Monday, November 25, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 47 - X for eXtinct

Some people think that Quakers have died out already - usually those who confuse us with Shakers - while others worry that if numbers continue to decline we will soon be extinct.

This is far from a new worry. In the 1750s, towards the end of his life, Samuel Bownas wrote to his friend and fellow-minister James Wilson, 'The Church seems very barren of young ministers to what it was in our youth, nor is there but very little convincement to what was then.' This cry has been repeated in different forms down the centuries.

In the 19th century John Stephenson Rowntree's 1859 prize-winning essay examined the reasons for decline at that time, including restrictive practices such as expelling people who married non-Quakers, and his conclusions did bring about some change. There was a feeling too that Quakers in the 19th century were prepared to rest on the laurels of their reputation rather than looking for new converts. An article of 1880 in an American journal describes a Society of Friends in Britain in such a position, although the amount of influence it had in central government might seem enviable to present-day eyes!

During the 20th century the face of the Society of Friends in Britain changed irrevocably. No longer were there generations of Quaker families and a few members coming in by convincement. Now the position is reversed with most members joining as adults and few children continuing as Quakers when they grow up.

In 2009 The Friends Quarterly instigated another essay competition to look at the possible future of Quakerism. The judges' report set out their objectives and findings and the text of the entries can still be read online. There are also all kinds of outreach activities - not only during the annual Quaker week - that aim to spread knowledge of the Religious Society of Friends more widely and to increase numbers.

Has this made any difference to our fears about extinction? Probably not if numbers are the only things we look at. Counting members is clearcut, but counting attenders is a much more difficult exercise. The meaning of the word shifts so that some counted as attenders one year may not be noted as such at another time.

Perhaps extinction is not a subject that we ought to think about at all. Perhaps it is better to concentrate instead on faith, on living our lives as Friends and on showing a positive face to the world - but not too positive as that would be less than truthful!


Bill Rushby said...

I believe that there will be no future for Friends without a vibrant faith in Christ and healthy meetings. Without these assets, outreach won't get us anywhere!

patricew said...

Bill, I agree with you there. As a newly convinced Quaker I am dismayed at the fact that what I believed was a Christian denomination has mostly become something else! I was quite shocked to discover that one can be an atheist Quaker.

broschultz said...

It's not a case of showing a good face to the world. it's a case of doing good to the world. It's a two prong situation. First the salt can't lose it's essence and second it has to be sprinkled on what it's supposed to save and that's the world. The world has plenty of needs other than peace. there's hunger, homelessness, inequality (economic as well as racial), slavery9including unjust incarceration), the need for substance abuse rehabilitation, etc. We have to walk the talk!