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 However, one will find male pronouns, outdated words such as “Negro” and I hope we might discuss those aspects of the writing which are important to our progress towards love in our meetings rather than dwelling on some of the outdated language.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)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

To Be Frith and Friends

Frith back on the shelf

This week I was cleaning my wee Trawler model, Frith. Oh, decades ago, I wanted to name a daughter Frith, Genie hated the name, and we never had kids anyway, so the name was carved onto the headboards of the Lowestoff Trawler I built in my second year of law school, to be sailed in Central Park... back before things got busy and I stopped hauling my boats up to that place.

I was thinking about the many concepts we seem to be loosing as our culture slips, as has been the pattern of all human cultures, from the complex to the simple. As we loose words we loose depth in linguistic concept. One root of our word Friend, dear fellow Quakers, is Frith.
By the alter in churches in the middle ages, was often found the Frithstool. A place of sanctuary for those in peril. What a dear idea, that we should be a sanctuary to each other.

The word Freedom, often found in the early expressions of our faith, also derives from Frith. Friends were advised to hold fast to our liberty. In order to be present to God, we needed to be free of the restraints of tyranny. We needed to put idols behind us, to not be distracted from God in each other -- for the sake of liberty, freedom.

A Frith was also a wooded enclosure, the opposite of a Fell... a refugee, as well as a narrow arm of the sea, as in the Frith of Forth. There is a sense of embracing in this use of the word.
Well, it is so late it has become early. So, I will leave thee with this small addition to the sense of the word Friend.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

My Brother and My God

Well, I am not a Universalist. I find I cannot abide paganism, not the paganism of the friends who dance naked in the woods, but the paganism of idolitry.
I have been thinking deeply of Martin Buber's comments about not chasing after God, for the risk of worshiping idols we make, rather than living in God in the acceptance of the moment, and I think of the terrible dilemma presented by Christianity. I find my self saying to Christians with a capital "C," give me back my brother, when thee makes a God of him, thee looses the man as well as God," and they say, "Give us back our God he was never your brother." They tell us that we who say this man was our kin are led by some other idol, satan, and we are damned to say our brother, as a teacher is lost under the idol of thy God.
I think about what Rome was, before Yeshua, there was a Pontiff, there was a religion like Christianity in so many ways, the state as God, the man as perfect, and how that so offended Yeshua. The banality that was Rome, the terrible institution that was Rome, that conquered so many civilizations, some so much more civilized than Rome. And how, if this were any other historical study, rational people would see the Romanized God, in the Hebrew teacher. Jesus did not make the Pontiff or the Church of Rome or the Christian churches that rose up in protest against Rome. Rather, Rome made Christianity as a weapon against the teaching of the great and gentle rabbi Yeshua.
I don't reject Yeshua, called Jesus, the teacher, but I reject the perfection he would have found offensive. The idea that we have come to the perfect moment of completion, rather than the completion of being in the moment as we seek perfection has caused so much strife, so much heart ache ... so much of the evil of separation from God.
I can't give you your God at the expense of my brother, he taught much better than that.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What Would Alan Lomax Say...

Well,... I have been witnessing the slow death of folk music, in many places, been on islands where old people played music from the 17th century and older, while old people danced equally ancient steps ... and now those islands young people play lounge lizard music, American pop, while old people do Texas line dancing. So what?
If you ask so what, you weren't there ... in places with long memories.

A pub in New York, called Puck Fair.

One of the finest novelists of today wrote a wonderful book, with great sense of the inside outlook of Romany people. He had a big party thrown at Puck Fair. The Gypsy Kings where playing, and he asked me to go home and get my guitar, to come back and play a song I had written, within the tradition of my singing ... so, at the break he asked me to go on stage and play. I did. A friend of mine, Antonio was playing with two members of the Gypsy Kings. I embraced them and greeted them in Vlax Romaness, and they embraced me in Gitano. I sat down, and a number of people in the pub, who had heard me before clapped. I tuned, arraigned the mics and motioned to the bar tender to turn off the CD ... loud rock and roll.

The owner came up and said that this was not an open session. I explained that Colum, the writer for whom the party was being thrown asked me to sing. He told me that the Gypsy Kings would walk out if he allowed me to sing. I told him that Gypsy people were not like that. He said, they were big stars, signed with a big label and I was a nobody, and it was rude of me not to have asked him first, if I might play.

What has become of our music? In my oh, too many years, I have played for many parties in pubs, I have opened for many big folk stars with big contracts with big labels. In past days, in folk music, it was understood that the Gypsy Kings are only the ones noticed by the pop culture, but that the folk tradition is the nobodies like myself, whose songs are often recorded by bigger bands, as mine have been ... we are the ones who are caught for free in field recordings and archived, as I have been ... we once were the people.

But, as Alan Lomax said of modern mass communication, it is a one-way conversation. Those with the money enough to own the media talk to the those who can afford the small price of the receiver. Such is not about communication, it is about silence, silence of the folk, most of us ... the voices of the people, most of whom are nobodies like myself.

I perform less and less, and see, very soon a day, when it is just too sad to get out on a stage.
And they have the nerve to call the pub, "Puck Fair," well, who could have been to the real Puck Fair and act like that? Damned if I know.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

True Monotheism and Love

The first commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures state that one is to believe in one God and not to worship idols. This is remarkably clear thinking. Once one accepts the unique totality of God, encompassing all the created, it is impossible to hate, to hold to alienation God's work and being in others. However, once one inserts the idol, the image of God, the person of God as separate and separately worshiped, one can alienate anyone else from the totality of love which is God. Even the setting aside of our theological founders and teachers as idols, can distract us from the love of others in God's love.
Friends who often quote Fox, or others as precedent for their beliefs, create in Fox, as in Yeshua, a block to the directness of personal openness to God, and as such, just as the Christian is called to explain or defend the contradictions in the political history that created Jesus the idol, from Yeshua the teacher, the Quaker fundamentalist (and in this some will argue the misapplication of the term "fundamentalist" as having specific rather than general meaning - I refer to the general meaning) must find a way to explain or justify those aspects of Fox's life which are at odds with what Quakerism has become. A brilliant and loving Friend recently wrote an insightful piece to explain Fox's stand on slavery, in light of what seems to many Friends to be a political accommodation to one of the most horrific sins against that singular love of God in each other, that was human bondage.
In this statement I am caught in a dilemma that has resulted in the destruction of pacifists for thousands of years. Order, and power demand idolatry, and therefore those who say that God is greater than the image, the order and power challenge that core concept of institutional faith, that inarguable element of discourse, that God is " ______ ", rather than the pacifist statement of love that "God is".
So, here we are, a few who say that we Quakers are bound to love, to forgive, reach out to each other ... to be present to God in each other, and are often shunned and even hated for this. Oh well ... just a few more late night thoughts.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Failing, falling, and landing on my feet...

Yup... isn't it odd how whenever folks around me fall, they always land on my feet?