The elevator speech

Within 30 minutes of my last post, several people wrote to me and asked, “What is an elevator speech? What do you say in it?”

OK, back to basics – an elevator speech is short enough for you to give in a typical elevator ride. If you look this topic up on the Internet, elevator speeches are supposed to be no more than 30 seconds, typically 80-100 words. I cheat, probably because I spend a lot of time in slow-moving hospital elevators, so mine is about 2 minutes long. But you get the idea.

My Quaker elevator speech is short, friendly, informative and inviting. I’ve given it hundreds of times. Depending on what the person I’m talking with is interested in, it can include any of the following points:

  • Quakers are a Protestant group. We’ve been around for almost 400 years.
  • The Quaker meeting I work with is one of the oldest churches in the area – we got started 3 years before the Declaration of Independence.
  • Quakers were the first church to say that you couldn’t be a member and keep slaves. We helped to run the Underground Railroad.
  • Quakers have women ministers. We’ve been doing that for almost 400 years, too.
  • Quakers are really interested in peace. A lot of Quakers are conscientious objectors. We also do a lot of positive work for peace.
  • Quakers like to pray quietly. The world today is a noisy place. Quiet prayer helps us feel closer to God.

Depending on the situation, who I’m talking with, or in answer to a question, I may also go on with:

  • Yes, most Quakers identify themselves as Christians.
  • No, we don’t all dress like the guy on the Quaker Oats box.
  • Quakers have a special interest in Native Americans.
  • No, we’re not Amish. But we’re sort of like cousins.

I may ask about Quakers they’ve heard about, like William Penn or Susan B. Anthony. Here in this area of North Carolina, I often talk with people about Allen Jay.

During the elevator speech, I never use Quaker jargon. EVER.

Before saying goodbye, I always say something like:

  • It’s been nice talking with you!
  • Come visit us at worship – that’s the best way to get to know us.
  • Do you use the internet? Check us out at springfieldfriends.org.

Make up your own version of the elevator speech — whatever you feel comfortable about saying. Try it out on people, and tweak it now and then. Don’t argue, don’t put down other religious groups or make bad comparisons, don’t be negative. Be friendly and inclusive. Most people will be interested in things which are distinctive, but will repel off anything they think is weird. Always thank people for being interested, and always invite them to come to meeting, or visit your meeting’s web site.

That’s the elevator speech.

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Answering

One of the most popular phrases in the Quaker grab bag is “answering that of God in everyone”. It dates back to George Fox and the first generation of Friends in the 1650’s. The idea is that wherever we go, we have opportunities to speak to people and listen to their hearts. Whatever our differences, we will find something in common – a spark of God – which is similar to the fire in our own hearts.

Last month I had several experiences of this. The first was when I found a serious leak in one of the drain lines in the basement at the parsonage. Somehow, when the building was being renovated last year, one of the workers must have cut off the line and instead of closing up the cutoff end, just left it and went on to some other task. Every time we took a shower, the water was coming out in a little waterfall down in the crawl space.

I called the plumber and he came the next day. It wasn’t a difficult repair, maybe 10 or 15 minutes. I sat on the basement steps and talked with him while he fixed the drain. He knew that I’m a Quaker pastor, and he talked about a conflict which had left him deeply shaken – so much so that while he still believed in God, he could no longer pray or go to his church.

He talked, and I listened. I said a few things which seemed to help. He asked me to pray for him, so we prayed together down in the basement – maybe that’s where the best prayers need to take place. When he left, his heart seemed a lot lighter. I want to call him in a few days and see how he’s doing.

Last Sunday morning, my wife called me just before Sunday School was about to start. She said she thought she saw someone standing under the tree in our back yard. Our neighborhood has a lot of good people in it, but it also has a lot of crime and other bad things, so she didn’t want to check it out herself.

I walked over, and saw a woman huddled down on the ground under our tree. Many of the families in our neighborhood are immigrants from Pakistan, who came here to work in the factories in our area. This woman was dressed in traditional clothing, and she was crying uncontrollably – the kind of wracking, heart-stopping grief that you read about but seldom see.

I walked up slowly, and got down on the ground a few feet away. I didn’t want her to be scared, and most Muslim women in this area are careful not to speak to men. I spoke as gently as I could and said, “My sister, what is the matter? Can I help?”

She shook her head and kept crying. After a minute, she said, “My English not so good. I cannot explain.”

I said, “Is someone ill? Has someone died?”

She sobbed some more and said, “No. It is my oldest son. He. . .it is not good with him. He is smoking.”

I asked, “Is it tobacco? Or something else? Is it drugs?” She nodded hard. Her son, in his 20’s, has started using drugs, and she was heartbroken.

I couldn’t help much because of the language barrier, but I said that God is merciful (one of the shared beliefs in both Christianity and Islam), and perhaps God will help. She clung to that like a life preserver and said, “Pray for me.”

People in our community are often afraid of our Pakistani neighbors, but when I told folks at meeting for worship that morning, they all agreed to pray. Another opportunity, another opening.

After meeting was over, I went out to see if she was still there, and she had gone. But two people came strolling out of the meeting cemetery, looking around with interest. I walked up to them and introduced myself. One was a middle-aged African-American woman who said she lived just down the street, and the other was a friend of hers from Connecticut who was visiting. They had seen the old buildings and wanted to know what went on here.

I gave them the two-minute elevator speech about Friends that I’ve given so many times, and they asked more questions. I offered to give them a tour of the meetinghouse, and they were excited – neither of them had ever been in a Quaker place of worship. They asked more and more questions – about the Underground Railroad, about women’s rights, about discernment and Quaker migrations and peace and quiet prayer. Not bad for a casual encounter.

One way for Friends to grow again is for us to be more open to the opportunities to reach out and listen, to be ready and willing to pray, to have prepared ourselves with basic information for people who want to know about us, to share the love of God on a simple human level.

As George put it so well, so many years ago:

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”

P.S. – the plumber never sent me a bill.

Looking backward

Years ago, I was hosting a fellow Quaker pastor from Kenya for a week. He was here in the U.S. to study, and while he was on fall break he wanted to visit a local meeting. We drove around to see the sights in our area, and stopped at an historic Quaker meetinghouse in the upper Hudson valley.

The meetinghouse was closed, but we peered in the window and walked round the cemetery, which dated back to the late 1700’s. My friend from Kenya was very impressed, and asked how many members the meeting had. I told him about 25.

He thought a minute, and then in a half-joking/half-serious voice he said, “This is the problem with Quakers here in the United States. Too many of your members are under the ground, and not enough of them are above the ground!”

We laughed and moved on, but he had a real point. Quakers have a rich, fascinating and prophetic past – but on the whole we are not very actively involved with our future. We are the heirs and custodians of an enormous heritage of Quaker literature, buildings, spiritual struggle and historic witness, but we are investing less and less in the needs and interests of the next generation or even in the generation around us.

Too many of our meetings are weighed down with the financial care and historic responsibility for older meetinghouses, which we love but which are often the wrong size or the wrong configuration for our needs.

As an example, a Quaker meeting I knew in Indiana spent years maintaining an enormous meetinghouse which was capable of holding over 1,000 people, when their regular Sunday worship attendance was close to 100. The problem solved itself eventually when the city building inspector discovered that a roof leak had caused the wooden beams spanning the worship room to rot. It was the last straw – fixing the roof would have cost well over $250,000.

Even then, the meeting wrestled for quite a while before deciding to let the old historic building go. They tore it down, sold the land, and worked together to build a much better building with room for growth but much more appropriate for their needs.

I’ve known dozens of meetings which insist on keeping their “historic” Quaker benches for worship, even though everyone in the meeting acknowledges how uncomfortable they are. And I’ve known even more meetings which keep their benches bolted firmly to the floor in configurations which may have fit worship in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, but which don’t fit the way a younger generation would like to sit and worship together today.

One of my first moves at any new meeting I go to is to clear out as much junk as possible. At Adirondack Friends, I found a 15′ x 15′ room stacked right to the ceiling with generations of broken furniture, worn-out toys, discarded curriculum materials and office equipment that didn’t work. At West Richmond Friends, more than half of the books in the meeting library hadn’t been taken out and read since the Eisenhower administration – I recruited two new librarians and we threw them out mercilessly. Here at Springfield Friends, I took more than 60 boxes of old bills, check registers, receipts, committee minutes and other useless paper to be shredded. Not once has anyone ever wished that we had kept any of this stuff. It’s one thing to guard the treasures of the past, and it’s another thing to be a pack rat. Hoarding is a disease, and Quakers are all too vulnerable to it.

Just as stifling as the outward, physical baggage and historic refuse we so lovingly maintain is the inward, spiritual and mental junk we cling to. There’s an old bittersweet joke that the Seven Last Words of the Church are, “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before.” Are we afraid to try new ideas, experiment with new approaches, or strike out in new directions? Those “early Friends” who we admire so much were much more willing than we are to try something new.

One of the situations which makes me weep is when Friends divide and cast each other out rather than listen to each others’ point of view, and agree to work and worship together (a frequent subject of posts here on this blog.) But another situation which raises my blood pressure is that when Friends have divided our old yearly meetings, we rush to re-create the same structures which were already falling down of their own weight. I’ve personally seen this as Indiana Yearly Meeting and North Carolina Yearly Meeting divided, and I’m sure it’s happened in other places as well.

I think there must be dent marks on the pew from banging my head, as well-meaning Friends have insisted that we have the same committees, the same Faith and Practice which almost no one ever read before, the same appointments to the same Quaker organizations, the same funding patterns, and worst of all, the same kind of energy-draining, inconclusive agenda when we meet together. There are times when I’m just about ready to give up on Quakers altogether, but I keep hoping we’ll change. (Or is that the definition of “insanity” that I read about somewhere else?)

At a recent meeting “to plan for our future” I looked round the room. Out of roughly 60 people present, I guessed that only 2 were under the age of 50, and at least a third were in their 80’s. This is a situation I’ve seen many times before in Quaker yearly meetings, organizations and boards of various kinds. Do the math: groups like this are looking at a very limited life span. All too often, they are preoccupied with preserving the way they’ve always done things before, and they’re not asking the younger generation of Friends what concerns and experiences they are bringing to the table.

I love Friends, and I love Quaker history. I publish books and write articles and give public lectures and workshops about our past — but I only do that in my spare time. I think there ought to be a limit – maybe Quaker meetings could only spend, say, 10% of their time and energy on our glorious history, and maybe we could only use the phrase “early Friends” about once every other year. Maybe we could use about 60% of our time and energy on worship and on concerns related to the present – a lot of Quaker meetings don’t even do that. And maybe we could invest the remaining 30% of our time and energy inviting new people into our meetings, listening without interruption to their stories, asking where the Holy Spirit is leading them, and walking into the future together.

 

 

Will the real Quakers please stand up?

It used to be fairly easy to tell people who the Quakers are. Quakers were born in the English Reformation. We got started in the 1650’s, and a lot of Quakers moved to the American colonies, and we’re all descended one way or another from these first Friends.

As history, that’s still true, but it doesn’t really tell about the bewildering variety we find among the many branches of the Quaker family.

Another way to tell people who the Quakers are is to say, there are the unprogrammed Friends (the ones who worship in silence) and everybody else. If you ask an unprogrammed Quaker, that’s still the way they tend to see it. Unprogrammed Friends are the ones who don’t have pastors, don’t have a creed, and don’t have a pre-arranged form of worship. Quite a lot of unprogrammed Friends feel pretty strongly that they are the only REAL Quakers, and that all of those “other” Friends don’t really count – even though those “other” Friends make up the overwhelming majority of the Quaker family worldwide.

For a long time, it was convenient to divvy up Quakers according to which umbrella organization they belonged to. In North America, unprogrammed Friends (mostly) belonged to Friends General Conference. Mainstream Friends (mostly) belonged to Friends United Meeting. And more evangelically-minded Friends (mostly) belonged to Evangelical Friends International.

That neat division ignored quite a few independent and unaffiliated meetings, as well as the small but spiritually very strong groups of Conservative Friends. It also ignored the fact that some yearly meetings (New York, New England, and Baltimore) belong to both FUM and FGC.

But in the last 10 years, the Quaker landscape here in the U.S. has been changing. Three of the powerhouse FUM yearly meetings – Western, Indiana and most recently North Carolina – have undergone serious divisions, which have drastically reduced their membership and destroyed yearly meeting ministries which had lasted for 100 years or more. These yearly meetings have been greatly weakened, and it may take generations for Friends in these areas to rebuild.

One of the major wedge issues has been support for (or opposition to) full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our meetings – as members and attenders, as leaders, as families, and as couples who can be married under our care. Many of the recent divisions among Friends have been sparked by this issue, which is not unique to Friends – it’s also being played out in nearly every mainstream denomination in the country.

A lot of unprogrammed Friends tend to be pretty self-righteous about gay and lesbian issues, conveniently forgetting how much controversy their meetings lived through during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. My own personal observation is among most Friends under the age of 40, of nearly every branch of Friends, it’s a non-issue – polls show that more than 50% of people in the U.S. think that gay and lesbian people should enjoy the same rights as all the rest of us. In 20 years, this may be a non-issue for nearly all Friends in North America.

Another way to divide us up is into “Christ-centered” and “universalist” Friends. It’s pretty hard to dismiss this division, which many Friends feel goes to the core of who we are. I’ve heard and read dozens of presentations and books by Quakers who are passionately convinced that George Fox and the early Friends were unquestionably Christian, and by others who see the Quaker movement as having been universalist from its very beginnings.

The more excited Quakers get about this, the more ready we are to excommunicate one another and write each other out of the book. The lines have been dug very deeply into the landscape, and especially for evangelical Friends there can be no compromise whatsoever. On the other end of the spectrum, I have often encountered a lot of smug superiority among universalist Friends, who feel that they are not only right, but that in a few generations (if there are any Quakers left) history will judge that only they were correct. I find it pretty irritating, and perversely intolerant for a group which usually claims tolerance as one of their main beliefs.

I’m a Christian – or at least I try to be – and a Quaker pastor, which some Quakers see as a contradiction of their understanding of Friends’ beliefs. Probably 80% of my messages on Sunday are drawn from the gospels, and I see Jesus as my Savior. But there are all kinds of people out there, and I see Quakers as a big tent which welcomes all kinds of folks. I’m not inclined to close people out.

I’ve been a minister in yearly meetings which were predominantly liberal (New York and New England) as well as yearly meetings which are theologically more conservative (Indiana and North Carolina). I haven’t changed my own beliefs that much, and I’ve managed to reach people and speak to their hearts and minds everywhere I’ve been.

Outside the hothouse of universalist Quaker workshops, the majority of Friends worldwide identify themselves as Christians. Particularly among East African and Latin American Friends, who outnumber North American Friends of all persuasions by nearly 3 to 1, there is little or no question on whether Quakers are Christians.

Here in North America, Quakers are overwhelmingly white and mostly middle class. We talk a good game about diversity, but the reality is – well, not so much. I don’t think that this means that Quakers are bad people, but we tend to clump together with people who are like us. People argue about how intentional this is. But North American Friends have never really had a sustained, effective outreach to people in our own country who weren’t already pretty close to us.

Quakers are somewhat diverse, but we don’t really handle diversity very well. It makes us nervous the moment we encounter Quaker who really don’t think the way we do. Quakers talk a lot about unity, but the record shows that we have a sorry history of division over the last 200 years.

I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see Quakers give up drawing lines in sand and pretending that they can lock the doors of Heaven against people who disagree with them. I’d like to see us defined both by our deep faith and by our genuine welcome to people who may have taken a different journey to arrive where they are. I’d like to see our meetings reflect more of the racial and social diversity of our society. And I’d like Quakers to laugh more and divide less. For me, that would be a lot more fun than where we are right now.

 

What do Quaker pastors do?

To a lot of people, the words “pastor” and “Quaker” don’t belong in the same sentence. I don’t know how many times in the last 40 years I’ve been told, “Quakers don’t have pastors!” Even though many Quaker meetings have had pastors since the 1870’s, and even though more than 2/3 of the Quaker meetings in the world are programmed, there’s still a great deal of ignorance about what Quaker pastors do.

We don’t do sacraments like baptism or communion — or at least, the great majority of us don’t. On the other hand, a lot of pastoral work is sacramental, using the classic definition that a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality”. Pastors and ministers try to help people see that God is real, that God is very near, and that the same love, grace and healing which it talks about in the Bible are available to everyone today.

Most pastors preach — trying to share a full range of Scripture, sharing accurately what the Bible says, bringing God’s word alive for people today. Good pastors preach in such a way that other people will be drawn to speak. Good messages  give permission for people to ask honest questions, and good pastors respect sincere doubt.

Pastors make calls and visits in an unimaginably varied range of circumstances. I visit people in homes, hospitals, at their place of work, anywhere I can find them. I’ve done pastoral calls in prison cells, crawling in the basement carrying a flashlight with service techs, in supermarket aisles, on roof tops, in class rooms, in law offices and banks, sitting on the dock by the lake, eating watermelon on the back porch. Go where the people are.

Pastors teach – sometimes to people who aren’t interested in learning. I teach Bible studies, Quaker history, how to run committees, prayer classes, marriage clearness groups, all kinds of interesting subjects. If I wasn’t a full-time pastor, I’d probably be a teacher.

Pastors listen  a lot — to people, to the Holy Spirit, to oneself, to the world, to the meeting. Most of the mistakes I’ve made in pastoral work happened when I wasn’t listening enough.

Even though it’s not sacramental in the traditional sense, pastors hear a lot of confessions and carry all sorts of confidences.

Pastors pray — pray often, pray deeply, pray for ourselves and for others. Sometimes my prayers “work” (what I prayed for happens), but a lot of the time prayer is more about just being there and asking God to be here with us. My prayers aren’t better than anyone else’s, but I do try to pray a lot.

Pastors need to study, long after whatever training program they take is “completed”. Even a master’s-level program is just the beginning of all pastors need to read, learn, reflect, and write about. The learning really never ends, since the world keeps changing (and keeps staying the same).

Depending on their personal gifts and calling, Quaker pastors can be involved with peacemaking, truth telling, reconciliation, counseling and referral, writing, chaplaincy, prison ministry, youth work, evangelism and missions, ministry with the poor, retreats and conferences, motivational speaking, translation, historic preservation, ecumenical ministry, pilgrimage, hospice, mental health and addiction, agriculture, environmental concerns, and a few dozen other things. Just about every Quaker pastor I know covers the “main things” (worship, pastoral care, organization) but also has some kind of special schtick that God has called them to. Really good pastors work to support the ministries of others in the meeting.

Representing the meeting to the community and to other Friends — we’re the ones they turn to for information about Friends,and for the “Quaker position” on all kinds of subjects we know nothing about. We get tapped to serve on community boards, ministerial associations, charity events, and historical tours. We spend hundreds of butt-numbing hours on boards and committees.

Many pastors spend a lot more time than they want to on maintenance. It’s always demanding, it’s often neglected, and it can easily take over our time and define our ministry in ways we’d rather not spend so many hours on. I’ve overseen the installation of roofs and elevators, pumped out flooded basements, fixed sound systems, done janitorial work, painted every room in the meetinghouse and the parsonage, dealt with mice and cockroaches in the meetinghouse kitchen, sealed leaks, planted flowers, and cleaned gutters, usually because there was no money, it really needed to be done and no one else was available to deal with it.  Personally, I like to fix things — things that are broken, things that don’t work well, things that could bring beauty and life to the meeting.

 

Pastors are supposed to understand and uphold Quaker beliefs, be the local experts on Quaker history, know where to find things in Faith and Practice, have memorized all the major Quaker journals and be able to quote from them at a moment’s notice. The pastor is frequently the contact person, educator and fund raiser for Quaker missions; I’ve been lucky enough to go and see a few mission sites for myself.

Some Quaker pastors evangelize — preach in public and try to convert people (yes, there are Quaker evangelists!). Nearly all Quaker pastors try to share the good news, help save people who are lost or confused, and encourage people to grow in faith, hope and love.

Pastors are often called on to give thanks for old ministries and meetings, and help with gracefully laying them down when their day is done. Much more fun, we’re called to be midwives and assist at the birth of new ones.

Even though there are many pastoral Quaker meetings, there are fewer people who are willing to spend their working lives as pastors. I often wonder if Quaker pastors are a dying breed. Fewer meetings have the financial resources to support a full-time pastor, and a lot of young potential Quaker pastors have or want to have a family. Most Quaker pastors need things like a home, a car, health insurance, retirement savings, and income to pay off their educational loans.

Still, it’s an interesting and (mostly) rewarding calling, and I encourage readers to ask questions or suggest new ways that Quaker pastoral work can be done in today’s world.

 

 

Update on North Carolina – IV

Something new is being born in North Carolina this spring.

If you’ve been following this blog and listening to news on the Quaker grapevine, you know that North Carolina Yearly Meeting is breaking up after 300+ years. The reasons for the breakup go back for many years, and many Friends strongly wish it weren’t happening.

There are at least 3 groups of meetings:

  1. A large group of meetings which want a strong, authoritative yearly meeting, with power to discipline monthly meetings
  2. A small group of monthly meetings which want to work together, but want freedom to interpret Faith and Practice according to their conscience (more about this group in just a minute)The first two groups will maintain ties with North Carolina Yearly Meeting, which in August will become a foundation type of body, holding title to Quaker Lake Camp and distributing income from various trust funds. The two groups will otherwise be completely independent of each other. There is also:
  3. A large, disorganized group of meetings which have withdrawn completely from the yearly meeting. Some may affiliate with more evangelical yearly meetings; some will simply be independent.

I’ve been following developments with the second group, which is calling itself the North Carolina Fellowship of Friends.

In its first meetings, they have found unity and approved the following statement of principles:

  • We are a Christ-centered fellowship of Quaker meetings. We affirm the autonomy of each meeting in Quaker faith and practice
  • We will operate using the 2012 version of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, as printed, for reference and counsel
  • We will worship and serve our local community without interference form other meetings or a higher level organization
  • We will respect the right of other meetings to do the same
  • We will focus on common ministries rather than theological nuances
  • We will closely resemble North Carolina Yearly Meeting in its most peaceful form
  • We agree that we will have differences, but they will not stay us from our common Christ-centered fellowship

The Fellowship of Friends is starting the process of legal incorporation, has appointed co-clerks and a treasurer, is meeting regularly and forming task groups to deal with various challenges.

During the conflict, the finances of North Carolina Yearly Meeting have been in free fall. The yearly meeting has promised start-up funds to both groups, but these may not be available for a while. Neither group is likely to be able to afford much in the way of staff. The Fellowship of Friends is taking this opportunity to re-envision itself as a less centrally-controlled, less staff-dependent and more volunteer-driven body. It probably won’t look much like a traditional yearly meeting, and may function more like a large quarterly meeting.

Encouragingly, a number of other groups have not taken sides, and Friends from both sides of the split continue to be involved with ministries of common interest. The United Society of Friends Women, Quaker Men, Friends Disaster Service, Quaker Lake Camp and other ministries are continuing to meet and function as though the split hasn’t happened. If Friends United Meeting follows the precedent it set when Indiana Yearly Meeting broke up, both of the North Carolina groups will be welcome to participate in FUM.

Both of the two organized groups are planning to continue using North Carolina Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. Early indications are that the first (authority-centered) group may adopt a few changes to tighten discipline and provide a clearly-stated process to eject dissenting monthly meetings.

Recognizing that there are many individual Friends who feel cut off from their preferred group by the division, the Fellowship of Friends welcomes individuals as well as monthly meetings as members. At its April gathering, they also approved monthly meetings which want to have dual membership. There is no word yet whether the “authority” group will allow dual membership or not.

It will also be interesting to see how the two groups will handle recording of ministers, and whether they will allow recorded ministers to transfer from one group to the other. If both groups follow Faith and Practice this will not be a problem, but much of the conflict among Friends in recent years has centered around whether certain ministers and their ideas are acceptable or not.

Things are still shaking out in North Carolina and among Friends in many other parts of the United States. Stay tuned for developments!

The wars over Faith and Practice

Many of the battles among Quakers in the last 20 years have centered around Faith and Practice – what it means, how it’s interpreted, and who controls it. Bitter arguments, guerilla wars and last-ditch holding actions have been fought over who will win and who will lose if changes are approved.

First, a little background: many yearly meetings still use the “uniform” Faith and Practice which was created by Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting) early in the 20th century as a way to build unity among Friends. Iowa, Western, Indiana, Wilmington and North Carolina Yearly Meetings all use very similar material, with very little difference in wording.

Baltimore and New England Yearly Meetings created their own books of Faith and Practice. New York Yearly Meeting uses some language from the “uniform” version for the business side, but adds some of their own material on the history and spiritual experience of Friends.

Contention often centers around the Richmond Declaration of Faith, written in 1887, and George Fox’s letter to the governor of Barbadoes, written in 1671, both of which were included in the “uniform” version. These are filled with Bible citations covering God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the creation and fall, justification and sanctification, the resurrection and the last judgment, baptism, communion, worship, religious liberty, marriage, peace, oaths and the Sabbath. For evangelical Friends, these two documents are an essential part of Faith and Practice. In particular, the section on the Bible in the Richmond Declaration is key:

“It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other (outward) authority whatsoever; that they are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ. ‘These are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name’ (John 20:31). The Scriptures are the only divinely authorized records which we are bound, as Christians, to accept, and of the moral principles which are to regulate our actions. No one can be required to believe, as an article of faith, any doctrine which is not contained in them; and whatsoever anyone says or does, contrary to the Scriptures, though under professions of the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, must be reckoned and counted a mere delusion.”

For these Friends, this is simply the last word on the subject. However, they often ignore the fact that Christians interpret the Bible in different ways. For example, Quakers are quick to recognize that we differed from other Christians on whether slavery was acceptable (because it’s accepted in many parts of the Bible) or whether slavery was an evil which must be resisted and fought against.

Are all sections of the Bible equally binding and valid today? If something was forbidden thousands of years ago, is it still forbidden now? It’s easy to come up with examples and exceptions. People tend to choose the texts which support their position, and often use those texts to browbeat and try to get rid of people who interpret the Bible differently – even if both sides claim to love the Bible.

When Friends in Indiana split several years ago, Friends fought over the section on “subordination”, which evangelical Friends argued gave them the authority to eject the more liberal monthly meetings. The actual language from Faith and Practice is worth reading:

“Subordination as used in this Faith & Practice does not describe a hierarchy but rather a means, under divine leadership, of common protection between Indiana Yearly Meeting and its Quarterly Meetings and Monthly Meetings. It is a relationship among Friends “submitting themselves to one another in the fear of God.” (Ephesians 5:21) In the spirit of Christ who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death” each member, each Monthly Meeting, each Quarterly Meeting and the Yearly Meeting submits to each other in the love of Christ.

Subordination is the assurance that no Monthly Meeting is alone, autonomous or independent. Thus Monthly Meetings recognize the legitimate role of the Yearly Meeting in speaking and acting for the combined membership.”

As far as evangelical Friends were concerned, the liberal meetings were in rebellion and refusing to submit to their authority, and therefore they were justified in tossing the liberals out. Very few Friends, however, seem to have read the sentences immediately following:

“Likewise the Yearly Meeting recognizes the freedom of Monthly Meetings and the validity of their prophetic voices. Each needs the other in order to be strong and vital, and both need the mediation of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Indiana Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2015 edition, p. 96)

Those two paragraphs are intended to balance each other – the authority of the larger group balanced against the prophetic witness of monthly meetings.

During the division currently taking place in North Carolina Yearly Meeting, both sides say they want to keep using the 2012 edition of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice. I re-read it last week, and I wonder if Friends on either side have read the opening words of the book:

“Human understanding is always subject to growth. This basic principle also underlies the development of the organizations and institutions through which the spirit of Christianity is made operative in life. While fundamental principles are eternal, expressions of truth and methods of Christian activity should develop in harmony with the needs of the times. God, who spoke through the prophets, and supremely in Jesus Christ, still speaks through men and women who have become new creatures in Christ, being transformed by the renewing of their minds and, therefore, able and willing to receive fresh revelations of truth.

Frequently, however, we see ‘through a glass, darkly’ and may misinterpret or make incorrect applications. Therefore, as the stream of life flows on, bringing new conceptions, insights, and situations, it is necessary to strive constantly for a clearer comprehension of divine truth that will enter vitally into personal experience and become a creative factor for the redemption of human character and the remolding of society on the Christian pattern. “A religion based on truth must be progressive. Truth being so much greater than our conception of it, we should ever be making fresh discoveries.” [North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2012 edition, p. 9 – quote at the end is noted as being from London Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice (1960)]

Note that these two opening paragraphs are only found in the North Carolina and Wilmington versions of Faith and Practice, and are not included in the version used by most other yearly meetings.

At different times and in different yearly meetings, Quakers have fought to keep Faith and Practice “just the way it is”. Soon after Indiana split, though, a new section was added:

SECTION 90. PROHIBITION OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
Friends have traditionally held marriage to be a matter for which the whole meeting shares in oversight and responsibility. It is recognized that pastors are authorized by the state to solemnize marriages and are often authorized by the Monthly Meeting to officiate.

Given Indiana Yearly Meeting’s understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and given Indiana Yearly Meeting’s position describing the practice of homosexuality to be contrary to the will of God as revealed in Scripture, no Indiana Yearly Meeting Monthly is authorized to give oversight to same-sex ceremonies under its care, and no Indiana Yearly Meeting minister is authorized to officiate any same-sex ceremony. Ministers in Indiana Yearly Meeting are responsible to adhere to the agreed standards for marriage. Failure to do so, by officiating a same-sex union, will be understood as grounds for dismissal from a ministry position and/or rescission of status as a recorded minister. Monthly Meetings providing for same-sex ceremonies under the care of their meeting will be subject to discipline from Indiana Yearly Meeting.

Now that Friends in North Carolina are in the process of dividing, the more evangelical group are also calling for an immediate revision to Faith and Practice. This new section has been proposed:

“The Yearly Meeting has power to decide all questions of administration, to counsel, admonish, or discipline its subordinate Meetings, to institute measures and provide means for the promotion of truth and righteousness, and to inaugurate and carry on departments of religious and philanthropic work.”

For liberal and progressive Friends, or for those who simply cherish spiritual freedom, the issue isn’t whether they’re Christian or not. Overwhelmingly, they identify themselves as Christian. They love and follow Jesus. They value the Bible and seek guidance from it. The Bible speaks loudly and clearly to them on a wide variety of issues.

But they disagree with evangelical Friends on some other issues, and they’re not willing to let evangelical Friends dictate to them. I saw the entire conflict in a nutshell last week at Representative Body, when a frustrated evangelical leader asked, “Why do you want to belong if you don’t accept our discipline?”

In nearly every yearly meeting, Faith and Practice isn’t set up to handle the situation when Quakers disagree strongly with one another. Time after time, in yearly meetings around the U.S., conflict and frustration have arisen because:

  1. a yearly meeting is unable to make a decision or move ahead when Friends are not in unity. We suffer from an inability to “agree to disagree,” especially in changing times.
  2. a yearly is unwilling to take back (rescind) the recording of ministers for teaching or writing ideas which other Friends dislike. There is a mechanism for rescinding, but most yearly meetings have not been able to unite on doing so. In other cases, a yearly meeting has been unwilling to discipline leaders or meetings for celebrating physical sacraments.
  3. there is no mechanism or acceptable precedent for laying down or expelling an entire monthly meeting because of perceived disagreement over issue of faith or practice; trying to force an expulsion has repeatedly led to division

Quakers treasure unity, and the strength which comes from making united decisions. The wisdom of the group is often greater than the wisdom of any individual. However, we also treasure the spiritual integrity of individuals and the right of people to disagree, and Quaker history is filled with examples of times when an individual or a minority has been right.

How will we survive the conflicts of this generation? Will our young people or will seekers who come to us value our conflicts, or will they turn away and look somewhere else for communities of truth and love?


Disclaimer

All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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