This weekend, Friday evening through Sunday morning (or Sixth Day through First Day, in the local parlance), I attended the Gathering of Conservative Friends, hosted by Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative), at Olney Friends School and Stillwater Monthly Meeting’s meetinghouse. This was my first experience of any gathering of Conservative Friends, having previously only met Conservative Friends individually. It was a new experience to be around Friends at this gathering, who had travelled from all over North America (and one family from Finland!) to be together with other Conservative Friends. This largely seems to have been an opportunity for isolated Conservative Quakers to come together and share fellowship with other like-minded individuals.
Many of those in attendance this weekend were not full members of Ohio Yearly Meeting, but instead were what are referred to as “affiliate” members. As I understood it, this particular gathering was representative of only a certain stream of one Conservative yearly meeting, primarily seeming to be made up of affiliate members of OYM and those full members who support this growing way in which OYM is reaching out to the wider world, encouraging those who would like to take part in their unique brand of Christian Quakerism. Many of these Friends wore “plain dress” and employed “plain speech” (thee knows what that means, doesn’t thee?). I felt myself to be in a very different cultural zone from any other Quaker event I had ever attended.
An overarching theme of the weekend gathering was a sense of isolation on the part of many of those attending the event. Many affiliate members came to this gathering as one of their few face-to-face opportunities for corporate worship and fellowship with other like-minded Friends for the whole year. Some of these Friends are geographically isolated from Friends altogether, while others have found themselves to be so out of unity with the local meetings in their area that they have withdrawn, in some cases forming new Christian Friends worship groups. There was a gnawing hunger for connection and community, and also sadness that Conservative Quakerism is such a small community, both geographically and numerically.
It seemed apparent that Friends at this gathering were not representative of Ohio Yearly Meeting as a whole. While attended by many affiliate members, there were relatively few full members present. I am interested in coming to know OYM Friends more deeply, and I hope that some day soon I might be able to visit OYM’s regular annual sessions. I am looking forward to meeting with other kinds of Conservative Friends, in general. It will be enlightening, I am sure, to visit Friends at Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) next month, and I am hopeful that I might be able to visit at least a half-day of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative)’s annual sessions while I am nearby for FUM Triennial.
This trip helped me see how Conservative Quakerism is one branch among the others, and that it has its own glories and failings, just like the other branches do. I think that, previously, I had held Conservative Quakerism with a special, somewhat unrealistic regard, imagining it to be the “purest” form of Quakerism that we had left. I believe, now, that all of our branches of Friends, even the Conservative one, preserve particular elements of the Friends tradition and fail to encompass others. Conservative Friends seem to preserve to a greater degree the tradition developed during the Quietist period. I am no longer convinced, though, that Conservative Quakerism should be considered more “pure” or traditional than evangelical or liberal Quakerism. Now, I see that all Quakers, even Conservative Friends, are just human beings, and that we all have blindspots. This initial brush with Conservative Friends has confirmed my own identity as a Gurneyite-rooted, convergent Friend.