Richmond (Virginia) Friends Meeting is part of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, dually affiliated with Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference. Once an orthodox meeting, Richmond’s practice shifted toward liberal Quakerism in the 1960’s following the death of its last recorded minister. Changes in Richmond occurred during the same period in which the separate “Orthodox” and “Hicksite” yearly meetings were consolidated into a single Baltimore Yearly Meeting. In a number of communities, historically separated monthly meetings were reunited. Thus, by the mid-20th century, theological diversity was common in Baltimore’s monthly meetings. A 1964 yearly meeting statement on Spiritual Unity says that “in every local Meeting we struggle, usually patiently, with the problems that arise from our divergent convictions; and we usually find ourselves richer for our differences.”
By the early 21st century, members and attenders in Richmond Friends Meeting held a striking diversity of beliefs. Some were Christian, some Universalist theists, some non-theists. We began to struggle with the diversity, not always patiently. Messages that used “God language” and Christ language in meeting for worship became divisive. Non-theists wondered if they were welcome. Christians wondered why a non-theist would join the “Religious Society” of Friends. People felt offended or misunderstood — often both.
Our community remained largely intact, despite tension over our theological differences. Only a few people — Christian and non-theist — left the meeting because of the differences in belief. But some of the ways in which we managed our diversity left us poorer. The language of messages in meeting for worship narrowed. People spoke of Spirit and the Light, but felt reluctant to speak of God or Christ. We became a faith community in which personal faith was often quite private or shared primarily in small likeminded groups. The meeting spoke openly about shared concerns for peace and social justice, responding to the numerous death penalty executions in Virginia, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and local homelessness. But we avoided open conversations about our personal spiritual lives.
In his ministry, George Fox spoke of Christ, of the Spirit, the Seed and the Light of Christ. Early Friends shared that rich Christian language in talking about their spiritual lives. But contemporary Friends in the liberal tradition have diverse beliefs about God; we don’t all use a similar vocabulary of faith. This diversity of belief and language is challenging for meetings. How can the spiritual life of a theologically diverse, unprogrammed meeting be nurtured and deepened? This article is about the struggle and the growth that my meeting has experienced with such a challenge.
One First Day, after meeting for worship, I was approached by Don, a member and former clerk of the meeting, well respected for his integrity and his contributions to the meeting community. “Rita,” he inquired, “from what I’ve heard you say, it seems you’re a theist. You seem to believe in God. Is that right?” I knew that Don considered himself non-theist, but I had never discussed spirituality with him. I was surprised by his curiosity about my faith. After I confirmed his impressions about my belief in God,
he asked, “Could we have dinner sometime? I would like to talk more about that.”
So Don and I met to talk about faith over dinner. He listened with genuine interest and respect as I described my own relationship with the sacred. “When I try to express what I have experienced of the divine, the language of God and Christ feels true for me,” I explained. “I have sensed God’s presence in a personal way.” It had taken a dinner invitation from a non-theist Friend for me to be less private about my faith.
Don shared the spiritual dimension of his life, his experience of reality beyond the concrete everyday material world. Don explained his non-theist spirituality with descriptions of experiences both in the natural world and during meeting for worship. As the conversation progressed, Don and I noted our shared hope that our meeting community could talk about our spiritual lives more deeply, freely and authentically, with respect for one another’s language and beliefs.
Prior to our dinner discussion, the meeting had asked both Don and me to serve on a newly established Adult Spiritual Education committee. Don had initially wondered what role a non-theist could play in the committee’s work — but he respected the discernment of the nominating committee and the approval of meeting for his service. After our dinner together, Don and I brought to the committee our shared hope for meeting-wide conversations about spirituality. We thought that addressing discomfort and misunderstandings about language was the best place to begin. Together, he and I planned and led an adult religious education session called “Language, Meaning, and Spirituality.”
Don and I opened the program with the story of our dinner conversation and what we had learned about each other’s theist and non-theist perspectives. We shared our understanding that spirituality can never be fully captured in words — but also expressed our hope that the meeting community could enjoy deeper and more authentic conversations about our spiritual lives. We acknowledged the difficulty that Friends sometimes had with one another’s language. Next, participants were given index cards and invited to submit any faith-related words that had been, for them, a source of hurt, misunderstanding, or confusion. Then, Friends split into small discussion groups of three or four people. We asked everyone to consider the word “God”. Each person was invited to share a response, using one of three suggested prompts:
• “When I use the word “God,” what I really mean is . . .”
• “When I hear the word “God,” what I think someone else means is . . .”
• “When I hear the word “God,” how I feel is . . .”
After pausing briefly for reflection, groups engaged in animated conversations, people leaning in to hear one another’s ideas, feelings and stories. The session went by quickly and groups were reluctant to stop talking. What emerged was not interpersonal conflict, but awareness that people had been wounded in the past by assumptions and judgments about language.
This session on Language and Meaning was one of a series of Adult Spiritual Education programs. As the series unfolded, Friends from the meeting shared their own spiritual stories and practices, and they facilitated conversation among the participants. I found myself anxious about leading a session on the Psalms, unsure how people would receive traditional Biblical language. Interspersing my own faith story with psalms, I talked about the struggles and joys of my own relationship with God. I was humbled and grateful for the deep listening with which this was received.
Over time, our meeting has become more open to spiritual conversation, more receptive to the language that each person uses to describe their experience of the sacred. We are learning to listen with more love, to search for what we have in common, and to appreciate the richness of our diversity. I have come to believe that a Christian Friend like myself and a non-theist Friend like Don can both live faithfully in one Quaker meeting. I have realized the importance of our Adult Spiritual Education ministry for the life of our community. Especially for a theologically diverse meeting, it is important to have an environment conducive to spiritual conversation, an environment in which Friends can speak authentically and listen generously with one another. There, Friends can come to “know one another in that which is eternal” (George Fox, 1698).
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, they spoke authentically with one another, and he offered her living water. God knows our thirst for deeper spiritual connections and invites us to open spaces in which we can share deeply about what is sacred.
Rita Willett is a member of Richmond (Virginia) Friends Meeting. She is a graduate of the Spiritual Nurturer Program in the School of the Spirit (2009–2011) and serves on the School of the Spirit Board. Rita is currently a student at Earlham School of Religion, pursuing the MDiv through the Access Program.