Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Answer (Now, What Was The Question?)

For what it’s worth (and because I have been rather sneeringly referred to as an atheist at other websites), here is some information that readers of this blog may find interesting.

I am a Quaker. That is, I am a member of the Ithaca Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. The actual name for “Quakers” is "Friends". When they started out (in England in the 17th century) they tended to refer to themselves (rather grandly, IMHO) as the “children of the light” and/or “the publishers of truth”. However, by the time they had come to America they had settled on the Society of Friends. “Quakers” was a somewhat derogatory name given to them by their opponents in Cromwell’s England.

It is important to note that there are two different kinds of Friends, known as “programmed” and “unprogrammed” (sometimes referred to as “evangelical” and “traditional”, respectively). The programmed/evangelical friends are a lot like Methodists: they meet on Sundays in buildings that look like churches (but generally without steeples), there is a minister who gives a sermon, there is often a choir, and the congregation sits auditorium-style facing the front of the “church” where the pastor speaks. Following the service there is generally “fellowship time”, with coffee and snacks in the fellowship room, etc. Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both brought up in “programmed” Friends meetings.

The other kind (the original kind, the kind invented by the founder of the Friends, George Fox, and the kind of meeting that I belong to) meets in silence in a simple (often very plain) meeting house, with no minister, no choir, no hymns, no sermons, indeed no “program” at all. Everybody waits in silence for the “gathering of the spirit”, usually all facing each other in a roughly circular (or square) arrangement of chairs or short pews. Sometimes a person in meeting is “moved” to stand up and speak (or, much more rarely, to sing). This almost never happens until at least a half hour of silence has gone by. No one comments while they speak, although people sometimes join in with a familiar song. When they have finished speaking, they sit back down and all wait for the silence to “settle”. I’ve never been at a meeting at which more than a half dozen people spoke, and I’ve been at plenty at which nobody spoke for the entire hour (and sometimes much longer than that, as some special meetings have no set time limit).

In an unprogrammed/traditional meeting such as the one in Ithaca there are no officials except for the Clerk of the Meeting, whose responsibility it is to keep people informed of when and where meetings are happening, and to take notes at “meetings for worship with attention to business”, which generally happen once a month. The Clerk also “breaks” meeting by catching people’s eyes and turning to the people next to them to shake hands. At the “rise of meeting” the Clerk makes announcements and invites members of the meeting to share concerns. There is also a Treasurer, who keeps accounts, but is not considered to be an “officer” and is not elected. Both the Clerk and the Treasurer have assistants, and are usually chosen annually by the committee for ministry and oversight (which used to be referred to as the elders, a now archaic term). I was for many years a member of this committee.

Probably not surprisingly to some at this website, I am known to some of the older members of the Ithaca Meeting as a “minister”; that is, someone who is often moved to speak. I haven’t done so in about a year, but that’s not unusual, especially for our meeting. Some meetings have a tradition of recording and drawing attention to ministers, but this is rare and becoming more so among “traditional” Friends meetings.

Although as one might expect there are a number of Cornell and Ithaca College professors in our meeting, the overwhelming majority of our members are not professional academics. Rather, they are working people from the town; everything from secretaries to lumberjacks to farmers. Quite a few of these, as it turns out; Ithaca is “centrally isolated” and is known for having a "cow college" on east hill...and yes, I grew up in the middle of farm country and spent some of my summers and vacations in college milking cows (and I'm a proud graduate of Cornell's "Ag school", class of '69).

Membership in a traditional Friends meeting is gained by petition to the committee on ministry and oversight, who appoints a “clearness committee” for the prospective member. Clearness committees work together with members to “come to clearness” on particular issues. People can ask for a “clearness committee” to join the meeting, get married “under the care of the meeting” (FWIW, the Ithaca meeting has been recognizing marriages between same-sex couples “under the care of the meeting” for almost thirty years), decide on taking a particular job, pursue a particular academic degree, get divorced (yes, it happens, although not often) or whatever is of concern to them. Anyone can ask to join a meeting, and there is no prohibition against people becoming members of a Friends meeting while remaining full members of other churches or religions. Indeed, there are a number of agnostics and atheists in our meeting (but, as I stated earlier, I’m not one of them). Because of this process, we say that a person becomes a Friend by “convincement”, not conversion, and that “convincement” must come from within, not from a minister or the group.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between “traditional” Friends and other religious groups is the total lack of a creed or “confession of faith”. Instead, we maintain a collection of written “Queries and Advises”, which are periodically read and revised by clearness committees. We feel that it is each person’s responsibility to come to whatever “measure of the light” we can. All decisions (and I mean ALL decisions) are made by pure consensus. There are no votes taken at any Friends meetings, including those held with attention to business. This means that some decisions take a generation or more to be reached, but when they are finally arrived at, everyone in the meeting has agreed to the decision and will back it wholeheartedly.

Friends are one of the three historic “peace churches” (along with the Brethren and Mennonites). To be a Friend means never to participate in war or the preparation for war in any form whatsoever. I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and remain one to this day.

This doesn’t mean that Friends are pacifists, however. Quite far from it; Friends are very active in our “peace witness”, often placing ourselves between combatants and doing humanitarian work around the world. The Friends service group, the American Friends Service Committee, received the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Friends worldwide, for our corporate work for peace and reconciliation.

Friends also don’t proselytize (indeed, there is a heavy but unspoken prohibition against doing so), and so the foregoing should be considered to be informational only. If you would like to learn more about the Society of Friends, I recommend this website, and here is the website for the Friends meeting I attend.
“Dearly beloved Friends, These things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with the measure of light which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light, walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

– Given forth at a General Meeting of Friends in the Truth at Balby in Yorkshire, in the ninth month 1656, from the Spirit of Truth to the Children of Light


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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