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.




11 Responses to “Looking backward”

  1. 1 seekerquaker October 11, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    I agree with much of what you say here. However, one “small” concern with the reference to not referring to “early Friends.” My take on what you may have difficulty with is those who refer to early Friends without really understanding what those early Friends did and said. The early Friends spent significant time in community, challenged “authority” to the point of imprisonment, and many spoke publicly of their beliefs not so much to build “their own church” but to convince their listeners to examine the “light” (Christ) and “leaving them there.”

    I would like to see more present day Friends look “inward” and “backward” to adopt and adapt many of these attitudes and actions. It is when I look at these “early Friends” that I am convinced I remain a Quaker/Friend.

  2. 3 Vail Palmer October 11, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    Even though I am a member of unaffiliated Freedom Friends Church, I attended the first quarterly gathering of the newly-forming Sierra Cascades YM of Friends last weekend. Quite a few young adult Friends — and children! there; The clerks of the new YM are (I believe) under 50. I have a clear sense that they are trying to avoid some of the pitfalls you mention — they are moving to develop a Faith and Practice from scratch.

  3. 4 Bill Samuel October 11, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    And one of the ironic things is that the “way we do things” in terms of committees and even monthly meetings does *not* come from early Friends, but at the earliest the latter part of the 19th century.

  4. 5 John Jeremiah Edminster October 12, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    I agree with you, Friend Joshua, about getting rid of what has no life in it.

    However, I’m currently embarked on a project of encouraging the study of the writings of early Friends, helping today’s Friends access the great wealth of early Quaker literature that’s online, and two search tools that have been developed to help explore it: the Quaker Bible Index (esr.earlham.edu/qbi/) and the Digital Quaker Collection (esr.earlham.edu/dqc/). But I’m only doing this because I’ve found life and light in some of those writings. And that’s because – I’m convinced – their writers had discovered the living Christ living in them, encouraging their perseverance in temptations and hardship, putting words into their mouths when they needed them, restraining them from sins of unforgiveness and vengefulness, empowering them to preach, with power, good tidings of great joy for all people: the miraculous, healing reign of an all-forgiving God whose name and nature is Love Itself.

    Could we but get enough such witnesses in the twenty-first century we might not need to go back to the seventeenth.

    • 6 Joshua Brown October 13, 2017 at 8:31 am

      Many of the writings of early Friends have a great deal of life. What often has no life are all the second-hand references to “the early Friends” as a substitute for real experience and practice. Thinking Margaret Fell’s account of the preaching of George Fox — “…You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?” (1652)

      • 7 Adria Gulizia October 13, 2017 at 8:35 pm

        This is true. Early Friends’ witness is valuable to the extent it sparks our imagination as we consider what radically faithful, boldly countercultural, God-centered living can look like – but it is no substitute for living that life ourselves.

      • 8 patradallmann October 14, 2017 at 3:59 pm

        Like the prophets in Scripture, the early Friends’ writings are powerfully alive with the Spirit. Both Scripture and Friends’ writings evoke and confirm the life that comes to the person who knows the living God. Few Friends today actually read either of these sources, and very few read them in the Spirit in which they were written. These are symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself, the problem itself being too little regard for truth. Without a regard for truth–which entails suffering–the practice of Quaker faith becomes empty. Though today we observe and hear report of the widespread emptiness in meetings, people still respond when they hear the gospel preached: some with deep joy; some with deep resentment. But the strength of their response – whether joyful or resentful – testifies to the power of the Lord being over all. Thus it will always be.

      • 9 John Jeremiah Edminster October 15, 2017 at 8:30 am

        Thank you for these words, Patricia. The irony here is that the alternatives to truth all entail more suffering than the truth does.

    • 10 Bill Samuel October 15, 2017 at 1:31 pm

      Yes, there is life and light in these writings. There are also signs of some blockages to the light in terms of reaction to their culture. And that actually should be an encouragement to us. We can do tremendous things guided by the light, even though we stumble in some ways. God is gracious.

  5. 11 Howard Brod October 13, 2017 at 9:50 pm

    We have embarked on significant and sustained outreach at my unprogrammed meeting for several years now – using at least five mechanisms that have cost us nothing but letting go of irrelevant Quaker customs, traditions, ‘forms’, and etiquette. Upon doing so, we have found that twenty-first century seekers are thirsty for Quaker spirituality – as long as it is not polluted with old-timey Quaker traditions, language, and structures that do not appeal to young adults. Their time is limited; so they have little tolerance for Quakerees, long committee meetings, and implied hierarchy that is not spoken about and therefore difficult to navigate. They want direct communication (for example, not having to bring leadings to committees instead of bringing them first directly to Meeting for Business), modern English (drop the ‘First Day’ references for example), and opportunities to be authentic with others at meeting about life. They want to be immediately accepted as a respected part of the meeting (not considered an ‘Attender’) and they view the recording of membership as a very unspiritual practice.

    And we have found that they are right!

    Quakers really need to drop all the Quaker fluff and become obsessed about our core values; cherish our use of silence to reach God directly so we can touch our own Light and that of our meeting; and go back to a more holistic use of the ‘sense of the WHOLE meeting’ by any Friend without a committee’s permission. These earliest Quaker norms practiced through the 1650’s (before subtle hierarchy crept into the Quaker movement for control purposes) are what will carry us through to the next century.

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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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