“Spirit Rising, Young Quaker Voices”* A Review

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 offend you.”

Well, that didn’t happen. And partly that’s because I couldn’t keep from seeing this project in a larger historical context.

Spirit Rising 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 that 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 present.

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 takes 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 office.

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 renewed schisms.

These were all important achievements, not to be gainsaid. Indeed, to an important extent, the Americans and Canadians in Spirit Rising are 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 accomplish?

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 tears.

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.


*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 $17.50.

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