Thursday, September 27, 2012

Liberal Friends - the Lake Wobegon of Quakerism

I have just returned from a retreat at Pendle Hill where we spent a lot of time identifying our own and each other’s gifts with a view to living lives more faithful to the leadings of the Spirit. There was much deep listening and reflection, and I think that most of us left with the wind under our tails, filled with good resolutions to put our gifts to work in our meetings and our world.

Predictably, Reality was awaiting my return, eager to disabuse me of any elevated notions I may have acquired in the rarefied atmosphere of Pendle Hill. It wasn’t only reality in the form of laundry and bills and the annoying persistence of my own bad habits; it was also the ubiquitous nature of the Lake Wobegon effect that is part of liberal Quakerism, where everyone is “above average” and where gifts are routinely allowed to gather dust on the shelf. To be more explicit, in our rejection of the hierarchies that developed in the Religious Society of Friends around recorded ministers and appointed elders and overseers, we’ve rather thrown the baby out with the bath water. Any naming or nurturing of gifts has become occasional and incidental rather than an intentional part of the spiritual life of the meeting community.

Which is not to say that liberal Quakers do not have good reason to balk at anything that might set an individual apart. The shadow of the Great Separation still looms over us, even though it happened almost 200 years ago. Within a decade or so of the founding of Quakerism, George Fox and other early leaders found it necessary to “herd the cats” by creating structures to impose some sort of orthodoxy. And just as well they did, because it is highly doubtful that Quakerism would have survived without some grownups in charge. But, with organization comes hierarchy, and with hierarchy comes exclusivity. The next thing you know, the elders are at the door looking for red petticoats and spinets. When the Great Separation finally erupted in the late 1820s, it was in large part a revolt against the authority of the wealthy and prestigious elders of Philadelphia.

So where are we, the spiritual descendents of the Hicksite rebels, today? Are liberal Friends co-existing happily in Lake Wobegon where all are equal and “above average”? Not really. Wherever humans gather, hierarchies develop, even if they are implicit rather than explicit. All the way from the monthly meeting level up to yearly meetings, there are folks in liberal Friends organizations who are clearly in charge, whose word carries more weight, who control much of what happens in the community, who are, in some cases, members of an entrenched elite. The vast majority of these folks are committed and Spirit-filled Friends with no ulterior agendas, who have reached their positions of authority by virtue of their commitment and, yes, their gifts. But in making the process implicit rather than explicit we have also lost the accountability that accompanies the kind of formal naming of gifts that is still practiced today by conservative Friends.

I have had numerous conversations with our conservative brethren about the appointment of elders and the naming of ministers and, in theory at least, it sounds very good. There is a stated understanding that the gifts of eldering and vocal ministry belong to the meeting, rather than to the individual, and should be used for the spiritual edification of all. As such, the meeting is responsible both for nurturing the gift and for ensuring that the individual who is the steward of the gift exercises it under the guidance of the Spirit, rather than their own egos. Having never been a member of a Conservative meeting, I have no idea how this works in practice. I suspect imperfectly, since it still involves members of the human race.

While there has been a wary revisiting of the idea of recording ministers in recent years among liberal Friends, I don’t see any real momentum towards it happening and, all things considered, I’m not sure it would be the best thing for us. Unless we can also resurrect the structures and culture of accountability that must accompany such a practice, the perils are legion. Rather than trying to resurrect the past, perhaps liberal Friends should build on what is best about the tradition that we have established. Our openness to diversity in how each of us expresses our relationship to the Divine is easily translatable to an openness to the many gifts with which we are endowed and which should be placed equally at the disposal of the Spirit for the building up of our faith communities and the world.

Traditionally, Friends have identified vocal ministry and eldership as the primary corporate gifts, but I believe that any true gift of the Spirit, be it ”public”, such as vocal ministry, or more private, such as the ability to be a loving presence, can and should be identified and acknowledged in some way. The benefit of bringing the gift to the attention of the meeting and to the bearer of the gift is that it places a responsibility to nurture the gift on both the meeting and the bearer. Sometimes, too, people are unaware of their own gifts and it takes someone else to point them out. And once the gift has been acknowledged, it can be held in trust by the meeting community.

The closest we have come to naming gifts in liberal Quakerism is through our Nominating Committees. The ideal is that the committee recognizes the gifts of each person and then, after much prayer and discernment, places them in the position or committee where their gifts can be most usefully deployed. This hardly ever happens. People usually end up on the committees in which they are most interested or where they have been since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Nominating conversations are often little more than hasty phone exchanges. We struggle over the issue of term limits versus acceding to a person’s “call” to be on a committee indefinitely, even if “call” could be more accurately described as “habit” or “comfort”.

Somewhere in all of this, the Spirit is lost and gifts play no role in the conversation. It also presupposes that almost all gifts can only be nurtured and recognized in a committee setting. This essentially leaves those not able or willing to do committee work on the outside, relegated to Quaker limbo, the Undead or at least the unacknowledged.

The questions I am left asking are: How can we do this better? How can we develop the close relationships that allow us to discern each other’s gifts, to nurture them and exercise them, and to enjoy their fruits in community? How can we all come to that deep place where we truly understand, in the words of the apostle Paul, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” ? (1 Cor 12:4-8)