Conflict Within the Society of Friends
Quakerism: a view from the back benches
Copyright 1966 The Back Benches
Conflict Within the Society of Friends
Conflict is not always an negative in a relationship; sometimes the lack of means of conflict may encourage one side to withdraw, while if the conflict continued, the relationship would continue (often to a new degree of understanding).
With characteristic shrewdness, early Friends evolved a form of decision-making which institutionalized conflict and provided the means for continuing the relationship of Friends to each other. The meeting for business in a sense, valued conflict so positively that it maximized the opportunity for continuing it. It provided a way of having peace and conflict too.
It seems to us, however, that the meeting for business is no longer adequately providing the means of conflict which continues relationships. Again and again we see a committee discouraged from bringing a statement to the whole Meeting for fear of troubling the waters, discussion of whole areas of life avoided (such as pacifism, Negroes, and sex) for fear of unseemly emotion and conflict, theological discussions turned off for fear of disagreement.
This phenomenon might be interpreted as a lack of caring for each other - we’ve stopped being interested in each other’s views. A different perspective might explain it as a reflection of middle-class view in which superficial courtesy is deemed more important than old-fashioned forthrightness. However this condition may be tied in with other aspects of our existence, it seems clear that important areas of life are no longer being shared by most Friends. A large area of latent conflict is between generations: young Friends rarely talk with older Friends in group settings about issues with really grip them. And the withdrawal of young Friends from active participation in the Meeting is frequent. In other sections we have pointed to the lack of strenuous searching and acting on the testimonies, also partly arising from fear of conflict with those Friends holding a different point of view.
Whether or not conflicts are brought into the open and discussed, a good deal of hostility is generated among members of a Meeting. What happens to the at hostility? For some it remains free-floating, occasionally attaching itself to a minor issue in the Meeting. Sometimes the hostility turns to caucusing; against "the rules" of good order of Friends, factions develop. For others, the meeting for worship provides a resolution: the lump of bitterness is dissolved in God's love. But, for still others the meeting for worship is experienced as another exercise in control, rather than release.
In practice today we drive hostility underground, but have provided no corporate release. Without corporate release, the hostility is most often seen in individual griping ( which brings guilt in its wake and further atomization of the Meeting).
As this happens, the Meeting becomes more of a group to relate to functionally rather than a source of sustenance and identity. Some able Friends get their sustenance elsewhere and “operate” in the Meeting, which thereby becomes for them more like a social club or political organization than a religious society.
Does this, we wonder, have something to do with the lose of participation of young people? The young, after all, especially need releases as well as controls. What is a form or release from the tension which is suitable to Friends? Many Friends have already found group recreation, especially that which uses the whole body, to be deeply satisfying. It offers self forgetfulness, cooperation, respite from wordiness, and fun. Personal antagonisms can be melted in the corporate warmth of humor.
What concrete suggestions can we offer for the release of hostility and true resolution, not the covering up, of conflict? It is popular among Friends to scorn debates as subversive of truth; in the heat of battle and urge to score points, honest searching is lost. But our hunch is that Friends have moved to the opposite extreme: in the cold “harmony,” honest searching is lost. Therefore, we propose that Meetings in this condition hold a series of formal debates or threshing sessions on subjects of controversy, going beyond dialogue, to learn how to disagree and still to love, how to contest and to grow. Thus we will be facing up to controversy rather than hiding it under the benches, striving instead to use it as a tool to work out solutions and bring us together on a deeper level.
to be continued)