Year of Sundays

Year of Sundays

What I Did August 7: The Quakers — Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

FYI (and much to my dismay), Quakers no longer dress like this.

You know them as Quakers. They know themselves as Friends, or, officially, as the Religious Society of Friends. If you vote Democrat, raise chickens but don’t eat them, wear Jesus sandals and own a first edition of the Moosewood Cookbook stained with the vital fluids of homegrown tomatoes, you might qualify to be a Friend. If, on the other hand, you vote Republican, shop at Nordstrom’s and love the texture of veal, you wouldn’t exactly be unwelcome at a Friends meeting, but it’s unlikely that you’d penetrate their ranks beyond the outer circle of of Mere Acquaintance.


We’d been looking forward to the Quakers for a long time. Amanda, in particular, felt drawn to their reverence for silence: probably 95% of their hour-and-a-half meeting time is spent in silence as members sit and wait for the Spirit to flick the Bic of their Inward Light, moving them to speak. If such a visitation ever befalls you, you’ll know it because you’ll suddenly find yourself standing up to speak on behalf of the principles of Truth, Peace, Equality, Community and Simplicity. Or, if that well runs dry, as a fallback topic the Eternal Spirit might prompt you to talk about the evils of capital punishment. At least, that’s what we heard a lot about on the day we attended. If the Eternal Spirit ever discovers talk radio, Quakerism as we know it is doomed.


While silence (punctuated with brief bursts of Spirit-led testimonial) can be golden, I felt as out of place at the Friends’ meeting as any of the more fundamentalist churches we’ve attended. The service felt as programmed as an AA meeting: in spite of all the correctly humble, sober comments, I sensed that if I said what the Spirit was leading me to say—such as, just to be provocative, to present an argument for capital punishment—I would be met with silence both during and after the program. They left a funny taste in my mouth. If I return to the Quakers, it will be with a cup of brown sugar and raisins.

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posted September 29, 2011 at 11:50 pm

As a Friend myself, I think your assessment of liberal Friends is quite accurate. I just discovered your blog from QuakerQuaker linking your post, and I love it!

There are a lot of good people in Friends of all branches (liberal, conservative, evangelical, etc.), but there is a good bit of the echo chamber effect for sure (again, in all branches). For the record, I eat meat and my husband owns guns— but I certainly don’t advertise it around liberal Friends!– you are quite right there!

I would love to be present in the hypothetical Meeting where you stand up and speak for capital punishment. Do try sometime, please! I don’t think things would go down quite the way MariRuth envisions. That would be the Friends’ ideal, of course, but the reality… I think the Meeting would dissolve into a “popcorn” Meeting with lots of counter “messages”. And I wonder if anyone would approach you at the Rise of Meeting? Probably not. You’d probably get the cold shoulder. That’s how I think it would go at the liberal Meeting in my city. If fact, I know it would because that has been the reaction for smaller deviations from the liberal quaker norm than something as sacred as anti-capital punishment.

Because, after all, we *are* right on all these issues. You would just have to excuse our shock over your insensitive ignorance. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, humility isn’t one of the SPICES, so we don’t pay it much mind. I mean, you know, *we* Friends spoke out against slavery! We love to pat ourselves on the back for that every opportunity we get. I think it assuages some of the guilt of being born white.

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Sam Barnett-Cormack

posted September 26, 2011 at 10:25 am

As a Quaker of similar tradition from elsewhere (the UK), I can see something of what you’re saying, but you have to remember that the Society of Friends is far more than what happens in Meeting for Worship. Whatever anyone says in Meeting for Worship is, ideally, free-standing. Meeting for Worship isn’t a discussion or a debate, and while someone’s ministry may be followed by ministry on a similar subject, and the person may indicate context by drawing comparisons and contrasts… ultimately, what’s appropriate or not depends on the individual and ones precise interpretation of the nature of the Spirit, so meeting Elders don’t tend to step in at Meeting for Worship until someone’s behaving in an out-and-out not-on way.

The real response to a person’s ministry may come after Meeting for Worship, or at some other occasion or event (discussion groups, for instance). I have several times experienced people coming over to me over tea & coffee after Meeting to discuss the topic and content of ministry – sometimes to challenge the position, sometimes to express appreciation, and once or twice both. What makes it inclusive is that you won’t be turned away for almost any view, as long as it is presented politely and reasonably, and as long as you don’t insist others should agree with you.

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Joel Gunz

posted September 25, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Hi Rick –

Thanks for dropping by. I’m heartened to see that you are tolerant of dissenting voices. Still, what I saw during my visit seemed to me to be a rather one-sided interpretation of the principles of Peace, Simplicty, etc. I would never begrudge your community its right to define those terms as it sees fit. Cognitive tension arises, however, when a group proclaims “radical inclusiveness” on the one hand, but then allows a consensus to emerge that could tend to weed out out those who define those principles differently. I would argue that dissenting voices (which are, by definition, in the minority) need more than just room to speak. They need to be encouraged to speak up. Only then do you have a level playing field of inclusiveness. I didn’t see that. “Radical inclusiveness” is extremely difficult to achieve — maybe even impossible. You have noble intentions in that regard, but I’m not so sure your group achieves it. I could be wrong. But I would challenge you — and members of all churches — to dig deep and see how “inclusive” the community truly is.

BTW – I wanted to add a link to your blog, where you responded further to my post:



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Rick Seifert

posted September 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm

As a Quaker and a member of Multnomah Friends, Joel, I have trouble seeing our meeting in your description of us.

Of course we don’t speak out of the silence of worship simply to provoke others. We speak out of silence because we are moved to. If our words do provoke, so be it. And they have. A minority of early Friends had the gall to speak out against slavery, of all things!

While most Friends oppose war, a few have been known not to. For instance, Scott Simon, of NPR fame and a fellow Quaker, was moved to speak out strongly for military action after 9/11. Simon was not met with silence by fellow Quakers. The ensuing debate was respectful but lively, to say the least.

So if someone in worship is MOVED to speak in support of capital punishment, they should do so. Indeed, they would feel they must.

In the Quaker manner, fellow Friends would reflect on the ministry in silence. We would “hold it in the Light,” in Quaker parlance.

I’m certain that out of that silence would emerge a spirit-led worshipful response.

You describe of us as liberal, politically correct group-thinkers. I beg to differ. Many of us like to call ourselves “radically inclusive.” The unity among is of the in-dwelling divine spirit and of the sharing of our broadly defined testimonies of Peace, Simplicity, Equality, Integrity and Community. As for everything else, we take it as it comes — in its many, surprising and diverse forms.

Thanks for visiting.

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Robin Mohr

posted September 24, 2011 at 6:05 pm

I think the real mistake is thinking that all Quakers are alike. Don’t you live in Camas? You might try the Camas Friends Church another time. You might like the pastor there.

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Kay N. Koehler

posted September 24, 2011 at 5:21 pm

By affiliation a Presbyterian (raised a bit of that and a bit of Methodist with some Catholic schooling tossed in) I’ve joined my friends and family who are Friends at meetings in everything from a formal (and historic) meeting house to an unused cocktail lounge on a luxury liner (the only space available for a Sunday morning “meeting” at sea) and I found the silence agreeable and sometimes inspiring…an occasional sharing a bit out of place…but never any hostility toward me or other visitors. I have been moved to share something on occasion. It has been met with the same respect as that shared by regular members of the meeting. I’ve seen members stand silently in protest when something inappropriate or provocative was said. And I’ve observed how accepting the meetings I have attended have been of people’s differences.

Most of all, I’ve noticed that my Friend friends really do seem to live what they say they believe…as do most of my more mainstream church-going friends, to be sure.

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posted September 23, 2011 at 4:01 pm

You don’t have to like oatmeal to worship among Friends but it doesn’t hurt.

It’s been awhile since I looked very carefully at the Quaker Oats box but I am relieved to see the images in this article look like an actual Quaker, not the Puritan with a musket that graced the box for years.

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Joel Gunz

posted September 22, 2011 at 4:45 pm

MariRuth, thank you so much for your thoughtful and though-provoking comment. You might be right: it is possible that if I made an argument for capital punishment at a Quaker meeting, they might engage me in a “challenging way.” I kind of doubt it though — and I really doubt that I would feel at home in such a community in the long term because there is already a collective assumption of rightness on the issue and little room for dissent. And that’s where I feel that many churches fall short. They claim that all people from all backgrounds are welcome, but when it comes right down to it, the only ones who really are welcome are those who are ready to espouse their world view. Sure, their doors are wide open — but there’s a filter in the foyer. I’ve seen it in “liberal” churches like Quakers and Unitarian Universalists and I’ve seen it in fundamentalist churches. I say: enough with the moralizing. I can figure that stuff out myself, minus help from the pulpit, thankyouverymuch! So, it’s not that I’m frustrated that churches talk about life, not God, but rather that they talk too much about rules and not enough about principles. Not all churches are that way. If your read reviews of our visit to a Taize service, Reform Judaism, The Bridge and Trinity Episcoplal and others, you may also notice a pattern in which I express satisfaction at having my inner voices dignified because it has been assumed that I can think for myself when it comes to making moral choices. I’m not interested in being taught how to eat, vote, dress, etc. But that’s just me. I also recognize that others need that. (See my post on the Portland Pentecostals.)

Again, thanks for taking the time to write. (I hope my reply isn’t too terse… I’m in hurry.)

Much respect, Joel

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posted September 21, 2011 at 12:39 am


If you stood up in worship and “to be provocative” argued for the premeditated killing of another human being you would not be met with silence. You would be met with people interested in engaging with you on the topic in a respectful but challenging way.

I have been reading a few entries in your blog, and I am struck by what I see as a pattern of frustration with churches that want to talk about life rather than God. I understand that it can be difficult when you don’t seem to fall neatly into one of the categories that society has created in terms of your moral and political beliefs. However, these sermons or testimonies about capital punishment, or guns, or abortion, or who you should have sex with, or what foods you should eat, are not mere political opinions on whether the Columbia River Crossing is a good idea or not. These are the expressions of deeply held beliefs in the every day world. Thou shalt not kill. There is that of God in each person. These are not platitudes. I don’t agree with all of the teachings that you have seen in various churches, and indeed I find many of the teachings upsetting and wrong. I would be more upset if I encountered a church that thought religion was only about prayer on Sundays and not about how you live your daily life: what you eat, how you form relationships, how you vote, how you spend your money, what clothes you wear, how you treat others, and how you raise your children.

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