Monday, October 25, 2010

Are Quakers Prophets?

"Prophecies" are inspired declarations of divine will or purpose, according to Merriam-Webster. Synonyms are along the lines of predicting, prognosticating, foretelling and the like.

This has been rattling in my brain since early this weekend. I was present at Friends General Conference's Central Committee - a wonderful gathering of inspiring people who have accomplished a lot, cumulatively, over the course of their varying lengths of lives. As a collective body, however, I left wondering whether we are caught in a system that is less than the sum of our parts. A gelling, jarring and telling moment came when the word "prophetic" was used in describing one of the program proposals. Without going into too great detail, this had to do with a proposal to upgrade the web-presence of the organization so that its messages and communications can be more egalitarian and timely. I had to be honest (and spoke to this at the gathering): upgrading the web presence and technology is essential to today's world, and, given that we are now wrapping up 2010, this can hardly be considered "prophetic". "It's about time" is more appropriate although, given the challenges on the road ahead for FGC, and the fact that the plan calls for this process to take 3-5 years, "too late" might be even more apt.

One of the Quaker testimonies is "Community". There are only 5 testimonies. Technology has profoundly changed the face and networks of the global community, how things get communicated and how things get done. It is a wonder what community FGC has had a covenant with that it finds itself, technologically, this far behind the times. I wonder if this is not reflective of a deeper challenge not just of FGC, but of all the Religious Society of Friends, and our corporate process. Certainly, among Friends, there are countless folks out in the cyber-world active and engaged. Why have none of the governing bodies of Friends (FUM, EFI, FGC) embraced some of this energy and integrated it into their web-world?

Beyond the mere integration and adaptation issue, for FGC-Friends, I am troubled by the use of the word "Prophetic" as a self-descriptive term. To what extent are we, as Friends, so enamored with our prophetic, cutting-edge and radically-progressive past that we are completely blinded to our present? We talk about embracing diversity, but there was more diversity at the local bar in New Windsor with 20 people than at Central Committee with a gathering of 150+ Friends (I'm talking real numbers, not proportions). I continue to find little movement among Friends in promoting HIV-testing - a small thing that we could do to show greater unity in our communities. To not do so is an act of white-privilege, especially here in DC. I increasingly feel that their are a rising number of Quakers who are and can be prophetic, and some of their messages of the need for change are directed not at the outer-world but at the Friends institutions themselves. If what I witnessed this weekend is any indication, these institutions have a long way to go before their actions can really join the world in sharing prophetic messages again.


Lawrence said...

I see technology and the web as a foundation for prophetic work. They provide another channel over which to express testimonies, positions, and opinions. Prophecy, when it exists, comes from worshipful consideration and "that of God" in the individual(s).

We must take care to not overestimate the importance of a single proposal or worshipful phrase. This is a danger in contemporary Quaker practice which has worried me for many years. Often we do not anchor ourselves in practices which have provided direction to our work. Our meetings for business are not truly meeting for worship with a concern for business. We are impatient, and yet we can be reluctant to move forward due to earthly concerns. It is important to find unity in the spirit in all that we do.

Martin Kelley said...

I try not to comment on FGC given my history with them, but technology is not prophetic ministry, not ever, not in the slightest. The prophets had one calling: to bring the people back to God. You can use technology for that but it's the message, not the megaphone that counts.

The prophets were not loved at the time. They were often thrown in jail, beaten and discredited. Ministry in the Quaker sense almost always involves the cross. You will anger people. You won't make your campaign goals.

It dismays me that FGC seems to think prophecy is spending tens of thousands of dollars on Salesforce integration so they can data mine their potential donor base. I'd settle for bringing the word "God" back onto the homepage.

Jeanne said...

I guess I'm on facebook too much. I'd like to LIKE Martin's comment. I can say from firsthand experience that he's speaking the truth.

Anonymous said...

Hello Friends,

This is John Helding and I am the assistant clerk of the Friends General Conference Communications Advisory Board -- the group whose work you are commenting on. And I'm writing tonight from the west coast not in any official capacity, but just with my personal sense of the issues raised.

Have to say Brad's post brought some sadness and some frustration to my heart. And the comments I see to date reinforce those feelings.

Sadness because I have worked with the group of friends serving on this committee for over a year now, and simply put, I believe your words do not give them due credit for their faithfulness. And I'm feeling frustrated because I realize it is impossible for one to get a full sense of that work from only experiencing our presentation at Central Committee. And with that in mind, a bit further saddened you couldn't maybe have given the friends involved a wee bit more benefit of the doubt.

Over the past 20 years I've served on lots of Quaker committees in numerous Quaker bodies, and my experience of this work is that it has been well covered and grounded in Spirit. It has incorporated a diversity of souls and opinions and life experience.

And yes, it has, to our sense, been given a prophetic vision of FGC moving aggressively to better serve and help empower the Quaker faith community. It's a vision not only about our web presence ... but one much broader than that and one connected with the work of the previous year that has lead to the new minute of purpose and fundamental goals for FGC, not to mention the work of late that FGC has taken on.

Moreover it is connected to the frustrations you express about FGC, other Quaker organizations, and Quakers in general in being behind the times in all of this and communications and community building capabilities in particular. And yes, we are late, but not because God has been late, but because we are coming around at this point, finally, to hearing what God has been speaking and maybe speaking for some time. Doesn't lessen the import of God's instructions -- maybe just reinforces the urgency of us actually taking action.

And in all this, I don't think any of us sense that our use of the word 'prophetic' is one that we chose, but one that was given to us as we collective worked, listened, worshiped, and comprehended the vision that needed to be supported, the work that needed to be done. Quite honestly, as I sense the emotion in your own post, your sense of frustration with it all, it reinforces in me the deep need and right order of exactly the work we are proposing and FGC is in the process of hopefully funding.

So it helps to share these feelings and this sense of what we are felt called to put forth and to work towards. To our hearts and minds it is much more than a website, much more than a database for organizing information about our FGC community, much more than how our communications look. It is about one of those Quaker governing bodies you mention becoming ever more faithful in nurturing and supporting the movement of the Spirit among friends and friends meetings.

In the light,

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

John - I would love to talk with you more about this. In general, I think our whole world is caught between our past and our future, and the 'bricks and mortar' institutions laden with overhead and past commitments are deeply challenged. FGC talks about "laying things down" not because of callings/leadings, but funding. We need to have a good searching for what really matters, and, as a song I love says, "with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away". I am by no means the only one sharing these sentiments, but it would certainly behoove FGC to reach beyond its constituents to the broader Friends society and re-engage in creative works. A friend of mine, a liberal Friend, was telling me that, when she received the appeal in the mail from FGC, it was a reminder to her to contribute - but not to FGC, to others who she felt were making a difference in the world. Somewhere in here lies the challenge. You can reach me at if you want to have more conversations.


Anonymous said...

From John,

Hi Brad.

Appreciated your reply and thanks for the offer for more discussion. I'll hope to track you down at some point for a more extensive discussion (God willing a live and in person connection!).

For the moment, let me say I think you and I do have a fair bit of agreement on some of what our community is being called to. The big question will be, and here I imagine we'll have some good discussion, is how best, how most faithfully, can we act to get there. And on one item of substance, as to FGC getting back to creative works, it has taken on and supported what I see as some critical work of late -- top of my list would be Quaker Quest which I know firsthand is having real and substantive impact on the meetings I've worked with as a QQ facilitator. Yes, lots more that FGC can and needs to do, that we all can and need to do, but the solution is a complex one and in my mind involves a mix of ministers and elders and meetings, and Quaker organizations to name a few.


chelavery said...

Quakers are like wider society -- we have our buzz words, and this year that buzz word is "prophetic." We have a few more months to go before it is run to death, all the meaning squeezed out of it, and then it will a leftover rag of a word without any punch and we will lose interest in it for maybe 50-100 years before recycling it.

But Brad, what caught my attention in your post was your clear assertion that Quakers have 5 testimonies. How do you get that? There is no official list that I know of. Every yearly meeting's faith and practice has a different list. Howard Brinton listed 4, which was the favorite number for a time, then Wilmer Cooper changed the popular count to 5, Friends schools generally use 6. If I remember correctly, William Penn listed 12 somewhere, most of which we would not claim today.

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

Hey Chel - In general, the 5 I hear are Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality. Sometimes, Stewardship is added. And, no, these are not gospel, but in my travels, they are pretty consistent. Where did you see WPH has 12 listed?

chelavery said...

Not WPH, but something written by William Penn. Sorry, I don't know. It has been maybe 20 years since I read it. Possibly searchable through Quaker Digital Collection.

Martin Kelley said...

There's a funny Youtube clip running the rounds these days called "Hi I'm a Tea-Partier" where the title character spouts all sorts of strung-together buzzwords that make little sense. His conversational foil stops him at one point and says "Sorry, but that's simply not true. Words have actual meanings."

I would really hate it if Chel is correct that Friends will stop using the words "prophetic" for the next hundred years because Friends "squeezed" them of meaning today. The Quaker message to the world is that God is still speaking to us, still guiding us, still wanting to bring us home to Him. We should expect that God is trying to raise prophets from among our ranks and we should keep eyes and ears open to their ministry among us. (PS: I make no claim, God's speech to me is all whispers!)

Chel and Brad: William Penn's "A Brief Account of the Rise and Progress of the People Called Quakers" was his intro to George Fox's Journal. Chapter II lists twelve points "that did exemplify and father explain the Truth and Efficacy of the general Doctrine." Penn was someone who was a game-changer both theologically and in the world, a good model for Friends looking to do both today. I've been reading "A Brief Account" this fall and it's just packed with good stuff. A lot of it is remarkably contemporary.

Colby Cheese said...

Though born and baptized in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), starting in my tween years, I spent the next 25 years as a Friend.

I am again a member of a Disciples congregation and have served as Treasurer and Elder - and my Friend-ship is always with me.

Where am I in this conversation? Where is all the rest of the body of Christ in this conversation?

I suggest that to the extent that this question of identity and purpose is limited by Quakers to a discussion only amongst Quakers; is limited by Disciples to a discussion only amongst Disciples; etc. - it is worse than wasteful, it is counter-productive. Such siloed discussions will only serve the divisiveness and schisms that permeate the body of Christ and will increasingly tear us asunder.

Here is my contribution to the conversation:


REFORMATION II is a personal statement. It is not a creed. As a personal statement, it is dynamic and, over time, is expected to evolve and be refined.

REFORMATION II is a call for reformation. It is an invitation to a dialogue. This time, 493 years after the first Reformation, how do we reform for unification instead of schism? How do we reform to emphasize the love and grace of God and eliminate the abuses and excesses of church institutionalism and authoritarianism? How do we reform to emphasize an individual loving intimate relationship with God? How do we reform to make that relationship with God be more important than ritual and creed and dogma and rote attendance?

How do we reform to share the Good News? How do we reform to be – here and now – the Kingdom of God?

Doug Sloan