Quakerism, authority and God.

I am taking a sabbatical from Quaker meetings these days. Part of the reason is that I am in the midst of leaving one meeting which is now too far away for me to be a part of regularly, and part of the reason is that I am buried beneath the demands of working four jobs, raising two kids and having a bad cold.

My disengagement has allowed for some perspective. I see some things that seem very promising to me in the world of Philadelphia Quakerism:

  • The Occupy movement, which my Yearly Meeting has supported with spiritual and material gifts. It has reminded me again that Fox’s movement was as much political as spiritual, although he would never have made such a distinction. Quakerism hands Christianity over to the masses, mysteries, ministry and all. It attacked elitist power structures which brought unearned entitlement to priestly classes and those aligned with them. There is an undeniable affinity between Fox’s spiritual movement and Marx’s economic movement 200 years later. I doubt they would have enjoyed each other’s company. But in the Occupy movement’s energy and idealism, many Philadelphia Quakers have found a real political movement in keeping with their faith. It has been bracing.
  • The growth of the Sabbath Year movement within our Yearly Meeting. This is the idea that our Yearly Meeting needs to stop “business-as-usual” and observe a collective year of Sabbath Renewal and Reflection. In part, this is a reaction to the perilous state of our Yearly Meeting’s finances, and the sense that we have found ourselves in an untenable position because we have allowed organizational, financial and some extant, personal-political issues to take precedence over a true and deep devotion to God’s direction for us. This movement began in the Standing Committee on Worship and Ministry which I clerk, so I have a special love for it. Our sense is that our Yearly Meeting needs to press the re-start button, and that the time it takes the divine computer to shut down and begin again should be about a year, in which time we should worship and pray – a lot – with each other. This movement is now spreading out from our Standing Committee and inviting others to join in exploring it. We on the Standing Committee hope our Yearly Meeting adopts a Sabbath Year plan at annual sessions in July 2012.

I also sense some things which trouble me. These two missives came across my computer screen within the last two weeks. The first is from a dear friend from my current meeting. She writes about two difficult people in our meeting:

When you land back on planet earth, I’d like to hear about your new meeting. Specifically, I’d like to hear how your meeting handles people like — and —. I feel like they are literally suffocating the meeting . . . People aren’t coming [to meeting for business] any more because of them. People won’t serve on committees. . . . We develop these elaborate processes to sidestep and dance around their crappy (bullying, screaming, downright lying, name-calling) behavior. Is this normal? I have no outside reference.

And this, from a friend who left the aforementioned meeting in large part due to the behavior the previous Friend describes. The following friend is responding to an op-ed in the New York Times called “Americans: Undecided About God?” He is disputing a claim made in an email from a Friend that Quakerism is the answer to the malaise the writer of the article describes:

Quaker Meetings are political places. They support political causes. They tolerate political speeches during worship time. There are financial, educational, physical and historical assets to maintain, spend and fret over. Consequently and necessarily, a power structure (the committee syndrome!) is put in place to get things done. Individual Friends develop “weight” and like planets, the more weight they have the more satellites can be spun around their axis. It is a fairly benevolent and inclusive form of politics, but it is enough to deter [people] like me from being involved.

I think Quakerism would be much more successful today if it was offered in a commercial storefront, sort of like a spiritual gymnasium. Schedule of the day’s activities on the board. Reading room and coffee shop open 24/7. Mr. Wise and Ms. Sage speaking on Wednesday night. Meeting for Worship Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays (sorry, no drive-up window!). Counseling by appointment. Pay as you go. Employee owned and operated. Visitors solicited. No pretense. Non-partisan.

I like this guy. But I find his prescription for “storefront Quakerism” appalling. I suspect he is being a little tongue-in-cheek. Both letters are critiques of the current state of Philadelphia Quakerism (I have an intense dislike of the term “liberal Quakerism“). Let me speak to my first Friend.

The behavior you describe I know well. I have born the brunt of it myself. I confess to feeling a sense of relief at not having to be in the middle of it anymore. I can’t speak for other meetings, since I have no relationship to any meeting as deeply as I have to ours. But I have heard about these kinds of difficulties from many Friends. We are not unique. And if you read the minutes of Quaker meetings past you will see that the disturbances caused by Friends’ behavior has been a sore spot for meetings since meetings began. Remember that one of Fox’s closest followers, the purported author of the famous Quaker phrase beginning “There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end” – James Naylor – was reprimanded for riding naked on a donkey into Bristol in imitation of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. So the misbehavior of Friends has been vexing us for almost 400 years.

The problem we face now is two-fold. On the surface is this: there is no authority in our Quaker meetings. By that I mean, there is no longer a group of people in the meeting that the meeting has put in a position of power and authority to pass judgment on behavior that Friends are finding impossible to deal with in other ways. I say no longer, because meetings used to have these groups: they were called The Meeting of Ministers and Elders, a meeting within the meeting composed of Friends of great collective experience and spiritual gravitas who dealt with the thorny issues of bullying, lying, name-calling and other behavior outside the bounds of our Testimonies, but which are part and parcel of any spiritual community trying to live with each other over time.I often think these problems are hard for Quakers to deal with because we feel that we shouldn’t have to deal with them; that our “Quakerliness” should be some kind of community Kool-Aid making everyone love each other, and that mis-behavior like we have experienced is proof, somehow, that we are failing at being Quakers.

Of course we are not. But we have made it impossible to deal with issues of personal conduct in our meetings, since no one is accountable to anyone. I have had people in our meeting say to me that my criticism of the behavior you describe is my problem, and that I need to learn to love and forgive more. The problem with that is that it leads to a meeting with only two kinds of people: the boors and the people who love them. The rest of us flee, and for good reason. The boors make the community fundamentally unsafe. Early Friends understood that the community of a Friends meeting was fragile and needed protection, and thus the Meeting of Ministers and Elders was set up to protect that community from individuals that would abuse it. Early Friends cherished the community of the meeting more than the individuals within it; we have flipped that equation in the 21st century. A dear Friend I know in PYM says with dark humor, that the t-shirt we should sell at annual sessions should read “You’re Not The Boss Of Me”. We have made a fetish of individuality in our Quaker meetings, and it has cost us our collective identity and safety. We have become a school with no teachers, a team with no coaches, a community with no leaders.

What happened to the Meeting on Ministers and Elders? They were felled by one simple flaw: they became self-perpetuating groups. In other words, the only Friends who could select Friends to join this select Meeting, were the Friends already in the Meeting. And so they ironically become the kind of priestly class Fox was trying to abolish, and instead Friends abolished them. But not before the abuse of power by these Meetings of Ministers and Elders had wrought enormous damage on Quaker communities by imposing rigid codes of conduct and running the transgressors out of the meetings. The solution is simple: restore the Meeting of Ministers and Elders (and then change its name), and make the entire meeting in charge of who is included in the group, and what this group is expected to do.

Last summer, I reflected sadly on the theme of summer sessions: Quaker Leadership. Since there is a direct connection between leadership and authority, and no one in my Yearly Meeting wants to give anyone else any authority, poor ol’ Leadership has been in the Quaker doghouse for about the last 75 years. So we have no leaders, i.e. leaders with the authority to lead. How tragic that a religious movement based on the valiant strivings of leaders like Fox, Pennington, Penn, Mott, Fry, Hicks, Jones and Woolman should be rendered so passive by a nearly hysterical mistrust of authority. More tragic still is that this is vanity dressed up to look like a sober attachment to egalitarian Quaker principals.

Yes – vanity. One of the ways our faith is being infected by the secular culture we live in is that we have installed the primacy of self in our Quaker meetings. We have adopted the narcissism of our culture and are calling it Quakerism. What seekers find most attractive about Quaker meetings is that they get to come and be left alone on their individual little islands-on-the-benches, to develop whatever hodgepodge, quasi-Quaker, semi-theology they are comfortable with.

Sorry – but it upsets me.

My second friend left our society precisely because of this syndrome, and his prescription – drive-by, storefront commercial Quakerism – is a call to capitulation. I will give him this: it has integrity in it. At least we wouldn’t be pretending to be holy communities. He also left because he was assaulted by the kind of appalling behavior you describe, and no one would protect him, or speak for him.

Earlier, I said the problem is two-fold. I have described the first part of it – a rejection of authority in Quaker meetings. But that is the symptom of the real problem, the deeper and more troubling problem: not many in Philadelphia Quaker meetings actually believe in God.

In a well-functioning Quaker meeting (something we must conceive of in the abstract, I admit), all Friends are bound by some basic beliefs held in common. These beliefs supersede their individual wants and define them as a distinct community. These beliefs are born out of transformational experiences, life-changing and affirming experiences, occurring as they were raised in Quaker households and nurtured in Quaker meetings. Read Rufus Jones’ account of his childhood A Small Town Boy to get a sense of what this was like. One of these beliefs is that God is real, not theoretical. God is a real presence in everyone and everything. And every choice we make is witnessed by and affects, God. This brings real meaning to Fox’s injunction to “answer that of God in those we meet”. It isn’t a pretty phrase to Quakers in the kind of meeting I am describing. God is inside every person we meet, staring at us through that person’s eyes, feeling us when we touch our Friend, speaking to us through our Friend’s ministry. And these Friends share this in common: the experience of God working in their lives in real and discernible ways that they like to talk about, without shame, doubt or embarrassment. Having been saved from addiction by divine intercession, I have had this experience, so this part of the equation has never been a reach for me. I understand that it is for many in the 21st century. So our task, in Quaker meetings today, is to help everyone who comes to us have this kind of real and transformational experience with God. Without it, the bottom falls out.

One of the side-affects of believing in God this way is that it becomes hard to stay angry at people very long. Another is that, when a group who believes like this is brought together, they are constantly searching for the best in each other. And, that exquisite process you have abandoned – the collective decision making process of Friends – is guided not by the petty human imperfections you describe, nor by the political machinations my other friend describes, but instead by a shared belief in and experience of God working through the group at once.

All it takes for this pleasant-sounding place to become frustrating is for that common belief to vanish – and this is precisely what has happened in Philadelphia Quakerism. We are a Yearly Meeting in which each new friend is invited to create the belief system which troubles them the least. Each new friend’s individuality is carefully nurtured and protected – celebrated even – as evidence of how inclusive we are. I like being inclusive. I wouldn’t be a Friend if we weren’t. But we stand for nothing in the public eye other then vaguely defined pacifism, and even that belief is sorely tested when the bully in the meeting is allowed to call people names and faces no consequence for doing so.

So my answer to you is this: the Friends who have troubled you will likely continue to trouble you until they decide it is in their best interest to change. Absent an authoritative structure based on a shared belief in God which can speak sternly to those of us who transgress (and we all transgress), nothing will change.

It is my hope that one of the concerns that will rise up during a year of Sabbath Renewal and Reflection will be this: who are we and what do we stand for as a people of faith? It is because we can’t answer this question collectively and with enthusiasm that the bully still has his way, and the meeting is at the mercy of the misbehaved.