Attention, liberal Quakers: Ashley Wilcox is coming for you.
Wilcox was the Distinguished Quaker Visitor for the Friends Center at Guilford College in NC this past week. There she delivered a sermon on April 4 titled, “Quakers and the Prophetic Tradition.” In it she forcefully declared that she was on a mission from God, one adopted from no less a figure than the great Hebrew prophet Jeremiah.
For the guiding text, she read,
“See [God says to the young, frightened Jeremiah], I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)
In the text, this statement of mission is figurative: It is not Jeremiah who is to do the uprooting, pulling down & destruction, but God, acting through the enemies of the sinful kingdom of Judah, namely the invading Babylonian armies. As Jeremiah prophesied, the Babylonian forces soon conquered Judah, pillaged Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, killed many inhabitants and took others into a long exile. (Jeremiah himself, after being imprisoned and almost killed by the Judean authorities, ended his days as a refugee in Egypt.)
But Jeremiah was not the invader. Instead, like the other major Hebrew prophets, he was a kind of mail carrier, delivering God’s message to a generally resistant people:
“Behold, I [God] have put my words in thy mouth [Jeremiah]. . . Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee (1: 10, 17) . . . .”
Speak those words, Jeremiah; God (and Babylon) will take care of the rest.
However, Wilcox in her Guilford sermon, did not pick up Jeremiah’s messenger role, but rather that of invading Babylon. She repeated the operative phrase (1:10), but with herself as subject: “I [God] have this day set thee [Wilcox] over the nations and over the kingdoms [mainly unprogrammed liberal Quakers] to uproot, to pull down, and to destroy” what she [and God] have determined to be wrong about them.
And, she explained, the terrible sin she is being dispatched to uproot and destroy is their practice, now a century old, of not recording ministers. Once that demolition is done, the recording system is what will be replanted in its place.
Wilcox insisted that the end of recording, and resistance to reviving it, has done much harm to liberal Quakerism, and to many in its ranks who are seeking recorded status, especially women.
She noted also that some of these recording-seeking women were being “lost to Friends,” heading to other denominations for ordination or its equivalent. She contended that this is exacerbating a trend of decline. A survey she cited, reported that the average age of U.S. Quakers is approaching 59. The clear implication was that a revival of recording ministers would help reverse these slides.
Wilcox also complained with no little choler about opposition she has met with in making her case among liberal Friends. She referred to having heard some historical objections, but did not specify or speak of them further. From individuals, she said, she had often heard, “But we’re all equal,” and recording violates that “testimony”; and, flatly, “you think you’re better than us.”
She said the first objection shows a misunderstanding about Quaker “equality.” “We are all equal in the sight of God,” she explained, “but God calls some especially to uphold public ministry,” and such “gifts” should be “named” and affirmed (i.e., recorded) “for support and accountability.”
There was no space during or after her talk for discussion or comments, so her advocacy went unquestioned. To me that was unfortunate, not least because misgivings and objections were given such short shrift, mentioned only dismissively.
Take the matter of “equality.” It’s true that few liberal Friends have any idea that a “Testimony” to it is quite new among Friends, and is by no means universal in Quakerdom even today.
Instead, for at least 200 years, despite their “peculiarities” of refusing “hat honor,” saying “thee and thou” to all classes, accepting women’s speaking, and the like, Friends also believed in, and practiced, many kinds of inequality, not least slavery and — well into the mid-1900s — racial segregation. (And don’t get me started on class inequalities and issues among Quakers yesterday, or today. )
Anyone who doubts this, I commend to their attention a long paragraph in Robert Barclay’s classic “Apology,” where he considers the list of Quaker “peculiarities” (refusing “hat honor,” etc.,) which some still called subversive, and in which he claims the exact opposite (following Section II.6):
I would not have any judge, that hereby [through these “peculiarities”] we intend to destroy the mutual relation, that either is betwixt prince and people, master and servants, parents and children, nay not at all. We shall evidence that our principle in these things hath no such tendency, and that these natural relations are rather better established than any ways hurt by [these peculiar practices. Emphasis added.].
Read the rest of his explanation, and see if it is not enlightening.
So it’s no accident that “Equality” is not found in the early books of Discipline. To the contrary, they make clear that the Society of Friends was for more than 200 years very much a hierarchical body. To start with, there were “superior” and “subordinate” meetings. Further, the physical/social elevation of ministers and elders was made visible in separate and higher “facing benches” that soon were standard in meetinghouses.
As a separate value or witness, “equality” did not really surface until the mid-nineteenth century, and then it was part of a larger, uphill struggle against the recorded class system. “Equality” only won a place after decades of struggle. And to repeat, it is not universal among Friends bodies even yet. No wonder many are strongly attached to it.
Moreover, I’m not sure that Wilcox realizes that the “all-equal-in-the-sight-of-God” meme is a classic patronizing deflection by those with more power or status (real or ascribed), to complaints by restless underlings. It has a close echo in Romans 2:11: “God has no favorites,” blithely written in a world of kings and commoners, free and slaves, and silenced women. Or as George Orwell put it, in that society (as in ours), some were “more equal” than others.
Not least, on the historical balance sheet, there is the long and often sordid record of involvement by recorded elites in the suppression of free thought and free discussion among Friends, and the instigation of purges and schisms, down to and including the present.
Much of this tragic record has been recorded in standard Quaker histories, whose work is regularly ignored by the practice’s advocates. Wilcox shrugged all this off with a single sentence, simply noting that “It has been our practice,” suggesting with the passive voice that obviously no more need be said.
But more does need be said: Yes it was “our practice” to record, until a large slice of Quakerism ended that practice, after using the gospel test of “judging the tree by its fruits” (Luke 6:43) over generations, and finding the “fruits” of that “practice” too often bitter, poisonous & destructive. (That struggle is recounted in detail here and here . )
In North Carolina, where such active aggression by a clerical faction only recently triggered the destruction of a 320 year-old Yearly Meeting, such cavalier treatment of this history is particularly unconvincing.
As for the matter of some Friends saying to her and other advocates, “you think you’re better than us,” I wonder if she could hear herself pronouncing that she had a divinely mandated personal appointment to “uproot, tear down and overthrow” a century of different practice, deeply rooted in many of the liberal bodies, whether asked for or not.
One could dismiss this declaration as mere hyperbole. But I pay Wilcox the respect of believing that she meant what she so emphatically said, and repeated.
I also take very seriously those who propose to fulfill a text which quotes God as saying “out of the north (or maybe this time, the south) an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land,” (Jeremiah 1:17) . . . for I am with thee, saith the Lord” (1:19) Yes, that is definitely meant be an unequal encounter.
Part of what confuses me here is that, as far as I can see, doing without the recording system does not deny Friends of any gender opportunities to pursue their leadings or join with others to worship and work. If Wilcox is led, as she said, to promote and refine the ministry of women, she is free to do so, recorded or not: she can apply her energy and imagination to that work, and gather others who are like-minded to it. After all, many unrecorded Friends have labored to that end (and others) for generations.
What am I missing here?
All I can see to be gained by this system’s revival, especially after observing the damage it has lately wreaked in various yearly meetings, are two things: First, the bestowal of distinctive signs of status, including an “official” credential. And second, the ability to stop others from pursuing their concerns, under the rubric of “accountability,” dispensed by an official in-group.
In the days of the recording system, such “accountability” was quite intrusive; for instance, it even included the option to censor any publication by members, for “soundness.”
Is that now ancient, irrelevant history? Not at all: attentive American Friends have seen a once-large midwest yearly meeting disrupted and torn for six years (2003-2009) by a factional clerical crusade to strip and banish one minister who dared publish a theological book some ministers did not approve of.
Then another yearly meeting’s “recorded” leadership trashed all norms of good order, and invoked its “superior” authority over “subordinate” meetings in an attempt to isolate and expel one meeting that had moved to affirm LGBT membership. That purge ultimately succeeded, but more than a dozen meetings also left, in solidarity with the target. A few more “victories” like that, and . . . .
Three other yearly meetings have since faced similar crises. The costs of these conflicts are many; and the issues and hazards of the recording system are alive and raw among them. (Details of these struggles are available in the journal Quaker Theology, online here. )
This record amply shows that among Friends, it does not take many who are determined to “uproot, tear down and overthrow” to wreak much havoc, no doubt on behalf of what they believe is a good cause, or especially, to carry out “God’s will.”
I’ve spent much time since the new millennium began reporting on this widespread yearly and local meeting turmoil, in all of which the recorded system was implicated. I admit to being very wary of clarion calls for more such overturning on behalf of its restoration. My sense is that there is still plenty of energy for pushback against such calls; but have we no more weighty matters to cope with in these calamitous days?
[Besides which, there is still “accountability” in these non-recording: groups. Anyone who has worked in a children’s or youth program in that world can attest to it: all, whether paid or volunteer, must undergo a police background check before beginning their labor. I have done so myself; and passed, BTW.]
Even so, let the debate about the wisdom and value of restoring the plan commence. Wilcox might smooth the way in her advocacy by considering a somewhat different, non-Babylonian “frame” to a “prophetic” Quaker calling. Suppose she were ready to have open discussion of her ideas, based on:
First, an informed, respectful accounting of the system’s difficult and contested history;
Next a careful examination of what “equality” means for interested Friends today (“We’re all equal before God” can be her starting point; it would not likely be the end).
And third, let us see the models for a new recording system that could minimize or avoid reproducing the chronic “bad fruits” of destructive internal controversies and politicization, while preserving the congregational autonomy fundamental for most liberal Friends. Are there such models? I haven’t seen any, and am doubtful they exist, but I’m ready to consider them.
And fourth, let us be shown how such a revival of recording would help ease the aging and reported numerical decline? Mainline churches mostly ordain women already, yet their numbers are still falling like a stone. [I hope they’ll keep ordaining women, as a matter of justice; but will it remedy the decline — ? Not shown.] Meanwhile, the very patriarchal LDS church (Mormons) does not ordain women, yet it has grown by 45% since 2000. And among U.S. Friends, no less than five yearly meetings — all of which still have the recording system– were the scenes of destructive schisms since the beginning of this century, and all emerged having lost many members. I’d call this sample of results decidedly inconclusive.
Such discussions could well be extended, and at some points difficult. But I believe they would have much more credibility than what was heard at Guilford. Wilcox herself said Friends need to learn to “sit with discomfort” and work their way through tough issues. That could well start here. But dismissing the system’s history and then echoing privileged condescension toward those with other views — these are not promising openers.
I’m with Wilcox on one thing: Jeremiah is one of my favorite prophets, too. But come to think of it — who recorded his ministry? (Besides God, and only Jeremiah heard that.) When he tried to get some street cred, by having his messages written down and presented to king Jehoiakim, he was instead subjected to the humiliation of having the king cut up the scroll and burn the pieces in a public ceremony. Not exactly the recognition he was after. And not much later he was thrown into jail and otherwise abused. Not exactly an affirmative response. But if he could still get his messages delivered even without recording, why do Quakers need it so bad?
The American Society of Friends has already had plenty of Babylonian-style “wrath” poured out on it in recent years. Do we really deserve more? Are we ready to see Jeremiah’s forecast in 4:7-8 come to pass in our beleaguered communities: “The lioness is come up from her thicket, and the destroyer . . . is on her way; she is gone forth from her place to make thy land desolate; and thy cities shall be laid waste, without an inhabitant.”
Personally, I’d rather keep that vision in biblical print, rather than watch it acted out again.
Not that liberal Quakerism is above criticism or has no need of reform. It does; but that’s another story and recording isn’t on my list. Meantime I’m ready for would-be reformers to consider instead the Parable of the Sower, who broadcast the message without fanfare or force; or the woman who induced change by calmly adding leaven in the loaf, or even Jesus’ highlighting of the Mustard Seed, which starts very small and germinates in quiet mystery to great effect. Might these not be more serviceable images for the task?
As Jesus said, closing the Parable of the Sower, “She who has ears to hear, let her hear.”