14 June 2007

This Path Under My Feet

I've recently read two very different views of Left Coast Friends: David LeShana's Quakers in California and A Western Quaker Reader edited by David Manousos. LeShana details the history of Western Friends from the pastoral point of view. He tries to be fair about the Beanite portion of California Quakers, but he is part of the evangelical Quaker church, and he clearly believes in the rightness of that point of view. I felt a bit at sea in his world view; it is not the story of Californian Friends as any of the Quakers I know would tell it.

Reading A Western Quaker Reader was like coming home. For one thing, I kept running into the names of Friends from my Meeting. For another thing, the narrative is not presented as a single thread told by one voice, but rather a narrative pieced together from many points of view. Different individuals relate their own first-hand accounts of events in Western Quaker history. Members of each yearly meeting tell parts of its stories. The whole thing doesn't hang together, but it does give a flavor of what it is that we do in the Beanite part of the Quaker family.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded that the word "liberal" means "free." A liberal arts education is designed, according to the Greek model, to prepare the citizens of a democracy to take part in the work of governing the state.

I've been thinking of this meaning of the word "liberal," and also of how responsibility is the flip side of the coin of freedom. Freedom without responsibility is mere license. Freedom with responsibility is an integral part of our American/English/Roman/Greek/Western heritage.

Freedom, and its concomitant responsibility, is also a deep part of our Quaker heritage. Each individual is answerable, not to a presbytery or the local priest, but directly and personally to God. We are a religion of clergy, each of us taking responsibility for our worship, our property, our community, and the earth itself. We need no hireling ministers, no paid clergy; we do the work together. Like members of a family. Like the citizens of Athens. Like the apostles.

How do we do this? Where are our models? We're the only Christian church I know without a hierarchical structure. We're deliberately decentralized, with power and responsibility retained by Meetings, committees, and individuals.

We're not efficient. We sometimes fumble our responsibilities. Things fall through the cracks. The editor of the newsletter (that would be me) makes at least one major error every single month. The Worship & Ministry committee (that would also be me, at least in part) wakes up to discover that we don't have a functioning Children's committee (a committee under our care). We learn that there are problems with the children's program. (Er, and my children are a big part of the First Day school class.) The bulk of the last two Worship & Ministry meetings have been concerned with belated oversight of the children's program.

This is all, I suspect, part and parcel of how we do business. Our quality varies. We discover things later than would be optimal and deal with them more slowly than would be ideal.

And yet I, and liberal Friends wherever we exist, would not trade our slow, inefficient system of governance for a crisp, efficient, hierarchical system. There is something precious in our very slowness, our very inefficiency. We can't just barrel ahead with solutions as soon as we think of them. We have to wait for our slowest, most methodical, most deliberate members to get there.

Still, it would be nice if someone had told us sooner that the Children's committee was struggling. And it would be lovely if the newsletter editor had more time to double-check her work before publication. And if we were all a little more proactive and efficient. The engineer in me chafes under the inefficiency and unprofessionalism. Our Quaker performance is rough, unpolished, as plain as spilt salt.

In our slowness and inefficiency, we build relationships. We have to pay attention to the details of how our Meeting is run. We can't depend on the minister or the church board to take care of things for us; we have to lend a hand, attend our committee meetings, carry part of the burden. We labor with one another, both over the work at hand and over our different points of view.

At our Meeting retreat this year, a new attender told us that he thought we could use more of some sort of activity.

"Great!" I chirped, "Would you be willing to lead it?"

"But you're Worship & Ministry!" he protested, "You're the ones in charge of the retreat."

"We might be serving on the Worship & Ministry committee, but it's not all up to us," said another member of the committee, "We're a religion of clergy. We Quakers didn't do away with the clergy, we did away with the laiety."

He looked a bit flustered. I felt a bit apprehensive. Maybe we'd just given him more reality than he could handle. Later, I found myself on the path with him and apologized for being so abrupt.

"No, it was a good reminder," he said, "That's one of the things I like about Friends, that everyone is equal."

That's one of the things I like about Friends, too.

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