Monday, April 17, 2006

Fullness of Joy - A Talk By John Edminster

My Friend John Edminster, a fellow-member of 15th Street Meeting, was invited to present a sermon on the day called Easter to Manhattan Meeting, a pastoral meeting that meets in the same building as 15th Street Meeting. He sent me the text of his talk, which seemed to me so wonderful that I asked his permission to post it here. He agreed.

Fullness of Joy

Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy: at thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore. Psalm 16:11

Thank you, Friends, for having me come and speak to you. May the Lord make our time together fruitful. Please join me in the Lord’s Prayer: …

I can’t speak to you on this day, of all days, without speaking about what Jesus’ suffering on the cross, and His resurrection from the dead, mean to us. Not just to us Christians, but to all humankind: for this, the very crown of Jesus’ earthly life, is the good news, the tidings of great joy which shall be to _all people._ Yes, even to the people at the ends of the earth that never heard of Jesus; to the babies that can’t understand anything about Jesus yet; and to the people exposed to a false, toxic and cruel counterfeit-Christianity that left them distrustful of anything to do with Jesus. Whatever good this Easter mystery has done, it has done for the good of everyone, and all creation benefits. “It is finished,” Jesus said before dying. – What was finished? What got accomplished? Let’s look at our own personal experience:

Do you find a moral law written in your heart, which makes you feel bad when you’ve told a lie or done a bad thing, and which supports you when you know you’re doing good? You are hearing the voice of Christ, the fulfillment of a promise made in Jeremiah 31:33. Do you ever feel that your steps are being guided, that you’re being led to where you need to go and put in touch with the people you need to meet, so that good things can get done? You’re feeling the guidance of Christ, a fulfilled promise of Isaiah 30:21. Have you ever been in trouble, and so afraid that you can’t think straight, and amazingly, you find words coming out of your mouth that you can tell are the right words, truthful words, the perfect words? That is the mouth and wisdom of Christ coming through you, promised us by Jesus before his crucifixion, Luke 21:15. Now people who are not Christian may often have these experiences, but not identify them with Jesus Christ. And that’s doubtless OK with Christ. But something more becomes possible when we recognize this as the work of One who is, in fact, our Savior. Something much more. Then these things are not merely helps to the ethical life from a well-wisher, but elements of a gospel plan for our salvation from death, from futility, from hopeless separateness from God – in a word, from sin. Once we recognize this as a gift of One who died to get it for us, we have an intimation of its enormous value. Once we discover that this One who died is risen and ever living, and invites us to participate in His eternal life, much more becomes possible for us – nothing short of a new life as a new person, who in turn is an organic part of a new people, among whom the living Christ walks as Prophet, Priest and King. I am speaking of this from my own experience. The twenty-six year-old George Fox could speak of this new life from his own experience: when he was being grilled on his beliefs before imprisonment in Derby, he told his captors that he knew Christ had sanctified him because he, Fox, “was in the paradise of God.” (Think of it: surrounded by hostile bullies, and yet able to experience paradise? If God made this possible to George Fox, is it too much to believe that God did the same for Tom Fox?)

So experience of Christ and His salvation is possible in this life – direct experience, not just acceptance by faith, or notional belief in words about it. Still, the passion and resurrection of Jesus are baffling to the mind on many levels. Did He really die, as the Christians teach, or just appear to die, as Islam teaches? If He died, how were the processes of death reversed, and the stone rolled away from the tomb? Why did His heavenly Father have Him suffer so? And why did He, surely capable of knowing better, pick Judas to be His disciple anyway? I expect that when we all return to God at the end of time, God will give us a full understanding of everything, including all this. Until then it may not be possible to understand it with the intellect: it does, however, seem to invite understanding by the heart, and if our own heart staggers under its weight, we’d do well to seek help from those of greater heart than ourselves.

Six hundred years ago, there lived a woman named Julian of Norwich, a lover of God with an enormous heart. As a young woman, she had prayed to understand Jesus’ passion, to suffer to the point of death for the sake of becoming more worthy of God, and to receive the wounds of true contrition, true compassion, and true longing for God. She was granted these wishes on May 8, 1373, at the point of death at age 30, her eyesight and breath failing and her body going numb as she stared at the face of Christ on her parish priest’s crucifix. Suddenly, she tells us, all her pain was taken away, “and I was as fit and well as I had ever been.” She prayed then to experience Christ’s pain on the cross. At once she saw blood flowing from under the wooden figure’s crown of thorns, and “at the same moment the Trinity filled me full of heartfelt joy, and I knew that all eternity was like this for those who attain heaven.” So began the first of her sixteen _Revelations of Divine Love_ that she dictated, later in her long life, to an anonymous scribe. In all her revelations she was shown the oneness of God, and she explains that where she speaks of Christ, or God, or the Holy Spirit, she means the Unity that encompasses them all. I will read passages from Clifton Wolters’s translation of the _Revelations_ into modern English:

[Chapter 22:] Then our good Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘Are you well satisfied with my suffering for you?’ ‘Yes, thank you, good Lord,’ I replied. “Yes, good Lord, bless you.’ And the kind Lord Jesus said, ‘If you are satisfied, I am satisfied too. It gives me great happiness and joy and, indeed, eternal delight ever to have suffered for you. If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so.’

…In his word ‘If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so’ I saw that he would have died again and again, for his love would have given him no rest until he had done so…. And here…I saw that the love which made him suffer is as much greater than his pain as heaven is greater than earth…. This deed and this work for our salvation was ordered as well as God himself was able to order it. And I saw Christ’s complete happiness; his happiness would not have been complete if it were at all possible to have done it better.

[Chapter 23:] …It is the will of God that we too should delight with him in our salvation, and thereby be greatly comforted and strengthened. And his will is that our soul should cheerfully occupy itself with this fact, helped on by his grace. For we are his happiness: in us he ever delights….

…I mean, that as far as we can manage it, our delight in our salvation should be like Christ’s…. As if he were saying, ‘It is sufficient joy and delight for me to know that I can truly satisfy you. I ask you nothing else as the results of my suffering.’

…he rejoices that the deed is past and done, and he shall suffer no more; he rejoices too that he has raised us to heaven, and made us to be his crown and eternal delight; again, he rejoices that by his passion he has bought us out from the eternal pain of hell.

Really! Until I read Julian I’d never gotten it that God is actually thrilled by our salvation, so delighted that Christ puts us up on His head to wear like a party hat! It’s just like the parable of the prodigal son, isn’t it?

[Chapter 26:] After this our Lord showed himself, in glory even greater than I had seen before – so it seemed to me. By this I was taught that our soul can never rest until it comes to him, and knows him to be fullness of joy, friendly and considerate, blessed and life indeed. And he said again and again ‘It is I; it is I; it is I who am most exalted; it is I whom you love; it is I whom you delight in; it is I whom you serve; it is I whom you long for, whom you desire; it is I whom you mean; it is I who am all. It is I whom Holy Church preaches and teaches; it is I who showed myself to you here.’

All the women I’ve had my heart broken by – it was God I was longing for! All that wealth and comfort I so set my heart on! All those cigarettes and cups of coffee I so used to crave! Not realizing that it’s God that I delight in, and in Whom, alone, I’ll find fullness of joy! What insanity, to forget that!

[Chapter 27:] …[Sin] can only be known by the pain it causes. This pain is something, as I see it, which lasts but a while. It purges us and makes us know ourselves, so that we ask for mercy…. Because of his tender love for all those who are to be saved our good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say, ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but it is all going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right.’ These words were said most tenderly, with never a hint of blame either to me or to any of those to be saved. It would be most improper of me therefore to blame or criticize God for my sin, since he does not blame me for it.

In these words I saw one of God’s marvelously deep secrets – a secret which he will plainly reveal to us in heaven. And when we know it we will see the reason why he allowed sin to come, and seeing, we shall rejoice in him for ever.

Oh, Friends, this is God’s message to you today, and Christ’s, and Julian’s, and mine: it is all going to be all right. In spite of all this madness and cruelty that are taking lives and wasting the earth, it is all going to be all right. If God could create everything out of nothing, then God can also turn all evil into good, and this Christ promised to Julian and promises to us. Twice in the Book of Revelations (7:17, 21:4) we are told that God will wipe away all tears from our eyes, and those tears include all tears from the atrocities and injustices being done in the world today, all tears of rage and despair and self-loathing, and even all tears of doubt that all this suffering might have been unnecessary. The God that does not blame us for sin, but only wants to free us from it, today raises Jesus from the dead to tell us: everything is going to be all right! It is time for us to tell the whole world that everything is going to be all right.

John Jeremiah Edminster
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What This Christian Is Looking For In Quakerism

This post is a continued discussion of one of the topics that were raised by my April Fool's Satire "Press Release - Seventh Day, First of Fourth Month" and the follow-up/clarifation post called "April Fool's Satire Not Intended as Sarcasm". There have already been many thoughtful responses from several points of view posted as comments on this blog itself and as new posts on other blogs. (For example: here, here, here, and here )

The thread I want to pick up here is the one initiated by Pam (aka earthfreak) who wrote:
I guess I just feel like there are so very many religions where you can cleave to christian doctrine, why are you a quaker??
I take this question to be very important - not least because it illustrates how easily we can end up talking past each other and failing to communicate. Pam had evidently thought that the Christian "doctrine" I adhere to is pretty much the same kind of thing one can find in any non-Quaker Christian Church and I had said nothing in the original post to indicate otherwise. In a top-of-the-head first stab at a reply I said
I hope to find time within the next few days to answer with the care that the question deserves. In the meantime, I'll just say here that for some Quaker Christians, including me, the Christian "doctrine" we believe in is quite different in important respects than anything taught in the Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox Churches. The Quaker understanding of Christianity (or at least this particular Quaker's understanding of Christianity) doesn't really exist very much outside of Quakerism, which is one of the reasons some of us would so deeply regret having it disappear here too.
So now the time has come try giving that promised answer "with the care the question deserves". Why do I want to be part of a Quaker Meeting, as opposed to -- for example -- a Methodist or Baptist or Catholic Church? What am I looking for in Quakerism that I don't expect to find in other Christian bodies?

My answer, I have to say, is not necessarily the same answer that other Quaker Christians might give.

So here it is: What I am looking for in Quakerism is a church in the full-bodied sense of that word as it was used by George Fox in an argument with a priest
I told him the church was the pillar and ground of truth, made up of living stones, living members, a spiritual household, which Christ was the head of; but he was not the head of a mixed multitude, or of an old house made up of lime, stones and wood.
This teaching (doctrine?) of Fox's seems to have caused a near riot at the time, but Fox seemed to think it was pretty important to maintain it.
This set them all on fire. The priest came down from his pulpit, and others out of their pews, and the dispute there was marred. I went to a great inn, and there disputed the thing with the priests and professors, who were all on fire. But I maintained the true church, and the true head thereof, over their heads, till they all gave out and fled away.
But instead of relying on Fox's words, let me try to explain in my words what this "church" is (and isn't) that I am seeking to be part of. It is not a purely human institution with a human hierarchy, a body of customary practices, a book of rules, a liturgy, a set of sacred rituals, etc. It is not an "association" (to use a word that Martin used that pushed my buttons) of people who decide to hang out with each other because they are good people and have been able to find something in common. Rather, it is a body of people who are so united to Christ Jesus (the "true head" that Fox referred to) and to each other that they have become one body, able as a body to serve Him and witness for Him, and to do the kind of prophetic and reconciling work (not to mention humble service) that He did in the flesh before his crucifixion and resurrection. They will do His works because they allow Him to guide them. "Doctrine" or "teaching" as such is not the point of such a community, but it's obviously a little difficult for any group to wholeheartedly serve Christ if many members aren't even sure he exists.

Notice that this kind of church community founded on the real teaching presence of Christ is not what most Christian denominations have in mind when they call themselves churches. For many churches, the "presence" of Christ is felt to center in ritual acts such as the eucharist, water baptism, etc. The authority of Christ is presumed to be something that can be handed down from generation to generation by the laying on of hands ("ordination") and to be wielded at will by the clergy or other hierarchy of the present generation. The suffering and sacrificial death of Christ is seen as a past event that we benefit from vicariously, or a ritual event that we re-enact as sacrament, rather than an ongoing reality in which we participate as the members of his body doing his work in the world. Conventional morality is preached (or isn't in some cases), but the radical demands of the Kingdom of Heaven as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount are not. This is not to say that folks in these other churches are not "real Christians", still less that they (or non-Christians for that matter) are not "saved". But it affirms that since Christ Has Come to Teach His People Himself, a far deeper experience of radical discipleship and faithfulness is possible than these other churches offer.

Of course, the question is whether the Quakerism of today can offer it either. So many of us seem to have forgotten, if we ever knew, that this was its whole purpose in the beginning. Perhaps we are no closer to its reality, despite the witness of our forebears, than any other religion or Christian denomination. Perhaps I as an individual would not really be ready to fully give myself to this full church experience if it were to become fully realized. I'm sure it's also true that such a Church will not be brought about by membership purges or Quakerism 101 classes or any other purely strategic activity by those who long for it. (In fact, I'm convinced by the history of Quakerism in the 19th century that membership purges and schisms are exactly the wrong way to go).

Nevertheless, it was from Friends history as interpreted by a few contemporaries that I first "caught" this vision, and it has been in Friends' Meetings that I have felt it surging somewhere not far beneath the surface time and time again over the years. That's what I'm looking for (and what in some small measure I actually find) in Quakerism. However short of this our actual practice may presently fall, this vision still in some sense defines what Quakerism really means as far as I'm concerned.

Perhaps I have raised more new questions than I have successfully answered. I hope people will respond and will challenge me to clarify (to the best of my ability) whatever I have obscured by my choice of words.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Vicki Cooley

I received the following e-mail today.


Victoria Baker Cooley died peacefully at home about two o'clock this morning in the arms and hands of her family, with singing, tears and thanks for her good life.

Vicki lived a full life. She lived with breast cancer the past five years, remaining active in various causes. We grieve our loss and the years she might yet have continued to help transform the world and be with family. We feel supported by the wide circle of friends whom she loved and helped.


April 9, 1943 -- April 10, 2006

As the note points out, Vicki lived a full life. She received many blessings (her family, her friends, her tremendous intelligence, her energy, the spiritual fellowship of Friends and others); and she was a vehicle of blessings to many others. I cannot claim to have been a close friend and I have not been in regular contact, but in hearing this news I feel very teary and that I have suffered (we have suffered) a great loss. I first came to know her when she was clerk of the Yearly Meeting and I was one of the recording clerks. I last spoke to her at any length several years ago when she and John Cooley gave me hospitality for several days in their wonderful large (but simple) house in Dundee. I also remember being astonished and deeply grateful when she came to my hometown of Rushville, New York, to attend my mother's funeral in 1999. She had not known my mother or others in my family, but came to support a fellow-Quaker in a time of sadness. I knew no other Quakers near Rushville, and had not expected any Quakers to be there. It was immensely comforting to see her.

Vicki once wrote of what she discovered in herself when she was asked to reflect on how she wanted to live.
...I was amazed at the simple clarity of what came to me: I do not want to be dismissive in my attitude toward anyone, ever. That is quite a bit more demanding than “No putdowns,” and it is taking time as well as effort for me to learn what it means, but I trust it completely as True.
I'd like to be that way, too, though I think I know far less about how to be that way than Vicki ever did. This remark of Vicki's is part of her talk "The Quality of Mercy" given as a lecture at Baltimore Yearly Meeting in 2005. I hope Friends will read it and maybe sense in the spirit behind it at least a hint of the greatness of her soul.

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Race Love and Justice: A Talk to NYYM Spring Sessions by Jeff Hitchcock

I've just learned, through the New York Yearly Meeting website, of a talk by Jeff Hitchcock recently given to the Spring Sessions of New York Yearly Meeting. One particularly sharp observation in the talk (paraphrased from another writer) was "time immemorial the oppressor has spoken of love and the oppressed have spoken of justice". (Actually, of course, some of the oppressed have spoken of both, but the point is well taken. Those of us with privelege are understandably often more drawn to the "love" talk of Martin Luther King than to his demand for justice.) Friend Hitchcock's speech can be viewed in its entirety here and I strongly recommend reading all of it and considering it deeply. It ends with the following queries (which gain depth and power when read in the context of the whole talk):
Query 1. How can European American Friends take Quaker tools for justice and, as a privileged group in a fading but present system of white supremacy, join with Friends of color in applying those tools, so that justice is shared within our community?

Query 2. How might we Friends better love one another in this work?

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

April Fool Satire Not Intended as Sarcasm

I am surprised and chagrined to see that my recent April Fool's post has caused some people pain and that it was seen by Friends I respect (including Mark Wutka of The Ear Of the Soul, Pam of Reaching for the Light, Canine Diamond of The Crate and Liz Opp of The Good Raised Up) as an example of sarcasm. According to an online dictionary I consulted, sarcasm is "a cutting, often ironic, remark intended to wound..." or "intended to make its victim the butt of contempt or ridicule." While I knew I was writing satirically, I did not at all intend to wound anyone or to make anyone the butt of contempt or ridicule. Nevertheless, that was obviously the result. I apologize to all.

Now I'll try to comment on some of the issues raised.
Pam remarked that certainly FEELS like you're saying that embracing nontheist members is... ludicrous. If you're not saying that, I really would like to know what you are saying.

First, I don't think it's ever "ludicrous" to embrace a person. I'm sure that if Pam attended my meeting I would try to make her feel welcome. I have heartily approved on many occasions when my Meeting accepted into membership people whose theological views are non-Christian despite the fact that I think Jesus is more or less the whole point of Quakerism. I don't think we've actually faced the non-theist issue in my meeting, but the principle seems the same.

The intended target of my satire wasn't any particular group such as universalists or non-theists, but the general proposition that saying "we don't want to exclude anyone" pre-empts any further discussion of what is and what isn't central to Quakerism. This general proposition is often sincerely defended, but I think there are very few people who have thought through its real implications. I assume tht for most of my readers there is, somewhere in my satire's list of people who should be included (whether it's militarists, Wiccans, pastoral Friends, Roman Catholics or simply "non-Quakers") someone who you as an individual don't think of as a viable candidate for membership in your particular Friends Meeting. You wouldn't necessarily tell them they can't join, but you would find it odd if they wanted to. Why would a militarist want to join a pacifist organization? Would he or she expect it to give up its corporate pacifist testimony? If the Meeting held to its pacifist testimony but accepted a non-pacifist member, would the member feel patronized or treated as a second-class Quaker?

If there is some point of view you would not try to actively "include" on equal terms in your Meeting, let's not say any more that we want to include everyone, and let's proceed to the discussion of what is and isn't central to your vision of Quakerism, to my vision of Quakerism, and - if possible - to some shared vision of our Friends community as a whole. If there is at present no such shared vision that doesn't necessarily mean we'll have to start excluding each other or go our separate ways, but it probably does mean that we'll always have a somewhat rocky relationship.

I'd like to ask Pam to say more about her concept of worship. She says that she thinks I or other theistic Friends might be saying "I don't want to worship with you if you don't believe in God." so I take it that she values the act of worship. But my understanding of the word "worship" breaks down here. To me, the word "worship" is a transitive verb. I can only conceive or worship as worship of someone or worship of something. Who or what does a nontheist worship? This is a relatively new question for me. I've been dialogueing for years with non-Christians theists who have argued that Christ isn't essential to the Quaker faith as long as all Friends still believe in the same God. That has been challenging in itself, but I have come to understand the terms of the discussion. Non-theism seems like a whole different issue.

Pam also thought theistic Friends might be saying 'and I'm not interested in hearing your story and seeing if it resonates with me, I just want to hear the word "god"'. I can't speak for other theistic Friends, but the circle of people whose stories I am eager to hear and resonate with is much larger than the circle of people I count as fellow Quakers. I love opportunities for inter-faith dialogue and also for dialogue with those whose ideals are grounded somewhere else than on religious faith. I also respect the right of every faith community, including my own, to find its own center and define its own boundaries.

Canine Diamond responded to my post on her blog, saying "As per my earlier posts, it has been my experience that membership and professed Christianity are not measures of one's committment to the social ideals of Quakerism, or of basic humanity." I certainly agree and hope I didn't give the impression that non-Christians lack social ideals or basic humanity. Among my life-long heroes I have counted Bertrand Russell (now deceased), Nat Hentoff, and many other non-theists with fine social ideals and deep humanity. Even if we speak only of distinctively Quaker wocial ideals, I'm confident that one could embrace them without embracing the Quaker faith. When I go to Meeting, however, I am not primarily in search of a chance to express my social ideals, Quaker or otherwise. I am seeking, rather, a chance to join with others in waiting on, listening to, worshipping, praising, and adoring God.

James Riemermann objects to Martin Kelley's post because he thinks that in it "...individualism is presumed to be the flag of those who step outside of the Christian or theistic tradition." That's not the way I understood what Martin was saying. A Meeting of people who are non-theist would not necessarily be any more individualistic than a Meeting of theists or a Meeting of Chritians or a Meeting of Buddhists. Any one of these perspectives could be the shared perspective of a group tht united around it. But in the extreme case a Meeting in which non-theism, theism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. were all equally open options would be a Meeting where faith-commitments were individual rather than shared. I.E. it would be an "individualistic" Meeting.

I'm sure that none of the above has been the last word on these issues. I hope, at least, that the sting of my perceived sarcasm in the earlier post has been at least a little moderated.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Press Release - Seventh Day, 1st of Fourth Month, 2006

New York City, 1st of Fourth Month, 2006 C.E.

In a long expected move that builds on recent trends toward theological inclusivness in the Religious Society of Friends, an ad hoc group of members, attenders, and non-member non-attenders of several Friends' Meetings announced today the formation of a group tentatively called the NonQuaker Friends Association. Kelly Brinton-Jones, the group's "clerk of the day" (a kind of presiding officer whose tenure is 24 hours) said the group's final name may change since some of its founding members believe that the use of the word "Friends" as an identifier is unduly limiting and exclusionary.

"The Society of people called Friends has a long and sad history of narrowness and exclusiveness," said Brinton-Jones, "but today we take another step in our journey toward universal inclusiveness." The group's potential nationwide constitutency is estimated at 10 - 15 individuals.

Brinton-Jones explained that in the early days of the Society of Friends it included only people who were anti-clerical, anti-war, anti-luxury, anti-pride, anti-vanity and pro-Christian to boot. He said that Puritans, Roman Catholics, Ranters, Baptists and other English groups of the time were not formally prohibited from attending these early Friends' meetings, but they were subtly excluded by the strong stands the Friends took against things that others believed in. "In theory, you could come to Meeting no matter who you were," said Brinton-Jones, "but if you wanted to swear oaths, kill people, or dance around the maypole you were NOT made welcome."

In later times, this trend toward exclusiveness nor only continued, but increased according to Brinton-Jones. "The 'Free Quakers' who supported the American Revolution were unceremoniously expelled because of the Society's rigid insistence on its 'peace testimony'. In the 18th Century, inspired by zealot John Woolman, Friends also purged their ranks of well-to-do citizens who happened to own slaves, even though this practice was then legal and technically a private personal matter."

"In the 19th and 20th centuries," Brinton-Jones continued, "the exclusionary trends began to reverse. Today, in large sections of the United States Meetings no longer exclude people who want pastors like other churches. In the 1970s California Friends warmly embraced a member who had scandalized some traditionalists by becomeing Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces, making war against a foreign nation, and covering-up a burglary. In a few isolated pockets, Meetings have opened their doors and hearts to people who embrace ritual practices from other faith-traditions, such as communion with bread and wine, baptism with water, and Wiccan fertility dances. We of the NonQuaker Friends Association welcome these trends, just as we welcome the growth of the Nontheist Friends, Universalist Friends, and other groups who stretch our traditional definitions. Ultimately, however, it is not good enough to just say that no particular beliefs are mandatory. The Society of Friends will remain exclusionary and sectarian as long as its Meetings accept only Quakers as members. It is with this in mind that we call upon all Friends Meetings to topple this final barrier between our beloved Society and the greater Society around us."

It is believed that the group will attempt to hold an informal interest group at upcoming sessions of Friends General Conference.

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