Starting a Theological Dialogue Among the Quaker Men of the Pacific Northwest

Introduction

In the Pacific Northwest, women from the two main Quaker traditions have been gathering together for the last twenty seven years to discuss their common theological heritage. Unfortunately men have not engaged in a similar conversation, thus missing out on the opportunity. The reality is that both of our divergent streams bear key parts of Quaker faith and practice that need to come together in order for the Religious Society of Friends to live into its birthright. Out of all of the branches of the Christian faith, the Quakers are best placed to be a center of spiritual awakening for the Western world. Our ways of doing business which honor each person’s connection to the divine and our understanding of integrity as a moral consistency in all spheres of life are key connecting points for a Western world that is in the process of rejecting hierarchy and selective morality. In this study I will provide a brief history of the current state of Quakerism in the Pacific Northwest outlining the context into which a conversation is beginning. Following this history I will discuss what stands in the way of the dialogue and the pitfalls we will need to avoid, and then I will outline possible methodologies which could be used to enhance and promote discussion. The goal in this paper is then to invite Quaker Men in the Northwest to come together in appreciative ways that do not dishonor the lived experiences of our faith and practice.

Background and History

The Quakers have a long history in the Pacific Northwest going all the way back to the mid 1800s with an organized structure coming into existence under the guidance of William Hobson in the 1870s. Oregon Yearly Meeting was formed in 1893 and comprised mostly Iowans who had migrated to the Newberg and Salem area. These Friends were very much part of what would become the Evangelical wing of the Friends movement and eventually joined with other Friends in Washington and Idaho in 1945 and in 1971 changed their name to the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Churches (NWYM). The NWYM is currently part of Evangelical Friends Church International, through which the NWYM participates in the National Association of Evangelicals.[1] In the 1930s and 1940s un-programmed meetings began to form in the Pacific Northwest, with some being founded by un-programmed Yearly Meetings from the East, some being founded by programmed Friends already in the Northwest, and some arising from conflict with the perceived over-emphasis of emotionalism by programmed Yearly Meetings that were participating in revival movements. Pacific Yearly Meeting held its first meeting in 1947 and was comprised of Quakers from California up through Western Canada and throughout the Rocky Mountains States and Provinces. By the end of the 1960s it became unsustainable for so many people to travel long distances for an annual gathering and after a time of discernment and preparation, North Pacific Yearly Meeting (NPYM) met for the first time as a separate entity in 1973. The NPYM has continued to experience some growth through the last 39 years and now extends into Montana.[2]

One of the things that drew my attention is the difference in the way the other Yearly Meeting was discussed in the NPYM and NWYM Faith and Practices. Figure 1 below is a side-by-side look at these two very different statements. I find the ways each Yearly Meeting refers to the other as very enlightening in terms of understanding how difficult it has to have been for the women of these Yearly Meetings, many of whom were leaders, to come together and have an open discussion about their similarities and differences.

Also in the Northwest is North Pacific Yearly Meeting (Independent), which is unprogrammed and more theologically and socially liberal. Just as Northwest Yearly Meeting Friends at times feel the need to clarify that the positions of some evangelicals do not speak for our Christ-centered commitments, we also find ourselves at times needing to clarify that our Quaker convictions on matters of faith and practice are not identical to those of other groups of Friends.[3] Friends from Iowa organized the first west coast Monthly Meeting at Newberg, Oregon, in 1878, and in 1893 Oregon Yearly Meeting (now Northwest) was established by Iowa Yearly Meeting. California Yearly Meeting was established in 1895, also under Iowa Yearly Meeting. Friends Memorial Meeting in Seattle was organized in 1905, part of Puget Sound Quarterly Meeting of Indiana Yearly Meeting. Friends from this Meeting formed University Friends Worship Group, which became a Preparative Meeting in 1938 and a Monthly Meeting in 1940.[4]

Figure 1

The NPYM statement is a very clinical acknowledgement of the existence of the NWYM and an interesting historical note that one of the meetings in the NPYM was founded by a programmed Friends meeting in Seattle. (Indiana Yearly Meeting is programmed.) In contrast, the NWYM avoids clinically denoting the origins of the NPYM, instead opting to acknowledge their existence while saying that “We are not them.” There is a distinct absence of warmth towards the other evidenced in these documents, which leads me to conclude that the relationship between these geographically concurrent meetings has been problematic.

It was in 1985, after traveling together to the World Gathering of Young Friends and The Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), that two women from the NWYM and NPYM began to meet in order to share “on an ongoing basis the challenge and richness of their encounters with Friends of different traditions.”[5] Margery Abbott continues by explaining how painstaking and care-full the interaction between the women was at first. There was “no concept of how long it would take to reach a real sense of trust.”[6] Even now, when someone leaves the group and another person joins, time is taken to reestablish the necessary trust in the group. The obvious desire of the group is to find ways to connect with and to a certain extent come to understand how these divergent groups who share the same “family of origin” have arrived at the very different understandings of what it means to be a Quaker.

Comunitas and Pitfalls

In his book The Sky is Falling, Alan Roxburgh calls for setting up a comunitas to help us develop our faith and ways of being together while the culture (and us) goes through discontinuous change. My hope is that by opening up a conversation and hosting it well I can be part of building a Quaker comunitas in the Pacific Northwest that is “an open space where we might discover and learn from one another in powerfully innovative ways.”[7] As noted in the previous section there are some significant gaps that exist between the Quakers in the Pacific Northwest which necessitate a delicate approach of trust building. The primary gaps are the results of a couple of centuries of disagreement about how to live out our faith and practice and the fear and distrust of “other” that has developed due to our disassociation. In order to have a conversation that is marked by comunitas we will need to approach our desires to know each other and our perspectives from what Parker Palmer calls a different passion with a different end: “a knowledge that originates not in curiosity or control but in compassion [having a goal being] the reunification of broken selves and worlds…the act of knowing is an act of love, the act of entering and embracing the reality of the other, of allowing the other to enter and embrace our own.”[8]

As the Quaker women of the Northwest discovered, this is not a clean or easy process. The pitfalls of imperialism and paternalism are significant and must be guarded against. In an article on Reconciliation in the postmodern world, Athanasios Papathanasiou reminds us that,

Division between human beings is a wound, a trauma. But we can contribute to the healing of division only by experiencing it truly as a trauma, not by closing our eyes to it. It is obvious that imperialism is contemptuous of otherness, since its aim is to impose its own “truth” on others. There is also, however, another attitude that is in reality contemptuous of otherness, one that is supposedly the antithesis of imperialism. This is the belief that all truth claims, all faiths, all traditions, and all cultures are basically saying the same thing. This tendency is not imperialistic; it is, however, paternalistic, and it is likewise a problem because although it does not attack othernesses directly, in reality it bypasses them, because it does not acknowledge that they have real content. It does not recognize any true difference; difference is illusory. For this reason, it does not dare to attempt the sort of encounter with others that might be critical but would provide genuine opportunities for the enrichment of those who partake in it together.[9]

My contention is that we will need to enter the process with a real effort to value the differences we are bringing to the table rather than attempting to overcome them or bypass them. It is in the otherness that I believe we will come to a much better understanding of what it means to be part of the Quaker tradition in the ways we engage it. By acknowledging the trauma of our division we can finally begin a process that leads to true health, a health that is built on an acknowledgement of our roles and responsibilities in the healing process and trust that each of the others has the same acknowledgement.

Compassionate Listening

One method we can use is that of Compassionate Listening. Gene Knudsen Hoffman pioneered this process in her peacemaking efforts as a way for people who had seen each other as enemies to come to an understanding of what the other side’s lived experience is. Hoffman suggests that we “move beyond initiatives we formerly used, into realms we had not considered, not yet discovered, trusting that there are always open to us new divine possibilities.”[10] The divine possibility being that we see the light that is borne by someone we had considered to be our enemy. The Compassionate Listening Project has five core practices that are useful in approaching any situation in which conflict has existed:

1)      Cultivating Compassion for ourselves and others.

2)      Developing the Fair Witness by remaining open in conflict situations.

3)      Respecting Self and Others by developing boundaries which protect yet include.

4)      Listening with the Heart – allow divergence and find a deeper point of connection.

5)      Speaking from the Heart with language which reflects a healing intention.[11]

These principles are being used to host conversations between Palestinians and Israelis with some fairly incredible results. What might it look like if more of our conversations wer guided by these principles? In many ways I would say principles three and four would be the most difficult for those deeply embedded in more evangelical cultures which place a high importance on establishing a monoculture which sees divergence as a form of evil rather than an opportunity for deeper connection. (This is actually very rare in the NWYM, but it does exist.) Part of our issue really is that we have three cultural languages using the same words to mean differsnt things, so especially at the beginning of getting together we will need to define what we mean and not assume that we understand what others are saying. The essence of the third principle is then defining what we mean by what we say and being sure to ask clarifying questions so that we may better communicate with each other. One thing that must be clear is that these principles are not necessarily a location we can arrive at, but are instead the compass that guides our way.

Circles of Trust

In his book The Hidden Wholeness Parker Palmer outlines a way of being together that opens our souls to each other and gives us the freedom to speak from a centeredness that barely exists in our meetings with people we have no major conflict with. It is my desire that this be the model we use to establish the norms of interaction around theology in a diverse setting. Palmer begins by outlining the preparation needed to insure a safe, generative space for our souls to speak and be heard. The first piece of creating a trust relationship is to set clear limits. We must be intentional about our life together, taking the time to define our process, our reason for coming together and how we will interact with each other.[12] Second, there is a need for skilled leadership. Since we are coming together from traditions that have been at odds yet still believe in equality, it will be crucial to have leaders who are skilled at deescalating tensions without using domination, who can call us back to listening and away from debate and defense.[13] The third is that participation is by open invitation, that those who are participating are not coerced or manipulated into participation, but possess the freedom to decline the invitation at any point in time. No one “must” participate, even in introducing ourselves or talking about life, all must be free to participate or not as needed.[14] Fourth, before we talk about where we may differ, we must establish the common ground, the base comunitas from which we can begin to explore our honest differences. Palmer gives us a query to consider as we try to establish common ground: “How can we keep the circle open to diverse views while keeping it focused on difficult truths?”[15] Finally, there needs to be a graceful ambiance in which a physical sense of hospitality can be felt. Palmer encourages us to “gather in settings and be guided by schedules that possess simple grace.”[16] When we meet in a space that welcomes us with feelings of warmth and when we have a schedule that is neither frenetic nor barren, we create an atmosphere in which interpersonal grace becomes a possibility.

Conclusion

As I prepare for this venture, through study and building friendships (with people I have little connection with other than the word Quaker), through prayer and waiting on the prompting of the Spirit to move forward, I am more and more aware of how much I have to learn from my un-programmed f/Friends and how much they can learn from the little spark of light that I bear. Quakers have spoken about “the measure of light” that each person has, but I think we forget how often our “measure” is flared into a nova or is swallowed by the black holes of distraction in our busy culture. As I reflect one last time on the language that pervades our official documents I am struck by the way we have conflated boundaries with barriers, not being content to define ourselves, but placing obstacles to prevent others from reaching us with the unintended consequence of preventing us from reaching others. We also at times tear down the barriers, but erase the boundaries in the process, losing sight of who we are. Let us then come together, not to erase boundaries, but to disassemble the barriers that keep us from extending love to each other.


[1] The Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church, Faith and Practice (Newberg, OR: by the Yearly Meeting, 2011), 10, Adobe Portable Document Format http://nwfriends.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/faith-and-practice-2011.pdf. (accessed April 22, 2012).

[2] North Pacific Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice of North Pacific Yearly Meeting Transitional Version (Tacoma, WA: by the author, 2011), 6, Adobe Portable Document Format http://www.npym.org/docs/fnp/FPTransitional-11-2011-rev.pdf. (accessed April 22, 2012).

[3] The Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church, Faith and Practice (Newberg, OR, 2011), 7,

[4] North Pacific Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice of North Pacific Yearly Meeting Transitional Version (Tacoma, WA, 2011), 6,

[5] Margery Post Abbott, An Experiment in Faith Quaker Women Transcending Differences (Wallingford: PA, 1995), 4.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Alan J. Roxburgh, The Sky is Falling (Eagle, ID: ACI Publishing, 2005), 109.

[8] Parker Palmer, To Know as We Are Known (New York: Harper One, 1993), 8.

[9] Athanasios N. Papathanasiou, “Reconciliation: The Major Conflict in Postmodernity,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 51, no. 1-4 (2006): 158.

[10] Hoffman, Gene Knudsen, Compassionate Listening, ed. Anthony Manousos (Torrance, CA: Friends Bulletin, 2003), 311.

[11] The Compassionate Listening Project, 2012, “About Our Trainings,” http://www.compassionatelistening.org/trainings/about/ (accessed April 23, 2012).

[12] Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 74-75.

[13] Ibid. 76-77

[14] Ibid. 78-79

[15] Ibid. 81

[16] Ibid. 84

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abbott, Margery Post. An Experiment in Faith Quaker Women Transcending Differences. Wallingford: PA, 1995.

The Compassionate Listening Project. “About Our Trainings.” 2012. http://www.compassionatelistening.org/trainings/about/ (accessed April 23, 2012).

Hoffman, Gene Knudsen. Compassionate Listening. Edited by Anthony Manousos. Torrance, CA: Friends Bulletin, 2003.

North Pacific Yearly Meeting. Faith and Practice of North Pacific Yearly Meeting Transitional Version. Tacoma, WA: by the author, 2011. Adobe Portable Document Format, http://www.npym.org/docs/fnp/FPTransitional-11-2011-rev.pdf. (accessed April 22, 2012).

The Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church. Faith and Practice. Newberg, OR: by the Yearly Meeting, 2011. Adobe Portable Document Format, http://nwfriends.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/faith-and-practice-2011.pdf. (accessed April 22, 2012).

Palmer, Parker J. A Hidden Wholeness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Palmer, Parker. To Know as We Are Known. New York: Harper One, 1993.

Papathanasiou, Athanasios N. “Reconciliation: The Major Conflict in Postmodernity.” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 51, no. 1-4 (2006): 155-165.

Roxburgh, Alan J. The Sky is Falling. Eagle, ID: ACI Publishing, 2005.

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3 responses to “Starting a Theological Dialogue Among the Quaker Men of the Pacific Northwest

  1. I was thinking the same thing. awesome job on you article. I think we should ask the women for advice on how to proceed

  2. You could just show up! The Willamette Quarterly Meeting Men plan to retreat at Big Bear Camp near Walton, OR from 3/11-3/13/2016. The flyer isn’t done yet, but there’s info from 2015 at http://npym.org/?q=content/willamette-quarterly-mens-retreat

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