Theology -- Issue #17
Spirit Rising, Young Quaker Voices.
Angelina Conti, et al, Editors. QUIP (Quakers Uniting In Publication)
and Quaker Press of Friends General Conference. 380 pages, paperback
Reviewed by Chuck Fager
“If we have done our job well,” the editors of Spirit Rising declare, “
. . .some pieces [in this book] may surprise, confuse, alarm or even
Well, that didn’t happen. And partly that’s because I couldn’t keep from seeing this project in a larger historical context.
is the product
of the latest of a long series of ecumenically-oriented youth renewal
movements, based mainly in British and American Quakerism.
These initiatives can be traced back more than a century in England, as vividly recorded by Thomas Kennedy in his masterwork, British Quakerism 1860-1920.
There the task was not so much to heal a separation, but rather to
spark “renewal” via a quiet insurgency, which overthrew a hidebound
evangelical leadership class of elders and clerks. In more than a few
cases, the insurgents were the reigning elders’ own children.
In the U.S., parallel movements developed, aiming to close the breach
between Orthodox and Hicksite Friends, beginning in Philadelphia and
spreading to Baltimore and New York Yearly Meetings.
New England had its own reunification effort, but in a more complex
situation. This yearly Meeting’s fascinating path to what was a
re-creation as much as a reunion has been described by Elizabeth Cazden
in her very valuable thesis, The Modernist Reinvention of Quakerism: Independent Meetings in New England, 1920-1950.
Except for New England, the course and impact of these movements has
not been traced in adequate detail by historians. But this reviewer has
heard enough first-hand stories from even older Friends who lived
through the Mid-Atlantic efforts to be persuaded of their importance.
More recently, there were the international efforts which produced two
World Gatherings of Young Friends (WGYF), in 1985 at Guilford college,
and again in 2005, the latter at two sites, in England and Kenya.
Since then, there have been two ecumenical conferences of Young Friends
in the U.S., in addition to the project that led to this book.
Most of these movements, where they described themselves, have been
sweeping, even universalistic in their rhetoric of seeking unity and
aspirations to promote it: in 1924, the name for their event was the
“All-Friends Conference. By 1928, the impulse had built its
monument, in the formation of New York’s “All-Friends Quarterly
Meeting,” which still exists. In 1985, the first WGYF epistle urged
that Friends of all stripes “lay down our differences before God for
the Holy Spirit to forgive, thus transforming us into instruments of
healing.” Twenty years later, the Lancaster missive pleaded for Quakers
to “put aside the labels we hide behind, programmed, unprogrammed,
liberal, evangelical, and come together as Friends of the Truth . . .
.” and so forth.
Given this long record of such efforts, I couldn’t help bringing a broader perspective to an assessment of Spirit Rising.
Certainly, this reconciling and reviving impulse is a recurring one.
And it has surely left its mark, in the reunified yearly meetings of
the eastern U.S. especially, plus Canada.
Outside that orbit, however, its impact has been considerably blunted,
not to say marginal. Internationally, Canada and England aside, the
connections are newer, and harder to assess.
To an alert observer, its origins are clear enough: this ecumenical
impulse is overwhelmingly a liberal Quaker one. That’s where it almost
always starts; the bulk of participants are drawn from its ranks, the
bulk of the funding drawn from its coffers.
And that is usually where it ends. Despite all the energy put into the
conferences and other projects, the U.S. Quaker scene in 2010 is if
anything, more fragmented now than it was in 1924.
This is not said to disparage these projects or the idealism that has fueled them; but to be candid about the larger record.
In the ecumenical gatherings, evangelical participation is usually
minimal at best, and often its delegates are renegades, marginalized in
their home groups. “Evangelical” here is meant to include both
the yearly meetings that formally identify themselves as such, and
large segments of the pastoral Yearly Meetings of the Midwest and South
under the umbrella of Friends United Meeting.
In 1929, an eminent evangelical leader, Edward Mott of Oregon (now
Northwest) Yearly Meeting, came to the “All-Friends Conference” in
Iowa, with the express intention, as he baldly put it in his memoir,
“to thwart the very purpose for which the conference was held, the
promotion of fellowship among such groups.” By all accounts he
did a very good job, particularly among his own constituents.
And his legacy continues. In 1997, this writer was at a similar
conclave at Woodbrooke in England, where we heard a leader from the
same group explain calmly why he was one of the only US evangelicals
To paraphrase, the reasons were simple: his yearly meeting’s top three
priorities were: evangelism, evangelism, and evangelism. So an agenda
devoted to “unity,” as was that of the Woodbrooke gathering, was of
little interest to his group, at best seen as hardly worth the
investment of time and funds, and more likely a detrimental distraction.
If this sounds harsh, it is only because I am trying to be concise. The
message was delivered mildly, if plainly, without animus.
Yet it explained much, even while leaving some points unexpressed. The
evangelical perspective on dealings with others can be summed up in
five brief propositions:
1.The stakes are the highest: heaven or burning in hell forever. For everybody. And no do-overs.
2. The criteria for heaven are strict: “strait is the gate . . . and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:14)
3. Time is short, and precious. “Behold, I am coming soon!” (Rev. 22:12)
4. Caution is necessary, for deceivers are all around: “there shall be
false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable
heresies,” (2 Peter 2:1) “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers . . .
.” (2 Corinthians 6:14) And
5. Return to Item 1; repeat.
Given these premises, which abide, it is surprising that any
evangelicals venture out among the mostly liberal populations drawn to
these assemblies. Likewise, in the mixed, FUM Yearly Meetings, such
events have often been a bone of contention, and turnout from these
quarters has usually been small.
What liberal Friends have had difficulty comprehending is that the
differences here are not simply matters of one or another Friend’s
“difficult” personality; nor are they a question of different words for
essentially similar experiences or underlying beliefs. Neither
are they issues for split-the-difference conflict resolution
techniques. Even when stated politely, smilingly and without rancor,
there are canyons between the two church cultures. Committed
evangelicals know this; liberals don’t want to believe it.
Even so, in recent decades, there has been a sizeable “evangelical”
contingent at ecumenical Quaker gatherings. How so, when the US groups
maintain a de facto boycott? The gap has been filled by their
missionary offspring, Friends from Africa and Latin America. Almost all
this participation has been paid for by liberal subsidies from the U.S.
and the UK; and it seems clear that the appeal of an expense-paid
sojourn in a rich country has been sufficient to overcome, at least
temporarily, any difficulties of theological diversity.
In this context, Spirit Rising
a more recognizable shape. Ten young adult Friends made up the
editorial board, and they state that their group “represents all of the
major theological branches of the Religious Society of Friends, and
five countries: Bolivia, Canada, Kenya, the United Kingdom” and the
U.S. To compile the book, they labored together many days, face to face
for two intensive sessions, and then endlessly by email and telephone.
While the editorial board’s experience was no doubt salutary for the
members, the outcome breaks new ground in only a few areas, and overall
exhibits many features of earlier ventures.
The book was, for instance, a liberal initiative; the funding came from
liberal sources; the editorial staff work was done in a liberal group’s
Moreover, while the editors also state proudly that they received more
than 300 submissions from seventeen countries, the distribution of
published pieces likewise follows a familiar pattern. Of the young
authors represented here, seventy-nine by my count were from
unmistakably liberal groups (and nearly a third of these were from
Philadelphia). Thirteen were from the American FUM Yearly Meetings.
Only five US writers were formally evangelical by affiliation, and some
of these were of ambiguous, dual affiliation. Of the other evangelical
contributors, forty-one in all, forty were from Africa and Latin
America; the one was Nepalese.
The presence of these voices from two southern continents is an
innovation, for which the organizers deserve credit. Yet after reading
them all, how much international network-building was promoted thereby
seems an open question.
That’s because both the African and the Bolivian pieces seem
overwhelmingly preoccupied with local concerns, and with bearing their
religious testimonies in characteristic, repetitive fashion. Many,
perhaps most, could be read without reference to any larger Quaker
context at all.
The Kenyan youths appear to feel burdened by a sclerotic and oppressive
leadership caste of entrenched elders. They want to dance in church,
sing new praise songs to electric instruments; and they want to pass
their school exams. The Bolivians are preoccupied with recounting their
personal salvation stories, and urging the importance of sticking
with their churches despite many temptations to stray.
Are the Americans much different? Well, they get to travel more,
geographically and theologically. Many seem equally unhappy with their
elders, and the mess we have made of things, Quaker and otherwise. They
are much more consciously literary and artistic; almost all the
illustrations are American or British. There is a lot of talk among
them about seeking after new kinds of “unity,” though with little
evident clarity about what it could mean. Nor is there much evidence
that they have made a significant dent in the existing
institutional-cultural barriers which have so solidly withstood the
assaults of their predecessors for nearly a century.
There have been notable instances of personal cross-branch connections
in the past: a number of Orthodox-Hicksite marriages around
Philadelphia, for instance; these no doubt added momentum to the
reunion forces. But when the links cross the Alleghenies, the record is
not so clear: I know of a Philadelphia Friend who met and married
a Hoosier Quaker lass, and moved to her hometown in Indiana. They lived
happily ever after it seems; but Indiana Yearly Meeting was little
moved thereby. So I’ll take a wait-and-see attitude about the prospects
for the current round of personal networking.
The Americans and British are also, to their credit, determined to
speak some taboo words here, which were notably absent, as recently as
2005, from the Epistles of the WGYF assemblies: gay, lesbian;
transgender; and the one that I suspect was hardest of all to permit
inside the covers, non-theist. They speak these formerly verboten
names softly, in some cases almost apologetically. But they are spoken.
For them, and their sponsors, this is progress, and I applaud it. But
those who hold to the evangelical premises will likely regard this
naming quite differently; and whether the book’s larger impact will be
unifying or the opposite, remains to be seen.
The successes of the earlier insurgencies have, after all, mainly been
local: the British rebels of John Wilhelm Rowntree’s generation
unseated London’s evangelical establishment; the young Turks in the
American Northeast and Canada took an Orthodoxy which had become
liberal in all but name and joined it to the more unabashedly
progressive Hicksites next door. The reunions have not all gone as
smoothly as expected, but these Yearly Meetings have thus far avoided
These were all important achievements, not to be gainsaid. Indeed, to an important extent, the Americans and Canadians in Spirit Rising
living on this inheritance, yet mostly seem oblivious to it. Perhaps
that’s because in the same decades, the earlier waves of Young Adult
pioneers woke up one day to find they had somehow turned into the
establishment elders who were now making their children or newcomers
restless. And besides, one could also point to a series of fractures,
schisms, and persisting tensions, that marked the limits and setbacks
of their labors.
This fissiparousness has by no means played itself out in the
U.S. And it’s hard to see a better model in African Quakerdom, which
has gone from one Yearly Meeting to more than a dozen, accompanied by
lawsuits, physical confrontations and chronic thievery. I’ve heard less
about trouble in the Bolivian groups, but one notes that there are
rival entities there. So there’s still plenty to do.
And alas, the authors of Spirit Rising
are all getting older as well. (Indeed, six of the authors are over
35.) This reviewer is of an earlier generation which was hailed by many
in its salad days, treated as if lack of years were itself a kind of
virtue. This was not a helpful way to be viewed, by ourselves or
others; for if youth is a virtue, it is one which each of us is
guaranteed to lose, no matter what we do. And the effort to hold onto
the mantle only adds unnecessarily to the many other corruptions
the passing decades bring.
I didn’t sense much awareness of this recurring pattern in these pages; and that is not a good sign. But maybe I just missed it.
So if the pieces here did not surprise or offend me, what did Spirit Rising
This: especially seen in historical context, it left me wondering:
after finishing this book, itself so heavily subsidized by dead
Quakers’ money and so fussed over by older Friends, what are these
young adult Quakers going to accomplish, either together or separately,
that they build and pay for themselves?
What was it the man said? “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
That is, Spirit Rising
is at best an overture. Now it’s time for the main event:
I’m still waiting for the doctoral dissertations from among them that
take my understandings of major Quaker or theological subjects and
knock them for a loop.
I still hope to see several of them build businesses that make both constructive products or services and a pile of money.
I’m still looking for their novels that I can’t put down, or their
plays or movies that leave me helpless with laughter, or limp and in
I’m still eager for them to create viable non-profit groups to take on
some of the manifold evils that my crowd is leaving behind, and
do a better, more Quakerly job.
Ditto for renewing existing Quaker groups. To that end, I’ll vacate my
current position in such a project by late 2012. Will one of these
young Friends be ready to step in?
And yes, I hope they can help undermine the abiding barriers between
the Quaker branches, perhaps making as much progress as the intrepid
band that put the Orthodox and Hicksites back together. History
suggests this is a tall order; but I like it when they think big.
There have been a few signs of such excellence, particularly in
artistic work, among younger Friends; but their era of overall
performance, of bearing fruit, has really yet to begin.
So I’ll end with a challenge to these younger Friends: You think you can run a better Quakerism?
Bring it on; you’re up.
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