Sunday, August 15, 2010

Living the Faith

Living the Faith

Today I attended my second meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, at the meeting house on Pleasant Ave. in Worcester. This week was a much fuller session, with around 20 people in attendance, ranging in age from 80+ down to an infant. The children left after the first few minutes, and then it was exactly like last week: one hour of complete silence.

I was certain that today, in such a larger meeting, I would get to hear someone stand up and give a testimony, but no such luck. I have the slightly paranoid feeling that perhaps the Quakers are just tolerating my presence in sullen silence, and that as soon as I stop coming to the meetings, they'll return to their normal weekly practice of guzzling small beer, wearing old-fashioned hats, and testifying like crazy.

Actually, though, everyone at the meeting house was incredibly friendly. I wasn't in the door for more than thirty seconds by the time three people had introduced themselves to me. One of them explained that, after last week's meeting down in Providence, she thought the attendance would still be lower than usual today.

“Everybody's had their fill of Quakerism, huh?” I said.

“That's right!” she said, with a laugh, “We're all Quaked out!"

I had a chance to sort through a lot of the literature they had out in the side room today, and noticed for the first time a library of books on Quakerism and religion in general. I picked up a dozen little booklets on everything from Quaker attitudes towards marriage (the pamphlet included vows to be read at both heterosexual and homosexual marriages), violence (they're against it), and other religions (they are all for them).

Reading through everything afterward, I was really struck by the way in which Quakers reject almost every form of authority when it comes to religion. Not only do they reject the use of priests or bishops or even church leaders—they don't even accept the ultimate authority of the Bible, although they consider themselves a Christian religion. The Bible, according to their literature, is a testament to God's revelation through history—and since God's revelation throughout history is an ongoing process, no single statement or document should be treated as final and authoritative. The most fundamental principle of Quakerism is the idea that God lives within each one of us, and hence every one of us has the potential to receive a revelation as true and binding as those received by the scripture writers, saints, popes, and so on.

As someone who has chafed against every form of authority I have ever encountered, I find the Quakers kindred spirits in this regard. I also have never been much for the pomp and circumstance of religion, or for spending lots of money on buildings and religious finery, so the simplicity of the meeting house—an empty room with chairs in a circle—has a tremendous appeal to me.

I suspect that the aversion to authority creates some strange administrative moments in the meeting house, though. After our hour of worship, a member of the Buildings and Grounds Committee stated the committee's recommendation that some bushes in front of the house be cut down prior to the house being painted. He asked for approval from the meeting. Nobody spoke. He looked to the clerk, who didn't seem too sure what to say. Finally, someone shot his hand up in the air and said: “Approved!”

I couldn't tell whether this statement came from reading some spiritual decision barometer that I didn't have access to, or whether it was simply the affirmation of the most decisive person in the room. In either case, it ended the discussion. The bushes were goners.

I'll finish this Sunday's blog with one final note that really struck a chord with me as well. Several people talked about the plans for the meeting house being painted, and reviewed with us all the different quotes they had, which ranged pretty widely in price. They explained their decision for the quote they accepted, and that explanation included the following information: a group of them had gone over the quote, the number of workers who would be painting, and the cost of supplies, and calculated what the hourly wage of the workers would be. Only after they had satisfied themselves that the wage was fair were they willing to accept the quote. They also made sure the company had worker's compensation, unemployment insurance, and so on.

“And,” added a woman, “they are a family company and seemed to be people who lived simply, so we thought they were right for the job.”

I couldn't help think to myself, as I was listening to this conversation, how many churches would have reviewed the numbers like that, and made sure their painters were getting a fair wage, before hiring them? How many of us would have done that?

How many of us should?

If you're here in Worcester, you know that the Quakers stand down at the corner of Highland and Lincoln street every Tuesday from 3:00-4:30, protesting the US's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of protesters range from two or three to up to a dozen. This protest has always struck me as a strange and quixotic quest, given the limited nature of the US engagement they are protesting, and the tiny number of protesters. But they are out there every Tuesday, no matter the weather. A fundamental principle of Quakerism is living the faith. If you believe in ending violence, you find ways to live out that belief.

I will join them at their protest next week to see for myself the Quakers living their beliefs, and talk to them in more depth about what they believe and why.


  1. Quick follow-up to the paragraph above about the bushes, and decision-making in a Quaker meeting. Here is a description of group decision-making from the pamphlet "Friends and the Seeker" (Friends General Conference, 1995):

    "In meeting for business the democratic emphasis is expressed in the custom of coming to decision by 'the sense of the meeting,' never by vote, since majority rule may do violence to the conviction of a minority. If there is 'that of God in everyone,' then even a minority of one must be hearkened to, and Friends would rather be right than expedient."

  2. Jim,

    I think this is really interesting stuff. The question of authority is at the heart of many religious disputes, and, hence, at the heart of many religious traditions at their founding. I was fascinated that the Quakers don't ascribe any higher authority to the Bible, although their logic makes good sense. One might ask whether or not a religion can be without authority as opposed to a spiritual life. It doesn't seem possible for a religion to be without authority, althought spiritual life can be. For example, the point about deciding things on the basis of "sense of the meeting" rather than voting may sound nice, but that is an easy way for a powerful group to control a meeting without any formal accountability, which is what a vote provides.

    Anyways, great stuff. I'm looking forward to seeing what you discover.

  3. Good point, Tony. The interesting thing is that the Quakers have a very democratic concern at the heart of this policy on decision-making: the fear of majority tyranny, which of course was a fear of the American founding fathers. If there is a divine presence in every human being, the Quakers argue, then even one dissenting voice should not be silenced by the vote of the majority. That dissenting voice has as much of God in it as every other voice in the room. The difference here is faith: they believe that God will eventually guide everyone in the room to the right decision.