Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Progressive Christians Uniting

Last night I gathered with around 500 progressive Christians to honor Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, to learn about PCU's latest campaigns, and to be inspired by keynote speaker Diana Butler Bass, author of "A People's History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story" (Harpers 2009).

I've been so busy I almost forgot about this event, but a "little bird" (the Holy Spirit?) reminded me to check the website yesterday morning and I immediately emailed PCU to make a reservation. Fortunately, a few seats were left. (See http://www.progressivechristiansuniting.org/file/Progressive_Christians_Uniting.html)

I have been a fan of Mary Ann Swenson ever since she became "our" bishop in 2000. Kathleen and I admired Mary Ann's deep commitment to peace and social justice and her irresistible enthusiasm and love for people and for Christ. She also had a Quaker quirkiness and integrity that I found very appealing. For many years she gave up her car and rode only by bike--a very Quakerly quirk--as a way to testify to her environmental concerns/

In March of 2003 Kathleen and I went with Bishop Mary Ann on a cruise ship to places associated with the Apostle Paul--Athens, Corinth, Thessaloniki, Phillipi, Ephesus, and also a couple of place where Paul never set foot, namely, Istanbul and the Island of Patmos. During the cruise we got to spend time with Mary Ann and her husband and became good friends. The shadow of war loomed over our journey, with the US invasion of Iraq taking place on the final day of our cruise, just as we were visiting the Island of Patmos. Being the only Quaker on board, I was often seen by the Methodists as the prophetic voice of peace.

I was not only peace activist on that boat, however. Mary Ann has been a powerful and compelling voice for peace and justice throughout her life. As it says in the PCU program booklet, she championed radical hospitality, civil rights, ecumenical and interfaith relationships, LGBT inclusivity, labor rights, an end to war and violence, women in ministry, the renewal of Creation, etc. I have been always been proud of the Methodist church for having such an enlightened leader.

I was also deeply impressed by new and ongoing work of PCU: the ongoing campaign to end torture, local community projects in Echo Park and other areas, and the newly launched "Believe Out Loud: A Creative New Campaign for Advancing LGBT Advocacy."

Finally, I was blown away by the keynote speaker--a charming, witty, and brilliant scholar activist named Diana Butler Bass. A Episcopalian (born Methodist), Bass interprets church history and tradition from a progressive perspective and helps us to connect with our past in creative and empowering ways. (See http://www.progressivechristiansuniting.org/file/Blog/Entries/2009/11/12_All_Saints_Day__A_Progressive_Call_to_Remember.html
I am thoroughly enjoying her book, which is worthy of its title (an allusion to Howard Zinn's tome, which I am also reading once again).

During the PCU banquet, I connected with many old friends--George Regas, Louis Chase, Sara Dickens, Mary Larson, Peter Laarman, etc--and made some new ones.

The only thing that troubled me was the lack of Quakers. Why am I the only Quaker to be present in a gathering of progressive Christians? I am certainly not the only "weighty" Quaker--there are other Friends in our area far weightier than I am, who have served as clerks of our Yearly Meeting and in other positions of responsibility. But I was the only Quaker present.

A few months ago I riled up the executive director of a certain national Quaker organization when I accused Friends of being parochial and sectarian. I said that just as Friends had to learn to admit their racism, Friends also need to recognize their parochialism. Unless we play an active role in our local interreligious community, we run the risk of becoming an obsolete and irrelevant sect.

By the way, it was not only progressive Christians, including a large contingent of Mennonites and Seventh Day Adventists, but also progressive Jews and Muslims who showed up on this occasion.

The fact that only one Friend bothered to show up at this important progressive gathering underscores our need to get out of our bubble and to join the progressive choir. The Quaker voice needs to be heard, along with the voices of others seeking to follow the way of Jesus and the great prophetic tradition.


  1. I had two conversations after meeting for worship this week, where the other person in the dialog asked me what I meant when I used the term "evangelical Quaker." Part of my explanation was to give an example of "non-evangelical Quakers" -- and I met a couple of them at the FWCC Triennial in the summer of 2007. These Friends, who come from a meeting in a western European country, were describing their local meeting as "quite small." I asked them what, if anything, they were doing to grow or attract people or otherwise get "the word" out to their community. They looked at me with some astonishment, looked at each other, then back at me, and said, "Why would we want to grow? We're happy just the way we are and the size we are."

    This is NOT a common theme in my experience, but it IS out there among Friends. It seems that in their fear of appearing to be proselytizing they have gone too far the opposite direction.

    THANKS for raising this important issue, Anthony.

  2. In my work as an interfaith liaison for Friends, I don't proselytize but I do share the "good news" of our Quaker faith and practice with people of other faith traditions, and learn from them many things useful to my spiritual practice. I am blessed to be in a meeting that attracts a lot of visitors and seekers, and I am always happy to share with them how my Quaker faith and practice has enriched and transformed my life. Years ago, a weighty Friend named Bob Vogel asked if we liberal Friends thought we had good news to share, and I wrote an article for Friends Journal responding YES to that important question. If I didn't think Quakerism had something very important to offer to the world, I'd go to a different religions. God knows there are plenty to choose from!

  3. Everything important we've got-- seems to be part of every solid religious tradition we know of. People of other religions downplay those essential nutrients, but Quaker theology makes them central-- and then we ourselves downplay them, certainly in practice.

    Shalom is not the point; shalom is a byproduct of a connection to Spirit that would render any unjustice or violence absurd.

    I'd intensely like to see my Meeting grow; the world needs us-- And more important (though utterly overlooked and denied by Quakers)-- We need all those people we aren't seriously looking for!

    If people found the elements of Quakerism they need-- and found them in some other faith-- would we object? I don't think so. The point of George Fox's ambition to bring people off from vain religions-- was that they weren't getting their essential spiritual nutrients there! But have Friends, lately, been eating our spiritual veggies?

    If people came to us, what do we have to feed them with?

  4. Excellent post Anthony. I too wonder why Quakers don't do more to make their faith known to others. I think that Quakerism has a LOT to offer the world. (And like you said, if it didn't I wouldn't be a part of it.) I try to share my Quaker faith with all who ask about it or when the subject of religion comes up in conversation. I just wish more Quakers did.

  5. At the risk of sounding like I'm promoting my own writing, which I am, here is a link to a somewhat relevant article on the future of Friends in Europe.