24 March 2007

Church Politics

Note: in the first revision of this post, I referred to "conservative" Friends. By "conservative," I did not mean to refer to members of the Conservative Friends Meetings, but more to the FUM/EFI evangelical side of Quakerism.

A couple of years ago, my daughters and I listened to the excellent Teaching Company course, The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era. The course covered the various movements in Christianity in the 15th and 16th centuries, both in the Catholic church and in the various Protestant groups that sprung out of it. Much of the material was new to us, and we had many discussions about the theological ideas behind the various schisms in the Church.

I was talking about this course with a Jesuit-educated friend of mine. "The Reformation," he said flatly, "was a failure. The reformers wanted to change the One True Church, but they only succeeded in splintering it. Every stream of Christianity already existed in the Catholic church; the Reformation broke up the body of the Church and left Christianity as a whole weaker."

I had never considered the Reformation in that light before. I'd always heard the Protestant point of view on the matter, and the Catholic point of view startled me. I grudgingly admitted that my friend had a point. When the Church schismed, the various streams of Christianity no longer had either the ability or the obligation to labor together to find the truth. Each sect could cling to its little truth and pat itself on the back for being right.

I'm not much for politics, myself. When people start fighting for turf, I slink down in my seat and head for the door. I don't like conflict. I feel much more comfortable in the role of peacemaker than in the role of warrior.

I've read many opinions in the Quaker blogosphere that imply that I oughtn't to call myself a Quaker. Indeed, judging from the crieria proposed, almost no one in either my monthly or yearly meeting would qualify. If we aren't willing to commit ourselves to the 17th-century faith of Fox, we have no right to be part of the Religious Society of Friends.

We're here. We've been accepted into membership in monthly meetings, and we feel that we are continuing the essential work of Friends. We don't always agree what that work ought to be, which is precisely why we meet to try to discern what our corporate direction ought to be. We labor together, as the body of the Church, to determine what God asks of us in the present.

The past can be a guidepost, but it's not meant to be a perfect template. We're not shackled to the revelations of the 17th century; we're meant to discern the living truth for ourselves in the present. Much has changed in the past 350 years, and I am glad that Friends have had the good grace to change to meet the challenges of their own times.

Imagine if John Woolman had accepted the Old Testament view of slavery instead of trusting to the Light that was given him. How much poorer would we be without the courage of those who followed their Light even when it went against the dictates of past generations.

Okay, so it's obvious where I stand in the old argument of Christ-centered versus Light-centered Quakerism. I'm from the Beanite branch of Quakerism, after all, in the very quarterly meeting started by Joel and Hannah after they were cast out by the revivalist Iowa Yearly Meeting. Who, not to put too fine a point on it, believed that they were the ones preserving original Quaker practice.

I want evangelical Friends to know that liberal Friends also think we're right. We have a version of history that indicates that we're the real heirs to George Fox's ministry, and that those who fell sway to the revival movement fell off the Quaker wagon at the same time. If anyone's entitled to the term Quaker, it's us, not you. We're tolerant and we try to be polite, but, deep down, we believe that we're following the path that God has laid out for us.

So we have several groups of Quakers who think that they're right (and that the other groups are wrong). And, collectively, we all think that the rest of Christendom (and probably all other religions) got things at least a little bit wrong.

What are we going to do about it? Are we lining up for another schism, after our tentative coming-together? Are we, one of the historic peace churches, so bad at dealing with conflict that we can't even work things out with other Friends? Are we going to allow the outer forms of language and variations in religious practice keep us from laboring together?

Jesus said something about the beams in our own eyes, and certainly we all have them. He also said some things about forgiveness, and the importance of working things out with your brothers. (Being from a sexist society, as he was, he didn't say anything about working things out with your sisters, but he would have if he'd lived in modern times).

I try, I really do try, to read your blogs about the importance of Quakers being more Christian. I try to hear what you're saying, even when you use language that makes me uncomfortable. It would be a whole lot easier if you didn't lead with your judgment about how my sort of Quaker is no sort of Quaker at all. I might not be your sort of Quaker, but my tradition goes back in an unbroken line to Fox, same as yours, even if it's kept different bits of his original ministry than yours has.

We might have something to teach one another.

22 March 2007

A Woman and a Friend

A couple of months ago, I sought counsel from a woman Friend who has done extensive hospice work. I wanted guidance on how to help my parents through these last months or years of my father's life. My Friend had much to offer: practical advice, reassurance, and a calm acceptance of death.

As I was thanking her for her generous support, we got to talking about Meeting dynamics. She made a comment about the increased Christian ministry in Meeting and how it seems to speak to many new attenders.

I heard hesitancy in her voice, so I asked, "And does it speak to you?"

She looked me straight in the eye and said, "I'm a woman."

Her words shifted something in me. I thought of my long struggle to make peace with the Christianity in Quakerism. I had even come to identify myself as Christian. I thought of how often someone on the Quaker blogosphere proclaims the need for more Christianity in Quakerism, and how uneasy that makes me feel. I imagine Quakers becoming so evangelical that they declaim homosexuality and insist that I cover my head, muffle my voice, and submit to my husband.

About a week after that, I ran across my copy of Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing. I read Starhawk's inscription to me and remembered our time in jail together after being arrested at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. I thought of all I had laid down in the process of becoming a Quaker. Perhaps it is time to pick it up again.

My thoughts simmered until my women's prayer group. l shared that I was uncomfortable with calls to make Quakerism more Christian, unless being more Christian means that we try to love one another better.

In worship, I can usually hear Friends' messages, whatever the language they use. The language of the Bible, however, does not speak to me directly. The Bible was written by men, from a male perspective. The Bible does not present either a rich or positive view of women and female spirituality. Women can learn to overlook and filter the negative, but we cannot find female voices in a medium in which they don't exist.

At our Meeting retreat, we broke into small groups and did an exercise to identify one another's spiritual gifts. One woman observed that I have a deep connection with the Earth, that I have learned to live in harmony with nature instead of in opposition to it.

Another puzzle piece snapped sharply into place for me. What we need in Quakerism is greater universalism, more connection with the Earth, more connection with the world's peoples, more connection with our bodies, and deeper attention to how we can live in harmony with one another and with the rest of creation. We need to spend more time listening to trees and watching banana slugs. We need to spend more time listening to those with different viewpoints and less time consolidating our own. We need to be more present in our bodies and spend less time abstracting away from our physical existence.

This I know experimentally: the Earth is sacred. The Goddess is immanent in creation. Every living thing on this planet is an embodiment of the Divine. Our salvation is right here, in these bodies, on this planet. How we treat one another matters. How we treat the Earth matters.

If Biblical language moves your soul, I rejoice for you. I just ask that you let the trees get a word in edgewise now and then, that you listen to the thrum of the living Earth, that you sink deep into your body and recognize that you too are an animal in the biosphere.

We are at a crossroads. The future of the Earth and all the living creatures on the Earth may very well depend on how we act in the next few years. Let's not waste our time squabbling about terminology. Let's go deeper, Friends, and do the work we are called to do.

18 March 2007

Faith and Practice

Santa Cruz Meeting had its annual retreat at Quaker Center this weekend. It was a good weekend, full of community, deep discussions with Friends, and moments to be held and cherished.

Moments to be cherished:
  • The hands of the oldest and the youngest at work together. At my Prayer Shawl Ministry workshop, I asked how many people had never knit. Eight hands went up. I then asked how many people knew how to knit well enough to teach someone else. A half dozen hands went up, including the hands of the three young teenagers attending the workshop. The teenagers taught some of the oldest and weightiest Friends in our Meeting how to hold the yarn and cast on.

  • The glowing faces of the teenagers as they carried out the lovingly prepared organic vegetables, lasagna with and without allergens, cabbage salad, fruit salad, and shamrock cookies for Saturday dinner. The teens had planned the meal, done the shopping, and chopped mountains of vegetables for the most delicious meal of the weekend.

  • Hiking up to the waterfall with three 7-year-olds, a 5-year-old, another adult, and a stalwart 2.5-year-old who marched the whole way with his boots on the wrong feet.

  • Seeing a Pacific Giant Salamander with the children.

  • Connecting with other woman Friends over our thirst for feminine aspects of the Divine.

  • Listening to Live Oak Preparative Meeting's musical rendition of their State of the Meeting report.

  • Walking the labyrinth silently with a group of about 20 Friends, journeying inward to the center and then back out again. Watching their faces as they centered inward, and seeing their unique beauty as they stood in silence after the labyrinth walk.

  • Having a long and heartfelt discussion with another member of Worship and Ministry about what the gospel of John did to Christianity and how Christianity might be different if we had the gospel of Thomas instead.

I had a good weekend and a busy weekend, but it was more a working weekend than a spiritual retreat for me.

In the final worship, however, we gathered quickly and the faith of my Friends pulled me down to the deepest worship I had experienced in a good while.

"I'm out of practice," I thought, "Why don't we talk more about the practice part of Faith and Practice? I say that I am a Quaker, but have I been doing my Quaker practice?"

I thought about the seasoned Friends I admire the most, and how their years of Quaker practice have built the spiritual gifts I most admire in them.

I have been under incredible stress these past few months. I've also been impatient with worship, having so much that I need to do and so little time to do any of it. Even when I've sat in worship, I've skimped on good practice. I haven't had energy to tend worship or to clear out my own spiritual detritus so I can be a pure well of Divine Light.

(Before worship, a dear Friend reminded me that I don't always need to be centered, that this is exactly why Quakers gather in community, so that we can help bring one another back to the Light when we stumble.)

During worship, I reflected on the importance of our corporate practice. Meetings, like individuals, learn how to be Quakers by doing our Quaker practices. I closed my eyes and tended my spiritual well, and then I opened my eyes and blessed each of my dear Friends, all the way around the circle.

I'm left thinking that I need to practice Quakerism much as the children need to practice the piano. I need to run through my Quaker scales, to exercise my Quaker faculties, and to gather with my Meeting for our corporate practices. Only then will I become the Quaker I can be, and the Quaker that my Meeting needs me to be. Without the practice, I'm a Quaker in name only, the outer shell of a Quaker without the inner Quakerness.