21 April 2005

Leaving Quakers

About eight years ago, a weighty Friend in Iowa Yearly Meeting (FUM) came to me with a question. He had found a congregation in Iowa that was actually more in accord with what he thought Friends stood for than his Friends meeting. However, he was torn by loyalties to that meeting and to the Yearly Meeting he had served for so long, and to Friends United Meeting. What did I think he should do?

I knew him well enough not to be at all tempted to suspect him of having a superficial commitment to Friends faith and practice (if I were presumptuous enough to have that kind of a critical circuit in me, which ... unfortunately ... I do). I knew the question came from a deep place. My only choice was to affirm that loyalties, family ties, and tradition, did not trump the care and stewardship of his soul. Although I believe that we are saved in community as well as individually, I cannot justify advising someone to choose a spiritually barren community when they have access to one that will feed them, unless I'm pretty darn sure that they have a Spirit-led call to that barren community. Nor could I claim that being Quaker in itself was somehow an inoculation against barrenness. Far from it, I have seen too much cultishness among Friends to advocate any such elite status for us.

The question has come up again as a former FUM board member and an experienced advocate of Friends discipleship, Bill Samuel, has announced by e-mail and on his Web journal that he is giving up membership in his local Friends meeting. He has joined the Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland. I recommend reading his full statement on the Web journal, but what especially affected me was realizing that he's far from giving up on the Quaker ideal, he has just found a congregation outside Friends that lives up to that ideal better than Friends do.

Background: I used to serve as the head bureaucrat of Friends United Meeting, possibly the largest of the associations of Friends yearly meetings. Around the time that my service there began, FUM adopted a new purpose statement that, at least in part, brought an end to the theological civil war between liberals and evangelicals within FUM. (At least it gave FUM staff clear programmatic direction and helped block disruptive politicking.) This purpose statement continues to be determinative: "Friends United Meeting commits itself to energize and equip Friends through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships were Jesus Christ is known, loved, and obeyed as Teacher and Lord."

At the time, Bill served on the Board of Friends United Meeting, one of the appointees of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. It is no secret that those yearly meetings in FUM who for historical or theological reasons also held membership in Friends General Conference, a more liberal association, never corporately united with this purpose statement, although their Board members were willing for the statement to be adopted, probably recognizing its value to those Friends who found the FUM affiliation congenial. In other words, even though the purpose statement was of enormous value in reviving FUM's morale and clarifying and mobilizing its programs, and was broadly supported by FUM internationally, it had little resonance for the liberal end of the FUM constituency in North America.

I don't want to speak for Bill, but I imagine there are Friends in a number of places who find FUM's purpose statement to be a powerful contemporary expression of Friends ideals, but who are members of meetings where this is not true corporately. In the world of unprogrammed Friends, I'd make a wild guess that the majority would not find the formation of Christian communities to be the primary motivation for yearly meetings to work together. Unprogrammed Friends who find themselves to be Christian dissidents in theologically promiscuous meetings have sometimes found the conservative yearly meetings (sample document) to be places where they are understood, and have even sometimes sought long-distance affiliations with them. (This practice seems to me to have problems of its own, but that's another story.) However, even those yearly meetings, while preserving in various degrees the deep Christian devotional character of their ancestors, have been disastrously unable to unite around any sort of evangelistic energy, which is the direction that FUM is setting for itself.

When I first joined Friends, shortly after my Christian conversion, the joy of finding a church home where a New Testament faith found prophetic social expression carried me blissfully along past the point where a more discerning person might have noticed some gaps along the way. We still find these major gaps among Friends--meetings that specialize in quakerishness and marginalize the living Gospel from which our peculiar discipleship sprang OR meetings that, on the contrary, talk Christian language with enthusiasm but have allowed that precious and still-needed discipleship to atrophy--and eventually these incongruities became the central ingredients in FUM's civil war.

There are still too few Friends meetings that connect all the dots and manage to stay balanced. As long as that remains true, we can expect to lose more people like Bill Samuel. Of course, in God's divine economy, we haven't really lost them at all--but their departure from the human dimension of Friends community is a signal that those gaps remain, to our bitter cost. If someone as experienced and committed as Bill Samuel feels he has to say goodbye, think of what disillusionment and confusion we may be offering to people with far less experience and investment?

Personal confession time: I have felt blessed in various ways by all the Friends meetings I've known, including my present Quaker home, Reedwood Friends Church, part of Northwest Yearly Meeting of Evangelical Friends International, a body usually considered to be to the right of FUM. However, I'm also involved with a Hispanic Mennonite congregation that is feeding me spiritually in ways I have not experienced before. And I continue to draw strength from my ongoing ties with FUM, Friends World Committee, and a number of other Quaker and ecumenical associations. If I ever tried to diagram my location in the body of Christ, it would be a pretty confusing chart.

Friday morning PS:

Here is a follow-up story on the item, "Praying for Trade Justice," that I appended to last week's entry, "An Eastwood Film with No Villain."

The remarkable tributes to Marla Ruzicka, late founder of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, include a proposal for military tracking of such victims, as in this letter to Senator Leahy from Multnomah Friends Meeting's member Chris Hogness:
Dear Senator Leahy,
I was moved by your April the 18th statement on the death of Marla Ruzicka, founder of the humanitarian organization called "Campaign for Innocent Victims of Conflict" and recently working with the Civilian Assistance Program in Iraq.
I invite you to consider writing a piece of legislation in her memory: a bill which would require the United States Department of Defense or other agency to count estimated civilian lives taken in any military conflict the United States is engaged in. In systems management, generally when things are studied, the act of study in itself leads to improvement. And if it is not counted or tracked, its as though it hasn't happened. It is the stated policy of the United States Department of Defense to attempt to minimize civilian deaths in any military conflict. And yet the department does not track data necessary to determine how close or far it is from that goal. The United States Government, through the Department of Defense, has in fact consistently refused to do so.
As you so aptly stated, "our job now is to carry on the work that Marla started, because it is so important." Your authorship of legislation requiring estimated civilian body counts in any situation of conflict would be a very concrete means of honoring one who "saw her work as part of the best of what this country is about", and through it became "as close to a living saint as they come", to quote your moving statement. Perhaps if all countries of the world adopted similar laws--or worked through the United Nations to do accurately tally all lives lost in armed conflict, civilian and combatant, all sides--the horror of war would become more evident to us all.
I was glad to read that Friends Committee on National Legislation is involved with the effort to move forward the legislation mentioned in Chris's letter.


Anonymous said...

Remarkable that there have been no comments

Point of reference:
I'm a member in a united meeting, and apart from
the word 'Lord' at the end of the FUM statement, I
find myself in agreeance. (Not that I might
necessarily fight against it as an individual, but from
the standpoint of corporate priorities for a statement
of that sort, it would not be my first choice of word.)

With that out of the way, so that you know where I
come from, I would say there are a few united
meetings in which a Bill S could be able to 'exist',
and a great lot where a Bill S could not really be
able to exist forever. I really hope there's enough
critical mass of people out there who want to build
great Christian communities who are willing to
stick with the organizations rather than feel that
the only way they'll be nurtured is to create worship
groups off to the side. It seems to be an asset and
a liability that united meetings might offer places
for 'slow-burn' spiritual paths that have an arc taking
member/attenders toward deeper Christianness.
But the key word is that they *might* offer that, with
the right stewardship.

The same thing gets played out for nonthesists trying
to cling to groups that are more God-centered than
they originally mistook them for being. In both the
BillS case and this one, people create
sub-spheres in which they feel nurtured and safe
as they either see the group leave them behind or
vice versa.

So....... as a people, are we *gathered*?
This is the question, is it not?

Johan Maurer said...

Another aspect of the Bill S. picture: The church he's now affiliated with, Cedar Ridge Community Church, has as its founding pastor Brian McLaren, who is one of the leading voices for a whole new generation of what I sometimes call "humane evangelicalism." Now knowing the pastor's writings does not guarantee that I know anything for certain about the congregation, but chances are that many people do not live near that kind of alternative Christian community.

Yes, "are we gathered" is a core question. There are so many ways to look at answering it, depending on one's angle of approach. When I'm in a non-organizational mood, I'd say we are "gathered" as a people when we are aware of the Holy Spirit's covering and somehow associate that event, and the community experiencing it, with the habits and relationships of discipleship that we have as Friends. All over the world, people experience fellowship in the Holy Spirit, aside from the Quaker relationships, but I'm specifically referring to a sense of being gathered as a Quaker people. There are times when I doubt this is still possible.

Speaking of remarkable lacks of response, I look at a lot of Quaker blogs frequently, and I'm not sure how to interpret the absence of any mention of Marla Ruzicka. Am I just a particular kind of softie? Are we numbed by the constant violence? Maybe I felt the shock because a friend of mine who's been living in Baghdad, and about whom we've been living with daily anxiety, left to come home to the USA just a couple of weeks before Marla's death.