Category Archives: Quaker Theology

FGC: Can This Quaker Gathering Be Saved?

In case any liberal U. S. Friends haven’t yet noticed, FGC (aka Friends General Conference) is flailing. Its crowning event, the annual Gathering, is on life support; the prognosis is grave.

As at Balmoral Castle a week or so ago, key “family” members are gathered: some keeping vigil at the bedside, as others huddle over spreadsheets and in focus groups, in a desperate effort to revive and save— err, “re-imagine” — the centenarian patient.

This “re-imagination” effort is aimed at bringing a treatment plan to FGC’s annual Central Committee sessions in October. What that plan might look like is anybody’s guess.

But here is one Friend’s simple proposal, after much thought and attending thirty-plus Gatherings since 1979:

Face the music, and pull the plug.

If that’s not clear enough:
Stick a fork in it.
Ring down the curtain.
Say it Bought the farm.
Let it bite the dust.
Turn up its toes, for
Its number is up.
Let it kick the bucket.
Give up the ghost
Cross the Rainbow Bridge,
Shake hands with Elvis, and
Meet its Maker.

Or in traditional Quaker parlance, “Lay it down.”

Why do I say that?

There are many reasons. In fact, one could point to fifteen hundred and twenty of them, give or take a few.

1520?

Yeah. That’s the difference between 1970 and 440.

1970 was the attendance at the 2000 Gathering, in Rochester, New York (That figure is from memory, but quite close; I was there, and on the planning committee for it.)

Four hundred forty is the reported tally for the summer 2022 Gathering, initially set to meet in person in southwest Virginia, then switched to remote.

Yes, but — Covid.

Sure. But step back to 2019, the last Gathering in the halcyon days before the pandemic struck. At lovely Grinnell College in Iowa’s vast rolling farmland.

The tally there was 800.

That’s off 1150, a 60% drop (again give or take a few) from Rochester. (And 440 marks an almost 80% decline.)

I don’t have all the attendance numbers since 2000, but sufficient to make the trajectory clear enough that even the Central Committee should be able to see it. Not that the Committee has been unaware. Like many other Gathering alumni, I’ve been surveyed by them about the Gathering’s condition, more than once. And I’ve not held back. Continue reading FGC: Can This Quaker Gathering Be Saved?

Russell Moore on Current U. S. Church splits, and their wider implications

An Excerpt From, “What Church Splits Can Teach Us About a Dividing America,”

Russell Moore, in Christianity Today:

“I asked a pastor of a large Methodist congregation what took the churches in the denomination so long to figure out that they must go in different directions.

He responded, “You are looking at this wrong, and a lot of people do. People think there are conservative churches and progressive churches and we just put the one group in one denomination and the other in another and then we’re all happy. You’re wrong.”

“Most congregations are not ‘blue’ or ‘red,’ if you want to use the partisan political analogy,” he said. “Most of the conservative congregations are 30 percent progressive, and most of the progressive congregations are 30 percent conservative. We’re not talking about a dividing line going down the middle of a denomination but a dividing line going down the middle of almost every individual church.”

After that conversation, I started asking different questions of my Methodist friends. I asked one group of pastors, “When the Methodist Church splits, where is your congregation going?” One answered, “Thirty percent of my church wants to stay put, 30 percent wants to leave, and 30 percent just want everybody to get along. [And] Ten percent don’t know that anything’s going on.” Many others nodded.

I then asked, “So what are y’all going to do?” One of the pastors quipped, “Take early retirement,” and the others laughed and said “Amen!” I’m not sure they were joking.

Yet their situation tracks with the state of the country—perhaps not in the reason for the division but in how it is playing out. “ . . .

Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today. He previously served as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as dean of the School of Theology, senior vice president for academic administration, and as professor of theology and ethics. In August 2022 he was appointed as incoming Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today.

More illuminating (& sobering) background on the earlier church splits are in these two resources:

1) Broken Churches, Broken Nation, by the late scholar C. C. Goen, recounts the major schisms over slavery in three large American denominations prior to the Civil War. (More on that here.)

2) A wave of similar Quaker schisms, over newer social issues but older theological ones, fractured five U. S. Yearly Meetings (thus far) in the 21st century. These are recounted and analyzed in the three-volume study, The Separation Generation.

The “Quaker Scout”: Highlighting A Very Relevant Piece of Quaker History

In 1848 Quaker farmer Jonathan Roberts moved his family south from New Jersey to a new farm in northern VA in 1848. He arrived with high hopes and even higher ideals.

The new spread adjoined George Washington’s Mt. Vernon plantation, already a historic site for the still-young nation. Yet with its distinguished lineage, the property brought its characteristic issues: the fields had been exploited to grow tobacco, which brought quick profits but depleted the soil; and the white owners had been corrupted by maintaining themselves and their culture on a system of enslaved labor and chronic indebtedness.

The more scarred the land became and the deeper in debt many planters sank, the more belligerent they had become in their system’s defense, threatening rebellion and war if it were at all disturbed or upset.

By acquiring land among them, Roberts intended to change all that: renew the soil and make it sustainably profitable; do so entirely with free labor; thereby they would show the slaveowners a way out of debt and the thrall of their brutal human commerce. This would undermine and banish the slavery system, not overnight, but by invincible example and thus without falling prey to the scourge of war. Continue reading The “Quaker Scout”: Highlighting A Very Relevant Piece of Quaker History

AFSC Restructure Update: Hurry Up — And Wait

AFSC & Restructuring, Cont.:

A quick recap: In early January 2022, we posted a report on an attempted uprising at AFSC, led by former staffer Lucy Duncan, intended to torpedo a proposed 2021 restructuring. The restructure  was meant to carry out a strategic plan adopted in October 2020, and a draft had been debated and stalled for over a year. We were told the restructure was set to be presented for final approval to the national AFSC Board in April 2022.

There was much apocalyptic talk about the restructuring scheme as portending widespread layoffs, the imposition of an iron fist top-down corporate style of governance, etc. The wringing of hands produced some long Zoom calls, and Duncan was fired.

As a delaying tactic, though, the kerfuffle succeeded: April passed with no action by the Board.  We reported then that the updated target for Board consideration was its meeting scheduled for June 10-12 2022.

Late in June,  AFSC senior staffer Hector Cortez advised us that the June Board meeting did happen on schedule, and the Board did approve an initial piece of the latest revised Restructure plan.

But the Board action was a rather small bite out of a big restructuring apple. It approved creation of a single, grandiloquently titled new executive post, that of an Associate General Secretary to head a new Division for Global Cohesion. Here’s the official ask:

A proposal for the creation of a new Global Cohesion Division [revolving around several specialized “hubs,” was to be presented] to the Board of Directors in June, as well as the framework for its leadership. We are proposing the creation of an Associate General Secretary role to head the Division for Global Cohesion. This will be the only item requiring Board approval. This proposal was developed by the Working Group on Global Collaboration – a diverse group of twenty-one staff from across the organization who have met weekly since November 2021.

The new executive will deal with the international work. The rest of the restructuring plan — involving the U.S.-based offices and programs, the bulk of AFSC’s labors and most of its staff, remains very much “under discussion.”

And when AFSC talks about discussion, they mean discussion. A twenty-page Leadership Team update about it is full of such jargon, e.g. (emphasis added):

–We are particularly grateful to the many working groups that convened throughout winter and spring 2022, and their tireless efforts to ensure that the proposals and recommendations contained here and below reflect the best ideas from the full spectrum of staff perspectives.

–On Wednesday, June 1st, the General Secretary met with the US W[orking] G[roup] to begin exploring a path forward for continued work on the US Proposal. [T]he group looked at holding regular consultations between the USWG, General Secretary, and additional members of the Leadership Team. The central theme of the meeting was to come to agreement on next steps for discussion, so the opportunity to substantively discuss specific elements of the US restructure will occur in upcoming conversations.

— It is important that these [new] hubs not be perceived as “Philadelphia”, but be seen as global AFSC structures that are in place to give equal voice and support to all parts of the organization and to build connections/provide support across divisions. . . .

— Organizing and facilitating regular conferences, issue-based convenings, and other events (both internal and external) to enhance learning and shared impact.

— Supporting and encouraging staff and program exchanges/learning, site visits, delegations, etc. to build understanding, cross program fertilization, and shared identity.

— These hubs should be built through a participatory process led by collaborative teams of key stakeholders including program staff from across the organization, rooted in their needs and experience. At least six months should be allowed for the hub building process.

And so forth. Further, this is focused only on the international programs.

As for the U. S.-based projects, the leadership memo is very vague, except for a repeated emphasis on more discussion/consultation. Here’s one summary chart:

 

This chart is already outdated; the calendar of discussion is now pushed out to October, and the track record suggests it could well extend beyond that. What the 20-page outline quaintly calls the “new Strategic Plan” will be two years old by then, with most of it still waiting to be unwrapped. The initial phase of the new Global Cohesion “hub-building,” is expected to take at least “six months.” (Six months from, when?)

Will the new Associate General Secretary for Global Coherence (whose salary, by the way, is set at $135,000) be named by October? And will any revamp of the U.S. programs and structures be yet in sight? The memo is equivocal, except about the need for discussion:

— As proposal development advances, there are elements of the US structure that require more and deeper consultation, to ensure the proposal results in a truly collaborative co-design. . . .

— [Leadership supports] The creation of a US Programs Council (composed of thematic group leads, regional leadership, AGS US, US Programs Director, and representatives from OPPA, PMEL and administrative staff) that serves as a decision-making, consultative and information-sharing body focused on the integration, support and resourcing of work within the US Programs Portfolio.

— Over the next several weeks, the group will continue to refine and further develop the proposal, and begin deeper exploration and discernment around issues related to program-based (thematic) planning and budgeting, budget sustainability, roles and responsibilities of thematic and regional leadership, reporting relationships and decision making. . . .

–We recognize the importance of ensuring that essential voices are at the table to participate in decision-making. It is likely that new leadership groups and subgroups will need to be created to inform and support organizational functions. . . . Restructuring conversations are never without their difficulties, and we recognize that this process has not been easy. At the same time, we recognize this moment as one rich with opportunity . . . .

Difficulties? Which to my ears, means more plainly that any hard decisions have yet to be made. Are they any closer? Further, the restructuring “moment” described here seems to be most richly endowed with opportunities for more conversation, consultation, convenings, discernment, exploration, feedback, and yada yada, all of which equal more delay. The January uprising raised the specter that internal AFSC practices could be shaken up and maybe even –good grief — changed, and Duncan’s appeal was determined to squash that. It said

We call on other Quakers to call for a cessation of the planned restructure, an external evaluation of the Senior Leadership Team and a searching, well facilitated internal conversation about how this process proceeded so far despite widespread opposition and how the organization can heal and move forward collectively, honoring all voices especially those most impacted by the issues upon which AFSC focuses.

So the January uprising has succeeded in delaying any actual major changes for half year, with many more months of the same on the horizon. Lucy Duncan lost her personal battle, but she and her supporters appear to be winning the war.

By contrast, one section of the June  leadership memo, which seemed to ring with the voice of General Secretary Joyce Aljouny, talked turkey about money:

COSTING TOWARD SUSTAINABILITY: . . . For the past four years we have worked diligently to break the cycle of deficit spending and depleting our reserves. We have not only produced balanced budgets, but have achieved surpluses that have rebuilt our reserves to a healthy level. . . .

The Leadership Team remains committed to all of the above, and to collaboration with the Board Treasurer and the Stewardship Committee to ensure sustainability. The costs of additional positions due to restructuring will be slowly incorporated as we continue the careful budgeting process that ensures our strategic vision is implemented and programs are strengthened. . . .

As we build budgets, we are committed to implementing multi-year budgets with realistic assumptions and projections, and monitoring strategies for economic conditions, including downturns in the economy, and monitoring program, organizational and staff spending to ensure continued sustainability. . . .

Here I detect echoes of the hard years of AFSC, when it was forced into several rounds of painful layoffs, which appear to have been due in part to sloppy and improvident financial management. Maintaining such no-nonsense fiscal discipline is likely AFSC’s best chance for long-term survival. The memo even promises no layoffs, and continued COLA raises.

But while these job and pay pledges are doubtless sincere, one hopes the staff realizes they are also unavoidably contingent. For instance, however much of AFSC’s surpluses were invested in stocks, their value has likely diminished by more than 20 per cent this spring, with no end in sight to the market turmoil. Such deep declines could eventually make a hash of leadership promises to avoid layoffs or salary freezes, no matter how fervently made. Just sayin’.

Finally, two other items went almost entirely unmentioned in the 20 page leadership memo: the first was the war in Ukraine. One would not  know from this 20-page document whether AFSC had even noticed that since its little uprising in January, and the subsequent marathon of internal parleys and rigmarole, the biggest war in Europe since 1945 had made refugees of 14 million Ukrainians, pushed the U. S. and Russia to the edge of nuclear confrontation, ballooned the Pentagon war budget, expanded NATO and resurrected the Cold War. The Ukraine war was referred to only in a brief passing reference to its possible impact on AFSC’s fundraising from European sources.

The other missing item was Quakerism. The Leadership Team would doubtless object, pointing out that it was indeed included in their June Memo. Yes; and here is the nub of what was said:

Finally, we are committed to bolstering AFSC’s relationship with the Quaker community explicitly in many places of this structure; but all our initiatives are encouraged to keep Quaker engagement in mind. . . .

There was a bit more to it; but placement, and the word “Finally” were giveaways: this was the very last specific item mentioned in the 17 pages of the memo’s main text; it made clear that “Quaker relations” will continue to dangle at the very bottom of the priority list, tucked into AFSC’s work for “Advancement,” which deals with promotion and fundraising. That may sound like “engagement” to the authors; but it looks like more empty hype from outside.

Indeed, much the same can be said of this whole interminable restructuring enterprise. What difference will it make to the world? What difference will it make to actual Quakers? My answer: very little.

In fact, those are questions on which there’s very little interest remaining for even superficial discussion/consultation/feedback, etc.

And maybe that’s just as well.

Another Holiday Story: Playing the Lottery

Playing the Lottery

Winter 1969, Boston. I was driving a cab at night, while attending Harvard Divinity School. I had run through some scholarship and loan money, and needed cash. But I also thought it would be a good experience for a wannabe writer.

When I turned my cab onto St. James Street downtown and saw the kid in front of the Greyhound Bus depot signaling for a taxi, I knew my time had come.

It was nighttime in Boston, the winter of 1969. Cold. Icy. I was a Harvard graduate student with a pregnant wife. We needed money, and the cab companies always needed drivers. The cabs were junk heaps, the pay was lousy, the darkened city was a jungle. But the jobs were there, and so was I. And so, at that moment, was the kid, turning up the collar of a thin jacket against the bitter wind.

It was only about two-thirds of a block from the corner to the bus station, but in the few seconds it took to drive that distance, I went through a whole internal dialogue, something like this:

Go ahead, pick him up.

I don’t want to. Continue reading Another Holiday Story: Playing the Lottery

Scooping the Times, With Grim Satisfaction

For a reporter, even a retired one, there’s a charge of adrenaline in a scoop — getting a story before other journalists.

And if the scooped rival is the Big Kahuna, aka the New York Times, there’s an extra kick to it.

So I’m preening this morning, after noticing that the august Times, fresh off stuffing another Pulitzer Prize into its warehouse full of such trinkets, catching up with reporting that appeared here more than five years ago.

This despite the fact that the story involved mostly delivered grim news.

Seeing the Times headline, “As a ‘Seismic Shift’ Fractures Evangelicals, an Arkansas Pastor Leaves Home,” my immediate reaction was — I admit it — “Well now, it’s about dam time.”

The point of the story was very familiar: Continue reading Scooping the Times, With Grim Satisfaction

Quakers & the End of Abortion Rights: A Very Mixed Bag

Some liberal pundits are predicting a tidal wave of backlash against the leaked SCOTUS decision to reverse Roe & Casey, the decisions that have made abortion a right since 1973, forty-nine years ago. (The full text of the draft decision is here.)

I’ve written that, while a Roe supporter, I’m not at all sure any such tidal wave is certain, or even likely.

Let me add here that this uncertainty seems to apply just as much to U. S. Quakers.

Why?  In sum, because

A. Americans (Quakers too) are exhausted by years of crises, from an attempted (& ongoing) coup begun at the capitol, a continuing pandemic (case numbers are rising again, fast), a new, not-exactly Cold War/World War 3, inflation, and more.

B. Americans, even American women, are and long have been divided on the issue. Furthermore the pro-Roe supporters have long been out-campaigned by the anti-abortion side. Again, Quakers too.

This last is not just my opinion. The leftist journal Dissent put it bluntly and well in 2019:

The American right is winning the battle over abortion rights. In fact, they have been winning for a long time. Since the late 1970s, conservatives have worked to build a well-funded, militant anti-abortion movement that that includes white nationalists, religious extremists, and pro-life feminists. Now, the end of the legal right to abortion appears terrifyingly imminent.

(More on my own ambivalence about a great backlash here.)

I’d be happy for Dissent and I to be wrong and the prophets of political tsunami proven right; but the evidence for it isn’t there now, and I’m not in the “wish-casting” business.

Besides, an informal survey of public Quaker sources only reinforced this impression. Continue reading Quakers & the End of Abortion Rights: A Very Mixed Bag

A Quaker Reconsiders His Peace Testimony

My fate was heavily shaped by a small card that came in the mail in late September 1965.

That card, and fate, are back on my mind now, 57 years later.

I was in Selma, Alabama when the card arrived, still working with the civil rights movement. A few weeks earlier the endurance, courage and determination of the Black people of Selma and many other places in the South had been vindicated by passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Application of the act was just beginning. But after the nine long, tumultuous months of witness leading up to its enactment, full as they had been, my attention was turning elsewhere. Continue reading A Quaker Reconsiders His Peace Testimony

Martha Schofield & A Great Quaker Escape

It was a fine day for an escape.

Imagine we were in Aiken, South Carolina: a pretty town, near Augusta and the Georgia border, with a fine mild climate (headed for the low fifties today, February first, while much of the rest of the US freezes and shovels out).

But we’re visiting there in 1916. Aiken’s climate is a major selling point for the town. It has numerous hotels which attract well-heeled Yankees fleeing the deep freeze of northern winters, and even the heat of summer, plus a railroad to bring them and various cargoes up and down the Southeast.

February first in 1916 was also a Tuesday, and as  the Southern Railroad morning train pulled in from Georgia, the streets were already busy. A great many people of color, dressed as for Sunday churchgoing, were on the streets, heading for the old school.

There were enough of them that few noticed a family of five calmly making their way along the sidewalks toward the station: a tall couple, and three girls of school age.

But not only were they dressed in their best, they were wearing coats heavier than needed in the cool day, and carrying parcels, elderly-looking suitcases and covered baskets. If you were looking for them it would be evident that they meant to get on the train, not to meet someone getting off.

But they hoped no one was looking for them. They had planned for this day a long time, and with care. And part of the care was keeping quiet about it. Continue reading Martha Schofield & A Great Quaker Escape

Drop Online Church?? Bad Idea of the Week (and it’s only Monday morning)

New York Times: Excerpts from, Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services

By Tish Harrison Warren — Jan. 30, 2022

(My comments follow.)

My meeting: so near, and yet so far . . .

Over the past two years a refrain has become common in churches and other religious communities: “Join us in person or online.” I was a big proponent of that “or online” part. In March of 2020, we knew little about the new disease spreading rapidly around the world but we knew it was deadly, especially for the elderly.

My church was one of the first in our city to forgo meeting in person and switch to an online format, and I encouraged other churches to do the same. . . .

Now I think it’s time to drop the virtual option. And I think this for the same reason I believed churches should go online back in March 2020: This is the way to love God and our neighbors. Continue reading Drop Online Church?? Bad Idea of the Week (and it’s only Monday morning)