July 2022 – The Quaker Divide Part III: Culture

By Mary Linda McKinney

The Quaker Divide Part I here and Part II here.

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.

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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.

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5 thoughts on “July 2022 – The Quaker Divide Part III: Culture”

  1. Laura J Seeger, Chattanooga Friends Meeting she/her

    Mary Linda thank you for always giving me something to consider when i read your posts. I can relate to all of what you said. And need to remember to ask the Holy Spirit to open me in Meeting for Worship – and MFW with attention to Business to keep my heart & mind open to others experience of the Divine Light. Thank you!

  2. I wasn’t clear about your conclusion when you were talking about writing a minute for a committee. Finding a word to use in the written minute for Spirit, God, etc. that everyone is comfortable with seems right. Individual Friends editing their own spoken messages so that they only use words everyone is comfortable with puts them in their head and drains the message of its power. It has become Their message, not a message that has come through them. I doubt that this was implied in your article, but I’m uncertain.

    1. Thank you so much for asking me to clarify, Elise! What I meant was that I would sometimes, as clerk of a committee, write a minute using words that were comfortable and familiar for me and the folks on the committee with me and then we’d get in business meeting where others would say that a particular word did not reflect their condition or experience. They were asking to find a more inclusive word and I sometimes would feel frustrated by this. I think these individuals (mostly) were speaking from a place of integrity and my attachment to the words I used was my own ego stuff. Does that make it more clear?
      Mary Linda

  3. My experience with RSoF for whatever reason many Quakers lack interpersonal skills and have no sense of mission. It’s not unique to the Quakers. I believe that every church has a subset of folks who lack and struggle with interpersonal skills and a sense of mission. The problem is when this particular subset is the dominant narrative and the personality of the group by its sheer numbers. As is the case with many small Quaker Meetings. I believe until a group reaches critical mass (and I don’t know how many people that is) diversity of folks (class and race in particular )it can be very, very hard for the community to get or stay healthy. The smaller the group, the more likely it is to fall into accommodation, bad habits of one sort or another, inertia, or some other thing that inhibits growth into mature faith. The Meetings rest on their laurels, and are almost living museums.

  4. The question for me is what holds the meeting together? If it is not a common faith understanding, it will be something else. Liberal heterodox meetings tend not to have any explicit statement of their basis for unity, or one that is so vague as to be close to meaningless. But many of these meetings have come to be known for their socioeconomic and cultural basis of unity, which is in every case I know about is not explicit. It just happens organically when there is not a common faith basis. But I have known people who didn’t fit it who were unable to feel at home in the meeting. Is that a good basis of unity for a faith community? I know that many meetings are trying to address it in terms of ethnic inclusiveness, but not generally more broadly, it think. (I have been outside of Friends for 18 years now, so I need to be tentative on this.)

    Where the basis of unity is commonality in faith understanding, it is much easier to be socioeconomically diverse. I twice attended yearly meeting sessions of Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region. It was clear that it was much more diverse economically and occupationally than I was used to in liberal Friends. At that time long ago, there was some new program to address the economic needs of the poor (I forget what it was). Back in liberal Friends, they were addressing it by talking about how to let those outside of their meetings know about it and take advantage of it. In Eastern Region, they were primarily addressing it as something that could help meet the needs of many of those inside their churches. A few decades ago, I attended a number of different yearly meetings. The ones that were explicitly Christian (EFM or FUM) all seemed to be more socioeconomically diverse than the liberal yearly meetings.

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