This question arouses considerable feeling among Friends and at times tempers have flared. In my opinion the matter calls for serious discernment. The view of those who see problems in our being too open to other religious traditions needs to be seriously considered as does the view of those who feel that any criticism of hyphenated Quakers is a betrayal of the our courage to be open to continuing revelation. It will probably come as no surprise to regular readers of these essays to discover that I think both sides are basically correct.
Both sides see themselves as being the true followers of Quaker tradition in this matter but arguments based on what earlier generations of Quakers thought are of little weight here. In the first place Fox, Barclay and Penn were living in a different world. The nonchristians they met, Jews and Native Americans, weren’t asking to be admitted to membership in the Society of Friends. So it is an issue they never had to face. There is no clear precedent to be cited. Secondly, the question is before us now. God is as much present in the world today as he was in the 17th century. It seems to me that we can repose more faith in God that he will lead us truly in this matter than we could in some murky precedent.
There is a real problem that could arise for meetings if they were to be flooded with hyphenated Quakers of many different varieties. The problem is not that the character of the meeting would change; the problem is that the meeting could lose all character and become a Tower of Babel. The reason we form religious societies is because in unity there is strength. In seeking to know God’s will for me and faithfully follow it I profit enormously from the help of other Friends, especially those of long and deep experience. To ask for and receive that help Friends must speak a common language. Christianity and Buddhism are like different languages. For a Christian Friend and a Buddhist Friend to help each other discern the shape and texture of a leading requires a lot of careful listening. And there is no doubt in my mind that such listening, not easy under the best of circumstances, is made more difficult by language barriers. It is easy to imagine a meeting full of Quakers speaking in many different spiritual languages being overwhelmed. The effort to deeply listen and offer mutual correction might prove too difficult and a tepid “I’m OK; You’re OK” relativism prevail in which individuals are indeed free to be whatever they want to be, but where all effort at communal discernment of Truth had vanished.
It is easy to imagine that happening and for all I know it may actually be happening in some meetings, but fear of this outcome should not lead us to close our hearts to those whose languages are strange to us. I recently participated in a clearness committee for a hyphenated Quaker. Those of us on the committee are all Christians. The Quaker we were trying to help is primarily fed by Native American spiritual tradition. The problem of different spiritual languages arose but did not pose an insurmountable barrier. The Friend in question respects Christianity and has made real efforts to learn Christianity as a second language. For our part the Christians on the committee made similar efforts. We had to proceed more slowly, give more thought to our choice of words, and especially to listen more deeply with longer periods of silent waiting. But God’s Spirit was over us that evening and Truth prospered.
For the continuing miracle of corporate discernment of Truth we must be able to speak to each other of spiritual things. It is easiest to do this if there is a strong core of weighty Friends in the meeting who speak a common language. But if there is such a core it has no need to fear the addition of newcomers who speak other languages. It takes additional effort to weave them fully into our community without destroying the sometimes fragile unity we have created, but everyone who is sincerely seeking to follow God’s will should be welcome among us.