22 February 2018

The Quaker movement: decline and persistence

Over thirty years ago, Joshua Brown (then pastor of Adirondack Friends Meeting in South Glens Falls, New York) warned New York Yearly Meeting that "you can't get there from here." Given the yearly meeting's financial, demographic, and organizational trends, as he carefully outlined in his pamphlet of that name, ...
Whether our dream is to bring peace and justice to the world, to "make God more real", to answer that of God in everyone, to spread the everlasting Gospel to the ends of the earth, or merely to survive in our present poor state, we just can't get there from here.

At the present trend, which shows no sign of reversal and which has held steady over at least 30 years, we will be out of business as a Yearly Meeting in a generation.
Many Friends took Josh seriously, and in the 1990's I had several occasions to visit Friends in New York Yearly Meeting for myself, and experience their ongoing faithfulness. However, the statistical decline Josh pointed to has continued at more or less the same rate:

7,070 (in 1955)
5,124 (in 1985)
3,241 (in 2015)

Many Friends yearly meetings of two or three centuries' standing have similar gloomy statistics -- some better, some worse. Most have probably not had the benefit of the sort of sober and unspiritualized organizational audit that Josh Brown gave New York Yearly Meeting, but concerns about Quaker decline have been raised periodically for much of our history. We decline, and yet we persist.

Two recent articles have revived my own interest in this concern about decline and persistence:
Although McCormick's voice is very different from Josh Brown in 1986, there are some similarities  between the two analyses -- identifying demographic trends as well as unhelpful organizational patterns. Wess Daniels points to the possibilities of a powerful spiritual dynamic that can carry us beyond mere organizational adjustment, namely the crucial dialogue between tradition and context.

(Josh Brown has also continued to serve us well three decades after his first manifesto. See his blog, especially "What went wrong with Friends?" and "Have we learned anything?" I appreciate how he avoids doctrinal and metaphysical blame games -- without concealing his own Christian commitment -- and focuses on patterns of organizational behavior.)

Here are some of the questions I'm asking myself after re-reading Josh's 1986 essay and the two recent articles:
  • If Friends continue to fade quietly from the scene, will Jesus be less able to reach people in bondage? Or have we already become irrelevant to those who've not yet heard of us? 
  • Given that we are a microscopic percentage of the world Christian movement, do we have an inflated sense of our own importance? Or, to put it more positively, could we rest contented that our influence on Christian discipleship will last beyond our institutional survival?
  • In today's world, much of organizational Christianity is repelling potential converts instead of attracting them. Are Friends doing anything to counter this phenomenon? Or, as I sometimes fear, are we too distracted by self-satisfaction (in some places) or squabbling among ourselves (in other places) to offer a better way in?
  • For a research project at Woodbrooke in England a few years ago, I divided Friends outreach into two broad categories -- those who emphasize Friends discipleship (the testimonies of peace, simplicity, equality, prayer-based group decisionmaking) and those who emphasize the Gospel invitation to repent and believe the Good News. Neither group denies the other's goal; it's an argument about approaches and priorities. I argued that both approaches were valid. Can we forge creative alliances between their practitioners instead of their traditional one-upping of each other? Or is this just too optimistic?
  • Can we learn from the newer Quaker yearly meetings in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, including their own conversations on tradition and context, and their own struggles with finances, rigidity, and authoritarianism? How will we do this?
Finally, I suspect that there will always be a small but persistent market for what I've perhaps unfairly called boutique Quakerism -- tiny groups with progressive political ideals mixed with a savory blend of self-help spirituality and old Quaker cliches. Their marketing will probably continue emphasizing how doctrinally undemanding they are, how optional their linkages to anything remotely biblical.

Another persistent group will emphasize how safely they cling to cultural evangelicalism in its white North American manifestations, shielding its adherents from any exposure to the dangerous diversity of the worldwide Quaker family, accusing dissidents of betraying biblical standards.

Will anyone remain free simply to build a warm, generous, trustworthy outreach to people who are not skeptics, who are in fact ready to accept the Christian invitation, but who don't want to be manipulated? Are we still ready to experience Christ coming to teach his people himself -- and invite others into that adventure?

(Part two.)

In an article on the future of Friends in Europe (pdf file here), I wrote:
John Punshon once divided Western religious people into two groups with two characteristic questions: the children of the Enlightenment (“How can I know what is true?”) and the children of the Reformation (“Where will I spend eternity?”). People in one group often talk right past those in the other group, and neither has much native sympathy for the other, even though they actually share important spiritual and ethical concerns. In my questionnaire [in preparation for writing this article], I asked what God wanted to do in Europe specifically through Friends. Several responded that (for example) “this isn’t phrased in language I would use.” To what extent are we talking past each other? Would an inter-Quaker “Enlightenment/Reformation” dialogue increase our capacity to speak to a wider range of non-Quakers?

If we neglect this dialogue, I worry that the Quaker movement in Europe could divide into two streams: a limited chaplaincy for an individualistic, intellectual, highly ethical stream of Quakerism that is weak on transcendent motivation but unlikely to disappear altogether because it is persistently attractive to a tiny sector of the public; and a more public form of Protestant-flavored Quakerism that is more transparent and accessible, with a wider emotional range, yet is poorer for lack of fellowship with the first stream. Is such a bifurcated future to be welcomed, or to be avoided?
Does the inter-Quaker dialogue I described above, to "increase our capacity to speak to a wider range of non-Quakers," have any relevance for conversations about our future?

Jonas Cox (Spokane Friends Meeting) on the spirituality of Eric Clapton, part two. (Part one is here.)

A life of persistent service: Memorial minute for Barbara Graves. Her memorial meeting will be this Saturday at Berkeley Friends Church in California.

As The Guardian's Shaun Walker says goodbye to Moscow, he's thinking about Putin's quest for lost glory.

Here's a song we used in class....

(based on Rory Block's version)


Bruce said...

Johan, I wish you could come send some time with North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative.) In the terms that you have set in your article, between the politically liberal, individualistic, not-scripturally-centered "boutique" style of Quakerism vs the evangelical, typically pastoral type, we are an anomaly. Or a paradox. Not sure which. We are scripturally based, we are not the kind of Quakers who reprimand people for speaking about Christ, and yet we are socially progressive and practice obedient waiting on the Lord in the tradition of early Friends (so-called "silent meeting.") Most importantly, we are not individualistic; we are members of a body, in the fullest sense, and this has significant outcomes for our faith and practice. You could read Lloyd Lee Wilson's book on Gospel Order to get a taste of it. Not the whole story, but a good take.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Bruce! Although I've read Lloyd Lee Wilson's book (and remember him personally), I'm sorry that I've not had nearly as much contact with North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) as I've had with Ohio Yearly Meeting. I've never been to a monthly or yearly meeting, for example, although I count a couple of your members as dear friends. I also treasure memories of Louise Wilson as a retreat leader.

My impressions of Conservative Friends generally are along the lines of William Rushby's words, "Sometimes, it seems that the Conservative Quaker tradition is a vision in search of a people!" Why is it that such an attractive combination of grace and simplicity cannot attract more actual practitioners!? In my first years as a Friend, my mentor was a woman, Deborah Haight, who grew up in Canada (Conservative) Yearly Meeting, and now that segment of Canadian Quakerism is nearly extinct, despite its extraordinary history. Even so, I remain incredibly grateful for her influence, and her tradition's influence, on me.

When the Quaker US-USSR Committee began publishing Friends literature in Russian, one of their first pamphlets came from the Conservative world: William Taber's The Prophetic Stream. I remember a former clerk of Moscow Meeting saying to me that he thought the Conservative heritage might be more helpful to Russian Friends than some of the other quakerly models vying for influence in Russia at the time.

You are quite right to say that North Carolina presents a Friendly way that is different from the broad-brush categorizations in my post. Potentially it does offer that direct and honest Christian invitation that seems to me to be so more classically Quaker than the compromises that I usually see. How will you break out of that sectarian specialness and become scalable? Should we be asking each other for help?

David McKay said...

I am so delighted to hear someone remembering Deborah Haight with fondness. I only met her a few times but she left a lasting impression on me.