Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quakers Under the Microscope -- Participant-Observer Report No. 2


So I’ve heard that Quakers tend to be introverts who are not very outgoing with non-Quakers. How has that affected you as a non-Quaker extravert working with Friends?


Authors Note: This is the 2nd part of my series of working with Quakers. In this entry, I’ll attempt to describe some of my perceptions and misperceptions of Quaker beliefs. Also, I will attempt to describe an outsider’s perspective of the correct Quaker beliefs. -- Matt Bernot

Well, I too have heard stories about Quakers not being the most extraverted group on the planet, but to say they are not social would be, in my opinion, incorrect. A good part of this perception of Quakers comes from, in my personal belief, the fact that because Quakers do not actively try to convert or recruit new members they must be anti-social. I have found that Quakers are more passive and can be quite social if one takes the time to approach them first. Many Friends are quite friendly when approached. Another aspect of Quakers that may fuel the belief that Quakers are not social comes directly from the Quaker belief system.

The Quaker belief system is unlike most other religions. I will attempt to explain it in the best terms I can as a non-Quaker. I realize that I probably will not grasp the full concept of Friends beliefs, but I will make my best attempt and I invite our Friends to leave comments referring to whether or not they agree with what I say here.

For one, unlike most other religions Quakers do not have a set creed. Rather Quakers follow a set of Testimonies. There are many values found in the Testimonies. The role of these values, Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship (SPICES) are neither a creed nor commandments. Rather some Friends consider these values to be the guiding principles in decision making, while other Friends say that good decision making leads to these values being the product of a good decision. This argument reminds me of a favorite debate of the world today, which came first, the chicken or the egg. I would assume that if you asked ten different Friends about the role of the SPICES acronym, the ten Friends would give ten unique answers. Needless to say, this can be a bit off-putting to someone who is used to religions that have creeds and therefore the beliefs are set in stone.

Quaker beliefs come from within and it is, to an extent, up to each individual Friend to determine what is meant by the different teachings and what the correct course of action is in a given situation. When I first started working with Quakers, this unique way of thinking was surprising but also refreshing. It has challenged many of my own views and allowed me to think of things in a whole new way.

At first, I found it quite hard to understand how anyone could be a part of a religion that did not have a set creed or set beliefs. I also found it hard to see how a religion without few, if any, outward rituals could bring people closer together. However, after seeing Friends interact with each other, I realized soon after, that I was quite wrong. While outward rituals do seem to give the impression of bringing people together, I have come to see that the inner bond that Quakers have from their meetings runs far deeper than the outer bond that Catholics have from Mass. [Author’s Note: I was born and raised Catholic, but now fall under the category of lapsed Catholic.] In my own opinion, this inner bond that Quakers share and develop through silent, unprogrammed worship creates a bond between Friends that is far deeper than any bond created by participation in a ritual. One thing I think that causes this is the fact that all Quakers are equal since there is no minister or pastor that leads worship. This equality allows Friends to develop a spiritual bond that I have never observed before.

Now, from my time here, I have been able to correct my misperceptions of Quakers, which I am sure are shared by many other non-Friends. This experience so far has been enlightening.

Matt Bernot

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Equality, Honorifics, and Consistency among Friends


[Forwarded to QIC by Friends General Conference]
I am interested in participating in and finding out more about the Friends. I understand that the history of Friends is not to 'hat tip' —use honorary titles, for example. . . . I was concerned that the Friends religion may not be consistent with past spiritual and logical beliefs. [A Quaker publication’s] article on the physician, Marjorie Nelson, referred to her as Dr. Nelson. . . . "Your honor, Father, Mother Superior, Your Holiness " all show lack of respect for our fundamental, equal condition.

If Friends feel that verbal expressions of inequality are now acceptable as a form of acceptance or acquiescence to social norms, it seems that something dear has been lost. . . . Do you have any ideas where I can find a church that truly believes in the equal nature of humans?


Dear RC,

Friends General Conference has forwarded your message to me at the Quaker Information Center for a response. The concern you raise is one that Friends discuss among ourselves and has been a lively topic on Quaker list serves several times in recent years, so there is much to be said about our thinking on the use of honorifics, both historically and today. I am going to write a long response, including some of my own thoughts, but the first couple paragraphs will be a “short answer” to your question as you presented it.

That short answer is that if you are looking for a religion whose members exhibit full behavioral consistency, you are going to be disappointed with modern day Friends. We stress the value of individual conscience and we try to encourage members to be true to the Holy Spirit as they are guided by it. As a result, our witnesses vary from person to person, and we have many inconsistencies.

You asked about help finding a church that “truly believes in the equal nature of humans.” I believe that Friends come as close to being such a religion as you can find, but we are always learning, reconsidering, and evolving our practices. If we had it right from the beginning, there would never have been any Quaker slaveholders, and we cannot say which of our current practices might be considered deplorable in the light of future understandings. Thus, many Friends consider that spiritual exploration, that persistent testing of our practices, to be more important than a specific code of behavior that everyone adheres to in a uniform way. If there is a faith tradition that would be more satisfactory to you, I am not familiar with it. Perhaps you may find what you seek in a political group.

OK, here is a longer response, on the matter of recognitions of social status.

A common misperception—one held by many Friends— is that the original meaning of the “hat testimony,” and other such practices that withheld recognition of status difference between social classes, was an expression of Friends’ belief in equality. “Equality” as a principle was not much on the radar screens of early Friends. They believed in every person’s capacity to be enlivened by the spirit of God, they believed everyone had a soul (even women and non-whites, to the shock of many other Christians), and they valued the importance of honoring the sacred potential within every person. A number of Friends had been “Levellers,” a movement that sought to do away with differences in political power in England. So the seeds were there, but Friends were not yet thinking in the same terms that we now count as our “testimony of equality.”

Friends believed in truth. They also believed in humility as a quality necessary to be at one with the Divine Spirit. So social customs that contained flattery were objectionable to Friends because they were insincere. (Sometimes they were explicitly untruthful, such as calling a single person of high status by the then-plural term, “you.”) These customs were also seen as harmful, because to flatter someone would encourage vanity, not a healthy thing for their souls.

Modern Friends are more likely to interpret these customs of language and manners as expressions of our belief in equality, a testimony that is dear to us today. I have heard modern Friends wrestling very sincerely with the role of these traditions in their lives here and now. Some Friends feel these old customs are still meaningful and bear witness to them meticulously. Others feel that in our present society these oddities of speech are pretentious and legalistic and set us apart from other people rather than helping us forge connections. Some may argue that since equality is recognized (at least given lip service) as a social value in our culture today (as it was not in seventeenth century England), that point does not need to be made, and why alienate our potential allies with what they may experience as rudeness? They argue that if we care about equality, we should be putting our energy toward things like more just immigration laws or quality education in poor communities, rather than posturing over semantics.

For myself, situation has a lot to do with it. I don’t know what you think about situational ethics, but I find that in different contexts, the meaning of the words I use seems to change. Following are some ways I have wrestled with these matters.

A rigorous adherence to honorific-free speech would be never to use any titles at all, even “Mr.” or “Ms.” Traditionally Quakers called other people by both their first and last names, unless they were on a first name basis. This is a practice I mostly follow myself, but there are times when it does not seem right. For example, it feels different when I deny the prefix to a person whose rank is generally considered to be higher than my own than when I withhold it from a person over whom I have some kind of privilege or power. One instance involves elderly people in nursing homes, who are often infantilized by their situations and the treatment they receive. To call a resident in that context “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” in my experience, helps to equalize our status and preserve their dignity, rather than maintaining my “one-up” position as a person with mobility and resources.

I have no difficulty naming a person by his or her function. I am happy to call a judge “Judge,” although I would not say “Your Honor.” But sometimes the distinctions get fuzzy. I do copyediting for a Quaker organization. Our publications style guide says not to use honorifics. But that is easier in some instances than in others. When you write “Francis of Assissi” people make the connection to someone they know as “St. Francis.” “Mohandes Gandhi” is recognizable as the person many know as “Mahatma” Gandhi. But when a recent writer referred to Meister Eckhard, we faced a dilemma. His first name is so little used that historians disagree about what it actually was, and had that been resolved, how many readers would have recognized who “Johannes Eckhard” was? I honestly can’t remember what we decided, but the argument that our first responsibility was to our readers and that we owed them the respect of not confusing them was—we thought—a legitimate point.

Friends understand our traditional practices to have arisen because in their worship, early Friends experienced a condition of unity with the Divine Spirit. When they noticed that outward practices in their lives disrupted or were inharmonious with that inward condition, they changed the outward practices until they found them to be more consistent with their desired inward state. These practices are meaningful to us today only as long as we find that they still serve to keep us connected to the Spirit, in right relationship with God, ourselves, and one another. And if we are paying attention, if we are practicing our faith at its best, then we will continue to seek ways of living that preserve the unity of our outward and inward lives, whether those ways are a continuation of or a change in tradition.

If you decide that Friends still have a part to play in your search for a spiritual home, and if I can be of any further assistance to you, please contact me.

Chel Avery

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Spontaneous Worship" and the Problem of Orthodoxy


I'm a graduate student
from the U.K. studying
'spontaneity in worship',
and I have some
questions about
Quakerism. . . . During your meetings I am aware that anyone who feels the Holy Spirit prompting them can speak. I wonder, how can Orthodoxy be maintained? Do situations arise where sentiments expressed are clearly not in line with, for example, biblical teaching? How is this dealt with, and are there leaders who have some sort of steering capacity?


Dear NL,

There are two levels at which I can respond to your question about "spontaneity in worship." One is why maintaining orthodoxy is not a huge problem for Friends. The second is what we do about it on the rare occasions when spoken ministry is considered inappropriate.

At the first level, Friends in the unprogrammed trandition are a noncredal religion. "Orthodoxy" of belief is not what we are about. Some religions define themselves primarily by a clear set of beliefs. If you are Roman Catholic, then you are supposed to believe the statements of the Apostles Creed, for example. But belief, per se, is not what makes a Quaker a Quaker. It's not that we don't have beliefs, but that we don't put them at the center of what we are. Our beliefs have to do with the idea that God is alive and present among us and continues to reveal godself to those who have ears to hear, and that seeking that personal encounter, following that continuing revelation, both individually and as a community, is central. So we are Friends because we participate faithfully in a community that supports and encourages (and yes, sometimes lovingly rebukes) one another in our efforts to know God here and now, and to be guided in daily life.

A British Quaker and sociologist, Ben P. Dandelion, has written much more eloquently than I can about the value of "uncertainty" to Friends in an article for the London Times. See:
www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article6206864.ece. What Ben writes is an interpretation of how we approach our faith, but I believe it is a very good interpretation.

What about the second level of your question -- what do we do when spoken ministry is clearly inappropriate? I found myself balking at the word "spontaneous," not that it is inaccurate, but it is too easily understood as impulsive. At its best, our spoken ministry in worship is present tense, not prepared or intended in advance. But before we speak we are expected to test our discernment of that ministry, to confirm to the best of our imperfect abilities that it comes from a deeper Source than our own active thoughts or imaginations.

And since we assume that everyone who speaks is in the process of "maturing" in the ministry, we expect and are comfortable with a wide range of messages -- some articulate, some stumbling; some emerging from years of "seasoning," some raw and unrefined. We do not expect to be taught by, spiritually moved, or to agree with all the messages we hear, knowing that some may not have been inspired for our own needs but for others in the room. But we try to listen for any spark of truth that may serve us, even in messages we essentially disagree with.

Only rarely is does a person speak in a way that is truly a problem for the meeting. If it is simply a case of not understanding our approach to ministry, we can be very patient. Sometimes, in extreme such cases, there is a mental health problem involved, and a person becomes a regular disruption.

Every meeting has a way of taking responsibility for the quality of worship. In most meetings, that responsibility is assigned to a committee. In the U.S. we generally call it the "committee on worship and ministry," or "ministry and counsel." Members of this committee may spend time with a person, speak to them, encourage them in one way, gently steer them in another. Only rarely -- usually in mental health situations -- is a problem severe enough that members of the committee will actually interrupt a speaker or ask the person to come with them out of the room. I have seen this happen only a handful of times in my life.

I hope this answers your questions. Peace to you,

Chel Avery

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Report from Our Participant Oberserver - No. 1


I hear that you're doing your Drexel coop placement with Quakers? What did you think you were getting yourself into? And what is it really like?


Author's note: this is the first of what will hopefully turn into a recurring series of comments about my experiences at the Quaker Information Center. I invite you to read on and see the perspective of a non-Quaker trying to understand Quakers.

In September of 2009, I accepted and started at a coop internship position with the Quaker Information Center in Philadelphia. To be honest, I really had no idea what I was getting into. Being raised by Catholics and having spent my life before college in Catholic schools, I had never really come across any Quakers. The closest connection to Quakers that I was aware of in my life was that of my Congressman, Rush Holt, from my home in New Jersey. And since I do not actually see Congressman Holt on a day-to-day basis, I do not really know if that counts as anything. So, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Now, I honestly was prepared for anything going into my interview. I was half expecting that I would run into a carbon-copy of the Quaker Oats Man as my interviewer. I also expected see the Quaker values that I knew of, pacifism and plainness, being expressed to an almost cartoonish level between the current staff. However, this could not be further from the truth. My boss, Chel, is one of the most down to earth people that I ever worked for, and the other staff members are quite friendly and also, quite normal.

Another big surprise from working with Chel is that I was able to start up some rather large projects fairly early on with complete independence. The first two projects I was able to work on completely on my own were the creation of a QIC Twitter, which was fairly easy to do, but also required me to sell it to Chel, and the creation of an Excel-based inventory tracking sheet. With that second project, not only was I given complete autonomy, but I also became the “teacher” in a way, as I am the one in the office who has the most experience using Excel. Chel also was more than willing to let me be the lead on projects that I do not think I would have been able to lead had I worked at another place.

What I consider to be the most interesting experience of my time here so far was when I was able to attend a committee meeting early on a Monday morning in late September. Chel had prepared me for this meeting by telling me that Quakers never vote on an issue so I was quite confused as to how decisions were made. Needless to say, the meeting actually went quite well. I was shocked at not only how much got done, but also by how organized everything was. Unlike most similar meetings I’ve been to, no one was shouting over the crowd, and no one was cutting people off as they spoke. Also, because there was no voting, the committee actually got more done as issues were discussed and debated, in a calm and orderly fashion, until the group reached a consensus. After watching this process work successfully, I can honestly say that in my opinion, it works better than voting as committees that use a voting procedure will only call a vote when they have enough votes to pass a measure rather than agreement. Those rules of voting can alienate people, and that’s something the Quakers avoid.

So, in short, I have learned a lot in my first four weeks here, and hopefully I will continue to do so as time goes on.

Best regards,

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What Is It about Quakers and Music?

Please explain -- what is the deal about Quakers and music? Is it true that music is considered sinful? Why? If music is bad, how do you explain the video “Dance Party Erupts at Quaker Meeting for Worship” at

What IS the deal about Quakers and music? This relationship has been a challenge. For programmed Friends (mostly in the midwest and western states), whose traditions since the 1800s have included pastors and prepared liturgies,[see comments re this word--ed.] hymn singing is regularly included in the service. For Friends whose tradition is “open” worship [see below], music is not part of the traditional practice, although some meetings (congregations) have introduced a custom of singing before or after worship. At times in open worship individuals may offer ministry in the form of song, and may even welcome others to sing with them. My meeting –- one of a handful I know –- ends with the singing of a particular hymn, As We Leave this Friendly Place, which was developed as a closing hymn during the 1900s.

[NOTE: “Open worship” begins in silence and has no prepared format and no appointed clergy. Friends wait expectantly in stillness for the presence of the Divine Light, and offer messages to other worshipers when led by the Spirit to do so. It is also called “unprogrammed” or “silent” worship. For more information on the programmed and unprogrammed branches of Quakerism, see www.quakerinfo.org/quakerism/Branches.html. –ed.]

Worship in Song is a Friends hymnal developed through Friends General Conference. FGC has served unprogrammed Friends since the late 1800s, and music has always had a place in the social events it sponsors. Worship In Song was created to be used for group singing and for personal devotional use, because the practice of group singing in open worship is not established--yet many Friends love to sing!

Friends have not generally described music as being “sinful.” Yet our actions can give that impression, as wonderfully portrayed in the movie Friendly Persuasion. In that movie, the family tries to keep secret from the Quaker elders that they have a musical instrument hidden in their attic.

Early feelings about music arise in the writings of George Fox, a founding Quaker and journal writer from the 1600s. His journal notes –- with no particular animus –- the music that his wife and stepdaughters regularly played. He writes that at a particularly hard time in prison, he “sang,” presumably in prayer. In another place he strongly condemns the sound of psalm-singing. His condemnation of street music and his warnings about the power of music are timeless. I assume that early Friends paid a lot of attention to these strong messages. Music in the church was a likely target for early Friends in their general critique of the Church -– which they were trying to change. In that early time of establishing Friends traditions and ministry, music became for some an element to sharply dismiss. I am grateful we are moving on.

The concern about music has focused mostly on two assumptions: music is a power that raises emotions in ways not conducive to worship; and congregational singing as part of liturgy does not have a place in open Quaker worship. As a Friend in the unprogrammed tradition and as a “singing Quaker,” I’ve long held a conviction that these two assumptions, based on early Quaker writings and practice, were not the whole story, and there are many “singing Quakers” who share my unease with our long, silent dismissal of the value of music for Friends in worship.

I find music very conducive to worship. I have been opened by music that I’ve heard sung both in and out of worship, and in worship have sometimes sung myself. Music connects us to each other and to Spirit by an invisible thread. Hymn singing before worship helps me to “center down” and helps me be more in tune and open to the Spirit, rather than to distractions. I am not alone in this experience.

It is, then, with joy that many Friends have viewed the video from Jon Watts that you linked to your question. It is edgy, particularly for unprogrammed Friends, because it is rhythmic, even including dance. It reminds me of the revival tent in its energy, something that pastoral Friends may relate to as part of their tradition. But in this case it comes out of Friends’ other tradition of open (nonliturgical) worship, and many Friends in this tradition are responding with enthusiasm. Jon’s lyrics express his experience, his life in connection with his faith. The video opens up a possibility for a kind of message we do not often hear -- either musically or in words -- in open worship. Does the performance engage emotions in ways that block experience of God or Spirit? Is it self serving? These are questions we can keep in mind as we respond to the message.

There are some Quakers who may dismiss Jon's ministry. There are some who still feel the weight of our old assumptions about music. If we are true to our tradition, we will engage with Jon’s ministry and listen to him. Through that experience of engagement we may learn more of God's truth.

Joan Broadfield

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is There a Quaker Objection to Labor Unions?

I was wondering if you could answer a question about your religion for me. There is an employee at work that said that she cannot join the union because she is a Quaker. Can you please help me understand why that is?

Thanks for the clarification
An Interested Co-worker

I have been thinking about your question for a couple of days, and in fact I had a vigorous conversation with my husband about it, in which we did not see eye to eye. My reply will be lengthy and not very conclusive, but I will do my best.

When a Quaker says, "My religion does not allow me to do X," it is different from when a Baptist says, "My religion does not allow me to dance," or a Muslim says, "My religion does not allow me to drink alcohol." Quakerism does not come with a list of things that you are not allowed to do. Even certan practices that are common among Friends -- such as not taking judicial oaths or not serving in the military -- are still considered matters of individual conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit, and each Friend is expected to discern how he or she is being called, and then to test that discernment in worship and with the community.

The decision whether to join a union is one of the areas where Friends have found themselves called very differently from each other. I have known Quaker union members, and I know that at least one Friends organization is unionized. Friends who find themselves led to stay clear of union membership for religious reasons would probably give many different explanations for their choices. These explanations would be likely to refer to one or more of the "testimonies" that are frequently evident in Friends' efforts to live faithfully. There is no official list of testimonies, but typical principles described include: peace, simplicity, equality, integrity, and community.

In trying to imagine possible explanations that your co-worker might give, I have come up with several possibilities:

Some Friends interpret our commitment to peace and nonviolence to mean that they should never exert physical, economic, or other kinds of force to influence the wills of others. Only persuasion, witness, and prayer are acceptable routes to "get their way." If your co-worker has this perspective, then she would probably feel unwilling to strike or to use a threat of a strike in negotiation processes.

I have never been part of a union myself, although my grandmother was a labor organizer and I retain much of the "pro-union" attitude that was instilled in me in childhood. Nevertheless, at one time, I applied for a job in an organization that was unionized, and if I had ended up working there, I would have been required to make a decision about whether to join myself. Even though I do not personally adhere to the strict definition of nonviolence described in the paragraph above, I felt that to be part of an organization based on the principle of exerting "our interests and power" against "their interests and power" would encourage an attitude of opposition, and I found myself very uneasy about it.

I have a friend who is a Teamster. His conscience troubled him after he was recruited to become a shop steward and discovered himself in the role of always being expected to defend the worker, whether or not he agreed with the worker's grievance, or whether he thought the worker was right or wrong in a dispute. His mentors in the union advised him that yes, he sometimes had to go to bat for people who were abusing the system, but it was a necessary part of maintaining the union's ability to protect workers when they did deserve it. The mentors were probably right, but their assurance that it was "necessary" did not entirely give my friend peace. In his situation, I expect my religion would not "allow" me to accept a role in which I had doubts about my own honesty in specific instances. I would lose too much sleep.

I do not mean to suggest that any of these examples explains your co-worker's problem about joining the union -- only she can articulate her religious reasons. The same testimonies (e.g., peace, integrity) that can guide one Quaker to make a particular decision might guide other Friends to make very different decisions. And such reasons are not always explainable. Sometimes Friends weigh decisions for months, years, or decades because they feel a heaviness within or a spiritual stop that they cannot define, and they will not go forward until their hearts and minds are clear.

The requirement for Friends is not that we all choose the same responses, but that we have a tender conscience, that we seek guidance from the Light Within, and that we adhere to that guidance to the best of our ability.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Do Friends Lie for the Greater Good?

How would a Quaker respond to a moral situation which goes something like this:

It's 1945, Holland, and a German SS trooper knocks on my door and asks if there are any Jews in this household, and in fact a Jew is hiding in the house. One course of action would be to say YES, and away that person goes to the fate that was the plight of Jews. Another course of action would be to say NO. Now that would not be the truth, but the moral principle of double effect would say that the greater good was served by not telling the truth, and this would be morally acceptable.

My friend says Quaker teaching has a ready answer for this situation. When an escaped slave was hidden in the house and a bounty hunter came, the householder would say, "there are no slaves here," since they didn't believe that anyone should be a slave, and so morally ther were no slaves, so it wasn't really a lie.

Don't Quakers have a better answer for my question? I have to believe that such questions have been posed many times and that Friends have a position.

Thank you,
RJK [This letter has been abbreviated and clarified.]

Dear RJK,

You are correct, versions of your question have been posed many times and there is -- well, I don't know if there is a "position," but Friends have advice for this and all morally challenging questions, which is to seek and follow the guidance of the Light Within.

The underground railroad story that you heard from your friend is told often among Quakers. Some Friends consider it to be an example of a satisfying solution to the moral dilemma, since the words spoken are literally true, at least according to the Friends' interpretation of them. For others, it is a disturbing example of sophistry, since the intent is still to deceive. For those in the second camp, that does not mean that the Quaker necessarily did the wrong thing by lying, but just that the Quaker should not pretend to himself/herself that it was not a lie or that it is OK to lie. Sometimes there are no good choices.

In fact, there is a real-life example of a situation similar to the hypothetical one that you describe. It took place in France during World War II. Gordon Browne told how he learned of this story in a conference presentation that is included in the 1998 book Friends and the Vietnam War, edited by Chuck Fager. I am quoting a passage from the book below.

I had a conversation with two French Friends that haunts me yet. They had been helping escaping Jews. The local Gestapo chief had been fed by Quakers after WWI and gratefully sought out local Friends and tried to befriend them. On the day the order came to round up all Jews, he led a squad house to house, searching every room. At the Friends' house where there were at that time Jews in transit, he said to his squad, "We don't have to search here. These are Quakers. They don't lie." Then, turning to the Friends, he said, "Are there any Jews in your house?"

Breathlessly, I said, "What did you say?"

They looked astonished. "We said, 'no,' of course." Then seeing my expression, they said, "We felt a clear conscience was a luxury we could not afford at that time."

I, never tested as they had been, dared not speak, but the slippery slope of expediency and relativism stretched before me. Their terrible dilemma has remained with me ever since.

This incident speaks to some of the complexities of the situation. The French Quakers were able to lie only because Friends have a reputation for never lying. If they had been caught out in this lie, that would spend the "truthfulness chit," and such a choice might never be possible again. The French Friends did not say, "We did the right thing, so our consciences are clear." Rather, they made the best choice they could under circumstances in which they acknowledged they were violating one of their principles and their consciences were troubled. And Gordon Browne's reaction -- how disturbed he was by the story -- testifies to not taking such steps lightly. Once you start lying for "the greater good," very many convenient falsehoods can be explained away as being "for the greater good." So we should lose sleep when we make such decisions.

Another difficulty with the "greater good" principle is that we are not ever in a position really to know what that is. We can opt for the greater good as we see it and understand it, and often we do that because it is the best we can manage. But we do it knowing that our information is incomplete and our judgment is fallible. For example, if the French Quakers helped six Jews to escape that day, and later the Gestapo learned of it, they might return on another day when the Friends were concealing twelve Jews, and this time they would not accept the lie and would search the house.

This is why we don't have prepared strategies or "positions" for such situations. The best we can do -- often in a fleeting moment -- is turn to the Light Within and try to follow in unity with it.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Meeting for Business -- Why Is It the BEST Part of Being a Quaker?

I've heard it said that Business Meeting is one of the best, if not the best, aspects of a Monthly Meeting, and that most people connected with Quaker Meetings do not have an understanding of this. Are you familiar with this line of thinking? Do you agree? I'm one of those who think it might be true, but I'm at a loss when it comes to articulating this sense. Please address this issue. Thank you. Tina Hallidy

Dear Tina,

Well, I'm definitely one of those Friends who say that “meeting for business is the best part of being a Quaker,” so I'll tell you my own thoughts on the matter. I should warn you, though, that five other Friends who make the same claim might give you five completely different reasons for explaining it.

Very often, I hear Friends say that meeting for worship is the essential core of what makes us Friends and of what sustains us as a community. Many Friends—including me—agree with that statement. But our ideas diverge about how we see business meeting fitting into that belief. Some Friends see meeting for business as a different kind of animal from meeting for worship, something ancillary or secondary to “real” worship. Others—myself among them—see meeting for worship for business as a special kind of meeting for worship, a deeper, more highly distilled worship that challenges us and requires us to fish or cut bait when it comes to the outward expression of the truths that we enjoy inwardly during worship. It is good to seek to know and follow God in worship. It is a harder but more rigorous kind of worship to seek to know and follow God while we are simultaneously deciding how to balance the budget or whether we must lay down the peace and concerns committee.

In meeting for business we are spiritually exercised. We have to decide when to insist on what we are sure is right, and when to submit to another's discernment; we have to be flexible yet strong, gentle yet plain speaking . . . and then, after our stumbling efforts, we have to walk out of the room and live with ourselves, each other, and the Spirit.

Meeting for business is where it gets real. It's where we succeed or fail at practicing what we believe. It's where we work together or where we fall apart. And it's where we shoulder the load of our shared responsibilities as a covenant community. We all have an ideal image of how wonderful such a functioning community should be. Meeting for business is where we discover who we really are in the ways that we respond to the disappointment of being a mismatched team, pulling the yoke at different speeds, and not always in the same direction. In business meeting we are required to forgive, to be teachable, to care, to take responsibility—both in the large matters of principle and in the tediously mundane details of life.

Like "regular worship," meeting for business can be deeply rewarding or frustrating, and most often it is a mixture of both. It feels great when we find ourselves being led by the Spirit as a whole community, when we find ourselves called to more creative and loving responses than we knew we were capable of, or when we look around the room in amazement and gratitude to be with such wise, bighearted, trustworthy servants of the Spirit. But let's face it, for every one of those really delicious moments, there are others where our desire to get some boring agenda item over with is thwarted by a discussion that just will not end, or when we are annoyed by other Friends' petty judgmentalism, their droning repetitions, their knee-jerk reactions, or their passive mannerliness. And just when we are about to offer a suggestive hint about the mote in their eye, we become aware of the beam that needs plucking from our own. Can we hear and follow our Guide in these circumstances? And if not then, when?

I have been blessed to take part in meetings for business where long, divisive, complicated disputes were finally resolved after years of struggle. These were hard decisions to make, and the topics were painful to some of the participants. But the best spoken ministry I have ever heard, the words that have most deeply moved me and called me closer to God, were delivered during these wrenching discussions that forced us to go deep.

Recently in my own meeting, as we concluded a decision that addressed complex, competing needs from different groups, a member of our meeting said, “Let’s reflect on whether we are being clear about our limits, and whether we are also being generous.” After some reflection—and a little tweaking of our conclusions—this member remarked that we had just completed a piece of work we could not have done in the same way a year earlier. When asked to explain, she used herself as an example, noting how she had become more flexible and more willing to be open minded. Meeting for business not only offers us the opportunity for such growth, but it allows our increasing spiritual maturity an opportunity to be expressed and to be celebrated.

I am one of those people who believe that you cannot be a Quaker alone. Silent worship by ourselves or with others is one way to encounter Truth—but outside of the context of a Friends community, it is too easy for Truth to be a solitary abstraction. It is in making decisions, in putting our limited resources to use, and in working together toward common and competing ends that we are called to make that Truth part of our lives on a minute-by-minute basis, not in ideal form, but in the reality of this flawed world filled with imperfect people such as ourselves. If being a Quaker is “real,” it is real in meeting for worship for business.

With love to the presiding co-clerk from the recording co-clerk of Goshen Meeting,

Monday, August 17, 2009

Why no caps and gowns at Friends school graduation?

I am trying to find information/explanation on why Quaker school students do not wear caps and gowns to graduation.

Dear [friend],

Each Friends school is independent from every other Friends school. Each school community discerns for itself how to interpret Friends testimonies and traditions, so our schools do not all develop the same practices. I have attended a high school graduation at a Friends school where caps and gowns were worn, so I know it is not a uniform determination among all the schools to do without them. I can make some guesses that could explain why some Friends schools have not adopted caps and gowns for graduation, but the only truly accurate explanation for a particular school would have to come from the school itself.

My first guess relates to the Friends testimony of simplicity, which has evolved from the historic tradition of plainness. Material simplicity has to do with not owning or using things that are unnecessary, including items of apparel that encourage pride of appearance or are dictated by changing fashions. Students, families, and teachers may feel that it is a frivolity, or a waste of resources, to spend money on ceremonial attire.

Another tradition that may explain such a practice goes back to the beginnings of the Quaker faith: rejection of ceremony, symbolism, and formal ritual. This is why Quakers do not perform outward sacraments (such as water baptism), and why you will not see symbols, such as crosses, in a Friends meeting house. Friends traditionally avoid the outward forms that may distract us from the inward experience those forms are meant to signify. So again, ceremonial attire may be seen as going against Quaker culture.

My final guess has to do with the emphasis on each person's uniqueness. When Quaker educators get together and discuss what our schools do have in common, one principle that invariably comes up is an emphasis on the special individuality of each student -- the importance of honoring each child's special gifts and appreciating differences. So it may simply be that the idea of having every student appear in identical costume goes against the values and spirit of the school's community.

I am copying my response to Sarah Sweeney-Denham at the Friends Council on Education. She may be able to add to or clarify what I have suggested.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery

Sarah's comment:

I agree with you. Of the reasons you explore, I believe the practice that some Friends schools have of not wearing cap and gowns is most strongly felt and linked with Friends schools' essential belief in that of God in each person, which leads to an appreciation for diversity and individuality, as well as celebrating that which connects us all. Many Friends schools design "Meetings for Graduation," giving every person in attendance (students, parents, grandparents, teachers) a chance to be part of the occasion, by speaking from the heart and spirit within. In some Friends schools each member of the graduating class makes a speech, further celebrating each student's perspective while also celebrating the group as a whole. These practices seem aligned with these ideas as well.

Thanks for asking,

Sarah Sweeney-Denham

Monday, August 3, 2009

Do Quakers believe in the bible?

Do Quakers believe in the Bible?
(Received August 3, 2009, and many other times as well.)

Do Quakers believe in the bible? I guess the short answer is yes, but the Religious Society of Friends is a made up of several diverse branches with diverse memberships, and what one person means when she says “I believe in the bible” can be very different from what another person means by the same statement, and I don’t know whether either of them would be identical to what you mean when you ask that question.

Generally, Friends believe that the people who wrote down the words in the bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and so the bible is evidence (if not a perfect record) of the Word. Friends have also believed historically, and a great many still believe, that God speaks to us directly through a deep connection that every person has with the Divine. Sometimes that connection is called the Inward Light or Christ Within or the Seed or many other names. Different branches of Friends place different emphasis on the authority of the bible versus the authority of direct revelation.

In today’s mail I received the most recent edition of the magazine Quaker Life, and this issue is entirely devoted to the topic “Friends and the Bible.” You can access a couple of the articles at:

Here are two different statements about the bible that come out of important documents from different branches of the Society of Friends (and which I am copying from the magazine I just mentioned):

The Richmond Declaration of Faith: “It [is] the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other authority whatsoever.”

Baltimore Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice: Many differing attitudes toward the Bible can be found among Friends, but a few statements find general acceptance:

  • In the experience of Friends, the Bible can be rightly understood only in the light of the Spirit which inspired it; the same Holy Spirit which is available to all.

  • Although the word of God can be found in the Bible, inspiration may also be found elsewhere. The closing of the canon of Scripture did not signal the end of Divine inspiration.

  • Any part, any verse of the Bible can best be understood in the light of the whole, so that care should be taken in the use of passages removed from their contexts.

  • Detailed understanding of the Bible can be reached only through study of the times and circumstances of the writing, in the light of various commentaries and translations.

I am afraid this response is both too long for your simple question, and way too short to capture a fair representation of the breadth of Friends’ relationship with scripture. I hope it is at least a little bit helpful.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

My name is [VW]. I'm Argentinian. I teach English and I'm reading this book with my students called The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, which is set in Connecticut in 1687. One of the characters is a Quaker who is disliked by the Puritan community. I'm trying to understand why Puritans disliked her so much. I've been reading a lot about Quakers, but I still don't fully understand why they didn't get along.

Quite simply, Connecticut considered Quakers heretics, and heretics were considered dangerous. Such people should be committed to prison or sent out of the country. Having a Quaker book was illegal. Anyone who would "unnecessarily fall into discourse with any such heretic" could be fined twenty shillings, a significant amount of money at that time. The fact that the Quaker character in this book, Hannah Tupper, was allowed to live in Connecticut would have been highly unusual. The persecution of Quakers was not as bad in New England as it had been in the 1650s. The description of Hannah Tupper and her husband as having been "branded, tied to a cart's tail, and flogged across the boundary" is an accurate description of what happened to some Quakers in Massachusetts. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston before the British government stepped in to lessen the severity of Massachusetts' anti-Quaker laws.

Why were Quakers considered heritics? The book gives some clues. Hannah Tupper doesn't believe in the outward sacraments-- Quakers considered the sacraments as a spiritual act [not an outward ritual], and did not take communion. Hannah also does not attend the established church at a time when it was illegal for any citizen of Connecticut not to do so. She was therefore fined for her non-attendance.

The Puritan founders of Massachusetts and Connecticut were certain that they were founding a Christian colony and had no qualms about outlawing "heretics" who would not conform to the established church. Those who did not comply were not only wrong about religion, but were considered subversive to the government. Quakers themselves could be disruptive, as early Quakers were quite willing to go into the established churches to debate with the local minister, though by the time of this book, Quakers had quieted down considerably from their early enthusiasm of the 1650s and 1660s.

The idea of religious toleration made little sense to the early Puritans of Massachusetts and Connecticut. They were, in their own minds, convinced that they were correct. That toleration eventually came to the British American colonies owes something to dissenters such as the Quakers who were willing to suffer fines, imprisonment, flogging, banishment and sometimes death rather than give up or conceal their beliefs.

Christopher Densmore

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What Kind of Commitment Does It Take To Be a Pacifist?

This question was forwarded to QIC from the American Friends Service Committee. The original letter is lost, but the gist of it was:
I am drawn to be a pacifist, but when I imagine someone threatening my life or the life of someone I love, and if I could protect them with violence, I believe I would do that. How do Friends manage to be pacifists? Do you have stories about pacifists in such situations?

Dear [Friend],

The American Friends Service Committee has forwarded your question to me at the Quaker Information Center for a response. I believe they hoped I might have a pamphlet perfectly suited to your questions that I could pop into an envelope and send you. But the question you ask is one of the hardest ones that any pacifist has to wrestle with. And the truth is, unless we get tested by the kind of situation you describe, none of us knows for sure what we will really do.

Many Friends and other pacifists know that the ideal we profess is one we may or may not be able to live up to in an extreme situation, and we can only do our best in the situations that life presents, taking them one at a time.

Many Quakers would also say that they can only achieve their pacifist principles with some kind of Divine assistance. George Fox (a founding Friend) wrote that when he was offered early prison release if he would accept a military commission, he “told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars. . . .” We interpret that to mean that through his deep and receptive relationship with God, he had been transformed into a peaceful person – a state he might not have been able to achieve through his own mind and will.

Many committed pacifists feel that it is a distraction to get into discussions about extreme hypothetical possibilities, such as “what would you do if a Nazi were about to roll a tank over your grandmother.” Life presents us with plenty of day-to-day challenges to deal with, and perhaps by learning to respond well to the mundane ones, we will make ourselves ready for the really hard ones, should they come to pass.

However, now that I have tried to respond philosophically, I will say a few practical things. We are most likely to respond violently in a situation when two conditions exist: (a) we feel threatened – a danger makes us afraid for ourselves or someone else; and (b) we don’t have any other ideas for an effective response to the situation. Our culture does not do much to help us learn effective nonviolent responses to a threat, or even to put such thoughts into our imaginations. But through practice and through nonviolent-response training that different peace organizations sometimes offer, we can expand our options and also our confidence. And being confident helps reduce the feeling of being threatened.

One of the areas where the rubber meets the road is in street safety. I have read some material, much of it written for women, helping a person think about what she might do if attacked. Different individuals have different “standards” of pacifism: some may say that if they were in real danger, they might hurt their attacker, but not kill; some may decide that if killing were the only way to survive, it would be their last resort, but they would do it; some may decide it is OK to carry and use Mace, since it wears off; others may be unwilling even to cause physical pain or to forcefully overpower another at any level. We cannot really know in advance what we may do, but it makes a real difference to have given it enough thought to have an intention. In addition to violent response, there are techniques of communication, of distraction, of escape, and if you have thought about and practiced these methods, you will be less likely to feel that violence is your only option.

Back in the 1970s, some New York Quakers started a program called the Alternatives to Violence project for teaching nonviolence skills to prisoners in institutions. AVP is now an independent program with no official Quaker ties (although many Friends are involved), and it is used worldwide in prisons, in schools, and in communities. AVP’s language for nonviolence is “transforming power.” I am enclosing a page from their website that gives an idea of what they help people practice.

You asked for stories, and I went to our library to select some from books about nonviolent responses to oppression or danger – some written for children some for adults. A couple classic stories that you may have heard before are the Pearl Buck (true) account of the missionary’s wife in China whose home was sieged by raiders who were killing the foreigners. She met them at the door, invited them in for tea, and treated them as honored guests. They played with her children and left. Another classic has to do with Quaker settlers in the colonial frontier in the period leading up to the French and Indian wars. Unlike the other settlers, the Quakers left their latchstrings out and their muskets propped outside their houses. Indian raiders sometimes came into their homes and ate their food, but the Quakers were not harmed, unlike the other settlers who barricaded and defended themselves.

However, I am reluctant to offer up such stories as a defense of pacifism. They are wonderful for stimulating the imagination and suggesting a new way to think about certain situations. But there is something triumphant about them – the story survives because the pacifist response magically “works.” And while we would of course always hope for an outcome in which no one is harmed, pacifism is not magic. When a positive outcome happens, it “works” partly because the pacifists have made up their minds that they are prepared for it not to work, and they are taking the risk of being vulnerable to others and to engage with those others as fellow human beings – something it is very difficult to do with a weapon in your hand (or so I imagine).

I hope this response is helpful to you.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery