29 August 2019

Core sample of a Quaker culture

A few days ago I stumbled across a box of books that had hidden itself from our view among the many other items we put in storage for our years in Russia. To my delight, in that box I found two books that I'd given up for lost -- books from my earliest years as a Quaker.

On the left, the light blue book is Christian Faith and Practice in the experience of the Society of Friends, which represented volume one of the Book of Christian Discipline of the then-called London Yearly Meeting. It also represented volume one of Canadian Yearly Meeting's discipline at that time.

Each yearly meeting had its own volume two. In the case of my yearly meeting, volume two was titled Organization and Procedure, and was published in a small loose-leaf binder for ease in incorporating revisions. My own copy has additional pages from two such revisions.

Although I loved both books, it's that second volume that brought back a flood of memories. The binder format made it easy to add my own little selection of Quaker tracts by taping them to blank pages. Not everything I collected in those years fit into that binder -- others went into my diaries for 1974 and 1975, the years I blazed like a comet (as I now remember, blushing a little) with naive conversion enthusiasm. But as I look at those items from which I created my personalized Faith and Practice, I notice that ...
  • My very first experiences among Friends were completely consistent with the ideals in these little pamphlets. In "The Spiritual Message of the Society of Friends," Howard Brinton writes,
    A religion is spiritual if every outward word and act is a genuine expression of an inward state. Such a religion avoids all forms which are routine and planned in advance, for such forms tend to become hollow and empty of content. For this reason the Quakers abandoned the outward form of the sacraments even though these visible manifestations are often genuine evidence of inward states. The meeting for worship is as nearly without forms as possible in order that whatever occurs may be a true and spontaneous expression of the life within.
    Sunday after Sunday, the adventure of unprogrammed meeting for worship seemed to confirm Brinton's words. Furthermore, the disciplines of nonviolence, simplicity, equality, and prayer-based meetings for church management, all seemed to be natural outward analogues to this unadorned attentiveness to God's movements within and among us. All these pamphlets seemed to confirm what was drawing me to the men and women of Ottawa Meeting, whose relations with each other -- and kindness to me -- were, to my happy astonishment, such a natural and obvious way to be Christian.

    In the decades since these first years, I've rarely heard an assertion about the spiritual life, or the consequent ethical challenges of that life, that I am not tempted to analyze, defend, or criticize. Back then I didn't take into account who published the item, whether it was Philadelphia Yearly Meeting or the Tract Association of Friends, or (heavens!) Friends General Conference. As I read these pamphlets now, I can see assertions that seem weak or simplistic, or that beg for amplification. There is little or no acknowledgment of the majority of world Quakerdom that is pastoral and programmed -- and, ironically, I've spent most of my adult life in that pastoral and programmed majority. The lack of inclusive language is now a constant and cumulative irritant. Quaker platitudes abound serenely, as if no challenge from faithful followers of other traditions would ever intrude. But in those first years, I drank it all up eagerly as cool, refreshing water for my thirsty spirit.
  • That particular moment in unprogrammed, "liberal" Quaker culture, while being very conscious of the specificity of its Quaker features, also seemed directly and uncomplicatedly Christian. At least that was the impression I got from my tendency to read all this stuff at face value. That was emotionally important to me, since my own conversion was strongly and specifically Christian and biblical. It wasn't Jesus I was seeking to avoid, nor a community gathered around him, but the religion industry.

    It took a while for me to begin seeing that the flesh-and-blood Canadian Yearly Meeting that I was gradually getting to know was not nearly as unified theologically as these pamphlets implied. The first controversy in the Yearly Meeting that I became aware of -- owing to the fact that the yearly meeting presiding clerk was a member of my meeting in Ottawa -- didn't involve Christians vs universalists, it was about the importance of formal membership. In any case, my own incubation period as a Friend was untroubled by theological complications.
  • The printed material that was helping form me was almost 100% male in authorship. Pamphlets by Agnes Tierney, Eva Hermann, and Ruth Pitman were the exceptions in those first years. (Ruth Pitman's vivid phrase about vocal ministry, "... sometimes 'the water tastes of the pipes'," has always stayed with me.) In contrast with this exaltation of male writers, the people who were most influential in my own formation were some of the women of Ottawa Meeting, such as the gentle and wise matriarch (as it seemed to me) of the meeting, Deborah Haight.
I'm not advocating that any yearly meeting adopt the practice of offering a menu of texts from which members can assemble their own private Faith and Practice, but these innocently-gathered fragments of my first acquaintance with Friends remain precious to me. The geographical and historical segment of the Quaker movement that they represent was certainly limited, but I cannot regret the role they played in my life.

One more sample of the Canadian Yearly Meeting culture of the time: here's the opening of Canadian Yearly Meeting's Advices, from the Organization and Procedure of that era. I soon memorized the first few sentences. The straightforward Christian voice is a balm to my soul, even as the male-gendered language begs to be updated ... which it has been. Much of the core content of these words remains in today's version, which you can read in Canadian Yearly Meeting's online Faith and Practice.

Most of these pamphlets remain "in print" ... at least online. In addition to the links above for Eva Hermann, Ruth Pitman, and Agnes Tierney, here are some sources:

William Penn, "A Key"
John H. Curtis, "A Quaker View of the Christian Revelation"
Howard H. Brinton, "The Spiritual Message of the Society of Friends"
Thomas R. Kelly, "The Gathered Meeting"

Patty Levering died on August 24. If you recognize her name, you probably already know that this news represents a moment of profound grief for many Friends and a loss to Friends everywhere. Her obituary and information about the memorial meeting on September 21 are accessible here. Her blog, which I discovered far too recently, is here.

Via Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, I found out about the death of one of New England's most inspiring and persistent activists, Frances Crowe, who had already put in a lifetime of witnessing for peace and justice when I lived in Boston four decades ago, and was still active this year!

Last Sunday, Reedwood Friends Church's meeting for worship was a collaboration between Daniel Smith-Christopher, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University and a son of this congregation, and blues musicians LaRhonda Steele and Ed Snyder. "The Bible and the Blues" specifically focused on the connections between blues music and the book of Lamentations. You can listen to the meeting for worship by choosing from this list.

Jan Wood on the courage to see.
We, in the community of faith, have a unique gift to give to these times. We are the ones who experientially know that power of seeing, repenting and finding new ways forward together.
Images of Russia's racial and ethnic diversity -- and testimonies to the related challenges.

Sophie Pinkham writes about Vasily Grossman's novel Stalingrad, and the reasons it remained in obscurity so long. Warning: seldom have I wasted less time between reading a review and ordering a book.

Albert Collins with a slow version of this classic.


Daniel Wilcox said...

Johan, Thanks very much for posting this article about the Quaker booklets. Not only did it bring back memories of my own deep spiritual times and the inspiration that I received from reading Quaker meditations years ago, it was a needed reflection for me now.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Daniel, for the affirmation.

Unknown said...

What a blessing to have stumbled across these artifacts! Several thoughts come to mind (heavy on the Quaker documentary geekery):

1) Canadian YM's two-volume structure, with the LYM F&P as vol 1, is interesting to me, as I had not known of its use elsewhere. As you know, the Orthodox Uniform Discipline, which at least until the last decade or so still provided much of the substance of the F&Ps of FUM's Orthodox core, was also a two-part document, but the first didn't include London's book. I wonder if Canadian YM's history as a united body influenced their selection of the London F&P? And what other YMs used/use this structure?

2) Re: Ruth Pitman and "the water tastes of the pipes": I'm glad to know of a written source for this expression, which I have used countless times in the ten or so years since I first heard it! But I wonder if her putting it in quotes in her tract means that it was already a part of unattributed Quaker oral culture when she wrote it down?

3) (Less geekery here) How beautiful it is that your young Christian faith found a place of nurture among Canadian Friends in this particular place and time. I am thankful for that! Not all blazing comets have found that same blessing among Friends--and that's not restricted to those in the unprogrammed parts of the tradition (writes a pastor who has not always been able to give such blazers what they most seem to need).

Thanks, as always.

Brian Y said...

My apologies, I thought that my comment above would come with an appropriate signature--for some reason Blogger is not recognizing my Google account.

Brian Young