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Charting Our Way

Tockhwock, Geoffrey Kaiser
On Time (March 2014)

Tockhwock (AKA Geoffrey Kaiser) produced “The Chart” that hangs as a poster in many Quaker meetinghouses, depicting Quaker history as a tree. Beginning in the late 1960s, he revised and updated The Chart continually until 2010. During that time, he and his husband Bruce traveled widely among Friends in North America and gave lectures about Friends’ 350 years of schisms and associations. Tockhwock is a member of Appleseed Meeting in Sebastopol, CA (PYM), grew up in Gwynedd Meeting in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and was a founding member of Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns in 1970. He spoke with Western Friend by phone on January 23, 2014. Following are edited excerpts from a transcript of that interview.

Western Friend: You told me earlier that you finally stopped traveling and lecturing with The Chart so that you could “practice your religion” again. Say a little about what you meant by that?

Tockhwock: When I started lecturing with The Chart, I used it to talk about the Universal Light, in the sense that Barclay used that expression. To paraphrase Barclay, it’s the same Light that has been available from the beginning, and will continue to be after our civilization collapses. I figured I had to articulate that idea in an entirely theologically free way, in a way that could be recognized by persons who are not of a bent that’s theological or even religious. That meant I spent a lot of time reading and studying, so I could lecture about it. But if you’re going to spend all that time reading and studying and lecturing, maybe you’re missing opportunities to “Walk in the Light.” People can hide themselves behind theology as a way of avoiding their calling, as a way of not walking their walk.

Bruce and I began our life together near the start of our time of leading. Marriage Equality was a joke when we first saw the Light. Our calling was to travel together as a couple all over the country for decades, teaching about Quaker history, and accepting all the threats and risks that came with that. Now marriage equality is a legal reality for us. Finally maybe we can be just ordinary people. . .  But all the time we spent traveling and lecturing, it was a lot of fun. We liked doing it.  

WF: And you lectured from a non-theological, accessible angle?

T: Yes, as much as I could. And I used the history of Quaker schisms as a hat rack for teaching about Barclay.

WF: Why Barclay?

T: Well, there wasn’t much organized theologizing in the early days.  George Fox wrote a bunch of stuff that’s so, oh dear . . . convoluted and difficult. It’s hard and boring to read. Then there was Barclay. Barclay wrote The Apology in Latin. It was translated into English, and it was organized. At a first reading, it appears to be Christo-centric. Some people call it a theology. I call it an un-theology theology. Barclay uses the scriptures to undergird this radical idea that the Light – or God, our savior, the universal Christos – is available to all people, whether they were living in caves at the beginning of time or whether they will be living in caves after our civilization passes. The Light will still be there. Barclay was a Christian believer, and he used his Christian, biblically based theology to point out that Christianity is unnecessary for walking with God.

WF: So was it in college that you started working on The Chart?

T: Late in college, back in the 1960s. It began when I was trying to figure out how it happened that there were still Quakers in Ohio who held separate meetings for men and women, and some of them still dressed plain.

If you read The Chart from bottom to top, on the left side you can follow up from the people in the 1600s who tried to make the Bible central and read right up through forty schisms to the people who are making the Bible central today. On the other side of The Chart, you see the Hicksites, who make the Inward Light central. And you also see the great group of women behind the Progressive separations on that side of The Chart, which were about women’s rights, equality, peace, etcetera. Their story is a great read. Barclay, by the way, says the Bible is secondary to the Light.

WF: So what kind of understanding do you have of the Spirit working through the Religious Society of Friends when you look at that big pattern?

T: Well, I see that it’s a human institution, and human institutions evolve. . . . Also, I see this. John Wilbur – a good conservative – and Elias Hicks – another conservative of a different sort – agreed that theology is basically a tool of the devil, designed to take us away from Leading. And for me, that’s about where I am. Let me set my inward eyes upon The Great Dream of the Prophets, and let it teach me how to walk.

WF: So you see that in this chart? You see where theology sends people astray?

T: Yeah. The efforts of some people to put a harder theology in place, to put the Bible first, before God, have failed to bring them unity. . . The biblically centered Friends, well, they’ve had more than forty schisms. Once they decided to put the Bible in front of the Light, they had a problem. If God wrote the Bible, he certainly wasn’t very clear about what he meant. So they argue. And then they throw each other out. The Hicksites, on the other hand, after they were thrown out for putting the Light first, well, they only had that one rumble, which resulted in the progressive separation.

The biggest split was over theology, in 1929, between Orthodox and Hicksite Friends. The rally call of the Hicksites was, “It’s time to restore the God of Love to the facing benches.” The “facing benches” being where the meeting’s leaders sat. And what the Hicksites were actually saying was that it was time to expel the God of hard-heartedness and narrow-mindedness and theology.

And sometimes it actually got violent. The Hicksite majority at Ohio Yearly Meeting formed themselves into a phalanx and marched down the aisle of the Mount Pleasant meetinghouse. They went right up to the facing benches and right through the Orthodox elders who had packed the benches and sat in the aisles. And the clerk of the yearly meeting, well, he sort of fell out the window. And in that same meeting, one Hicksite was waiting up in the balcony, holding a board, and at just the right moment, he broke that board over his knee – Kkkrrrrkkk! –  and shouted, “The galleries are coming down!” Orthodox Friends didn’t know what was happening and ran out the doors, which were promptly locked behind them. Wee-ha!

Maybe it’s a guy thing, but those stories can be exciting and lots of fun. The stories of divisions in the Twentieth Century are more behind-the-scenes, but often just as vicious. Bruce and I found this out with our involvement in the marriage equality “discussions.” That’s another part of why I stopped lecturing about The Chart. I’d had enough of Quaker wars.

WF: So do you think, in the landscape of people who call themselves Quakers today, there’s any sort of coherence?

T: Oh, coherence – interesting thought. Well, the neat thing about Joel Bean, who helped found the independent branch of Friends here in the West, was that he didn’t want to become involved in the theological wars of the Nineteenth Century. And true to the feelings of Joel, his spiritual descendants – Intermountain, Pacific, and North Pacific Yearly Meetings – have largely distanced themselves from taking sides. Though at this point, it sometimes looks like we’ve gotten so distant that it may well be time for us to say, honestly, we really are two different religions. Then maybe we could treat each other with the same respect we give any other religion.

WF: And what would the two religions be?

T: Well, one would be pastoral and evangelical, and one would be traditional and non-pastoral, centered in the silence, centered in leading. And it doesn’t mean that God, the Light, can’t get through to people in either bunch, or anywhere else for that matter. The Light’s been getting through in all sorts of places from the beginning.

WF: So I’m thinking about time and eternity, about being here in finite reality, and about the Inward Light being eternal; and then here you are, playing with history, and I wonder what’s that like?

T: Well, back when I came out . . . I would leave my parents’ house about dawn on Sundays, so that they wouldn’t find a way to have a long breakfast and keep me from going to meeting. I’d sit in the balcony at Gwynedd Meeting while the sun rose, and I’d read the Bible some and wait while everybody arrived. First there were the happy sounds of greetings, then the silence would gather us, and the silence was fabulous. And I remember one time sitting up there, reading one of Paul’s letters, one of Paul’s better moments, where he says essentially, “Brothers and sisters (well, he leaves sisters out, but anyhow), brothers and sisters, God is love. And those who dwell in love, dwell in God, and God dwells in them.” And I closed the book, and I said, “Good. That’s enough for me.”

And I realized – bit by bit, not just then – that my time of leading in life was a special gift. And the gift was that I was gay, and I had to get over it. My work in founding Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns and my work with The Chart went together, hand in hand. You know, there is that old query that I love so much, “What does it mean to live as if the city of God has already come?”

And it seems to me that one of the purposes of the gospel, the good news, is to find a way to live an abundant life. And so, Bruce and I celebrate beauty; we celebrate art, trees, music, and people as much as we can. When we’re down on the beach and there’s trash, we pick it up until we get mad at the people who threw it there; then we stop. It’s sort of a practice that helps us stay careful about leadings. It’s important to recognize when to stop; our predecessors highlighted that. You need to recognize when you have a leading, but the time to sit down is a time to recognize, too. When your leading runs out, go sit on the bench and wait for God to call you again. It keeps life young and happy and full of challenges. ~~~

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