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 –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