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By MATTHEW STREIB
c. 2008 Religion News Service

BALTIMORE — When his partner died in 2004, Kevin-Douglas Olive reached a crossroads in his faith. Even though he had been a Quaker for almost two decades and put his trust in Jesus, he began to explore other ways of tapping into the divine.
“I had this experience of (my partner) after death, and he spoke to me and woke me up out of my sleep,” Olive says. “It freaked me out, because I really didn’t believe in that stuff; … my faith in God had disappeared when my partner died.”
He started to explore Wicca, a nature-based pagan religion, surrounding himself with pentacles, candles and incense. But that didn’t stick. “It seemed like more make-believe on top of the Christian make-believe,” he says. “I was rejecting one; I didn’t want to bring in another.”
Even after Olive found his way back to Jesus, he retained some elements of paganism. While he upholds the standard traditions of his local Quaker meeting hall, he privately incorporates pagan ritual into his prayer.
He’s part of a small but growing movement of Quakers who also identify as pagan — a trend that may or may not exist in other Christian traditions, but certainly not in such an organized, public fashion.
Across the board, the number of Quakers is dwindling, to roughly 100,000 in the U.S. But if Quakerism continues to catch on among the estimated half million pagans in the U.S., those who embrace both traditions predict that could reverse the Quakers’ downward trend.
Still, some Quakers worry about losing their own traditions through the process of accepting new ones.
In the last decade, this dual faith has sprung up around the country, including Quaker-pagan gatherings, seminars, an extensive presence on the Internet, and even explicitly Quaker-pagan congregations. There may be only several hundred Quaker pagans, but among American Quakers, their presence can be distinctly felt.
“It seems that now, in most liberal meetings at least, you can always find a few members that identify as pagan,” says Stasa Morgan-Appel of Ann Arbor, Mich., who has facilitated a Quaker pagan interest group since 2002.
Quakers — officially the Religious Society of Friends — are divided into four main branches, three of which are explicitly Christian. Pagans have been generally joining the liberal fourth branch, the Friends General Conference, which counts 30,000 members in North America, including Morgan-Appel.
Liberal Quakers are less tied to the Christianity and instead hold established Quaker practices, such as unprogrammed pastor-less meetings, as the basis of their faith. Because of that flexibility, many liberal Quakers no longer see Jesus as divine, and some don’t believe in God at all.
Paganism generally refers to nature-based religions that pre-date both Christianity and Judaism. Think witches, druids, pentacles, Wicca– but not Satanism. Carl McColman, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism,” defined it this way: People Adoring Goddess And Nature.
It may seem strange that pagans would join the Quakers, which began in the 1600s with strong anti-pagan sentiment. Founder George Fox even altered the days of the week because of their pagan roots. To this day, Quakers refer to Sunday as First Day, Monday as Second Day and so on.
On the other hand, the two traditions share many similarities. Both are non-hierarchical and place a strong emphasis on internal divinity.
In fact, as modern paganism rose in popularity in the 1970s, many pagan groups looked to Quakers as a model of survival without a nucleus of control.
Morgan-Appel says many pagans openly embrace Quakerism, but Quakers who espouse pagan beliefs have long operated under the radar. That may be changing, however.
“People are really having the courage to be honest and truthful about the reality of their spiritual lives,” she said. “If I’m standing out there at gathering, saying, ‘Hi, here we are, come be yourself with us,’ that provides a safe space and a lot of momentum.”
But it also carries a price. Due to the accommodation of non-Christian beliefs in many meetings, many Quakers report that Christian Friends feel slighted.
Witnessing about Jesus in Olive’s meeting has become infrequent.
“People here come from so many different places, spiritually,” he says.
“Meetings can be very quiet, as many people are afraid to voice views that others might not hold to be true. We talk about God, but we don’t really put a name to him or her.”
In an effort to reinforce his connection to Jesus, Olive holds a monthly Christian prayer group at his house after his Quaker meeting.
Morgan-Appel says that such fears are common. She has seen tensions flare between the two groups, from pagan-influenced Quaker weddings to unfair fees charged to use meeting halls for Quaker-pagan gatherings.
“I think there’s a myth that it’s only Christians who feel like it makes people uncomfortable when they talk about Jesus,” she said. “There are definitely times when I see that there are still knee-jerk reactions from people within the Society of Friends who don’t know what paganism is.”
Marshall Massey, a conservative Quaker in Omaha, Neb., and co-founder of Quaker Earthcare Witness, says removing Christianity undermines the stability of the Quaker faith.
“We are an easily acculturated movement,” he says, explaining that Quakers’ egalitarian, non-creedal tradition makes it very susceptible to outside influences. “But Quakerism has become, on the liberal end, an indefinable refuge for people who regard themselves as mystics or experientially religious and have problems with sources of authority.”
Massey said losing Quakerism’s Christian heritage cuts away at its unifying belief system and makes it prone to dissolution. Nevertheless, it would be un-Quakerly to try to halt the process.
“Christ is not the sort of person who would drive people away — I don’t know that it’s our job to stop it,” he said. “Our job is to seek to know the will of the living Christ and to obey it the best we can. When we humans try to fix one another, we just make things much, much worse.”
Surprisingly, Cat Chapin-Bishop, author of the blog “Quaker Pagan Reflections,” a bastion of Quaker-pagan thought, agrees with Massey on many counts.
She says many pagans find Quakerism attractive because it allows them to appear more mainstream. Still, she worries that if their commitment doesn’t deepen, that could weaken Quaker beliefs.
“I see the pagan world waking up and saying, `Wow, there’s Quakers, and maybe we could be Quakers and pagans — cool!'” she said. “If it stays on that superficial level, that’s not good news, and threatens Quakerism with real dilution. But if there are some leadings and people … take in the wisdom that people have to teach us, then it’s a wonderful thing for both pagans and the Society of Friends.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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