Quaker-pocalypse: Causes of our decline—an overview?

January 30, 2015 § 12 Comments

Note: As soon as I published this post, I started thinking of causes of our decline that I had missed. And I suspect that my readers will be adding more in their comments. So I’m going to try updating this post with additions as they come along, adding some kind of notation that identifies new material, so that people who read the post early on can come back and watch the thing unfold. Click here to go to the beginning of these additions.

A couple of readers have encouraged me to give some kind of overview on this topic, some sense of where I’m going. When I started thinking about that, I realized how huge this undertaking is. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and I’ve thought about it a lot, so I have a lot to say. But my thoughts are not all that well organized. Every time I choose a place to begin, it starts branching out immediately, and folding back, and connecting to other threads of thought. And finally, I’m trying to be more disciplined about writing under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and the more I succeed the less predictable will be the outcome.

So I think a grand overview isn’t happening. But I can say this much about some of the causes I see for our decline:

Godlessness. In the end and at its root, ours is a spiritual crisis, or, in the vocabulary I have developed for myself, a religious crisis. I’ll explain how I see the difference in a later post. By this I mean that the core problem is that we are loosing touch with G*d. Of course, the very fact that I write G*d with an asterisk means that I’ll have to define God and look more deeply at our relationship with the divine, and that I myself struggle with my own relationship with G*d.

Structures and processes. But other forces are at work, as well. I think the structures for meeting life and what we now call Quaker process often divert us off of our walk with G*d into the ways of the world. We need to rethink some of our modern structures and processes and lay some of them down, and reform some others. And we need to recover some that we’ve lost and adapt them to our modern needs.

Membership and meeting identity. While the essential cause may be religious and the material causes may be structural, the efficient cause, to go a bit Aristotelian here, is our attitudes and practices around membership. Many of our problems walk in the door on two legs. And I don’t mean just problem people, but all of us. And I’m not proposing that we keep some people out, necessarily, but that we be much more intentional about membership. More importantly, as meetings we should redefine, not only what it means to be a member but also what it means to be a meeting. Membership is really about what kind of meeting do we want and most meetings are not even thinking about that question, let alone being clear and united about it. Our meetings need to rethink membership and their own identity.

Quaker culture. Every community has a collective psychology, a more visible personality, a less visible character, a set of habits and neuroses and programmed responses to stimuli, and tribal boundaries—who is us and who is them. These act as an unconscious filter that attracts some people and repels others, that encourages some people to come in and discourages others, and that seeks to maintain the status quo in the face of crisis or change. We need some kind of Jungian collective therapy. The recent energy around examining our own racist tendencies is a very encouraging sign that, at least on that front, we’ve decided to go on the couch.

Ignorance and ignore-ance. Too few of us know the Quaker way well enough to actually practice it with any confidence and many of us seem not to care or even to realize it’s happening. We need a sustained commitment to religious education.

Content and substance. As a result, we’ve let the incredibly rich content of Quaker tradition slip away. We do not know what to say to seekers. We can offer them a set of values and a distinctive process for worship and so on, but we can’t answer the basic questions that religious seekers bring to us, or guide them in their personal spiritual search and practice. We need a sustained commitment to religious education and spiritual formation.

Secularism and individualism. In his recent book, Open for Transformation: Being Quaker, Ben Pink Dandelion identified these two trends as primary drivers of our decline. I agree. These are dominant trends in the wider society and our boundaries are now so porous that these trends have leaked in—well, gushed in, really. We now define Quakerism as a faith in which you can be and do whatever you want and call yourself a Quaker. Reversing that trend will feel like a dangerous veer toward fundamentalism, and many Friends will resist it mightily as an apparent assault on their rights as Quakers. But Quakerism is not about rights. It’s about discipleship. If we mean what we say, that we seek to be led by the Holy Spirit in all that we do, as individuals and as communities, then that means perforce that we submit. This goes beyond just trying to let go of our personal agendas in meeting for business. It means a radical realignment of our individual and collective lives. This is the actual meaning of Islam, I know, and that raises fears. But it is the Quaker way. Or it was. I don’t know how we reclaim the meaning and value of community, some new balance between the community and the individual, without a hue and cry, some anger and some crying, but I think we need it.

[Added 1.30.15] Theological diversity. Friends love our diversity so much that it’s on the verge of becoming one of our idols, like the Silence. It’s proof that we don’t have a creed, which is one of our idols. And, yes, it is one of our great strengths. But I suspect that it also is one of our great weaknesses. How can we pursue unity in the Spirit when we cannot agree on what we’re about in a simple, coherent, and honest way?

I guess I’ll start unpacking some of these ideas in later posts.


§ 12 Responses to Quaker-pocalypse: Causes of our decline—an overview?

  • Jill H-W says:

    On most Sundays, the Syracuse Friends have a 30-miute pre-meeting discussion before Meeting for Worship . Today we used two of your Quaker-pocalype blog posts as the readings to fuel our conversation. I don’t want to try to put here where how discussion went or what was said, but I do want to give you a general question that was raised.

    A couple people felt that you’re not being specific enough and so where unsure how to respond to you writing. For example, when you talk about modern Quaker process, can you define what “modern Quaker process” looks like to you? We all don’t have the same view of Quakerism, nor do we all use the same words to describe what we see (e.g., the fact that “Gospel order” is often not defined, yet there are at least two ways of interpreting it).

    We all look forward to your continuing posts in this series! And I look forward to the conversations we’re having in my Meeting around whether or not Quakerism is in decline.

  • QuaCarol says:

    Some queries I’m sitting with as I read your series, Steve.

    What is the function of religion?

    Is the need for religion declining?

    Is Quakerism thriving in places like Bolivia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda because in these places, emerging from colonial domination, religion’s function is more needed?

    If the need for religion, as we have known it, is not declining, is something else that we don’t yet recognize as religion meeting the need more fully?

    • treegestalt says:

      “Religion as we have known it” does fall very far short.

      But if there’s anything else “meeting the need more fully” it must be doing so with no visible impact on people’s relation to God, each other, or the world we physically inhabit.

      You haven’t made it very clear what you consider ‘the need religion serves’ to be. If you mean, the human need to feel superior to everybody different from us — That need has been successfully met by a great variety of substitutes for religion. Likewise the need to imagine that one has it all under control. But I can’t think of any others.

      • QuaCarol says:

        I’m unsure what need religion serves. It’s a sociological/anthropological question and I don’t have the background to answer it.

        I know that my religion provides me—to use the most abstract terms—with comfort, a sense of meaning and purpose, a community, and a field of intellectual study (reading Quaker history, for example).

        Are there any cultures that don’t have religions?

  • treegestalt says:

    I think a lot of this comes down to ‘praying over.’ Not ‘Praying at’ or trying to lead group prayers — but putting some attention into praying for the group, and — as is only right — letting the group know what specifically you are praying for, so they can privately join in or vote agin it as they are moved or not. But at least so people know that 1) This is dissatisfaction and 2) It isn’t against them and that 3) God, rather than rational group decision-making, is the means I consider appropriate for addressing such dissatisfactions.

    That is, I have many times brought up ‘concerns’ and had the appropriate people and committees come up with reasonable secular means for rectifying the situation — but always found that these solutions missed the roots of the dissatisfaction and failed to make any real difference.

    So my message today was that I am praying for what my wife Anne [‘Meditations on the Prayer of St. Francis’] was explicitly hoping-for, before she ran off to join the local down-home Episcopalians. “I’d want us to be a group of people in love with God and each other.” Because I think that achieving that would lead to everything else, including our developing into people God would find far more use for.

    I know, ‘in love with’ can mean ‘holding unreasonable and unrealizable expectations of’ — but it also means an emotional state in which hope becomes suddenly possible and actual love can develop — a state that can even surface briefly-but-often when you realize that you do love ___ and find yourself profoundly grateful for even their flaws, uh, peculiarities…

  • Diane Bonner says:

    Dear Steven: George Fox tells us what to do, what is wrong, and how to fix it. Can we leave the world alone and turn inward to study Fox? I doubt it, but would love to be proven wrong. This is just one of many selections from his Journal and letters that I’ve studied over the years (decades now):

    be still a while
    from your own thoughts, searching, seeking,
    desires and imaginations,
    and be stayed in the principle of God in you
    to stay your mind upon God,
    up to God;
    and you will find strength from him
    and find him to be a present help
    in time of trouble,
    in need,
    and to be a God at hand. . . .

    And from your own will,
    that is,
    the earthly,
    you must be kept. . . .

    Let the time
    be sufficient
    that is past.

    So then
    this is the word of the Lord God unto you all;
    what the light does make manifest and discover,
    temptations, confusions, distractions, distempters;
    do not look
    at the temptations, confusions, corruptions,
    but at the light that discovers them,
    that makes them manifest;
    and with the same light
    you will feel over them,
    to receive power to stand against them. . . .
    For looking down at sin,
    and corruption,
    and distraction,
    you are swallowed up in it;
    but looking at the light
    that discovers them,
    you will see over them. . . .

    from Fox’s letter to a young woman on her deathbed,
    Journal, unedited version, pp. 346-48, 1658

  • Jane Touhey says:

    Thank you so much for your energy around these questions Steven – it helps to have somewhere to start with some substance. I am an attender for 2 years and find silent worship and meetings for business very spiritual and powerful. But our community is not energised. Many of the same questions are being pondered within our meeting – however it is only the beginning of our questioning.

  • I found it:

    Here’s the 1859 Rowntree text about the decline of Quakerism. It’s a lovely copy of the original “brittle book” held by the Harvard Divinity School. Delightful to look at for many reasons!


  • Bill’s comments above are spot on!

    I am also happy to hear his reference to a the British essay contest in the 19th C with prize for best essay on why the Society of Friends was declining (perhaps John Stephenson Rowntree’s essay was the winner, followed by an essay by an Anglican prelate).

    Can someone find this and provide a link or info? I will look for it, too.

    It can help us put our current “reality” in perspective.

    Thanks, Friends, and gratitude to Steven for the ongoing “deep dive.”
    In friendship,
    Chris Japely, 15th St MM, NYC

  • The ninth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (9:32-42) tells of Peter’s sojourn in the coastal cities of Lydda and Joppa, where he says to a man eight years bed-bound, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise up and make your bed.” And Aeneas rose immediately. And “all that dwelt at Lydda and Sharon saw him, and turned to the Lord.” Those who see and feel clear evidence of God working through human instruments *do* either turn to God or flee from the scene. So it was when George Fox preached, prophesied and healed. So it was at Lourdes and Azusa Street in times closer to our own. When God has saints of sufficient maturity available to work through, God *will* work, and people *will* see it and turn to God.

    If we whose only aspiration is to serve as God’s instruments aren’t mature enough yet, the best thing we can do it pray, “God, ripen us and make us fit for Your work.” When we do ripen and God does mighty works through us, it will bring new life either into the Religious Society of Friends or into some other structure more suitable for holding it.

    It’s quite appropriate that we look to the water-tightness of our parched irrigation channels during seasons of spiritual drought. But we need also to be prepared for a season of flooding, and to be asking the question, “Are my monthly, regional and yearly meetings ready to receive a massive outpouring of the Holy Spirit?”

  • Bill Rushby says:

    Hello, Steven! I think that you are on the right track. Don’t bite off too many facets at once. Instead, probe each one more deeply.

    Are you aware of the British essay contest in the 19th century, offering a prize for the best essay on why the Society of Friends was declining? I believe that John Stephenson Rowntree’s essay was the winner, followed by an essay by an Anglican prelate. It seem to me that your work is in the same vein, which I think could be very productive.

    There is an occasion, held every year, called the Anabaptist Identity Conference. It is sponsored by conservative Anabaptists, and provides a platform for various thinkers to explore aspects of Anabaptist identity. I think Friends need something similar, preferably held where the cost for attenders is within reach of ordinary people.

    Also helpful would be a bibliography of books and essay relevant to your topic.

    I think you have people’s attention; keep at it!!!

    • Thanks, Bill. I have read Rowntree’s Quakerism Past and Present, and it’s brilliant. Many of the problems he addressed in that essay not longer trouble us, some directly as a result of his essay. He submitted it in 1859 and by 1861, London Yearly Meeting had revised its book of discipline to reflect many of his suggestions. For Friends, that’s turning on a dime.

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