A familiar name speaking to Conservative Friends

The world is too small. For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading Quakers sites, especially the Conservative ones since they have a mix of disciple and witness that seems a bit familiar, a bit provocative and rather underappreciated.

Since the Conservative Friends only have three Yearly Meetings, it didn’t take long to peruse the Ohio Yearly Meeting site and read its newsletters, available from the front page as PDFs. Issues 26 and 27 had a two-part article. I started skimming it . . . interesting . . . look to the top . . . aaaah! F/friends, we have returned to the world of One Degree of Separation.

The author was a friend, the Rev. Nurya Love Parrish, one of the past ministers of the Epiphany Community Church, Fenton, Michigan. (Epiphany was the first Christian church started within the UUA since 1961.)

Do read her article, but what I noticed she made some of the connections I was beginning to make:

God led me to discover church. I discovered the Unitarian Universalist Association, the UUA—a group of congregations whose theology more or less mirrors the current theology of Friends General Conference. A significant aspect of this theology is its lack of clarity and thus its inability to make significant truth claims. On the positive side, the UUs did not ask me to accept confusing theological concepts, but instead accepted me as I was, with all my questions and doubts and concerns.

. . .

Again the Lord was active in my life and led me to discover continuing Christians among the Unitarian Universalists—people who play a part in the UUA much like the part Conservative Friends play in the larger Friends movement.

I think she’s right. The FGC looks like it is making the same moves with respect to Christianity the UUA has already made: I know how that story ends. Being open to new truth also means being open to what was laid down.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I’m not sure I see the analogy between Christian UU’s and conservative Friends. Conservative Friends are notoriously intolerant towards their liberal bretheran, as is illustrated by the quote that you cited. That was one reason I got rather annoyed with Quakerism–I was tired of the internecine conflicts between the more progressive-minded ones, particularly in the FGC, and the more intolerant religious conservatives in the denomination. Of course, within individual FGC or Beanite denominations you didn’t necessarily see any of that conflict, but at the wider level of Quakerism as a whole, the constant attacks against liberal Quakers was present from certain quarters. It isn’t too hard to find on the internet, to be sure.

    Are UU Christians really that intolerant against their non-Christian fellow UUs? Do they talk about their own faith in terms of absolutist “truth claims”? I was always under the impression that Christian UUs had more in common with progressive Christians in other denominations than with conservative Christians such as you find in certain elements within the Quaker faith. But maybe I am mistaken.

  2. Intra-Conservative voices about more liberal Friends aren’t unified on the Web, so I don’t want to give your characterization a pass. Comments, others?

    Also, the Unitarian Universalist Christians are a pretty mixed bunch — perhaps too mixed to be unified in some ways. Still, given that the Unitarian Universalist Christians have been ignored and starved into a pretty small group, I’d have a hard time identifying any intolerance within it. But it is noteworthy that the Christians are a reliable source for telling would-be Emperors about the condition of their wardrobes.

  3. We would do well to pay attention to the diversity within the Conservative Friends (sometimes called the Wilburite lineage). Across the 3 Conservative Quaker yearly meetings the only common thread is a shared desire to conserve certain Quaker traditions (unpaid ministry, silent waiting on the Lord, the role of elders, etc.) and a Christ-centered theology. However, between the 3 yearly meetings there is considerable diversity. Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting does have a practice of homophobic policies, as evidenced by their disowning their Cleveland, OH meeting when it witnessed a same-sex marriage.

    North Carolina Conservative Yearly Meeting has a fascinating blend of Christ-centered spirituality and liberal theology. In fact this conservative yearly meeting is open and affirming to gay and lesbian persons. It is gay friendly, goes beyond literal readings of scripture, and has a high Christology.

    Iowa Conservative Yearly Meeting is somewhere between NC and OH.

    As far as UU Christians being intolerant, I think there is a misunderstanding. A common criticism I find among UU Christians is about the common UU phenomenon of holding theology so loosely, that time tested Unitarian and Universalist claims about the nature of Christ and the goal of salvation are mostly ignored or viewed as relics to abandon. Unfortunatly, some people interpret criticism as intolerance, and that any UU who disagrees with the “loose orthodoxy” is a bad UU.

  4. Outside of the FGC (and perhaps the Beanite congregations in the West), there is a lot of homophobia within Quakerism. Both FUM and EFI come to mind on that score.

    I am sure there is diversity of thinking within theologically conservative Friends. I know that I personally encountered hostility from conservative Quaker quarters in online discussions many years ago when I still identified myself as a Quaker, but I am sure it isn’t fair to judge an entire group of people from those experiences. I admit that some of my reaction on this subject is visceral and personal.But this wasn’t the only thing that drove me away from Quakerism. Ultimately what I got tired of was the sectarianism of the faith; its sense of itself as a distinct faith is very pronounced, more than any other Christian or Christian-derived faith current that I’ve had experience with. And this carries over to the fact that most congregations I have visited are remarkably unwelcoming to visitors.

    The funny thing about my saying all these criticisms is that I am still very much in touch with Quaker theology, and I have come to the defense of Quakers in other blogs when it has come to their views on baptism or communion. Christians tend to exclude Quakers from consideration when they insist upon baptism as a criterion for membership in the Christian community, for example. So I suppose that Quakers have some justification for feeling like a distinct community, when Christians tend to say things that exclude them.

  5. I wonder if Mystical Seeker’s conservative Friends are actually from the evangelical lineage (Gurneyites) found in Friends United Meeting (FUM) and Evangelical Friends International (EFI)? I have sometime found the reactions he describes in these 2 denominations. However, the meeting I attend is at the liberal end of FUM, and I find it very open to new people. In fact, most of our members are not birthright Quakers but persons from Catholic and Methodist backgrounds.

    I find the comment about extreme sectarianism interesting, because it is a problem I find in many UU congregations that have bought into a conceit that “outside the UUA there is no liberal religion” (akin to the Catholic conceit that “outside the Church there is no salvation”). But then, perhaps we should not be suprised by this. In the 1800’s both Unitarianism and Universalism engaged in forms of sectarian behavior, from the viewpoint that each body alone constituted some kind of re-born primitive Christianity in a world where other churches were viewed as full of false doctrines. The sins of our past have a way of persisting in our community sub-conscious.

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