June 2022 – The Quaker Divide Part II

By Mary Linda McKinney

This is the second installment in a three-part series by Mary Linda. The first part can be read here.

Some Friends believe that the Religious Society of Friends is and should be explicitly Christian. Other Friends feel that we should tip our hats to the Christian roots of the RSoF but feel that we have moved beyond them now. I’ve heard a few Friends say things like, “Sure, Quakerism grew out of Christianity because that was all that was available back then. Our understandings, however, have evolved and we are no longer limited to the Bible. People who want to practice a Christian faith have many other choices. They should step back so we can enjoy the universal understanding that is central to what George Fox meant.” And also, “We are the RELIGIOUS Society of Friends. People who don’t get that, don’t belong.”

Confession: I have, at moments in my time as a Friend, had similar notions…usually during a frustrating business meeting in which someone stood in the way of a minute that seemed an obvious “yes” to me or demanded that we change the wording of something that my committee had long labored over in order to better reflect their spiritual understanding. I won’t tell you which direction I leaned because over the course of my relationship with Friends, I’ve inclined this way and that. When I came to Friends, I was a refugee from my evangelical Midwest Baptist upbringing and felt very uncomfortable with anything churchy. I grew to recognize my relationship with God and over time fell in love with Jesus. I spent a while as a Christian Quaker, focusing my attention on his life and ministry. My spiritual sojourn of the past few years has taken me into a couple of liberal Christian churches where I was warmly accepted and spiritually nurtured but where I found that I could no longer call myself a Christian because the miraculous birth and resurrection stories do not feel true to me the way they are understood to be, even among the most progressive Christian communities. Now I find Spirit everywhere, infusing everything. I engage in spiritual practice most often with Friends and am currently most edified in a Hindu Sunday School class studying the Bhagavad Gita.

And so I think about the times when I had an impulse to require a condition for belonging to the Religious Society of Friends and I know that I would be excluding who I was or would become at some point on my faith journey. I had a lot of religious trauma when I first came to Friends. I needed to feel safe from fear and judgment-based theology. Nashville Friends Meeting welcomed me as I was. I am extremely grateful that my meeting was woven through with a culture of “listening in tongues” so that diverse beliefs and understandings, including non-theism, New Age, Taoism, animism, and traditional Christianity were all accepted. I heard many different words for how folks connect with Spirit and learned a lovely variety of ways that Friends in my meeting experience their faith through waiting worship, ritual, activism, prayer, listening and caring for others. Hearing the diverse expressions of faith from the folks I respected, admired, and grew to love helped me to heal my acute sensitivity to Christian language and invited me to be curious about words and concepts that seemed at first very “woo-woo” to me. And now here I am, talking about Jesus and “woo-wooing” at the same time!


A couple of years ago, I was perplexed by non-theist Friends. I’d read Nat Case’s excellent essay in Aeon “I Contradict Myself” many times since discovering it and found it compelling and useful but I was still stuck. Why do folks who don’t believe in a Higher Power (or “higher power”, if you prefer) want to be part of a religious community? So I read a lot of blogposts written by non-theist Friends and I had conversations with folks who don’t believe in a god but who are firmly grounded in Quaker community and practices. And what I’ve found is individuals with a great deal of integrity.

What I see is that non-theist Friends are unwilling to use words that are not true for them and decline to claim experiences or relationships they do not know. They refuse to be thieves in the Margaret Fell sense: “We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves”. They will not force the unknowable into a box nor will they allow themselves to be forced into one. And yet, they are drawn to be in community with Friends. I will not speculate about why any individual might want to be a Friend. All I can say is that I know a good number of non-theist or atheist Friends and in my experience and my personal understanding, they help our communities reflect the fullness of God’s creation.

I believe that each one of us is uniquely created in the image of God. Because of that, we each have our own unique relationship with the Divine that reflects who we were created to be. Perhaps non-theists are manifesting an aspect of the Divine Mystery that is beyond words and logic and so defies description but is nonetheless true. I don’t know. What I do know is that being in communities that welcome Christian Friends, non-theist Friends, and the huge variety of hyphenated Friends feels most right to me. It is hard work to make each of us feel safe to bring our full selves into our shared spaces but my experience tells me that it is worth the effort.


What about you? Do you have an experience of “listening in tongues”  or a story about diversity in Friends community that you would like to share?

If you would like, please share your responses to these questions in the forum.

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5 thoughts on “June 2022 – The Quaker Divide Part II”

  1. Pingback: July 2022 - The Quaker Divide Part III: Culture - School of the Spirit Ministry

  2. Laura J Seeger

    I too came to Friends after being wounded in a traditional Protestant church. And through Friends i have healed and been able to become comfortable with Christian language & thought in a new way. I am very greatful to the Religous Society for Friends for this & many other reasons.

  3. It is interesting to read both the original reflection and that of Philip Fitz. We do have different journeys and we need to respect each other. What is harder is to figure out whether the differences in faith understanding do or do not enable a community to be a real faith community that can genuinely be in unity with the faith understandings in it and what each other can and can not accept in the community. I think that has been an issue in many Friends meetings, and one which many of my Christian brothers and sisters in heterodox meetings have particularly felt. I know dozens of Christians who have left Quakerism because of their commitment to Christ.

    I went through a period of being a quite theologically liberal Friend comfortable with being in a community where we had significant differences in faith understanding. But then Jesus came increasingly calling to me. I had an experience somewhat like what George Fox had had, and Jesus Christ became the center, and I couldn’t in integrity not use the words that came to me which reflected that.

    I was struggling with this in a geographical area with no meetings that seemed to make Jesus Christ the clear center of their community when I felt called to the Spiritual Nurture Program. While the Program was designed as a clearly Christian Program (probably more then than now) and I felt a unity with the original core teachers, I didn’t find a lot of spiritual unity with most of the other participants and it was sometimes a lonely journey.

    I continued to struggle with my relationship to Friends in my area. I was part of groups in the yearly meeting and my monthly meeting that met as explicitly Christian groups. I was part of a couple of efforts to start an explicitly Christian Quaker or Quaker/Ecumenical congregation. I stopped going to monthly meeting in my home meeting because it didn’t seem to me that what they were doing as discernment was compatible with my understanding of Quaker discernment as finding the will of Christ. At times, I tried to push Christianity on Friends. I also attended a charismatic church for years and was influenced significantly by that experience. My ecumenicism had also been nurtured in the Spiritual Nurture Program where the majority of our readings were from the monastic tradition. It is possible that I wouldn’t have left Quakerism if I was in another part of the country, but it is what it is, and an ecumenical environment now is what resonates with me.

    Eventually I came to realize that I should let the Friends be who they were rather than try to change them. But I found that it was vital to me to be part of a faith community in which we were united in a faith in Jesus Christ as the center of our faith. In 2004, I gave up Quakers for Lent and attended an ecumenical Christian church. At the end of Lent, I resigned from Friends and joined that church. I later felt I needed to leave that fairly large church and find another smaller community. I did that. My current church is ecumenical and the faith journey of the larger community of which it is a part (what was originally one church became several congregations very much still connected) had a number of influences, including Douglas Steere and Elton Trueblood. My particular congregation (Dayspring Church of the Church of the Saviour) has found itself called to be nonpastoral and to use the Quaker discernment process.

    I welcome working with those with other faith understandings, both inside and outside of the Christian tradition. My church also is comfortable in drawing upon the experiences of other traditions while remaining unapologetically Christian ourselves. I also recognize that many have come to Christ while in a Quaker meeting originally just because it did not demand that they be Christian. I am just briefly recounting some of my own experience and where it has led me.

  4. Mary Linda’s journey reflects much that has been part of mine. I too came to Quakerism as a refugee from Christianity. After rejecting Christianity, I came to Quakerism because 1) I had a need for community because of my childhood Christian community, and 2) as a gay man I wanted to be part of an accepting community. I had no sense of God/Spirit/the Divine/whatever you want to call it.
    After “meeting-shopping” in the Philly area, I didn’t stay with the more accepting and open meetings. Rather I stayed in the small meeting where something powerful moved through the group in the silence of worship. I had no idea what that something was, but I wanted more that something. After multiple experiences of being slammed by that powerful something, I finally came to recognize it as something I would later come to call “God” – not at all the same “God” of my childhood, but something that I knew I wanted in my life.
    Like Mary LInda, over time I came to be able to understand many non-theist and atheist Friends as people of integrity. My experience with some of them deepened my own connections with what I call God. I am glad they have been part of my spiritual journey. With some of them, I could understand that we were experiencing the same thing, just using different language. But only some of them. Here are some of the problems I still have no clarity about a way forward.
    1) Worship
    During worship, some of us have learned to listen in tongues, as Mary Linda described it. At least in my experience, the most adamant non-theists and atheists did not. I received a number of tongue lashings from several non-theists and an atheist for using the word God in a message during worship. I found myself dreading feeling the call to stand a give a message. For a period of a few years, the tongue lashings were so severe that I attended only once every month or two. My meeting has changed, partly because of changes in membership, to the point where either people either listen in tongues, or at least, do not go after others for their messages. Will that tolerance continue? We shall see.
    2) What are we really do in our work together?
    Mary Linda writes that she finds many “firmly grounded … in Quaker process.” What actually is “Quaker process? especially during meeting for business and committee work. I find a big difference between sense of the meeting and consensus. I do agree that some non-theists and atheists are still doing what I call “listening for God’s will for the community”. But others do not; some are just thinking rationally and trying to reach consensus. I find it tougher going to describe what I think is Quaker process than to simply listen to a message in worship. Yes, I am able to figure out a way to slog through, but it sometimes really warps the process.
    3) How can we find words to make any corporate statement that includes all of us?
    Mary Linda wrote “What I see is that non-theist Friends are unwilling to use words that are not true for them and decline to claim experiences or relationships they do not know.”
    My meeting asked our Worship & Ministry committee to create a card to hand to first-time attenders at worship so they would have some idea what was happening during worship. The committee spent hours and hours coming up with a statement that carefully balanced words like God, Light, Spirit, Inner Christ, The Divine and as many different names for what we were attending to. When the wording came to meeting for business for approval, one atheist Friend would not accept using this statement unless all words that were not in line with his understanding were removed.
    It is one thing to use different words and different conceptualizations if we are in fact experiencing and doing the same things. And I am happy to talk with people who are in fact experiencing and doing completely different things. But it is indeed a hard slog trying to form a genuine community, and worship together, when we are doing very different things. It is not the words and or even the conceptualizations – it is the question of what are we doing deep down?

    1. deb bonario-martin

      Our small Quaker Outpost is neither programmed or unprogrammed- no clerk’s desk, few notes are taken and we only got our first computer during the pandemic. Whiteboards are kept around for ideas, along with binders to chronicle happenings and firsthand experiences. We operate as a neighbors helping neighbors enterprise and neighborhood CBO (community based org), professing devotion to the church of the “walk” not the talk. Congregants are encouraged to enjoy fellowship with their own GOD freely and to express themselves accordingly, mindful that protected spaces are necessary in order for others to enjoy doing the same.

      Perhaps what ails Quakerism today is what makes the film “Idiocracy” so entertaining- that over time and without care, human language underwent a conversion by which words were replaced by slogans, symbols and gestures. Is it possible we’ve spent so much time in silent worship everyone’s got a burning need to be heard all at once? We can choose to committee or consensus something to death, or breathe life into worship by understanding there’s no difference between an old white guy in the sky and the Aztec sun. Both represent a direct path to deep spiritual connection, but neither may exist beyond the external manifestation of our own understanding. 

      Sympathizing therefore with atheist and agnostic complaints over word choices like  “Creator”, “Providence” or the “Divine”, I’ve learned to better appreciate their plight by expressing confidence they can handle enlightenment beyond their own immediate comprehension and acquire discernment. Perhaps Christian Quakers are equally and overly sensitive to worship habits of nontheist Quakers as well? We are after all drawn into spirituality for different reasons, but common love for all things Quaker keeps us together in the light every time. Finding little in common with folks at the nearest Quaker meeting in one of Houston’s affluent areas, we started a Quaker outpost in our barrio.

      Everyone worships something so despite being a Christ follower, I described our services as “multi-theist” with a healing arts fellowship. People with negative past church experiences were the first invited guests, and at the first monthly meeting chairs filled with prospective seekers unable to resist the call. 6 years later our congregation of 32 endures- flourishing with Christians, Muslims, Krishna’s and NonTheists together- helping themselves by helping each other. Subscribing to “beauty in duty” (our motto), we share a professed commitment to practice and celebrate altruism with only one requirement- to “listen, learn and share”.

      Being an official Quaker now for slightly less than a decade I was raised by Anabaptist Grandparents and taught to church at home. We existed “in” the world but not of it, and being in favor with the Father required only 2 or more gathered in his name. Salvation was attainable for the mere asking, and being in favor meant being in the right place- not at the “right” time, but at the appointed hour. Important reminder for whenever best laid plans dissolved into dust or we needed reminding all folks were equal and there was nobody above or below.

      Here’s hoping for peace in the Quaker community! My 2 complaints about being a Quaker today- despite having a proven product we don’t sell and despite welcoming seekers, we don’t recruit. Most of all I relate to being a messenger and while conditioned to pray in silence, my joyfulness always seems to be bubbling up to the surface. Quakers are taught to reject pride, but I feel in this case an exception can be made about sharing our blessings and bliss. 

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