As with many, I have been wrestling to understand where the various new groups forming within Quakerism fit – as with the New Association of Friends in Indiana and the new groups discerning their way forward in North Carolina and the Pacific Northwest. Will they just be replicas of the institutions that kicked them out, or is there space for something truly new to emerge?
In the very broad base of Quaker categories what we have today in the United States are two main theological trends: secular liberalism and conservative Evangelicalism. On the one side, there is a group that now seems to be largely influenced by the secular left. These yearly meetings and meetings may be “spiritual but not religious,” think of themselves as secular or even anti-religious, while still being interested in the “values” of Quakerism or some of its specific practices, like communal silence and consensus building. Not everyone within these groups identifies this way but the larger trend seems to suggest that there is far more emphasis on this “secular liberalism” than the socially aware Christianity that one can find within these groups as well.
On the other side of the Quaker isle, again thinking in very large swaths, you have a group largely influenced by the Religious Right. Socially, politically and theologically conservative, many (but not all!) of our Programmed Friends are influenced by and find comfort in right-leaning politics and issues that have come through Evangelicalism. These churches/meetings may not even be directly linked to the Religous Right but I see a cultural and theological influence there that is undeniable. These Quaker institutions are primarily focused on a decontextualized Christianity, a literal and/or authoritative reading of the Bible, emphasis on conversion in Jesus. There is often also a mirroring of social issues often related to conservative Evangelicalism, as in anti-LGBTQ teachings and stances, a lack of engagement around racial, political and other class issues, etc. There are individuals within these institutions who are far more socially aware, attracted to the teachings of the social Gospel, see Christianity as a religion of social as well as personal liberation, but I believe that these Quakers are in the minority.
When I survey the landscape it seems that the middle way has been all but cut out of Quakerism. There are very few places one could go if they were progressively-minded, social Gospel Christian Quaker. I am looking for something like what Dorothee Soëlle calls a “radical, liberation Christianity,” as opposed to a “liberal” or “conservative” one (See The Three Theologies- Soelle).
“Besides these two theologies, there has been, for about twenty years now, a theology that is not done by white, relatively well-to-do males: the theology of liberation. In this theology, faith is not experienced first of all as a consolation for an ordinary and wretched life, but as a way of living, hoping and acting. It means a revolution in human hearts corresponding to the words of Jesus…Christ doesn’t just console, he changes our lives. Just as for Jesus’ first disciples – poor and ignorant people, the majority of whom were women–in the communities of faith springing up at the base, we see emerging a way of living and sharing with one another, of organizing, celebrating, and struggling together” (The Window of Vulnerability, 1991:113).
I would argue that this framing is actually the very heart of early Quakerism, and reflects more closely what I believe early Friends were up to (and why they had so much trouble with the rest of Christendom). As Soëlle writes, “Tell me how you think and act politically, and I will tell you who your God is” (2009:106). A clash of politics is ultimately a clash of theology. In keeping with the teachings of Jesus, early Friends believed God to be the great liberator, and thus they were radical, liberation Christians of their day. Here are a few examples:
- They provided a space where people could come together and truly practice corporate listening and discernment as the core of who they were.
- They challenged the status quote of the religious elite and therefore began to re-write theology and Christian practices in ways that challenged Christendom as other dominate mainstream theologies of their time – out of a commitment to recapture the liberatory teachings of Jesus and the early church.
- They believed in and submitted to the presence of the resurrected Christ, who they understood to be present with them in their gatherings, leading them and guiding them in their work as a community.
- They challenged politics that were underwritten by imperial powers and saw that as largely in contradiction to Jesus’ teachings.
- They re-read the Bible in light of their times with new and creative interpretations.
- They challenged social practices such as women’s roles, the enslavement, and dignity of people of African decent, class-based oppression, and were influenced by and contained individuals who had been a part of the dissenter groups like Diggers, Levellers, and more.
- They challenged church practices that were exclusionary, hypocritical and biased, redrawing the lines around who was welcome and who could lead their faith communities.
This kind of radical, socially aware Christianity within Quakerism followed through in the lives John Bellers, Anthony Bennezette, John Woolman, the Coffins, Elizabeth Gurney Fry, Lucretia Mott, Hannah Whitall Smith and many others. I would argue that Rufus Jones was among those who picked up on this social gospel Quaker thread within what folks have dubbed “renewal or modern Quakerism.” This renewal, modernist Quakerism within the Gurneyite side of the tradition flowed into the 20th century but seems to have eventually fizzled out as a “stream” and is now more located in specific individuals or a few meetings spread throughout the country. Jones’ project was successful for awhile but for all its merits, it seems to have been undercut by larger trends. We need new paradigms, new stories, a new language that doesn’t assume religion and progressive politics are like oil and water.
For the progressive Christ-centered aspect of the Quaker tradition, I wonder “Where have the large scale aspects of this gone?” “What was there a suffering blow?” And “Where are the places it is still alive – or re-emerging – above or underground?”
Whatever the case may be, it does not seem to me that it is currently a viable option within large-scale Quakerism.
In many ways, I see movements like convergent Friends as an attempt to reinvigorate this stream. These are Friends who are are middle-way thinkers, hybrid practitioners, social Gospel Quakers. But these Friends have never been about trying to create a new institution. As Peggy Morrison writes:
[Convergent] is not about making a new place, or stream, or institution.
I think it is a sensibility, a perspective, a desire,
a proclivity, if you will.
It is fearless, non-violent, non-competitive,
for the purpose of deepening the spiritual life (Parsons 2009)
Those who are concerned with the tradition, within context, have tended to be those who are also a part of the Radical Christian Quaker Stream, but certainly not always and rarely in any kind of organized way.
One main reason this radical, liberation Quakerism has struggled is because there has had to be a lot of ducking for cover within the theologically conservative yearly meetings and institutions for fear of disciplinary actions. There are individuals and meetings that are more in the middle range theologically, socially progressive, Christ-centered, but because they are outnumbered there is a sense in which they have had to fly under the radar or “not rock the boat.”
This is where I see a lot of hope and potential for the new groups arising within Quakerism. They do not need to be viewed as splits or divisions, but new iterations and evolutions of the radical, liberation Christian stream within Quakerism. Obviously, the verdict is still out in terms of how these groups will organize and to what extent they will transgress the boundaries of our current Quaker institutions, but there is a lot of possibility for a new middle to emerge. These breaks within Quaker institutions will allow for a new space to be created where a socially aware Christ-centered Quakerism can gain back ground that has been lost over the years. There are plenty of pastors, Quaker meetings, and authors, bloggers, etc. who fit, even if with a fairly broad set of categories, within this “convergent” Quakerism. This in no way means that everyone in these meetings needs to identify as “progressive” or on the “left,” all they need to do is retain the deep commitment to listening together to God in corporate discernment and worship, teach those within their meetings how to become apprentices to the Quaker tradition, and retain the radical, liberatory orientation of the Christian tradition. I believe that we need Christ-centered Quakers who are faithful to Jesus, working towards the liberation of all people, in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable in our midst and working to bring about the beloved community. Peggy Morrison of Freedom Friends Church calls this being “edge people,” people who are found on the edges and margins of society.
I not only think these things are possible, I think they are there already happening and in step with God’s Spirit. It is time to organize, support, and nurture a movement within Quakerism that holds together the radical Liberation tradition within Christianity and a tradition that has struggled with the impact of actually trying to live out that vision in a world that fights against it at every step.