Sunday 14 July 2019

Quaker Gathering, Part 1 - Quakerism 101

“Extraordinary journeys rarely begin in obvious places.”
- Sign outside the Admissions Office, 
Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa

Where to begin with my experiences at this year’s Quaker Gathering in Grinnell, Iowa?

Let’s start with Quakerism 101.

The Religious Society of Friends – whose adherents were once mocked by being derided as “quakers” – is rooted in mid-17th century England. 

The word “friends” derives from a biblical reference to Jesus’ words in John, 15:15, “I have called you friends.” 

The mid-17th century was a time of upheaval and revolution in England. The English Parliament found King Charles I guilty of treason and executed him. England became embroiled in a bloody, brutish civil war. The intransigent battles between Protestants and Catholics grew increasingly vicious. 

Scores of ‘nonconformist’ religious groups, i.e., neither Catholic nor Anglican, blossomed all over England, challenging the religious orthodoxies of the day. Many of these groups rejected the need for ordained priests or ministers to serve as intermediaries between individual people and their God. After all, if Parliament could execute the Monarch – theoretically God’s chosen representative on the throne of England – everything was up for grabs.

In the midst of that dynamic frenzy, George Fox emerged from the English Midlands to lead a rag-tag group of religious dissenters – both women and men -  into what became known as the Religious Society of Friends, aka Friends, aka Quakers. No “hirling priests” for them! Individual Friends established their own personal relationship with the Creator. They rejected all forms of violence, refused military service, and practised ‘plain speech’. No titles were used when speaking to others – no Mrs. or Mr., and certainly no Lady, Duke, Duchess, or Sir. Just first and last names. The King was Charles Stuart; today the Queen would be called Elizabeth Windsor. Quaker men did not remove their hats or bow down in deference to their ‘betters’ – and were often jailed for their impertinence. Women were a vigorous, indispensable part of the community from the beginning. And they still are. 

The working Quaker assumption was – is – that there was that of God in everyone. No exceptions. No one was better than or inferior to anyone else. Sunday Meetings were held in silence. The only people who spoke were those who felt led by the Spirit to say something. The main criterion for speaking? "Improving upon the silence." And these early Quakers strove to lead lives of utter simplicity.

Revolutionary stuff in the 1600s – and still powerful today.

I won’t go into how the Religious Society of Friends evolved over the years, fascinating though that social history is. What I will say is that I became a Quaker in 1972. A Quaker by convincement, to use an old Quaker phrase. Proud to be a humble Quaker, as one Quaker wag observed. 

Being Quaker has been a central part of my life and identity ever since.

However...I must add that I am not a poster child for Quakerism. I love and nurture my Quaker approach to life, but I do not attend Sunday Meetings, nor do I actively participate in the work of Canadian Quaker organizations. Someday, I will write about how I have become a Quaker, once-removed. A cultural Quaker, if you will. It’s a process that I do not fully understand. For now, my sacred journeys take me down different, albeit frequently parallel paths.

Which brings me to the annual Quaker Gatherings, in which I do occasionally participate. There are many branches of Quakerism, from non-theist on the left to fundamentalist Christian on the right. The branch that nurtures me most is Friends General Conference (FGC), which fits nicely on the left wing of the Quaker spectrum. It is headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; most Canadian Quaker Meetings are affiliated with FGC.

Each year, FGC hosts a weeklong Gathering of Quakers in the first week of July. These Gatherings usually take place on a college campus on the American east coast or in the Midwest. Three years ago, I attended the Gathering at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota. This year, I attended the Gathering at Grinnell College, in Grinnell, Iowa. 

At the heart of these annual Gatherings, which usually attract about 1200 attenders, is a series of workshops that take place each morning for five days. There is a cornucopia of workshops from which to pick, from Quaker theology to kite making, and from challenging racism to stewarding the environment. Attenders select a workshop, and that workshop becomes their spiritual home for the week.

In 2016, my Gathering workshop was on Contemplative Photography – which was wonderful – and my workshop this year was on Social Justice and Photography. 

My mind and heart are still racing with energy, ideas, and insights from my workshop. But, quite frankly, I need at least another week to sort things out.

Next week, I plan to write about how these two workshops – contemplative photography and social justice + photography – are shaping my attitudes toward photography, and MY photography in particular. 

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with these photographs from this year’s Gathering. 


 Welcome Sign outside Grinnell Church of Christ

John McCutcheon, 
extraordinary Quaker singer and musician

Monarch Butterfly on the Grinnell College campus

"Now Is Enough" by James Gobel, 
Bucksbaum Art Center Art Gallery

Humanities and Social Studies building

Garden outside the Bucksbaum Art Center

Dining room light fixture,
Joe Rosenfield Center

Grinnell College summer painter

Ceiling of exterior walkway, 
North Residence Halls

Sign outside the Grinnell
United Church of Christ

Hat on a pew in the
Herrick Chapel

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