Monday, July 24, 2000

Dear Friends --

I have come to a point in my life where I feel led to resign from the Religious Society of Friends. This is not a about mid-life crisis or some change in beliefs about eternal matters.

Briefly, my reasons are three:

Reason 1: "Membership" is a somewhat bogus concept in practice

The member versus attender distinction doesn’t have the relevance it once did, when Quakers were a persecuted minority, in and out of jail for their faith and practice, pledged to support one another in the face of dire adversities.

Many attenders may well be active, core participants in our Quaker communities, whereas members have sometimes drifted away (psychologically speaking – I’m not talking about isolated Friends) and have little to do with their Meeting. At least this is how it works in our neck of the woods.

Much energy is expended to recruit these more active attenders to membership, and to encourage inactive members to somehow address their lack of involvement (perhaps by resigning membership) -- but I’m not persuaded this is a wise expenditure of energy or time.

There’s a farcical flavor to the whole exercise, calling to mind the fable of the Sneetches by Dr. Seuss, wherein some Sneetches have stars on their bellies and others do not. I’m getting the feeling that this star on my belly is a nuisance and sets up artificial differences that need not -- and in reality do not -- exist (the Pinney family, in
the heart of our Meeting, made a similar decision long ago).


I think what my logic is telling me is that I’d like to be a kind of Quaker that doesn’t attach any meaning to the concept of membership. The Religious Society of Friends is more like children in a playground with certain rules (practices). If you’re in our playground, playing by the rules, then you’re a Friend for all intents and purposes.

But since we don’t have a brand of Quakerism which leaves "membership" undefined, the option left to me is to resign as a member and become an attender instead. What I’m really saying is "I’m still a Liberal Friend by my own criteria, but my brand of Quakerism doesn’t include any concept of membership versus non-membership – and since no established Quakerism matches my own, I guess I’m not really a Quaker any more (except by my own criteria)."

One might construe this as a somewhat brash, even arrogant attempt to define a new branch of Quakerism (one which doesn’t admit membership). But I’m making it simpler than that, by simply resigning and becoming an "attender" according to the currently favored jargon. I will continue attending my regular Meeting and taking active and responsible roles, insofar as I’m nominated to do so (and/or feel inwardly called to rise to the occasion).

Another point: for me, the capital F in Friend resonates with "Friend of Christ," from that Biblical passage (John 15:15) in which he says to his disciples that they know him well by now, aren’t servants or underlings, but true friends. If a guy ever needed companionship in this harsh world, it was Jesus. I am drawn to this sense of a master reaching out to colleagues, peers. We do him a disservice if we simply put him on a pedestal (or cross) and bow down before him, leaving him to suffer in more loneliness than ever. But I don’t think Friendship in this sense can be bureaucratized or regulated by Clearness Committees. It comes across as presumptuous that we would be sitting around trying to decide who among us might be true Friends of Christ. That’s for Christ to work out. It’s maybe none of our business.

Reason 2: I’ve been doing my own thinking

I’ve committed a lot of writings to the public domain, or circulated various pieces more privately, and sometimes people might think I speak for Quakers. Even when I’m clear that I’m not some kind of official spokesman, don’t drive a horse and buggy, and do use electricity (even have a DSL connection to the internet), I’m still concerned that my brand of Liberal Quakerism is somewhat alien (remote) from the Quaker tradition.

It’s probably for others to decide, retrospectively, whether my writings define "Quakerism" in any way, comprise a contribution to Quaker thought. In the meantime, I don’t want to bias that discussion by taking over-advantage of my birthright status.

If it turns out Quakers and I have taken different forks in the road at various key junctures, then it will be easier to sort it out later by saying: Kirby started as a Quaker, but his scholarship took him in directions that ultimately should not be confused with Quakerism. His resignation from the Religious Society of Friends in the year 2000 adds weight to our view that he was not really a Quaker, but some other kind of animal entirely (grrrrr).

Reason 3: Annual Session

I’ve been embarrassed by Quakers lately, plus felt increasingly alienated from the process whereby Quakers hatch, season, and present their minutes to the larger world.

We seem to take up a lot of time and energy to come up with little "me too" statements of a politically liberal nature. These statements are entirely predictable, are found elsewhere in the literature, outside of the Quaker tradition, and therefore, in my opinion, offer nothing new or uniquely Quaker to the ongoing struggles. Our contributions lack vitality and originality, seem to be "more of the same."

Were we new to the planet, like a newborn baby, I’d find these little activist burps endearing, but Friends have been operating on Planet Earth since the 1600s, and if this is the best we can do in the realm of social change and making a difference, then I’m simply aghast at our collective incompetence.

I’m tired of "speaking truth to power" in the sense I hear it so often: we are true, they are powerful, we are good, they do all the evil. As I emailed to a Friend recently:

Quakers love to talk about "speaking truth to power" whereas few Quakers today have any real experience with power, are more resolutely mired in seeing nebulous "others" as powerful/responsible (and evil), themselves as relatively powerless, but truthful (and good).

Myself, I'm eager to see powerful Quakers (others besides me that is <grin>).

Way back in 1995 I wrote:

The first step is to see the Sea of Ignorance in which we toss, and then for each one of us to place a hand firmly on the tiller, to "take control" even when we do not see the results of our efforts. Causation is no simple matter in the real world. Of course every sailor knows that "control" is a relative term on the high seas, and humility before Nature is another meaning of sanity. Humans live and die by the same rules as stars and moons. Steering is not an experience of "forcing" but of keeping an open heart and mind in the faith that a way ahead will open.

The future is not up
to "powers that be"
if that means anyone
but you and me.

So I guess at this point in time I want to distance myself from the branch of Quakerism into which I was myself hatched in 1958. I deeply respect my parents’ example (how they’ve lived), but that’s been mostly in an overseas context, amidst different challenges and living conditions. I’m just not comfortable claiming to be a member of North Pacific Yearly Meeting – my values and perspectives seem to be too different from too many of theirs (it has taken me some years to reach clarity on this point).

In conclusion, I want to say that I deeply admire and respect many Friends with whom I have interactions, both close to home and distant. I’m not writing this letter in a spirit of disavowal, trying to explain why Quakerism is not for me. This is not about "making Friends wrong" (even if I have a problem with some of what some Friends do and say).

Rather, I have my own brand of Quakerism, which I’ve defined for myself, and I’m not wanting to insist that it be called that by others. In following this leading, it feels more internally consistent to simply separate from NPYM Friends (at the level of being an official member), and then to continue contributing and enjoying the companionship of Friends as an attender (so-called). Nothing much will have changed. I’m just shifting my weight from one side of the boat to the other side. No big deal.

In the Light,

Kirby Urner