Category Archives: Quaker Theology

David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court

A bulletin from southern California: The biggest Quaker church in the world wants to shut down one of the smallest. The small church sued in late 2018 to stop the shutdown.

But a hearing in Orange County Superior Court on January 31 could lock their doors & make the small church members and its pastors homeless.

The issue: the small church was helping homeless people.

Yorba Linda Friends Church. Its 18-acre main campus is best seen from the air.

The Goliath here is Yorba Linda Friends Church, which claims 4800 attenders weekly at its five campuses. Its home is an 18-acre complex, now being expanded again, perhaps best glimpsed from the air. Its website lists 84 paid staff. Its top pastors and prominent members also hold the key posts in the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (or EFCSW) as a de facto subsidiary.

Founded as California Yearly Meeting, the group has shed the “Yearly Meeting” label along with most other Quaker features, both corporately and operationally. The group’s main session, now called the Annual Conference, is set for this weekend. If the judge rules for them Friday, the gathering will likely see some celebrations, privately if not in the open.

Worship at Midway City Friends Church; plenty of room. However, the group’s membership has doubled from 10 to 20 during the Pfeiffers’ tenure.

The “David” figure in this drama is the Friends Community Church of Midway City, about a 20-minute (and two or three light-years’) drive from Yorba Linda. Although this group is nearly ninety years old, it is quite small: on a good week, its services draw maybe 30 people. But from all descriptions it is a tightly-knit congregation.

Cara and Joe Pfeiffer.

Midway City’s pastors are a couple, Joe and Cara Pfeiffer, who occupy a parsonage along with four foster children. The church pays them a pittance, and they are, in current parlance, “bivocational,” piecing together a modest subsistence with other work, while also pursuing doctoral studies at nearby Fuller Seminary.

The confrontation here brings into pretty stark view three converging, intractable issues of our American moment: inequality, homelessness, and the increasing fervor with which the affluent are preserving their comforts, among which is not having to see or deal with the other two, except on their own terms.

A bit of background: the Los Angeles region is under siege on more than one front. Most of us know about the fires; which we must leave aside here. Often lost in their smoke, but ever-present, is the steady rise of homelessness. This is, of course, a national phenomenon, but seems particularly acute in southern California.

A small stretch of the three-mile sprawl along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail, 2017. It grew to include around a thousand homeless people.

In Orange County, the count of homeless persons increased from about 4800 in 2017 to over 6800 in late 2019. In 2017 a three-mile stretch of tents and camps grew along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail, which winds through central Orange County in Anaheim. The burgeoning settlement was in sight of the Angels baseball stadium, Disneyland and the Ducks Hockey arena, and it rapidly became the tent-crowded “home” of nearly a thousand homeless. (A video bike tour of the stretch is here.)

The trouble that ultimately embroiled these two Friends churches could be said to have begun in late February 2018, when Orange County authorities swept through this three-mile bike trail stretch. There they rousted almost a thousand homeless campers.

In their wake was a vast swathe of trash and abandoned belongings which took weeks to clean up. At length, that stretch of trail was re-opened, and bicyclists had an unobstructed path again.

But where did the many hundreds of bike trail homeless go? One police official told reporters that the whole process was like stepping on a balloon: it might flatten out where you were standing. But then it swelled out somewhere else.

Midway City Friends Church. Its property is about one acre.

There were already plenty somewhere else. Several months before the river trail sweep, a few of them made their way to Midway City Friends Community Church. Two were a man and wife in a venerable RV. The husband had stage four colon cancer (he has since died). Details are sketchy, but they may well have been among the many who have been bankrupted by medical bills. Pretty soon a couple individuals joined them.

The church had some unused space.

Joe and Cara Pfeiffer were not planning to start a homeless shelter. But they faced what could be called the Matthew 25 Dilemma, drawn from Jesus’ scenario of the last judgment. Let’s review:

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:31 “When the Son of man shall come in his glory. . . 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. . .

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:35 

A bucket of needles, among the several thousand used syringes collected along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail after the homeless camp was cleared.

For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and feed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?38 When did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

The Pfeiffers were well aware of how controversial these guests could be. But they are also serious Christians. In their theology, Jesus in Matthew was not laying out a program, like a presidential candidate, for curing homelessness; he was giving his disciples a command to “love their neighbor” by acting with sacrificial compassion.

It was chancy (it was for Jesus); but they did it. Quietly, they thought.

But, not quietly enough.

A hostile neighbor soon noticed the telltale signs: bicycle parts; bare mattresses visible through the windows of spare rooms; the itinerant RV lingering in a driveway. The neighbor called the Orange County Code Enforcement Office, which dispatched an inspector to the church. Shortly a “courtesy notice” was sent, stating that some of these items were in violation of county codes. If they weren’t rectified, the church could be issued a formal citation.

The Pfeiffers saw that the jig was up. Reluctantly they told their guests they had to move on, and tidied up the area. The inspector returned, found the church was in compliance, and no citation was issued.

Matthew Cork, head pastor of Yorba Linda Friends Church and Superintendent of the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest. He sits on the Elders Board that voted to fire Joe Pfeiffer and close the Midway City church.

But in the meantime the County had sent a copy of the notice to Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW). Authorities there decided the incident was not over. In fact, it called for a decisive, if drastic response. On March 27, 2018, members of EFCSW’s Elder Board met with its top staff, and decided forthwith to

  1. Terminate the Pfeiffers, and instruct them to vacate the parsonage promptly; and
  2. Permanently close down the Midway City church, in April.
Ron Prentice. Before coming to Yorba Linda and EFCSW, he spent more than ten years in fulltime work to stop the legalization of same sex marriage, with Focus on the Family and the California Family Council.

The Pfeiffers were not informed of their firing until May 3, 2018. That news was delivered by Ron Prentice, Chief of Staff for both Yorba Linda and EFCSW. He takes the minutes of the EFCSW Elder Board meetings. But they and the congregation, while small, stoutly resisted and defied these dictates, and the closing/eviction dates were repeatedly delayed.

In August, the Elder Board, which asserts that EFCSW owns all its members’ church property, set what it thought was a firm closure date of August 31. But it was pushed back again, and in October 2018 Midway City filed a lawsuit, which claims EFCSW does not have any real ownership claim on the Midway City church, which was built and maintained from their own meager budgets,  and that EFCSW had violated its own rules and Quaker practices in its dealings with the Pfeiffers and the congregation. The closure/eviction has been on hold since then.

That’s what the judge will decide. And this shift of focus to the seeming arcana of “Quaker process” may make some readers’ eyes glaze over, I ask that they stay with us a bit, because there’s more here than meets the eye.

Because EFCSW’s top staff and much of the currently ruling Elder Board of EFCSW heavily overlap with the leadership of Yorba Linda Friends Church, the contrasts between it and Midway City ought not to be skimmed over. Let’s consider some of these.

First of all, the setting. A sign on the edge of Yorba Linda modestly dubs it “Land of Gracious Living.” And with some reason: as an old jibe puts it, the Quakers came to Yorba Linda to do good, and some (really many) have done very well indeed. They and their neighbors.

More than once recently, Yorba Linda was named the richest city of its size in the U.S.  Median household income ranged between $110-120,000 per year (probably higher now with the soaring stock market); a real estate site pegs the median house value as $850,000. Only 3.1% of residents are under the poverty line.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the city’s Wikipedia entry notes proudly that besides being the richest of its kind, “Yorba Linda is California’s most conservative large community . . . .” Voters there went two to one for Proposition 8, an effort to stop legalization of same sex marriage. (It passed 52-48%, but was later overturned.) In the 2016 presidential election, while deep-blue California gave Donald Trump only 31 percent of its votes, in Yorba Linda, Hillary took a bare 33 percent, to Trump’s 56 percent.

Midway City is not in fact a city, but an unincorporated area in Orange County, with no city council, schools or police of its own. Many residents like that; it keeps their local taxes down. Midway City is home to a large Vietnamese-American population, whose founders were refugees from the lost Vietnam War.

Twenty miles southwest, Midway City (which is not a city at all, but an unincorporated enclave in the larger town of Westminster) sits  several rungs down the economic ladder.

It’s not a slum, but homes are older, with values under $700,000. Median household incomes are around $47,000, and 13% of residents are under the poverty line. It is home to two trailer parks, plus apartment complexes for disabled, low income and homeless veterans. Here Hillary bested Trump: 51 – 43%.

More to our point, in the latest count of homeless, Westminster/Midway City tallied above 180, and its adjoining towns held 2000-plus. A few miles north, another 2000 were counted in a swath of suburbs running west to east across Orange County. Anaheim, even after the clearing of its notorious Santa Ana River Bike Trail, headed that list at over 1200.

And Anaheim’s northern boundary runs for several miles along Yorba Linda’s town line.

Yet once back past in the Land of Gracious Living, we are in a different world: amid their county’s simmering, surrounding, ever-expanding multitude, the 2019 recorded count of homeless in Yorba Linda was: 1.

[Not a typo: One.]

Not that Yorba Linda’s largest church is indifferent to the plight of homeless people. As its Chief of Staff Ron Prentice testified in a deposition, echoing the Matthew 25 quote above, “It’s actually a call of Christians to care for the widows and the orphans specifically from scripture, and oftentimes we would see homeless individuals in that light, and I believe that by providing shelter in — in — without — without risking liability or — or harm to the culture of the neighborhood, that would — that would align with my thinking, absolutely.”

And true to its word, Yorba Linda Friends Church, where Prentice wears another hat as, again, Chief of Staff, did mobilize groups to visit with and personally minister to the homeless three times in 2019.

Those homeless were Dalits, who are, as the church website put it, “the lowest of the low” in the caste system of India; 8000 miles away from Orange County. The ministry trips cost participants $3250 each.

Closer to home, the group’s concern to avoid “harming the culture of the neighborhood” was evident. The rulers clearly found the Midway City church, and the Pfeiffers, a liability in this regard. Further, the ruling EFCSW Elder Board asserts that it has full authority to deal with such liabilities. As the EFCSW’s book of Faith & Practice puts it, under the heading of “Final Authority””

“Thus EFCSW holds the spiritual and legal power among its churches to decide all such matters, including, without limitation, all organizational and operational matters. Its decisions are final. It can counsel, admonish, discipline, dismiss, or close its subordinate churches.”

Further, this authority is vested, on 364 days of each year, in its Elder Board, a group of up to nine, that meets secretly. On day 365 (which for 2020 occurs Saturday, February 1), a Representative Body gathers for a single session of usually under three hours, to approve the budget and nominations presented to it by the Elders. Information about these items is typically concise: the entire EFCSW annual budget summary for the 39-church group usually takes up less than a single page. [If that thumping sound you hear sounds like a rubber stamp, you could be right.]

It was not always done this way. The Midway City lawsuit argues that the Faith and Practice has been hijacked by a small group, mainly associated with Yorba Linda. The present “Final Authority” text was only inserted in 2011, and all real power has since been concentrated in the Elder Board’s hands, exercised in closed meetings, brooking no challenge, with no regard for the rest of the body, or previous Quaker traditions of broad consultation, open discussion, and sometimes extended seeking of consensus.

A prime instance was the Elders’ decision to terminate the Pfeiffers and close Midway City, neither of which were presented by the Elders to a Representative Body session.

BTW — taking possession of the Midway City church and its acre of land could provide EFCSW a considerable windfall. After all, as the beleaguered church keeps pointing out, EFCSW spent none of its funds to acquire the land, build or maintain the church and its other buildings. With land prices in southern California what they are, just selling the property could likely bring in millions

Has this occurred to anyone in EFCSW? A review of 2018 and 2019 Elder Board minutes turned up frequent discussions of and laments about the lack of funds to pursue their plans, and the need to find more funding sources. Further, in deposition testimony, EFCSW/Yorba Linda Chief of Staff Prentice acknowledged, “I did not deny that the future of the church is being discussed and the option of selling the property is on the table, [but] it was made clear to [Midway Friends] that the reasons for Joe’s dismissal from the position of pastor are based on our questions of discernment . . . .”  “poor discernment”

The charges of “poor discernment” and unacceptable behavior were indeed frequently repeated in Prentice’s deposition, and referred to in Elder Board minutes deposition. Asked if the reputed  behavior included moral, financial, or other such professional lapses, Prentice said no.

What then, specifically? Prentice responded,

“I’m aware of Mr. Pfeiffer’s comments through others during the process of the nomination of Matthew Cork to be considered as the superintendent in replacement of Stan Leach. I was not present at one meeting where Mr. Pfeiffer was vocal regarding the process of selection, and I was present at another follow-up meeting — the final meeting prior to Mr. Cork’s selection as superintendent where  Mr. Pfeiffer was again vocal and dissatisfied with the process of the selection of the superintendent, yes.”

Being vocal and dissatisfied with an opaque hiring process? Showing the temerity to question an Elders’ decision; in EFCSW,  these were grounds for termination & closure, with no appeal.

It’s also a clear enough signal, indeed a warning, to other pastors in EFCSW churches, where there are reports of murmuring and unease with the trajectory of Yorba Linda/EFCSW: speak at your own peril.

EFCSW’s response to Midway City’s suit comes down to repeating the passage on “Final Authority,” insisting that this power is vested in the Elders Board, acting on its own, and that under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause, secular courts have no business interfering with such matters.

That’s why they will be seeking, in the court hearing on January 31, a summary judgement, to toss out Midway City’s  lawsuit on the basis that there’s “no there there,” nothing in it that the court could rightly adjudicate. They may be able to win the judge to this view.

That’s Goliath Quakerism.

Meanwhile, the homeless of Orange County huddle while their numbers grow; The Pfeiffers and their congregation wait to see if they will be joining them; the grand life in nearby privileged enclaves continues; and the credibility of much of American Christianity continues to diminish.

Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

May 24 was (Authentic) Religious Liberty Day (at least it was here), but the Administration has some strange ideas about how to mark it. Like: turn it upside down & inside out.

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, HHS.

That day it released  a proposed federal rule that would deny transgender persons many of the medical benefits and legal protections they gained in the Obama years. The proposal is one more chapter in the continuing drive to roll back just about everything the previous administration achieved or initiated. (Full text of the proposed rule is here. )

As the New York Times put it , the new rule Continue reading Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

In 1988 I wrote a substantial essay laying out my views about abortion, and describing how they had evolved over time. The piece also considered the increasing parallels, both rhetorical and political,  between this struggle and the Civil War.

Thirty-plus years later, despite some continuing evolution and updates, much of the piece still seems relevant, not least the potential for civil  strife.

(Author’s note from 1998 reprint: Many of the policy issues described in this essay still seem timely more than a decade later. Further, the personal journey it describes was an important part of my life, one not to be denied or concealed. It is also necessary background to the civil war scenarios that will also surface. . . . A much shortened version of the piece was published in The New Republic.)

INTRODUCTION: My Abortion Pilgrimage

Continue reading Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

Lucretia Mott’s Quaker Easter Message, Still Good the Day After

Some years ago, a Friend who was much taken with what she believed was Quakerism’s essential, and defining character as a kind of mysticism, approached me. Knowing of my admiration for Lucretia mott, she asked if she should add Lucretia to her list of the great Quaker mystics.

Nope. Quite the contrary, I told her. In truth, Lucretia would in fact all-but head the list of the great anti-mystics of Quaker history. And as Lucretia’s motto was, “Truth for Authority, not Authority for Truth,” it would be untruthful say otherwise.

I don’t know what happened to that Friend’s list. But before all the folderol and sugar high of Easter weekend dissipates, it may be worth taking a few moments to consider Lucretia’s convictions on the seasonal fanfare. Continue reading Lucretia Mott’s Quaker Easter Message, Still Good the Day After

A Quaker Bible Scholar & the Resurrection

Henry Cadbury, a U.S. relative of the legendary British Chocolate magnates, was a renowned New Testament scholar & translator, which I am advised is a much less magnateishly-remunerated profession. Though while he was doing that, he also taught at Harvard Divinity School (or HDS), which means he wasn’t going to starve.

Henry Cadbury. sometime in the last century, at his scholarly work, with a characteristic gesture. (The gesture was his hand cupped around an ear; he became hard of hearing).

In those days (and even now), HDS worked to have an ecumenical student body (in 1968, this outlook led them so far astray as to admit me).

Alas, by then Cadbury had retired. But echoes of his pedagogy still seemed to whisper in the HDS halls. This was especially true of his humor, which leavened his more widely renowned scholarship.

New York Daily News, December 1, 1952.

Cadbury was one of 91 scholars who translated the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a project which took many years and was published in 1952, with great public fanfare, big sales — and hot pushback from fundamentalists.

One such pastor, Rev. Martin Luther Hux of the Temple Baptist Church in Rocky Mount North Carolina, preached a two-hour sermon condemning the RSV, then climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck and  burned a page from the RSV, after distributing American flags to his entire congregation. Other immolations were reported.

A reporter called Cadbury for comment.  The professor paused, then observed that in former times,  such critics preferred to burn the translators. So if now they were only burning the translation — wasn’t that a sort of progress?

Wit and erudition also came together in his New Testament courses. Cadbury was greatly admired by many students for his careful exposition of various approaches to analysis of New Testament texts, particularly the Gospels, and his care to avoid inserting his own views, so students were free to develop their own.

Or rather, this was admired by many. Yet some, among the more theologically orthodox, expected him not only to teach the Gospels, but also to “bear witness” to his belief in them, especially the key passages involving Jesus.

Thus the story is told that toward the end of a semester, one such student raised his hand, and then confronted Cadbury. As I recall, he said, “Professor, you have talked a lot about the crucifixion and the resurrection in the Gospel texts, but we have no idea what you believe about this. So, let’s have it: Yes or No, do you believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus?”

Cadbury pondered the query with a sober mien, removed and polished his spectacles, carefully replaced them,  and said:

“I believe . . . in the physical resurrection of Jesus . . . on Tuesdays, Thursdays . . . and sometimes Saturdays.”

One wonders if this class was convened on the day before a Saturday like today. But my source, or at least the recollection, is unclear on this point.

Perhaps it will be clearer tomorrow.

PS. Cadbury’s wife Lydia was a woman of strong views. For one, she was very skeptical of the popular trend among some Quakers toward mysticism. “Had another mystical experience, eh?” She once said to a visiting Friend. “Tush. I’d rather do a load of wash.”
On another occasion, at a Harvard faculty dance, she glared over her husband’s shoulder at a woman gliding across the floor, who had recently left her husband for another man: “Henry,” she said, “did you know that woman has committed adultery?”

“All I know,” Henry sternly whispered back, “is that she has not committed it with me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now Online: “Quaker Theology” #33 — 20th Anniversary Issue

Quaker Theology #33 — Winter 2019

20th Anniversary Issue

Scroll down for Contents

 Contents

Editor’s Introduction 
A quick review of the ground  covered in 20 years of independent theological work & publication.

Moment of Truth: Wilmington Yearly Meeting Divides over a Familiar Set of Issues, by Stephen W. Angell
This is the fifth yearly meeting breakdown chronicled by this journal in its tenure, and its pages remain the only source of significant reporting on these difficult spectacles.

The Separation Generation, by Chuck Fager
A detailed summary of the five schisms that have rocked American Quakerdom in this century (so far),  with an early assessment of their significance.

Imminence, Rootedness, and Realism: Eschapocalyptic
Action (or not) in the Age of Trump, by r. scot miller.
An effort to construct the elements of a 21st century Quaker theology, turning to such largely untapped sources as Malcom X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Reinhold Niebuhr.

A sermon Delivered by Lucretia Mott, at Yardleyville.
Bucks Co., Pa., Sept. 26, 1858, by Lucretia Mott
A contrasting Quaker theological vision, advanced by one of the most influential (but unheralded) American theological voices the Society has produced. Presented 160 years ago, this vision is still keenly relevant, hotly disputed, and its author still largely unrecognized as the theological giant she was.

About the Authors Continue reading Now Online: “Quaker Theology” #33 — 20th Anniversary Issue

Sierra Cascades YM: “Our New Thing” versus the “Same Old Thing”?

In the Northwest, the new Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends (SCYMF) is deep into its first round of recording ministers.

Five Friends have asked to be recorded. Their names & descriptions are being republished in the YM’s weekly news bulletin, for a  60-day period of  “Public Comment” on their candidacies, to be followed by further discernment.

I won’t speak here of any of these individuals; I’m not really familiar with them, and this post is about policy, not personalities.

As for the policy, I wish SCYMF was considering in depth not only whether some individuals ought to be recorded as ministers, but first the wisdom of having such a category in their yearly meeting at all.

Sierra Cascades began taking shape in early 2017, after several meetings in Northwest YM were deemed “liberal” (or insufficiently evangelical), particularly on LGBT and related issues, and were abruptly booted out. (Steve Angell and I reported on the buildup to these expulsions in Quaker Theology –  Issues #24, #27, #28, #30-31 & #33.)  

For several months, participants in the group of banished meetings  informally referred to it as “Our New Thing,” and there was an air of discovery and reinvention to the messages from its initial proceedings. Yet as it prepares for its second annual session, some familiar outlines have appeared.

The matter of recording is a major one.

Continue reading Sierra Cascades YM: “Our New Thing” versus the “Same Old Thing”?

Ashley Wilcox to Liberal Quakers: “I’m coming to uproot, to pull down, and destroy”

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.

Jeremiah, by Rembrandt. He is often imagined as a voice of lamentation and grief. Given the times, and the messages he was given to deliver, it is not hard to see why.

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.  Continue reading Ashley Wilcox to Liberal Quakers: “I’m coming to uproot, to pull down, and destroy”

Spiritualism & Quaker Theology: Two Examples

Two Specimens of Quaker Theology
In Transition, 1852

Excerpted from Voices From the Spirit World,

By Isaac Post, 1852

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Isaac Post was a Friend, raised in Long Island, New York, who later settled in Rochester, New York with his family.  There he was active in abolitionist and other reformist groups, which brought him into conflict with the more cautious & conservative elders of his Hicksite Friends meeting.

He and his wife Amy resigned from their meeting in the 1840s, and later were active with the Progressive Friends groups in the region. The Posts also were early supporters of the Spiritualist movement which swept through reformist and Progressive Friends circles.

Isaac soon became a “writing medium” himself, and in 1852 produced a  book, a collection of “messages” from various “spirits.”

Included in Post’s book were “messages” from many prominent deceased Friends and public figures (e.g, voltaire & George Washington).  These missives, which seem to this reader to be largely exercises in wish-fulfillment, articulate the basic impulses of Progressive Quaker theology, clothed in and justified by the words of notable Quaker &  non-Quaker forebears. They also offer a capsule version of the Progressive conflict with the received, more orthodox theology.

Spiritualism eventually lost much popular appeal, but adherents to it have continued to turn up among Friends, most recently in a semi-underground fashion. Continue reading Spiritualism & Quaker Theology: Two Examples

Quaker Theology: Weaponizing “Quaker Process”

What accounts for the wave of schisms we at Quaker Theology have been chronicling since 2010 & dubbed “The Separation Generation”? And what could be done about it? In our 20th Anniversary issue of Quaker Theology, we began to raise these questions in a survey of the carnage inflicted by these disruptions.

Doug Bennett, former president of Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana.

Doug Bennett, a former president of Earlham College and a savvy Friend, provides one of the key clues.

While at Earlham he was a member of an Indiana  meeting which went through the purge of 2011-12. Afterward,  he reflected delicately on what had happened in a blog post from  September 7, 2012:

“Schisms require some governance fiddle.

My earliest wondering about schisms was about how they could ever occur given Friends governance practices, our commitment to acting in unity through attending to our business in worship.  If we have to act in unity, how can we divide?

I think the answer must be that somewhere, somehow in each schism there has been some forcing, some deviation from our best governance practices. We have divided by not finding unity – or declaring  ‘unity’ when there was none.”

Our reporting on these recent crackups persuades me that Bennett is basically right, and his insight here is a very important one. Still, I have some quibbles.

My first quibble is that his post falls short of the Friends aspiration to “plain speaking.” That is, “Fiddle” is a woefully insufficient word to describe much of what happened. “Cheating” is plainer, thus more accurate. Chicanery, duplicity and treachery are apt corollaries. 

In some of these recent cases, particularly Indiana and Northwest yes, the fiddlers/cheaters got their way. In North Carolina, Western &  Wilmington YMs, they faced pushback, and the “fiddles” didn’t work out as planned. In our culture today, it’s a pushback world. 

So that’s another quibble with Bennett. Cheating,  if identified and faced, can be stopped, or at least blunted; but besides calling a treacherous spade a corrupt shovel, a meaningful response requires courage. Speaking truth to power, carrying the cross, and all that. Or, in pietist argot, “spiritual combat.”

Western Yearly Meeting was graced with a Clerk who spoke and was “valiant for the truth” about the body, which was that there was nothing close to the demanded “unity” to banish Phil Gulley, notwithstanding the scheming of a vocal pastoral faction. Hence Western got through its ordeal, though in a wounded, reduced state. Wilmington likewise.

On the other hand, Northwest’s powers, operating in a culture of extreme secrecy that could teach the CIA some lessons, struck like nighttime lightning. In North Carolina, the oldest of the five, the conflict was particularly ugly, and the only way the cheaters could succeed was by treachery and ultimately an act of utter, shocking self-destruction.

A final caveat, not really a quibble, is that Bennett’s trenchant observation calls for, but hasn’t received, more attention.

What is to be done about leadership and factional cheating and malpractice? About weaponizing “Quaker process”?

From the jump such malpractice requires the intentional undermining of the discipline more familiarly known as “Quaker process.” Many Quakers, especially convinced Friends escaped from openly authoritarian churches, can become quite sentimental about this. But such sentimentality can easily facilitate victimization. 

How do we identify and call out such maneuvers, not in histories composed long afterward, but as they unfold?

In conventional “Roberts Rules” proceedings, there are at least the beginning of such tools: motions to appeal from the ruling of the chair; motions to delay, etc. To be sure, such rules are also vulnerable; anyone watching the U.S. Congress can see that. But at the least, truth can usually be spoken, and find a place in the record. Friends do not seem to have much of a counterpart.

Another widespread weakness is what I call the Quaker Doormat Syndrome; others have named it the Curse of Quaker Niceness: a carefully-prepared faction makes strident demands; too many others then simply roll over and let themselves be trampled. This is part introversion wanting peace and quiet–Quaker Process seen as a warm fuzzy security blanket; part a conflict avoidance reflex by those who have faced abuse or major trauma; and part plain old fear, even panic. 

We don’t have a settled prescription for dealing with this disorder. But I contend that to start with, Friends need to follow Doug Bennett’s example, speak its name and begin to face up to it. Serious grappling, intellectual, historical, and spiritual, is called for.

So thanks again to Doug Bennett for surfacing this malady. Although it’s been rampant in The Separation Generation, it is nothing new, in Friends or Christian history.
And it’s not always successful. We can push back. And the first push is not to ignore it or accept it passively.