Plain in the city

A plain Quaker folk singer with a Juris Doctorate in his back pocket, salt in his blood, and a set of currach oars in the closet, Ulleann Pipes under his arm, guitar on his back, Anglo Irish baggage, wandering through New York City ... in constant amaze. Statement of Faithfulness. As a member of the Quaker Bloggers Ad Hoc Committee I affirm that I will be faithful to the Book of Discipline of my Meeting 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Quakerism: a view from the back benches

An Introduction to a conversation about Quakerism: a view from the back benches
Though I was a child when this pamphlet came to our Meeting I remember the huge impact. Over the years, I have taken it down from the shelf and reread it, amazed at how the observations and issues remain mostly timely. I am posting this to my blog in short installments, in hopes that we might continue the conversation begun in 1966. For the most part the writing is as alive today as when these words were new. However, one will find male pronouns, outdated words such as “Negro” and I hope we might discuss those aspects of the writing which are important to our progress towards love in our meetings rather than dwelling on some of the outdated language. For younger Friends, remember the world in which this was written. America still had legal codes which enforced apartheid, selling one’s home to a Black person was not only illegal in some states, but could and did result in White Americans being charged with sedition.
I have been and am seeking surviving members of the original group. So far, I have been hearing back with sorrow, of the passing of these Friends. I hope if there are Friends in contact with members the original group they might put them in contact with me, for their permission to post their work here. I think, in the intention of the original work, that the authors might have been pleased by the blog format, the idea that we can enter their conversation over a distance, and more importantly, that we might take these thoughts to Friends in our own Meeting communities, and worship together and discuss the issues raised in the pages of this important reflection on Quakerism.
So, I hope Friends will fill the comments pages with new and vital commentary, in loving thanks to those Friends who began this conversation back in 1966. So, let us hold dearly in the light, those Friends, Cynthia Arvio, Raymond Paavo Arvio, Fred Bunker Davis, Dorothy Flanagan, Ross Flanagan, George Lakey, Vonna Taylor and William Taylor.
In frith and fFriendship
Lorcan Otway

Quakerism: a view from the back benches
Copyright 1966 The Back Benches


More than a year ago the writers of this pamphlet came together to explore our feelings about the Society of Friends. Though we came from different Meetings - and of a widely differing character - for each of us the Society had been a religious home. Not one of us felt he could find as real a home in another fellowship, yet each of us in his own way had been deeply troubled by the condition of the Society today: its divisions, its confusions, its lack of witness and lack of light for the future. That others share this feeling is shown by the articles on religious renewal which appear often in Friends’ publications and by the emergence of groups seeking spiritual clarity and new purpose for the Society - all symptoms of striving and desire for change.
We started our discussions in a pervasive attitude of frustration and near-despair, a sort of “last- chance” atmosphere. Each of us shared a dilemma: involvement and yet dissatisfaction with our Meeting. We asked the questions: What are we called to do with our time, energies, and talents- limited as they are? Can new life grow within our Meetings? Can they become instruments of new life in the world?
As almost anyone could have told us, we have not found the answers to the questions we posed. These essays are the fruit of our sessions of searching, our doubts and affirmations. We hope that our writings show that we care for the Society of Friends and that they reflect the means which Quakerism has had for us. They are meant as a spur for debate; they are unfinished papers for each person to complete in his own way.
Though our discussions encompassed the Society in all its aspects, which really cannot be neatly separated and categorized for formal reasons we have written separate critiques of the Meeting as a community; Friends’ testimonies; worship; Friends’ form of organization, the meeting for business, and our attitudes toward conflict and controversy within the Meeting.
We have met five times as a group, each time becoming more aware of each other as individuals and of our differences. Through laboring together on this job, we have caught a glimpse of the answer to a question we didn’t come together to ask: how does a real feeling of unity arise? It is by working together on something of real importance to us, drawing upon intellect, emotion, patience, humor and worship. We have experienced part of the fruits of our labor in the very act of meeting together: a feeling of what is meant by the “blessed community” which is invisible and geographically dispersed, but nevertheless real.
For all Friends who find there life in the Society of Friends less than complete and fulfilling, we recommend this kind of group searching. While it may not yield the “new life” we seek, it may at least prepare the earth and plant some seeds so that new life may grow.

Cynthia Arvio, Raymond Paavo Arvio, Fred Bunker Davis, Dorothy Flanagan, Ross Flanagan, George Lakey, Vonna Taylor and William Taylor

June 1966
With special thanks for the help of Berit Lakey, and with appreciation to Jan Rachel, Sarah, Leslie, and Heikki Arvio, Christopher and Beth Flanagan, Christiana Lakey and Mark, Scott, Lynn and Melissa Taylor.

Chapter I
What are we mything?
We believe that many of the ills of Quakerism today are reflected in the breakdown of sharing and caring among the members. Or is it better to say that the lack of community, which we deeply feel, has caused the ills of the Society?
Obviously, we are faced with a chicken-egg situation in which cause and effect may seem hopelessly blurred. Laying aside Quaker prudence for the nonce, we here cast our lot with the chicken, and say that we believe that the drying-up of community in the Society of Friends is cause by the lack of common purpose among members and a fantastically wide variety of attitudes on what it means to be a Quaker. Hence, if I believe that my Quakerism means that, as a respected member of the middle class, I prefer to reflect my Christianity on Sunday morning in silence rather than genuflection, I can hardly be expected to communicate will with you, if you insist that your Quakerism has required you to break a law for conscience’s sake and spend the night in jail. We may be expected to sit in silence together for an hour, but can we be expected truly to share that brief experience, let alone our very lives the rest of the week? Can I be expected to wear my Quaker habit comfortably when your witness has branded all Quakers in our town as civil-disobedient? And do I detect an accusation of weakness in your Sunday morning hand-shake? How can we live together in the Society, loving, sharing, communicating, when the Light of Truth reveals to us such different requirements for our lives?
The Quaker belief that God can reveal his will directly to each of us if we can but learn to listen is the undergirding of our religious faith. Paradoxically, the belief poses for us a dilemma of staggering proportions. How can we dwell together in love and community when we are free to follow divergent paths?
We believe that there are some practical devices which- if we care enough- we can diligently employ to open the way for a recreation of a beloved community in our Society, in our various Monthly Meetings.

(To be continued)


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