Accountability in Quaker Institutions

December 2, 2012 § 13 Comments

A recent issue of Friends Journal is dedicated to Friends and Money. In a searching article titled “When Quaker Process Fails,” John M. Coleman looks at why so many Friends institutions are declining financially and have failed to respond creatively or effectively to the current recession. Friend Coleman uses the recent financial debacle in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as a case for study in understanding these trends and failures, though, as he points out, the problems he identifies are widespread among Quaker institutions.

John Coleman also points out that we didn’t used to be this way. For centuries, Friends have been extremely competent at managing organizations and money. This only began to change in the early twentieth century. For the book that I’ve been writing on Quakers and Capitalism, I have looked at our relationship with money, taking the research up through the 1920 Conference of All-Friends in London, which is the point at which Friends began to move out of business and management. As a result, I have some ideas about why these changes took place, but they are tentative and not fully baked. Still, I’d like to suggest some possibilities.

Let me start by trying to clearly frame the question. John Coleman has done a great job of naming the problems:

  • disregard of elementary principles of accountability,
  • insensitivity to ethics,
  • weak-to-nonexistent strategic planning and goal-setting,
  • lack of realistic priorities,
  • poor personnel practices,
  • scant appreciation for expertise;
  • unworkable organizational structures,
  • lack of transparency,
  • a failure to measure, and
  • an unwillingness to look outside of Friends for models and ideas.

So that’s a broad sketch of the problems we face. Here’s the question: Why, after centuries of world-famous excellence in all these areas, have Friends become so inept? Why, especially, are we failing in areas like ethics and transparency, in which we pridefully maintain an apparently unwarranted self-esteem?

In later posts, I would like to look at a range of other causes for these failures, but what’s on my mind right now is the first one John Coleman names—the disregard for accountability. Many of the problems John Coleman names descend in part from this one.

In the late nineteenth century, Friends turned against the culture of eldership to which they had adhered since George Fox began “bringing gospel order” to meetings in the 1660s. Beginning in the mid-1800s, meetings began laying down the practice of recording elders. Soon after, we began laying down the practice of recording ministers. In doing so we abandoned the structures we had for holding each other accountable. We did this for some good reasons; they had become moribund, in some ways even toxically repressive, and change really was called for. But we threw out the baby with the bath water.

To replace recorded ministers and elders, we created committees for ministry and oversight or ministry and counsel and we staffed these committees with Friends named by nominating committees. By about the 1920s, I think, this process of abandoning recording and other aspects of our traditional culture of eldership was virtually complete, at least in the Liberal branch.

Gradually (maybe right away?), these committees suffered from uncertainty as to their scope of activity and their authority. In the decades since, these committees have come to consist of Friends who very often do have spiritual gifts in ministry and eldership that their nominating committees have recognized. But in my experience, they often now do not know the tradition well enough to understand, exercise, and transmit what is left of our shredded culture of eldership and I’m not sure they would try if they did know it. For one thing, they would likely face serious resistance from some in their meetings.

As a result, nowadays the roles and functions of eldering are haphazardly practiced by inexperienced Friends who do what they can at considerable personal risk. I speak primarily of dealing with problems and with problem people in our meetings and institutions, but even the more positive, nurturing role of elders is now left to chance, or to God, if you will. God does raise up elders among us, but our meetings are often quick to tear them down, or more likely, to let Friends who are allergic to discipline tear them down while we feel paralyzed to stop it.

Just as we turned away internally from the damage that a corrupt and ossified culture of eldership was doing to us, we increasingly embraced newcomers who were refugees from the religious cultures of their upbringing. Some of these people have been damaged by those communities. These Friends don’t just find that ‘eldership’ doesn’t work for them; they are scarred and often scared, and therefore hostile towards it. The treatment that has scarred these Friends almost always involved some kind of coercion. Thus, throughout the twentieth century our ranks have swelled with people who were not going to tolerate anything that looked like coercion in their new home among Friends. And because eldering or accountability of any kind looks suspiciously like coercion and therefore causes these Friends pain, their natural resistance to structures and processes of discipline reinforces the already-established trend of abandoning responsibility for eldership. As a result, we are systematically and systemically failing in our responsibility to protect our worship, our fellowship, and the corporate health of our meetings and institutions.

This includes failure to discipline those who do harm in the name of resisting discipline: we can not and do not hold these wounded Friends accountable for the damage that they themselves do. I know; I was one of those people. I caused a lot of trouble for a while in my meeting and the only person who ever really eldered me for it was the person I was harassing the most.

Part of the reason we have no accountability in our institutions is our practices of membership. I have discussed this in other posts. When we meet with prospective members, we often do not include agreements about mutual accountability in our discussions, especially regarding finances. We don’t think of membership as a covenant between member and meeting in which we exchange promises of mutual accountability for support and nurture. Thus we leave financial support of the meeting to chance, or rather, to individual choice surrounded by a culture of silence and avoidance. The result is that (if I am not mistaken) we are among the least generous of religious communities when it comes to members’ financial support.

I’m not sure what the solution is for this. This fear of coercion goes deep. This creedal commitment to radical individualism is now an established tenet of our faith. This wholesale abandonment of any culture of eldership is now a longstanding aspect of our practice. It will take a conscious choice and a sustained effort to reverse these trends in our culture. No realistic person looking at the problem from the outside would expect us to undertake such a far-reaching and difficult transformation.

But, as I’ve said in a recent post [], we have done it in the past. The problems we face today are nothing compared to the challenges Friends overcame in the 1660s and ‘70s when we first established gospel order as a way to reign in ranters among us and protect us from the depredations of official persecution with structures and discipline. And two hundred years later, British Friends turned on a metaphorical dine (farthing?) and reversed a catastrophic decline in membership.

In the 1660s, the solution was more discipline, corporate efforts to prevent another James Naylor affair and to create a structure that could endure despite the catastrophic loss of leadership in England’s gaols. In the 1860s, however, British Friends relaxed discipline, saving themselves from self-destruction and helping to put us on the slightly slippery slope that has got us where we are today. In the 1870s and ‘80s in America, many Friends found renewal in the great transition to programmed worship and ultimately, professional ministry. In the 1960s, Liberal Friends rode the currents of cultural revolution away from discipline again.

It’s time for the pendulum to swing again.

  1. We need to recover, study, evaluate, adopt, and adapt what’s left of our ancient culture of eldership and experiment with new forms of discipline that work for us. This calls for a Society-wide commitment to religious education.
  2. We can pray for spirit-led ministry: vocal ministry in our meetings that begins to open eyes and minds and hearts and doors; written ministry that teaches, preaches, and proposes; and ‘workshop’ ministry that engages Friends in hands-on experience with the faith and practice of eldership.
  3. And we need to rethink our approach to the membership process. We need to discuss eldership with prospective members, to ask them how far they are willing to engage with the meeting in mutual accountability; we need to establish whether they think of discipline as an essential aspect of religious life. This assumes, of course, that the meeting is itself willing to engage, that it believes that discipline is an essential aspect of religious life. Not many do, in my experience.
  4. So we need to have an open conversation in our meetings about just how “covenantal” we want our meeting to be.

Different Voices: Quaker Moral Frameworks in the Light of Gender Differences

July 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

This is another really long post (I’m really a long-form writer when it comes down to it), so like the last post, I’m providing a pdf file for those who would rather read it on a mobile device or print it out. This is an expansion of an essay I wrote in 1990 after New York Yearly Meeting summer sessions when I first read Carol Gilligan’s book In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Gilligan’s book was considered by many a landmark contribution at the time it was written in 1982.


The following article applies some of the ideas in Carol Gilligan’s book In A Different Voice to Christian moral debate in general and to Quaker process and community dynamics in particular. Subtitled “Psychological Theory and Women’s Development,” the book suggests that, because of our quite different experiences of moral socialization, women and men approach moral problems with different moral frameworks, assumptions and styles. I suggest that these differences account for certain aspects of the conflicts which bedevil contemporary Quakerism and that they might help us approach some of our internal moral conflicts with new understanding.

I read In A Different Voice soon after the 1990 sessions of New York Yearly Meeting. In those sessions, one of the meetings introduced a minute that called on the Yearly Meeting to condemn “goddess worship, witchcraft and paganism,” following a conference on women’s spirituality sponsored by Women’s Rights committee at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House, and several years of increased interest in goddess worship, Wicca, and other forms of women’s spirituality in the Yearly Meeting. The debate over this minute brought to the surface differences in the Yearly Meeting over both theology and morality, over what we believe and how we behave. As I read Gilligan’s book, I began to see these differences in a new light. Since then, I have often applied her ideas to other situations among Friends and I continue to find them helpful at times. I therefore offer the remarks below in the hope that they might help us both to understand each other better and to examine our own moral assumptions in the light of gender differences.

I will start with a brief description of the ideas that I have found helpful in Gilligan’s book. Then I’ll describe specific situations in which I see them applying. Finally, I’ll share some generalizations that have occurred to me while working all this out.

How women and men develop morally    

First, let’s mention that Gilligan’s work is at its heart a critique of the dominant theories of moral development in the social science of psychology at the time, which she claims only really looked at the ways that men develop morally and assumed a male moral framework for moral decision making as not just the norm but virtually the only way to approach morality. The studies Gilligan cites and the following analysis all presuppose that women are the primary caregivers of children. Also, as Gilligan’s critics have pointed out, the studies she cites have all been of white middle class Americans and mostly, baby boomers. However, this describes a large percentage of our own Quaker community, especially its leadership. Finally, because Gilligan focuses on play as the primary arena for moral socialization, and because childhood play has changed so dramatically in the last couple of decades, her findings apply much more clearly to those of us who have grown up with the clearly differentiated patterns of play typical of the baby boomer generation. Our children (and especially, grandchildren) are apparently growing up under a different system of moral socialization, one that is much more dominated by rules of play, play that has been organized for them rather than by them, and by the roles presented to them by the adult organizers of that play. You will see how this applies in a moment. The final test for Friends is, do these ideas speak to our condition and do they correspond to our experience? So: let’s see if they do.

In terms of general psychological development from childhood to adulthood, Gilligan focuses on the relationship with the mother, the primary caregiver. As they mature, boys are forced to separate in stages from their mothers in ways that girls are not. As fetuses and as infants, both girls and boys share physical and psychic intimacy with their mothers. But then the time comes when boys start wearing different clothes than their sisters and mothers, playing different games, accepting different roles. They can no longer follow mom into the ladies room, or be naked in the same room at all, etc. They are less likely to be babysitters or to learn the same jump-rope songs mom sang as a girl, and so on. Their previous intimate identification with their moms is actively discouraged in many ways. Therefore, boys become men through a process of separation, gradually attaining an autonomous identity through differentiation and the withdrawal of and from intimacy with their mother. The end product—to be a man—is to be one’s own self.

By contrast, argues Gilligan, girls develop through a process of transforming or maturing within—but retaining—more intimate relationships with their mothers. Girls do not need to separate from their mothers in the ways that boys do. They do not need to give up dependence on the caregiver for independence. They are allowed to transform dependence into interdependence, retaining relationship as the defining context for their womanhood.

What does this mean for adult women and men? The strength for women from this process is sensitivity and skill in relationship; the problem: establishing a sense of one’s own self independently of her defining relationships; the challenge, to learn autonomy. The strength for men is autonomy and self-definition; the problem, more difficulty in establishing intimate relationships; the challenge, to learn to reconnect.

Moral socialization

In terms of moral development, Gilligan focuses on self-organized child play as the arena in which we are morally socialized. It is in our play together that we, as children, work out between ourselves how we’re going to treat each other, especially when conflict arises. Crucial to her model is the fact that boys and girls play very differently. At least they used to—the description that follows is exactly how I grew up, but many middle class children today, especially boys, I suspect, experience far less unsupervised, self-organized play than was the norm when I was a kid and that Gilligan describes. There were no “soccer moms”—or dads—when I was a boy. We literally had a sandlot in which we organized our own baseball games. Little League was as organized as our play got most of the time. And we almost never played with girls.

According to Gilligan, girls tend to play in small, even intimate groups, in private spaces, in cooperative or role-playing games, like “house” or jump rope. There are hardly any rules, though there are conventions and roles. If conflict arises, it is usually dealt with by changing the rules (roles) or switching to another game. If the conflict continues, it sometimes infects the relationships involved, leading to the end of play together and, in extreme cases, to more or less lasting damage to the relationships themselves.

Morally, then, girls develop by internalizing the prior claim of relationship, the avoidance of conflict, and by learning how to reconstruct situations so that the participants can stay together. Behavior doesn’t change, rules (or roles) do. The process of maturing involves the integration of feelings and one’s sensitivity to the other into one’s choices, and a commitment to keeping the relationships going.

Boys, on the other hand, tend to play in larger groups, in public spaces, often in competitive team sports or activities (like “army”). Rules govern the play. Conflict breaks out very often, usually over differing claims about key events (I was safe on second—no you weren’t), alleged infractions of rules or perceived unfair adjudication of the rules. However, within a very short time on average, the boys are back at play. If necessary, an impasse is overcome by a “do over.” The conflict can get rather heated, even physical; yet the contenders are soon back together again in the game with little or no lasting personal fallouts.

In this model, then, boys develop morally by internalizing a sense of fair play, adherence to the rules, and just adjudication of the rules when infractions occur. The rules don’t change; behavior does. The process of maturing involves the gradual disassociation of personal feeling from the process of fair play, increasing sophistication in knowing and dealing with the rules, and a commitment to keeping the game going fairly.

As adults, when in conflict with each other, these different backgrounds often lead to miscommunication. To the women, men seem insensitive, even when they are trying their hardest. The women say, why do you care more about the rules than about the relationship? For their part, the men ask, why do you keep changing the rules, or changing the subject? To the men, women often seem unfair, or they’re “coming from left field.”

Where do these ideas intersect with our religious lives? In what ways does the process of Christian or Quaker moral practice resonate with these patterns of moral socialization? That is, do they apply to how we actually treat each other when the community faces a difficult moral challenge?

If the Judeo-Christian tradition were a male child of God

Suppose we play Carl Jung for a moment and apply this model to the Judeo-Christian tradition as though it were a male child and God were the parent (in this case of course, the father—the one who writes the rules). In Gilligan’s male moral paradigm, boys mature through separation, achieve autonomous self-hood in adulthood, internalize a sense of fairness in the presence of agreed-upon law and the consequences of breaking the rules. The challenge now is to learn to reconnect. Or, to speak in parable . . .

Adam (because of Eve, says the tradition: she seemed to care less about the rules), as a child of God, ‘matures’ by eating of the tree of knowledge of right and wrong, separating from the parent, and achieving autonomous self-hood using his free will. The tradition originally solved this problem of separateness in part by embodying relationship in covenant, by establishing law for the religious community, and defining the parent in terms of sovereign will, the ruler and lawgiver, and requiring of its community members the internalization of a sense of fairness and obedience under the law, with the threat of punishment for violation.

Centuries passed up to the time of Jesus and the tradition continued to mature, refining law in several stages to the pinnacle achieved under Pharisaic culture, and internalizing a sense of fair play through the correctives of the prophets and the teachings of the rabbis.

The challenge has always been how to reconnect—to God, and to each other. The Christian tradition presents Christ as the key to reconnection, as the one who reestablishes the potential for relationship, mutual interdependence, and even intimacy—with each other and with God. Law is deemphasized, simplified and spiritualized—and right action is redefined as love. Relationship becomes the key element in religious life, love the key law for relationship.

In Gilligan’s terms, Jesus introduced elements of the female model for morality into a hitherto male-dominated paradigm. One of the reasons for the discomfort Jesus evoked in his contemporaries, in this context, may have been that he seemed to be throwing out the rules when he was actually asserting the primacy of relationship.

I think that in “Quaker process,” this word becomes flesh, as it were. By guaranteeing everyone a voice, by agreeing that we all go forward together or we don’t go forward, and especially by doing our business—like making collective moral decisions—in radical alignment with God’s guiding presence among us and through us in worship—by listening for the word of God in each other’s hearts and minds and mouths—we marry rulership to relationship, rules to love, roles to ministry in that love.

And, of course, we abandon force as an option for enforcement. Here again, the life and teachings of Jesus build a bridge between the male moral paradigm of law, justice, and enforcement on the one hand, and the female experience of the primacy of the relationship, caring, and yielding, on the other. Jesus showed us that the law, the rules, are not abrogated but fulfilled when we enter into loving relationship, to God as parent, and to each other as sisters and brothers.

Of course, sometimes this God-aligned process breaks down into unfaithfulness. At such points, we are likely to regroup around our personal, gender-conditioned, socialized experiences of the past. We try to enforce the rules—or we throw out our agreements without due process.

So far we have only been talking theory. Let me now apply these ideas to some concrete situations.

New York Yearly Meeting 1990

As I said above, I read Gilligan’s book in the months after the very difficult New York Yearly Meeting sessions of 1990 and I thought of those events continuously as I moved through the book. A small but very concerned and vocal group of Friends were very disturbed by what they saw as an incursion of paganism into the Yearly Meeting in the form of goddess worship, Wiccan practices, and other forms of “women’s spirituality.” This was taking place at conferences, interest groups, and informal gatherings of Friends, often sponsored by the Women’s Rights committee, held at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House, and at Summer Sessions. Some of these gatherings were for women only; some were not. The concerns came to the surface when two conservative evangelical Friends attended a conference at Powell House at which several sessions convinced them that witchcraft was being practiced and that Satan was present and indeed welcome. They reported their experience to their pastor and their meeting brought a minute to Annual Sessions that summer asking the Yearly Meeting as a body to reject such activity.

I wasn’t present for every pertinent session of Yearly Meeting that year but I was there for most of them, including the one in which the minute was introduced. I observed at the time that the “dialog” quickly became quite gender defined. I know that there were women Friends who were concerned about the direction of the Yearly Meeting and basically supported the condemnatory spirit of the minute, but few of them spoke in the sessions I attended. I know that there were male Friends who were uncomfortable with the minute’s tone, the process used to present it, and even with it’s content, but the majority of speakers in the sessions I attended who resisted approval of the minute were women. Most Friends present, I think, were not as invested in the issues themselves as they were in finding a way to peace.

What I observed was this: the men saying, you are breaking the rules: goddess worship is no part of our tradition; and the women saying, we don’t care about those rules, they are your rules, not ours. The men saying you are changing the rules and you have no right to do that; and the women saying, it is our relationship with each other that matters, why do you care more about the rules than you do about us? Why are you willing to exclude us or even hurt us over theology?

The intense heat of those sessions, it seems to me, came from two moral frameworks realizing that each community completely failed to understand, let alone respect, the other’s moral make-up. Both communities became convinced that the moral fabric of the Yearly Meeting was disintegrating and they freaked out: the men speaking for the Christian tradition trying to keep the game going according to ancient agreed-upon rules; and the women speaking out of a long-established community of sisterhood, of mutual interdependence and nurture, trying to assert and protect their right to explore new roles in the context of relationship and safe, private space.

The worst part for most of us, I suppose, was that the heat got so intense it burned. People were hurt. We did emotional violence to each other. Many of us did. So now a word about violence, to which I have already alluded, though indirectly.

Rules and force

When you have rules, you have to enforce them. This requires force. The male model for morality, in so far as it is based on rules and a sense of fair play—that is, on justice—is inherently potentially violent: Justice—the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments in conformity to rules—often requires force, if not violence. That is, it requires the community to demand that members comply with the rules or face either discipline or exclusion. In the case of the state, which is defined by its monopoly on deadly force, enforcement sometimes involves violence. In the case of the Yearly Meeting, the proceedings often involved emotional violence.

Female morality, however, according to Gilligan, is predicated on the avoidance of conflict and violence, even at high cost, since maintaining the relationship is the priority. From this perspective, law is often arbitrary, especially in so far as it is written and enforced exclusively by men. And yet it can always be changed. (In fact, we revise Faith & Practice periodically.) So treating each other with care is seen by the female moralist as the higher call.

Enforcement—emotional or procedural—of the rules will usually evoke resistance. Force begets force. In the worst case, violence begets violence. (Is this why Jesus said “resist not evil”?) Once the cycle has begun, chickens and eggs hatch and peck and everybody’s crossing their usual lines of behavior.

My point is that, if I read Gilligan right, and if her analysis applies, then, in a male-dominant moral framework, the first stone is usually cast by those who are enforcing the rules, and they already are handling the rock when the rules are drafted.

Rules and relationship, faith and practice

I think I need to define rules at this point. For one thing, many “rules” of Quaker practice were broken during that Yearly Meeting, egregiously, and by just about everybody. These are not the rules to which I’m referring.

I think there is a correspondence between what I’m calling rules and the contents of our faith—our beliefs and practices. Put another way, the faith section of Faith and Practice is the section that lays out what we believe; the practice section lays out how we will behave in the world and how we relate to one another as we do our business. Together, they are the rules, literally, the “discipline,” by which we agree to worship and work together.

Put another way, the faith section is rules about what we believe, while the practice section is rules about how we believe. The faith section is about self-definition, while the practice section is about mutual interdependence. Both are sets of rules. But the practice section is a set of rules governing relationship; they are more in the character of conventions defining roles in our community life. In Gilligan’s terms, they are more akin to a female moral framework.

By contrast, the faith section defines the rules that comprise the “game” called Quakerism. In Gilligan’s terms, the faith section is more akin to a male moral framework. Especially in its considerable attention to Quaker testimonies (itself a legal term), it defines the rules by which, until the 20th century, the community guided its discipline of members. Friends were read out of their meetings for walking contrary to established tenets of faith, not for breach of procedure.

Let us return to concrete examples. The traditional definition of idolatry, of who we worship and do not worship, has been a basic rule of the tradition for at least 3000 years (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”). In New York Yearly Meeting in 1990, this rule seemed to be up for grabs. It is the underlying theological implications of abandoning these rules, especially without due process, that disturbed some Friends: where, then, will the boundaries be? they asked. How will we know who we are?

If we abandon the tenets of our faith—if, for example, we allow goddess worship in our midst or marry homosexuals—then, from the male/rule-of-law/faith-section point of view, we have abandoned morality itself. Without rules, there is no game. Without a consistent belief system, we have no religion. Nothing is sacred.

On the other hand is the violation of relationship: anger born of fear doing violence to others. A call to enforcement in the voice of force. Invasion of an intimate and often playful female space with the rules of the team. If you invade our private space (said the women), where we are exploring new roles in the intimacy of sister/collective-mother relationship, with your rules and their insinuated or actual violence, then where is your morality? Does relationship mean nothing to you? Is nothing sacred?

Hence the extreme anguish, experienced as the deepest, most genuine spiritual distress, with which both communities experienced the other’s apparent abject moral condition. A condition—so it seems—in which ancient agreements can be abrogated or changed without even a formal adjudicatory process; in which, in the name of rules, emotional and procedural force is a just means to an end.

Gender, morality, and the divisions in Indiana Yearly Meeting

If we apply Gilligan’s approach to the divisions in Indiana YM, we see Quaker communities choosing rules over relationships. Whether or not one thinks that conservative Friends who condemn homosexuality are interpreting the Bible correctly, they certainly are discerning and applying rules that they find there and they think the rules are more important than the relationships—more important than their relationships with gay members and attenders and more important than their relationships with West Richmond Meeting and its like-minded Friends. Or more important than their relationships with other humans, anyway, because one could argue that they are trying to preserve their relationship with God in their division.

However, they still are defining, or at least emphasizing, their relationship even with God in terms of rules. For these Friends, I suspect, the primary ‘emotional’ channel for the relationship with God is obedience. With Christ the Son of God, the primary emotion might be love, especially for those with deep personal convincement experiences. But even the commandment to love God is a commandment. To abrogate the Bible’s apparent injunctions against homosexual sex then is to throw out the rules, to willfully disobey God, and thus to violate the essential relationship. (The Bible does not condemn homosexuality per se because it has no concept of homosexuality per se. If it condemns anything, it only condemns homosexual sex.)

To abrogate the Bible’s apparent injunctions against homosexual sex then is to throw out the rules, to willfully disobey God, and thus to violate the essential relationship. (The Bible does not condemn homosexuality, per se, because it has no concept of homosexuality, per se. If it condemns anything, it only condemns homosexual sex.)

Now Friends have a process for changing the rules and we’ve done so for centuries. We’ve even changed the processes for discernment themselves over the centuries. But the essence has remained the same: When gathered in the Holy Spirit in worship, we sometimes receive new light. This is presumably what West Richmond Meeting has done. And presumably, this is what Indiana Yearly Meeting has also done. It’s a case of dueling discernments. As I said in my last post, the question really comes down to which process of discernment you consider to be legitimate—the one West Richmond used to arrive at its minute or the one Indiana Yearly Meeting used to decide to divide?

Josh Brown, pastor of West Richmond, wrote a fine little essay on discernment back in the early 1990s, I think, defining the tests we use in discernment of new leadings. He identified four: reason, scripture, tradition, and unity in the Spirit—the gathered meeting. I would add two more: the prophetic ministry that God is raising up among us, and the testimony of the lives of Friends who are already living under the discipline of the new leading. West Richmond’s minute fully welcoming all people regardless of their sexual orientation pretty clearly violates the test of tradition and at least it stretches to the limit the test of scripture.

The rules reside precisely here, in scripture and tradition. So for Friends who hold what Gilligan calls a male moral paradigm, the tests of scripture and tradition are decisive and homosexual sex is to be condemned.

The relationships, meanwhile, reside in the lives of real people. Look at gay couples and you see everything you see in straight relationships: love and faithfulness, troubles and mistakes. For Friends who hold what Gilligan calls a female moral framework, the lives and loves of gay couples testify to the presence of God in their lives and in their relationships. So the ‘sin’ here, for Liberal Friends, lies, not in the sex gays and lesbians have, but in the harm that is done to them in the name of the rules.

According to Quaker tradition, the third way, the way forward, lies in the Spirit of Christ. That is, in gathered worship and prophetic ministry. The arguments that liberals use to cut the teeth out of scriptural passages that seem to condemn gay sex are not more cunning or forced, really, than those that Margaret Fell used to reinterpret and get around Paul in support of women speaking in meeting. Nor are they any less prophetic than Fell’s ministry was—in theory. Ultimately, the only real test we can trust is the direct personal and corporate experience of God’s guiding hand.


We Quakers are in conflict over right and wrong, over the alignments and dynamics of the community, over moral priorities. But if Gilligan’s analysis is  helpful to us, perhaps the “other” with whom we seem to be in conflict is not immoral, as we have sometimes supposed, but rather speaking morality in a different voice.

In the light of Gilligan’s work, can we hear the other’s voice as valid, at least in part? What problems and challenges can we now identify in our own understanding of right and wrong? in our own moral upbringing? Are we willing to give up stridencies that we find, upon reflection, are partly the result of our gender-identified moral socialization?

What are the implications for our community of Jesus’ commandment to love God and each other as the essence of the law? And what are the implications for our community of a liberal atmosphere in which boundaries and self-definition (which are inherently exclusionary) are mistrusted or not even allowed?

Is there in fact, as I have suggested, some common ground in the Quaker tradition where these two approaches to morality and maturity become the same? I think so. I find that common ground in “Quaker process” as practice and in the faith that God is directly present to us for healing, guidance, and inspiration. When we make moral decisions as a corporate body under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and in accordance with our agreements about how this is to be done, we transcend our gender-conditioned differences. We call this “gospel order,” the ordering of the affairs of the community in the Light of God, and we call the transcendence the gathered meeting.

This Light comes to us through scripture and tradition, as a faith, a set of rules, a set of common experiences and agreements that define the boundaries of who we are. In actual practical terms, this Light is given also through us, through individuals as ministers of God in their healing acts and their vocal ministry in meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship; and through the gathered meeting itself, when it lays down all wars and all occasions for war and seeks true unity in God’s love. We seek this Light in the faith that, with God’s help, we can come into it. We seek this Light by practicing nonviolence, humility, simplicity, prayer, and worship together, and the discipline of discipleship, of faithfully following the Guide.

The heart of this faith is loving relationship—direct, unmediated relationship with God, both as individual Friends in our own spiritual lives, and as the gathered meeting in worship—and loving relationship with each other. The heart of this practice is loving obedience (a word to which most of us are at least mildly allergic): the willingness to commit ourselves, personally and corporately, to follow the guidance we receive from the Spirit.

In practical terms, this means holding faithfully to “Quaker process,” or, as I prefer, gospel order, and laboring with each other patiently in a spirit of willingness and respect, born of the convincement that the “other” whom we do not understand or trust joined a Friends meeting for reasons other than sabotage. When someone presents the rules, remember we need them. When someone abandons the rules, that is, the tenets of our faith, ask for a process of discernment—question the rules as well as the abandonment. When someone uses force or manipulates the rules, remind them that love is the basic rule. If changing the rules unnerves you, seek security and understanding through relationship with the changers.

For love is a law. This spiritual love is not some good feeling that results from fortuitous chemistry between people or that one romantically “falls into.” This love is what you are supposed to do precisely when you really don’t want to, with the people with whom the chemistry is not a simple gift but rather a real challenge, over the very things that strain the unity of the church. This love is not even a matter of the heart, at least not at first: it is a matter of will. And it is often up hill and into the wind.

I believe this means submersion in the spirit of Christ, who comes to us as the least of us—not through theological harangue, but through face-to-face encounter with the Redeemer in the other. I believe it means radical attunement to that of God in each of us—not lip service to a platitude or an impatient waiting in some howling silence for your chance to counterattack, but the genuine laying aside of all those things which weigh our arms down from a hug.

I believe we are also called by this understanding to a new kind of spiritual discernment. We need rules, boundaries, content, self-definition; we even need discipline. But when the presentation of rules turns to force, we violate the basic commandment and the basic relationships. We need to become better at discerning when we are approaching that threshold of violence, when we have crossed it, and what to do when we find ourselves on the other side. Hopefully, this analysis can be an aid to clerks in the conduct of meetings, to our committees for ministry and pastoral care in ministering to our wounds, and to all of us in the difficult work of making moral choices together.

Quakers & Capitalism: A Brief Recap

September 9, 2011 § 5 Comments

It’s been a while since I published an essay in the Quakers and Capitalism series, in which I’ve been digesting a book in progress, a sketchy and rather schematic history of the influence that Friends and capitalism have had on each other. Because of the piecemeal nature of blog posting, I have found myself losing track of my progress and of the arc of the whole; I imagine my readers may have, too. Also, I had fallen behind in creating pdf files of these postings. Thus, before I go on, I’ve decided to offer a brief (well, medium-sized) recap of the project so far.

I have also finished and reorganized the pdf files for each ‘chapter’ in the book. The summary below has links to the respective files and they are also listed as links on the page labeled Quakers & Capitalism—The Book, accessible from the navigation column to the left of the posts. Reading those pdf files in order will give you the main thread of the book. Note that there are several appendices. I’m not satisfied with their style and formatting—I think they’re ugly, in fact, though properly Quaker plain, I suppose—but I did not want to delay while I experiment with style.

I have divided this history of Quakers and capitalism into three main periods: the 1650s, 1700 to 1900, and the 20th century. These are separated by major periods of transition, periods lasting roughly a generation in which external forces collide with forces within Quakerism to transform both capitalist culture and Quaker culture in a symbiotic relationship. During these periods of transition, Quaker fortunes and their relationship with the world around them completely change. Here’s the sketchy outline, with links to their respective essays:

  • Introduction — Introducing John Bellers as perhaps the second most well-known Quaker in history, a man of extraordinary talent and intelligence who had a tremendous impact on Western culture, yet is almost completely unknown among his own Quaker community. Why? Introducing the idea of cultural amnesia regarding economics among Friends, the almost utter lack of meaningful economic testimony (until very recently, at least), notwithstanding our almost indispensable role in creating and developing the capitalist system, and the need for a ministry of teaching and prophetic examination of Quaker economic history.
  • Quakers & Capitalism — Introduction

    • The 1650s — Early Friends (who were mostly yeoman farmers and small trades people) assail the world order with revolutionary fervor in the Lamb’s War, challenging some aspects of economic life, notably in the practices of plain speech and refusing hat honor, but somewhat indirectly, as their focus was essentially religious and aimed primarily at the church. Friends absorb the leaders and members of both the Diggers and the Levellers, more radical egalitarian social movements, but do not absorb their ideas.

    Quakers & Capitalism — The 1650s

      • First major transition (1661 – 1695) — Externally, the persecutions, and internally, the establishment of gospel order, completely transform Quaker culture and Quaker economics. After the Restoration, the state tries to stamp the movement out and seizes vast amounts of Quaker treasure over roughly thirty years. Friends respond to these external pressures by reorganizing—or perhaps organizing would be a better description—instituting structures and processes for internal discipline. Notwithstanding the intense economic assault, however, Friends emerge from this period as a class of wealthy merchants poised to create not quite single-handedly the first truly new platform for creating wealth since the invention of agriculture: industrial capitalism. This extraordinary feat—not just thriving in the face of economic oppression, but ending up in a position to change the world, after all—was a cultural miracle.

    First Transition: Persecution and Gospel Order

    • 1700 – 1900: The Double-culture Period
      • The 18th century — During the 18th century and on into the 19th century, Quakers make many of the indispensable technological innovations upon which industrial capitalism depends, including coke smelting, cast steel, and the railroad. They build many of the key industries, establish many of the most important companies, build its financial infrastructure, develop new modes of organization, and pioneer humane treatment of workers. At the same time that they are engaging the world of business, industry and commerce with incredible energy and invention, they are withdrawing from engagement with the world in virtually every other area of life. Friends maintain this double culture for two hundred years. In England, they become fabulously wealthy; in America, they do pretty well.
      • John Bellers and Quaker responses to Industrial capitalism — Already by 1700, the new industrial economy was creating a new class of the poor: industrial workers, people who had left the land or their village to work in the new urban factories. One extraordinary Friend, John Bellers, saw the problem and proposed a solution: Colledges of Industry. In several pamphlets over 25 years, he brought his ideas to Friends and to Parliament. Both declined to act on them. He made many other significant contributions to Western civilization, as well, only to be virtually forgotten by his own people for two hundred years.

    Quakers & Capitalism — The Double-culture Period

    Quakers & Capitalism — Quaker Contributions to Industrial Capitalism

      • Minor transition (1800 – 1828) — Two new ideologies, or domains of western thought, are born as fraternal twins around 1800— evangelical theology and the new ‘science’ of political economy. Thomas Malthus, in particular, was both an evangelical minister and one of the first progenitors of political economy; in his work, the two are fused into one approach to wealth and poverty. Evangelical political economy dominates economic policy in competition with classical economics; Malthus, the evangelical minister, and David Ricardo the investor, (and married to a Quaker, though a Jew converted to Unitarianism himself), embody this rivalry in the early 1800s, though they are personal friends. Joseph John Gurney and Thomas Chalmers make the most influential connection between evangelical Friends and evangelical political economy; these hugely influential figures also are friends.
      • The 19th century — Quakers fragment under the influence of evangelicalism and some evangelical Friends partially reengage with economic/social issues, notably becoming leaders in the philanthropical movement that is the signature response to capitalism’s collateral damage in the Victorian period.

    Quakers & Capitalism — Evangelicalism and Political Economy

      • Major transition (1895 – 1920) — A number of external forces combine with new trends in Quakerism to end the double-culture period and usher in the spirit of liberal engagement with the world that characterizes much of Quaker culture in the 20th century. Quakers had cut a deal with the powers that be: leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone. Now the deal was off.

    Second major transition: The Corporation, the Great War, Liberalism and the Social Order

    This last transition period is a complex one and deserves a little more treatment. For one thing, the fragmentation of Quaker culture in the 1800s means that the forces unleashed at the turn of the century affect different communities differently. You can’t really tell just one story, as I have been trying to do so far. And these forces are so many and so complex that it’s hard to treat them properly in a format like a blog. But here goes:

        • The rise of corporate capitalism — The laws governing the limited liability corporation are finally settled definitively in the 1890s in both America and Britain and the modern corporation is born—a business owned by shareholders rather than private families and so big as to require management. Over time, this innovation deconstructs the great Quaker fortunes in Great Britain.
        • The emergence of the social sciences, including the science of economics — New kinds of thinking are brought to bear on social problems. The Quaker Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree of the Rowntree chocolate dynasty plays a central role in proving scientifically that the poor are not poor because of poor character but because of structural inequities in capitalism itself. In England, the rise of New Liberalism gives birth to a new political party and inaugurates the welfare state, in which, for the first time, government tries to protect the citizenry from capitalism’s downside.
        • Classical economics takes the field — Classical economic theory eclipses evangelical political economy, which was already in decline. However, the spirit of evangelical political economy—the blame for poverty on character (sin), the reliance on private and faith-based solutions for social ills, and the dread of government intervention—lies dormant.
        • The rise of liberalism — The Richmond Conference in America in 1887 and the Manchester Conference in England in 1895 mark the beginning of ‘liberal’ Quakerism, in which ‘liberal’ ideas, especially the scientific study of the Bible, transform and galvanize British Friends and the Hicksite branch of American Quakerism. FGC and FUM (then Five Years Meeting) are born. Rufus Jones introduces a new historiography of Quakerism in which the faith is recast as “mystical” and Fox’s phrase “that of God in everyone” is understood anew as a kind of neo-Platonic divine spark; it becomes over time the central tenet of liberal Quakerism.
        • The Great War — For the first time in two hundred years, Friends are persecuted for their convictions of conscience. This helps to decisively pull Quakers, especially young adult Friends, back into engagement with the world. AFSC is born.
        • The rise of ‘social concerns’ — London Yearly Meeting explores the relationship between war and the social order and, in 1918, approves the Foundations of a True Social Order, a decisive departure from the hands-off attitude toward the social order maintained during the double-culture period and a fairly radical indictment of capitalism as one of the factors leading to the Great War. The document and the debate are carried forward into the first Friends World Conference in 1920 in London. Quaker culture enters the modern era.

    I’ve not yet written one of these transition essays, on the rise of liberalism. I have a lot of new notes from recent research that I need to digest first. And I’ve only just begun to research the economic history of Friends during the twentieth century. In a subsequent entry, I do want to outline the subjects and the people who I think figure prominently in 20th century Quakerism, and I invite any readers who know any of these subjects or people in some depth to contribute. It’s going to take me a while, a long while, to finish this project alone. I welcome collaboration.

Yearly meetings, monthly meetings and gospel order

July 31, 2011 § 4 Comments

In a recent post on Earlham School of Religion’s blog, Valerie Hurwitz, Director of Recruitment and Admissions, invited thoughts about ways forward for Indiana Yearly Meeting in its recent struggle with the course of its eldership of West Richmond Meeting, which had approved a welcoming and affirming minute dedicating the meeting to apply the same standards to all persons regardless of “race, religious affiliation, age, socio-economic status, nationality, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation or mental/physical ability.” Sexual orientation was the sticking point, for it runs counter to the yearly meeting’s minutes condemning homosexuality as a sin.

Bill Samuels commented on that post that “the key question may be, What is God’s purpose for Indiana YM?” I commented, as well, agreeing in part to Bill’s comment that, behind hot-point questions like homosexuality lie meta-questions like the ‘purpose’ of the yearly meeting. Another of these ‘meta-questions’ that lie behind this particular controversy is how you define and practice your culture of eldership. I wrote in my comment about how the yearly meeting might approach its role as elder of the monthly meeting in gospel order.

It turned out that Earlham’s comment text box has a character limit that prevented me from posting my entire comment. So I am posting a revised version of my original full post here because I think the problem of corporate discipline in gospel order deserves more searching attention than we often give it. By ‘corporate discipline’ I mean how yearly meetings discipline monthly meetings in gospel order.


How does a yearly meeting exercise eldership over a monthly meeting?

Eldership has two sides, that of nurture and that of discipline. In its role as elder, any meeting has a responsibility to nurture its members and their gifts and a responsibility to protect the meeting’s worship and fellowship from behavior that threatens either one. For the monthly meeting, this is difficult because you are face to face with each other, week in and week out, and it’s personal, even intimate. You really have to know your members to nurture their ministry and spiritual life. And discipline is difficult because real people can be hurt. We’re talking about real relationships between people. Difficult as it may be, though, it’s still rather direct and, in a way, straightforward in a monthly meeting. It is immediately obvious when the worship or the fellowship is suffering, and how, though our culture of deference and silence sometimes confuse things.

Things are more abstract for the yearly meeting. The members are meetings, not individuals. Nurturing their spiritual life is of a different order than nurturing individuals, requiring different tools and gifts. The yearly meeting’s ‘worship’ is perforce limited to the body’s worship when in session, or it’s viewed in the abstract. The yearly meeting’s ‘fellowship’, beyond the fellowship of Friends in session, is a fellowship of meetings, which we also must treat in the abstract. Given the abstract nature of corporate worship and fellowship in the context of the yearly meeting, how do you perceive threat to either one in the actions of a monthly meeting? And how do you practice discipline?

Suppose we use the monthly meeting’s eldership of individuals as an analogy. Then, a monthly meeting’s decision is somewhat analogous to an individual’s vocal ministry in meeting for worship.

A monthly meeting’s behavior, when minuted, as West Richmond Friends’ decision has been, represents ‘vocal ministry’ within the larger body. Presumably, that decision has been tested corporately in the light of Christ’s spirit (that’s what their minute says), much as, in theory, an individual’s prophetic vocal ministry in meeting for worship is assumed to have been prompted by the Holy Spirit. We would, on this analogy, start by assuming that West Richmond’s ministry is Spirit-led. If we perceive a threat in this behavior to either the yearly meeting’s worship or its fellowship (I think we’re talking about worship here), we are really questioning whether the decision is Spirit-led. We are then called to exercise a corporate gift of the spirit—the gift of discerning spirits—to determine whether the meeting’s prophetic ministry is of God, or (I suppose) of Satan.

How does the yearly meeting exercise the gift of discerning spirits in such a case? Do you interview those who were present at the meeting when the minute was discussed and approved, to try to determine whether the meeting really was gathered in the Spirit? Do you simply assume that a meeting that reaches a decision contrary to the testimony given the yearly meeting in the past (in this case, minutes condemning homosexuality) must of necessity have been out of the Spirit? Do you assume that the yearly meeting’s past testimonies do not need testing anew? If you acknowledge that a monthly meeting’s decision might be prophetic witness, how do you test that witness in discernment?

Josh Brown once wrote a great little essay defining the things Friends use to test a new leading. If I remember correctly, there were four: Scripture, tradition, common sense or reason, and the discernment of the body gathered in the Spirit. I would add a fifth: the testimony of experience, the testimony of the lives of those Friends (or meetings) who are already living in the light of the new testimony: what are their fruits?

For many Friends, of course, their interpretation of biblical testimony stands as the ultimate touchstone for discernment, so that ministry contrary to that interpretation can reliably be deemed out of the Life and contrary to Truth without further ado. (I say ‘interpretation’ because that is, of course, all we are ever working with, even when we interpret Scripture in the spirit in which it was given forth. Friends have, of course, famously reinterpreted Scripture in some cases contrary to the wider Christian tradition, laying down the outward forms of baptism and the Eucharist, inviting women to participate fully in the meeting’s ministry, and abandoning Scripture’s apparent sanction of slavery.)

Finally, our tradition once was to use Matthew 18:15-20 as a guide for bringing gospel order to individuals thought to be walking disorderly. Does this simple but elegant 3-step model still work for us, and, if so, can it not be applied corporately to the discipline of a meeting? This would at least provide a framework for action that might help prevent some hurt and disorder in the course of the discipline. (It’s worth reminding ourselves that, in Matthew’s presentation, once a decision for expulsion had been made, the expelled party was to be “as tax collectors and sinners” to the saints—that is, they are the people on whom your own evangelism focuses most intensely, just as Jesus focused on tax collectors and sinners with special attention himself. They are not pariahs to be cut off and shunned, but lost sheep to be wooed back into the fold. If they then reject your gospel, perhaps you would then leave town, shaking their dust off your feet.)

So meta-tasks involved in a process of corporate discerning of spirits regarding a monthly meeting’s prophetic ministry seem to me to be:

  1. Try to determine, if possible, whether the meeting was in the Life when it made its decision, taking seriously it’s own claim to that effect.
  2. Clarify whether testimony given the yearly meeting in the past should ever be tested anew.
  3. Clarify what touchstones you would use to test a new leading that seems contrary to previous testimony, and clarify their relative importance.
  4. Once you are clear about these questions, test the testimony of the meeting as potential prophetic witness. That is, exercise the gift of discerning spirits regarding the decision, rather than putting the meeting’s defiance of the yearly meeting on trial.
  5. Once your discerning has named the spirit behind the meeting’s decision, apply (if necessary) gospel order according to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 18.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with gospel order at Through the Flaming Sword.