Thursday, November 17, 2005

Quaker Passivism

Our meeting has a somewhat tense special meeting coming up in 10 days to discuss moving to a larger meeting space. We currently meet in an almost-free room on a university campus and have done so for more than 20 years. However, the meeting has grown, families are now attending, and we're packed in there like sardines. Even with extra folding chairs, the children and their parents have to sit on the floor. On top of that, the little room that is used for the children has been taken over by university groups, so that the only table space is covered with computers. Already, some families have stopped coming. In the spring, a search committee was set up and a new meeting place was found early this fall. It will cost more to rent, but it has excellent facilities for the meeting and accommodates superbly to families.

The problem? Some members and attenders don't see a reason to move.

Go figure.

They speak with glowing faces about simplicity and making do and describe all the wonderful ways we could make "better use" of the place we're in. And they give cheerful descriptions about how meeting memberships rise and fall, so all we have to do is wait a little bit till the numbers drop again.

It's all I can do not to roar.

When did being passive become a Quaker virtue? When did we lose the courage and convictions to live lives lead by the spirit? Why do Quakers gravitate toward hesitation?

And whatever happened to the old Second Advices? ("Live adventurously.") Have we just lost that spark?

Why is it that when an interesting and engaging idea is presented in M4W4B members fall over themselves to quietly put it down, as if somehow it were better to fail to act than to act? Why, when there is a decision between action and non-action, do we let non-action select itself by default, through not deciding, not finding clearness?

What are we so afraid of?

And what is it in our decision-making process that allows the passive to triumph?

Fortunately for the new meeting place idea, the clerk and the "elders" of the meeting are all in favour of it. It's just a few holdouts holding out -- members who are unsure and who are very firm in their unsure-ness.

Unfortunately, I believe that many of the Friends in favour of this move will sit silent during the meeting, afraid to speak out, afraid of upsetting someone. Being decisive and assertive and firm-- saying YES too loud-- is somehow unQuaker.

(End of rant. I'm glad I got it out of my system. Now hopefully I will not be tempted to say ANY of these things at the meeting next week. But just for the record, I do think roaring is very Quaker.)


At 7:01 AM, Blogger Larry said...

It seems clear to me that you should say some of these things at the meeting; you will be able to say it all tactfully. Just point out that no creative step has ever been taken without some people objecting. Ask them to stand aside; that's a good Quaker term. But focus on being proactive. Some of these folk just need to be challenged.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hi Nancy,
Uggg! Well, in my experience many people are very comfy in their small little meetings. They don't want the scale to change, they don't want to the culture to change.

There's not a place in North America where Friends aren't an infinitesimally small percentage of the population, yet there's a great hunger for what we believe, teach and live. That quiz seems to label every third person a Quaker and how many newcomers have you heard say "I recently joined Friends but I realize I was a Friend all my life." There's not a Quaker church or meeting anywhere that couldn't triple in size overnight (not that I necessarily recommend that level of change overnight).

That whole "rise and fall" membership thing is an excuse. But it's something more: it's a selfishness. It's a kind of sin to hide ourselves. We haven't been given this good news so we could sit with a cozy little salon of a small group on Sunday morning. It's our job to shout it out and live lives that preach and invite others into the Kingdom.

Meetings that want to die sit in their old little rooms. Your situtation feels all too familiar, I must admit. I'd like to be diplomatic and say you must search for God's truth together, that the process will find its own unity, blah blah blah. But I have to be honest in saying that God almost certainly does want in a larger space with room for families. My prayers and sympathy is with you all, good luck and God bless!
Your Friend, Martin

At 5:06 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Thanks Larry and Martin.

Yes, I will speak at the meeting. I pretty much have to, since I was head of the committee that found the new place. But I have to find the words that will unlock the cozy mentality. I will be preparing deeply for this meeting.

Thanks for the words of support.

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Johan Maurer said...

Nancy: Your questions have led to some deep searching and probably to more words than are appropriate to this space. I'll start here, and either cross-post to my own space ( or add to them there.

What keeps us from living adventurously and roaring? This is a question I ask all across the Friends spectrum, from "liberal" to "conservative" to "orthodox" and "evangelical." Just today I was reading a message from the Thomases about Rwanda Yearly Meeting in Central Africa. They were asking for prayer to meet the challenge of dry-bones Quakerism in their yearly meeting. And you've seen some of the healthily-blunt speaking from Aj in my yearly meeting and from Martin Kelley in his, and maybe you've seen the brilliant question about the Quaker voice from Robin M.

OK, here is an attempt to gather some of my thoughts, which are all interrelated and may not make sense laid out linearly:

- Meeting for business has become a pleasant activity in its own right, and not an occasion for deep prayer-based corporate discernment. Back in the 1970's in Ottawa Meeting, we really thought about this. Deborah Haight, my Quaker "godmother" who was raised in the conservative tradition, was among those who tried to take the meeting back from the cerebral discussion mode and into deep searching for the will of God. Something must have worked. Long after I'd left, the meeting made some courageous decisions about its meetinghouse, converting part of it to residential units for private sale, and heavily renovating the rest of it to make a much more pleasant and serviceable space. (That's my opinion; I don't know what today's Ottawa Friends think.)

Many business meetings seem to be occasions of what I've called verbal knitting. There's such a pleasant rhythm of going through the business items, murmering "I approve" or "I hope so" and so on. It is a wonderful, almost hypnotic way to build a community, and I'm reminded of primates in a circle picking parasites out of each other's fur. We become conflict-averse, and when conflicts do come up, they are either dealt with through established patterns and family roles, or are wet-blanketed into submission in the service of the previous well-loved domesticity. I could give examples, but it would be risky! Our Religious Society is so small that anomymity is difficult.

We need to remember that it is GOD who should be at the center, and those who are not yet in a spiritually liberating community or those who are in spiritual, social, political, economic oppression (situations that are usually linked) who should be the center of our concern, not those who are already in our community. Someone well said that the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the well-being of its non-members.

- This leads to my more important point (in my humble opinion): Our very defective understanding of the place of God.

We live in an age of consumer spirituality, where people love to display their sophistication by saying that they're spiritual, not religious. People seem to want just enough spiritualness to be cozy, but not enough to overcome the twin idols of affluence and autonomy. These poisons are by no means unique to Quakers, but we have a peculiarly attractive version of them: a sort of delicious antiquarian progressiveness that can deceive us into think we're going deeper than we really are. This cultish quakerishness adulterates the spiritual power of both evangelicals and liberals, and has led to the near-extinction of the precious conservative witness among Friends.

By making our choices a matter of enhancing our own spirituality, and by becoming ultra-squeamish about our corporate biblical roots and our Puritan-era apostolic revival history, we have left GOD out. God desires joy and liberation for us and, through us (as in the early days of Israel), for our neighbors throughout the world.

The way that this joy is shared and liberation accomplished is not by our subtle cleverness, our middle-class politics, by carefully-calibrated "outreach" and transfers of wealth from us to those others lucky enough to know us. It is by relationship: first of all, our relationship with God, then our relationship with each other, and the way we provide access to that relational community by our physical and attitudinal open doors ... for example, adequate meeting space in your case.

But to get there, we have to give up our cool, our autonomy, our intellectual pride, and confront the twin experiences of conversion and convincement. Conversion: from lifestyle "spirituality" to I-THOU relationship with God. Our meetings are not clubs to encourage each other on solitary spiritual journeys, no matter how subtle or beautiful or adorned with evangelical cliches in this corner of Quakerism or esoteric souvenirs in that corner. They are people who gather around God because our lives depend on God, are rooted in God, are restless and in bondage when outside God. Conversion requires us to give up autonomy and let God in, a terrifying prospect in some ways for contemporary people ... but happily we don't have to do it alone, and we don't have to surrender our God-given brains to do it. Friends have a gift-based leadership philosophy, and among us are those with the gifts to help us interpret Divine power and human maturation in a healthy way. No loudmouth at the front has to "do religion" for us, but we need to let those companions at our side have a chance to get through our autonomy and encourage and correct us as we approach the One who loved us before we even took shape. That crossing over from autonomy to genuine God-centered community is what I mean by conversion (or at least a part of it).

Convincement: the realization that Quaker discipleship is the way of relating to God and the Godly community that works for us. By Quaker discipleship I mean the actual ways we have found to live in community with God and others— the patterns of trust, equality, simplicity, nonviolence, and prayer-based corporate decisionmaking, or in other words, those things we often summarize as the "testimonies." When we realize that those patterns serve us in being a faithful person and a faithful people, we are "convinced" and we, or at least some of us who have the appropriate gifts, can consider the best ways of making this path open to others who would be equally well served by this flavor of community but have yet to be convinced.

If I'm right, the highest priority for a decisionmaking body is to decide whether or not God is at the center of their decision. If God is at the center, the next question is whether the blessings of having God at the center are limited to those already in the community, or are intended for the larger world outside your doors. Can you ask the community to discern whether its caution on that score is in the service of building a stronger, more faithful body that will subsequently enlarge its vision, or is in the service of comfort, autonomy, and ultimately a stultifying elitism?

I apologize for letting this post get so long! I will cross-post these words on my own site as well, adding a few related thoughts on pacifism.

At 7:20 AM, Blogger david said...

Part of what yer up against is good old TIMM dynamics and part of it is -- as you say you have said elsewhere tired old Quakerism in general.

Let us not forget -- that a faith that considers sitting quietly in a room with a bunch of other folks as dynamic is likely to attract more than its fair share of don't-rock-the-boat-introverts.

Which of course is fine. But in the same breath -- if we were as committed to spiritual growth as our words might suggest -- we ought to keep aware of this and fight the tendancy so we can see through to the other side where God leads us.

At 3:54 PM, Blogger Anna Dunford said...

If the university space is 'almost free' it would be interesting to suggest that they carry on meeting there and the rest move to the better space, see then if they would rather stay put in their smaller numbers or continue being part of what is obviously a vibrant and growing community. I don't like splits or schisms in a negative sense but I do recognise that some people do not find worshipping in larger groups as comfortable and may find the prospect of losing their self contained space threatening. Is this a time for expansion as well as growth? Two Meetings with different characteristics meeting differing needs? Does it have to be an either or choice? Why not both? (aside from the look of sheer panic that will no doubt cross the faces of Noms Comm if they think they need to come up with a whole new set of elders/overseers etc to support two Meetings!)

At 4:01 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Thanks, Johan. I may end up quoting you when I speak on this issue.

Thanks, Anna. Funny you should mention Noms Committee, since I am the clerk of that committee, as well as two others. Our meeting is stretched to the point of using attenders on committees! A split would also mean we couldn't afford the new space. So we do have to move in step. However, the new space is not so large that those used to a small space couldn't adjust, if they wanted to.

You've all been very helpful!

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Wow, what an amazing conversation: Johan, my gosh!, wow, thanks for just putting it all down so clearly.

And David, thanks for the point about silent-sitting Quakers perhaps not attracting the most dynamic folks. I'm reminded of the time I visited the "1652 Country" of northern England retracing Fox's footsteps. It seemed that everyplace he preached was a few feet over from a church--in a nearby tree or rocky outcrop. We lost something when we gave up tree sitting for nice cushioned meetinghouse benches.

How much Quaker time is spent worry about our facilities? And how much is spent worrying about how to spread the gospel to a world hungry for good news? Hmmmm.

At 12:10 AM, Anonymous Robin M. said...

About 15 years ago, my Meeting moved from a beautiful old house with a garden and an amazing view to a store-front building in the center of the city. How? Why?

Why is because the old building was not earthquake safe or handicapped accessible. The new one is larger, very accessible, in an area that calls for attention.

How is a long and painful story, the worst of it before I lived here. But we got through it. And following the motions of the Spirit on the building may have been a turning point in the Meeting. The long term impact may not be clear yet.

Good luck doesn't seem like the right thing to say. I wish you good faithfulness, maybe.

At 4:46 PM, Blogger Liz Opp said...

Nancy, by the time you read this, it seems as though your called meeting will have come and gone. My loss for falling behind in my blog-reading!

Still, I'm glad you've received support and kind words from so many.

Here's one piece I'll respond to. You write, "...what is it in our decision-making process that allows the passive to triumph?"

My own concern around this question is that many Friends, including presiding clerks and members of Ministry & Counsel committees, have forgotten about what sense of the meeting is all about. We have not been conveying our faith and practice accurately to those who follow us into the meetingroom.

Maybe it's because of my inclination as an adult educator that I tend to take the time to explain certain Quaker practices as difficulties arise or as new subjects are cracked open among meetings. I love a good "teachable moment," I guess!

I also believe there is value in seeking the kernel of truth that exists in each minority view, including the most stubborn of us.

But of course the difficulty is, when we stop making parts of our faith explicit--why we practice the way we do--then all sorts of assumptions are made about what can or can't be done; and an individual's preference to stay-put is given as much weight as an otherwise corporate sense of the rightness of moving--meaning that the business meeting comes to a standstill, unless the clerk (or another Friend) lifts up, with great care and love for all, the practice that is being strained in the moment.

I hope you can be faithful and loving at a time of what sounds like tremendous stress on so many. And I hope you'll update us on how things go.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

At 4:02 PM, Blogger Ian Graham said...

Hello Nancy,
I am in unity with you and am glad you are speaking out. Thank you for creating another forum for this sort of conversation (and to my friend Rex for showing it to me).
Quaker_Outreach_Forum on has been a project of mine for about 5 years now, with the same sort of goals.


Post a Comment

<< Home