22 February 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Quaker

Will T. returned from Friends United Meeting's recent General Board meeting in Kenya with a troubling load of impressions that he faithfully posted on his weblog under the title, "Back from Africa with a broken heart."

I was not at the General Board meeting, but so much of what he wrote felt so similar to the struggles a generation ago between some Friends in the "FUM-only" yearly meetings and some Friends in the "united" or "confederated" yearly meetings that also belonged to the more liberal Friends General Conference. My first thought was, "Oh, no, not again," and I had to remind myself that these systemic issues are hardly ever cleared up once and for all.

Among its many other wonderful qualities and shadowy sins, FUM is still paying for the decades it spent trying to pretend that it was truly "united," served by a staff and a leadership caste that, by and large, was highly invested in presenting the best face to each end of the spectrum, trying to be good friends (and actually succeeding miraculously often) with people who were often not friends with each other. Among the survival tactics: publishing a magazine that was as inoffensive as possible, therefore hardly ever carrying any substantial news, and publishing two lines of Quaker curriculum, Living Light and Living Word, for a market that was so small that it could barely sustain one.

The theological civil war known as "realignment" (which I briefly summarized in my comments here) was precipitated by a number of crises, including the embarrassing spectacle of a Triennial (1987) that almost could not unite in adopting a Christian self-description, and the controversial adoption of a sexual ethics policy. I became general secretary just as some of the passions of realignment were cooling off. The first board meeting of my seven years at FUM adopted a purpose statement that, for once, defined FUM not as an organization in charge of keeping everyone "United" at any cost, but as an association of Friends whose functional unity was grounded in a programmatic purpose. Friends could opt in or opt out of involvement with FUM, not on the basis of whether there were other Friends somewhere in the FUM community whose beliefs or folkways would trigger their allergies, but on the basis of a shared commitment to evangelism -- energizing and equipping Friends "through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved, and obeyed as Teacher and Lord." In any case, FUM's success would be based on what it did, and whom it attracted in that service, not on being inoffensively winsome to everyone in order to preserve its core organizational conceit. Furthermore, those who did not share its purpose would presumably not have the leverage to sabotage that purpose.

It's not that balancing acts of linguistic symbolism were entirely given up: "Teacher" is a valid and powerful metaphor for the work of Christ, but it's a metaphor that is more associated with the liberal side of the community, whereas "Lord" is decidedly not. Nevertheless, the adoption of this simple purpose statement was a liberation for the staff and board of FUM. In a time of shrinking tolerance with traditional denominational bureaucracies, FUM no longer had to have a department to carry out every conceivable denominational function, anxious to balance each "orthodox" function (for example, missions) with a "liberal" function (peace and social concerns). Instead, we simply needed to ask ourselves how any given assignment related to the energizing and equipping of Friends for evangelism.

The other huge advantage of this purpose statement was its outward orientation. I love William Temple's assertion that the church is the only association that exists primarily for the sake of its non-members, but FUM's balancing acts and intermural struggles were taking energy away from that priority. It was wonderful to have permission again to remember that, while we jockey among ourselves, "the world as I see it is dying, literally dying, for lack of Quakerism in action." (Hugh Doncaster.)

So that's a bit of what was behind my "not again!" sinking feeling as I read the report from the FUM Board. I wrote several lengthy contributions to the comment section of Will's post, and seriously considered crossposting those comments here. I think the things I said there were important to get on the table, and I very much appreciated the loving give and take provided by Will, Marshall, and others.

But as I got ready to do that crossposting, a heaviness came over me. Being a Friend is not a matter of finding just the right combination of subtle ideas, Bible verses, and snippets of Robert Barclay, tastefully presented with the right blend of content and process. Being a Friend doesn't depend on mastery of a rhetoric, or on finding the verbal Holy Grail (borrowing here from Larry Ingle, I think) of Quakerism's unique intellectual and spiritual genius. Somehow, being a Friend is still a light and agile thing, a joyful and first-generation thing, a sprite in a community of sprites among the lumbering elephants of religiosity. (Okay, so I get a little carried away!) It's wanting and hungering to be as close to Jesus as possible; it's trying to be around others with that same yearning; it's trying to help each other live that way; it's trying to work out, in community, what the ethical consequences are; and it's working on keeping the doors of access open, so that there will always be people who are in the first generation. Not that those who have gone before are unimportant; but they're companions, not ancient Chatty Cathys with soundbites playing on endless loops.

Righteous links: Speaking of evangelism, try to top this: Shock and Agape. And from the realm of cinematic evangelism, here's "A Tale of Two Movies" [dead link]. I don't know whether I'll see either film (Facing the Giants and Stranger than Fiction), but I enjoyed reading Tim Jackson's review. [Here's another review of the two movies.]

In 2002, I met and listened to an incredible Australian guitar player named Fiona Boyes, whom Pinetop Perkins (present at the same Waterfront Blues Festival) acclaimed as a worthy successor to Memphis Minnie. To my delight, a Fiona Boyes clip landed in YouTube land, and without further ado -- see for yourself if Pinetop is right:


Martin Kelley said...

Hi Johan,
As always, there's so much many helpful insights that its hard to know where to start. I'm struck that you trace the problems back to a mid-century FUM culture that avoided any hint of conflict. It's not just Friends United Meeting that did and does this, of course. I think part of what we're all struggling with is the purpose of these bureaucracies, these "lumbering elephants." I like the idea that we base it on funtion and mission rather than identity and unity-for-its-own sake, though this may not play out so cleanly "on the ground" in various Quaker communities (thinking here of some of the pain I've seen in North Carolina FUM these last few years).

I love the quote that churches exist for its non-members but I've rarely seen a real-world example of this? Maybe this is something that must be re-discovered through pain and hurt every twenty years. Is this just the second-generation phenomenon of forgotten purpose at work?
Martin, Quaker Ranter

Anonymous said...

With apologies to Ernst Troeltsch, a lot of this seems to be about the difference between a church and a sect.

When FUM was trying to hold people together regardless of their differences, it was trying to function as a church. Redefining it on the basis of a mission statement was a momentous step, which made it a sect instead.

As a sect, FUM now apparently feels free to say to dissenters, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, "Please get out of the [way] if you can't lend your hand." We have only begun to see where this will lead.

Johan Maurer said...

Marshall--as always, you pull the discussion to a deeper level!

I don't agree that FUM's organizational changes pull FUM as a whole from church to sect, at least within the scope and license of FUM's current ecclesiology. The distinction I would like to make is between FUM as a constituency (or association) and FUM as a service agency for that constituency.

FUM as a constituency hasn't changed at all. Perhaps the old name Five Years Meeting of Friends was clearer for this purpose, except that the constituency now meets every three years. Just as the YM is a gathering of monthly and quarterly meetings, the Five Years Meeting was a gathering that encompassed all the YMs, QMs and MMs, without having authority over them.

Their central offices once had seven departments, covering all the bases of a traditional mainline denomination, but they had no licensing or disciplinary powers over the constituent meetings.

The new streamlined FUM as an agency still has no authority over the yearly meetings, but it also doesn't pretend to cover all the basis of a traditional denominational bureaucracy. Unavoidably, an office that is at the center of a web of relationships takes on tacit responsibilities for the maintenance of a denomination's identity and public presence in the larger world--publishing a magazine, for example, answering reporters' questions about Quakers' viewpoints, maintaining memberships in ecumenical bodies, and issuing statements on wars and disasters--but the FUM constituency would not tolerate the FUM office making a practice of issuing definitive statements on behalf of ALL Friends.

Friends seem to have gotten along fine without a central office to maintain our churchiness or sectarian-ness. We have an incredibly web-like, connectional ecclesiology that, I believe, transcends the distinction between church and sect, although some of us cling to Quaker folkways in a sectarian and elitist way. I don't think that having a central agency that encourages and facilitates evangelism is anything like a step in the direction of increased sectarianism, AS LONG AS our Friendly processes at monthly and yearly meeting levels stay healthy.

Just one more point: FUM's mandate is to energize and equip Friends to gathering people into fellowships, not to do the gathering at the central level. The only actual "gathering" that FUM is potentially licensed to do is cross-cultural, through Global Ministries, but almost all of FUM's current international work is simply serving its existing international constituency. Most if not all direct evangelism in East Africa, for example, is conducted by East African Friends operating within their own local structures; FUM as an office has the same "equipping and energizing" role among yearly meetings in East Africa that it does in North America.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Johan!

I greatly appreciate your clarifications. I think I was only trying to say that FUM-the-agency has moved in a sectarian direction.

I don't think sectarian is necessarily bad. I would agree with those historians who say that the first Friends were a sect, even though they wanted to everyone to join them. Sometimes sectarian is a very good thing.

Anonymous said...

Marshal, your first comment read (whatever you intended) like focusing on a common purpose is bad. It was, in fact, the saving grace of FUM that gave it some chance to get out of the mire of being a nice group that doesn't offend anyone to being a group with some good reason for continuation.

To turn your quote around a bit, I would hope that those who don't share FUM's purpose would say "We can't lend a hand because we don't unite with your purpose, so we'll get out of the way so you can do as you feel led."

In one sense, that's exactly what the dual-affiliated YMs have tried to do. They have pretty carefully sought not to interfere directly with FUM's evangelistic purpose.

But that's not enough. What they have done is bring their own agenda into FUM's meetings, stirring up tensions and distracting FUM from focusing on its purpose. Because of where these YMs are at, they really can not remain in FUM and not do that. Doing that has effectively been made a condition of continued participation in FUM by the majorities of active Friends in each of the YMs.

Those who love FUM in those YMs have made a huge error, IMHO, in fighting to keep their YMs in FUM. The results have been increased rancor, and have not been good for FUM or the YMs.

And I think there is an irrational fear of being personally pushed out of FUM. FUM doesn't really give a fig if a Friend is a member of FUM to participate in its ministries. Many of its central and field staff have come from non-FUM meetings. Those who love FUM in the dual-affiliated YMs will continue to be welcomed to share in fulfilling its purpose if they become no longer officially members of FUM.