Cutting the Code

This is the third of a series of ten blogs about ten cultural flips for multiage inclusion. It’s not enough to shift our culture. We really have to flip it.


Cultural Barrier #3: Frequent use of Quaker terminology without context

Why is this a barrier to multiage inclusion?

Two years ago, I sat in a room with a group of twelve Quakers between the ages of twenty and forty. We had gathered to talk about Quaker terminology, and someone started our period of worship by saying, “All right, Friends. Let’s settle.”

There was a moment of silence followed by increasingly loud giggling before we finally realized the irony. In spontaneously sharing our experiences with that particular phrase, four of us said we had no idea what it meant when somebody said “let’s settle.” One said he had never heard this before. The remaining seven each had a different definition. None of us had ever heard it explicitly defined.

This is crazy. At least in the case of “let’s settle,” there are some clear context clues that give an idea of what such a thing might mean. The person saying it usually closes their eyes and gets quiet immediately afterwards. That’s a good cue that we should do the same, and many of us would interpret that as being some kind of transition into worship, though it’s unclear why the person would choose that particular phrase. A child might easily associate it with the phrase “settle down” and assume it’s a disciplinary comment meaning, “You’re being too loud. Stop talking now.”

And we use Quaker terminology without context all the time. Below, you’ll see an actual announcement, word-for-word, from my own yearly meeting’s website…

(And by the way, when we say “yearly meeting” to people, do we stop to explain what that means?  Just to practice what I preach – a “yearly meeting” is a geographical division of a group of local meetings/churches, in my case sixty-some of them across three states.  We call is a yearly meeting because the whole group used to meet for business exactly once per year.)

Here’s the announcement:

This year’s Summer Sessions theme is “Bringing the Peaceable Kingdom to a Turbulent World” — in keeping with the fifth priority in the Statement of Leadings and Priorities approved by NYYM in 2014: “We Envision a Yearly Meeting That Supports and Amplifies Our Witness.”

Words and phrases in this sentence that newcomers, younger generations, and Friends not frequently participating in yearly meeting activities are unlikely to understand: summer sessions, peaceable kingdom, statement of leadings and priorities, NYYM, and witness. Mathematically, this announcement is 26% incomprehensible, except it’s really much more than that, since most of the words everyone will understand are words like “the” and “in.” From a practical point of view, no one who’s not already part of the club will ever read past it.

I use the phrase “part of the club” intentionally.  This kind of lingo is exactly the sort of code that a group of kids might set up for a treehouse club or a secret society.  We haven’t done it on purpose, but we’ve set things up so that there are insiders and outsiders.  Does that feel right?

The text that I quoted above does get better in the following sentences and is followed up by several pages’ worth of information on how to participate in summer sessions. Unfortunately, most people who were completely lost in the first sentence will just close the window.


Culture Flip #3: Practicing brief, clear explanations and contextualization of all terms and references to institutional structure, every time, in the moment, as we go

What does this look like in a monthly meeting?

Some of our Quaker terminology is flat-out unnecessary. Why do we still say “monthly meeting” and “yearly meeting” when monthly meetings meet weekly and most yearly meetings meet more often than yearly? I think it’s a matter of benign neglect. We understand ourselves just fine, and having special lingo makes us feel kind of cool. My question is, why is that more important than being understood by new Friends, younger Friends, and seekers? When we can, I think we should substitute terminology that’s easier to understand. Not “monthly meeting,” but “local meeting.” (Britain’s already done that.) Not “yearly meeting,” but maybe “area” or “region” or something.

Then there’s the terminology that’s genuinely, specifically meaningful, like “discernment” or “being grounded” or “eldering.” These are words and phrases that have either been invented by Quakers or that have taken on some unusual definition among Friends, and although the terms aren’t widely understood (at least, in the same ways) outside of the Religious Society of Friends, they’re terms that can’t easily be replaced by some other, pre-existing word. These are the terms that are precious, and while they shouldn’t be abandoned, they must be explained.

The same goes for many of our practices. It’s pretty obvious, when you attend a business meeting, that you wait for the person sitting in the front to call on you before you speak. And most people pick up on other little cues, such as the fact that it’s frowned upon to whisper to your neighbor, or to pull out your phone, or to come right out and say that another speaker is wrong. But often, each person is left to figure out why these behaviors exist, either entirely on their own (by reading and asking questions) or in a context outside the event itself (in a religious education setting, for example). Why aren’t we teaching these things in the moment?

Linguists have discovered that parents all over the world exhibit a particular type of silly behavior when spending time with their babies, most likely due to a universal instinct. These formerly articulate adults suddenly start narrating everything that’s happening, and this despite the fact that the baby they’re talking to isn’t even capable of understanding. In the absence of other adults, and sometimes in the presence of other adults, parents will coo, “You’re putting your foot in your mouth. Yes, you are. Oh, there’s your sock. Look at your sock. Wet sock. Icky yucky. There it goes again. You’re putting your foot in your mouth…”

I’m not suggesting we be patronizing. There’s no need to talk to people like babies. But there’s something important to be learned from this approach, because the baby does eventually figure out what a foot is, and what a sock is, and how spit makes socks wet. And if we waited to speak to the baby until the baby knew how to speak—or if we explained things to the baby only at certain times, like some kind of baby school, explaining what a foot is at a moment when the baby had no interest in its feet—then our babies would never, ever learn to speak.

We should be explaining our terminology and our practices as they come up, every single time. This will be challenging for us to remember, and it’s tricky to do it quickly. But it’s possible, and it’s a skill worth learning.

At the beginning of a meeting for worship with a concern for business, why should a clerk not say, “My name is Margaret Woolman. I’m serving as clerk for this meeting, which means it’s my job to stay spiritually grounded, to listen carefully to everything that is said, and to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. The person sitting next to me is John Fell. He’s the recording clerk, which means it’s his job to write down what happens today. You’ll have a chance to hear and approve of what he’s writing down as we go. We’re passing around a sign-in sheet. Please write your name there. It goes in our minutes so that other people in the future can look back and see who was here. On your chairs, you found a written agenda. At the top is a glossary of terms—what the different committees on the agenda do, what the acronyms stand for, that sort of thing. We’re going to settle into worship before we begin. This is just like the worship we do at eleven o’clock every week, when we find our spiritual center and it’s possible that someone might have ministry to share, except that it will only last about five minutes before I’ll start telling you about the first item on the agenda. When I do start speaking, we’ll try together to stay in a spirit of worship, connected to the Divine in the same way, even though we’re talking about the business of the meeting.”

And so forth. It doesn’t matter whether Margaret sees anyone new in the group or not; this only takes a minute, and in addition to educating newer or younger Friends, it serves as a refresher for others who have gathered and a chance for other Friends in the meeting to notice if their idea of the clerk’s job is different from Margaret’s, in which case they might follow up after the fact.

Written glossaries are important and can be included at the top of every document–not with every Quaker term in the universe, one would hope, but with the ones that are used on that specific piece of paper.

And the same thing can be done verbally when making announcements. “The Ministry and Counsel Committee (which is the group of people responsible for caring for the people of the meeting and our worship together) invites everyone to apply for scholarship assistance for summer sessions (which is the week-long meeting in July of Quakers from all over the state). If you want more information, you can talk with George. George, will you please wave?”

What else can we do to cut the code—to clarify what we’re talking about as we’re going along so that nobody is left behind just because they haven’t yet learned the lingo?


The Cultural Barrier The Flip!
Perception that Friends’ meetings are internally focused and irrelevant Doing frequent work and service in neighborhood communities outside the meetinghouse walls
Equating seriousness with sacredness Behaving as though joy and gratitude are as holy as struggle and lamentation, including 50/50 time division for the whole meeting between play together and work together
Frequent use of Quaker terminology without context Practicing brief, clear explanations and contextualization of all terms and references to institutional structure, every time, in the moment, as we go
Communicating solely through paper publications and websites Developing a meaningful presence on social media (for internal communications and outreach)
Idolatry of Quaker process Building a permission-giving culture (the default answer is ‘yes, and how can I help?’ unless there is a strong, Spirit-led reason to hesitate)
Valuing traditions over the needs of living Friends Regularly reexamining physical facilities, procedures, and practices in the light of how they are working for our communities today; recognizing the difference between our Spirit-led testimonies (which are eternal) and how we express those testimonies (which may need to change as circumstances change)
High financial cost of participation in gatherings Shifting to pay-as-led pricing; changing locations and structures of gatherings so the actual cost is lower
High reading level (high school and above) of almost all of Friends’ written materials Using shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary in all documents
Isolation of parents (among Friends and in society in general) Providing childcare at all meeting events without exception; prioritizing spiritual and practical nurture of parents
Consistent physical separation of age groups Aiming for multi-age inclusion around 50% of the time, including integration both ways (younger Friends in traditionally older Friends spaces/activities, older Friends in traditionally younger Friends spaces/activities); providing meaningful support to make full participation possible in both directions


5 thoughts on “Cutting the Code

  1. Emily,

    Oh my, you are suggesting that we put the needs of Friends (people) before the forms we’ve come to cherish over hundreds of years. This is akin to suggesting that we stop idolizing these Quaker forms. What you are suggesting will allow the Spirit to flow freely among us (as always happens when ‘idols’ are tumbled down), and, oh my, as a result it will increase the spirituality of our meetings/churches. Oh my, can we handle this metamorphosis?

    Seriously, being part of the liberal Quaker branch, our meeting realized that we often ‘gloat’ that we have absolutely no creed or theological requirements whatsoever and instead have just pure spirituality (“that of God in everyone”) – until – it dawned on us that our branch of Quakerism (the liberal branch) is the absolute worse for emphasizing (idolizing) all that Quakerees, tradition, and unspoken meeting etiquette. Once this realization dawned on us, we altered our website and newsletter to eliminate the Quakerees (no more use of “First Day” for Sunday, no more use of “monthly” meeting, and making sure we explain each time we used the term “yearly meeting” or any other strange term, etc.).

    Oh yes, we also stopped using the term “attender” as though we felt it necessary to imply that a non-recorded cherished member of our community is “not really a Quaker”, when the reality is that for liberal Quakers many dedicated Friends in our meetings believe it is antithetical to record membership in a spiritual society. In fact, there is no difference in the level of commitment between recorded members and non-recorded members to our meeting communities and Quakerism – other than what we’ve permitted. Many of our meetings now have as their ‘clerks of meeting’ (and other important roles) Friends who are non-recorded members due to that Friends deep commitment. So why are we still using the archaic (and potentially offensive) term “attender”.

    We really do need to re-consider our “worship of forms” if we are to be a relevant spiritual practice in this twenty-first century.

    Beautiful article, Emily. Thank you!

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