Monday, July 19, 2010

"Orthodoxy - The Spirit of Elias is Upon Me" by Tony

When I look at the history of the Society of Friends, I am always bothered by the great What If. What if Friends in 1827 had said ok, we have two somewhat different understandings of the basis of Quaker spirituality, so let’s find a way to continue to work together so that our witness to the Kingdom of God among us won’t be divided or compromised by our differences? What if the Wilburites and Gurneyites had been able to say, different strokes for different folks. You do worship in the way that seems most meaningful to you and we’ll do the same and we’ll respect and honor one another’s choices. Or what if (should I tremble to say this) the planners of the Richmond Conference had invited all Yearly Meetings and Friends groups to send delegates and not just those whom they considered to be “orthodox”? Who actually gave them the right to decide who was orthodox and who was not? It might even be said that the Richmond Conference and its aftermath was the real beginning of organized exclusion among Friends.

Historical accounts that I have read of the first separation suggest that the number of Friends who aligned themselves with Elias Hicks was not as much a statement of agreement with his doctrine as a protest against the efforts of those Friends who attempted to deny him the right to speak. While the motivation of those in power was no do a desire to protect Friends from what they regarded as false doctrine, the clear message that came out of the incident was that the larger body of Friends preferred weighing the speaker’s words and discerning truth for themselves rather than allowing others no matter how well intentioned to make that decision for them.

A couple of years ago I was working on co-ordinating a yearly meeting wide study of the NCYM-FUM Faith and Practice, which involved basically putting together a road show to go into each quarter and do a series of sessions on topics like Quaker history, theology, structure and organization, testimonies, etc. This also meant finding knowledgeable individuals in each of these areas to lead the discussions. I was amazed at how quickly I received lists from several quarters of who was and was not acceptable to them as session leaders. Most of the negatives were directed towards Guilford College, that bastion (or bastardization as a number of Friends seem to see it) of Quaker education and values.

I had some problems with this because one of the individuals on the don’t send list who shall remain nameless was a long-bearded, straw hat wearing, bicycle pumping fellow who along with the other classes he teaches at the aforementioned institution, offers one on the Biblical basis of the Quaker testimonies and over the years has introduced countless students from other Friends’ traditions who have never used one before to the Bible. And I am personally acquainted with some totally awesome YAFs who came to faith in Christ during their time at Guilford and are doing some amazing things now. Isn’t this what “orthodox”Friends are supposed to want to happen?

I also found it pretty strange that perceived problems with someone’s theology rendered years of training and education in the ways of Friends of no value, that an individual’s knowledge of Quaker history or organization and structure was only acceptable if their theology was “correct.” With the advice and consent of two weighty Friends in one of the anti-Guilford quarters, I did not make a substitution as requested by the “leadership” of the quarterly meeting but had the individual in question lead the session on testimonies. We had the folks who attended each session fill out an evaluation after it was over. This session received the highest rating of all those done in that quarter.

This year our Yearly Meeting at the urging of some brave souls has adopted Peace as its theme. I say brave souls because in a number of our meetings those American flags are prominently displayed at the front of the meeting house and I have seen a numbers of signs outside meetings saying “support out troops.” Peace of course is not just about the cessation of war, and some of the folks on our planning committee suggested some workshops at our annual sessions on things like Alternatives to Violence and Conflict Resolution in Meetings (what a thought -that we might have to learn to live peaceably with one another before the world will take seriously our peace testimony). Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly in all this talk of peace, a conflict arose because the leadership insisted that expertise and experience in peace work was not the criteria for determining who should be asked to facilitate the workshops, but whether or not individuals were “orthodox” in their theology.

However, don’t give us all the credit for this step back into our less than glorious past. Throughout Quakerdom there are those on the right who are afraid of what might happen if what might happen if their members are exposed to those on the left, and those on the left who are afraid to be exposed to those on the right, and programed Friends who don’t want their members exposed to unprogramed Friends, and vice versa, and Christ centered Friends who want nothing to do with other traditions, and non-Christ centered Friends with the same attitude. What if, instead of continuing the tradition of trying to shut out different voices begun by the clamor over Friend Elias back in 1827, we tried welcoming those with a different point of view and trusted the Spirit within instead of our own selves to guide us into Truth?
What if, as my friend Betsy Blake suggested in her video, we could all be Friends?