Monday, June 23, 2008

Ohio Yearly Meeting's Conservative Friends Gathering

This weekend, Friday evening through Sunday morning (or Sixth Day through First Day, in the local parlance), I attended the Gathering of Conservative Friends, hosted by Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative), at Olney Friends School and Stillwater Monthly Meeting's meetinghouse. This was my first experience of any gathering of Conservative Friends, having previously only met Conservative Friends individually. It was a new experience to be around Friends at this gathering, who had travelled from all over North America (and one family from Finland!) to be together with other Conservative Friends. This largely seems to have been an opportunity for isolated Conservative Quakers to come together and share fellowship with other like-minded individuals.

Many of those in attendance this weekend were not full members of Ohio Yearly Meeting, but instead were what are referred to as "affiliate" members. As I understood it, this particular gathering was representative of only a certain stream of one Conservative yearly meeting, primarily seeming to be made up of affiliate members of OYM and those full members who support this growing way in which OYM is reaching out to the wider world, encouraging those who would like to take part in their unique brand of Christian Quakerism. Many of these Friends wore "plain dress" and employed "plain speech" (thee knows what that means, doesn't thee?). I felt myself to be in a very different cultural zone from any other Quaker event I had ever attended.

An overarching theme of the weekend gathering was a sense of isolation on the part of many of those attending the event. Many affiliate members came to this gathering as one of their few face-to-face opportunities for corporate worship and fellowship with other like-minded Friends for the whole year. Some of these Friends are geographically isolated from Friends altogether, while others have found themselves to be so out of unity with the local meetings in their area that they have withdrawn, in some cases forming new Christian Friends worship groups. There was a gnawing hunger for connection and community, and also sadness that Conservative Quakerism is such a small community, both geographically and numerically.

It seemed apparent that Friends at this gathering were not representative of Ohio Yearly Meeting as a whole. While attended by many affiliate members, there were relatively few full members present. I am interested in coming to know OYM Friends more deeply, and I hope that some day soon I might be able to visit OYM's regular annual sessions. I am looking forward to meeting with other kinds of Conservative Friends, in general. It will be enlightening, I am sure, to visit Friends at Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) next month, and I am hopeful that I might be able to visit at least a half-day of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative)'s annual sessions while I am nearby for FUM Triennial.

This trip helped me see how Conservative Quakerism is one branch among the others, and that it has its own glories and failings, just like the other branches do. I think that, previously, I had held Conservative Quakerism with a special, somewhat unrealistic regard, imagining it to be the "purest" form of Quakerism that we had left. I believe, now, that all of our branches of Friends, even the Conservative one, preserve particular elements of the Friends tradition and fail to encompass others. Conservative Friends seem to preserve to a greater degree the tradition developed during the Quietist period. I am no longer convinced, though, that Conservative Quakerism should be considered more "pure" or traditional than evangelical or liberal Quakerism. Now, I see that all Quakers, even Conservative Friends, are just human beings, and that we all have blindspots. This initial brush with Conservative Friends has confirmed my own identity as a Gurneyite-rooted, convergent Friend.

1 comment:

Micah Bales said...

I am posting a comment from Marshall Massey, which he was unable to post due to restrictions on blogspot. I believe that those restrictions have now been removed, and anyone should be able to post.

From Marshall:

Dear Micah —

Your new blog doesn't allow me to post a comment without a Google, Blogger, LiveJournal, WordPress, TypePad or AIM account. Since I have none of those, I am compelled to write you privately. (Not that I really mind!)

I had to chuckle when I read your comment about how "Conservative Friends seem to preserve to a greater degree the tradition developed during the Quietist period." To Conservatives, there is no such thing as a "Quietest period". There was Quietism among the Seekers whose communities received George Fox into their midst in the 1640s and gave birth to Quakerism, and from then to now, Quietism has never ended among the faithful. So when, exactly, was this "period"? When Friends from other branches speak of a "Quietist period", they are speaking not objectively but subjectively; they are speaking of what has happened to themselves.

That said, though: No, the Gathering you attended is not terribly representative of Conservative Friends, and Conservative Friends should not be judged by it. The Gathering consists largely of folks who have embraced the Conservative testimonies out of conviction; our three yearly meetings, and even more, the monthly meetings of which those yearly meetings are composed, consist largely of folks who have joined themselves to the Conservative people out of community. The difference is not absolute; there are folks in the Gathering who are there out of community, and folks in monthly meetings who are there out of conviction. But the folks in monthly meetings are practicing the difficult business of community week after week, while the folks who are isolated, doing plain dress and plain speech, are practicing the quite different difficult business of being strong alone, and being a thorn in worldly society's side. It makes for a different feeling in the people.

It's also worth bearing in mind that no one Conservative yearly meeting is representative of all three. The three have had different histories; they broke with the Gurneyites over quite different issues, and the different reasons for their separations from the Gurneyites are mirrored in different emphases in their practice. I think you'll see this as your tour proceeds, and you talk in more depth with Friends from each of the three communities.

Consider yourself hugged! I look forward to seeing you in Iowa.