Sunday, October 28. 2007
This from the "life imitates art" file. Some of you know my book The Actor's Way deals with the connection between a younger, would-be Quaker actor and and elderly Quaker woman, his former teacher. Below is an exchange between me and Maggie Davis, who at 82 seems to be something of a Quaker dynamo in Florida. While the comparison is not exact, I have been struck again and again by how important these intergenerational dialogues are in the Quaker community. I have been deeply affected by older Quakers in my Yearly Meeting. When we had established Elders in our meetings, these dialogues happened all the time. They were, in fact, the way our Society perpetuated itself. I am moved to ask again: how long until we put our Elders back in their rightful place of leadership, honor and stewardship within our meetings?
What follows, with her permission, is an edited email exchange between Maggie and me. She refers to a pamphlet I wrote for Pendle Hill Publishing called Turnaround: Growing a 21st Century Religious Society of Friends.
Dear Ben -
As you know, I read your Pendle Hill publication "Turnaround" recently with great interest, especially the ending, in which you offer possible solutions for the problems being encountered by Friends and Quaker meetings today.
I hope you'll let me make a few comments, beginning with the ending of "Turnaround" .
I'm glad you found a happy prospect in the numbers and activities of "young Friends" (apparently a 20-30 age group), who use text messaging and cell phones among other things to bond and generally stay in touch with each other in the Friendly spirit.
I'm hopeful, too, that these young Friends are our future Quaker leaders and that the electronic age is going to be friendly to us (Quakers). As you point out in "Turnaround," our numbers are diminishing and with them much of the spirit and sense of Quakerism. Historically our numbers have always been small, but our achievements have been great . . . .
In his book "Beyond Majority Rule" Jesuit Michael Sheehan, writing on Quaker decision-making, emphasizes how vital it is for Friends to base their thinking on respect and care for the group, which he considers essential and in some ways unique to Quakers. He feels the focus on the importance of the Quaker decision-making process may be in danger, influenced by today's individualistic culture.
Certainly the shift, which Sheehan describes as "from communitarian to atomic" has been taking place in my meeting for some time. Recently a committee member invited other committee members via e-mail to join him in a discussion of items of the committee's business before they met at the next committee meeting . . . .
[My] Meeting is mainly composed of two groups: the elderly (over 65), and a group in their thirties and forties. Many in both groups attend for worship and some socialization, and are not involved in Meeting responsibilities. The Meeting has a chronic problem enlisting volunteers, and resorts to some paid positions such as "childcare," although there is currently not much need for this item, as we seldom see any small children. Responsibility for the business of the Meeting is left to a handful of members and attenders who function as the Meeting "doers." . . . .
The Meeting, since building the new meeting house, has experienced a surge in attendance. As with other meetings, many older, experienced Friends are no longer with us and the absence of their Quakerly guidance is felt. A portion of our congregation appears to have become interested in Quakerism only relatively recently, and this group seems to lack knowledge and in some cases even curiosity of what Quakerism is about. As a result the Meeting sometimes seems to invent it's own "Quakerism" - often based on ideas from those "shrill voices" you refer to in your book "Turnaround." This leads so some fairly odd interpretations of Quaker practice. . . . .
The world needs to know about Quakers and what we stand for. As you say in your [pamphlet], many of us feel bitter, defeated and disillusioned as our country has embraced policies at diametric opposition to our beloved testimonies. We ned to show ourselves.
But, I'd like to add, we also need to have recognition among Quakers, too. The Religious Society of Friends In Truth exploded in the sixteen hundreds with thousands of preaching ministries, many of them women, that continued well into the eighteenth century. Theirs was an ecstatic preaching of the Gospel that might more resemble that of modern day evangelicals, but the traveling Quakers were also carrying the message of Friends in many aspects to other Quakers. In the United States traveling, ministering Friends of the 1700's were a great unifying force for the movement, going up and down the east coast and visiting and speaking out in Meeting to other Quakers, and those interested, in the fashion of George Fox. They penetrated parts even of the great American wilderness, visiting isolated Quaker families.
Since, as you say in "Turnaround," the majority of Quakers in this century will be convinced Friends, I believe we are in need of a revival of traveling recorded ministers speaking out to meetings. Traveling Friends have never gone out of existence, but at least as far as my meeting is concerned they have been scarce in recent years. . . . .
There' s such a need and such a great message to be taken to people attending Quaker meetings today! I hope you agree with me.. I am glad I could forward my support and ideas to you as my age, 82, prevents me from taking much of an active part in matters these days.
But I'd like to hear your thoughts in return.
Wow! That's the longest email I've ever received . . . I think!
We are indeed of the same mind about many things. I too have urged my meeting to hold latecomers in our forum room until the children leave, and met the same resistance. So we still have to sit through 15 - 20 minutes of doors opening and closing, etc. and our "hour" of focused worship really shrinks to about 45 minutes.
And I agree about the source of this resistance: our cultural attachment to individualism. Much to my surprise, my Yearly Meeting asked me to speak at our Residential gathering in New Jersey last summer. My speech was called "Building Bridges" and a great deal of it was spent looking at our individualistic nature in the R S of F; at how there are aspects of the R S of F which draw such individualists; and how our future depends upon transforming our individualistic "transfer students" into members of a covenant community, in which our collective well-being comes first. That speech is wandering through the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting publishing process. When (if) it's published I will be sure to send you a copy. There's a portion of it on my blog
Your email reminded me of Howard Brinton's observation, in Friends for 350 Years, that in Quaker communities, the freedom of the individual must be balanced against the freedom of the group. I feel that there is a relationship between our nearly anarchic behavior sometimes, and the absence of meaningful authority in our meetings. We used to have such authority of course: they were called Elders, and they were charged with protecting the meeting and nurturing future leaders. I feel that we need to restore our Elders (who need not be "old", by the way) to a place our loving authority in our meetings. They might be people we could go to and say, help us have a quiet hour in which to worship each week. There are two good pamphlets on Eldering available through Pendle Hill, one called "Tall Poppies" and a recent one by Marjorie Larrabee [not yet available on line] . . . .
I am glad we have made this connection. My book The Actor's Way is about a young NYC actor who re-connects with his elderly Quaker grade school theatre teacher. So these inter-generational relationships resonate for me. Indeed, I believe they represent the future of our Society.
Yours in the Light,
PS: Could I post some of our exchange on my blog? It's okay if not - but I have recently discovered that there is a great nation-wide Quaker conversation going on electronically. Check out www.quakerquaker.org
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>>When we had established Elders in our meetings, these dialogues happened all the time.
Dialogue is important and, I think, the role of the "elder" is something that should be revisited. But the term doesn't necessarily refer to a person's age. An elder could (can) be anyone with ability.
I'm 56, which puts me between the truly elder Friends in their 70s and up and the (few) GenX and Millenial Friends coming up. In my experience, it has been the oldest Friends who have made Quaker meetings off-putting to inquirers with obsessive focus on things like bench placement and by sabotaging discussion of issues which might be divisive. (As Billy said, "No Cross, No Crown.")
Ben, stopped by to see what you were up to and was impressed (again) with what I found. Always appreciate the thoughts/leadings you share, even though I'm a pretty dull sounding board most of the time.
It's interesting that RobinM [robinmsf.blogspot.com] has just posted on Rufus Jones' 1941 William Penn Lecture regarding the challenge to rejuvenate Friends meetings. In his lecture he says:
"I believe that much could be accomplished by carefully planned intervisitation. There are highly gifted persons in a few meetings, who ought to circulate much more than is now the case. Their absence occasionally from their own meeting would throw the sense of responsibility on other members of it, which would have a wholesome effect, and they would bring fresh life and inspiration where they visited. It is impossible for me to overestimate the importance of the visits of Friends in the ministry to our meeting in the days of my youth. It made all things new and wonderful to the little boy who could predict almost infallibly what our own members would do and say. But a new voice, a new vision, a new personality, made all the difference and woke him up to the rich meaning of his Quaker inheritance."
Just promise not to stay away from Haverford too long. Okay?
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