This is the full text of the Carey Lecture offered to Baltimore Yearly Meeting on August 6, 2022. Because it was an hour-long lecture, it’s nearly 8500 words. A video recording may be available in the future, and if so, I’ll link to it here as well.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I spent seven months in a cat’s apartment. Her person was stranded in Europe, and I needed a place to be, so I wound up moving in with this cat in the West Village of New York City.
Because I knew I’d be there for several months, I retrieved my giant teddy bear from my storage unit. Isaiah is about as tall as me. He’s soft and squishy and a lovely companion but lives in a storage unit by Columbus Circle because I don’t have a permanent home anymore. I’m on the road full-time traveling in ministry, and a five-foot teddy bear is not suited to a nomadic lifestyle.
Juniper the cat loved Isaiah the teddy bear, and Isaiah might have also been fond of Juniper. They snuggled a lot. Isaiah spent nearly all his time lying in bed, and I would often find Juniper with him, massaging his arms and his tummy with her little claws. Sharp little claws. Then she would snuggle down in his armpit for a nap. It was the kind of sweet that might require insulin.
One day, I made the bed with Isaiah under the covers rather than over. Teddy bear on the bottom, sheet on top, blanket over that. I’m sure that he was very warm, but Juniper did not approve of this arrangement. I know because she pestered me endlessly. I was trying to work on my laptop, and Junie was tugging at my pantleg, jumping on the desk, sitting on the keyboard, meowing, howling, butting her head directly into my chin. I finally got up to see what the problem was. I followed her into the bedroom, where she hopped on the bed, poked at the blanket, and turned around to stare at me accusingly.
What I find interesting about this story is that Juniper could have just laid down on top of the blankets. Isaiah, underneath, would not have been any less soft. But she would not permit anything to come in between them. Nothing would do but direct contact, literal pressing into one another, changing the shape of each other’s bodies.
That’s committed relationship.
The world is desperate for committed, vulnerable relationship. This is the first step in transforming humanity—especially committed, vulnerable relationship across big differences, much wider than the gulf between a kitty cat and a teddy bear. It’s the way in which hearts are changed.
But despite the fact that we live in a world that desperately needs committed, vulnerable relationship, that kind of commitment isn’t encouraged. Instead, what I see is a lot of encouragement to cut ties, move on, decline to be harmed, decline to waste time. If a relationship is painful, why stay? Better to walk away. We don’t owe anybody anything.
Before I go on, I want to be very clear: sometimes, to sever relationship is a genuinely Godly response. When a relationship is abusive—that is, when a power differential exists and the person with more power is using that power for continuous or repeated harm—then yes, the person with less power is rightly led to walk away. And the rest of us, those who are bystanders, should be intervening.
But most relationships, even if they are painful, are not abusive. And there are very real implications to regularly cutting ties and walking away.
The 21st century makes it relatively easy to separate ourselves from painful relationships. Unlike our ancestors, many of us will move from one town to another multiple times. This makes our networks of human relationships wider than our ancestors’ were, although shallower. I know so many people that it’s very easy not to engage with some of them. If somebody bothers me, I can often just let the relationship die.
Electronic communities also make this easy. On the internet, we can literally choose to be in relationship with any of the world’s eight billion people. We could choose to associate with some of those eight billion people who are very different from us—who make us feel uncomfortable—but we generally don’t. We often look for online communities with whom we feel affinity—either people we like or people with whom we can share our commonly held anger about something. Generally speaking, people use the internet more often to vent fury about or to someone than to engage directly in vulnerable relationship with the person or people with whom we feel discomfort. We want to put blankets between ourselves and the teddy bear.
Even if we stay in one place and never move, chances are good we can avoid uncomfortable relationships. Most people in the 21st century live in places where the people directly around them more or less share similar perspectives on the world. We might dislike someone in our community because they’re passive-aggressive or because they repeatedly leave dirty dishes in the kitchen, but even then, we’re likely similar in a lot of ways politically and culturally, which means we reinforce one another’s preconceptions much more than we challenge one another’s assumptions.
Why does this matter? Why do I say the world is desperate for committed relationship? Because engaging in uncomfortable relationships is how we change. And it is not possible to grow without change. If we do not engage in difficult relationships, if we do not allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, we stagnate. We grow when we commit to relationships with people who provoke us, challenge us, require more of us. Sometimes they do this by poking us repeatedly with their sharp kitty claws. This is not pleasant, but it is an opportunity for change.
One more thing: even when we do commit to being in relationship across differences, like by joining a club or inviting an uncle with uncomfortable ideologies to dinner, it is possible to be in the presence of another person without being vulnerable to growth and change, which is also putting a blanket between the cat and the teddy bear. It is possible to put up our shields of indifference or anger, to simply decide that we will not be changed by this encounter, and when we do that, we generally are not changed. And neither is the person with whom we are engaging. Relationship without vulnerability is not genuine relationship. We can’t quite touch each another.
A lot of times, when I talk with groups about engaging vulnerably across differences, people hear this like I’m suggesting that we should spend more time talking with interesting, diverse people whose ideas we respect. And that’s a fantastic thing to do, but it’s not the entirety of what I’m talking about. I’m also talking about engaging with people we struggle to respect, with people whose ideas or behaviors we find distressing.
I’m talking about people like Joe. I met Joe years ago at a Friends’ gathering, and we were in a small group together. When I shared with the group my discernment about being called into ministry, his initial response was to say, jovially, “I kind of want to slap you upside the head. You’re a pretty girl; you’re gonna want to get married in a few years. You don’t need to worry about all this.” Yes—this was a Quaker gathering. I haven’t met very many Quakers who would say that, but they’re not non-existent.
Sometimes people say painful or challenging things to us that are right. Sometimes people say painful things to us that are wrong. In Joe’s case, he was wrong. What he said was distressing. And some of my perspectives were painful and distressing to him. For example, the way I talked about the Bible as a flawed human record of a community’s best efforts at relationship with God. The way I insisted that non-Christians have just as much connection to God as Christians do, that we have to make space for multiple vocabularies when engaging with the divine. I know that distressed him. But he didn’t leave the group. And neither did I. By the end of the week, I had learned something from Joe’s absolute faith and his persistence in relationship with Christ. And I hope very much that he had learned something from me.
I’m grateful for what Friend Amanda Kemp says about this kind of encounter. To be clear, when she talks about holding space for transformation, she is specifically talking about conversations about race. She says the first thing we can do, when we are in a one-on-one situation and someone says something that is really wrong and harmful, is to check in with ourselves: are we tired, hungry, hurt? If so, now is not the time for this conversation. That doesn’t mean it’s never the time for the conversation, that we should never again speak to this person; it just means not now.
Or are we stable, grounded? If so, we can set the intention of showing unconditional love to the person. Ask a question, or just make eye contact. Listen. Then, after you’ve listened, projecting unconditional love—just ask: “Would you like to hear what it’s like for me?” The person-to-person connection in the presence of unconditional love—that is making space for transformation.
We do not have to do this every time. It’s okay to step away in moments when we’re not grounded enough to do it. But we can’t walk away forever.
When I was growing up, my parents explicitly told me to resist engaging with people whose behaviors or ideas were different from ours. They called these people “bad influences.” Avoiding bad influences makes a certain amount of sense when we’re talking about a child. Children often can’t set reasonable boundaries in difficult relationships and are therefore inherently in more danger. But I see so many adults who practice the same kind of avoidance. We can explain our avoidance behaviors really well as something that sounds virtuous.
Those of us who come from a conservative culture may recognize this narrative:
“We protect ourselves and our children from ungodly influences because ungodly influences are dangerous. People who aren’t part of our group may or may not be bad people, but they are certainly under the influence of evil, and God calls us not to expose ourselves to that evil, which may hurt us or lead us astray. We can be polite, and we can certainly testify to the truth about God that we know, but ultimately, we keep ourselves separate in order to maintain our purity before God. God has called us to be in the world, not of the world.”
Does that sound familiar to anyone?
Those of us who come from a liberal culture similarly separate ourselves from the broader world when we use specialized vocabularies and concepts drawn from academia as the only acceptable way to address racism and other forms of real and serious discrimination. From the inside, we may not realize the degree to which we become bubble cultures, but the effect is similar to the effect of in-the-world-not-of-the-world: we are keeping away, or pushing away, outsiders rather than making space for transformation.
Publicly articulating either of these narratives—and both conservative and liberal communities do make these narratives very clear to those outside their communities—preemptively prevents anyone even somewhat not-like-us from expecting to be received into vulnerable mutual relationship. It pre-signals our intention not to be changed by the other and makes it clear that the other must change to be more like us before they can engage meaningfully with us…which, of course, prevents most change.
And all of us, regardless of background, may recognize this narrative:
“Engaging with the other is a fundamental threat. If we do—that is, if we listen deeply, commit to staying connected, compromise publicly, or empathize—then we are implying that we endorse the other’s point of view, and in fact, that point of view is deeply wrong and inherently harmful, and therefore, we cannot engage in vulnerable relationship, because if we do so, we will be complicit in their wrongdoing.”
I’ll say again—that last narrative, about not compromising our values by engaging in relationship, is one that I’ve heard articulated by people from wildly different theological, cultural, and sociological points of view. Sometimes this narrative comes from a genuine desire not to signal approval of things that are wrong. This is not an unwarranted concern. Despite the fact that most issues are enormously complex, we live in a sound-bite world that tends to judge people’s positions on the first four words that come out of their mouths, to say nothing of taking quotes out of context. So we know that anytime we acknowledge complexity and try to work through it, we’re risking some of our listeners curtailing what we’ve said and then making inaccurate judgments based on the abbreviated version.
To make this even more complicated, we often fear that if we do appear to signal approval of things that are wrong, our own community will disapprove of us, judge us, berate us, and possibly even ostracize us. This also is not an unwarranted fear. It happens. It happens because our society conditions people to push away anyone who makes us uncomfortable. And we know this, so we don’t want to risk becoming the uncomfortable person around people we love.
But when we accept these narratives—when we deliberately refuse to commit to vulnerable relationships with the other, whoever that may be, no matter what our reason is—we eliminate all hope for actual change. There will be no change in us, no change in the other, no change in the wider community, and no change in the world.
Sometimes, refusing to engage in vulnerable relationship, becoming absolutists, declining to bend can bring what temporarily seems like success. We can change laws. We can change social norms. We can force people into particular behaviors or scare people into not expressing certain ideas. But I don’t believe that’s God’s way.
Actual change means changing hearts. It means transformation in the presence of God. And God is not force, nor refusal to engage. The God I know is love.
When I look back at the times when my heart was changed—and this is something that has happened a lot in my lifetime—I can trace every change to demonstrations of love. Love is not the same thing as niceness; sometimes love means speaking hard truth. But always, I have been changed by love. I have never had a significant change of heart because somebody punished me, nor because somebody refused to speak to me, nor because somebody logically explained to me exactly why my deepest-held beliefs were wrong. Have you? I changed because people I encountered, people who I’d been taught to identify as other, one way or another showed me love. No single act of love was so world-shattering as to cause an immediate change of heart. That works in storybooks, but not very often in real life. No—the actual changes of heart, the kinds of transformations that are of God, have always come because of an accumulation of many small demonstrations of love.
But if that’s true—if genuine changes of heart take time, require the accumulation of many small demonstrations of love—then we are unlikely to ever see the moment in which they take place. We are unlikely to have a single interaction with someone in which we choose to demonstrate love, rather than refuse to engage, and immediately see the fruits of that choice. This only works if we have faith that God’s way of love will ultimately be effective, because frankly, we will rarely be rewarded by the opportunity to witness its effectiveness. We can only keep our hearts open and keep choosing vulnerable relationship.
This is why I say that I hope Joe learned something from me. I know I learned something from him. But real transformation takes a long time. I wouldn’t have had much chance of seeing it in the course of the four days we were together.
And that’s individual change. How much longer does change take on the scale of whole societies? There is a reason why the most significant societal changes in the history of the world—the kinds of changes that have to do with peace and equality and justice—have taken decades if not centuries. It’s because, if we’re talking about Godly transformation of a whole community, we can’t just change laws. We have to change hearts.
Changing laws is important. Sometimes, changing a law has the immediate effect of stopping systemic harm. That’s very much of God. But ultimately, changing laws isn’t enough. If we haven’t changed hearts, the law will change back again. And the only way to change hearts is slowly, one heart at a time, in the context of loving, vulnerable, often painful relationship. Leaders of movements can speak and act prophetically, can encourage and empower believers, can build networks, can articulate the exact change needed, but with a few exceptions, leaders of movements do not, themselves, change massive numbers of individual hearts. This is one reason why many leaders of movements and many prophets don’t live to see the fruits of their faithfulness. Because transforming massive numbers of hearts takes a really, really, really long time—the cumulative result of many small acts of love in the context of committed and often painful relationship.
Many Quaker communities (and probably others too, but I’ve witnessed this among Quakers) have found ways to trick ourselves into feeling as though we’ve experienced really big community transformation. We do it by passing a minute. We get a group of people together, often but not always at a yearly meeting gathering, and we take up a concern that we feel genuinely led to hold in worship. But we know we have a time frame: beginning to end, this is going to take a week. Or three days. Whatever might be the length of our sessions. We take up the concern, we hold it in worship, we engage with one another in vulnerable relationship, we become awash in emotions and stress hormones, and right at the last minute, we find ourselves able to approve a minute. This has a predictable response: the abrupt resolution of stress triggers a cascade of brain chemicals that not only brings euphoria but also a feeling of group bonding. We’ve done something. Our community has been transformed.
But have we, though?
What community has been transformed? The community of people who came to sessions? Isn’t the point of a yearly meeting to engage in corporate discernment as an entire yearly meeting community? And what do we mean by transformed? Did we actually change anything when we passed this minute? Will it alter our behavior in the future? Will it cause any transformation in the world?
There are times when we take up a difficult concern and don’t successfully pass the minute by the end of the week. Then we have to figure out some kind of messy way forward instead, like asking local meetings or committees to continue the work. This absolutely does not feel as good. But it’s probably more real. Is God calling us to pass a minute? Or is God calling us all to be transformed in our hearts? Because the second thing takes more than a week, especially when the whole community isn’t present.
Working toward legitimate change, not false change, can be incredibly discouraging. How can we possibly stay motivated to engage in something when we almost never see the results? There’s nothing wrong with needing motivation. We are human beings. We crave to see change more immediately. We can deal with this by celebrating the smaller, but legitimate, successes. “We have affirmed a need to continue engaging with this concern” is a legitimate success, as long as we mean it and we follow through. We also need sources of group bonding that are not based in passing the big minute. You know what else triggers group bonding chemicals in our brains? Laughter, physical exertion, hugging, and chocolate cupcakes. All very important to ongoing committed relationships—every bit as important as intentional vulnerability.
So. First piece of tonight’s lecture: the world needs genuine commitment to vulnerable relationship across differences, because this is what leads to transformation.
Second piece: the world is in desperate need of deep listening to God. We face problems that cannot be solved by human wisdom. If they could be, we’d have solved them by now. Our most brilliant thinkers, and our most loving healers, have spent centuries considering racism, warfare, hunger, justice, poverty. Now we face climate change too.
We know some solutions to these problems. We know them because there have always been faithful people—deep listeners to Spirit from many religious traditions and none, who have used their gifts from God to develop innovative solutions. But we haven’t managed to implement most of these solutions. Somehow, we can’t make people see the answers, can’t make people want to act. Not enough people, and not people who have enough power. Our knowledge and processes simply haven’t been sufficient so far.
What does it mean to listen deeply to God? Quakers have a unique understanding of this. We believe that the deepest listening requires community. We can listen alone, but we hear better together. Friends know experimentally that relying entirely on one’s internal connection to Spirit, that of God in our beings, can lead us astray. What I hear from God I hear imperfectly. I hear it through my ego, through my limited experience. I interpret divine promptings using the language I have and the culture that has shaped me. That’s never the wholeness of God.
This is one reason why corporate discernment matters so much. It’s because the community can challenge our preconceptions, can open us up a little bit more, can get closer to the wholeness of what God is expressing. The community can hold me accountable when my ego is shouting more loudly than Spirit. The community can stop me from outrunning my Guide. That more clear listening to God is the first reason why Friends engaged in the corporate discernment historically, and it’s the reason I hear Friends discuss most often. But it’s not the only reason we need corporate discernment.
Here’s the other reason: people who have not engaged in the discernment over a particular concern are often not able to accept the results. Suppose that one Friend in my meeting was absent on Sunday. Let’s call her Lucia. In Lucia’s absence, the meeting engaged in some tricky discernment during business meeting. We spent nearly two hours in deep worship, listening hard to God and to each other, and in the process of doing so, we moved quite a distance from what we originally believed the way forward would be. Having come to clarity, the meeting is now prepared to act.
Lucia, however, is not. It’s possible that we would have come to a different conclusion had Lucia been present—maybe she would have brought something to the discernment that no one else could—but let’s assume for the moment that that’s not the case. If Lucia had been in the room, we would have come to the exact same conclusion. But Lucia did not come with us on the journey. We know that discernment, that Quakerism itself, is a deeply experimental practice. Lucia does not know, the way the rest of us do, that this unexpected way forward is correct. Because she wasn’t present for the formative experiences that opened us to it.
This is a mirror of what I was talking about before. Transformation comes from the accumulation of many demonstrations of love. Corporate discernment is one form of that. Each act of speaking and listening is, in itself, a demonstration of love; the accumulation of those leads to transformation during the process of listening to God.
Think of what happens when we identify a difficult concern, ask a committee to discern on our behalf, and then don’t hear from that committee for a whole year, at the end of which it reports back. How easily do we accept the group’s recommendations? It’s not about whether the committee was or wasn’t faithful. It’s about the fact that the act of corporate discernment provides, in and of itself, the necessary preparation and transformation that readies us to accept the results.
God’s way forward—God’s solution to a problem—might or might not be supportable by logic, but logic in itself is generally not sufficient to make it obvious or acceptable. This is part of the difference between human knowledge and wisdom received from the divine. God makes things known in a way that engages our brains, hearts, and bodies. The act of discernment can’t be skipped if we expect to fully understand the answer. Christ has come to teach His people for Himself. He has not come to teach some other group of people who will then let us know what Christ has said.
We face problems that cannot be solved by human wisdom. And God’s wisdom is only fully accessible if we listen deeply as a community. We Quakers cannot go out tomorrow and convince the whole world to participate in corporate discernment with us, and we shouldn’t, but we can and must commit to doing it ourselves.
Corporate discernment is a miracle every time it happens. I remember my first ever Quaker business meeting, when I made the mistake of sitting in a corner from which I could not easily escape. There was something contentious on the agenda, and people were shouting and bursting into tears. I wanted nothing more in the world than to be somewhere else than in that room as the meeting went into hour three, but I couldn’t leave without climbing over at least twelve people. Eventually, the group did come to a resolution, and I watched mouth agape when—after the requisite end-of-gathering announcements—two people from opposite sides of the issue stood up and hugged one another. I had no experience with that kind of relationship. I did not understand it. I did not know yet what God can do.
But miraculous as it is, this kind of corporate discernment in a local meeting, it’s not the fulness of what corporate discernment can be. Friends have also organized ourselves into larger groups, such as quarterly and yearly meetings, for a reason. It’s because we are called to stretch for more. We are called to stretch for corporate discernment with people we do not even know.
As I’ve already said, genuine corporate discernment in a group as large as a yearly meeting takes a lot of time. The most serious, most prophetic changes can take years or decades, however long it takes for the communal heart of our group to transform. When it takes that long and the harm of delayed transformation is real, it can be almost impossible to keep trusting each other. And corporate discernment requires trust in the community.
Trust is essential because we do not seek consensus. We seek sense of the meeting, which is a different thing. If we legitimately believe that we’re called to corporate discernment because the community’s deep listening prevents the individual from going astray, then we are affirming that we trust the community’s discernment over our own. We are deciding to trust the community’s discernment over our own.
If the group seeks consensus, that means we won’t move forward until everyone believes that the decision we have identified is correct. Consensus does not require much trust, just patience. The community seeking consensus will never do something with which I do not agree. I will never be asked to affirm anything not in harmony with my individual judgment of what’s best.
Sense of the meeting is quite a different thing. When we are finding the sense of the meeting, we are each responsible for articulating what God has given us: here is how I understand God’s will, here is how you understand God’s will, here is how a third Friend understands God’s will, and so forth. Then we all step back and look at the pieces. Sometimes the pieces fit together in a way that points to a decision with which I do not agree. But if we are finding sense of the meeting, then it’s my responsibility to affirm the sense of the meeting even when I don’t believe it’s right. Because I trust the community’s discernment over my own.
When my individual discernment differs from what other people are expressing as theirs, four things need to happen:
First, I must articulate my individual discernment. I have to speak up. That is my responsibility. If I keep it to myself, I am not being faithful. The community needs my piece. The community needs everybody’s piece.
Second, the community must listen to me. That is the community’s responsibility. Not just listen meaning they have to be quiet while I talk but listen meaning they need to deeply consider what I’ve said. Not be dismissive, not be impatient because my ministry is inconvenient or because I am historically unlikeable, but actually listen. Engage vulnerably. Be willing to be changed. No blanket between the cat and the teddy bear.
Third, I must affirm the sense of the meeting once it is clear. Sense of the meeting is not majority rule; we don’t go with the thing that the most people said. Sense of the meeting is stepping back and looking at everybody’s piece and seeing which direction they, together, are pointing. Sometimes, when we do that, it becomes obvious that the thing only one person said is actually the right way forward. Other times, the sense of the meeting really is what the most people said. And still other times, it’s something nobody thought to articulate in the beginning. But eventually, sense of the meeting becomes clear. This clarity happens in God’s time, which is sometimes slow but is not always slow. But when it becomes clear, I must affirm it. Even if my individual discernment still tells me it’s wrong. That’s the difference between sense of the meeting and consensus.
And fourth, we all—the community and me—must remain open to the possibility that there is still continuing revelation to come. The question at hand may or may not be resolved once and for all. But I will continue to affirm the sense of the meeting until I am absolutely certain God’s asking me to do otherwise. And in the meantime, if we have genuinely erred in discernment, chances are good that someone else will be led to ask the question again.
If any one of these four steps does not happen—if I do not speak, if the community does not listen, if I do not affirm and uphold sense of the meeting, or if we are not collectively committed to the possibility of continuing revelation—then there has been a rupture in trust. And corporate discernment requires trust.
A rupture in trust requires transparent healing. Among Friends, unaddressed ruptures in trust is what leads to groups splitting and individuals leaving. To be clear, individual Friends sometimes leave our community for other reasons, even perfectly good, Spirit-led reasons, like a call to another path. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it does not indicate anybody’s failure. But when someone leaves, or when a group splits, because of a rupture in trust, that is a community failure.
The failure is not the rupture itself. We are imperfect people. Ruptures in trust are always going to happen. The failure is refusing to address it and heal it. A mistake is just a mistake; refusal to address it is unfaithful.
What does it look like to heal a rupture in trust? It looks like communicating, naming what happened, and being willing to engage vulnerably. It looks like repentance: asking God to search us with God’s Light, accepting what we are shown about our shortcomings, asking God for help in changing, and directly addressing the harm we’ve caused.
Going back, summing up. I’ve tried to articulate two big pieces so far. First piece: the world needs genuine commitment to vulnerable relationship across differences, because this is what leads to transformation. Second piece: the world is in desperate need of deep listening to God, and Friends understand that deep listening to God implies community, more specifically sense of the meeting, which requires trust.
Here’s the question that leads me to: why do we Friends consistently act like the call to corporate discernment stops when we get to the level of yearly meetings? Why are we not discerning the will of God across the entire Religious Society of Friends?
We Friends divided ourselves into yearly meetings because it was sensible to do so. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, we couldn’t communicate with any kind of frequency across long distances. Understanding the importance of corporate discernment, especially in groups larger than the local meeting, Friends divided themselves into geographically-defined yearly meeting communities. But I don’t believe this was ever intended to establish us as subcommunities that were essentially separate for the purpose of discerning God’s call. I don’t believe Friends anticipated that functioning separately would cause our yearly meetings to drift further and further apart theologically and culturally.
But this has happened, almost inevitably, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, our yearly meetings tend to be culturally distinct from one another. And the ways in which we hear God’s call is always influenced by our culture. For another, each genuine process of corporate discernment takes us through a community transformation. And if each yearly meeting has different community transformations, then over time, we will become progressively more distinct from one another.
There is nothing explicitly stopping us from engaging in corporate discernment across yearly meetings except that we’ve set up systems that don’t assume we’re going to. We don’t generally send minutes to other yearly meetings to ask for their continued discernment; once we affirm something as a yearly meeting, we stop. We don’t assume that part of our corporate discernment process about really important things—the kinds of things that impact all of humanity and sometimes all of God’s creation—will be sitting in worship with Friends from other branches of Quakerism. And many of us would not be sure we’d want to.
Today, in the twenty-first century, the yearly meetings of the Religious Society of Friends are so radically different from one another that we find ourselves in familiar societal patterns, the same societal patterns that are ripping apart humanity more generally. It’s all the ways we are tempted to resist the other: declining to engage in painful relationships, engaging but refusing to be vulnerable, and prioritizing ideological purity over making space for transformation. Theologically and culturally liberal meetings and theologically and culturally conservative meetings and even theologically and culturally moderate meetings—we have some of those—aren’t even sure that we want to talk to each other or share the same denominational name. Can we imagine a world in which we are prepared to trust the discernment of the whole Religious Society of Friends over the discernment of our own yearly meeting? What would the sense of the meeting of the entire Religious Society of Friends even be like? If we collectively decided to ask, “What is God’s call for us as an entire Religious Society,” what would the answer be?
In not doing this, we’re missing an enormous opportunity. We’re missing the experience of Godly transformation across differences, and we’re missing the numbers of people needed to act together to impact the world. Each of our yearly meetings by itself is so tiny. Not so when we look at all Friends, everywhere.
If we tried this—if we really committed to corporate discernment to find God’s call for us as an entire people—that would be a demonstration of building the kingdom of God on earth. Because the Religious Society of Friends, taken as a whole, is almost as diverse as the entire human population of this planet.
Today, there are a total of about 400,000 Friends in eighty-seven countries, probably a little more than that. We exist on every continent except Antarctica. About 90% of us worship in pastoral, programmed meetings, with songs and Scripture and prepared messages, often but not always incorporating silent, expectant worship. But the other 10% of us only practice silent, expectant worship. Close to 95% of us are Christian, though that 95% would not have agreement on the definition of the word Christian, nor a unform understanding of what it means to follow Christ. About 5-6% of us would describe ourselves as non-Christian, and that 5-6% would not have any agreement on a label to describe themselves collectively. There are Quakers of every race and many more Quakers of color than white Quakers. A plurality, if not a majority, of Friends are African, although within Africa, Friends are most likely to describe themselves using their national or tribal descriptors, not “African” in general. We worship in literally dozens of languages, and our cultures are so different from one another that we don’t even think the same way, even when we do share a language or have the benefit of translators.
The majority of Quakers are poor. A significant number of us are so poor that we are food insecure. Others of us are so wealthy that we wonder what we will do with all our money. Many of us live in places where there is enough violence that we have a good chance of encountering it personally; we or someone in our family is likely to be either a victim or a perpetrator of armed violence. Other Friends cannot imagine living in a society with guns. Some of us travel frequently, even across national boundaries, while others will never be able to do so for either political or economic reasons, and still others choose not to do so for cultural reasons.
And within the context of Quakerism, we have an internal history of colonialism and imperialism. Some Quakers’ ancestors colonized or enslaved other Quakers’ ancestors. There are even significant numbers of Friends who had ancestors who were once colonized and later, a few generations down the line, colonized other Friends’ ancestors elsewhere.
If it weren’t for God, I would say that this group of people I’ve just described cannot possibly come to a sense of the meeting of God’s call for them. It’s a problem that can’t be solved by human wisdom. But we can come to a sense of the meeting—all of us, all the way around the world—and I know this experimentally, because we already have. Every Quaker community I have ever encountered affirms the innate value of every human being. Every Quaker community I have ever encountered shows evidence of testimonies of peace, justice, integrity, and equality. We are not in agreement about what these testimonies look like, how we live them in the world, but we affirm that peace, justice, integrity, and equality are of God.
It’s a start. It’s a pretty good start.
Friends also agree that if we commit ourselves to God and listen deeply, we’ll be led. And we know that listening deeply presupposes listening in community. And being led—going through the process of corporate discernment—transforms our hearts. Individual hearts, and the collective hearts of communities.
We also agree, or almost all of us do, that we belong to the same Religious Society and have a shared history. Most of us name ourselves as a people. Some of us believe we’re a covenant people. Traveling in the ministry has shown me that this gets us a seat at the table. Two Friends who are strangers will almost always be open to talking with each other, no matter how significant their differences may be.
Just talking, just treating each other with basic respect, is a step in the right direction. But it’s not the same as committing to corporate discernment in community. Many of us, maybe even most of us, are not prepared to do that in any genuine way. Corporate discernment requires trusting the community’s discernment more than our own. It requires vulnerability. It can’t be done in the absence of trust.
The Religious Society of Friends has a history of unaddressed, unhealed ruptures in trust.
We have a history of individuals or groups who did not speak when God prompted them to speak, who did not give their piece over to the community, who did not share what the Holy Spirit was giving them to help us find the truth, who chose instead to keep quiet out of fear or disapprove of the rest of us silently.
We have a history of communities who ignored, belittled, ridiculed, persecuted, or read out of meeting our dissenters when they did speak up.
We have a history of individuals who refused to affirm the sense of the meeting even when it became clear, either leaving the community or standing in the way or pretending to approve and then behaving resentfully.
We have a history of communities that closed themselves to the possibility of continuing revelation, who refused to consider the possibility of being called to something new, who did not want to open up the hard questions yet again.
The first step to healing these ruptures is acknowledging that they happened. When have we refused to speak or refused to listen? When have we refused to affirm and uphold the sense of the meeting? When have we refused to remain open to continuing revelation? If we’re not sure, there are several good ways to find out. One is to place ourselves in God’s hands and ask God to search us and show us where we’ve failed. Another is to listen to people who tell us they’ve been hurt—and they do not always tell us with words. Another is to speak up when we ourselves have experienced a rupture in trust or when we’ve been part of causing one.
Then we repent. We express our sorrow to God. We affirm our intention not to repeat the same mistakes, and we act to heal the harm we have caused.
Part of the healing process is to re-commit to our people. Refuse to be tempted by purity narratives that encourage us to turn away from each other and make us afraid to say what we believe to be true. Instead, insist on connection. No blanket between the cat and the teddy bear. No shields between us.
Next, default to empathy and demonstrate love. Truth—with love. As Amanda Kemp says, make space for transformation. God is love. The changing of hearts is most often the cumulative result of many unexpected acts of love. No group of Friends anywhere in the world, including ourselves, will change because someone punishes them, or refuses to speak them, or explains logically why they’re wrong. We change and grow because we and others are willing to engage vulnerably.
We also have some learning to do, if we’re going to reach for sense of the meeting among Friends all the way around the world. Cultural differences can’t be ignored. Some cultures build trust by working together while others build trust by talking about their families over cups of tea. Some cultures express disapproval by shouting harsh words while others express the same degree of disapproval with silence. Some cultures place the most important points of a speech at the beginning, others at the end, and others only imply the most important points and don’t say them at all. The Religious Society of Friends is a radically cross-cultural people. If we don’t learn about each other, we will absolutely misinterpret each other.
And lastly: assume that corporate discernment is the way forward. Decide to believe it is possible. Because we don’t have to be able to do it. Ultimately, God is the one Who does it.
What would it look like—the idea of committing to finding sense of the meeting for God’s call for the whole Religious Society of Friends?
It would not look like jumping straight into worldwide Zoom meetings for corporate discernment. While it’s true that most Friends in most parts of the world have at least some access to international electronic connections, there is no single accessible electronic platform for everyone. Also, jumping straight into worldwide corporate discernment would mean skipping over healing. That’s literally not possible. We can’t do meaningful corporate discernment without also doing meaningful healing, which includes the practice of repentance.
It wouldn’t look like cross-cultural engagement in ways that feel glamorous or fascinating. A lot of Friends really enjoy connecting across wide cultural differences. But we need to remember that it’s just as important to engage with people from other meetings that are more similar to our own culturally but still very different in belief and practice. This is often harder to do because we do not have the distraction or pull of a culture we find exotic.
Committing to finding sense of the meeting for God’s call for the whole Religious Society of Friends would not look like replicating white European and North American-designed systems in larger scale. Corporate discernment—the practice of listening deeply to God’s call in community—is valued throughout the Quaker world. But the specific procedures that support those practices are not universal. Corporate discernment happens radically differently from one country and culture to the next. I have been in international, cross-cultural corporate discernment situations in which we realized we had no common practices at all around clerking, recording minutes, discerning, deciding who would speak and when and for how long, or even deciding who would decide who would speak and when and for how long. This is to say nothing of literal translation from one language to another. Finding the ways of doing this in cross-cultural settings, cross-yearly meeting settings of any kind, is an act of faith, and it isn’t easy.
Committing to finding sense of the meeting for God’s call for the whole Religious Society of Friends would not look like repeating patterns of colonization. It would not look like any one group telling any other group what to do, and it especially would not look like people with colonizing ancestors giving orders to people with colonized ancestors.
It also would not look like majority rule, because sense of the meeting is not majority rule. It would not be simplified or abbreviated by leaving out people with inconvenient ministry.
And it would not look like laying everything else aside in order to focus on this. Finding sense of the meeting for God’s call for the whole Religious Society of Friends is the sort of task that is so big it could easily take all of our energy, and we still couldn’t finish it—because it’s not the sort of task that you ever finish. Does any group of people ever finish finding God’s will for the community? Not in my experience. So it wouldn’t mean stopping all of our other faithful work…though there are certainly some less-faithful things it would be nice if we could stop doing.
What would it look like, then? What is the call for us, as individual Friends and as a whole Society?
Take existing opportunities to know each other across yearly meeting boundaries. Go ahead and register for that free hour-long international conversation that somebody invited you to. You’re unlikely to solve any problems of the world in that hour, but it’s a forum in which you can hold space for transformation.
Create more opportunities to know Friends who make us uncomfortable. Create such opportunities in many different ways so at least some will be accessible to everybody.
Emphasize travel in ministry, which was originally the circulatory system intended to keep yearly meetings from drifting apart. It was the way in which ideas were brought from one group to another so that we could engage in corporate discernment in multiple yearly meetings over the same transformative concerns.
Work together with Friends from other cultures and other parts of the world on projects where you already have agreement: care for families, love through bereavement, stewarding creation, education for all.
Refuse to withdraw from corporate discernment. When there have been ruptures in trust, we can name the ruptures in trust but refuse to give up. Commit to mutual vulnerability whenever possible.
Celebrate small successes to maintain our joy.
Be wary of false victories, the ways in which we sometimes convince ourselves that transformation has happened when, really, nobody’s heart has been changed. Remember that corporate discernment is a process and that the act of being part of that process is the very thing that prepares us to accept the results.
Recognize and resist the lies that tell us to disengage, to put up the shields, to become invulnerable. The lies that tell us the best way forward is to refuse to listen, to refuse to engage, to refuse to compromise, to become absolutists. These are lies, and they’re dangerous lies, because believing them directly prevents growth and transformation—our own, and everyone else’s, as well.
We can practice engaging in vulnerable relationship every day, with Quakers and non-Quakers alike. But if we believe in the transformative power of corporate discernment, if we believe that listening to God across differences can change us, then we are also called to commit to finding sense of the meeting across the entire Religious Society of Friends. It’s not a modest call. But God will show us how to do it.
What will happen if we do? For one thing, we’ll be transformed. That’s what genuine corporate discernment does. It prepares us, often over a long period of time, for the acceptance of a way forward that we weren’t expecting and that we could not have possibly understood before we started. We become new people, a new community, the kind of community that’s capable of stepping forward into what God is asking us to do.
I do not know if, should we make this commitment, God will show us Friends how to solve racism and warfare and colonialism and poverty and climate change for the entire world. I kind of hope so. But I do know that if we make this commitment, God can show the world, through us—the 400,000 extraordinarily diverse people that we are—that it is possible to solve these beyond-human-wisdom problems. Ultimately, that was among the early insights of Quakerism, the fact that the world is not hopelessly broken. We do not have to wait for Jesus’s Second Coming to overcome the Fall in the Garden of Eden and rescue us from our utter depravity. If we are faithful, we can experience the kingdom of God—now.