Tuesday, July 11, 2006

What does "Convergent Quakerism" mean to you?

Lke so many Quaker bloggers I am back from The (Friends General Conference) Gathering. I am patiently waiting in my experience with convergent Quakerism. I feel the ambivalence that has been expressed by others bloggers about the use of the term "convergent Friends." And, frankly, I still have no clear idea of what convergent Quakerism means to the people who identify strongly with the term. My impression is that some of those at The Gathering talking about convergent Quakerism were talking about something different than others using the same term. Despite what people were feeling, I was not seeing unity among those who felt so drawn together. Perhaps it would be more accurate, I did not see enough of substance regarding convergent Quakerism to know whether there was a unity except on the surface.

It was my cell phone that rang as I ministered, late in the course of the interest group on convergent Quakerism. As reported by other Friends' blogs, I stopped the flow of what was being said through me to report that it would be my daughter calling. What was not reported was that I also said "I've told her never to call me here," which elicited some laughter from those assembled. What has also not reported was what I was saying at the time. Perhaps the message was not remembered because it was a caution raised in a gale.

I was speaking in response to what other Friends had been saying for an hour or so. I spoke about how those of us who are Christian Liberal Friends--yes, we do exist--are uncomfortable with the language and rhetoric of Calvinism/Wesleyanism. This language, which only superficially resembles that of the Quakerism of the 17th Century-- manifests itself today among some Evangelical Friends who--but for having ditched the traditional sacraments--confess beliefs indistinguishable from protestant Evangelicals of today and their puritan ancestors who persecuted Friends in the 17th Century. This is the same language that is being used in the celebration of convergent Quakerism.

I was saying as I witnessed that that language of standard brand Evangelical protestantism will not be a means of uniting any Quakers except those who are already united by it. If those who identify with convergent Friends are concerned about being mistaken for protestant Christian Evangelicals (as I have no doubt some of them are) they need to do something about making the distinctions explicit. If, however, they are comfortable being mistaken for protestants, or are in unity with protestants (as I believe that others of them seem to be), then they need to clarify that, among themselves and to others so that those who are interested in staying within Quakerism don't waste time figuring out that "convergent Quakerism" is just one more in a long line of movements that have worked to take a gathered people (insofar as our condition can be described as such, anymore, in this day, in this place) back into the beast from which Friends were originally called.

So, I do not know what all is involved in this new "movement," and, as I say, I doubt it really means the same thing to everyone in whom the phrase sparks an interest. This is why I humbly fear slandering it in exressing my developing understanding and airing my concerns. Perhaps that is the most efficient way, though, that I can learn that which so far eludes me. Perhaps the responses to my harsh words will bring people to put some meaning--aside from what seems to be a shared rhetoric--on the table.

If "convergent" means a combination of CONservative (Wilburite?) and emERGENT as I have heard said then, so far, that means to me only that people of a certain scriptural orientation and Christian ideology are finding one another in the midst of those who do not share that orientation and ideology--not that anyone is actually moving anywhere or toward anyone else.

That's OK, if that's what people want to do. Conservative Catholics are finding one another, from among the general ranks of Catholics, too, as many Evangelicals have left mainline churches to "converge" in "sound" churches. But I think that the dictionary definition of convergent (and the one that comes to mind from the plain meaning of the word in contemporary English usage) means something different than "like minded people scattered in a larger group finding one another." And, from my experience at The Gathering I think that some who are interested in convergent Quakerism are interested in more--or somethign different--than affirming Evangelicalism and drawing more Friends into it.

As I say, if convergent Friends are interersted in uniting with one another in Evangelical Christianity that's ok. If we are moving toward something that is more inclusive of diversity, and that at least nods a recognition toward Quaker universalism and its apocalyptic message--as those terms were understood in the 17th Century by Friends rather than in 21st Century Evangelical protestantism (and outside it, for that matter, in the 21st Century)--then that is something different.

As one Liberal Quaker writer (Chuck Fager) has explained, the persecution of Friends by Calvinist Puritans was not simply a thirty year misunderstanding. The 17th Century Quaker preaching of apocalyptic revelation was odious (for good reason) to those whose spiritual descendents dominate non Quaker Evangelistic Chirstianity today (and even some in Quaker evangelical Christianity). Those who mistake the Christian language of these first Friends for an identity with 21st Century Evangelical Christianity may be among those who are converging (as they mistakenly combine unlike theologies--such as making us comfortable in sin rather than teaching that we can overcome it--by pasting the name of Quakerism onto the substance of Calvinism ) but they are not converging within Quaker belief and practice. They would be only the latest to step onto an outward, divergent path trod by many in the past who, pulled by forces of "revival" and "reawakening" over the years, have left their Quaker roots behind while maintaining some of it's forms and clinging to the name.

As I say.....emphasize, underline, italisize, bold...I don't think that everyone identifying with, or toying with, the phrase convergent Quakerism is coming from the same place or meaning the same thing. I think it would be helpful if those who are working with this phrase would flesh it out in terms other than what sound to some of us like very tired Christian language. It would be helpful, to me, to hear how their vision, their leadings, comport with the writings of Fox, Penington and such--and with their Quaker theology of Revelation.

Every dispensation leads to immediate apostacy, after all. Some who hear it will deny it, while others will embrace it but explain how it doesn't mean what it seems to mean. For darkness does not comprehend/like the light and will labor long and hard to dismiss or qualify it out of existence.



Robin M. said...

It sounds like you'd like a longer and more thoughtful response than I can give today. But I'm working on one.

It was a great pleasure to meet you, and to have your participation in the interest group. I'm glad it has raised questions for you and that you have raised them for others to wrestle with as well.

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Timothy--

In the midst of all that was going on at Gathering, I think you and I were introduced to one another, briefly, but I don't know that any conversation went much further than that.

When Martin, Robin, and I finally had a chance to review the interest group and what we had just been through, one of the things I mentioned was my concern that Friends who attended made the assumption that the three of us would identify as Christian.

I do not, at least not in the conventional/secular use of the term.

By the time I had realized that the spiritual safety of non-Christian Friends like myself perhaps was being trumped by the excited witness of Christian Friends, we were well settled into worship.

So. Where do I find myself in this conversation about Convergent Quakerism?

Like you, "convergent" is a term I wrestle with. For myself, I have recognized that I cannot speak about it until I have lived with it for a while and until I see what, if any, fruit of the Spirit there may be.

I have more to add here, but this would be long enough to be a post in and of itself, so I'll continue my remarks over on The Good Raised Up.

Thanks for helping call us (me) out. There is a larger conversation to have among a good many other Friends about the use of the phrase "Convergent Quakerism."

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Joe G. said...


Your post inspired my own here. Thanks for such an interesting post that it inspired my own response!

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hi, Timothy!

I'm delighted to learn that it was your cell phone that went off -- somehow, that seems very apt.

I'm even more delighted, though, by the substance of what you say here: the cautions you urged. Like yourself, I want some evidence that "convergent Friends" means something better than "Hail, hail, the gang's all here."

It's easy to get a spiritual high out of finding the gang all here, but I greatly mistrust cheap spiritual highs, having been burned in my day by a few.

Robin M. said...

The first thing I agree with you is that not everyone who uses the term convergent Friends means the same thing. Heck, I’m not sure that I mean the same thing every time I use it. I think that’s par for the course of a new word coined by a non-academic thinker. I generally think that’s okay. I’m sure some people are in a hurry to precisely define new words. But my husband used to edit “Webster’s Dictionary” and I know that not only can words have more than one meaning, but in fact there is more than one dictionary called Webster’s and they all use different definitions, even for old meanings of words. I’m not worried about it. I tend to think that convergent Friends is going to have a broad sort of meaning, not a narrow definition. So far, I’ve heard/read some Friends worried that it sounds too Christian and some that it’s not Christian enough. This too is a good sign for me.

So far, my experience of using the phrase convergent Friends and observing others who have embraced this label is that it is describing a sensibility, to quote Peggy Senger Parsons, that already exists. It is not being used to change people’s minds, to convert them to some other branch of Quakerism. It is helping Friends to name something they already felt. For me, it describes my personal interest in a both/and kind of Quakerism. Open to old Christian language and to new inclusive practices. Waiting upon the Lord and following God into the needy places of the world. The direct inspiration of Christ within and a broad range of names and metaphors for that Light within. It has come to my attention that there are Friends from all over the U.S., at least, unprogrammed, programmed, and evangelical Friends who are also interested in this experience. What I have found in common for all these Friends is that they claim a deep resonance with the writings of early Friends. Some of them are pastors of Friends churches, some of them are gender bending individuals, some are leaders in the wider Quaker world, some feel like outsiders even in their home Meetings. And yet, through blogs and in person, they are meeting each other, listening and sharing respectfully, discovering that each is not the “only one” who wants to dig deeper into, to live more fully in the vision that George Fox had for the world.

What I don’t know is what sounds to you like very tired Christian language. I’d honestly be glad to know. I admit to not being an academic and I don’t actually understand all the words in this sentence, “Every dispensation leads to immediate apostacy.” But I do understand that “darkness does not comprehend/like the light and will labor long and hard to dismiss or qualify it out of existence.” This is always a danger. But continuing to ask honest questions is part of reinforcing the Light. Silencing ourselves or others only aids the darkness. Thank you for raising these questions. I’m sure you’re not the only one who has them.

Let me be clear - I know I don’t have all the answers on this subject. I am curious about what you hoped or would like convergent Friends to mean.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Timothy,
It took me awhile before I figured out why your post just seemed so wrong-headed to me. Finally it became clear: you turned "convergent Quaker" into "Convergent Quakerism." Whoa whoa whoa, not fair.

I use the term "convergent Friends" simply as a way to point out that there are Friends in all the Quaker denominations who are actively exploring the Quaker roots of their own particular faith understanding. There's no assumption that this exploration will soon take us all to some shared theology. I don't think it will and I have no interest in going down that route. The great challenge for us liberal Friends doing this work is understanding the role of Christ but "convergence" (as I use it) simply means an honest wrestling with that challenge, not a specific answer. There's no "convergent Quakerism, only "convergent Friends."

As far as I can see all of the branches of Friends have over-simplified their message and are less-than-honest about the pieces of Quakerism we've dropped or the outside influences we've assimilated. It's natural for all social groups to borrow from one another and it's not possible (or desirable) to live in the 17th-Century. But I think we'd be able to articulate our identity more clearly if we better understood what part of our culture we get from Quakerism and what we get from elsewhere, which is perhaps another way of saying what parts we feel are truly essential to our Quakerism.

I see plenty of Evangelical and FUM Friends who are interested in exploring parts of classic Quakerism and untangling at least some strands from mainstream US Christianity. It's exciting to see. And I've been deeply moved by some gentle challenges to my own Quaker understanding that I've received from these dear Friends. Perhaps in the end "convergent Friends" are simply those Friends who feel that the Quaker tradition still has something to offer us.

Johan Maurer said...

I want to put in a gentle protest that there is much in both Calvinism and Wesleyanism that has spiritual resonance with many Friends. These labels obscure both the currents of the Spirit and the lively dialogues whose snapshots or short clips bear the labels.

It's also hard to celebrate, build community, communicate across ancient divisions, and test/defend intellectual propositions all at the same time.What sounds exciting to me may be tired old language to you, but give us a chance to extend the pool of shared references and human experiences, and we could both gain a wider perspective.

We inevitably observe and communicate asynchronously, except when we deliberately build opportunities to have dialogue and fun together.

Richard-NCYM(C) said...

I'm just back from our Yearly Meeting (North Carolina conservative) and was recently alerted to the existence of Quaker blogs. A visitor to our YM who blogs mentioned convergent Quakerism and this is how I found you.

It's interesting to me because for the last three years I have been trying to deepen the discussion of theology within our Yearly Meeting. For some years our YM has been dancing around the tension that can arise between Christian Friends and those who feel uncomfortable with Christianity. We have dealt with it pretty well so far. Everyone feels free to use whatever language they choose to express their experience of the Spirit and no one gets criticized for either using or not using the "right" words. But I felt we could and should do better. We should be sharing with each other exactly which parts of the Christian tradition we wanted to keep and which parts we wanted to get rid off.

We met twice in a room which had formerly been a chapel on the Chowan University campus. Nothing was left of the chapel except one stained glass window. This was an apt symbol. Quakerism started out as a radical Christian sect bent on keeping the essence of Christianity which throwing out accumulated garbage. So the question that they faced and that we moderns face is: how do we personally discern the difference between the precious essence and all the rest of the crap.

I began by noting that there is no longer any such thing as "orthodox Christian belief" and hasn't been since Martin Luther successfully broke free from Rome. When there was only one church (the Catholic Church--in the West that is. Eastern Christianity is another story.) there was a range of beliefs (not a single tightly defined mindset by the way) that was orthodox. Within orthodoxy there were those who sought to push the envelope in many ways but were held in check by the power of Rome. Luther and Calvin broke through and survived. What Quakers need to realize is that while Calvin and Luther were MORE conservative theologically than Rome and more like modern fundamentalists in that way--the early Friends were LESS conservative and more like modern liberal Protestants than they were like modern conservative Protestants.

Part of what obscures this is that the extreme end of modern liberal Protestant theology is very radical indeed. More radical than Fox or Barclay. Barclay notes, correctly I think, that Quakers really adopted a rather moderate Christian theology that was closer to Catholicism than it was to the radical conservativism of Luther and Calvin.

The theology of Calvin and of many (not all--they are a very mixed bag when you actually talk to them) evangelical Christians today is repugnant to modern Friends and was equally repugnant to Fox and Barclay. Remember that early Friends went "left" of Rome while Luther went "right" of Rome. The extreme radicalism you find in some liberal Friends today is one that rejects all or nearly all of the traditional Christian worldview while seeking to hang on to, and indeed strengthen, the ethical core of the social gospel. What many Friends are feeling--in my opinion--is that totally rejecting the Christain worldview is throwing out something valuable and important. Yes, we should reject the doctrine of the Atonement and a reading of salvation through faith that makes "faith" equivalent to believing that Jesus died for our sins. But that was a bogus reading of Christianity in the first place that early Friends never fell for.

I've probably rambled too much but I wanted to put in two cents from the perspective of a conservative Friend from North Carolina.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Interesting to hear this report from North Carolina (C)!

I suspect one reason that NC (C) Friends have been "dancing around the tension that can arise between Christian Friends and those who feel uncomfortable with Christianity" is that they don't want to unleash quarrels that tear their community apart. This is a legitimate concern. There is great value in keeping Conservative Quakerism Conservative, which means among other things keeping it joined to its Biblical roots. But the cost of driving dear Friends away who happen to be irrationally afraid of, or irrationally angry at, Christianity, is a heavy and painful cost, and can ultimately destroy the whole community, leaving no yearly meeting at all.

On another point, I'm not persuaded that early Friends "went 'left' of Rome" or were "more like modern liberal Protestants than ... modern conservative Protestants". They appear to me to have been trying to revive the Christianity taught by Christ and Paul, which was (to use modern language) a profoundly fundamentalist sort of goal. They revived, and enforced upon themselves, Biblical strictures that both the Catholics and Protestants were too liberal to take seriously, such as the stricture against swearing and the stricture against fighting. And they were ultrapuritan enough to condemn the world around them for all sorts of "vain" public sins -- astrology and May-games, plays and music, and indulgent (liberal) parenting, right alongside their condemnations of wars, fightings, classist pretentions, and reducing people to beggary.

A fair comparison might be to modern Islamic "fundamentalists", who have a similar list of social intolerances to that of early Friends, and a similar desire to get back to the original form of their religion. (But of course, the original form of Christianity also has important differences from the original form of Islam, for example in its attitude toward violence and political power.)

I actually think that the early Friends did not fit either the modern "U.S. liberal" or the modern "U.S. conservative" mold, but were very distinctly on a third path. Or to look at it from early Friends' eyes, both modern liberals and modern conservatives have fallen far away from the course that early Friends believed that Christ wants human beings to follow.

Lorcan said...

Dear Friend:

I have given thy query about convergent Friends some thought. I grew up Hicksite, just before the schism was healed in our meeting by the sale of the Wilburite Meetinghouse, and I am comfortable calling myself Hicksite, rather than Liberal, as the Hicksite tradition is that aspect of Quakerism is inclusive Quakerism, rather than being a Quakerism with a Shibboleth with which Friends present each other in order to determine the degree of love convergence expressed towards each other.

Bringing any set of definitions of God's being, beyond that of infinite seems to me to be divisive, and in that counter, not only to that aspect of Quakerism which leads Friends to be inclusive, but led Yeshua to say, as he is quoted in one of the Gnostic gospels, "if you follow me you do not follow God... ." However we objectify God as an idol, we might converge on a small circle, small compared to the infinite possibilities of unity with God in infinity. So, to objectify Yeshua as Jesus, as Christ and to define one's unity with God as being dependent on belief that God was differently a part of Jesus that thee or me, in turn objectifies God by the certainty of speaking for God.

The sort of convergence which seeks to fortress around a fundamental, or set of fundamentals which place objectified notions of God between an acceptance of the infinite nature of God as reality and mystery, seems to me to be a divergence from the message of complete love taught by Yeshua, in the sermon on the mount; taught by Hill el. in the statement that the Torah was summed up in doing nothing to another abhorrent to thyself. The rest being commentary; by Fox in stating that we are each of us able to hear that still small voice within when we wait.

Even in these words, I find myself reaching down to express what I know in that still small voice, and know that the voicing of that in these words will divide, and in that division, I loose the true meaning of that which I know in silence.

Thy fFriend and your fFriend

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts, but I really do think that Fox was influenced by ideas prevalent in Calvin, Luther, and the liturgy of the Anglican church of his day more than one might think.

Fox taught, for example, that Jesus takes the initiative as priest, coming to people to bring them to the Father. In underscoring these ideas, Fox took the empahsis off outward liturgy, however, and put it on an inward working of God's Spirit in someone's heart. Chapter 6 of Fox's Journal seems to focus on these ideas.

In a sense, then, I believe that Fox was more concerned with God's initiative than some modern evangelicals, and that he was kind of like older evangelicals that emphasized these themes. I haven't heard much about convergent Quakerism, but this is my take on how the early Friends were like evangelicals.

Allison said...

"Convergent Quakerism" to me just means being Friends with other Friends.


sailheaven said...

I found this discussion after receiving an email from a Friend suggesting that I was convinced of the same path as some Friends described here as convergent, a term of which I was totally unaware.

I can only say that I am convinced that Friends are christian, and that Friends that are not christian are no different from any other apostate worshipper in a christian church. Nobody throws them out (or should), or grills them about it (or should), but every faith is filled with attendees that don't follow their faith as one should to fully experience what God has placed before them.
Too many outspoken persons among us are quick to dismiss where George Fox began, loud to proclaim Friends as not christian, and open to all sorts of practices that lead away from the central tenents of observing the Lord's teachings which we have all heard in our hearts in the resonance of the sermon on the mount. Too often I hear what is puffed up and not what is of Christ.
We are all suffering from editors that substitute "light" for "light of Christ" and revisionists that spread all sorts of lore to make us think that Christ was never really central to Quaker faith, but that a transcendence of Christ is what we really were grasping.
Wow. I pray for forgiveness for these poor misguided souls.
We are all born flesh and must all must die to that flesh. Our transcendence isn't away from Christ, but through Christ. Now all faith is a gift, and those without such a gift can't be accountable for the lack of it. It's not for us to judge those who lack, but to teach them. As for other administrations, past wrongs, I can only say that each must find that path which may be followed.
Some Friends just want to proclaim a new and wonderful path that suits their egos. There's no unity in that. Christian Friends are merely Friends that after a long time sufferring are now just saying that enough was said. We are not a universal world religion, and never were. Just a path that Christ gave us for our sensibilities to be nurished. We follow the path of the Teacher, the one called Jesus the Christ.
Each can follow to the best of their God given abilities.
As for the New Ager, the self proclaimed Buddhist, or Jewish, or Aethiest, Goddess oriented and even Unitarian Friends I have met, well, what is that? Are not there more appropriate places for those faiths to thrive?
I do not know how or why this infiltration came about. But it has been a test for my faith and I will not shrink away from stating the real truth.
And that, as far as I know, is why we Quakers always sufferred. Overly general speech of a positive and ambiguous nature has become the "truth" for many, without any substance, it is chosen for the unspoken subtext. This is not Quaker behavior. We can't speak of those that sufferred for the truth in any context until we learn to speak such clear truth ourselves.
I will not be ambiguous. Christ is my teacher. His path is the path. That is the gift I have. Follow that path and all can be opened to your sensibilities. Sit on the sidelines and debate what was right or wrong with this one thing or that one thing and you'll never know what I am saying. You step in faith or you sink. Who taught you you had a choice?
My, can you see my grin?