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.

5 thoughts on “Quaker Theology: Weaponizing “Quaker Process””

  1. I suspect Friend Bennett used “fiddle’ by drawing on his experience as a college president. Such a position would doubtless require much diplomacy. Fiddling reminds me of how Sheriff Andy Taylor handled things in Mayberry and many times it was good. But truth be told sometimes we need old Deputy Barney Fife to just say it: “Nip it, nip it, nip it in the bud!” In Christian love, of course. :o)

  2. As a man who loved and lived Christianity from age five and as one who found Christendom treacherous and dysfunctional I commend Bennett for speaking to this issue.

    I finally admitted to myself that Quakerism was as seriously malformed as the rest of the faith by experiencing the weaponization of Quakerism personally. I loved four Meetings. One has twisted itself into some sort of Fundamentalist, Evangelical weekly get-together for the sole sake of preserving family heritage. One remains the same to the point that it resembles a stagnant farm pond and another has a for sale sign at the curb. It sold itself out to the Field of Dreams aphorism “If you build it, he will come.” After spending thousands of dollars on two nice structures on a good piece of property, It finally succumbed to its own meanness.
    There are about thirty-eight thousand Christian denominations in the world all of them claiming to be the one with the truth. Quaker styles are in a pitched battle to win the title belt that proclaims them to be champions of the Truth

    I finally stepped back and took a hard look at all of that and realized that Quakerism is like every other denomination; a religious club with elitist notions of correctness, a special language and history elevated to the point of idolatry (is it really important that a chocolate company was started by Quakers?)

    It sounds like the author mentioned in Chuck’s post has hit on something much closer to the truth than is comfortable for the Quaker meetings I know. The meeting with the for sale sign was told by a visiting couple in so many words, “For a peace church you’re not very peaceful.”

  3. Would that I could write and even comment with such superhuman certainty of my own knowledge of events, context, cultures, and processes, particularly at meetings that I apparently did not attend and of people whom I apparently do not know personally.

    Romans 2:1-4
    Philippians 4:5

  4. Your post speaks to what I find to be a very large conceptual problem, one that has impacted my Meeting and Yearly Meeting at times. As Clerk I was able to steer my Meeting past it.

    There is a popular notion that “Quaker Process” is the seeking / creation of unity moderated by a Clerk at Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business. The notion is propounded frequently in writing. My experience is that this notion is essentially incorrect in a profound way.

    The process of seeking unity with a faith community is fundamental Quakerism, it cannot be relegated to a Clerk or restricted to Meeting for Business. Seeking unity in all things is a constant in Quaker practice, it applies as a daily discipline.

    “Walking into darkness” is walking away from unity, and is the “occasion of all wars”.

    The Clerk’s job is to record the unity that is already there, and to caution Friends who are walking away from it, to name the path they are taking.

    Folks often see unfortunate results at a Meeting for Business as the breaking of faith. In fact the bonds of Faith were usually fully broken months or even years before the matter at hand arose.

    Being in unity within a trusting faith community is the essence of Quakerism, everything else arises from this root. A Meeting truly exists and only exists when the desire to be in unity as a faith community is greater any person’s preference in a matter of business. This is right order.

  5. Our practice at Reading Friends Meeting was to enter into worship when we reached an impasse. And try again. If still no unity, table the issue until a following date. If still no unity the dissenters can “step aside.” Their dissent is noted but they will not stand in the way of the decision. A well tempered Clerk is a big help.

    I love that new Friends are finding their way to Quakerism. Their lack of experience with the concept of unity as derived from the Light/God/The Creator and not a coup is creating troubles in many Meetings.

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