Language practices in religiously diverse Friends meetings

Friends are diverse in religious belief and experience. We often worship with people whose religious views are not your own. Looking around the world, and back through history, Friends’ practices have been accompanied by a variety of religious belief and experience. Apparently, Friends’ practices are independent of how we talk about them. The Quaker way is open to people of all faiths.

Uniting as Friends in religiously diverse meetings requires special language practices. This starts with how we listen and speak during worship. We speak from the heart, as we are led. Friends who are listening translate the message into their own terms, reaching behind words to the source of the words. When we reply it is in the same manner, from the heart, trusting that others will be listening from their hearts. During worship we build a trusting community, each speaking and listening from the heart. This is radical love in the meeting community.

In ordinary conversation with others in the meeting, we can listen and speak as we do during worship, with the same generosity of spirit, the same confidence in each other. This allows us to speak openly when we disagree, and to recover from misunderstandings and mistakes.

This is similar to what happens when we reach unity during a meeting for worship for attention to business. We do not all hold the same view, but we move forward together. A radically loving meeting community finds unity based on committing to common purposes and practices, even when we talk about them differently.

We make exceptions when conversing with people who are not familiar with this practice of speaking and listening from the heart. This might be with visitors, or with children, or when we are in the wider community speaking about Quakers. In those cases, some of the responsibility for interpreting into the language of the listener shifts from the listener to the speaker. We take care not to mislead listeners by speaking in our own particular religious language, creating the misimpression that this is expected of Friends in general. We can protect our listeners by explaining that our meeting welcomes people of widely differing forms of religious expression. We might give examples of our diversity, and describe how we listen and speak. If there is not time for that, we simply accept the responsibility of making whatever adjustments are necessary to avoid implying that particular religious views are required of our members.

Reading literature in someone else’s language can be difficult. When I balk, I go back and read it again, skipping words that come from a particular tradition, sensing the message behind the words. Another option is to give the particular words my own definitions. In this way the words become part of my reading and listening vocabulary even though they are not part of my personal writing and speaking vocabulary.

Writing a document for possible approval by a religiously diverse meeting or organization is a wonderful challenge. It was my good fortune to work on such materials with Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW), an environmental organization whose members hold many different views. We wrote a Statement on Unity with Diversity in generic language open to all, except for one section where we wrote in our distinctive ways (theist and nontheist, Christian and nonChristian, traditional scientist and ecospiritualist, and so on). We clearly stated that these were the many voices of our community, and that no one voice was required of us all. (This is online at www.quakerearthcare.org/article/statement-unity-diversity)

When working with an existing document, it may not be possible to make the changes we would like. In that case, we can add a footnote explaining our desire to be inclusive. On the Vision & Witness page of the QEW website, you will find this footnote: “Some Friends may choose different language to describe their personal reasons for supporting or sharing in the work of Quaker Earthcare Witness. All are welcome who seek to further QEW’s programs and activities.”

Around the world Friends are creating religiously diverse meeting communities. A variety of faiths accompany our practices. Our unity is based on loving each other, radically.

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