Quaker Bridge Building

This is from a ROUGH DRAFT of a speech I am preparing to deliver to Philadelphia Yearly Meeeting in residential session, July 25 – 30 at Rowan University, New Jersey. The speech will happen Friday night the 27th. This is only ONE PART of a speech which uses the bridge-building metaphor to look at a variety of challenges and opportunities facing our yearly meeting.

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In addition to a bit of research on bridge-building, in preparation for this speech I also gave myself a brief refresher on the long and tortured history of divisions and schisms among Friends. It was partially this research which led to my earlier proposal that we intentionally sow seeds of joy in our meetings, for what a bitter, angry and cantankerous Society we have been. Barely more than 100 years after Fox’s great opening, tensions had begun to grow between Friends, and by the mid 19th century, our Society was ripping itself apart into smaller and smaller groups, each convinced of their Quaker “rightness”. Speaking generally now, and leaving aside the Hicksite/Orthodox split of this yearly Meeting, what I noticed was that much of the conflict arose around words: what they meant, how they were used, and to what extent they bestowed authority on one position or another. I noticed that of all the words in question, the ones from the Bible were the most often used to sow disunity among Friends. And I noticed that Friends who sought creedal authority from the Bible or from other written words seemed to me the most likely to splinter away into a unique group.

As I got deeper into this depressing aspect of our history, a quote of Fox’s came forward in my mind. George once said “You will say Christ sayeth this and the apostles sayeth that, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the light and has walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?” and I remembered that he urged us to read the Scriptures “in the Spirit in which they were given forth.” And I turned to our own Faith and Practice which instructs me that we in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting “do not . . . consider scriptures . . . to be the final revelation of God’s nature and will. Rather, we believe in continuing revelation. This term emphasizes our ongoing communion with a Living God.”

Some present may be afraid that I am about to take sides in some aspect of the controversies I am alluding to. But I come to you tonight with the opposite message. The bridge between yearly meetings depends upon the abandonment of all controversies. It means acknowledging that other Friends worship differently than we do, and that they have a right to, and further, that we have something to learn from them. And here is the hard part, but perhaps the part where we can walk with Jesus most closely: it means we have to extend that openness and good will even when we feel it is not extended to us. One of our great challenges, and also our great strengths in this yearly meeting is our dedication to inclusiveness, and our willingness to sit in worship with almost anyone. Then let us reach out to our more Evangelical and Bible-centered brethren . . . or does our inclusiveness not include them? Living in “the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars” does not only refer to outward wars with military weapons, but also to inward wars in which bitter intentions, judgmental words and fear are the weapons. Friends, the peace testimony results from opening your hearts to God – that’s the Power Fox was talking about. If this bold bridge between yearly meetings is to begin in our yearly meeting, then let us take the first step and lay the first foundations.

Notice I am talking about “yearly meetings”, and have stayed away from the initials that identify broad groups of Friends, such as F.G.C., F.U.M. and E.F.I. While these organizations are important, and the work they do is vital, I have found that Friends can use these initials both to throw up walls around themselves and others so identified, as well as cast aspersions on other Friends based on assumptions about what those initials mean. Simply put, I have found that phrases like “F.G.C. Friend” or “F.U.M. Friend” lead to generalities, stereotypes and misunderstandings. So I have decided to identify myself as a member of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and leave it at that. What the testimony of the gathering at the Burlington Conference Center convinces me of, is that when Friends from around the country meet in a worshipful gathering, these “initials of identification” begin to lose their importance. I do not mean to make light of our differences with Friends from other Yearly Meetings. They are real and important. But what I lift before you is that they are not more important than those things which bind and unite us. I believe that what unites us can be most easily discerned when we are physically together. Further, I believe that what unites us – Friends from all over the country – is our love of God as God speaks to us in every moment, and when we acknowledge that God is uniting us there is no human distinction that rends us apart.

Even more troubling to me is the way some Friends use the words “liberal” and “conservative” to identify themselves and others. Here, I am not talking about the Conservative Yearly Meeting of the mid-western states. These are Friends with a rigorously defined position in the spectrum of Quaker theology, and have chosen the word “conservative” intentionally and with care. Actually, these Friends are a good place to start as to why I find the words “liberal” and “conservative” so pernicious when used by Friends outside of that yearly meeting, in an attempt to specify . . . what? Well, my experience is that these words are not used rigorously or with care, but haphazardly. Generally, the word “liberal” is used by Friends in our Yearly Meeting to specify an alignment with a variety of political and social positions. Likewise, I think some Evangelical Friends use “conservative” to self-identify with a right-wing political movement. If I am right about the use of these words, than this is an example of what Jerry Falwell called “creeping secularism” within our Yearly Meeting.

We are a Religious Society, not a Political Society. The words “liberal” and “conservative” have been poisoned in our popular culture, abused by talk show hosts and politicians, mocked by comedians and attached to a million and one definitions, depending on your political persuasions. They are laden with baggage hung on them by both ends of the political spectrum and when they are invited into our worship or discourse, they bring that baggage with them. Worse, they are lazy short-cuts for a much more involved conversation between Friends about the ways in which their faith is witnessed in the world. When Friends have face-to-face encounters – as our Young Friends did last February – Friends find how poor and shabby words like liberal and conservative can be, especially when held against the magnificent complexity of a human being’s attempt to live a faithful life. These words put us into ill-defined categories, and while I might be content to be called a liberal in other circumstances, I am not in Quaker circumstances. These words exclude, for if I say I am a liberal Quaker and worship at a liberal meeting, where is my Republican Friend to go? Finally, these words must be seen as agents of division, the second obstacle I named for this bridge to span.

All I want to tell you, Friend, is how I feel God guiding me in my life. I want to test these sensations with you, to see if you find them sound. I will not attach any label to where God guides me – whether God leads me to a profession that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, or whether God leads me to support the marriage two women or two men under the care of my meeting. God is greater and mightier than any word we invent, and more mysterious than any book. My life is dedicated to living close to this mighty mystery, and to do that I need the help of my Friends – all of them.

There are some labels I will gladly wear. One of them I found on quakerquaker.org. I discovered that I am a “convergent Friend” – a Quaker deeply interested in knitting up our fractious society. Let me mangle a metaphor now, and say we can knit these bridges between yearly meetings through more face-to-face interaction, and a focus on what unites us as Friends. How about that image: a bridge made of warm knitted wool. Cozy, but you have tread carefully. One simple way to build this bridge is to reinvigorate our tradition of traveling ministers. Friends who are called to build this bridge should be supported by their meetings to travel to other yearly meetings, worship with Friends there and seek to make connections based on our common goals. And let the goal be frank: we don’t want to change your mind about anything, we just want to be closer to you. Is there a way, Friend? What will it take to span our divisions? Will we try what love can do? What lasting relationships can we build between Friends across this nation and between yearly meetings, dreaming of a kind of united witness Rufus Jones dreamed of, in which Friends from all corners of our nation really, actually changed the world. Ironically, it is our commitment to inclusiveness that makes us in this yearly meeting ideally positioned to begin building this bridge. It is that characteristic that drives some others Friends crazy – our reluctance to exclude anyone. Then let us live this witness fully, and reach out to include other Friends, even ones who say we’re not Quakers. To which I might respond, that’s okay, but can I be your friend?