(un)Programmed: Towards the Program of the Spirit | YQ Article

About a week ago I had an article come out in Young Quaker, the publication run by Young Friends General Meeting in Britain (See volue 53,number 6). This edition was the last one for Jez Smith, a friend of mine who currently lives in London, and who I worked with on the Britain Yearly Meeting Blog a Month ago. Anyways, it was a pleasure to write an article both for a different audience than what I would normally have and as a send-off to Jez who has taken a job at “The Friend” the only weekly Quaker publication in the world. Since many of you won’t have access to the article I thought I would summarize what I wrote there and open it up for discussion.

In the article, entitled “(un)Programmed: Beyond Modernist Labels, Towards the Program of the Spirit,” I try to do a couple things (and as usual those couple of things are too many in such a short space).

Some Common Traits Among Friends

First, I try and explain a number of commonalities among British and American Friends using some of Ben Pink Dandelion’s research. In his most recent book, “An Introduction to Quakerism,” Dandelion names four things he understands to be true for all Quakers.

All Quakers believe in (to a greater or lesser extent):

  • A Direct unmediated experience with the Spirit of God
  • Using forms of Worship that create space for and acknowledge this experience
  • The practice of business methods that rely on the community discerning together
  • The “testimony against war” (or after 1900, the “peace testimony”)

Of course, there are many nuances that could be added to this, and in many ways I think there are commonalities that we are unaware of, but the point is we do have things in common. It’s best to see us as one big family, we are all in it whether we like it or not (like real families!).

The Hard Work of Friendship

Secondly, I discussed how we have a lot of work to do in building bridges and how sometimes we hide behind the protection of labels which keep us from doing the hard work of reconciliation. Building friendships, especially with people who think differently than can be hard work, but in our everyday lives we are friends with lots of people who don’t believe the same things as us. Sometimes we say we’re really serious about inclusivity, about doing the hard work involved in that, but what it turns out to mean is if you don’t believe in my kind of inclusion you’re not welcome. “Inclusivity can become very exclusive very quickly.” Labels can allow us to hide behind their ideologies without having to do the dirty work of actually living that ideology out. Sometimes we divide Quakers up by words like “liberal,” “conservative,” “evangelical,” “programmed,” or “unprogrammed,” all these labels assume division, difference, and exclusivity at one point or another. Quite often these labels are used in derision – I know I fall guilty to this.

We need to move beyond these “modernist” labels that have been handed down to us, they no longer work. They no longer work because they start the conversation off in the wrong direction, they are dualistic in nature. The assumption goes, “So I’m a conservative, and you’re liberal, there’s no point in trying to work together, we’ve never succeeded before.” But it also means that not everyone is in our family, and that there are boundaries to who we are as a community and tradition. The idea of total inclusivity in not possible, the practice of welcoming others and loving our enemies is.

Rethinking Our Categories and Language

Third, I suggest we need some “linguistic innovations” and discussed a little about convergent Friends and what that’s all about. I pointed out three areas of our tradition we need to rename, or relabel, if we are going to move past these century old roadblocks (I think “convergent” is one example of renaming). These are a couple place-holders until we can rename them:

We should to think of ourselves as (un)programmed. We follow the “program” of “the Spirit,” this means, historically speaking, that forms of worship change according to the work of the Spirit within various times and cultures. The Spirit has a program, and in the program of the Spirit, there is nothing to sacred to be questioned, experimented with, or changed. That includes the way we understand and practice Quaker worship. It also recognizes that we have reduced the entire Quaker tradition down to what we do in one hour on a sunday morning, and seeks to move beyond it.

We need to be a community (in)outsiders. Our communities need to be bound by a covenant with the Spirit of God and with each other, not defined by our superficial delineations. Jesus’ entire program revolved around telling the insiders they were outsiders and the outsiders they were on the inside, he then proceeded to welcomed everyone to become a new-kind of insider (part of this included friendship with God, through friendship with him). This means that we come to terms with not being sure where we stand, we don’t have final control over it. And being okay with some ambiguity in our communities, because we understand that Jesus is the one who does the inviting.

Finally, we need to (re)narrate our stories. This means retelling our Christian-Quaker heritage in a way that makes sense to the world today. It means being in dialogue with, and knowing the language of the people we live beside, grocery shop with, and see at the coffee shops and pubs. It means that Quakers become participants and advisors on what is happening in the world at both micro and macro levels of our society. If Quakerism is a live tradition, it should make sense to the needs and questions of people living in 2007. We will also need to come to terms with those parts that no longer make sense, no longer translate over, and how we go about finding more appropriate ways to speak “truth to power” and lead people to Christ.


I finished the article with a few Queries, which I thought I’d post here as well:


“Where are we making efforts to hear the stories of, welcome in, and advocate for Friends who are from different Quaker backgrounds than us?”

What ways have I most connected with God in the past? What ways seem to hinder my spiritual progress or I don’t connect with?

What questions do I have about Quakerism, Christianity, the Bible or other things that I have not felt safe to ask? What way can I help to create a safe place for exploring difficult questions?

What kinds of things I don’t see in our tradition that would get me really excited about being a Quaker? What things do I see in our tradition that make me really excited to be a Friend?