4/19/2008

Douglas Gwyn explains it for us

I have been slowly making my way through Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox. It was his first book, I believe, published in 1986 by Friends United Press, and based on his doctoral dissertation. I've read most of his other books and yet had never tackled this one. It's taking time because I keep setting it aside to read other books, or to play with my kids or hang out with my wife or get ready for Affordable Housing Week.

Anyway, this passage practically leapt off the page at me, so here it is, from page 173 of the 1986 edition:
There is a popular notion, even among some Friends, that the Quaker "brand" of worship is not for everyone; that it requires a cool, detached, middle- to upper-middle class Anglo-American temperament. Not only is this notion implicitly classist and racist, it constitutes a terrible misunderstanding of what Quaker worship means. What makes this worship difficult for people of all races and temperaments to accept is the way it brings the experience of the cross into worship itself. No one takes up this cross easily. Yet it is in this quiet, sometimes desperate, prayerful attitude that one may give up one's self to God and say, "nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:44).

8 comments:

cath said...

I think it's time to put that notion to rest, and to some degre it has been out here in farm country with a small Meeting in the middle of cornfields and small towns every few miles down the road.

When I say, it has been put to rest, I mean by Friends themselves. I still think people are reluctant to test the waters. We get a lot of visitors who have been considering Quakerism for a long time, and even go to web sites about it. But when confronted with the silent portion of the worship service, it's clear to see that nothing the've found in their reading or web searches has prepared them for something so different from their former experience.

They often don't come back--and I don't think it has as much to do with feeling that they are not intellectual enough or upper-middle class enough. I think it has to do with not being welcomed and eased into a new situation gracefully enough.

I've done ethnographic fieldwork among the Amish--and their worship style was very surprising to me the first time I attended. I was constantly wondering if I was on the verge of doing something really obnoxious without knowing it.

But those around me were kind enough to explain their ways and also let me make mistakes without even a raised eyebrow (like the time I was singing the wrong hymn in German while the rest continued singing the right one).

The best experiences I've had with other Friends Meetings are the ones where the greeter presumes I know nothing until I say I do. And sometimes I visit a Meeting with no greeter at all.

Anyway, only we have the power to make a dent in the idea that somehow we hold our worship as an entry point for only certain types of people.

At a party, the gracious host will not leave a the guest who doesn't know everyone to fend for him/herself. Let's be gracious hosts.

cath

Jeanne said...

Amen, Chris (and Douglas). Thanks for posting the quote. This Friend speaks my mind.

Jeanne said...

I'm just re-reading the post and am struck that it was written in 1986, and some people are still asking the question (in 2008) as to whether Quakerism could possibly be for poor or working class people.

kevin roberts said...

There are people in my meeting with no health insurance, phones cut off, who eat hand-outs from bakeries and out-of-date dairy. Lots have an education that ended in high school.

They live in subsidized apartments, trailers, or houses with plastic tarps over the missing windows. They get collection notices for medical care they can't pay for, abandon their cars when they break because the tow charge is more than the car is worth, and wear coats inside instead of heating the house.

The kid's teeth fall out because they can't afford a dentist, wear ragged clothes all winter because there's nothing else, and get a new pair of shoes in the spring only if the bigger kid's hand downs are worn out.

My meeting feeds them, gives them free firewood and clothing, helps with their debts, and gives them anonymous cash when their cars blow up. It's how it's supposed to work.

But I don't think they're upper middle class.

wess said...

Hi Chris,
I think I'm more with Cath on this one, I think Gwyn is over stating the point. I agree that there is something powerful in silence, I've written about it recently (called: Listening as Exchange) and I do think it's something that needs to be maintained. Yet, I think it needs to be maintained among a variety of expressions of worship and experimentation. Gwyn's observation universalizes silence, making it objective and a-cultural, and this is a position I personally cannot accept. Silence arose out of a particular context and in response to particular ways of life, and when it is used and understood in that context I think it is at its best. But, when we try to universalize anything, and make it dogmatic, it will eventually implode. Maybe I'm reading too much into the statement as well...like I've ever done that before!

Thanks for posting this.

Paul L said...

Chris -- Thanks for this. I am reading the same book and had the same resopnse you did to the quote (except that I didn' think to post it!).

To me, the key is this sentence:

"What makes this worship difficult for people of all races and temperaments to accept is the way it brings the experience of the cross into worship itself. No one takes up this cross easily."

A lot of the talk about why so many meetings in certain branches of Friends are economically segregated seems to suggest that it's because the prevailing majority of Friends are kind of snobby; their cultural norms and expectations make it too difficult for newcomers of a different social class (or culture, if you will) to attend or feel welcome and want to return.

This may be a chicken-and-egg argument, but I think the primary problem isn't that the middle class Friends are snobby but because our watered down worship and membership standards aren't challenging enough; they have created a kind of pseudo-inclusiveness that accepts a low level of spiritual unity in favor of superficial class and cultural compatibility. In other words, Friends' infinitely more powerful religious message which, as Gwynn points out is difficult (it is an "easy" yoke only for a citizen of the topsy-turvey Kingdom of God) is too often obscured in the name of "inclusiveness" or "theological diversity" and has the unintended but inevetible effect of fostering a socially and economically homogeneous religious club instead of a dynamically evangelical religious movement capable of bringing the message that will save the world.

I may write more about this on my own blog, but I had a glimpse of this last week when I attended a funeral for a professional colleague of my wife's at a mostly African American Tabernacle congregation where he was associate pastor. (What I call a "funeral" they called a "Homegoing Celebration.")

The congregation had members from across the class spectrum, from the relatively well-off to marginal and even criminal elements of the community. Yet the religious message and commitment seemed to transcend these differences and bound the members together in a deep way. These people felt themselves to be a People, and not only as sons and daughters of Africa, but more importantly as sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters (and aunts and uncles and cousings) to teach others. (Oh yes, the celebration lasted nearly four hours, too; none of this sixty-minutes-and-out stuff.)

No, the worship didn't suit my temperament and I'd probably not stay long in a Friends Meeting that exhibited so much emotional fervor so often. But I was whistful afterwards for the power and dynamism that these fellow Christians showed.

Thanks, Chris, for pulling this out and continuing the discussion.

Allison said...

Thanks for posting this, Chris, and for diving into the race and class issues so open-heartedly.

Cath ~ I originally wanted to be a part of our Peace & Social Concerns committee, but after thinking about it, I decided my time and gifts might be better suited on the Welcoming Committee. I am thinking that Welcoming should also go beyond just once people come into the front door (why don't we stand outside the door?!) and extend to being open portals through which other people might come to Friends.

Chris M. said...

Thanks, everyone, for commenting!

Jeanne -- Yes, 1986; I made a point of including the year of publication.

Paul -- and anyone else -- I hope you'll consider writing your own posts.