Saturday, July 26, 2008

Convergent Quakers

This from Martin Kelly, on Convergent Quakers:

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 --liberal translation: sharing the spiritual insights and gifts we've been given--, 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 occasionally but not our main work.

I believe Martin makes excellent points above, especially that we need to share the spiritual transformations and gifts we've been given. As others have said, the world is crying out for witnesses to peace, hope and compassion.

I came to the emerging church long before ever hearing of convergent, but as I understand it (and I may well have it wrong), convergents are Conservative Quakers (I read Conservative to mean Christ-centered or Christ-leaning or, at least, Christ-seeking Friends practicing unprogrammed worship) who want to become part of the emerging church conversation. Being part of that conversation means a radical willingness to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, even when that's uncomfortable, a yearning to bring opposing groups together and an active attempt to find the good in what other strands of the faith practice and believe. It also means being winsome, in other words, being people other people (outside the clique) want to be around. It means being humble and admitting we don't have all the answers and that our group--even our group!!--has made mistakes.

To the extent that the convergent Friends have started a conversation that pulls closer people and groups who are/were at odds with each other, I believe it's doing a tremendous service for Quakers and the wider world. I think it has started good conversations and has injected civility into the Quaker discourse. Quakers, I believe, need to be talking civilly with and trying to love and see the good in Quakers in "opposing camps." Quakers, including myself, would benefit by getting out of their comfort zones. Quakers, including myself (and I already do this quite a bit, but could stand to do it more), would be enriched by talking more and listening more to the wider Christian world. I would go so far as to say that Quakers were not meant to become so unworldly as to cut themselves off from everyone else. I know some Quakers are grieved that so much ill has been done in the name of Christianity--but terrible things have been done in the name of every major religion and by every atheist group that has gained power. None of us are above it all.

At its core, the emerging conversation is two things: First, it's trying to be authentically Christian. As the early Quakers did, emerging types are getting out of the steeplehouse and meeting people where they are: in bars, in houses, in coffeeshops and at the point of their needs, be it offering a ride or mowing a lawn. This is hard and exhilirating. It's different from hanging a sign on a church or a meetinghouse and saying "come to us," an approach that has been criticized as arrogant.

Second, the emerging conversation is about replacing religious and political polarization with listening and love. As noted above, it involved the "winsome" ethos: serving others and "being a pattern" is more important than ambushing people with a formulaic set of beliefs. It means again (and Martin spoke of the movie Groundhog Day, in which a man is doomed to repeat the same day over and over until he "gets it" about what's important in life, so I'm going to repeat myself) it means a radical willingness to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, even when that's uncomfortable, a yearning to bring opposing groups together and an active attempt to find the good in what other strands of the faith practice and believe. It also means being winsome, in other words, being people other people (outside the clique) want to be around. It means being humble and admitting we don't have all the answers and that our group--even our group!!--has made mistakes.

The parallels between the emerging church and early Quakerism are obvious and often noticed. I hope the current convergent movement will grow and prosper. What do you think?


Bill Samuel said...

While Emerging may have become far more than a conversation, in that there are many communities actively trying to live it out, I think Convergent Friends is still largely a conversation. That is in part a necessary stage. But it also leads appropriately to Martin's warning, because the Good News ultimately is shared through the living of it in authentic community.

I know there are a handful of Friends groups who call themselves Emergent Quakers. It is interesting that they don't call themselves Convergent Friends, and most of them do not seem really engaged in the Convergent Friends conversation. They also aren't coming from the Conservative Friends orientation. You can also see a lot of interest in the Emerging Church in Northwest YM, and of course they don't come from the Conservative Friends orientation either.

So there seem to be two separate streams of Friends who are pulling from the Emerging Church experience. Convergent Friends gets a lot of attention because it is very public since it is centered in blogs, but a lot more seems to be going on in the other stream that gets little public attention.

There are also variations in the relation to the existing structures of Quakerism. In Northwest YM, a unique and very interesting part of contemporary Quakerism, the interest seems to be fostered strongly within the institutional structure. In North Carolina, where there are 3 "Emergent Quaker" congregations, there is variation and tension, and it seems to range between being fairly comfortably part of the YM to having made the decision to split with the YM.

In Convergent Friends, there is a great deal of tension around the relationships. Ohio YM seems to be welcoming to the conversation, although if taken honestly and fully, it seems to really challenge some parts of the Ohio YM ethos.

There seems to be a tension with the Hicksite/Beanite wing. Partly this is an identity thing among Convergent Friends. Is it a melding of two Christ-centered expressions, Conservative Friends and Emerging Church, or is it another way to embrace the all ways are good kind of philosophy of "universalist" Friends?

There seems to be real ambivalence about this, and a way through it will need to be found if it is to be more than a conversation of fairly short duration. There are already Friends who are convinced that Convergent Friends are a danger, but who might be sympathetic to aspects of the Emerging Church. CF is seen as a liberal Friends phenomenon in some parts of Quakerism - and they can point to blog entries of Convergent Friends which appear to prove their point.

Martin Kelley said...

I appreciate Bill's overview here but I think it misses something. There are a whole lot of misfit Friends out there, people whose understanding doesn't necessarily jive well with their yearly meeting's. I used to write a lot about the "lost Quaker generation," the loads of friends of mine who just dropped out of active Quaker participation after years of bad experiences. It would be dishonest of me to pretend that service on most committees of my yearly meeting would be anything other than a waste of time. I could listen to some Unitarian wannabees give me the week's New York Times headlines or I could get through three more chapters of Thomas Clarkson and write an article that would reach hundreds of Friends and hundreds of seekers. Seriously: if my yearly meeting wants to spend another hundred years muttering to itself, then God help it.

I'm an outgoing person. I'm easy to get along with. I've spent years of my life in committee meetings. But it's just gotten really hard to justify that. Many of us simply don't have good options. We're trying to stay faithful. We're working in the system sometimes, and we're starting independent worship groups sometimes, and sometimes we're doing both. I've seen familiar dynamics in all the Quaker branches and all over the country: let's get serious about our Quakerism and let's start doing serious community and serious spreading of the Good News. I don't particularly care what anyone is calling it.

My point is that you can't always easily equate these convergenty Friends with the yearly meetings where they officially belong. When I visit yearly meetings I always look for the people hanging in the back. I don't see any yearly meeting of any Quaker tradition doing a fabulous job of living out the Quaker faith. I would love to have an "authentic community" of Quakers within close commuting distance that I could just sign up with. Trouble is, right now I'm seeing more interest in Quakerism coming from outsider seekers and yearly meeting misfits than I do from the established monthly and yearly meetings. When I did the northwest England Quaker tour I was struck how we kept coming to churches OUTSIDE OF WHICH George Fox preached. I particularly loved the tree he climbed up at one church, the better to preach to the workers at the town's job fair. Sometimes God tells us to climb trees.

Bill: I've said before and I'll say it again that you're one of the people who's long been ahead of the curve on the whole "Emergent Church / Conservative Friends / working the system but also coming up with alternatives" meme. Whether it makes sense to apply a label to all this largely under-the-radar seething, and whether "Convergent" is the best label, is something of a distraction to the real message which is that old message of living in the faith and power of the inward Christ, loving God and loving our neighbors.