Friends Across a Religious Society

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7)

People who aren’t Quakers often see Friends as generally peaceable and easy to get along with bunch, but internally, the Quakerverse is a very small and deeply divided world.  The reasons for this are old and many, and I’ll revisit them again in detail sometime, but what is important to know now is that there are three main branches on the Quaker family tree.

1. Liberal (doesn’t speak to political belief)
2. Conservative (again, not talking politics)
3. Evangelical (Oooh oooh! Thats me!!!)

Being generally suspect of religious authority, Quakers don’t have a single unifying structure of figurehead, so you won’t be seeing any Quaker pope, and anyone who starts a sentence with “Quakers think that…” are generally going to exclude a significant number of them.  I guarantee you that I will be guilty of this at times in the future, we are a peculiar people indeed.   

The largest level of (BIG QUOTES) “authoritative” organization that you will find among Friends is what are called “Yearly Meetings”.  Think of Yearly Meetings as the equivalent word for “denomination”.  Yearly Meetings cover geographic areas, i.e. Great Britain Yearly Meeting, New England Yearly Meeting, Pacific Yearly Meeting, Canadian Yearly Meeting, Burundi Yearly Meeting…you get the picture.

A quick aside, in Quakerspeak you’ll hear a lot of meeting this and meeting that, but what does it mean?!? Well, Quakers gather in what are called “Meetinghouses”, because the Church is made up of people, calling a building church didn’t sit well with early Friends.  So when you hear a Quaker talk about their Meeting, they are talking about their “church”.  The lengths of time before the word Meeting speak to how often that group of Friends makes business decisions. Monthly Meetings conduct business once a month, Quarterly Meetings conduct business once a quarter, Yearly Meetings conduct business once a year.  Its simple…in a complex kind of way. 

Anyhoo, back to the Yearly Meetings.


I’ve been thinking about these kinds of divisions in Quakerism a lot this year, and truth be told, it is mostly because I can feel kinda lonely in Atlanta.  I’m attending Atlanta Monthly Meeting, and it is a Liberal unprogrammed meeting.

There are no Evangelical Friends in Atlanta.  Just me.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is space to talk about my faith experience, because many here aren’t even aware that Evangelical Friends exist at all! Or, if they are somewhat aware, I can get reactions ranging from causal dismissal, curiosity, suspicion, to hostility.  This is a non-unique problem in Atlanta, and it goes back to the levels of organization.

Simply put, because Quakers organize geographically, often times there is only 1 type of Quaker in any given area.

No interaction=fertile ground for division

I imagine in areas where there are only Evangelical Friends and no Liberal ones, the same things I feel would be mirrored in that place. 

Thankfully, in Oregon, the problem is not as severe.  Oregon is a unique situation, because it has two geographically overlapping Yearly Meetings, which means large populations of two different kinds of Quakers living a stones throw away from each other.  Friends from the two Yearly Meetings gather to worship together once a month in what are called “Convergent Friends” meetings.

interaction=understanding

This isn’t to say that getting Convergent Friends started in Oregon was easy, quite the opposite! I hope to interview older Friends who can speak more to that process sometime, but it took many awkward and at times painful interactions to get to the place where we are now.  We still have a lot to do in Oregon, but I trust that the Spirit will get us to where we need to be.

So being here by myself can be challenging at times, but I know that this is where I’m supposed to be right now. One of the most powerful and unexpected moments that I experienced at Atlanta Monthly Meeting was during meeting for worship a couple weeks ago.  Atlanta is a part of Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting, and on this particular week it was being host to the youth of its Yearly Meeting.  The meetinghouse was filled with young people sitting all over the place, some even in the isles or in the center of the room on the floor.  



After about 15 minutes of worship, the different Monthly Meetings being represented were announced, and the youth stood when theirs was called.  I felt a deep sense of happiness when I saw them stand, these young Friends from all over the South.  Oh how I wished that I could have been blessed enough to be raised in the Quaker tradition.

It was then where I heard that still small voice, that for a moment was extremely clear…and not too small sounding.

“Pray for the health of this Yearly Meeting”

Well, when messages are that clear for me, not much else to do but be obedient to that.  I began to pray.

I prayed for all the Monthly Meetings, prayed for their young people, their old people, the Friends that had proceeded them and passed on, and the Friends who were yet unborn.  I prayed for their current ministries, and for ministers that had yet to be called.  I prayed that they would be unified in the years to come, and they would be blessings to those around them.  When I couldn’t think of anything else specific to pray, I simply thanked God that these Friends are who they are.

It was a worship experience unlike any I had experienced before, and I realized at the rise of the meeting something very important. 

So often, I find myself praying for the health of my own Northwest Yearly Meeting.  I pray for its churches, its ministries, and its unity.  However, what I feel like God was trying to teach me that day, was that I need to take heed not to let my vision get myopic.  There are others besides my own who need prayer, and the Religious Society of Friends doesn’t need to always exist in the divided paradigm that it does now.  I don’t know how things will change, and how many awkward and stumbling steps need to be taken to start that way, but it will be something that I intend to seek from now on.

27 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Maureen! Its been a fun new adventure : )

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  2. If you think of it, say hello to Atlanta Friends from me. I once co-led a retreat for Atlanta Friends, but it's been something like twenty years ago. Then around ten years ago I visited several times. Once I spoke during meeting for worship, starting with the observation that the architecture of the meeting room reminded me a bit of Reedwood Friends in Portland, Oregon.

    The most recent reminder I had of Atlanta Friends was the sad news of Courtney Siceloff's death.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. Greetings from Russia!

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    1. Hello Johan! Yeah Reedwood and Atlanta are both very large meetinghouses, and I'll be sure to pass greetings along.
      Thanks for reading, its great to connect with a Friend in Russia : D

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  3. So many people need this information. Thank you for writing.

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    1. Thanks Claire : ) I try to make info accessible but still inject my own voice in there.

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  4. And in my experience. some evangelical Quakers have little to no knowledge of the other branches and some are downright dismissive of them. In my opinion, some in the evangelical meetings have embraced so much of evangelicalism, that they've watered down Quakerism and some just seem to tolerate their yearly meeting as it's clear that they want to run things their way.

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    1. I have definitely seen that too, there are times when I've said "monthly meeting" amongst younger Evangelical Friends and received very confused looks, and they were raised Quaker! I have experienced a tension, so to speak, between traditional Quaker distinctiveness and conservative evangelism in the Evangelical Yearly Meetings. It really disappointing sometimes : /

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  5. A.J., this was SPECTACULAR! Thanks for blessing us with it!! What you said really resonated within my own heart. May move towards unity continue, and may it begin within our own Yearly Meetings.

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    1. Hello Kevin, thanks for the kind compliment! I'm glad it resonated : )

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  6. As I read your post, I couldn't help but think of this verse, which is from Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in Babylon. "But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV" You did a profound thing to pray for Friends in Atlanta. Blessings on your sojourn there.

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    1. Wow, thanks for that Lorraine! I'd forgotten about that verse, but I remember when I first studied it in Bible Survey at GFU...it meant a lot to me. I feel like it says something really special about the character of God.

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    2. You might be interested in this video lecture by Daniel Smith-Christopher, a Quaker professor I first knew at Reedwood. He says we as Christians really are in "exile" as we live counter culturally in this world. Check it out at http://www.knowledgestream.org/kstream/index.asp?item_id=8160. I found it very informative and interesting. Then I begin to ask, what does that mean and how am I to live? According to Jeremiah, it is not by being against my culture, but blessing it and in so doing, I will find my blessing and future. That's a pretty radical thought, which you so aptly describe from personal experience here. We Christians pretty much get it wrong with being so against the society in which we live. Makes me sad.

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  7. Thanks for this insightful and inspirational post. Decades ago, my liberal Quaker meeting in Midlothian, VA regularly reached out to the Evangelical Friends church near us. We had virtually no success; always sensing that we were viewed by them as "heretics". I say this because on their web site they mention that liberal Quakers have strayed from the Christian path (which actually is not true from our perspective). We literally got no response to our overtures. We even sent a delegation to worship with them several times in their church. Still, no real interest shown in us (was it our casual attire or our lack of bringing Bibles with us? I don't know.) Even though we don't often reach out to them any more, we do try every 5 years or so. Any suggestions you might have for us would be most welcomed.

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    1. That is not true from my perspective either. I'm not sure if I have a whole lot of suggestions, just keep doing what you're doing, and hold them in the Light. I think that younger Evangelical Quakers seem more willing to build relationships and worship with Liberal Quakers.
      You made me remember a quote I heard awhile ago....forget it exactly or who even said it, but it was something like "acts of love aren't measured by their reception or effectiveness, but in their sincerity".

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    2. Howard, sorry to hear such a response. As an Evangelical Friends (Eastern Region) pastor myself, you are welcome at our church any time! I agree with A.J. that the isolationary tendencies of American Evangelical culture seem to be passing with the previous generation of pastors/leaders.

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    3. Thanks Kevin! I wish we were near your church. My particular liberal meeting often uses Bible passages in our adult Sunday school each Sunday (which we call 'Circle of Friends') and we talk of the Christian message often. We also use other spiritual works from many spiritual traditions that present the same message of love and light that Jesus presented. Although there is quite a diversity of theology in my meeting, all Friends there are grateful and appreciative of the message and work of Jesus that spread the gospel of love and forgiveness in the world. And we identify with him as the "original Quaker" no matter what our individual beliefs surrounding him are. His life and teachings are important to us.

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    4. Kevin-which church do you pastor? I was just checking out EFC-ER's website a few weeks ago.

      Howard-which meeting do you attend? I love the idea of thinking of Jesus as the original Quake X )

      Hope to visit you both someday!

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    5. A.J., My meeting is Midlothian Friends Meeting, which is in a suburb (Midlothian) of Richmond, VA.

      I was pleased to read in one of your blogs, A.J., that you are in Atlanta working with QVS. We would love to entertain QVS coming to Richmond VA. There is a large liberal meeting in the city, our medium sized liberal meeting, and an evangelical Friends church in a Richmond suburb on the opposite side of the city from us. I thought QVS could be a good "meeting point" for all of our Quaker meetings/churches in the area = as we support and nurture a local chapter of QVS. I even wrote QVS to see if they would entertain coming here.

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    6. A.J., Friends Church, Willoughby Hills (outside of Cleveland). whfriends.org

      Howard, thank for filling me in on your meeting. If I'm ever in Richmond, I'll look your meeting up!

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    7. Howard- I'm glad to hear that Friends in Richmond are thriving! I know that the QVS house in Portland has been a great collaborative effort between the local Liberal and Evangelical Friends. I'll mention Richmond when I next talk to QVS staff.

      Kevin- I enjoyed checking out your church's website!

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    8. Howard- The QVS board recently posted this link:

      http://www.quakervoluntaryservice.org/qvs-expansion/

      It made me think of you and the Friends in Richmond : ) take care!

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  8. I'd also like to thank you for your post. I'm a gay guy whose been recently drawn to Quakerism. I'd probably be most comfortable in a place like Northwest Yearly Meeting or Friends United Meeting, but the closest Meeting that exists is a Liberal meeting, that isn't very Christocentric from what I can tell. Posts like yours remind me that their is room in Quakerism for Liberal Evangelical gay people like myself.

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    1. Hi Daniel : )

      Thanks for reading and commenting! There is definitely room : D and if you ever find yourself in Oregon definitely come check out West Hills. I know that FUM is having their Triennial gathering this year, and I really really want to make it up there.

      When I first started feeling drawn towards Quakerism, I really enjoyed reading writings of past Quakers, like Fox and Woolman, but I'd especially recommend Robert Barclay's "Apology". Also, my favorite favorite book on Quakerism is called "Beyond Majority Rule" which talks about Friends decision making process. Interestingly enough, it was written by a Catholic! He was interested in Quaker process after being dissatisfied with the second Vatican council.

      Also, I've glanced over the "Friends of Jesus" website, which seems like a pretty active online interest group of Christ-centered Quakers, and from what I hear they are welcoming and affirming.

      Holding you in the Light of Christ, keep in touch!

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    2. Hey, A.J. (and Daniel)-

      Glad you've seen the Friends of Jesus Fellowship website. Though we do have an active online presence (including a virtual community that meets over Google Hangout), we're also made up of several local communities/meetings/churches.

      If you ever make it up to DC (or Philly, or New York, or Detroit!), we'd love to meet you. Feel free to email me (micahbales at Gmail), or join the Friends of Jesus Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/499808963383272/). It'd be great to touch base.

      Blessings!

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    3. Hi Micah : )

      Thanks for commenting, I think you're fellowship is very encouraging! I will be holding your ministry in the Light.

      (I just sent in a request to join the FB group)

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