Carrying the Light of Quakerism into the Future:
Remarks on the Occasion of the 325th Anniversary of Third Haven Meeting
Arthur M. Larrabee October 4, 2009
Thank you for your invitation to help celebrate Third Haven's 325th anniversary. It has been just two years since my last visit to Third Haven and I am delighted to be back, if only for a few hours.
I confess that I have been feeling a little daunted by the flyer I saw announcing this event. As you know, its headline reads: "Two acclaimed speakers will highlight celebration of Third Haven's 325th anniversary." I'm honored by the copywriter's gracious hyperbole, and James Turrell may well deserve this accolade, but I would like to speak today, not as an acclaimed speaker, but as a member of the family. I have in mind the family of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Friends, a vital and growing community of faith and witness of which Third Haven Meeting is an integral part.
The topic I've been asked to address is "Carrying the Light of Quakerism into the Future."
I take note that my topic is not "The Future of Quakerism." Such a topic might have invited me to speculate about a future time and place. Rather, I see my topic as more action oriented. The verb "carrying" is in the title. I want to focus more on how we might get there, the means, rather than on what it will look like when we arrive. Of course, as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, the means are the ends in the making.
I'd like to structure my talk in four parts:
- First, I'd like to say something more about my observation that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is vital and growing.
- Second, I'd like to talk about what I have in mind when I use the words, the "Light of Quakerism."
- Third, I'd like share some perceptions about Quakerism in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting today.
- And fourth, I'd like to share what I think are some of the things we need to do to carry the Light of Quakerism into the future.
Part one of my talk reflects on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as a vital and growing faith community.
Almost two years ago, I had an epiphany just before I was to speak at Interim Meeting.
Earlier that year I had been invited to take up the work of General Secretary and I had begun hearing individual stories of vitality and growth within the Yearly Meeting. Often these stories centered on unexpected increases in membership, or the renovation or building of meetinghouses or additions using green technology, or some new and compelling form of witness.
My epiphany was three fold:
- First, there were more stories of vitality and growth than any one person seemed to know.
- Second, these stories needed to be told in some public forum; it was not good enough for the General Secretary to be the only one who had the good news.
- Third, these stories were a perfect antidote to other stories of decline in the Society of Friends. To this day, I cringe inside when I hear Friends rehearse, over and over, stories of our declining numbers and smaller meetings because there are other stories of vitality and growth and these are not being told as readily.
The words we use today, the stories we tell ourselves and each other, are the words and stories that will shape tomorrow's experience.
I want to tell a story that some here have heard me tell before. I will tell it in an abbreviated form. It is the story of a monastery in decline, its abbot and a rabbi.
Once there had been 200 monks living and studying at the monastery, but now there were only five and prospects for the future were bleak. Conversation usually focused on stories of the monastery's glory days and its slow and seemingly irreversible decline. The tone within the community was predictably edgy and gloomy.
One afternoon the abbot had tea with his friend the rabbi in the nearby village, and the two commiserated about the declining numbers in their respective communities. When it came time to leave, the rabbi said, "I'm sorry, there's nothing I know to suggest that will help to turn your situation around. But one last thing...I can tell you that one of you is the Christ. The abbot was puzzled, but said nothing and returned to the monastery.
When the abbot told his five monks the story of what had happened, no one could make sense of what the rabbi had said at the end, but over the next days and weeks, each of the six began to secretly wonder whether there might be some truth in the rabbi's words. As they wondered to themselves whether one of their brothers might just be the Christ, their attitudes and behavior toward each other began to change...... just in case the rabbi was right. They found themselves treating each other with deference and respect, with love and with joy.
In the summer, families would visit the monastery for picnics and outdoor activities and when they did so they could not help but notice a change in the tone and energy of the community. What before had been negative and off-putting, now seemed positive and inviting. People wanted to come. Something was different.
One day a young man, a member of one of the families who had come to picnic in the summer, decided he wanted to become a member of the community. And so did others. Before long, the monks found their numbers growing.
What's magical about that story? It is the message that where we focus our attention matters, and when it is focused on uplifting possibilities we will create uplifting realities.
Some may mutter, "Arthur, aren't you being a bit Pollyannaish?"
My answer is that it depends on how you look it.
If you focus only on the numbers you won't yet see overall growth in the Yearly Meeting. But I'm not focused on the numbers right now. I'm focused on the stories of vitality, and pockets of growth. It is because there continue to be new and recurring stories of vitality and growth that I feel supported in saying that we are vital and growing.
I would also like to say a word or two about numbers.
We often talk about our declining numbers, but it is a fact that there has been no decline in the adult membership of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for the last twelve years. We had the same adult membership at the end of calendar year 2008 as we did at the end of 1996. (I'm using 2008 numbers because the numbers for calendar year 2009 are not yet available). In relation to the stories of a declining membership, that's not bad. I wish the numbers had increased, and I believe they will. But they have not declined and this is the good news for now.
One more number. We often think of our membership as older and aging. I've heard people speculate that our median age must be in the 60's somewhere.
Well, Friends, it's not. Our median age right now is 49. It's higher than the U.S. population as whole, which is 38, but it's not in the 60's.
I'd like, now, to move into the second part of my talk: What do I have in mind when I use the words, the "Light of Quakerism?"
At Philadelphia Yearly Meeting several years ago our speaker, a woman by the name of Joey Rodger, talked about the wonderful, radical and prophetic message of Quakerism. She didn't name it at first but talked about it from the periphery, teasing us a little bit, or so I thought. I was on the edge of my spiritual seat. I couldn't guess what she was talking about and began to fear that I might have missed something important in my Quaker upbringing.
Come to find out, what the speaker had in mind was the Quaker belief that there is "that of God" in everyone—that God has endowed each of us with a measure of the Divine essence. It is a message that is affirmed in both Hebrew and Christian scripture.
The speaker's message helped me to see this Quaker teaching in a whole new light. What I had treated most of my life as a fairly pedestrian, ordinary, every day doctrine of the Religious Society of Friends was elevated to something that was wonderful, radical and prophetic.
It is radical because much of the world does not consciously operate on this premise, and, by extension, on the premise that all of life is sacred and interconnected.
It is a prophetic because a prophet is someone who sees the world through the eyes of God, and speaks the word of God, more plainly and more compellingly than others.
This is Quakerism at its best, living and acting in the world on the basis of a belief that there is that of God in everyone.
There are two other dimensions of the Light of Quakerism that I'd like to lift up.
One is that God is accessible and knowable, directly and without the intermediation of others. The way we worship, the way we make decisions, and the way we seek direction and guidance, are all based on this primary assumption.
In our worship we seek an inward engagement with God. We wait upon the Lord. We seek communion with the Inward Christ. We open ourselves to the promptings of the Spirit. We worship by waiting on the Divine. I have never liked the expression "silent worship." True, we gather in the silence, but it is really "waiting worship." Our goal is not so much to be silent, as it is to wait expectantly upon God.
A third dimension of the Light of Quakerism is, as a consequence of our inward engagement with the Light Within, that we find ourselves being led out into the world to witness and to testify and to put our experience of the Spirit into action.
I like William Penn's observation:
"True religion does not turn men and women out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it." This is what Quakers do, and this is the process by which we have developed our testimonies and our witness over the centuries.
There are other dimensions to the Light of Quakerism, but these are the three shafts of Quaker light that I will have in mind this morning when I reference the Light of Quakerism: there is that of God in everyone; God is accessible and knowable, directly and without intermediation; and it is our inward experience of God that impels us into outward action, testimony and witness.
I'd like to move, now, into the third part of my talk by offering several perceptions of Quakerism in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting today.
In the 20th century, Quakerism moved from being primarily a Christian group to a group of believers and some non-believers, in which Christians and non-Christians, theists and non-theists, worship together, their individual beliefs transcended by their shared experience of worship. Belief no longer defines Quakerism as it once did, but rather our approach to worship and the life that leads out of this worship is what seems to bind Quakers together today. Quakerism has become more of a "way," than a set of beliefs. (B.P. Dandelion, "The Future of Friends in Britain," 2008. Although written with reference to Britain Yearly Meeting, I find B.P. Dandelion's observations quite accurate for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting)
It is my experience that we don't talk about our beliefs very much and that each one among us has a different way of formulating and expressing what it is that he or she believes. We have tended to marginalize belief and to make more central the form of our worship.
PYM's brand of liberal Quakerism has become rather permissive. We are now centered around being open to new ideas, of seeking without finding, and of being reluctant to declare any corporate truth. Although we may be uncertain about belief, we do have some certainty about the value of spiritual experience and a certainty about the value of silent worship.
My second observation about our current situation is that in the last 35 years we have been in a fairly low-energy state of being. (I chose 35 years because that marked the end of the Vietnam War). We are fairly predictable, comfortable and most of us are not ready to rock the boat. We are maintainers—not go-getters.
I believe that this is changing, and I am wanting to encourage the change. As you heard in the beginning of this talk, it is my concern to notice and proclaim signs of vitality and growth, but there was a time when we either didn't notice, or the signs were simply less frequent and less clear.
I'd like, now, to move into part four of my talk. There are five things I think we can do to carry the Light of Quakerism into the future.
First, we must begin the work of articulating the core beliefs at the center of our faith experience, even if the core beliefs are not all true for any one of us.
The time has come for us to discern and write down, in a simple and concise way, a statement that addresses who we are and what we believe—not as a creed; not as a test; but as core beliefs which define our center.
I am not suggesting a statement that the Yearly Meeting would impose on monthly meetings. I wouldn't want to do that, and I'm smart enough to know that that wouldn't work.
Rather, what I do have in mind is a statement representing the Yearly Meeting's best corporate discernment of what we can say about who we are and what we believe. Such a statement might then be used by members and meetings within the Yearly Meeting as they were led to use it. Such a statement might be used as we currently use Faith and Practice, as a guide but not as the law.
I see it as a statement that would help to define our center but not our boundaries.
I believe we need something that will fit on one sheet of paper; something we can easily hand to seekers who come through our doors; something that is short of handing out the whole of Faith and Practice on the first visit.
Have you ever had the experience of someone asking, "What do Friends believe?" and hearing the answer, "Well, it's kind of hard to say what Friends believe, but let me tell you what I believe."
Or, have you ever had the experience of trying to tell a new attender what Friends believe, and you really hope that no one else is listening because maybe you won't get it right, or you fear you may be contradicted?
Or, have you ever started out a sentence, "Well, early Friends believed this and early Friends believed that," because you could not say with any confidence what Friends believe today.
Or, do you ever find yourself not being able to think of a single thing to say about what Friends believe, and so you start by saying what Friends don't believe, defining us by what we are not. Friends don't have paid clergy, or a programmed service, or a creed, or rely primarily on the bible.
For those who think such a task is not possible, I'd like to share an experience I had as a trustee of Westtown School.
Several years ago, while walking to a meeting with another trustee, my colleague and someone who is not a member of the Religious Society of Friends, said, "You know, Arthur, I really don't care whether Westtown is a Quaker school or not." After I recovered from the shock of it, I replied that it seemed ok to me that individuals might not care whether or not the school was a Quaker school, but that it was very important for each trustee to respect the fact that the school did and does care whether or not it is a Quaker school. There is something at the spiritual center of the school that cares very deeply and this is so regardless of the views of any one individual.
I began to find meaning in the metaphor of a solar system. At the center of earth's solar system is the sun, and orbiting the sun are a number of planets, each of which is the beneficiary of incredible solar energy. Indeed, without the sun, life, as we know it would not be possible.
Each of the planets orbits the sun, but each planet is different in size and shape, and significantly, each planet orbits at a different distance from the sun at the center.
In the case of Westtown School, I could say very clearly, without fear of contradiction, that not only did the school care about being a Quaker school, but at the center, the sun if you will, was Quaker faith and practice. Each trustee might orbit at a different distance from the center, that is, embracing the center with different degrees of conviction, but there was a center, and as long as any person was comfortable orbiting around that sun, they were a part of the solar system. If not, perhaps a different solar system would work better for them.
I think the same metaphor works for our Yearly Meeting. Think of PYM as a solar system. In the center of our solar system is a sun, the faith and practice of our yearly meeting, and our core beliefs. Any one of us may, or may not, subscribe to everything at the center, that's ok, but that does not mean we can't describe it.
We can describe and delight in what is at the center of the Yearly Meeting solar system, acknowledging that each of us, all 11,500 of us, like planets, are at different distances from the center, some are closer and some are farther away. I believe that we can embrace our diversity, while at the same time, knowing how to describe the center and what it is that we're orbiting.
In a book on vitality within Friends meetings, Jay Marshall, the current dean of the Earlham School of Religion, reports that "a common thread shared by vital meetings is that various members within them are each able to give a similar account of what their purpose is. Members are able to self-disclose, clearly, to other members and to seekers—this is who we are—knowing that others in the meeting would say much the same thing."
"However great a challenge it is, a common understanding of a meeting's ...purpose is a strong contributor to its vitality. It clarifies the group's identity and helps its members and attenders understand which expectations are realistic and which ones are not."
The second thing I think we must do to carry the Light of Quakerism into the future is to confront head on the question of the relationship of the Society of Friends to Jesus—some would say to Jesus Christ.
Recently, I gave a talk at one of our Quaker related retirement communities. My topic was "Leadership and Authority in the Religious Society of Friends."
After my talk, the first question was: "Mr. Larrabee, are Quakers Christian?" I experienced an immediate inward tightening.
The first thing I had to deal with was ego. I thought I had given a fairly good talk, and now it would all be ruined by a question I could not answer.
Collectively, I don't think we know how to answer that question, and I think it is a drain on the spiritual energy of our community.
What I said was that Quakers in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting stand in the Christian tradition but that it would be hard for me to say that Quakers today are Christians as generally understood. I didn't like my answer, and my faith community doesn't give me much help.
I fretted all the way home mostly because I didn't know what I could have said that represented what others would recognize to be at the center of our spiritual solar system.
Several days later I got an e-mail from one of my listeners, a Quaker in the local meeting, and the chair of an academic department at Penn State.
"Your answer to the query posed by the non-Quaker regarding the role of Jesus in Quakerism was most disturbing. As it pertains to the topic of your talk..., what does leadership mean if there is no common foundation to who we are as Quakers? If our foundation is not soundly rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus as primitive Christians then I really do not understand the common foundation from which anyone leads with the Religious Society of Friends. Our testimonies and concerns, our decision-making processes and so much else originates with, and is renewed by, the life and teachings of Jesus."
That e-mail triggered something within me that has been many, many years in formation.
George Fox wrote in his journal in 1647,
"And when all my hopes in them [the preachers, and 'those called the most experienced people'] and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do; then, oh then I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition;" and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy."
But there's another strand in Quakerism and it is the strand of individual experience and continuing revelation. This is George Fox as quoted by Margaret Fell from the first sermon she ever heard him deliver:
"You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou [not] a child of the Light, and hast thou [not] walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it [not] inwardly from God?"
I hear in these words an invitation which welcomes a wide variety of spiritual experience.
As the Society of Friends has evolved, we now welcome those for whom the Christian experience is not central. I believe we have, de facto, become more of a Christian/Universalist religious society. In answer to the question, "what cans't thou say?" we many now expect to hear and to respect a variety of spiritual truths
In describing who we are, I don't think we can—or want to—go back to where we were, a more explicitly Christian religious society, but I do think that when we speak about the sun at the center of our PYM, Quaker solar system, it is important for us to claim our Christian roots—I would even say our Christian tap root—even as we embrace other spiritual truth.
I am imagining myself again at the retirement community and the question coming: "Mr. Larrabee, are Quakers Christian?" This is what I would now say.
"Friend, Quakers are Christian, but not in the usual or customary sense of that word. The Society of Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is Christian/Universalist. The Society is Christian because the life and teachings of Jesus Christ are at the core of who we are collectively. But the Society is universalist because we welcome spiritual truth wherever it may be found and from whomever it may come."
I think describing ourselves in this way will make it easier for us to attract seekers because we will be able to say, clearly and without embarrassment, this is who we are, come join us.
The third thing we can do to carry the Light of Quakerism into the future is to give up our self-inflicted negativity.
Jay Marshall observes in his book on vital Quaker meetings:
"So much of what is shared among Friends emphasizes the negative aspects of our corporate life, resulting in an ethos of fear rather than trust in God and joy in the mission that has been entrusted to us. The decentralized structure of Friends makes it easy for good news to remain isolated."
What is it about us?
Examples come to mind:
How often have we heard disparaging remarks about Interim Meeting? Sure, Interim Meeting went through a rough patch several years ago, but the experience of Interim Meeting is now very different and it was different before the rough patch. I find that it is often the case that Interim Meeting reflects the best in our practice of corporate discernment. But this story is not told. I want to tell it now. Interim Meeting is worth the time and all are welcome.
How often have we heard people complain about Quaker process? It takes too long; it's too frustrating; it's too hard to understand what's going on.
I have a very different take on it. I think the Quaker practice of corporate discernment is extraordinary. I can think of no other decision-making practice that would better serve our vision of building community, and building God's world. We may not do it as well as we could, we may need to train ourselves in the doing of it, but it's not the fault of the process; it's our ineptitude in using it. We have a self-defeating habit of criticizing the process, rather than re-committing ourselves to getting better at it.
There are other ways our self-deprecating negativity comes out. Our membership is declining and we're so old, our average age must be in the 60's. I dealt with these two misimpressions earlier in my talk. I say, let's stop it. It does nothing to help carry the Light of Quakerism into the future.
The fourth thing we can do to carry our Light into the Future is to be open and available to our passion.
In my experience, passion describes the energy I feel when I am clear about something that touches me personally.
British Friends have been pioneering a program called Quaker Quest; it is a program of both inreach and outreach. Our Yearly Meeting has a Quaker Quest working group under the care of Support and Outreach Standing Committee; and Friends General Conference has taken on the programmatic leadership of Quaker Quest throughout the United States.
I understand that Third Haven meeting is preparing to undertake the Quaker Quest program and I couldn't be more supportive. I ask God's blessing on this work.
Quaker Quest has a neat way of characterizing our Quaker message. I want to claim it for our own. It is a simple way of expressing what we're about that invites my attention and high energy—dare I even say passion.
Quakerism is simple, radical and contemporary. Now, I can get excited about that.
Quakerism is simple in our practice of worship, our theology, and, in theory at least, in our organization and business methods.
Quakerism is radical in its theology. Ours is a religion that invites us to live out our lives in the belief that there is that of God in everyone, and that all of life is sacred and interrelated. We believe that we can have a direct experience of the Divine, and that in our meetings for worship there can be a mystical communal experience of God. This is radical.
Finally, we are contemporary. We offer a way forward for those many people who are aware of the nudgings of the Divine but who, in the 21st century, are simply unable to accept the trappings of creed, theology and ritual that have become encrusted on Christianity and other religions over the centuries. We can say to these people: "Come join with us in seeking an understanding of the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Find your own way of expressing it; come grow along with us." [Some of the above is taken from an article on Quaker Quest by Mary Jo Clogg, found in Friends Journal]
There is no doubt that early Friends were passionate about what they had found and how they were led. I think we can be equally passionate about our experience.
The fifth, and final thing we can do to carry the Light of Quakerism into the future is to be about the work of making ourselves known. Doing this work will be the natural outcome of our passion for the new clarity we will have found.
Just over two months ago, our Yearly Meeting adopted priorities which are intended to be a framework for the work of our Yearly Meeting over the next three years. The fourth priority is this "Making Ourselves Known."
We talk about:
- The design and implementation of a comprehensive communication plan for PYM.
- The support of Monthly and Quarterly meetings who embark on inn-reach/outreach programs such as Quaker Quest.
- The provision of outreach programs to college campuses and Friends retirement communities
- The taking of practical steps to make our meeting buildings more visible in our local communities.
- And the promoting of active relationships of monthly and quarterly meetings with their local communities.
We don't say it in the Priorities document, but I believe we need to talk about marketing ourselves.
We need to purchase air time on the radio. In the Philadelphia market, on KYW and WHYY, already the Friends Council on Education periodically has radio spots for Friends schools and I thrill every time I hear one.
The Catholics advertise for Easter, the Lutherans advertise for financial services and the Jews advertise for Sabbath services. I think Quakers need to advertise for the Light of Quakerism.
I would like to see advertising panels on the sides of buses that had a picture of a modern Quaker family with the caption, "We are Quakers, come join us" giving a web site address.
It's all a part of the movement to get Quakers off the oatmeal box. And so, Friends, I have come to the end of my talk.
There is a Light of Quakerism which is special and unique and which offers a religious and spiritual path for many seekers. Let's be mindful of what will carry this unique spiritual path into the future, giving attention to:
- Articulating our core beliefs
- Finding a way to articulate a relationship between our Christianity and our Universalism
- Letting go of our self-inflicted negativity
- Getting in touch with our passion
- And proactively making ourselves known in the world.
I am excited to be a part of his spiritual movement called Quakerism. I hope you are, too, and thank you for sharing this community with me.