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All humans make mistakes, and that includes Quakers. In the ideal Quaker Meeting, I imagine that a Quaker such as myself could do something wrong and a wise Elder would take me aside and say, “Susanne, I love you dearly. You made a mistake, and you have to stop doing what you’re doing. What can you do to make this right? And how can I help you in that process?”

This fantasy initially crystallized in my mind in 2002, when I first watched the Meeting I then belonged to tiptoe around Friends doing wrong. The facts of the following are all publicly known: Two Friends in leadership positions were having an affair. Most of the other Friends in leadership were aware of the affair and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the unfaithful Friends to step out of their leadership positions until they had set things right at home. The unfaithful Friends refused, continued in leadership, and continued to try to keep their affair hidden from their Quaker spouses. These unfaithful Friends used their positions to preemptively discredit anyone they thought might expose their secret. Ultimately they were unsuccessful in keeping the secret. You can only imagine the harm that was done to the Quaker family members, especially when they realized that “everyone” in the Meeting knew of the affair. The discrediting campaign did damage in the Meeting as Friends took sides against one another and factions developed. 

My fantasy for dealing with wrongdoing emerged again during my Meeting’s deliberations this spring over a Level 3 sex offender who came to my Meeting, and several Friends’ insistence that he attend without any safeguards.

My Meeting actually did arrive at unity within a few months. From a results perspective, our process was a success. But mistakes were made within the Meeting, not by the sex offender, but by long-term Friends. One couple that was particularly determined that the sex offender be welcomed without conditions, threatened to leave Meeting if we didn’t reach the decision they wanted, used one spouse’s role on the Oversight committee (which was responsible for the process) to promote their position, including sending e-mails to the entire Meeting. As in the situation ten years ago, others in leadership in this Meeting tried to persuade this couple to act differently, but were rebuffed. I shamefacedly confess that I should have been eldered, but no Friend approached me. Thankfully, God convicted me directly in worship one Sunday, by bringing 1 Corinthians 13 to my attention. “If I have faith that can move mountains, but do have not love, I am nothing… Love is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs..” I was pierced by these words, and called everyone in leadership personally, and asked their forgiveness for being critical, instead of loving and supporting them, as I should have.     

At some point, the sex offender learned that we were working on conditions under which he could attend, and he withdrew his request from our Meeting. He now attends a Meeting that has received him without any conditions. My Meeting did reach unity on conditions for any future sex offenders who might wish to attend our Meeting, such as being chaperoned, not having access to directories, and attending only a few designated, publicized Sunday Meetings. As for our spiritual and emotional condition, I think it’s fair to say that almost every Friend felt bruised and battered by this process. Several Friends have officially resigned from the Meeting, and others are not attending much, if at all, while they discern whether to stay or leave in order to be in spiritual community.

Robert Barclay, in his Apology, dismissed the notion of “original sin”, but insisted that we have a “propensity to sin” and therefore that all humans will sin (with the possible exception of those who have been made new in Christ). So, if we accept that all of us will sin, why are our Meetings so ineffectual in dealing with sin in helpful and healing ways? Although I have spent some time above writing about mistakes that individuals made, my purpose is to outline that these mistakes were such obvious violations of Quaker process and values that the Meetings could and should have intervened. My belief is that the real failure was with the Meetings. All humans will make mistakes. It is entirely predictable that Friends will do what the unfaithful Friends in the first situation did, and the friends of the sex offender did in the second. We need to be prepared to lovingly bring each other back to good order.

What did Meeting leadership do in these situations? They observed the mistakes, tried persuasion, but allowed themselves to be rebuffed. In the first Meeting, I remember Friends saying “I’ve tried everything. I’ve talked to them, argued with them, but they won’t listen. There’s nothing more I can do!” In my current Meeting, Friends in leadership lamented lack of established models for handling this kind of situation, although they did have recommendations from several other Meetings with experience. 

In both settings, leadership felt they had taken things are far as they could when they attempted persuasion. When persuasion failed, these leaders believed themselves to be at the end of the road. I disagree, although I am the first to admit that it would not have been easy to go further. We no longer empower our leaders to take action without the wrongdoers’ consent in these kinds of extreme circumstances. I don’t think our leadership felt empowered to say with authority to the unfaithful couple, ” I love you dearly. You made a mistake, and you have to stop doing what you’re doing. What can you do to make this right? And how can I help you in that process?” Our leaders certainly didn’t feel empowered to say “You are on leave of absence from your leadership position until you have made things right with regard to your affair. What can I do to support you in this process, in addition to holding you and your family in the Light?” And we haven’t given our leadership any reason to think that, if eldered, we would gracefully accept the instruction given.

In short, I believe we must revive the practice of empowering our leaders to admonish us lovingly, and to gracefully accept discipline from our leadership.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Does our current liberal culture encourage Friends to accept limits set by Quaker leadership? Do we encourage leaders to set limits? What can we do to encourage a culture of accepting limit-setting?


In recent weeks I have written several posts about some of the troubles of liberal Quakerism, which are actually not very different from the problems in most of liberal Christianity. For my own sake, if not for yours, it’s time to remind myself what I love about liberal Quakerism. This is my highly subjective list based on how I experience Quakerism. Even when I say “we” and “our”, please understand that I merely mean to capture my experience of who “we” are, it is not an attempt to present these beliefs as representative of others’:

* Form of worship. I no longer call it silent worship because I want to remind myself that silence is just the means by which I worship, not the goal. What is important is waiting expectantly together with others, trusting God will reveal Godself to us during worship, in images, words, or just silently drawing us into God’s own heart.

* Reliance on inward and unmediated revelation. Just as with George Fox’s quote in my banner above, I believe that each one of us can hear the Voice that speaks to our condition. The Word comes to us in the way in which we are able to recognize it, varying from person to person because of the particulars of our own culture, language, and experience. And the Word may be wordless, deeper than language. Yet it is not individualistic – it is the same Word, drawing us to Oneness with each other in God.

* Focus on the potential for living up to the Light God has given each human, rather than on our “propensity to sin”, as it is described in Barclay’s Apology. We can still acknowlegde the reality of sin, but that’s not where Quakers tend to direct our attention. Just like a good driver doesn’t look at the oncoming car (because then the cars would crash into each other), but allows the white line along the side to guide the car. In similar fashion, we focus on the Light, believing that as we look at it, it shapes and forms us and takes us where we ought to go. 

* Understanding of decision-making that tells me that, after we have gathered the facts, all we need do is open the ears of our hearts to know what to do. As George Fox said, Christ has come to teach His people Himself. I no longer speak of our decision-making as a consensus model, because consensus is not the goal. To me, reaching consensus is just one of several possible indicators that we may have united with God’s will. Instead I speak of the Quaker model or a theocratic model, which helps me remember that the purpose is to discern the Godly way for our group. We don’t go to church polity books or Robert’s Rules of Order for rules and regulations, but can use Faith and Practice for ideas and others’ experiences on what helps us to come to unity on a course of action.

* Understanding that God’s Spirit can be present in every person, every being, every part of creation. No exceptions. We expect to live accordingly, and this has far-reaching implications for how we live. Every time we speak or act, in big things and in small, we are given the opportunity to proclaim the second Garden of Eden and bring it into existence. 

* Quaker faith is experiential – so I don’t need to have an explanation for everything. If I don’t have experience with some matter of theology, I don’t need to speculate or theorize about it but can just wait for the time – if there is one – when God does open my understanding to it. Nor do I need to dismiss something because I don’t understand it. So it is quite alright to let something be and NOT to know or understand.

* Reliance on community, both current and past, for assistance in growing ever closer to God. The community of the past includes the Bible and religious figures whose wisdom has been passed on in stories and “Faith & Practice”. The community of the present includes those with whom I worship, “Faith & Practice”, any book I read or person I encounter who accompanies me for a while in spirit. The community is the most important test of any leadings I may have, and it is the place where my soul is polished and smoothed in the same way the way a river polishes a stone. Even if the sensation at times is of little pebbles and sand scouring me, the outcome – rough places made smooth – is dependable and desirable.

* Religious structures are neutral: they can be helpful or spiritually deadening. So we are required to question our structures (while supporting those who take on responsibilities) all the time, take a fresh look, and expect that God may be encountered anywhere and anytime. Everything is potentially an icon, something that opens my soul to God. Although Quakers don’t incorporate outward rituals into our own structures or expectations, I am free as a Quaker chaplain to give communion and baptize, and expect that I may encounter God in doing so.

Let me point out what I did not say: I did not mention freedom of belief, for two reasons: 1. By choosing to join a denomination, I think we also voluntarily accept as our own its history and characteristics, locally and globally. We may agree or disagree with parts of it personally, but we haven chosen to accept the denomination’s definition of itself, broadly speaking. 2. Freedom of belief among Quakers is not very different from what is practiced in most other churches these days. Denominations either take a normative approach (you don’t have to believe the dogma or creed exactly, as long as your beliefs are close enough or you’re accepting of them as a statement of the group’s faith even if it’s not your own) or the Catholic approach (the Church believes the creed or dogma, and I, as a member of the Church, believe it by extension even if I don’t believe it personally).

I also did not mention diversity or broad range of beliefs, because we are actually more homogenous than many other denominations and certainly more homogenous than secular society. Our range is narrower – we have created a sub-culture which provides a safe haven from the mainstream. At the same time, I suspect that being a “safe haven” is incompatible with being experienced as a warm and welcoming place for those (actually the majority of people, by definition) who don’t reject the same aspects of mainstream culture that many liberal Quakers do. But that’s the topic for another blog post.

Now you know why I’m a liberal Quaker.

Query of prayerful consideration:

What draws me to liberal Quakerism?