For about a year and a half I’ve participated in the Morning Communion online discussion/worship sharing group led by Mary Linda McKinney and Mark Wutka. It has been incredibly important in my spiritual development, but Mary Linda and Mark have announced that they are laying down Morning Communion to free up time and energy for other pursuits. While it’s not accurate to say that I was devastated by their decision, I was saddened.
The only group that I can think of that’s comparable to Morning Communion is our own Worship Sharing group at Old Chatham, which has reliably continued through the years, probably because it doesn’t depend on the leadership of one or two people. That’s not to say that I begrudge Mary Linda and Mark’s new direction. I feel confident that God is calling them to other tasks.
But the end of Morning Communion brings up the topic of “end” in other contexts. Are we, for example, seeing the end of liberal Quakerism in our very own time? More and more monthly meetings are being laid down as membership declines to five, three, and no people. Our large Old Chatham Meeting seems to be immune to this trend, but many of us at Old Chatham—myself included—are of the “baby boomer” generation. We’re old; and when we die, will there be enough young Friends to replace us? Reluctantly, I predict a precipitous drop in OCMM membership as we boomers pass away.
Of course, the decline of Old Chatham is not inevitable. Some meetings are growing and flourishing despite the general trend. Their common denominator seems to be “outreach” or what would traditionally be called evangelization. I particularly like our Meeting address cards that Bob Elmendorf and others pass out to prospective attenders.
I have considerable hope that Old Chatham’s embrace of technology and hybrid meetings is an effective outreach technique, but other possibilities include an even stronger youth program as well as changing the format of our silent meeting. I can imagine the silence being preceded by a hymn or two. I can imagine children gathering in the meeting to hear a short, inspirational story before leaving for their school room. I can imagine our meeting taking out billboard or newspaper ads with content like, “We’re not Amish. We’re the Quakers! Come visit us and see how we’re honoring tradition while embracing the modern world!”
Here, from the February 1, 2018, Friends Journal is Donald W. McCormick’s vision of what a flourishing Quakerism might look like:
You can walk into any monthly meeting and see strong First-day school and youth programs. There are people of all ages sitting down for worship. Some newcomers are there because members and attenders invited them. Others are there because of the meeting’s outreach programs. People explain to newcomers what to do in meeting for worship before it starts, and they have a meaningful first experience of worship. The meetinghouse has the look of a spiritual home that is vibrant and growing. People new to meeting are greeted warmly during fellowship. A lot of newcomers are staying because they’re finding a spiritual friendship and intimacy in the small groups. People in meetings are focusing their lives on the Spirit more and more—discerning leadings and acting on them. This has led to inspiring, influential peace and justice programs.
The opposing vision is simply that Quakerism (at least in its liberal form) continues to die, attracting only older folk, mainly upper-class, intellectual whites. My own friend, Mary Linda McKinney, has written a provocative Friends Journal article about how working-class people are “turned off” by what they find in our meetings, which—perhaps—are not as welcoming as we imagine. And, on this opposing view, our Quaker demise is not the greatest tragedy in the world as it fails to meet basic human needs.
Not only liberal Quakerism, but also liberal Christianity seems to be precipitously declining. For example, Dr. David Goodhew in this article surmises that by 2050 (thirty years from now!) Episcopalians will be only a minuscule minority incapable of impacting the larger society. Perhaps Quakers (at least of the unprogrammed variety) will have declined to isolated individuals or a few scattered groups that are mere historical remnants of George Fox’s once vibrant faith.
Ironically, more fundamentalist Christian groups may have a longer survival time as they posit a world that contrasts sharply with modern rationalist secularism. People are looking for something different from our spirit-less modern materialism! It is apparent that religion or at least spirituality is an outgrowth of something innate in human nature. Perhaps the so-called “emergent church”—fundamentalist but also adaptable to modernity—will meet this basic human need and exist longer than other sects. Notably, I haven’t considered Eastern religions or New Age Faiths. Maybe humankind’s religious impulse will take future forms that we can hardly now imagine.
Of course, the end of Quakerism or Christianity or even of institutional religion does not mean the end of God—or, if you prefer, the end of Spirit. For reflection, I leave the reader with two quotes from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end.” Also, “We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”
~ Richard Russell
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