Quaker Universalist Conversations

Being a Peculiar People

By Rachel Stacy


Over the last two weeks I have worked as a steward for the World Council of Churches (WCC), International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC). With over 300 member faith communities, the WCC gathered close to 1,000 people, inKingston, Jamaica, to share, discuss, and dream of Just Peace. This event was the harvest event for the 10 year WCC project, the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV). The theme of the gathering centered on a document known as the Ecumenical Call to Just Peace (ECJP) which will be adopted by the WCC at the 2013 General Assembly in Busan, Korea.

These are my reflections on the gathering. Please feel free to post your comments below and email me at rachel.e.stacy@gmail.com.

My experience with this international peace convocation began several days before the event. Thirty-six young adults from around the world gathered to learn, work, pray, and play. We were the stewards; a selected group that during the convocation worked long hours, helping the event run smoothly.

To place myself in a bit of context with the ecumenical movement, last November, I served as a steward for the National Council of Churches-USA meeting New Orleans. This was my first experience working alongside young adults from various Christian backgrounds in such an ecumenical setting. Like in New Orleans, in Jamaica, working with other young adults was challenging and rewarding. Most of us were, and still are, seminary students. The differences between the Orthodox communities and my little peace church are staggering, yet we all worked side by side registering, directing, and serving the events.

During this event the cultural differences accentuated the religious differences . For the first few days, before other peace church members arrived, I found myself exhausted in my attempts to explain Quakerism. In contrast to the NCC-USA meeting where one of the other stewards was a Mennonite, I was the only peace church member present. Most of the other stewards did not know much about Quakerism. On top of that, explaining your faith to another seminary student is a bit different than explaining your faith to some person on the street; most people don’t just come out and ask you about your eschatology.

Oh and the looks of people’s faces when I started explaining this peculiar faith! Trying to be fair to the diversity among Friends, I attempted to describe our lack of hierarchy, our waiting worship and our mystical sacraments. I really couldn’t get into my universalism at all—or even explain much about Jewish Quakers, Buddhist Quakers etc… so instead I tended towards listening to the questions posed and trying to slip in my passion for interfaith work where I could.

One day in particular, the peculiarity of Quakerism really got to me; being so different from everyone else is hard. I craved discussions with other peace church members where I wouldn’t have to admit that I didn’t believe in the Nicene Creed and I didn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer to display my loyalty to the church. It was draining to be different—having an appreciation and curiosity for other traditions but having no one know about you.

The tides turned quickly enough and soon I was joined not only by other peace church members but also by other North Americans. Is universalism a western phenomenon? It was sure easier to speak to Westerners about Quakerism… I’ll address this in another post.

One young Mennonite women I met spoke about attending Meeting for Worship in Spokane, Washington. Later, for a seminary class, when asked to bring in pictures of the Eucharist from different traditions, she thought to bring in the picture of Christ in the midst. A simple story, but one that relieved my feelings of being ‘weird.’

I spent much of my free time during the IEPC among peace church members, both historic and living. The more knowledgeable folks were of my tradition, the easier it was to spend time with them. Though, from this experience so many questions rise up in my mind: Can I appreciate other faiths when they are intolerant of mine? When do I stand up and say “I’m a Christian, but not a Trinitarian!” “Don’t try to baptize me with water!” or more generally “You’re not including me!” and when do I let the moment pass, let the dominant voices establish the norm and appreciate the small still moments when my voice is valued?

I think in the end, I found my place. I spoke clearly and boldly and respected others. My voice is being heard and with a beautiful group of diverse peers I am rising up in this exploration and development of ecumenicalism.

It’s still hard to be of this peculiar faith. I wonder if I will ever have the opportunity to be the general secretary of the WCC since neither my faith nor my leadership as a woman are particularly recognized by patriarchal traditions. Without a title attached to my name such as Dr. or Rev. will I ever find myself among ecumenical leadership? For starters, I feel called into this work and I have faith that regardless of the obstacles, other plans are at work.

Comments

This was a fine report, beautifully written and clear. Comfort yourself, Rachel, that we Peculiar People are onto something that is clear eyed and very, very special in today's world. I won't be chauvinist enough to say our beliefs are superior to others, but we certainly are more universalist than most! And our inclusiveness of belief is a beacon in today's fragmented world.
Rachel, thanks so much for your observations about being Quaker in an ecumenical environment (and also your posts to Friends Journal). It does seem to me that, as you say in your final sentence, you are called to this work. I wonder: did thee ask thy meeting for a minute to travel in this service, either for WCC/IEPC or the NCC-USA event in New Orleans? I thought having such a minute might help fortify you for the challenges you face and also would more deeply engage your meeting in what you're doing.

I know from personal experience that many meetings do not really know how to 'operate' these traditional mechanisms of Quaker ministry, so asking for this kind of support can bring on additional burdens. You sometimes end up having to teach the meeting how to proceed, which can feel awkwardly self-serving. Then again, maybe you don't know too much about it yourself. It's not like we actually teach this stuff to our young people very effectively. But clearly, you feel led, you have a ministry, and having robust support for your ministry from your community will certainly make it easier to be peculiar among the orthodox.

Ultimately, if this ministry continues to mature into a calling, the next level of support in the faith and practice of traditional Quaker ministry would be 'recording'. This would not put a "Rev." in front of your name, but it would be a credential and presenting it would give you new opportunities to explain Quakerism: how the call to true ministry, in our tradition, can only come from God, that only God can confer the authority of one's calling, not a ceremony of ordination or formal training and education (though that can be helpful in one's efforts to be faithful to one's calling), and that the community's role is to recognize the truth of the call and record it, so that it can be communicated to others who do not know you well enough yet to recognize it themselves.

Traditionally, one does not ask for your gifts in ministry to be recorded; the 'elders' in your meeting see what's happening and begin the process on their own. Here again, we have the problem that many meetings—maybe most meetings—have laid the process down or are not even looking to recognize gifts in this way and wouldn't know how to proceed if they were looking. However, New York Yearly Meeting has a good pamphlet with guidelines on recording gifts; NYYM has several pastoral, programmed meetings, so it retains a cultural memory of traditional ministry practice. If you are interested or your meeting is, you could contact their office in New York and ask them to send you one.

One other piece of advice, if I may. Have you read John Punshon's Letter to a Universalist? I feel this pamphlet is one of a handful of essential readings for any serious Friend wanting to understand her tradition, and especially for universalists. It's rather critical of universalism, so it may be hard going, but the challenge is worth it. He specifically addresses the problem of ecumenical work and makes a point that you might find very useful: that to meaningfully engage with orthodox Christians, you need some grounding in the orthodoxy of your own tradition.

For instance, when talking about the peace testimony, many liberal Friends will say that the peace testimony rests on the belief that there is that of God in everyone. This isn't really true; it's true now, I guess, because we've been saying it so much, at least in the past 30 years or so. But the real foundation for the peace testimony is biblical. Knowing which Bible verses to quote and how they apply would speak to that of God in your orthodox Christian listeners with a power they recognize and understand. Sandra Cronk has written a great little pamphlet about this, available from FGC (Quakerbooks.org) for a mere $1: Peace Be with You: A Study of the Spiritual Basis of the Friends Peace Testimony. This pamphlet would equip you with lots of ways to explain our stand against violence that your listeners should find quite compelling. Just knowing about James 4:1-3, which Fox quoted more often than any other passage in this context, if I'm not mistaken, is a great help: it directly connects violence to greed (especially the King James version), so it ties to social justice with real power.

Just so, you might also look at John 15:12-17, which is the passage from which we get the name Religious Society of Friends. Chapters 14 and 15 are all about how Christ has come to teach his people himself, and so Friends believe (because they have experienced it themselves) that we are called to direct, unmediated relationship with G*d, which arguably is the essential principle of Quakerism and leads to most of our other distinctives—no priests, no outward sacraments, silent worship... This might help you explain us to folks who find us hard to understand.

[Note: by 'G*d' I mean the Mystery Reality behind our religious/spiritual experience, whatever that experience might be.]

Good luck and thanks again for your ministry on behalf of Friends.
rachel - thank you for being you, listening to and honoring your call and living the testimonies. being of this peculiar faith can indeed be a lonely experience, or so i find in my extended family and the broader social community. i am so thankful for my meeting, wherever i am, for it helps me keep "sane" and faithful in a world that often seems bent on "insanity." rejoice in the spirit that has touched and leads you. be whole in the spirit/love and walk in peace.

blessings,

lesley laing
victoria regional meeting resident friend
south mountain friends meeting, npym