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?


JJS said...

Good morning,

Pardon my ignorance but isn't welcoming those with a different point of view and trusting the Spirit within, the mainstay of Quakers?

As one of the "convinced" that needed no convincing but needed only the knowledge that being Quaker was were I always belonged but was lead the circuitous route to my Worship Group it was the afore mentioned paragraph belief that drew me and allowed me to know I was "home".

Are we victims of over thinking and not enough positive action and outreach?

Jacquie from Vancouver Island
(at 50 I am a "baby" Quaker)

Bill Rushby said...

Many Friends have advocated the ideal of a Quaker denomination without sub-denominations. It assumes that schism is a catastrophe, and that it could be avoided if Friends were more willing to dialogue concerning differences and exercise heroic toleration for others. This vision led to the merging of many yearly meetings that had previously split, and to the joint affiliation of others with both FUM and the FGC. We are living in the historical shadow of this style of Quaker ecumenism; it is an idea that has already been tried!

Many of these mergers and joint affiliations involved differences that had lost their sharp edge, and no longer mattered. Usually, there was a minority for whom the differences did matter, and the minority got pushed aside!

This “intra-Quaker ecumenism” is how the FGC got meetings with pastors, and how FUM got meetings where Christian faith is a moot point or even an unmentionable topic. This is how the Philadelphia Orthodox Friends virtually disappeared in what is now a sea of non-theism. This is how the Conservative yearly meetings in Canada and New England lost their spiritual and organizational integrity. This is how many devout Friends found themselves in an unacceptable religious environment, and became ex-Friends or unaffiliated Friends!

Please don't misunderstand me. I favor friendly dialogue with Friends of other religious traditions. What I find hard to accept is the idea that these differences can be dealt with by submerging them in a “common Quaker tradition” that probably doesn't exist.

My wife and I were members of a yearly meeting which in fact consists of two or three different religious groups pretending to be one. The existence of of diverse factions in the yearly meeting created a continuing power struggle and backroom manipulation which was more Machiavellian than Christian! Over the years many yearly meeting members dropped out because of all the toxic spiritual waste they were exposed to!

I believe that Friends would be better off if they sorted themselves out into relatively homogeneous groups, preferably based on faith and practice—not ethnicor socio-economic factors. This would allow each group to pursue its own vision, without wasting energy coping with “irreconciliable differences” in a badly divided meeting.

Tania said...

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?

Friend speaks my mind!

Tony said...

That's certainly what many of us think

Tony said...

that's what many of us believe

Holly Stevens said...

I honor the impulse to seek unity in a divided religious body, especially when that impulse is grounded in love. But my concern is that the effort so easily morphs into a drive toward resolution at the expense of the exploration. Suddenly conformity in doctrine, practice or structure becomes the aim, and the passions of the few are sacrificed or muted to arrive at a statement, however pale, that attempts to speak for the many.

What if, instead, we humbly identified the questions that we find ourselves exploring at this particular point in our faith journeys? What if we deliberately set out not to come up with a common vision statement but rather a picture of the religious questions and issues that we are struggling with and living out at this point in our history? What if we saw unity as mutual respect and fellowship rather than uniformity in practice and belief?