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.
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.