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Cat Herding, Oatmeal, Gender, Cults and Family Bonds

There’s a lot of confusion about who Quakers are and who we aren’t. If you’ve heard we don’t have electricity, that we dress in black, or that we are some sort of cult, here’s the real information. Judge for yourself.

We are not Amish or Mennonite. There may be some Quakers who don’t have electricity, but the vast majority of us cook, surf the internet, light our homes and watch TV the same way non-Quakers do. “Are Quakers Amish” is a YouTube video, less than five minutes long, that explains both historical and present differences between the Amish and Friends.

Among the Amish, women have no positions of leadership and hold no authority in the church. From the very beginning, Quakers have viewed men and women as equals. In fact, because women were reluctant to speak up back in the 1600’s, men and women met separately both for worship and for business. Once women found their voices, the dual meetings were reunited.

The man on the Quaker Oats box lived a whole long time ago. Back then a lot of people dressed that way. In Quaker circles folks hung on to that style longer than most, but now, we each choose our own style. That runs the gamut from T-shirts to suits. We do tend to lean toward the casual side of dress. It’s simpler and simplicity is one of our testimonies. A lot of us dress more for comfort than for style. And some of us have a style all our own. We accept everyone in whatever clothing suits their personality, their budget and their comfort. In meeting, there’s room for all of us. You might want to leave any noisy jewelry and your favorite scent at home, however. We won’t make you leave but you will notice immediately how distracting it is as we quiet ourselves in worship.

As for children, that’s the kind of distraction all of us love. Noises and outbursts from babies and small children are signs of life. As they grow, children learn to listen to spirit as the adults do. Quakers are not ageist. Spirit speaks to people of every age and a child who feels spirit-led to speak is listened to with reverence. Each family makes it’s own decisions about their children. We have childcare arrangements and first-day school for those who want it.

And now a word about cults versus cat herding. A cult has a charismatic leader who must be obeyed, a hierarchical structure, decisions made at the top that are imposed on the rank and file, and members are told who they may associate with. And then there’s Quakerism.

We call the person who facilitates our meetings a clerk. This position comes with not one shred of power and precisely zero monetary compensation. The clerk is a servant to the meeting who volunteers for the post because either s/he is respected enough to be asked or because no one else will take the job. In unprogrammed Meetings such as Chattanooga Friends, there is no hired minister. Instead, we are all charged with ministering, not only to each other but to the wider world as well. Our whole system is non-hierarchical. Each person is as important and empowered as every other person in meeting.

Each local Meeting (called a Monthly Meeting because we handle business matters once a month) makes it’s own decisions as a group. We hear everyone’s point of view and then we try to find a solution that works for everyone—which can be really difficult. Having a leader to dictate would be easier sometimes, but it isn’t our way. There is no voting, our process is more like consensus. And it can feel a lot like herding cats. That’s when we turn the process over to Spirit and ask for divine help.

We do have larger groups called Yearly Meetings (guess how often they meet) that handle business matters for the group of Monthly Meetings they serve. But we have absolutely no mechanism for the Yearly Meetings to impose any decision on the smaller groups. The only way any change can be considered by the Yearly Meeting is for it to be presented by one or more Monthly Meetings. Even then, the Yearly Meeting cannot act until every Monthly Meeting has had the opportunity to hear about, consider and decide for themselves. It’s very grassroots. It can also be messy, frustrating and can sometimes take a very long time. But when we do make a decision, no one’s views have been pushed aside and there’s no minority faction that feels like they lost.

We value family highly and work to promote harmony. We do not impose a definition of family or tell anybody who to love. We have no process of shunning, in fact we work on reconciliation between individuals, families, communities and nations. William Penn said “Let us then try what love will do” and we attempt to follow his lead.

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