3:12-14 (The Message)

I don’t have The Message, but here’s how the NRSV translates the same lines from Paul’s letter to the Colossian church:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves in kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Faithful communities do well to heed Paul’s advice. For walking in brotherhood, there are no better threads than these. But in some locales, the weather can change suddenly, and it’s wise to pack extra clothes when traveling into unknown climates. Luckily, Paul’s closet has attire for these occasions:

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. […] Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of justice. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God

— Ephesians 6:12-17 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

The images of spiritual warfare aren’t as popular among today’s liberal Quakers as they were among the first Friends. Heck, many of us are too meek for our own good, accepting passivity as a bitter substitute for our calling as pacifists. Many of us are so accustomed to the refuge of peace offered by the silence of our unprogrammed worship, we forget that this peace is the fruit of struggle: struggle within ourselves, struggle with the Spirit, and even struggle with each other.

The willingness to struggle with one another in a spirit of justice and truth, while walking the gospel of peace, is just as vital as wearing humility, meekness, and love. Paul was aware that even the heavenly places can fall prey to the spiritual powers of darkness, and he equipped his friends accordingly. Even fellowship among Friends can be debased and dehumanized by invisible principalities; the armor of God gives us a metaphor for the dignity and nobility to face those principalities squarely: to name them plainly, and to refute them with the word— a New Testament expression for the personal, incarnate nature of God’s presence and movement among us.

For liberal Friends, that means hewing to the personal, incarnate Light that enlightens every one of us. Even if you reject all images and language of “God” as idols, your revelation and prophetic voice is every bit as vital as those who claim the Christian culture and language. Your concerns, your leadings, and your calling is the sword of the Spirit for naming and refuting the reign of darkness.

My purpose here is not to promote discord among those of you attending the conference in Wichita this weekend. In fact, I urge you to greet each sister and brother as the beloved of God, clothed in the “compassion, kindness, humility, and quiet strength” that Paul commends to the Colossian church— however weak, or humble, or misguided any one may be in your sight.

Yet, if the climate changes, and the horizon is choked by clouds— trumped-up authorities, obscure prohibitions, doublespeak, or whatever —clothes of kindness and humility may not be enough. Standing firm with each other in love will still be crucial, but I urge you to muster the dignity and nobility to name and refute those powers. Please, do not let it be your regret that you did not speak or act in the spirit of Truth.

This is a “dress code” consistent with the gathering’s theme: “Bearing Witness to the Word Among Us”. Each and every one of you is a trustee of the word. If you are called to attend this gathering in Wichita, be faithful to the word you are given, however trivial or divergent it may seem. Your testimony may be the unassailable armor that holds back a tide of darkness or provides a space for healing and reconciliation.


Divergent Friends community and a fully catholic communion

The 2010 Young Adult Friends Gathering in Wichita, about which I’ve written with concern here before, is happening this weekend. In short, I find the rules problematic, and the apparent disdain for critical public dialog is unworthy of Friends— but there’s no reason to rehash those matters in detail here.

On the other hand, I am very supportive of cross-branch interchange and fellowship undertaken in a spirit of authentic welcome. Some of my Friends have expressed anxiety and distrust over the premise of the YAF gathering: Is it even possible for Friends of different branches to come together in a community based on honesty, respect, and caring? What basis can there possibly be for reconciliation, or even fellowship?

The term for a fully-inclusive community is catholic, in the sense of “universal” and “all-embracing”. A catholic church is a body united in fellowship with authentic welcome for all its members. Building a catholic church begins with establishing ties and routinely fostering communion. There are numerous biblical models for catholic communion, and it is a quality of the prophetic faith that is central to my experience of Christian revelation in the context of Quaker practice. At its best, the Quaker movement is a uniquely catholic church, one that gathers Friends from the entire gamut of religious or irreligious experience and binds them together into a prophetic, torah-seeking community with a distinct vocation and ministry.

It should go without saying that I deem liberal Friends as an explicit trustee of this catholic inheritance. In my view, liberal Friends are at the very frontier of the faith, providing scope for fully-inclusive communion that grafts even the most divergent Friends into the covenant we inherit from the seed of Abraham.

Unfortunately, Quaker history is rife with the very opposite of catholic communion: excommunication, disownment, shunning, and schism; again and again, Friends have shown themselves unworthy of their calling. In light of that history, it takes a lot of courage to go beyond anxiety and mistrust to meet with Friends across the lines that presently divide us, even as we are haunted by those who see no basis for fellowship. After all, who has gone there before?

The book of discipline for Baltimore Yearly Meeting contains an artifact of one such experience: the consolidation of the Orthodox and Hicksite Yearly Meetings into one fellowship in 1968. Like the Wichita conference, BYM's reunion was apparently championed by young Friends. The following 1964 “Statement on Spiritual Unity" describes the basis for fostering a more catholic communion among them:

Our two Yearly Meetings have a wide, rich, and diverse heritage, chiefly from historic Christianity interpreted by Quakerism. We not only tolerate diversity, we encourage and cherish it. In every local Meeting we struggle, usually patiently, with the problems that arise from our divergent convictions; and we usually find ourselves richer for our differences. In most if not all of the Monthly Meetings within the two Yearly Meetings will be found, successfully co-existing, persons as far apart in religious vocabulary and practice as there are anywhere in the Yearly Meetings. Yet these Friends worship together every Sunday, and share nourishment for their spiritual life. Such association is beneficial and even necessary.

Friends in our two Yearly Meetings are clear on certain principles which are so basic and essential that we tend to take them for granted and forget that they are essential and probably the only essentials. We all are clear that religion is a matter of inward, immediate experience. We all acknowledge the guidance of the Inner Light—the Christ Within—God’s direct, continuing revelation. All our insights are subject to testing by the insight of the group, by history and tradition, and by the Bible and the whole literature of religion. All the Meetings for Worship of our Monthly Meetings aspire to openness to God’s communication directly with every person. Worship is primarily on the basis of expectant waiting upon the Spirit, a communion with God in which mediators or symbols are not necessary. We are all clear that faith is directly expressed in our daily living. We all seek to move toward goals of human welfare, equality, and peace.

We have a profound, often-tested, durable respect for each individual’s affirmation of his own religious experience, which must be judged not only by his words but also by his life. From the stimulus of dissimilarity, new insights often arise. Each Friend must, as always, work out for himself his own understanding of religion; and each Monthly Meeting must, as always, fit its practice to its own situation and the needs of its members.

I find it particularly notable that this statement affirms the role of mutual respect while also acknowledging the vitalizing effect of struggle “with problems that arise from our divergent convictions”. It reminds me of another episode of reconciliation from our prophetic heritage: the account of Jacob and Esau from Genesis 32, through which Jacob’s identity is transformed into “Israel”— Godwrestler —“for you have striven with God and with humans”. Mutual respect and struggle are essential for a catholic communion of divergent Friends.

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this revelation.

— Deuteronomy 29:29 (NRSV†)

The catholic communion of divergent Friends is part of the revelation that belongs to us and to our children forever. Young adult Friends have a particular legacy of fostering this revelation— the reunion of Baltimore Yearly Meeting is one example that I find both relevant and inspiring. It can be a thankless and haunted ministry, as the Wichita planning committee can probably attest. But in order to foster a catholic spirit of authentic welcome, history recommends that we take seriously the constructive roles of mutual respect and patient struggle.

The Hebrew word torah is rendered here as “law”; torah “is usually translated as ‘instruction’, but it may also be translated ‘law’, ‘guidance’, ‘teaching’, or ‘revelation’. Quaker ‘leadings’ are ‘torah’.” —from “The Servant Church”, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 328, by Ricardo Elford and Jim Corbett.


Whose house is it? The priorities of ecumenical community

My wife and I moved in with her parents after our daughter was born, and we lived with them for several years. As a young family with little savings, just back from art school in San Francisco, it would have been impossible for us to afford a place of our own. But living as a multi-generational family had a lot of benefits, not least among them the profound relationship my daughter now has with her grandparents. They built their own house when my wife was a child, and my daughter’s first bedroom was the room my wife grew up in. My wife’s parents share a lot of our values and they gave us the space we needed to get our bearings as parents, while offering us immense loving support when we needed it. We all worked hard, together, for a richer life.

But living with my wife’s parents, even in this unoppressive way, required us to give up some things we enjoyed about living on our own. For instance, in San Francisco, every Tuesday we had friends over to cook and share new and delicious foods. But living in a multi-generational family, entertaining guests was sometimes awkward to schedule, and any time visitors were coming, one of my wife’s parents would get anxious. As a result, and out of respect, we rarely had friends over except during holidays and birthdays and other special occasions, and we never had gatherings of people our age at the house. Although in many important ways my in-laws treated us as equals, we knew and showed respect for whose house we were in.

Now we live one hundred twenty miles away from the in-laws, and our life together is different. We don’t tidy our apartment as often as we should, and we sit around reading or drawing more than we used to. We play board games that my wife’s parents wouldn’t enjoy, and we laugh at the spunky humor of The Simpsons and Sgt. Frog. When my wife’s parent’s visit us, we clean the place up, but they adjust to our patterns more than when we visit them.

When it comes to family and friends, it’s easy to adjudicate who is the host and who is the guest; and our culture teaches us how to respect each other’s boundaries in each role. When I visit loved ones in their home, I know whose rules and norms I have to follow, and when someone visits me, I am sensitive to their interests and needs. When we meet on unbiased ground, we have to negotiate rules and norms together, and it’s very rare that we require formal judgments or arbitration. We know how to do this.

When it comes to interfaith or cross-branch dialog, it’s important to be clear whose house, whose rules, and whose agenda provide the context of the conversation. When we’re at your house, your values will take priority, no matter how welcoming you intend to be. The same at my house. A space dominated by the rules and norms of one party or another might be the best place at a given time to invite cross-branch dialog, but such an invitation does not automatically create a climate of authentic welcome; and in such cases, it’s okay to speak plainly about whose house it is. To meet on unbiased ground in a truly ecumenical spirit, the rules and norms must be allowed to emerge consensually, through the informal negotiation that happens when people are getting to know each other, adjudicated, for Friends, through prayerful Quaker process when cases of conflict arise.

In a recent post, I talked about rules governing the 2010 Young Adult Friends conference in Wichita, some of which I find problematic. My main question was “What concrete problems are the planners worried about that they think these rules will solve?”†

Could there be a more respectful way to address those concerns? I wondered aloud if they looked at the rules and norms that govern other ecumenical Quaker bodies, like Great Plains Yearly Meeting, which is hosting the conference, or Baltimore Yearly Meeting to which I belong, a consolidated body that includes both Hicksite and Orthodox Friends.

Since then, a Friend unaffiliated with the conference, as far as I know, posted an essay defending the rules on a “convergent" Quaker hype site, recounting in detail several experiences at wild religious conferences where people failed to identify and respect healthy boundaries.

The piece was eye-opening, which I said in a comment that got me banned from the site.

John Stephens wrote: This is a cogent, touching and lucid post./ I've never experienced anything like that before, and I doubt I'd go again if that were the culture./ I have done workshops in a maximum-security prison before, where participants formulated their own ground rules, based on Quaker process, and my experience is that people can respect each other's needs and boundaries quite well when there is open conversation about what those boundaries are and how we can best respect and support each other. Oops, comments are closed on this post, as I found out only after I posted one that I thought was friendly and respectful.

Obviously, concrete problems arise in community when people do not labor which each other to understand and respect each other’s needs and boundaries. So, is a legalistic decree by a central planning committee the best way to foster the understanding and respect that is vital to open community?

With love, I say no! Publishing such a document as a requirement to participation is saying very clearly, even if unintentionally, “this is my house! Here you accept my priorities, and follow my agenda.” Setting such specific, theologically biased rules short circuits the spirit of welcome the planners have trumpeted in videos, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook updates, and elsewhere. Again, I say: To meet on unbiased ground in a truly ecumenical spirit, the rules and norms must be allowed to emerge consensually.

If and when informal ways of reaching consent fail, the unique process Quakers follow in meeting for business is available; and it serves us well, even if it does not produce swift agreement. In fact, I think it serves us well because it does not produce an agreement too swiftly, giving us time to think carefully and critically, sifting for divine leadings that address real relational needs, all while keeping us in loving struggle with one another. This last point is crucial, I think: Friends do not practice shunning or disownment, nor do we break off relationships without clearness.

In Encounter With Silence, John Punshon rightly regards the Quaker business meeting as the defining feature of Quaker practice that spans all branches. Through this spirit-led process, we can live together under the same roof, and seek the priorities that unite us with understanding and respect, without anyone claiming special authority over the house and its rules.

† Note: Since posting that question, I’ve learned through informal channels that the rules under discussion were not created by the current planning committee, but adopted by them from a similar gathering held in 2008. In my opinion, that was a mistake, but people make mistakes with the best intentions; I don’t impute any malice on anyone involved.

On the other hand, I think the question is still relevant, and the consensual process that defines the way Quakers seek clearness is one answer I hope that Friends will take seriously.

Why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors or we have been able to bear?
— Acts 15:10 (NRSV)

Rules & ecumenism in Wichita

As a young liberal Quaker keen on ecumenism and interfaith exchange, I’ve followed the media blasts about this year’s Young Adult Friends conference in Wichita with interest. From the beginning, it’s been advertised as an opportunity for fellowship with a diverse variety of Friends, hosted by meetings affiliated with Evangelical Friends Church, Friends General Conference, and Friends United Meeting, three of the four prominent branches of the Quaker movement. This could be an edifying weekend of worthy crossfire and friendly counterpoint, or at the very least, a powder-keg of theological and ecclesiological challenges. In other words, good times!

But what really caught my attention was Chuck Fager’s review of the conference rules published by the Wichita planning committee as “Expectations for Community (PDF)”. Chuck bristled over the rules about dressing modestly (including a brand-specific ban on goggles, swim wear, and summer clothing), abstaining from sex (even for committed couples, in private), and especially over the apparent interdict on open conversation about sexuality or queer issues. Although his argument was couched in sarcasm, the vital point he made was this:

It is bad practice to treat adults like children, and bad practice for adults to go along with such treatment.

Indeed, who is afraid that people will show up to a religious conference and act like they are at Burning Man? What concrete problems are the planners worried about that they think these rules will solve?

I’ve been waiting for someone on the planning committee to speak up about this, to publish something in response. Because frankly, it’s embarrassing. I participate in interfaith work in my own community, and imposing such restrictions on the conversation and community before-hand would never fly. Part of practicing a spirit of hospitality across such divisions involves expecting and respecting the maturity of others, and allowing them to express their differences openly as adults among adults. Everyone comes to the table with their own needs and their own standards; we’re not united by a prefabricated agreement to sanitize our behavior, but by mutual love for what is friendly and honorable and noble.

But the YAF planning committee has not published a response, and I can think of at least a few reasons why:

  1. The criticism is both upsetting and embarrassing.

    I imagine this is the main one, and I believe they have every right to feel annoyed and upset. It’s natural to feel distressed when you’re working hard to serve others and someone publicly criticizes your efforts.

    On the other hand, I know Chuck personally, and I’ve spent a lot of time working with him on a variety of projects— I can’t speak on his behalf, but I believe that he writes out of great love for the unique vocation of the Church expressed in Quaker practice. But it’s easy to see how his style can offend people.

    The question is whether his argument has merit. Being able to talk about hurt feelings is gonna be pretty important if we really want to have cross-branch dialog, folks. Quaker-Up! William Penn was thrown in prison for writing A Sandy Foundation Shaken, but that didn’t silence him! From solitary confinement, he wrote No Cross, No Crown as a public response to those who criticized him.

    My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot: for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.

    William Penn, you are awesome.

    There’s a good reason early Friends embraced the moniker “Publishers of Truth”: The Quaker experiment was not limited to individual leadings, or isolated communities who chose the guidance of the Inner Light— the Society certainly derived its dynamism from such experiments, but its long-term vitality was grounded in publishing the findings of these experiments, for verification as well as thorough, sometimes painful critical feedback.

    Publishing and exposing our assumptions to critical feedback is the way we grow.

  2. The opinion of a Quaker elder is irrelevant— this is a young adult Friends gathering.

    You weren’t invited anyway, Chuck! Booyah.

    A Friend† said something like this to me last week, so I imagine that others might feel the same. “I’d have a lot more respect if you spoke,” he added, and that’s part of the reason for this post.

  3. The event is almost here and the planning committee is just so dang busy planning and traveling and graduating from college and whatnot.

    I empathize. It’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to coordinate communications and schedules among so many other demands on your life and energy. If that’s the case, why not say so? “We want to respond to this, but we’re feeling pretty drained right now and there’s not a lot of time left before the conference. What should we do?” The conversation doesn’t need to be formal, coordinated, or expressed in measured lovey-dovey terms to be transparent and sincere.

    But clamming up about it is bad practice and sets a bad precedent. Is that what attenders should expect if something goes wrong at the gathering? Will the stewards of the conference keep a lid on discussions of conference issues? Being transparent now establishes a precedent of openness and accountability that will serve the gathering well now and in the future. And it demonstrates maturity and character among young adult Friends.

Models for Quaker ecumenism

Michael Jay made an interesting point in a recent post about the gathering:

The conference will be tied to Great Plains Yearly meeting, which is the most United of Yearly meetings. Great Plains, as a YM belongs to Friends United Meeting. University Friends Meeting also is joined with Evangelical Friends International, and Heartland [also in Wichita] belongs to Friends General Conference.

I won’t challenge Jay’s claim that GPYM is “the most United”— I don’t have any experience to confirm or deny that. In fact, I’m willing to give him the benefit of doubt. If that’s the case, GPYM’s annual sessions might be a good model for the YAF conference, as a community that must gather across divisions year-in and year-out. I wonder if the Wichita conference planners looked to GPYM’s annual sessions for guidelines when framing their “Expectations for Community”— I couldn’t find any similar document among the registration materials and info about this year’s GPYM gathering. Does Great Plains Yearly Meeting require attenders to observe sexual abstinence during annual sessions? Do they have brand-specific bans on clothing?

I don’t know about Great Plains, but I am a member of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, a consolidated YM affiliated with both FUM and FGC. We still struggle with tensions related to the Hicksite/Orthodox schism and consolidation, both social and theological. But even if we are not as “United” as GPYM, our annual sessions are at least gathered in mutual respect and general maturity, without the benefit of rules like those expressed in the Wichita YAF expectations. The rules for our sessions are posted concisely here.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention my experience with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), which is deeply rooted in and inspired by Quaker practice. Since AVP and HIPP training programs take place in prisons, schools, or other community centers all over the world, participants gather from diverse backgrounds with very divergent needs and experiences. But the process— based on principles of collective listening, sharing, and discernment that Quakers from every branch practice in business meeting —can infuse a disparate collection of menaced, suspicious individuals with trust and enthusiasm for the seeds of community among them.

And this happens without precooked rules. One of the most powerful teaching tools of AVP is that participants are empowered to form their own ground rules, together, to which they hold themselves and each other accountable with immense loving respect.

This challenges the very idea that central planners need to establish rules for people to build community based on honesty, respect, and caring. Most people can do just fine without the well-intentioned governance of planners, especially with the tools we inherit from the Quaker tradition.

† Edit, 29 Apr 2010 20:18: This post originally included a Friend’s name and the link to a comment he published in full view on a public blog. Out of respect, I removed both his name and the link after he informed me that he thought his comment was off the record.

…being a part of a faith community where queer people are full participants without apology…
To the many people who see me as the embodiment of answers to prayer I have to remind them that Tom Fox was the subject of as many prayers as I was.
— from Hostage in Iraq by Norman Kember

Woolman on Conscious Business

Divine love which enlarges the heart towards mankind universally is that alone which stops every corrupt stream and opens those channels of business and commerce in which nothing runs that is not pure, and so establishes our goings that when in our labors we meditate on the universal love of God and the harmony of holy angels, the serenity of our minds may never be clouded by remembering that some part of our employments tends to support customs which have their foundation in the self-seeking spirit.

— “A Plea for the Poor” by John Woolman