Matilda versus the Meeting

I took it on the chin at Quaker meeting the other day. Not literally of course. When one takes it on the chin in a Quaker meeting, it’s usually a kind of slow-motion dressing down, done in the passive voice and with oblique phrases. But this time, in front of a group of people, after two hours of intense worship sharing, the facilitator of this group pointed at me and said, essentially, what you are proposing is impossible in a Quaker context. It left me feeling drained and wounded, since the facilitator chose to drop her careful neutrality and essentially pick sides against (what she perceived as) my side, and also because I feel so deeply about the issue at hand. It is at the center of a nearly paralyzing meta-conflict in my meeting, and symptomatic, I believe, of a crisis in Liberal Quakerism generally.

The issue is: what power does a Quaker meeting have to articulate a set of expectations about individual behavior, and then hold it’s members accountable to that set of expectations? My antagonists a few days ago (whom I love, by the way) maintain that the answer to that question is, it doesn’t. A Quaker meeting can’t articulate any expectations of behavior, and certainly not enforce those expectations in any way. My position is, articulating such expectations is essential for the safety of the community and an affirmation of who we are and what we believe.

Quaker Minister

Historically, we Quakers were all about this. In fact, in the 19th century we made a fetish of expectations of behavior, so much so that we drove many young people away. Worse, we developed hierarchy within meetings – usually called the meeting of elders and ministers – which calcified as it became more and more invested in its power to enforce those expectations. It was partly as a response to this abuse of power that in my Yearly Meeting at least, we have done away with recorded ministers and acknowledged elders. The authoritative group became corrupted, and so essentially we did away with authority entirely.

Authority, for most Quakers, comes from Jesus. It is through our connection to him and his gospel ministry that power flows. So the execution of authority in a Quaker meeting is, ideally, not experienced as an exercise in human authority but as a witness of divine authority flowing through the group. But for that to work in a group context, everyone in the group needs to be on the same page. We all need to actually believe that God is at work through us, and so we can have faith and relax a little about the outcome. For all the bad those old-timey Elders may have done, they did one thing quite well: they got the meeting on the same page.Quaker Minister

Today, in unprogrammed meetings such as mine, we are not on the same page – not even close. We live and worship in a mysterious collection of beliefs. This multiplicity of belief makes meetings such as mine beautifully open and warmly welcoming places. The ministry is rich and it is Spirit-led, proof of our Quaker belief that the Divine can come from any source. We gather to us Seekers who value our laissezfaire approach to worship, which puts the individual’s experience of God above all else. It is precisely this quality of my meeting which attracted me at first, and it is an essential aspect of who “we” are.

But is it all “we” are? In putting individual experience above all else, I worry we have made a community which slides towards isolation, fragmentation and vanity. I worry we have made it nearly impossible to bend towards one goal shoulder to shoulder, since your shoulder is unique, and I don’t want to impose on it with my shoulder. And anyway, I’m comfortable sitting here, me and my shoulder, having my private experience of God, by myself.

Quaker Minister

I submit there is an obvious reason why the Evangelical Friends are so much better at actually doing things in the world together which help others, than we Liberal Friends are. It’s because they have a sense of themselves as a group. Even more powerful, they have a sense of themselves as a group under God, not so that their individuality vanishes, but so that it is less important than who they are collectively – as a meeting of Friends. But in order to get there, some articulation of who they are collectively has to occur. Like many Christians, Evangelical Friends rely on the Bible to help them with this. We Liberal Friends do not have such an authoritative relationship to the Bible, so we are left, if we choose to, to articulate that set of beliefs ourselves.

But we don’t choose to, because a) we love our individuality so much and b) because defining who we are as a group necessitates losing some individuality and c) that process is too hard and scary for most of us. We are left with Meetings in which there is no behavior which is unacceptable. If there is, it is not named. So individuals are free to behave as they wish.

Quaker Minister

In the vast majority of cases in the vast majority of Liberal, unprogrammed Friends Meetings, people behave splendidly. We are a loving, tolerant, curious, hard-working people trying to live the Quaker testimonies in a modern world. But some of us behave badly. Why? Because we’re human beings. And given the fragile state of Quaker community, which is tenuous at best, and given the delicacy of our Spirit-led decision making, a little bad behavior goes a long way towards turning a loving community into one in which no one feels entirely safe, since anyone can act in any way, and no one is held accountable. This has happened in my meeting.

An Elder of mine, a woman with years of deep Quaker experience in my Yearly Meeting, gave a name to this mis-behaving Friend: Matilda. “I don’t know why, I just like the name,” she said, “and every meeting has a Matilda or two. That one person of whom it is said: if only they would leave.” She continued, “but they very seldom leave, and driving them away does irreparable damage to the meeting. So the question we wrestle with is, how do we handle Matilda?”

I believe that part of how we handle Matilda, lovingly, is by saying look, this is who we are collectively, and this is how you’ve been behaving, and it’s out of line. Now, we want to work with you to ease your pain and discomfort, but we can’t allow you to harm other people in our community. It was to this point of view that my Friends said to me, not possible.

Lurking behind this set of expectations is the real cause of distress: the “or else.” To be held accountable for one’s behavior means that there are consequences for that behavior. For the 19th century Friends, there was a clear process: a series of visits to the Friend in question’s home, followed by a period of evaluation by the meeting, and, if no change occurred, a recommendation made by the monthly meeting to the quarterly meeting that the Friend be “written out” of the Society of Friends. While it’s obvious this process isn’t desirable today, it’s worth noting that there is plenty of precedent among Friends for a collective assessment of individual behavior and accountability for it.

So it’s Matilda versus the Meeting. Where’s the balance? How do we acknowledge who we are as a community, and celebrate and protect that community, while at the same time nurturing the individuals in our midst, no matter how uncomfortable they make us sometimes? The suggestion box is open . . .