Monday, June 28, 2010

No Assumptions

This year’s Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference, the eighth such gathering of women from various branches of Quakerism, carried me several steps further on the path of letting go of the assumptions that distance me from the rich diversity within the Society of Friends. The epistle from the conference (follows this post) expresses well the collective experience of the sixty women who worshipped, discussed, sang, and prayed with a focus on the theme, “Walk With Me: Mentors, Elders, and Friends.” Through my writing, I’m exploring what the conference meant for me.

My introduction to Quakerism nearly thirty years ago was through the unprogrammed tradition. Like so many other convinced Friends, quite soon after attending my first meeting for worship, I had a sense of having found my spiritual home. And, just like many Quakers I’ve met, I was a refugee from a church (Missouri Synod Lutheran for me) that I felt couldn’t tolerate my questions and beliefs about God and faith. For me, the Religious Society of Friends was a place that not only tolerated, but also encouraged my seeking to understand my own spiritual path. A community that didn’t claim to have all the answers and that didn’t require that I adhere to a prescribed set of beliefs “spoke to my condition.” When I discovered there were evangelical Friends with churches and ministers and missionaries, I was surprised. For years I assumed that branch of Quakerism didn’t have anything to do with me or my faith journey.

Slowly, I began to open myself to the possibility that, despite differing forms of worship and beliefs, there was much common ground among these varieties of Friends. Not long after my son participated in the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage in 1998, I started to hear about a group of women from Friends churches and meetings in Portland, OR who were getting together regularly to bridge the differences among them (their history is told eloquently in Pendle Hill Pamphlet #323, “An Experiment in Faith – Quaker Women Transcending Differences,” by Margery Post Abbott). When I learned they had expanded the conversation among women throughout the Pacific Northwest through a Quaker Women’s Theology Conference, I was intrigued, but intimidated. What did I know about theology? I was still brimming with questions about God, Jesus, Spirit, faith, and what I was called to do in life. I assumed that the women who went to this conference had all of the answers and that those from the evangelical branch would try to impose their beliefs on me. But I remained intrigued and grew in openness to the experience as I watched trusted women F/friends venture into this experiment.

Finally, in 2004, I mustered the courage to attend the conference and felt welcomed into a community of faithful, seeking women. I served on the planning committee for the 2006 conference; missed the conference in 2008 due to schedule conflicts; and returned for this year’s gathering June 16-20 ( At each conference I’ve found a safe haven to explore my own beliefs and to learn from others as they explore theirs. I’ve been especially drawn to the conference’s use of narrative theology, that is, personal stories of faith expressed in reflection papers that participants share with each other, as a way to integrate our experiences and our understanding. Much of my own narrative theology revolves around finding the vocabulary to describe my faith experience; it’s through wrestling with words that I become more clear about what I believe. The conference is a place I can see how some of this faith vocabulary—God, Jesus, calling, ministry, mystery, Spirit—feels on my tongue and reverberates in my ears. The conference is a place I let go of my assumptions of what those words mean to others and where I trust people let go of assumptions of what those words mean to me.

This year, in particular, it didn’t matter to me which tradition the women I met are from, and I didn’t feel a need to name my affiliation when I met someone new. What did matter, and what nourished me, were the many opportunities we had to share the variety of ways in which we experience the presence of God in our lives.

Epistle - Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference

To our Quaker family,

Surrounded by the waters and wildlife of Hood Canal and the snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains, sixty women gathered in Seabeck, Washington from June 16-20, 2010 for the eighth Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference. Begun fifteen years ago to promote dialogue and build relationships among different Quaker traditions, this conference continues to be deeply Spirit led and enriches the lives of women who attend.

Though we represent different backgrounds and branches of Quakerism, the lines between these seemed very thin and blurred. No one avoided talking about her home meeting or church, but our membership didn’t have as much weight as our personal experiences shared in love. Even as we attempted to be open and accepting, at times we mis-stepped and unintentionally hurt each other. Many of us felt broken open and left this conference changed.

Through reflection papers we wrote, plenary sessions, home groups, and discussion, we each connected personally with the theme, “Walk With Me: Mentors, Elders, and Friends.” Each plenary brought us back again and again to the awareness of the need for support and mentorship in our lives. We identified places in which we are being accompanied and are accompanying others and places where we feel the absence of that loving presence. Many of us made commitments to seek those relationships in our meetings, churches and beyond.

Despite colds, more serious illnesses and concerns for the health of loved ones, we drew strength, support, and encouragement from one another. Many think of the Women’s Conference as a reunion and newcomers found they were welcomed into the family with open arms.

In keeping with the testimony of community, we opened ourselves to another group, Interplay, also staying at the conference center. We described the kind of work that we each came to do, invited them to join us in worship, and likewise were invited to experience their ministry and we shared grace together before meals.

We celebrated the gifts of many through plenaries, workshops, singing and readings by several published authors. During one plenary session, several young adults shared personal experiences of their ministries in relation to the theme of the conference. We were thrilled to hear stories of women being supported and held sacredly in their ministry. However, we were deeply saddened to learn that some are not empowered or recognized in their ministries. We were thus reminded of the reality of sexism in the Society of Friends. Encircling the young adult women, we joined together in heartfelt prayer and were moved by its healing and supportive power. This experience deepened our worship and fellowship together. We challenged ourselves to be aware of internalized sexism, as well as the sexism in our churches and meetings, and to work toward true equality.

During business meeting on Saturday, we reaffirmed the work of this body of women and our leading to continue meeting together as an intra-faith group. We look forward to the next opportunity to join in fellowship.

~ ~ ~ ~

Blogging experiment update – One woman led a workshop at the conference about blogging, and of course I signed up. I learned a few more “tech-y” things like how to find out how many people visit my blog, and another woman helped me set it up through Google Analytics. I got there by “googling” Google Analytics, and my friend prompted me about how to set it up for my blog; I don’t know how well I would have done on my own, but I think it’s fairly self-explanatory. Now I can monitor how many people visit my blog whether they comment or not. I’m not sure what that will tell me, but I’m curious.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Iris--

    Thanks for linking from my blog back to yours, otherwise I may not have found it! I know I have your original email but it's so much easier to click on the link.

    I've heard only positive reports from a few women who attended this conference, and I wish I could have been among you all. Still, God wanted me elsewhere and so I will wait to see if Way is open to attend a future gathering of this particular group.

    ...Isn't it a wonderful thing to be able to let go of the "need" to say which branch of Friends we are a part of, and simply just be together, worship together, laugh together? I'm glad you and 59 other women had that opportunity.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up