Monday, February 19, 2007

Quakerism: a view from the back benches

Back Benches

Quakerism: a view from the back benches

Quakerism: a view from the back benches

Copyright 1966 The Back Benches



More than a year ago the writers of this pamphlet came together to explore our feelings about the Society of Friends. Though we came from different Meetings - and of a widely differing character - for each of us the Society had been a religious home. Not one of us felt he could find as real a home in another fellowship, yet each of us in his own way had been deeply troubled by the condition of the Society today: its divisions, its confusions, its lack of witness and lack of light for the future. That others share this feeling is shown by the articles on religious renewal which appear often in Friends’ publications and by the emergence of groups seeking spiritual clarity and new purpose for the Society - all symptoms of striving and desire for change.

We started our discussions in a pervasive attitude of frustration and near-despair, a sort of “last- chance” atmosphere. Each of us shared a dilemma: involvement and yet dissatisfaction with our Meeting. We asked the questions: What are we called to do with our time, energies, and talents- limited as they are? Can new life grow within our Meetings? Can they become instruments of new life in the world?

As almost anyone could have told us, we have not found the answers to the questions we posed. These essays are the fruit of our sessions of searching, our doubts and affirmations. We hope that our writings show that we care for the Society of Friends and that they reflect the means which Quakerism has had for us. They are meant as a spur for debate; they are unfinished papers for each person to complete in his own way.

Though our discussions encompassed the Society in all its aspects, which really cannot be neatly separated and categorized for formal reasons we have written separate critiques of the Meeting as a community; Friends’ testimonies; worship; Friends’ form of organization, the meeting for business, and our attitudes toward conflict and controversy within the Meeting.

We have met five times as a group, each time becoming more aware of each other as individuals and of our differences. Through laboring together on this job, we have caught a glimpse of the answer to a question we didn’t come together to ask: how does a real feeling of unity arise? It is by working together on something of real importance to us, drawing upon intellect, emotion, patience, humor and worship. We have experienced part of the fruits of our labor in the very act of meeting together: a feeling of what is meant by the “blessed community” which is invisible and geographically dispersed, but nevertheless real.

For all Friends who find there life in the Society of Friends less than complete and fulfilling, we recommend this kind of group searching. While it may not yield the “new life” we seek, it may at least prepare the earth and plant some seeds so that new life may grow.

Cynthia Arvio
Raymond Paavo Arvio
Fred Bunker Davis
Dorothy Flanagan
Ross Flanagan
George Lakey
Vonna Taylor
William Taylor
June 1966

With special thanks for the help of Berit Lakey, and with appreciation to Jan Rachel, Sarah, Leslie, and Heikki Arvio, Christopher and Beth Flanagan, Christiana Lakey and Mark, Scott, Lynn and Melissa Taylor.


Quakerism: a view from the back benches
Copyright 1966 The Back Benches
Chapter I


What are we mything?

We believe that many of the ills of Quakerism today are reflected in the breakdown of sharing and caring among the members. Or is it better to say that the lack of community, which we deeply feel, has caused the ills of the Society?

Obviously, we are faced with a chicken-egg situation in which cause and effect may seem hopelessly blurred. Laying aside Quaker prudence for the nonce, we here cast our lot with the chicken, and say that we believe that the drying-up of community in the Society of Friends is cause by the lack of common purpose among members and a fantastically wide variety of attitudes on what it means to be a Quaker. Hence, if I believe that my Quakerism means that, as a respected member of the middle class, I prefer to reflect my Christianity on Sunday morning in silence rather than genuflection, I can hardly be expected to communicate will with you, if you insist that your Quakerism has required you to break a law for conscience’s sake and spend the night in jail. We may be expected to sit in silence together for an hour, but can we be expected truly to share that brief experience, let alone our very lives the rest of the week? Can I be expected to wear my Quaker habit comfortably when your witness has branded all Quakers in our town as civil-disobedient? And do I detect an accusation of weakness in your Sunday morning hand-shake? How can we live together in the Society, loving, sharing, communicating, when the Light of Truth reveals to us such different requirements for our lives?

The Quaker belief that God can reveal his will directly to each of us if we can but learn to listen is the undergirding of our religious faith. Paradoxically, the belief poses for us a dilemma of staggering proportions. How can we dwell together in love and community when we are free to follow divergent paths?

We believe that there are some practical devices which- if we care enough- we can diligently employ to open the way for a recreation of a beloved community in our Society, in our various Monthly Meetings.

The Size of the Meeting

Quakerism: a view from the back benches

Copyright 1966 The Back Benches

The Size of the Meeting

Experience leads us to the conclusion that the number of people attempting to create a religious community is the determining factor in success. The large, urban Meeting, while offering an intricate, often well-functioning organization with something for everyone, is not the breeding ground for total commitment of its members. It is true that individuals can commit themselves to work in such a Meeting, but the prospect is that they will limit their activities to certain compartments within the Meeting. This may be satisfying to individuals in the short run but, in the long run, may be destructive of the possibilities for corporate activity and growth.

Many members of large Meetings recognize this problem yet resist addressing themselves to a solution. Tradition, the care of a much-loved meeting house, a graveyard, a school, an old people’s home, etc., still the voices of those who might otherwise face up to the need for experimentation in size. The effect of Meeting property on the Quaker religious life is dealt with in another chapter. Here, we will only state that large holdings of property can crush the vitality of a Meeting’s active workers, frighten them in rigidity concerning change,and transform an experiential religion into an institution.

Large urban Meetings need to face squarely the need for growth-by-division. Ideas of what constitutes the correct size may vary; if a large urban Meeting were to multiply into a series of House Meetings, 15 to 30 adults might be a good number. Rotation of the place of Meeting (homes) would not unduly burden members; and finances would relate directly to the concerns of the Meeting and contributions might be more cheerfully given than is often the case in large membership organizations.

Leaving the newly constituted “House Quakers” for the moment, let us consider the problems of the too-small Meeting. It is safe to say that American Quakerism boasts many Meetings with too few members valiantly struggling to keep the Meeting alive in order to preserve a tradition, a lovely old meeting house, and so forth. Respecting these motivations as admirable and intensely human, we yet feel tender toward the admirable and intensely human, we yet may feel tender toward the needs of the Friends who so labor, and we question whether these burdens allow for the fullest participation in the wider and deeper Quaker experience.

An attempt by these members of identify what is of real value to them in these small, struggling Meetings and sift out what is merely burden may be of help. Perhaps the real essence, for example, will be found to be a meaningful worship, or a regular fellowship supper, or a children’s educational activity. This valued activity might be made vital by dispensing with all else in the Meeting’s life.

Perhaps, finally, the solution would be to lay down the Meeting or to join with another neighboring Meeting which shares many of the same difficulties of survival. The test would be whether by such experiments release and renewal are found by members, giving rise to fuller participation in Friendly concerns, and a more productive worship experience for all.

Perhaps small Meetings might spring up around a specific concern, such as a mental hospital, prison, peace effort, etc., so that the life a the Meeting would be focused on one area, at least for a time, all members giving and gaining spiritual sustenance through this unity of concern. If such a Meeting is later laid down, Friends are cautioned not to mourn its passing but to rejoice in the quality of service and spirit which it possessed while it was alive.

In smaller, closer Meetings, there is more possibility for experiment in new forms of communication, such as music, drama, the dance, and common work. New adjuncts to worship could be developed, predicated on the theory that silence is not sacrosanct, having no inherent life or value of its own, but is made meaningful by those who share it. Experimentation with new ways of creating a silence alive with communicated truth should not be considered heretical so long as the effort is serious, focused on a goal, flexible, and above all fruitful.

Caring and Sharing

Quakerism: a view from the back benches
Copyright 1966 The Back Benches

Caring and Sharing

The smaller, closer Meeting automatically presents the question of how best to share the burdens of troubled members. Aside from the normal troubles and sorrows which beset each of us from time to time, Quakerism seems to attract a number of people with real emotional disturbances and mental illnesses. How can a Meeting support these members without being sapped and fractured by the sometimes almost overwhelming burden?

The first commitment must be in our attitude toward the Meeting. To do anything at all, we must first be willing to assign to the Meeting a vital role as a primary in-group to which each member can relate for love and security, second only, perhaps, to the family.

As a primary in-group the Meeting becomes a major focus of life for its members for the length of time that it exists; and it must devise ways to respond creatively and constructively to the needs of individuals. To survive under the weight of these needs, we believe the Meeting must supply a warm, supportive atmosphere, responsive to troubled members but determined to share collective joys as well as miseries. While being sensitive and tender, the atmosphere must be in some degree buoyant, joyous, making use of the great store of gentle humor to be found among Friends.

While caring for its emotionally disturbed members, the Meeting which allows these members constantly to use is time together, whether it be worship, business or social, for personal therapy is headed for trouble, is not likely to help the member in trouble, and is liable to a feeling of being put-upon. The Meeting should know its limitations in this regard and stand ready to guide members to professional help when indicated, either from within or without the Meeting membership.

A Meeting which provides an emotional tie will be the natural place for bringing matters for advice which are now called “personal” - job changes, school choices, marital difficulties. The ultimate step in the relationship between a member and his Meeting comes when the member moves away; consequently, such a move will be a matter of weighty consideration by the member, consulting with the Meeting.

Another facet of the “caring” responsibility of Meetings is the frequent need to free individual members who have a clear leading to act on a concern. The Meeting should be ready and willing to meet the practical needs of a Friend and his family who is under the weight of a Quaker concern, but whose practical necessities may make it impossible for him to give time and full attention to carrying out such a concern.

Towards Unity

Quakerism: a view from the back benches
Copyright 1966 The Back Benches

Towards Unity

Something has been said above about the need for a daring reappraisal of what membership in the Society of Friends means to members. Here we will probe the question of what membership requires. At present, we believe that most Meetings ( the few exceptions being barley adequate to prove the rule ) have no requirements for membership other than some accepted patterns of application, visitation and the like. It is safe to say that denials on any basis are rare, and more likely to occur on grounds other than the applicants religious conviction or position on Quaker testimonies. To press the point further, we can say there is at present an unwillingness among Friends to deal with these matters with prospective members, because to attempt this would necessitate the Meeting undertaking to arrive at unity on these thorny questions in the first place.

We maintain that Friends must do just that if they care about their Meetings communities. That is, they must (1) seek unity on what the requirements of membership should be, in a series of called special meetings to thresh out the matter, (2) apply these requirements to themselves, and (3) use them in the examination and acceptance of new members. Open now to the cries of wounded sensitivities regarding loss of freedom, we take shelter beside (critics may say "behind") George Fox, who did outline stringent requirements for adherents to the Light, and in whose time Quakerism was at its most potent and vital. If Friends cling to their faith that truth can be revealed to the faithful searcher, they need not fear to undertake the search, no matter how long and arduous it may be. The result may be a minimal definition. Conversely, who among us can say that a search undertaken in love and patience will not reveal to us a new requirement, not presently known to us singly?

Supposing that unity has been found on requirements of membership, but frankness compels us to admit that some members have more light on certain testimonies than others. Can we then submit ourselves to discipline by the corporate body, employing a new form of the historic Quaker practice of "eldering?" Can we redefine this proactive to remove the modern connotation of reprimand, expand it beyond the current meaning of controlling disruptive ministry in worship, and coin a new term which would carry the concept of mutual sharing of insight to achieve unity? We might call it "insight sharing" or "mutualizing." The reader who is interested in this suggestion will no doubt devise a more apt term.

This practice used today - as in Quaker history - would ask members to share their clarity on various testimonies with their fellow members. For example, if a Meeting has reached a corporate decision that a modern requirement of the testimony on brotherhood is a willingness to sell one’s house to a Negro, a Friend who feels clear on this testimony will be asked to labor with one who is not; he will be speaking for the corporate body, drawing on his own revelation in the matter, and strengthened by the knowledge that he is advancing he Meeting’s work.. Under this practice, this same Friend may find himself unclear on another of the testimonies united on by the Meeting and thus be the object of the Meeting’s concern and attention. Hence, the "mutual" aspect of this practice historically known as eldering may bring it up to the present day.

Having come through this task, the Meeting may then be free to communicate its requirements to prospective embers and to set up certain programs to help attenders make considered decisions regarding their relation to the Society. For example, a systematic course of study can be offered, responsibilities outlined, readiness for membership reasonably assessed by the applicant as well as the Meeting. This will help avoid resignations based on an original misunderstanding of what " a Quaker" is.

What safeguard in this arduous procedure against the dreaded dogmatic, creedal system? It is, again built into the Quaker method of arriving at decisions. Functioning properly, Friends can bring out all differences, all points of view on a problem and gain not just consensus, but Truth. We must accept the fact that perception of Truth may divide as well as unite us as a Meeting. If it unties us, it will strengthen us; if it splits us, we should have the courage to follow where the Truth leads us.

The suggestions set forth here as ways to vitalize community in the Society of Friends are not offered as brand new, heretofore-unthought-of techniques. Concerned Friends have no doubt ruminated over these and other, even better, ideas time and time again. The only possible novelty here is that we openly propose that Meetings test these ideas by use, with no guarantees of absolute success; but with insurance against absolute failure resting in the inevitable enlargement of self-knowledge, deeper awareness of others, and exercise of faith in the Light by which we seek to find the way.


Quakerism: a view from the back benches
Copyright 1966 The Back Benches

Chapter II

The Dichotomy Revisited

The testimonies of Friends grew out of the ethical insights provided by the Inner Light and by New Testament teachings, as they seemed relevant to 17th century England. The word "Testimony" can be significant, for the idea was not that Friends should testify to them, inherent in the concept is action as well as belief.

In a time when it is possible for a long-time best-seller to be called "The Power of Positive Thinking," some people are disturbed because the testimonies are often put in a negative way. Perhaps they are so put because of the action aspect of the testimony, and the effort, through the queries, to measure in a rough way the degree to which Friends are actually testifying. One can see the difference by putting a testimony in these two ways:

"Do Friends love their Negro brothers?"

"Are Friends clear of slave-holding?"

There is a precision about action which is lacking in attitude, for the purpose of corporate soul-searching. It was, after all, for the purpose of corporate soul-searching that the queries were designed, with the answers being sent up to Yearly Meeting for its disciplinary action.

Their original purpose has been all but lost sight of, and the queries function now as a ritualistic Quaker equivalent of the Ten Commandments. As with the Commandments, the queries do not gain in effect with repetition, and if Friends really want their faces splashed with the cold water of ethical challenge, we should recommend that the queries be rephrased in blunt modern language.

Language is always a problem in religious circles, and we are not exceptions. Early Friends did call a spade a spade, and a church a steeple house. We wonder whether the very word "testimony" gets in the way of challenge by connoting some quaintness which individuals can take or leave.

We should preface our examination of the testimonies with the caution that we speak out of somewhat limited experience, and are bereft of scientific studies which would reveal what the state of the testimonies actually is. Our comments are, therefore, impressionistic. We enlist the reader in our effort to be severely honest, and hope that he will not be so interested in defending his image in our Society that he will refuse to examine objectively the state of the testimonies in his own Meeting and among his acquaintances.
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