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Quakers and Changes

Published: Oct. 23, 2020


When we contemplate the future of Friends, I think of all the changes we have made through the centuries since George Fox cornered Margaret Fell and queried, “What canst THOU say?”

That was a monumental change from religion as usual. Not “the Holy Book,” not the Priests or even the Prophets of old, but…THOU. And even then, thou might change thy understanding, because of continuing revelation, and thus what thou sayest might change!

For a long time (a few hundred years) Quakers opposed most artistic expression. And Friends dressed in black or gray. Consider Mr. Quaker Oats.

It took American Quakers a long time to become convinced, as a society, to work against the evils of slavery. It is still taking a long time for us to rid ourselves of the evils of racism and bigotry.

But we have changed. And we have worked on change. When I began attending a Quaker Meeting abut 1970, Friends (unprogrammed ones at that) were deeply divided over gay and lesbian issues. We hadn’t even gotten to LGBTQA. Today my IMYM Faith and Practice guides local Meetings to decide for themselves on same-sex marriages. Now even our Faith and Practice is somewhat out-of-date.

Some Friends like change, or at least adapt pretty well. Others do not like change. Take the age of Covid 19. Many of us saw the necessity of learning how to connect via phone calls or Zoom to have a Meeting for Worship and adapted. Others believed in the importance of meeting in person. So the question is not: to change or not to change? It is rather: what changes, when, from what to what, how, and why?

Two changes I would like to see among unprogrammed Friends are: 1)the custom in Business Meetings of calling out “Clerk, Please;” and 2) the use of “first day,” “second month,” and so on. Having participated in many committee and board meetings long distance, I have found the custom of the Clerk calling on each individual (I go from left to right across my Zoom screen), or asking people to raise their hand - and being sure to call on them - works better and is less interruptive than a bevy of “Clerk, Pleases” all at once.

The second matter - using “first day,” etc. -  has sincere roots in our Quaker desire for integrity and avoidance of worshipping  pagan gods. Sunday is named after the pagan Sun god? And Thursday is named for Thor, god of war? Did you know that?  I appreciate our original intent, but today no one remembers or - more to the point - worships these heretical pagan symbols. Using this anachronistic language is definitely an off-putter to folks who were not raised among Friends but may be interested in Quakers today.

If we desire simplicity in our ways, I believe we would go with what is more simple. I mean, if you want me to volunteer for third first day of seventh month, what ARE you saying?

There is one thing that I hope and believe, among Friends, will never change. Recently, in a clearness meeting for membership, we asked, “what drew you to the Quakers?” He answered, simply, “The belief of the Light within.” 

As we wrestle with the notion of changes and our future as a society, let us hold to that which is most dear: the Light within. And as we do, we will come to what changes are right for us.


from Nancy Marshall, Phoenix Friends Meeting (10/21/2020)