By Mary Linda McKinney
Based on a few comments about my previous post, I know that some of you think that spiritual diversity isn’t a problem for your community. You think that everyone in your meeting shares a similar theological understanding. You’re all Christian or you’re all Universalist and there’s no real tension so you don’t need to worry about it. Well, I’m here to tell you that you are likely wrong about that. (Or if you’re right, it may be because the folks with a different understanding felt unwelcome and left.) It is probable that in every single one of our Friends communities, there are individuals who have different beliefs, or serious doubts, or dead faith, or unexplored curiosity they haven’t been able to talk about because they don’t feel safe doing so.
When we Friends create a culture of conformity, what we are doing is making unspoken, unacknowledged expectations function similarly to statements of faith: everybody has to yield to the culture or risk being vulnerable to rejection.
This culture of conformity can be expressed in many different ways and people who want to be part of the community can feel welcomed or excluded based on many variables that each community may hold in higher or lower regard, but which influences the culture in some way: education, age, family size, caregiving responsibilities, health, income/wealth, racial identity, neuro-typicality, ethnicity, gender expression, physical ability, sexual orientation, mental health (and access to care), political identification…and I could probably add many things to this list if I continue to consider it. The cultural assumption that I think is most harmful, however, is when there is an expectation that everyone experiences Spirit the same.
I actually don’t think the majority of Friends in a community sharing a similar belief about the Divine is necessary to create a culture around it; all it takes is an influential minority. Often, these folks have been around for a while. They may hold necessary roles that carry weight in the community, like serving on Ministry and Worship or as Clerk and Recording Clerk. They are likely to not even be aware they are influencing the culture of the meeting. It may be that they are so comfortable with one another they never stop to consider that others around them feel excluded from their shared sense of belonging. I know because I’ve been both an outsider and an insider at various stages in my life as a Friend.
I’m sure that at points when I labored in committees to write a minute recording something, I would do so from the perspective of my understanding of Spirit in that moment. Whether I called it “the Holy Spirit”, “God”, “the Light”, or “the Divine”, I was working from my own experience and assuming that those around me more-or-less shared my understanding. It wasn’t until we got to monthly meeting, the time when we attend to the business of our entire community as a body, that a different perspective–a different expression of our collective relationship with God–was named. At times, this frustrated me. “Why can’t we all just go along to get along?! Why must that person be so contrary and rigid?” But now I see more clearly that the Holy Spirit doesn’t call us to conformity. I think that how we understand our collective relationship with the Divine is impacted by every single person in the community. When 99 of us are comfortable using the word “Christ” and one of us is not, it would be easy for the 99 to hold sway or for the one to not want to make waves. But denying the experience of the one does not hold integrity. It may feel frustrating and belaboring to make the time and space to explore language in order to find a word that expresses the experience of the entire body but the process is important and the unity that may be found is invaluable.
I think that what Spirit wants is for us to be able to openly share who we are in our relationships with the Divine, with the world, with ourselves, and with one another, and to live into our beautiful, holy diversity. The Faithful Meetings program brings opportunities for greater spiritual and emotional intimacy grounded in Quaker faith and practices to Friends communities. If you would like to learn more about Faithful Meetings, explore our website where you can find the link to register for an upcoming information session.
It feels really good to belong. To have a community where folks know, accept, include, respect, and even love us is powerful. For some of us it is healing, too. What is your experience of belonging in Friends communities?
If you would like, please share your responses to these questions in the forum.