Should Quakers drop “worship” to be more inclusive?

With my new book being published at the end of the month, I’m wondering what additions I would make if I were submitted the manuscript now, rather than 18 months ago. One would be expanding the second chapter called ‘Why Only One Story? Christianity and Universalism.’ In this chapter I offer some strong criticism of a kind of universalism called pluralism. This is the belief that all religious paths have the same foundation or destination, and, as humanity evolves, more will come to recognise the truth that underlies and unites the world faiths. Quakerism in Britain may be seen as an advanced form of spirituality because of this belief in pluralism. Because pluralism is such a familiar part of the liberal Quaker landscape, I suspect this chapter will be the most contentious, if those who disagree with me read the book at all.

To be clear, I fully accept that Quakerism in Britain today contains a variety of beliefs different to my own, and the tension this creates can be a truly creative and wonderful one. But the way we talk about this variety leaves a lot to be desired. A theologically diverse community needs a theology of diversity that works for everyone. It’s in the hope of such a theology that I offer these thoughts.

I want to expand my critique of pluralism in response to the idea that it’s inherently inclusive, and that this inclusion is achieved by dropping explicitly religious words. I hear, through social media, the letters page of the Friend, and conversations with Quakers, a steady trickle of voices rejecting various bits of religious vocabulary, including “prayer”, “faith”, and particularly the word “worship”. (Rhiannon Grant wrote a blog post on this in January 2022 which I highly recommend: https://brigidfoxandbuddha.wordpress.com/2022/01/10/i-think-meeting-for-worship-is-a-good-enough-name)

The main criticism of “worship” appears to be that it implies self-denigration, abasing ourselves before a tyrant. I find this criticism difficult. Twenty years of Quaker worship has given me a strong emotional attachment to the word. My experience of worship and my Christian faith has brought me to a place where I can say worship is why I come to Meeting. As God’s creature, worship is what I’m created for. Instead of bowing and scraping, I find worship to be knowing deeply that you and I are unique, precious, children of God. Worship is joining in with the song of creation to its Creator. I shared this on Twitter, and received the reply: “That’s nice a reason why you go to meeting and enjoy worship. But other Quakers go for different reasons. Just as valid and valuable reasons. Maybe it’s not troubling, but liberating that so many people can find a Quaker meeting a safe and meaningful space?”

The kind of pluralism advocated for in this reply treats Meeting for Worship as a theologically neutral space, a blank canvas, to which each individual brings their own private understanding of what they’re doing. The assumption is neutrality ensures a meaningful space for everyone, but this relies on the theology of each Friend being private and individual, with no cooperate element. It excludes a theology of what we’re all doing together. It excludes any particular theology that makes corporate claims, such as Christianity and, dare I say it, Quakerism as its been understood for most of its history. It also misses the fact that pluralism is itself a type of theology that makes particular claims. Pluralism is not an opening up to all theologies. It prioritises a pluralistic theology over all other theologies. You can hold any particular beliefs you want as an individual, as long as they’re subservient to a shared pluralism.

In discussions of this kind of pluralism that I’ve read, removing words like “worship” from our shared lexicon is framed as “inclusivity”, even “radical inclusivity”. The more religious words we eliminate from our vocabulary, the more we can include those who are put off by religion. As someone who longs for a rich shared theology, I don’t experience this as inclusion. If it’s so inclusive, why do I feel so alienated by it? When I come to Meeting I don’t want to be alone with God, I want to worship God in the midst of God’s people. I don’t want to inhabit a blank space, I want to be part of a rich tradition. I want shared communion, not a private experience.

There’s a particular danger in using words like “inclusion” in this conversation. In speaking of pluralism as inclusive, does that mean faith communities who don’t adopt a pluralist theology (like the majority of Quakers globally) are inherently exclusive? This would be quite a claim coming from the whitest church in Britain. When we think of pluralism as a form of ‘inclusion’ it dilutes our conversation about inclusivity in terms of disability, race etc. There’s a stark difference between making our worship accessible to wheelchair users and neurodiverse people, and accommodating theological differences.

To put all this another way, this kind of pluralism treats Quaker Meeting as an empty space in which we can all play our own individual games of solitaire. Or pluralism asks that, if we’re all going to play the same game, we need to accept that everyone has different understandings of the rules. The problem is, the game I want to play needs multiple players. I can’t play it by myself. And if we all have different understandings of the rules, then the game becomes very confusing. It makes me doubt whether we’re playing the same game at all. Is a board games club where everyone plays their own game more inclusive? It’s inclusive of people who want to play various versions of solitaire. It doesn’t include people like me, who want to play a game with multiple players and a shared understanding of the rules. I would find a board games club that only played solitaire increasingly alienating and lonely. I don’t want to play alone, and I don’t want to be endlessly debating the rules. If only occasionally, I just want to enjoy the game.

As I’ve said, I’m not arguing against a Quaker community containing different theologies, but we need to find better ways of being together amidst our differences. We need to listen to each other and take our disagreements seriously. The sort of pluralism I currently encounter amongst Friends will not give us a community free of theological conflict. Pluralism is not above, or apart from theology, because there is no theologically neutral space. There is nothing inherently inclusive about pluralism, for a pluralistic space is only really inclusive of pluralists. A shared language that is somehow theologically ‘neutral’ only includes those who delight in such a language. Such a Quakerism doesn’t include me.

This post is high on criticism and low on construction. What might a good theology of theological difference look like? The final chapter of my book has a few suggestions which I won’t repeat here, but I think one way forward would be more words, not less, and a better understanding of each others words. If our shared vocabulary is a box of Lego bricks, then we need to be adding bricks, not taking them away. If we aspire to be a religious community, and not just a collection of individuals who briefly collide of a Sunday morning, then we need to build something beautiful together, and we can’t do that if our box is empty.

[Featured Image photo by Rick Mason on Unsplash]

12 thoughts on “Should Quakers drop “worship” to be more inclusive?”

  1. You note as an aside that it’s a bit rich for the whitest church in Britain to castigate others for their exclusivity, but I think this point could use some dwelling on. (As a Black Friend, it’s an area of particular interest for me.)

    I wrote a piece for Friends Journal is 2019 called “Greater Racial Diversity Requires Greater Theological Diversity” (https://www.friendsjournal.org/theological-diversity/) that focused on precisely this point. If we are going to jettison traditional Quaker theology in favor of “inclusivity,” we should be very clear about who we are making more welcome (people with radically individualistic or freethinking approaches to theology – who are more likely to be White, more likely to be well-educated, more likely to have progressive values, more likely to be wealthy) and who we are making less welcome (people with traditional or communitarian approaches to theology – who are more likely to be nonwhite, more likely to be modestly educated, more likely to have traditional values, more likely to be working or lower-middle class). In other words, when we get rid of our theology in favor of the “blank canvas” approach to faith, we create communities that are more welcoming for “people like us” and less welcoming for “people like them.”

    Is that how God calls us to be in this world? To give comfort to relatively well-off people of privilege, while drawing lines that exclude those with fewer advantages because they aren’t sufficiently “enlightened”? Is that the Quaker Way? Or is there truly that of God in EVERYONE – including people who pray, who read the Bible, and – yes – who worship, and want spaces to do so together?

    This is not about changing who we are as Friends. But when we make decisions to emphasize one aspect of our identity (“there is that of God in everyone”) over another (“Christ is come to teach his people himself”), we are sending a message about who is welcome and who is not. And we should be clear about the implications of that message and whether that message reflects the will of the Spirit.

    1. Thanks so much for generously expanding on this point Adria, and for the link to your Friends Journal piece (and for reading this post!). I think there’s a lot of whiteness to be uncovered in liberal Quaker theology, as I’m sure you’re painfully aware. I think there’s a link between pluralism and the white colonial gaze – the presumption to be able to see the bigger picture, and I’m pretty sure a big chunk of liberal Quaker identify is rooted in white saviourism.

  2. You have a wonderful way of putting into words what I also believe, Mark. I am so afraid that we will lose the essential elements of Quakerism by trying to be nice and accepting of everyone. For me, Quakerism has a very clear corporate message and it is rooted in Jesus’s teaching about God being the God of Love. That is the God that we are worshipping together in a gathered meeting!

    1. Thanks for reading Anne! I agree. I think we would be in a better position to be genuinely inclusive if we had a stronger sense of our corporate identity. There’s nothing wrong with knowing who we are and being clear about it.

  3. Thank you for posting this, Mark, and you for your penetrating comment, Adria!
    As one who is currently teetering on the borderline between a tolerant, ecumenical North American Quakerism and a strict “Wilburite” Conservative Quakerism, I’m thinking that for Friends of any branch to abandon the name “worship” for what we do together on First-Day mornings would abruptly shut the door in my face, and probably many other Friends’ faces, too. It would trigger 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 for me, and I could no more enter a meeting that didn’t gather for “worship” than I could enter a temple of Baal.

  4. Mark – what you say needs saying; thank you for saying it. Very much looking forward to reading your book.

  5. An open space for solitaire certainly describes my last time worshiping among unprogrammed Friends years ago in Oregon. There are plenty of opportunities to get together and be “spiritual.” Sadly the Quaker distinctives, particularly discernment of spirits, consensus and meeting for clearness risk being lost.

  6. Comment from Hank Fay: “Theology divides. Praxis unites. I remember encountering that thought while reading (and it may have been Ben Dandelion, but it was long ago, early “oughts”). That, at least, is what a small group of us (members of SAYMA — Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association in the U.S.) are putting into action.

    “Our intent is to bring a life “in Spirit” to those who approach life through doing, not through conceptualizing. The words Worship and Spirit are concepts: abstractions of multiple instances that possess a common thread. For conceptualizers, it is a comfortable way of approaching a topic. University life is largely a praxis of engaging concepts.

    “Our working definition of Quaker praxis is still being discerned. It is simple, and perhaps as simple as what follows.

    “Leadings Of The Heart:
    (1)We all have leadings of the heart that move us to help others in need. – We would like to live in a world where helping each other is what we all do.
    (2) We share and celebrate our leadings with each other in community. – We learn from each other and find ways to work together following the path of our leadings.
    (3) We give thanks to the source of our leadings. – We express our thanks to whatever it is that leads us to have our leadings.
    (4) We build a relationship with the source of our leadings. – We ask, and then we listen.
    (5) We ask the source of our leadings to guide us in all parts of our lives.

    “How To Use The 5 Steps:
    (1) Start with the first step all on its own
    (2) Add on the next step when it makes sense to you
    (3) Rinse and repeat”

    1. Thanks so much Hank for engaging with my blog post, and taking the time to share your thoughts. Sorry you’ve not been able to post them on the blog, but I can do that.

      In response, I would say I don’t think theology and praxis can be separated that easily. Our theology is shaped by our practice, and our practice shapes our theology. I see the theological diversity of Friends in Britain actually hindering our praxis together. Because we can’t agree on our theology, this brings into question what we think we’re doing together. We either retreat into actionless silence or have long conversations about the meaning of ‘worship’ or ‘membership’. If Quakers could unite around a set of shared theological materials – .e.g. a shared story – then that could contain theological difference whilst also providing a shared language. I see this in neo-Pagan groups who share a rich collection of myths and rituals, but have the freedom to conceive of Deity in whatever way works for the individual. Quaker pluralism and the conception of silent worship as a blank space work against Quakers having a shared language in this way.

      In my experience ‘Worship’ and ‘Spirit’ are not abstractions. I think the language and concepts we use shape our religious experience and aren’t peripheral. When I talk of worship, I’m talking of something I do, something visceral that I engage in and experience, not an academic abstraction.

      I would also say the ‘Leadings Of The Heart’ you list are not a-theological. They have theological implications. The first step (if I’ve interpret your list correctly) places helping others as the primary purpose of Quaker worship. For me, worship is an experience of Sabbath, a practice of resting in God, and realising that I don’t need to do anything in order to be loved and of value. For me, worship is not primarily about ‘achieving’ anything. So I think praxis can divide as much as theology, because praxis and theology can’t be treated separately.

      Thanks again. Although we have our theological differences, I wish your group all the best in experimenting with this kind of Quaker praxis.

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