A disagreement between private school administrators and ill-informed parents.

I’ve been the occasion for a disagreement between private school administrators and ill-informed parents. Some background information about Quakers will make a couple of nuances to the story clearer. (This is a long post, and it’s not really all that exciting of a story. Lots of pedantry about Quakers and a little story at the end. You’ve been warned.)

First, Quakers, for a big chunk of their history between the first flush of enthusiasm (and evangelism) in the 17th century and the early 20th century, developed practices to separate themselves from “the world.” This was sometimes referred to as a hedge, and it played out in a number of ways: endogamy (only marrying within the faith); disownment (public statement that someone was not a member) for infractions of the discipline; criticism of involvement in antislavery or suffrage movements with non-Quakers.

And pertinent to this story, the creation of schools for Quaker children, in order to give them a “guarded” education. There are still many, many Friends schools in operation, from preschool to college. (There were also schools founded by Quakers for other purposes, such as educating formerly enslaved people or as part of missionary foundations.) The vast majority of students in these schools (at all levels) are not Quakers.

Second, traditional Quaker worship (what most liberals think of when they hear “Quaker” or talk about “silent meeting”) has a basic assumption that those who speak in worship are immediately inspired by the Spirit (God/Holy Spirit/Light Within; terminology varies). So, no previous determination that one will speak. This is still mostly observed in weekly meetings for worship that are based in silent waiting. But it is not the practice in meetings (or, as many of them are called, Friends churches) that employ a pastor, and many larger gatherings of Quakers have invited speakers who are at the very least expected to speak and frequently have announced their topic and may read from a prepared text.

Third, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, to which I belonged when I lived in the area, has a large staff, but staff members do not have theological authority. (One might say that few Quakers in Philadelphia recognize *anyone* as having theological authority, but that’s another essay.) They do of course exercise authority and leadership, but they are hired, not called, and they are subject to the direction of the hiring body. Another kind of leadership, selected by the body and serving it in a volunteer capacity, is the clerk, who is the person who moderates meetings for business. This person also doesn’t have authority within worship, per se, but does wield a considerable amount of power and is often the public face of the yearly meeting.

Third and a half, the yearly meeting is called a yearly meeting because it has annual sessions to conduct business. There is a clerk of the yearly meeting. There is also, often, a body that may be appointed or may be representative, which meets between the annual sessions of yearly meeting and conducts business on its behalf. This body also has a clerk, which in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is a different person than the clerk of yearly meeting.

Now, on to the story. I was at the time clerk of Interim Meeting, the continuing body of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (thus, with the clerk of yearly meeting and the general secretary, one of the three most visible leaders). And I was invited by a friend to attend the weekly meeting for worship at the Friends school where she taught, with the expectation that I would speak. I was also invited to attend the spiritual life club (or some such name) at lunch, and to speak to her religion class in the afternoon.

Some Quakers of my acquaintance were mildly shocked that someone would be invited to speak in a meeting for worship, even if it was in a school. But people need to learn how to be in meeting, and Friends school administrators often feel that it is good for [non-Quaker] students to be exposed to the thoughts, concerns, and religious feelings of Quakers. So, I went and spoke and have absolutely no recollection of what it was I said. I think I quoted a scripture passage and did some interpretation.

The lunch meeting and class were very enjoyable. The students were engaged and interesting. During the lunch meeting, however, I found out that some students had been withdrawn by their parents from the meeting because I was gay. Turns out, there were conservative Christian parents in the area who did not do enough research about what Quakers in Philadelphia actually believe today. They just knew that there were these old, prestigious religious schools (they’re thick on the ground around Philadelphia), and assumed their children would have “safe” educations there.

There was a formal complaint to the school. I was, of course, a perfectly respectable choice within the context of the Quaker community of Philadelphia, and I knew this, so I was unconcerned about the kerfuffle on my behalf, but I worried about the effects for my friend and the school itself. (I mean, private schools depend upon serving a constituency that pays them.) There were meetings of the concerned parents with my friend and other administrators, and the school politely and firmly stood behind the invitation.

Wasn’t that anticlimactic? But let it be a lesson to you: don’t assume Quakers are like that quaint man on the box of oatmeal, because he’s long, long dead. Not to mention that he’s a marketing device created by non-Quakers.

Personal conversations with Evangelical and African Quakers

I’ve had personal conversations with Evangelical and African Quakers about being gay.

There really is nothing like meeting people one-on-one while working on a shared project. For many years I was part of Quakers Uniting in Publications (QUIP), which brought together Friends from across the theological spectrum who shared a concern for the printed word. In annual meetings, shared projects, and correspondence, I had occasion to get to know Evangelical, Conservative, and Friends United Meeting Quakers. I haven’t been an active Quaker in over a decade, but I still have fond memories of these individuals.

Through both work and volunteer leadership positions, I’ve attended triennial meetings of Friends United Meeting twice (in Greensboro, NC, in 1987 and Indianapolis, IN, in 1996), a World Gathering of Friends (in Elspeet, Netherlands, in 1991), and the triennial of Friends World Committee for Consultation once (in Birmingham, UK, in 1997). In each of these meetings, to some degree, I have had the privilege of getting to know people quite different from myself in small groups. Several times I was also able, with the support of other Friends, to hold worship or discussion sessions on gay and lesbian concerns. In all of these meetings, I was not the first openly gay or lesbian person to participate. But in each case, I may have been the first openly gay person some of these Friends engaged in conversation. And I loved the conversations and the people I met.

One aspect of coming forward as an openly gay person and requesting time and space is the opportunity it gave straight Friends to be supportive.

At the time this activity didn’t seem a burden, but eventually I wasn’t able to continue doing it. In a Quaker context, I might say that I did it with love and joy when it was a ministry or calling, and when the calling left I could not continue under my own power.

Hospice work and traveling in the Quaker ministry

I’ve supported people doing hospice work and traveled in the Quaker ministry with a concern to get Friends to talk about AIDS.

One aspect of the height of the AIDS epidemic was how many people were estranged from their families. So, if they were going to have help in their sickness and dying, it meant that their friends (and all too often, strangers) had to step up. I was not some Florence Nightingale, but rubbing hand lotion on a friend’s feet to soothe the neuropathy, or making sure they have a hot meal, or sitting in the hospital as they sleep, or keeping vigil on their deathbed really changes a person.

In 1992 I helped create an AIDS Working Group in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Responding to a proposal from Carolyn Schodt, we created a Quaker Ministry to Persons with AIDS, which trained volunteers and paired them with people with AIDS for weekly visits. Usually the partners were people in hospice, and volunteers formed friendships, gave support, and provided respite to caregivers. I was involved in the training program and in a monthly support group for the volunteers.

My religious work among Quakers around AIDS had begun earlier, when I shared with my monthly meeting my concern that Quakers should be talking about the epidemic and considering what, if anything, God was calling them to do in response. After a discernment process, I was given what’s colloquially called a “travel minute,” which is an official statement of a Quaker body endorsing the activities of a specific Friend on a specific topic. Initially I travelled to other monthly meetings in Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting (roughly the city of Philadelphia) and later to other meetings in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. By the time the AIDS Working Group had formed, I also travelled to other yearly meetings in North America.

Quaker practice varies widely (as does Quaker theology), and one striking memory I have is visiting Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative. The “conservative” in their name refers to largely to practices of worship and to some degree cultural practices. Certainly the way they conducted their meetings for business was an eye-opener. When my travel minute was presented and read, upon acceptance of the minute, it was clear that Friends were prepared to hear whatever message I had, right then, should I have one. I was so used to very carefully and heavily scheduled agendas that I almost missed the significance of the moment.

My work around AIDS is part of what led me to enter a yearlong program, “On Being a Spiritual Nurturer,” led by three Friends who had created an organization called School of the Spirit. In monthly residential weekends, participants heard from a variety of spiritual nurturers from different traditions, experienced various contemplative practices, and reflected together on what we were learning. Between times we did lots of reading and reflection papers, practiced local ministry under the care of oversight committees, and considered our own particular calls to ministry.

What I learned in the School of the Spirit has informed my approach to friendships and care and support for others, although I did not formally become a spiritual director. As I’ve been taking a fresh look at my life around the occasion of turning 60, I’ve given consideration to renewing and deepening my own spiritual practice and to the possibility of offering spiritual direction to others.

RNC demonstrations

First-person reflections on the Republican National Convention in St. Paul over at Showers of Blessings

But I was appalled at the disproportionality of the display of force throughout the week. It started with forcible entries to four or five homes Saturday morning to arrest RNC WC members and to execute search warrants. Police reportedly used battering rams to break open unlocked doors and came in with drawn guns, despite there being no reason to suspect that the residents posed any threat of violent resistance. There were also many reports of harassment of journalists prior to and throughout the week.

At the march, hundreds of police were dressed head-to-toe in armor and battle gear, far exceeding any danger they may have reasonably anticipated, especially from the 10,000 peaceful marchers. The display seemed clearly intended to frighten and intimidate others by creating a false aura of danger, creating fear and uncertainty in the public mind. I cannot escape the conclusion that the police let themselves be used as part of a larger propaganda and public relations effort to delegitimize the protesters.

Convergence?

Andrew J. Brown, an English liberal Christian Unitarian, blogs at CAUTE: Some more thoughts on Garden Academies

. . . if liberals are going to get real things done in these difficult times then we need to recall that our power has always been in the cultivation of small and ever-evolving gardens which, collectively, show something real about our liberalism which includes, of course, a commitment to the incredible diversity and vulnerability of all life upon our home planet. The moment we are tempted to scale up to bigger institutions we begin to resemble, not gardeners (i.e. people actively commingling with the world) but managers (i.e. people who act at a distance from the world).

And Martin Kelley, a Quaker (I won’t hyphenate him!) blogs at Quaker Ranter: Is it Convergent to talk about Convergence?

Just the last thing is that for me if our work isn’t ultimately rooted in sharing the good news then it’s self-indulgent. I don’t want to create a little oasis or hippy compound of happy people. Friends aren’t going to go to heaven in our politically-correct smugness while the rest of the world is dying off. It’s all of us or none of us. If we’re not actively evangelizing, then we are part of the problem. “Convergence” is Quaker lingo. When we say it we’re turning our back to the world to talk amongst ourselves: a useful exercise occassionally but not our main work.

Hmm. I’m not sure the two quotes I’ve chosen do the best job at showing why I think these two posts are related, but it’s the best I have time to do at the moment!