In Response to A Modest Proposal

Over on his blog, Brent Bill has been making “A Modest Proposal” in five parts for the revitalization of the Quaker message in the United States. There’s lots of good stuff in these posts, including a very funny video about what would happen if Starbucks marketed the way many churches do. (I think non-Quakers who are part of a religious tradition will find his research interesting, as well.) My thoughts on this issue are not as well developed as Brent’s, but he has inspired me to record some things I’ve been thinking lately.

First, I’m glad Brent framed the issue as revitalizing the Quaker message, rather than Quakerism. Although I try to do my part to support Quaker institutions, I’m much more interested in the Quaker message, which I define as this:

We each have a direct connection to God/the Divine, and experiencing that together in community can help us to hear God’s guidance in our lives and to witness to that of the Divine in all of creation (including other people).

My experience of speaking to non-Quakers is that ours is a welcome and needed message; it’s just not known what we stand for, as Brent points out.

In anticipation of Brent’s next post about practical ideas, here are a few of mine:

Say what we believe–in person and on the Internet. This is tricky, especially for liberal Friends who want to be sensitive to the wide theological diversity among us, but I think we have to try. We can use different words for the Spirit, which is one of the things that attracted me to Quakerism–the idea that I could believe in something without it being an old white man in the sky. Early Friends talked about the Seed and the Light. The openness of our religious language is a strength in the 21st century that we should claim and celebrate.

Tell people what we do–in person and on the Internet. I’ve been giving many talks lately, and I can’t help but notice that most Quaker meetings haven’t bothered to post my coming event on their websites. I haven’t complained about this because I don’t want to seem overly interested in self-promotion, though I see promoting my talk as an opportunity to tell people in the community that there is a Quaker meeting doing something that at least some people will find interesting. Almost every community has at least one website or Twitter group that announces local events, but Quakers rarely seem to make use of these, let alone submit information about themselves to the newspaper, which is usually quite easy.

Use plain speech. I don’t mean thee and thou. I mean we should say what we mean in language that someone walking in the door for the first time will understand. I think we should also explain some of the odd things we do, especially when we know there are newcomers. For example, someone who comes to hear the guest speaker that was announced on the website won’t understand why the group suddenly falls into silence before the speaker begins unless the person introducing the program takes a sentence to explain it. Someone calling the answering machine for the first time will not understand the message that says, “We worship every First Day and have First Day School available.” Plain doesn’t mean precious.

Don’t let new mothers be the only ones to run First Day School (which for my non-Quaker readers means Sunday School). Although we have a better children’s program than many meetings, we seem to burn out new parents, especially new mothers, at an alarming rate. Someone with young children who is seeking a new faith community needs time to nourish their own spiritual life, and if they are home with children during the week, they need quiet. We need others to step up–particularly non-parents and men. I’m not surprised by the research Brent cites that says congregations that include children are more likely to grow.

Those are the things I’ve been wanting to get off my chest. (Thanks for the excuse Brent.) I look forward to hearing what others have to say.

For those who want to think more about these questions and are in the Philadelphia area, the regional Quaker body Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is hosting a We Can Do It Day on Spiritual Hospitality this Saturday. You can go through the link for details. I hope someone posts here the ideas that come out of it.

2019-01-29T17:55:46+00:00September 23rd, 2010|Spirituality|


  1. Brent Bill September 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    This is a great post, Eileen. Thanks for sharing it. I like your "on the Internet" emphasis, too… which is something we have not been very good at (I guess Quakers still think that movable type is new technology — ha!). And your plain speech proposal is plainly — and well – put. Thanks…

  2. Eileen Flanagan September 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Brent. Looking forward to tomorrow's post.

  3. Steven Davison September 24, 2010 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    Eileen, I have been thinking along just these lines myself. I gave a talk at my meeting (Yardley) about how we are losing our 'content', by which I mean what we have to say to people. The simplest way to frame this is the problem most liberal Friends face when asked what Quakers believe.

    Now, I happen to think that's the wrong question, actually. I prefer to answer what Quakers (and myself) have experienced, which is your first practical response. But still, people want to know about our faith and they deserve an answer. My answer is what I call the four legs, body and heart of Quakerism:

    Four legs: We believe/experience that G*d (by this I mean whatever the Mystery Reality is behind our religious/spiritual experience, whatever that experience is) calls each of us to a direct, unmediated relationship with Spirit. That G*d calls the meeting to a direct, unmediated relationship. That G*d is always refreshing G*d's revelation, always seeking to guide, heal, even correct G*d's people with new revelation. And that we are called to live our lives as witness to our beliefs/experiences–what we call the testimonial life.

    The heart is the commandments of love.

    The body is "what canst thou say?", the commitment to build our religious/spiritual lives on what we have ourselves experienced, not rejecting our traditions or the legacy of past revelation, but seeking to own it for ourselves in our own experience.

  4. Helen September 26, 2010 at 1:10 am - Reply


    I 'picked on' you a little bit in my latest blog post. I've been thinking about the issue of Quakers and modesty for a long time, and I've concluded…

  5. Eileen Flanagan September 27, 2010 at 7:04 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Steven and Helen, and sorry for my slow response. I don't feel "picked on" at all, Helen. You raise good questions. And Steven, I like the things you highlight. I do think that experience is central to our message, rather than faith.

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