I was visiting a conservative meeting recently and fell into conversation with a young man who is a member there. He told me that in his opinion liberal Quakerism is, in fact, a new religion started in the 1960s. He being young and me being older (the sun is past the yardarm if not entirely sinking below the horizon), I merely smiled politely and let it go. It was not that I felt rather condescendingly that I could privately disagree but use my correspondingly larger quotient of wisdom to allow him to continue in his folly. Neither was it that I was just too ancient to pick up the gauntlet. The truth is, I could see his point of view, even as I disagreed with it.
Because, from where I'm sitting, it seems as if we can all claim to be the "true" heirs of George Fox and the early Friends - liberal Quakers, conservative Quakers, evangelical Quakers, programmed Quakers, unprogrammed Quakers, even nontheist Quakers and those who feel greater kinship with crystals than with crosses. We've all held fast to different pieces of the Truth as articulated by Fox et al, and added bits that align with our times, our family histories, our personal preferences, our educational backgrounds, our previous religious experiences and, yes, our prejudices. The bits that make us uncomfortable, we've deleted from our personal journey. After all, as someone once said about the Bible, that's why God invented highlighters. And that's what happens when you practice a living religion. Even as I write this I can anticipate the howls from various quarters of the Quaker universe. Am I saying that "anything goes"? Actually I'm not. I draw the line at goat sacrifice (just kidding...)
For almost 200 years, we've been squabbling about who the real Quakers are. We've all headed off in high dudgeon to our various fortresses, currently named FGC, FUM, EFI and (Conservative), from which we occasionally sally forth to mingle with Them. Shell-shocked liberal Friends return from programmed evangelical meetings, aghast at the lack of silence, the distinct odor of doctrine and the presence of the "hireling priest." Christian pastoral Friends swim out of the fug of a liberal Quaker meeting determined never ever again to hug a tree or at least not talk about it in public. Conservative Friends stay home in the quiet certainty that they, remnant though they may be, are the only ones that George and Margaret and James and Isaac would recognize if they were suddenly reincarnated into the 21st century. Such is the state of brotherly love in the Religious Society of Friends and Embarrassing Acquaintances.
In 14 or so years, we will be entering our third century of disagreement. Perhaps it would be better if we all agreed to lay down the terms "Quaker" and "Friend," and renamed our various branches to make the split irrevocable. No? I thought not. Can it be that we're not quite ready to vote ourselves or our dissenting brethren off the island? Can it be that there is a fragile "enough" to keep us at least working towards some sort of unity? It has only been in recent years that I have ventured out of my own meeting let alone into the larger non-liberal Friends universe, but my experiences have given me real hope that we can all co-exist under the very large canopy of the Quaker tree. We are never going to agree on everything and we will probably continue to disagree quite emphatically on some things, but I think we can all identify with the sincere seeking that was at the heart of the experience of many early Friends and continues to define Quakers across the spectrum. Every single one of us is flawed and comes to the journey with a lot of man-made "stuff." We should be, in Jesus's words, "as little children," and, as such, we should not presume to "know better" on other people's behalf.
I identify myself as a Christian who rejoices in the strong Christian testimony of the majority of the Friends universe. But I also rejoice in the liberal Quaker tradition that is great-hearted enough to allow entry into Quaker practice for those to whom the traditional Christian message is inaccessible or who are led to express their journey in non-traditional ways. It has also been within the freedom of the liberal tradition that my understanding of Christ's life and witness has grown and deepened in ways that might not have been possible in a more doctrinaire setting. I have shared deeply spiritual experiences with nontheist Friends and find my soul expanding with joy and gratitude in my liberal meeting peopled with tree huggers and peaceniks, Democrats and Republicans (yes, we have a few!) and Libertarians, Christians and New Agers. When I spend time with Conservative Friends I love their adherence to traditional Friends structures and ways and their quiet determination to keep the Bible as a central part of their journey. I haven't spent much time with pastoral or evangelical Friends (a lack resulting from geography rather than preference), but I admire the joy and fervor of their desire to share their faith, and I recognize the very real benefits of pastoral meetings (because, after all, sometimes we unprogrammed Friends get the ministry we pay for).
If George Fox came back today, I doubt he would recognize any of us as Quakers. It would be very odd if he did because the genius of what he and the seekers of the 17th century discovered was that humanity's search for God is not something carved in stone, unchangeable and frozen in time. The Divine, Fox discovered, "did not dwell in temples which men had commanded and set up, but in people's hearts." Those temples are not only ones made of bricks and mortar, but also ones made of our mental constructs. By squeezing our faith into our own particular Quaker "temples" we take something that is as large as God and make it as small as ourselves. Is that really what we want?