The Liberal Quaker Mutation

November 19, 2020 § 5 Comments

The liberal Quaker mutation began in the late nineteenth century as a set of innovations that were largely a reaction to the evangelical spirit that had dominated much of the Quaker movement during most of that century, but which had by then lost much of its vitality. Many of these innovations found embodiment in the thought and work of Rufus Jones and his good friend, John Wilhelm Rowntree. Here, I want to discuss three of these innovations: a new historical sensibility, which was itself one aspect of a new more general scientific sensibility, and third, a new conception of Quakerism as a “mystical religion”.

As part of the new historical interest, Rowntree and Jones conceived a series of publications that would, for the first time, lay out a comprehensive history of the movement. Rowntree died before the project could be completed and Jones saw it through to completion, naming it the Rowntree Series. The series includes:

  • The Beginnings of Quakerism and The Second Period of Quakerism, both by William Charles Braithwaite, now acknowledged as classics.
  • Two volumes by Jones on the history of religion, with a focus on mysticism: Studies in Mystical Religion and Spiritual Reformers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Jones seems to have emerged from these studies with his idea that Quakerism was a form of “practical mysticism” and with the idea that “that of God in every person” could be understood as the divine spark of neo-Platonism, which he believed accounted for the universal experience and character of mystical experience.
  • The Quakers in the American Colonies, by Jones.
  • And the two volumes of The Later Periods of Quakerism, also by Jones, which cover the 18th and 19th century.

I have begun reading volume one of The Later Periods, and I want to pass on in this post some key passages and insights from its introduction. The first paragraphs of the introduction read as follows:

The type of religion studied in the historical series of which these are the concluding volumes has been essentially mystical. No other large, organized, historically continuous body of Christians has yet existed which has been so fundamentally mystical, both in theory and practice, as the Society of Friends—the main movement studied in this series—from its origin in the middle of the seventeenth century until the end of the eighteenth century, and in certain sections even through the nineteenth century. [This volume was published in 1921.]

These present volumes [of The Later Periods of Quakerism] record the profound transformation which occurred in the nineteenth century, and which carried a large proportion of the membership of the Society of Friends, both in England and America, over from a mystical basis to what for want of a better term may be called an evangelical basis. . . . It is clear, however, in historical perspective, that where the changes in the Society of Friends have been in the direction of a “return” to the evangelical systems of the reformed faith, a type of Christianity has been produced which is in strong and radical contrast to the mystical movement inaugurated by George Fox. The latter broke with the theological systems of Protestantism as completely as Luther and Calvin had done with Catholicism. He felt that he was inaugurating a new reformation (emphasis his). His movement was an attempt to produce a type of Christianity resting upon no authorities external to the human spirit, a Christianity springing entirely out of the soul’s experience, verified and verifiable in terms of personal or social life. The simplification seemed possible to Fox and his friends because they had made the memorable discovery that the Christ who saves is a living Christ, operating in vital fashion within the lives of men (sic). They had thus to do no longer with a system constructed on a theory of a God who was remote or absentee. . . . To abandon that position and outlook and to “return” to the systems of the past would mean, of course, that Augustine and Luther and Calvin had won the victory and had triumphed over Fox, as in some sense and in some degree they have done.

Rufus Jones, The Later Periods of Quakerism, 1921, pgs xiii–xiv.

I think Rufus Jones misunderstood George Fox in at least one way. I think he both correctly apprehended and recovered for us the mystical core of Fox’s experience and that of early Friends. But I think that, unfortunately, he also retrojected his fascination with neo-Platonic thought onto Fox when he equated “that of God” with the divine spark of Plotinus and later neo-Platonists. I’ve written about this elsewhere.

But here I want to raise up how important this new historical consciousness was in itself, and how important recovering the mystical core of Quakerism was, independent of the philosophical peculiarities that Jones introduced. And to remind us that liberal Quakerism began as a reaction to evangelicalism. That reaction is in our religious DNA and I think it deserves more study than it’s gotten.

And now another century has passed and liberal Quakerism is as old now as evangelical Quakerism was when Jones and Rowntree began their project. The original impulses in the liberal Quaker tradition have themselves been mutating and losing their vitality since then. How many meetings regularly teach Quaker history? How many Friends study it? How many mystics do we have (more than we know, I suspect—and why don’t we know about it?), and how often do our meetings for worship feel gathered in the Spirit? 

The reaction against a rote and hollow evangelicalism has itself become rote and knee-jerk. The yearning for a lively but critical approach to the Bible has given way to attitudes of indifference or hostility. In some meetings, the allergy to certain ideas and words that have been central to Quaker Christianity throughout all these centuries has mutated into an auto-immune disease in the throes of which we sometimes attack each other with an oxymoronic liberal intolerance. 

Having walked away from both the baby and the bath water, we are left with an empty rhetorical toolbox, in which only two messages can be heard rattling around in its hard metal shell—“that of God in everyone” and The Testimonies, often treated as a kind of Allen wrench set with six tools that swing from the handle known as the SPICES.

We are in need of renewal. All the previous renewal movements in Quakerism have been led by young adults. All have been reactions against an ossified religion that no longer seemed relevant enough, either to the spiritual lives of individual seekers or to the challenges and problems of the world we live in.

What would Quaker renewal agents be reacting against today? Where are they? And what is their mutation?

Trump, Apocalypticism, and Our Calling

October 21, 2020 § 1 Comment

The Trump movement is a quasi-religious apocalyptic-style cult. 

The biblical apocalyptic movements and moments—and their historical successors—have arisen when a marginalized religious community sees the condition of the world as corrupt in all areas of collective life and believe that this corruption is beyond their ability to correct through normal human action. Only God can fix the problem and the evil is so pervasive and comprehensive that only divine violence in the destruction of the whole world and its subsequent remaking can bring righteousness and peace. This only God can effect, usually through the agency of some messiah anointed by the spirit for the role. And the righteous remnant has an enemy, which the messiah will vanquish. And the story is so cosmic and consequential that its drama seduces people who dream of playing a vital role on its stage when otherwise they would know themselves as insignificant players.

This is the situation of the apocalypses in the Bible. The story of Noah was written during the Babylonian captivity and describes how a remnant of the faithful would be saved by an ark—the vessel that holds the Law—when Yahweh cleanses the world. The second half of the book of Daniel was written during the struggle against the violent suppression of traditional Hebrew faith during the Seleucid occupation of Judea in the 2nd century BCE. The Book of Revelation was perhaps started during the First Jewish War and then finished during the persecutions of Diocletian. 

Trump’s followers, which includes a large contingent of evangelical Christians who already have apocalypticism in their religious DNA, see our government as a swamp and our society as having left them behind. They view themselves as a faithful remnant who will triumph in the end. Their worldview is quasi-religious in its temperament and ideology, in its stubborn denial of reality, of common sense, and of the legitimacy of their evil opponents. They have their messiah, who actually declares himself as the Chosen One. And they have their enemies—the coastal elites, immigrants, and, as ever, the Jews and the blacks. 

They believe that the corruption in American society, and especially its government, is so complete that only destroying that world, the mechanisms and institutions of the state, can put things right. It is so evil that even heinous and violent crimes, liking separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, are necessary means to an end. Human efforts toward reform, like voting and other democratic processes and institutions, are not up to the job, are even part of the problem, so they too can be destroyed or perverted in service to their vision of ultimate vindication. Most dangerously, many believe that the final judgment and remaking of the world must of necessity be violent in its processes; therefore violence as a tool is acceptable, even laudable.

Apocalyptic movements, both biblical and subsequent, are always right in their analysis of the problem and always wrong about the timing. God’s judgment never arrives on time. In fact, it never really arrives at all. Historically, this has never bothered its adherents much. Usually, they move the time back to some later date. Often, they redefine the nature of the judgment and renewal, so that they can say it actually has occurred, just not in the way they expected. Sometimes, in their denial and their despair and desperation, they go down in self-destructive flames when their failure is certain. A handful wake up in time and escape the cult; the rest never give up, though their movement may dwindle to insignificance.

If Trump loses the election, the cult will not give up. Some will believe in their violence as a necessary and effective last chance. Thus I believe that the weeks after the election will be hard; but their initial violence will burn itself out, as it always has done in the past. But the remnant will remain and they will rewrite the prophecy. They will move back the clock. They will deny the reality of their loss while decrying the suffering they claim to endure. They will continue to blame their enemies. They will redefine the endgame. They will bide their time. They will find a new messiah, dismissing Trump as obviously flawed as God’s agent, even though they had overlooked his flaws when they believed in him in the first place.

You cannot “defeat” these people or their movement. Counter-violence will only confirm their worldview. Legislation and other state action will only confirm their worldview, though it will be necessary, anyway. Only love can transform their fear, and sense of hopelessness. And that means changing their circumstances and addressing the corruption they rightly condemn. It means making changes in all areas of social life—political, economic, social—that will draw them into the fold and undo their marginalized remnant status.

As a sidebar here, it’s worth noting that civil unrest and the anger and despair of some in the African American community shares some of these elements, only they have no messiah and so they have less hope. And they’ve been marginalized forever, so the anger and despair run deep. Making the comprehensive social changes needed to address structural racism will further enrage the racist core of the Trump cult. Therefore, it will be very important to address the white alienation of the Trump base at the same time, to avoid some of the violence they will consider. At the heart, though, both efforts are about justice and renewal, so that offers some hope.

However, the cultural transformations these efforts require are very hard to achieve. Redesigning the global economy, the dynamics of democracy, the caste system and structural racism of our society, our education system, healthcare system, policing system, and our social services, all at once, in the face of, first, a global pandemic, and in the medium-to-long term, in the face of diminishing resources, global warming, mass migration, and the proliferation of weapons both terrible and conventional—we are in for a dark period, I fear. This apocalyptic moment is likely to become an apocalyptic age. Apocalyptic movements will be more and more common as demonic storms and wildfires ravage our communities; messiahs will proliferate.

Yet, times like this provide unusual opportunity. The ancient Israelites were in fact returned to their homeland, though the redemption was incomplete and came with a cost. The Maccabees won their revolt and threw the Seleucids out, though the system they set up was itself corrupt and they were conquered again a century later by the Romans. The Christians survived Diocletian only to betray Jesus’ gospel by establishing an imperial church. The apocalyptic dream is never fully defeated and never fully realized. We lurch forward, fall back, lurch forward again.

While we must not lose sight of the goal, we must also remain faithful to the process, to the calling. We are called to love, and to nonviolent social change; we are called to Spirit-led ministry. Our Quaker faith encourages us to practice a listening spirituality, to attend to the small signals, the still small voices, that will call us to action. As individuals, and even as communities, we can’t change everything, we can’t address every wrong. And we cannot be sure of success. We can only be faithful to our callings and leave the rest to God. 

Support for my book – crowdfunding matching grant – 9 days left

August 31, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear readers
This is a final follow-up to my earlier post about my crowdfunding campaign to help publish my book of poems and images, The Road to Continental Heart.
There are nine days left in the campaign and a backer has come forward with an offer to match contributions going forward up to a total of $500. So I’m taking the chance that you won’t mind a second message about this project.
Here are some links to visit the campaign website and learn more about the book:
A reminder that I offer some perks for contributions, running from an epub copy to a free print copy, depending on the contribution amount.
Thank you for tolerating this second message and for your support, if you should give it. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the support I’ve received already, for the incredible generosity of the matching grantor, and for your consideration.

Shameless pitch for supporting my book

July 14, 2020 § Leave a comment

Well, not completely shameless. I hope you don’t mind.

Poet. Besides being a blogger, I’m a poet, and a publisher has picked up one of my books of poetry. The book’s working title is The Road to Continental Heart: Befriending, and Defending, the Spirit of North America. It’s not just a book of poetry, actually; it also includes photos, maps, and some other elements besides poetry. It will be published this fall by Boyle and Dalton as a coffee table-style book in a larger format than is usual for poetry and on fine paper, to do right by the images. See below for more about the book.

The publisher. Boyle and Dalton is a “hybrid” publisher, which means that they manage the development, design, production, and distribution of the book, and I contribute some of the production costs, I set the price, and I get a larger than usual percentage of the royalties.

The pitch. The production costs are a stretch for Christine and me, so I’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign to help support the book’s publication. I am posting to let my readers know about the campaign in case you might be interested in being a backer. The platform is Indiegogo, much like Kickstarter or GoFundMe, but better adapted to this kind of project.

About the book

More about the project. Here are some links to learn more:

The story in a nutshell. In 1990, my friend George Lawrence joined the Global Walk for a Livable World, a calling* of environmental activists walking across the country to raise consciousness about our ecological crises. I wanted to join him, but couldn’t. So I wrote him poems. Once a week for nine months—42 poems, most of them based upon research I did on the next leg of his walk.

*   “Calling” is my own term of venery for a group of environmental activists, as in pod of whales, murder of crows, exaltation of larks.

The vision. As only a book of poetry and pictures can do, Continental Heart seeks to appeal to the heart, the mind, and the soul. The poems are personal; they’re about friendship and the intimate knowledge of the land you can only get by walking through it. They are cosmic, about comet strikes and petrified forests and the long ages of geological change. They are lyrical, love poems to the land we live on. They are political—how do we defend the land we love? They are as concrete as heat and sore feet. They are as transcendental as the sense of presence that binds a people to its land base. The Road to Continental Heart invites the reader to walk that road and enter with the heart into a relationship with the continent we live on.

Some perks. Some perks come with the various levels of contribution, as you will see from the campaign site. Contributions of any size are very deeply appreciated.

So that’s my pitch. Thanks for reading this far in my post. And thanks in advance for your support, if you should choose to help publish Continental Heart.

The Gathered Meeting – Pendle Hill, August 14–16 (virtual)

July 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear readers:

Pendle Hill program on The Gathered Meeting. I will be facilitating a virtual Pendle Hill program on The Gathered Meeting next month, working from my Pendle Hill pamphlet of the same title. I hope some of you are able to participate. Details below.

Date: August 14–16

Info and registration link:

Cost: $35 Basic; $50 plus; discounted because it’s virtual.

Registration: You can register online using the link above or by phone (610-566-4507, ext. 137). We will be limiting participants to 30. Registration closes on August 14 at 8:00 am or when we reach capacity.

Schedule: 4 sessions, Friday evening, Saturday morning and afternoon, and Sunday morning. Click here for the full schedule.

Invitation: I invite my readers to consider joining us for a deep exploration of the importance and character of the gathered meeting, and the prospects for fostering more gathered meetings in our own meetings.

The downside is that we won’t be able to worship together in each other’s presence or share the fellowship that comes from living and exploring together at Pendle Hill. The upside, though, is that people can attend who might not otherwise be able to, from all over the world, really, and because of the reduced price.

I look forward to seeing some of you there.

Steve Davison

Virtual Worship IV – Zoom and the Gathered Meeting

May 29, 2020 § 8 Comments

In my last post, I revised my original evaluation of virtual worship. Before our meeting switched to Zoom for worship, I was skeptical. After that first meeting, I was thankful. Now I’m skeptical again. And for me, this comes down to whether a virtual meeting for worship can be gathered in the Spirit.

In my Pendle Hill Pamphlet The Gathered Meeting I identified five qualities that distinguish the gathered or covered meeting for worship: energy, presence, knowledge, unity, and joy.

Energy. The gathered meeting is thrilling; it fills my mind and even my body with an unmistakable sense of aliveness and focus. But “focus” is not really the right word, because there is no point of focus, but rather a whole-field sense of heightened awareness, of presence to the animating energy of consciousness.

To be honest, I’ve had these feelings when in deep meditation, so presumably I could have them in a virtual meeting for worship. There is a subtle difference, though, I think, between the deep contemplative state and the state I’m trying to describe in a gathered meeting for worship, which feels induced, not by my own individual practice, but by our corporate practice. That difference is pretty subtle. But can we feel that frisson, that shivering shared awareness, that passes through the body (the gathered body) when it’s covered by the Spirit if we are not sitting next to each other in the same space, but only present to each other as thumbnail images on a screen?

Knowledge. The gathered meeting brings a knowing, a feeling that one has touched, not some specific truth, but a more transcendent Truth. It’s as though some spiritual organ for gnosis, for spiritual understanding, has been super-charged, but without being given, necessarily, any object to be understood. We become a Subject Who Knows. And we also feel like a Someone Who Is Known. Like the sense of energy, this sense of knowing, and of knowing that we are known, transcends our ability to articulate it; it “passes all understanding”. But it is real.

Once again, I’ve experienced this state a few times on my own, in deep meditation, on LSD, and in a sweat lodge. What’s different in the gathered meeting is a collective knowing: I Know; I know that you Know; I know that you know that I Know; and I know that you know that I know that you Know. This psychic, collective, mutually reflective knowing is a signature characteristic of a gathered meeting; you look up after meeting is over and there are the other worshippers looking back at you with that look of—I Know! How would I know in this way in a virtual meeting?

Unity. This pentecost, this psychic manifestation of gathering in the Spirit, fuses the community in communion. This union, this unity, is most obvious in a gathered meeting for business, which, in my experience, often comes after hard struggle in disunity. But whether in a regular meeting for worship or a business meeting, the participants feel at one with each other in a way that transcends mere outward agreement. This unity is, in a sense, just another face of the gathered meeting’s sense of knowing. And like the collective knowing, it needs the collective. How can we share this sense of one-body-ness when our bodies and our consciousnesses are miles away from each other?

Presence. Presence, what Thomas Kelly calls the “dynamic, living, working Life”, is the hardest of all these qualities to share virtually with others. It’s not too hard to be present to each other socially on Zoom, but (for me, at least) it’s really hard to be psychically present to each other virtually. Virtually psychically present—that is an oxymoron. Meanwhile, being thus present to each other is somehow the very foundation of being present to the Presence in our Midst. On Zoom, we don’t really have a Midst for a Presence to be present in.

Joy. Joy is the easiest of these to feel in a Zoom meeting, I think. The joy I feel in seeing these faces, hearing your voices, is real and strong. But still—it is not the same as that overwhelming sense of gratitude that I’ve felt in a gathered meeting for worship, in which the unity, the joy, the knowing, the presence, and the Presence all shake my being in a way I’ve never experienced any other way. Oftentimes it has literally made me quake.

But can’t the gathering on Zoom still be worship?

The first-order question is, what is worship? What is meeting for worship for? For me, worship is the corporate practice of listening at the door for the knock of the Presence and that Voice and then opening (Revelation 3:20). We come together in worship in order to be gathered collectively into the Spirit of Love and Truth, into what Paul called the body of Christ. We come to realize what is perhaps the signature tenet of our faith, that not only can every human commune directly with the divine, but also the worshipping community can commune directly with the divine—as a community! And sometimes this happens in this extraordinary and beatific way we call the covered meeting.

So—for me—worship is all about the gathered meeting. And I just don’t think a virtual meeting can be a medium for a gathered meeting.

Now it’s true that gathered meetings are rare, and so a meeting for worship doesn’t have to be gathered to be a meeting for worship. Moreover, I suspect that many of our members and attenders have never experienced a gathered meeting; a certain number might not even know there is such a thing. And yet a meeting for worship is still a meeting for worship.

So I attend.

A note—a minute of exercise, if you will—that arose from writing this post. I found myself using terms to describe one aspect of the gathered meeting that, in my pamphlet, I had used to describe a different aspect of the gathered meeting. This, I think, is because the gathered meeting transcends description. That hasn’t kept me from trying to describe it. However, I found in writing this post that my various descriptions of its various aspects all verge on each other. These various aspects of the gathered meeting are, in essence, all faces of the same thing. In this transcendental state, all is one.

Virtual Worship III

May 29, 2020 § 3 Comments

Virtual worship—I take it back—again.

Looking forward to the first virtual meeting for worship hosted by my meeting, I wrote a blog post in which I said that I thought it would be worth doing but that it would really be a kind of group meditation, not a meeting for worship. I proposed calling it something like “Meeting for Virtual Community”.

Then, after that first Zoom worship, I took all that back. It was so great to see my Friends’ faces, hear each other’s voices. I felt such a strong sense of community.

But now I’ve attended a number of these meetings and I feel my original concern has been confirmed. These meetings are good, really good, in some ways. But I don’t think they really are worship, not in the deepest sense, anyway. In the sense that we are meeting at the same time to turn together toward the Spirit, we can call it worship. But in the sense that we are collectively turning toward the Spirit in our midst . . . about that I’m not so sure.

Or, to put it another way: I can’t imagine a virtual meeting for worship being gathered in the Spirit. Can you? How would you know it’s gathered? How would you “sense” the qualities that are such a blessing in a gathered meeting?

Thus—for me—if a virtual meeting cannot be a medium for a gathered meeting, it rather strains the meaning of meeting for worship. I want to dig deeper into this question in the next post by looking at the qualities of the gathered meeting. But here I want to explore the more mundane aspects of meeting virtually and how they impact the quality of worship.

The holy communion that we feel with God (however you would describe this Mystery Reality) and with each other in the gathered meeting seems to depend on the subtle perception of small signals working with a mysterious extra-sensory capacity for psychic connection.

Sound. Take the quality of the silence. It’s not really silent in the meeting room. People shuffle, a horn is heard outside, maybe birds in the summer. In the meeting room, we share this quiet ambient auditory environment. The vocal ministry carries through a room whose acoustics we all share.

By contrast, here in my study, I hear the annoying grinding of the timer we have on lights we have in the windows. I hear the horns and sirens of my neighborhood, and so on. You my fellow worshippers do not hear these things. Your vocal ministry comes through not quite in real time accompanied by the acoustics of the room you are in (though at least I can usually hear you). My local “silence” is my own, our shared “silence” is artificial and dead, until someone speaks. Then it is artificial and yet oddly immediate.

Sight. Then there’s the visual—on Zoom, a gallery of little faces that it is wonderful to see, but weirdly static. In our meeting’s meeting room, my vision becomes increasingly unfocused; the room itself dominates and most folks are far enough away not to see very well (Central Philadelphia Meeting is large and our room is large). I keep my eyes closed much of the time, but when I open them, I am still able to continue sinking into the Deep because it is relatively easy to “unfocus”.

On Zoom, I’m looking at a small screen—a short-range focus full of inviting images. I am tempted to look at face after face, and to zoom through the panels to see the other faces not displayed on the screen. This pulls me up and out, not down and deep. And each worshipper’s background is another inviting distraction. If I keep my eyes closed, I am in my study with my sounds and not with you.

Activity. Occasionally in the meeting room, someone gets up and leaves. And of course, there are always latecomers. (How I miss those latecomers now.) On screen, people move around, pop in and out. I pop in and out to answer my spouse or whatever. People eat and drink, which they would not do in the meeting room. We seem to feel free to mix our worship with other activities when sitting in our own homes and using an electronic device.

Smell. Who knows what role the shared but subtle odors of the meeting room play in our worship experience?

Auras. I have said before in my pamphlet on The Gathered Meeting and in this blog that I believe one of the mediums for the psychic dimension of the gathered meeting is the human aura and the entwining of auras in the meeting room. This is pure speculation. But presumably there is some medium that makes psychic experience possible, and whatever it is, I doubt that it works through the internet.

This gets to the heart of what we’re doing in worship—collective focus on the Mystery Reality behind our spiritual and religious experience—and its consummation in the gathered meeting. As I said above, I want to look at that in the next post.

Vocal ministry. But first a final word about vocal ministry. It seems to me that the vocal ministry in my meeting has gotten noticeably better since we’ve been meeting virtually. Fewer people speak. The messages seem more concise. And often they seem to come from a deeper place.

Why is this? Is it the gravity of the circumstances that are keeping us from each other? A heightened sense of our feelings for each other and the need to be of spiritual service? A paradoxical effect of the technology that makes our messages more immediate because we are speaking to faces rather than to a room, and we ourselves are so visible to our listeners? All of the above?

I would like to know whether my readers are having the same experience with the vocal ministry in their virtual meetings for worship.

Sidwell’s Quaker Values

May 11, 2020 § 3 Comments

Where there is hypocrisy, there is hope.  ~ Kenneth Boulding

Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, where the Clinton and Obama kids went, has received $5 million as a loan earmarked for small businesses under one of the recent COVID-19 recovery bills. (See this article in the Atlantic, which Martin Kelley passed on in his blog Quaker Ranter.) Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, normally one of the One-Percent’s staunchest allies, has suggested that Sidwell and other wealthy prep schools who received this money should return it. Sidwell has declined, citing its “Quaker values.”

Specifically, they invoked the wretched SPICES. Not simplicity, apparently, or equality, or integrity, or community, but stewardship. By this they seem to mean, not the recent Quaker “testimonial” sense of care for the earth, but the traditional ecclesiastical sense of faithfully taking care of the church’s resources, in general, and in specific, managing income through offerings. They kept the money because they are $64.4 million in debt, $11 million more than their $53.4 million endowment. They think they need the money.

We could look at this decision in the terms invoked by Sidwell’s own rationalization, by applying the SPICES to it as a set of outward guidelines for behavior. I started to do this for this post and realized what a distraction it would be. For one thing, it seems pretty obvious to me, anyway, that this decision violates all of them, except maybe peace, though it certainly has riled up many in their own community and in the wider Quaker community, myself included. The testimony of integrity suffers the most, except perhaps for stewardship itself, which the decision twists and then turns on its head.

But the real problem for me is the approach, not the application—looking to SPICES as a way to define Quaker values. I’ve railed against this before. Using SPICES this way objectifies the testimonies as outward forms, instead of turning toward the Light as the source of all decisions, from whence our “testimonies” come.

Quaker schools seem to love the SPICES. They make a nice short bullet list that you can put on a poster and hang on the wall in the hall. They are easy for kids to understand, and for teachers to teach. And they are, in fact, good principles to live by. Schools tend to put them all in a capsule called “Quaker values”. The Quaker schools in the Philadelphia area use this capsule all the time in their ads on the local NPR station, as do our retirement homes. I suppose coopting “Quaker values” as a marketing tool makes good “stewardship” sense. But do these schools also teach their students that they have a light in their consciences to which they can turn for guidance, healing, forgiveness, renewal, solace, inspiration, and creativity? 

The SPICES reinforce the decades-long trend in liberal Quakerism of defining Quakerism increasingly in terms of our “values” and our outward practices, rather than by the content of our tradition and our spirituality. Our “spirituality” is to look to the Light within us for guidance and to make our corporate decisions in a meeting for worship held under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, not by looking to a checklist of behavioral guidelines and then remolding them to fit our desires.

I suspect that Sidwell Friends School has some Quakers on its board, in its staff and faculty, and among its students. But does that mean that it makes important “stewardship” decisions in a Spirit-led meeting for worship? Would the Spirit of Love and Truth have encouraged them in such a gathered meeting for worship to overextend themselves in millions of dollars of debt, or to accept millions more that could have kept several small restaurants and day care centers afloat during this crisis?

Membership—Data, Observations, Conclusions, Part I: Data

April 23, 2020 § Leave a comment

Reflections on Alastair Heron’s book Caring, Conviction, Commitment.

In the 1990s, British Friend Alastair Heron wrote several little books on the subject of membership:

  • Caring, Conviction, Commitment: Dilemmas of Quaker Membership Today (1992), offering and analyzing the results of a survey of British meetings.
  • Now We Are Quakers: The experience and views of new members (1994).
  • On Being a Quaker: Membership – Past – Present – Future (2000); I believe this may have been based on a second, follow-up survey.

I recently reread Caring, Conviction, Commitment and was struck—as I was the first time I read it maybe fifteen years ago—by how relevant, even prophetic, it remains almost thirty years later. Since my own conviction in 1990 (which followed my joining a meeting in 1986 or 1987), I have carried a ministry focused on considering what Quaker membership means and how our meetings approach it. In the service of this ministry, I want to pass on some of Alastair’s data, observations, and conclusions. There’s a lot, so it will take a few posts.

Heron’s survey and remarks apply to Friends in Great Britain, but the correspondences are nevertheless still quite striking. My one caveat is that British Quaker culture, it seems to me, is ahead of liberal Friends in the US on the curve toward increasing individualism, liberalism, and secular humanism.

In the next posts, I want to make some observations about these trends.


Some trends revealed in the survey (1981–1990):

  • Membership rose from 1981 to 1990, though . . .
  • The rate of recruitment of new members declined by more than 25%.
  • The ratio of women to men in membership increased.
  • The ratio of attenders to members increased.
  • Attenders waited a long time to become members.
    • Two-thirds attended for more than three years.
    • The largest group attended from four to nine years.
    • Twenty percent attended for fifteen years or more.
  • Age: Almost half were older then fifty, though the largest cohort was 40–49 at 24%.
  • Path to Quakerism. Most members came to Quakers through
    • another Quaker or attender (36.8%) or
    • family (20.5%); together, relationships accounted then for about 60%.
    • reading 8.5%,
    • advertisement for 6.1%;
    • the meetinghouse 5.9%
    • peace activities 4.4%;
    • Quaker schools 2.8%,
    • other 15.0%.
  • Learning about Quakerism:
    • reading 27%;
    • spoken ministry 17%;
    • Quakers at home 15%;
    • discussion groups 12%;
    • discussion at meeting 12%;
    • Enquirers Day 9%;
    • other 8%.
  • What attenders want:
    • more regular learning 30%;
    • short courses 29%;
    • advice on reading 17%;
    • more information 12%;
    • other 12%.
  • What attracted attenders: (responses combined into categorical groups)
    • friendliness+tolerance 42.8%;
    • worship+silence+meditation 28.9%;
    • pacificsm+social concerns 15.5%;
    • forms+non-creedal 10.3%;
    • other 2.5%.
  • Why attenders don’t apply for membership:
    • commitment unnecessary 22.1%;
    • not good enough 15%;
    • problem with peace testimony 14.1%;
    • too much diversity 12.1%;
    • never asked 9.0%;
    • membership procedure 8.5%;
    • no encouragement 8.2%;
    • other 10.2%.

The “commitment unnecessary” answer accounted for 44% (males) and 53% (females) among younger respondents; this dropped to about 27% for males and 13% for females among older respondents.

Kenneth Boulding – Introduction

April 4, 2020 § 4 Comments

This is an introduction to a new series of posts that I plan to develop over the next few weeks as part of my book Quakers and Capitalism, for which I’ve returned to my research.

The book is a history of Quaker contributions to capitalist culture and, in particular, to the industrial revolution and industrial capitalism, and a history of Quaker fortunes, with commentary. The work so far covers the period from the 1650s through the Second World War. (Note that a shorter version appears as a chapter in Quakers, Politics, and Economics, Volume 5 of Friends Association for Higher Education’s series Quakers and the Disciplines, published in 2018, David R. Ross, editor.)

I envision the rest of the book including biographies of key Quaker contributors to the political economics of the twentieth century: Herbert Hoover, Kenneth Boulding, John Powelson, A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and George Lakey; and the emergence of Quaker organizations focused on political economics: the American Friends Service Committee, Right Sharing of World Resources, and the Quaker Institute for the Future. (I’m not sure whether I’ll discuss Friends Committee on National Legislation or the Quaker United Nations Office, as I’m not yet sure how much either of these organizations got into political economics.)

Kenneth E. Boulding

So right now I’m reading books by and about Kenneth Boulding (1910–1993). Many Friends know him best as a poet, the author of a book of sonnets. But he was an important figure in the field of economics. He coined the phrase “spaceship earth,” joining the fields of ecology and economics for the first time with a focus on the values inherent in an economic system, on assets and capital (the earth) rather than on income and flow (profit), and on the limits to growth inherent in the earth’s finite stock of resources.

He might have been at least as important, however, as a kind of whole-field theorist in the social sciences more broadly. He was a pioneer of interdisciplinary study in the academy and a major contributor to systems theory. He and a handful of mates created the field of peace research. But my main focus will be on his economic thought.

More to come.