Quaker Theology - Issue #4 - Spring 2001

Friends’ Ecclesiology and The Quaker-Wide Web -- continued

Friends have unquestionably become much more equalitarian and non-deferential in their attitudes about the Society, teasing apart the role of functionary from that of an authority, paying neither much deference. Especially in the liberal branches, such elevation is no longer welcome among us, and indeed hardly conceivable: "There is no king in Israel." Both these roles are distinguished from that of "leadership."

I think it is fair and precise to speak of this as a process of "disestablishment," and I for one do not regret it. I further doubt very much that all the handwringing will change it much. The complaints come down to an example of what I have called the "apples and oranges" fallacy, which expects Friends to be one kind of group when in fact we are another

It is no coincidence, in my view, that these complaints tend to predominate among functionaries and those aspiring to such posts, along with others still hankering after the older two-tiered model. Could this reflect disappointment of expectations of deference by their putative "flocks"?

Such chagrin notwithstanding, becoming an amphictyony is nothing to apologize for; indeed, we have the word of the Lord that it is a legitimate, even desirable communal form for God’s people.

But does this change really make Quakers today "anti-leadership"?

I do not think so. Rather, we have moved, in an unmistakable though admittedly inarticulate way, toward a different style of leadership, one that will be quite familiar to readers of the book of Judges as characteristic of the amphictyony: it is a "charismatic" type. Such "charismatic" leadership tends to be functional and situational: it arises out of given circumstances, when specific persons–often those whose names would not have occurred to us–come forward with definite leadings, and the ability to gather enough others around them to pursue a concrete project or witness. ("Servant leadership" is another common phrase.)

Once the leading or witness is completed, the project group tends to dissolve, and its "leader" settles back into the benches, taking up a rank and file role again.

The situations involved can be local and relatively obscure, as in working to revive a Monthly Meeting; but it has also encom-passed some of the most memorable Quaker witness of recent decades. The work of Jim Corbett of Pima Meeting in Arizona, who almost singlehandedly created the 1980s Sanctuary movement, is one prime example. (For more on Corbett, see Fager, 1996.)

R.W. Tucker calls this pattern one of "shifting derived charismatic leadership" (Tucker, 17), and he notes that the Religious Society of Friends may be specially well-suited to develop and support it. I think he is right.

(I don’t however, want to leave the impression that the work of such leaders is always easy or smooth. Hardly; in many cases it is a lonely and arduous path, beset by opposition and trials. But this is not a new situation either: one thinks of John Woolman laboring against slavery in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for 30 years. Or, good grief–one could just as easily cite Jesus, or the prophets. Indeed, even a cursory review of Quaker or Biblical history leads one to want to say to the handwringers: So, you want to be a Quaker leader? That’s simple enough: put your hand to the plow, and take up your cross. Oh–and quit whining.)

The progress of this tribal league model is not simply a futurist speculation. A large segment of American Quakerdom, encompassing the unaffiliated western bodies and the newer FGC Yearly Meetings, already operates this way, and they are doing quite well, thank thee.

Another prime example is the FGC Gathering: it appears each July like Brigadoon, conjured up mainly by the labor of scores of volunteers; it enriches the lives and witness of the 1500-2000 participants through a bewildering proliferation of workshops, committees, interest groups and many more playful activities. Then the bills are paid, and it vanishes until the next year–and nobody is "in charge." True, there are a couple of paid staff working behind the scenes; and formal "leaders," clerks, are appointed each year to oversee the process. Most serve with dedication and distinction; but they come from and return to the ranks, and few regular attenders could name the clerks from five years ago.

The Gathering’s current format, moreover, mirrors the evolution I am speaking of. For almost seventy years from its founding in 1900, the Conference (as it was called), was indeed "led," by a succession of Chairmen, all of whom were white men in suits, and each of whom served a lengthy tenure. Most were, or had been, functionaries of a handful of Philadelphia or New York-based organizations.

These men presided over extended formal sessions which soberly considered carefully modulated and polite minutes on general good-government and world betterment themes, which were duly adopted and telegrammed off to Washington or the United Nations in New York. Then genteel entertainments and excursions were organized for the free time. And for half a century this all took place at the same location, a summer resort midway between New York and Washington, but closest of all to Philadelphia, as was FGC itself.

The shift from "Conference" to Gathering also coincided with the change in title from Chairman to Clerk, the accession of women to that post, the abandonment of formal business sessions, and an escape from the insular Philadelphia-centered orbit for a nomadic succession of college campuses as far west as Oklahoma, north to Minnesota, east to Massachusetts, and south to North Carolina. Each of these changes represented a move toward a de-centered, amphictyonic form of faith community; and I believe each was also a step forward for FGC and Friends.

I have dwelt on the FGC Gathering at some length here because I consider it the working template and archetype of the new Quaker ecclesiology. It also precipitates out the conflicting perspectives now among us. From the vantage point of Handbasket Theology, it is a perfect mess: a babel of unseasoned voices and often unsound views, where no one is "in charge," and "nothing" gets done. And from this angle, these complaints are perfectly valid.

But this is apples and oranges again: for an amphictyony, these same features all become strengths rather than weaknesses: there are many voices because there is much to be said and heard, especially from persons and groups formerly ignored or silenced; and in fact someone is in charge, namely the Spirit, and like the wind in John 3, it is blowing where it will.

Besides, if one only looks closer, the fact is that a great deal is getting done, in the many smaller groups and informal sessions of like-minded, and similarly-led Friends. Of course, one cannot make a nice apple pie with oranges, because apples are not oranges; but then they are not supposed to be.

One final aspect of the amphictyony model which makes it seem particularly timely and apt is the fact that it has a counterpart or analogue in the technological centerpiece of our culture, the World Wide Web. The web is a "distributed system," which is defined on my search engine as follows (the italicized parenthetical insertions are mine):

". . . a system of multiple autonomous processing elements (meetings and committees), cooperating in a common purpose (minding the Light, telling our stories, bearing our testimonies) or to achieve a common goal . . . ."

It adds that "Tightly coupled distributed systems have access to shared memory; loosely coupled systems do not. A system is fully connected if each element can communicate directly to every other element." (Bradford)

A key term here is "cooperating." The web has no center, no headquarters issuing marching orders or pronouncing anathemas. Or rather, one may say that there are many centers, or nodes, from which Friends and meetings make distinctive and enriching contributions to the whole network. There are, of course, techies whose work is necessary for certain maintenance functions; but they are not "in charge." I hesitate to say the Spirit is leading the web; but its evolution is organic and unpredictable, which is a good worldly parallel. In any event, this new creature not only works, it is sweeping the field.

I believe the Quaker amphictyony of today is increasingly a religious "distributed system." If this is so, Yearly Meetings can be expected to increasingly let go of the notion of being the center, while still providing certain limited "maintenance" services, on an as-needed basis. Likewise they will increasingly give up the fiction of "speaking for" Friends to the world outside. (This process may be slowest in Philadelphia; but Penn’s Green Town has special burdens and deserves extra sympathy.)

At the same time, though, this amphictyony does not portend any less Quaker activity in the world. There will be–there is–plenty of witness, but it is increasingly the province of small, decentralized groups drawn together around common leadings.

I hope we will work toward making the "distributed system" era of Quakerism a more "tightly coupled" one, deepening and sharing our memories of Quaker heritage and conviction; and becoming more "fully connected" and communicative as a Society. A step toward doing so, will be paying heed to the ecclesiological wisdom and insight available in collective "hard drives" like the Bible. This looks to me like the path toward continuing to be the "chosen people" God wants us to be in a rapidly changing world.


Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Faith and Practice. 1988.

Bradford, University of (UK), School of Informatics. "Definition of a Distributed System."


Dulles, Avery. Models of the Church. Doubleday, 1974.

Earlham School of Religion. Among Friends. 1999.

Fager, Chuck. "A Review of Among Friends." Quaker theology #2, Spring 2000, 70ff. (A)

----------------. "FGC’s ‘Uniform Discipline’ Rediscovered." Quaker History, Fall 2000, 51ff. (B)

---------------. "Beyond the Age of Amnesia; Charting the Course of 20th Century Liberal Quaker Theology." Quaker Theology, #3, Autumn 2000.

---------------. "Friends as a Chosen People," in The Harlot’s Bible and Other Quaker Essays. Kimo Press, 2001.

---------------.Without Apology. Kimo Press, 1996.

Marshall, Jay. "Reclaiming the Concept and Practice of Universal Ministry." Carey Memorial Lecture, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, 2000. Reprinted by Earlham School of Religion.

Scott, Janet. "Models of Ekklesia for Quakers," in The Bible, The Church & the Future of Friends, edited by Chuck Fager, Pendle Hill, 1996.

Tucker, R.W. "Structural Incongruities in Quaker Service." Quaker Religious Thought, Autumn, 1971.


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