Saturday, March 08, 2014

What (Some) Friends Believe

Every calendar year, my Meeting conducts a Spiritual State of the Meeting survey. With time, the data collected from those who voluntarily submit their opinions will be transformed into a report. It will then be presented at Meeting for Business and sent to Yearly Meeting. Now that I am no longer a member of Ministry and Worship, I believe I can speak to what has long been resting on my heart. Everyone knows the problem, but only a few are willing to provide suggestions or engage actively in reform efforts.

SurveyMonkey is a rich resource, one that displays Truth in the words of members and regular attenders. We’ve used SurveyMonkey the past few years to compile results. Once, around a year ago, I mentioned this tactic at a conference with the clerk of her own committee. She found it very amusing and I admit I was a little embarrassed. In a Meeting our size, no other choice exists.

Numerical information that speaks to who we are and where we worship is shared early with the entire Meeting community, but that’s only 20% of the survey. Most written comments, I report with disappointment, are suppressed by the committee. This is a decision made because a handful are provocative (though not profane). The fear is that these remarks will grow and swell into a large drama storm that will require lots of damage control to put out the flames.

This is unfortunate, because written responses like these hold a needed mirror to the Meeting. The fear is that they will be inflammatory, but I counter that these honest remarks are much less so than many in leadership may think. Many hard truths are present, the sort others need to hear, provided they are willing to remove years of wax from their ears. I wonder how many have hardened their hearts like the Old Testament Pharaoh, or the Pharisees of the Gospels.

I’ve picked three profound responses from last year, the ones that didn’t make the final cut.

This survey is NOT a good way to figure out the State of the Meeting. My experience is that group Worship Sharing would be far more effective. I could suggest a series of evenings or afternoons of Worship Sharing as a better means to craft this.

I understand the good intention of this suggestion. However, keeping to the present format is the best way to compile information. A series of Worship Sharing sessions, while they surely would be unifying, is not tenable. They would cut down on participation precipitously because relatively few people would have the time to commit to even one. This particularly would be true with parents who have small children. As imperfect as this online-based data collection system is, it’s the only one that has ever given us a much fuller, more complete response.

While I welcome and respect those with different conceptions of God than my own, I do believe that there are certain aspects of Quakerism that are inherent in our belief structure and cannot be changed. There need to be clear guidelines as to what these structures are. We need to hold consistent and comprehensive education efforts as to where these values come from and why we believe them. We should encourage both old and new Quakers to participate. If someone does not feel lead to these ideas, we need to acknowledge that not everyone is moved to be Quaker.

Having recently written a column seeking to understand the views of Non-Theist Friends, my response here is on record. I do believe that my Meeting and even liberal Quakerism as a whole has sacrificed diversity for unity. We have years of established precedent, and it is an affront to the Early Friends who underwent severe persecution for some to want to completely excise that part of our history. In some ways, it reminds me of counseling a friend who was having marital problems. He wanted out and I said, “Do you want to throw away ten years together?”

I’ve known God even as a young child and view him with love and obedience. I wish others would. While I do believe in the concept of continuing revelation, this is not the form it should take. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”  
I would avoid using the word God, as that may cause people not to take us seriously on political or other conversations, but freely use the testaments of Quakerism. And there are now several scientific studies that the values inherent in Quakerism lead to more lasting and sustainable peace and healthier societies.

We have one of two options here. Either we can surrender the right to refer to our maker, or we can risk being seen wrongly. This writer is clearly afraid of being mistakenly viewed as a right-wing zealot. In all fairness, we’re viewed wrongly every day, for a variety of reasons, often when we are unaware of it. Our religious beliefs aren’t the half of it. But reducing who we are for less threatening Testimonies or statements of faith which were based upon God’s guidance (and Scriptural passages) is compromising our identity as Quakers.

Reducing religion to a science is a huge problem. One cannot reduce God to scientific terminology. Science insists upon concrete proof, theories, and laws. Faith demands our belief and compliance when we cannot see concrete proof through human means. I have felt the presence of God myself, but never in ways I could define; I’m completely okay with that and am willing to take God on his own terms. That’s simply what I call living my faith.

Everyone seems to identify some facet of the problem. Our issues are not from lack of awareness. One partial answer is that unity cannot proceed until people come to a greater shared understanding. In a Meeting full of lone wolves or those who take a short-sighted perspective, this is impossible. The Theist/Non-Theist divide is only one small sliver of a massive problem that preceded me, but is nonetheless my problem and everyone else's.

1 comment:

Daniel Francis said...

You speak my mind, Friend.