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.

7 comments:

Stefaneener said...

I am outside of the various Quaker streams these days, firmly planted in an Episcopal pew. We definitely have some things wrong, but one thing we apparently are copying you all in in lockstep is that whole schismy thing. I'm sorrowing over the troubles in my church and pray we are all healed of disagreements that divide. The ones we can stay together with, I'm all for.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dear Heather -- you write, "I want conservative 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."

You then write in the next paragraph, "So we have two (and perhaps more) groups of Quakers who think that they're right (and that the other groups are wrong)."

I honestly don't know where you got this idea of Conservative Friends, but I would like to set the record straight, if I may.

There are quite a few histories of American Quakerism extant in print. Not one of them says anywhere that Conservative Friends "fell sway to the revival movement". (If you disagree, please cite the book and the place within the book.)

My own Conservative Yearly Meeting, Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), separated from what is now Iowa (FUM) in a very dramatic fashion, precisely because the Iowa (FUM) community was getting into revivalism and my own community declined to go along. That is historical fact.

The three Conservative Yearly Meetings all have web sites: here is Iowa (Conservative)'s, here is North Carolina (Conservative)'s, and here is Ohio's. Kindly look them over and see if any of them says we-Conservatives-are-right-and-all-other-Quaker-groups-are-wrong. Even Ohio, which holds the narrowest position of the three, says in its "Are You a Friend of Truth?" web page that "if your answer to any of these questions is, 'yes', then you know some of the Truth that we do. ...We can rejoice in sharing Truth." That is not an exclusivist position.

My own stance as a Conservative Friend, which is pretty clearly visible in my recent essay "Friends and Doctrines", is that all Quaker groups have made their share of errors, and that I personally have, too. I don't think that any of our groups, or any of us as individuals, has any right to play holier-than-thou.

You conclude your essay by saying, "...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."

I'd like to know what bit of Fox's ministry that your tradition has kept, that Conservative Friends have not also kept. Please, Heather, show evidence that it was part of Fox's ministry and that your community has kept it while Conservative Friends have not.

In your previous essay, you wrote that you were "uncomfortable with calls to make Quakerism more Christian, unless being more Christian means that we try to love one another better." Okay. I am Christian and Quaker too; and if it's not an impertinence, I would very much like to call you to try to love the rest of us a little better. You are most welcome to hold me to the same standard in your turn.

Heather Madrone said...

I feel for you, Stefani. I have great sympathy for the American Episcopalians in this, since they are taking a principled stand on one of the major civil rights issues of our time. It would be wonderful if they could work things out with the rest of the Anglicans in the world without having to lay down their moral principles. It doesn't sound like it will be an easy issue to work out. Easier, however, to work out as one church than as two.

This led me to wonder about how all the Protestant denominations might reconcile their long-ago schism with the Catholic church. I can't see it, although the idea of Protestants submitting themselves to papal authority makes me smile.

Hey Marshall, thanks for taking the time to stop by and chide me a bit. I forgot the danger of using the word "conservative" (with a small c) in Quaker circles. I didn't mean your style of Conservative (big C) who, as everyone knows, are really the moderates in the the Quaker world. My post would probably make more sense to you if you mentally substitute the word "evangelical" for "conservative." I apologize for the confusion.

I've read a bit more about your tradition this morning, and am delighted to know that we are such close brethren in terms of Quaker history. We both belong to Yearly Meetings that split from the other Iowa Yearly Meeting (or, in our case, were ejected) due to opposition to the Wesleyan revivalist strain of Quakerism.

Anyway, I have never heard you say that liberal Friends have no right to call themselves Quakers. My thoughts were in response to posts like this one on Judge Felland the goings-ons in FUM. Fairly frequently, someone on the Quaker blogosphere asserts that liberal Friends don't deserve to be called Quakers.

I was silent about this for a long time. I asked elders in my Meeting about the issue. They tend to give me pretty much the same answer, which is the narrative of our Yearly and Monthly Meeting and their own (West Coast) experience of Quakerism. I find remarkable unity in our basic views on Quakerism, one that seems quite different from the views of Quakerism online.

Anyway, my point was not that our narrative and conclusions are right and other branches of Quakerism (or Christianity) wrong, but rather that all branches of Quakerism (and Christianity) have narratives that suggest that they are right and the groups they split from wrong. If we can become aware of the differences in our narratives and what people believed was important, perhaps we can learn from one another.

In our cases, perhaps not so much. "Wesleyan sanctification, hireling clergy, bad idea, eh?"

When I was reading about the proceedings of FUM, I was struck by how very different their view of Quakerism was from that of all the Quakers I know. And that they might also be surrounded by those who share their narrative and some of them might honestly not know that there are other versions of what's important in Quakerism.

And Marshall, your point about trying harder to love those who are difficult to love is well-taken. I do try, but it's hard sometimes.

Also, I'd love to brainstorm with you about what Friends can do to further our witness for the Earth. I know that this is a concern we share, and I'd like to see Friends taking a stronger stand for the planet. The eldest member of our Meeting is spearheading an effort to put solar panels on our new Meetinghouse, but it seems to me that we ought to be able to do more.

Marshall Massey said...

Hello, Heather! Thank you for clarifying that when you wrote "conservative" you didn't mean "Conservative".

Let me now add another clarification: "Conservative" doesn't mean "moderate". The varieties of Quakerism do not fall on a straight line ranging from "liberal" to "conservative", with the Conservatives somewhere in the middle. It would be more accurate to think of the varieties of Quakerism as divergent branches from a common root, each heading off in a quite different direction. You could think of Conservatism as being one-third of the distance around the center from your Beanite Quakerism one way, and pastoral Quakerism (the FUM/EFI kind) as one-third of the distance around the center the other way.

I personally think that what you've been calling "conservative" (small-c) Quakerism is really not conservative at all. It has moved smartly away from its origins -- FUM in the direction of conservative Wesleyanism, EFI in the direction of "evangelical" Protestantism. That kind of rapid evolution is simply not what "conservative" means. Calling it "pastoral" Quakerism would, I think, be much better.

Meanwhile, capital-C Conservative Quakerism has itself never been a single monolithic entity. There is the true Wilburite variety that dominates in Ohio Yearly Meeting and its affiliates, and that you might think of as the high fundamentalism of the Quaker world; the last I heard, most of the men still wore hats into meeting for worship, and solemnly took them off when anyone prayed aloud. And then there are the rather different Gurneyite varieties of Iowa (where I am a member) and North Carolina, which are lightly flavored with middle-of-the-road Protestantism and are more inclined to modernism. Despite these three bodies' long and sincere efforts to make themselves a single kind of Quakerism, they have always remained their three distinguishable selves.

While both the Beans, and Iowa (Conservative), parted ways with the main body of Gurneyite Iowa Friends, they parted for quite different reasons. The Beans were ecumenical types, like Gurney himself, and so did not want to leave; after they were pushed out, they still remained good friends with leaders in the main body of Gurneyite Friends in other parts of the world. Iowa (Conservative), on the other hand, so wanted to leave the main body of Gurneyites that it burned all its bridges, shunned the community it had broken with for generations, and affiliated itself instead with the very Wilburites its parents had regarded as schismatics.

The Beans, still ecumenical, drew together a community at College Park that included Gurneyites, Hicksites and Wilburites on terms of equality. In order to unite, this group moved swiftly in the direction of an ultra-simplified, radically inclusive interpretation of Quakerism. And if I were pressed to define what Beanite Quakerism is today, those are still the two identifying features I'd point too: ultra-simplification and radical inclusiveness.

Iowa (Conservative), on the other hand, had no reason to be ecumenical, and so, clear down into the 1930s, it neither simplified its Quakerism nor became inclusive, but labored to hold on to the pure old-fashioned religion its parents and grandparents had known. ("If it was good enough for grandpa, it's good enough for me!")

Beanism was progressive from Day One. But Iowa (Conservative) was never progressive before the 1940s, and even today would not take much interest in the sorts of trendiness that routinely pass for enlightenment on the coasts.

Yes, Pacific YM and Iowa (Conservative) share a rejection of Wesleyan sanctification and paid clergy. And in the past two generations, due in part to Iowa (C)'s decision to admit a number of Beanite meetings in larger cities and college towns to membership, it has moved in a markedly Beanite direction. There are an awful lot of Friends in Iowa (C) who don't seem to know the difference between their Yearly Meeting and the Democratic Party, just as there are in Pacific YM.

But even today, you could never mistake a session of Iowa YM (C) for a session of Pacific YM, or a First-day school in most Iowa (C) monthly meetings for a First-day school in a Pacific YM monthly meeting. And many of us here would be very uncomfortable having to participate in the sort of unprogrammed Quakerism you've got on the Left Coast for any real length of time.

I hope that clears things up a little bit.

On your final point: my ideas as to what Friends can and should be doing today, regarding environmental issues, are all public record. I know it's a lot to ask, but let me invite you to read the on-line version of my address to Baltimore Yearly Meeting last summer. You'll find it here.

Francis Drake said...

... 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 freely concede it left *Roman Catholic* Christianity a good deal weaker, but your friend would have an uphill battle persuading me that *anything* resembling the branch of Quakerism to which I belong (Hicksite/Liberal) would ever have arisen, and been tolerated, in the Roman church, Reformation or no Reformation.

Those Jesuits *are* good at winning arguments, though (they're rigorously trained to be).

I assure you I'm not anti-Catholic -- Roman or Anglican -- but for all the harm some modern Christianities have done I for one am grateful not to live in a society under a Catholic -- or any other -- doctrinal monocrop.

I would never dream of telling Conservative or Evangelical Friends how I think they should worship, practice or believe, and, like yours, folks in my meeting think we're right -- FOR US. One Friend in our adult 1st-day school this am spoke of the worship "that suits us." I would grieve to see us compromise that in pursuit of "ecumenism" or "convergence."

James Chang said...

Well, before we drool over the American Episcopalians, let us not forget how Episcopal bishops have been using their church treasury to bitterly prosecute parishes who wish to leave their communion, in secular courts, before reprobate magistrates no less. I also personally know some priests who are deposed by their bishops. So much for their Christian charity...

I was deeply bothered during my two year stint at a monthly meeting affilated with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, but then the Light illumined me and I suddenly realized that all these petty bickering of Quaker-this, Quaker-that, Christian-this, Christian-that, really are human chatter. God knows his own. And the power of the Lord is over all, as Fox would say. Why not leave it to the Lord then?

Heather Madrone said...

Marshall, as always, you give me a lot of food for thought. Always challenging, and it will have to simmer before I can digest it.

Francis, I'm not sure that I agree with my Jesuit-educated friend, either. For me, it was just another reminder that everyone has a point of view, and their opinions make complete sense when seen from their point of view.

And, James, all I can say is "Amen." IN worship, these distinctions just fall away before the Reality. Our words always fall short; they can give us the flavor but not the essence.