18 January 2024

"...The People, called in Scorn, QUAKERS": part three

A banner at Friends House, Euston Road, London.
Source: Gillian O'Brien via Twitter

"I think our jargon and collective theological vagueness sometimes gets in the way of welcoming new people. And YET, the theological vagueness is part of what makes room for people of different backgrounds to worship together."

—A response to the final question, "Any closing thoughts?" on my survey asking whether and when you prefer the term "Friend" or "Quaker."

I have so many mixed feelings about this insightful statement. It almost makes me want to post a whole new survey, with such questions as ...

  • Does your corner of the Quaker world consider itself jargon-ridden and/or theologically vague? 
  • If so, what advantages and disadvantages of these features have you experienced?
  • If not, is your greater conformity a source of strength and joy, or a result of not wanting to reveal your doubts? (Or both or neither!?)
  • For what purposes do you want to welcome people of different backgrounds and make room for everyone?
  • How much unity, if any, do you consider necessary to worship together? (For that matter, what is worship?)

Based on this Friend's other responses, I'm guessing that they're in the unprogrammed side of the Quaker movement, among whom there tends to be more theological diversity than where I am. But in any case, the big question for me is: why do we gather as a Quaker community? To put it another way, Who or what gathered us?

(Related: A great people to be gathered.)

A couple of years ago I saw this banner hanging on the outside of Friends House in London: "IN TURBULENT TIMES ... BE A QUAKER." I'm relatively sure no irony was intended. Here's my guess at an interpretation: "In times such as these, be someone who is capable of centering yourself in quietness, while at the same time being engaged on behalf of social justice and earth care." I'm not sure literal quaking at the word of God, as early Quakers preached and experienced, is directly recommended by the banner. We may have been the 17th century forerunners of the Pentecostal movement, but that's not the comparison that comes to mind now.

(Related: Happy birthday, Charismatics.)

On that same visit to London, we visited the Westminster Friends meetinghouse, location of the first British Quaker meeting for worship I ever attended, back in 1975.

On that more recent visit, I was intrigued by an outreach of that meeting in the form of an attractive invitation to its "Drop-in Silence ... Bringing peace, tranquility and silence to London's busy streets." Especially interesting were these promises in capital letters at the bottom of the notice: "NO PHILOSOPHY, NO RELIGION, NO CATCH / JUST PEACE, TRANQUILITY & SILENCE."

The Drop-in Silence Web site makes it clear that this weekly period of quiet is not a Friends meeting and is solely intended to provide a safe, unconditional place of calm. But Westminster Meeting's qualifications as host of Drop-in Silence are hinted at on the meeting's own Web site, in its tagline: "An oasis of calm in central London."

There is a modest reference to Friends on the Drop-in Silence Web site. Those who are curious about the sponsorship of the Silence can find links in the "About" pull-down menu. These links go to Westminster Quakers, to Britain Yearly Meeting, and to the Wikipedia article about Quakers—the last one making it clear how diverse our movement has become since the days quaking was more or less normal.

Londoners can come into the weekly Silence with the assurance that there is no proselytizing intent in Friends' offer of an oasis of quiet in the city. But there is a side of me that Eastern Christianity has influenced, which is why I can't help believing that those visitors are entering a space that is drenched in decades of prayer.

Back to my survey. The ways respondents identified themselves in the conventional categories we Friends use were interesting. Many were not content to choose just one category; for example, the Conservative/Wilburite category (yes, I know they're not exactly the same) included two who also identified as Liberal, and two who also identified as Evangelical.

Two respondents said they encompassed practically the whole spectrum: Liberal, Orthodox, and Conservative. To my mind, these intriguing responses don't necessarily indicate theological vagueness, but instead point to the inadequacy of these categories. I suspect I know at least a couple of these people, and there's nothing vague about them. 

Seven included "other" in addition to specific categories. Five simply chose "other."

Eleven people responded to the questions in the section addressed to people who aren't now Quakers. Eight said that they understood that the two terms, Quaker and Friend, are synonymous, and three hadn't understood that. Five were more familiar with the term Quaker, four with Friend, and two said that both terms were familiar. I would love to have more data from people who aren't involved with Quakers, but the great flaw in that aspect of my survey is that non-Quakers pop into my readership very randomly, probably as an odd result of an Internet search, and most don't stay on my blog very long.

Speaking of random encounters with the term Quaker, my last quotation from the survey follows.

I prefer the full title Religious Society of Friends of Truth, because I think dropping the last phrase obscures the significance of history of the former words.  And I do wish that P&G or whoever is responsible for past or current Quaker brands, such as are referred to above, would drop them.  I consider they're offensive effrontery.  Would they use Methodist or Anglican or Catholic or Mormon or any other church name?  It's absurd, and fixes Quakerism in the quaint past, along with comparable Racial totems like Aunt Jemima - I speak as an American Quaker...

When I read this comment, this jingle came unbidden into my head: "Quaker State your car, to keep it running young." Although the motor oil brand is probably referring to the state of Pennsylvania rather than to our religious movement, it does reinforce the respondent's point. But I also have to ask, whose fault is it that it's so easy to fix Quakerism in the quaint past? Have we been marginalized by others, or have we marginalized ourselves?

Many thanks to the survey participants for giving me so much food for thought.

(Part one. Part two.)

Here's the late Mariellen Gilpin on prayer and place—and Moscow Friends: The Cloud of Witnesses.

Here's Britain Yearly Meeting on observing George Fox's 400th birthday. Note the link to the Friends World Committee's page on the same subject.

Is There a Balm in Gilead? Prospects for a Palestinian/Israeli Peace. George Fox University's Woolman Peacemaking Forum this year features Jonathan Kuttab. Tuesday, February 13, 6 p.m. Pacific time.

Do unexpected megastructure discoveries challenge the cosmological principle?

I'm going to hurry up and publish this blog post in case we lose power in this icestorm. But not before I provide some blues dessert.... The late James Harman had been in "this same racket since 1962...."


Kevin Camp said...

Yes to jargon-ridden and theologically vague. But we love our Quakerspeak. And, frankly, I do, too.

Marshall said...

Once we had a powerful message and a purpose known to the world. Now we hold open house in quiet buildings, like real estate agents looking for a buyer.

Martin Kelley said...

Thank you for this series, it’s been particularly interesting.

I don’t remember what I put in as identity in your form but I’m someone who has elements of Liberal, Conservative, and Orthodox Quaker influences in my life. At the same time I often don’t fit in with the more purist factions in each of those traditions. I think we sometimes overemphasize the differences—as we often overemphasize Friends’ uniqueness to other spiritual traditions.

I frequently think of the quote by Edwards Hicks maybe 20 years after the first modern Quaker schism in 1827. Paraphrased a bit it goes “if all the Quakers who want to be Methodists just left to become Methodists, and all the Quakers who want to be Unitarians just left to become Unitarians, then the rest of us who just want to be Quaker could reunite tomorrow.” A over-simplification then, I’m sure, and much more so now, but I think there’s still a truth that many of the differences in the benches are more superficial than they seem.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments, which, as usual, challenge me to go a bit deeper.

Kevin, I love our Quakerspeak as well. Still, I often wonder how we keep those instructive terms, which after all mark our forms of discipleship, while not letting them block access to our community. I dealt with some of those terms in these blog posts: "Our inner flashlights" and "What does 'That of God' mean?"

Marshall, the comparison with real estate agents is usefully provocative. Are we sometimes guilty of redlining?

Martin, your comment reminded me of something a Hicksite Quaker living in Geneva once said to me about the Friends association I was serving at the time. He suggested that "Friends United Meeting" would be better rendered as "Friends United Methodist." In any case, it does seem to me that some of our differences are more cultural than theological. For just one example, when I was at FUM, I realized that some Friends in the rural part of our constituency and some in the urban part of our constituency were struggling to understand each other because their ways of communicating were so different.