After seven semesters at a Quaker university, I had decided that it would make sense for me to understand who Friends are and what they believe. And so I gathered with a group to discuss Quaker history and beliefs. After the first session, those of us who were less familiar with Quakerism were encouraged to do some poking around, to see what we could discover about Friends.
I came to the second meeting invigorated by what I had discovered. Having never spent much time looking into Quakers, I was surprised to see the wide range of theological diversity among Friends. In my research I had read about Nonthiest Friends, Orthodox Friends, Evangelical Friends, Neopagan Friends, and Fundamentalist Friends. I was shocked, but pleasantly so. Here was a group of religious folks who could stand to associate with one another despite vast difference in faith and practice. Or, at least I thought they did. As I spoke of my findings, an older Friend cut me off - "Well, Brandon, some of those people you're talking about aren't really Quakers." He didn't specify which group(s) he was ostensibly ready to vote off the Quaker Island, but his meaning was clear: I am not at all comfortable associating with some of those people as Friends.
A few years ago, I was sitting in a popular Portland tea shop chatting with some friends about the Friends community with whom I served as a pastor. A young woman overheard our conversation and interrupted, "Are you Quakers?". I responded in the affirmative and she became excited: "That's so cool! My mother is a Quaker. She's getting our tea right now, when she gets back you should talk." I agreed and when her mother returned, the young woman informed her that, "Hey, this guy is a Quaker too."
Her mother seemed taken aback, but quickly recovered and asked, "Oh, where do you attend meeting?" I smiled and replied that I attended a local programmed meeting of Friends down the street. She very quickly said, "Oh. Well I'm a re- ... and I attend an unprogrammed Quaker meeting." She turned a little pink and turned back to her daughter, ending the conversation. The word she managed to catch before completing it was: real. Her initial reaction was to see herself, and the Friends she associated with, as "real Quakers." I remember being tickled by the idea that I might be, by implication, a "fake Quaker" or "false Friend" or maybe even a "poser Quaker."
These are just two examples of what I like to call the "They're not really Quakers" conversation. In my five plus years among Friends, I have come to realize that this conversation happens quite a bit. I confess, that I have employed similar language myself when trying to explain the difference between the branches of Friends. "Well this group is less Quaker, in that..." Each time, I feel my stomach turn over, a conviction of the Spirit that I just dusted my hands of those communities for convenience of explanation and to ensure the listener that I'm more Quaker.
It is in our nature as humans to draw lines and try to determine who belongs and who doesn't.
A Friend and anthropologist colleague of mine once explained to me that the easiest way to create a sense of belonging among a group of people is actually to kick someone (or a group of someones) out. He explained (and I'm paraphrasing here), "Nothing will make you feel more like you belong in a group than to see another person expelled and that you, and the others remaining, have been deemed worthy of further inclusion." In short, the easiest way to legitimize our own sense of belonging is to convince ourselves that those people don't belong.
I don't mean to present this as evil or incredibly mean-spirited. I mean to present it as human and natural. Every group has an exclusionary boundary. However, it seems to me that, in our current culture, we have a tendency to disown folks for the purpose of communicating to others that we're not like those people and that we don't agree with them. We're more worried about others' perceptions of us, than we are of our own integrity of relationship with our brothers and sisters. I know that I have tried to distance myself from certain communities of Friends with whom I have some (serious) disagreements. Yet, it is not for me to say that they aren't really Quaker. Most of us follow the Way of Friends as honestly as we can. Most of us would say that we see a direct lineage in our faith and practice from those early Friends in England and their sense of lineage to the earliest followers of Jesus. It is my calling to share the vision of Friends as I experience it and listen for the vision of Friends as they experience it.
I find hope and promise in the budding Convergent Friends movement. I see in it a desire to gather in our shared heritage of Friends and celebrate our commonalities while still honoring our differences. In his journal, George Fox recounts his mystical experience of being called to walk up Pendle Hill and, from there, seeing "in what places [God] had a great people to be gathered." That 'great people' is still being gathered today, in our own time. At times, it seems were are more ready to un-gather than gather. I know that, at times, it is necessary for people to recognize an irreconcilable difference and go separate ways. Yet, I truly hope that we can honor the shared heritage between us and continue to value one another as Friends.
used with permission. original can be found here.
cover photo: 'Misty dawn on top of Pendle Hill' from flickr.com, by Andy Rothwell.