In the Philadelphia area, Strawbridge and Clothier is a prominent department store that has been in business, albeit swallowed by a large conglomerate a decade ago, for well over a century. The enterprise began 1861 by two Quakers, Justus Strawbridge and Isaac Clothier--one a Hicksite Friend, the other Orthodox. That tidbit of information is the kind of trivia that sends my mind spinning off--I wonder how much theology the partners shared, and how many little "tender" areas each of them avoided in the day in and day out activities of beginning a Quaker business during the Civil War. I had always understood Hicksite and Orthodox Friends had little to do with each other. Perhaps Justus and Isaac were partners with relationships like many of my own. While we are aligned with one set of beliefs or another through habit, environment, heritage or experience, most of us have some leeway with those who differ with our beliefs because we share some degree of affection. The little imaginary conversations I've been having in my head lead me to another challenge I've felt. I've recently had a number of such conversations where I've been challenged to give voice to the common threads of Friends. Friends in this country present a wide continuum of tradition and faith statements; that is a true thing.
The first significant schism of American Friends happened in Philadelphia, as many Friends know. The issues were around the seeming conflict between the authority of the Bible and the leadings of the "Light Within," or at least that is a modern, somewhat simplistic spin on the disagreement. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has been reunited since the mid-fifties and the division feels a long time ago. While tension amid Friends in Philadelphia can still be observed it is no greater and not essentially different than the friction existing in New England Yearly Meeting whose own split between Orthodox and Wilburite Friends happened some years later and who found unity again some years earlier than Friends in Philadelphia.
Just what is it that binds Friends together? In all of our variations of tradition and culture, in our insistence of our understanding that a creed cements us into words that can kill the spirit and deny the ever unfolding Truth that is part of our intimate, direct relationship with the Divine, in our impatience with Friends from other traditions--what is it that makes us all the Religious Society of Friends?
Since I moved into Center City Philadelphia in September, I've divided the Sundays I'm not at home or on the road between the Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia and Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. Part of me seeks a home away form home. Another part of me, I suppose, is basking in the luxury of having working, established, alive meetings within a mile of each other.
The Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia is the original Philadelphia Meeting that after the 1827 schism became the headquarters for Orthodox Friends in this neighborhood of the world The meetinghouse on Arch and 4th Streets was built in 1804 on land given to the meeting by Ole Willie Penn himself, moving to that spot after the Revolution because of increased meeting size and the need to get away from the noise of the city. Meeting for worship numbers there are small, between 50-75 Friends on an average Sunday (a small meeting of 75 always makes me smile. Always.) Worship is in a center room, leaving the large historic men's meeting room to dust bunnies, tourists, and yearly meeting; the women's meeting room now bench-less the scene of any number of historic standing and traveling displays.
The newer site, Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting was built in 1856 as an expanded home of Philadelphia's yearly meeting of Hicksite Friends including New England's own Lucretia Mott. It now houses Friends Center next to the meetinghouse -- home not only for the monthly meeting, but headquarters of AFSC, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and other agencies which are either Quaker run or are sympathetic to the Quaker approach, as well as, in a small corner on the first floor, Friends World Committee for Consultation. Sunday worship has about twice the number of people as the Arch Street Meetinghouse and while the balcony is not used, there isn't rarely a bench on the floor that is totally empty.
Neither of the spots are perfect. Both have their expressions of human foibles and exaggerations. In one of them (I won't tell you which) recently someone got up in worship and walked to the center of the room. He talked for some time about the ministry of yoga and after a series of very deep breaths, spent what felt like a very long time doing exaggerated yoga positions in center of the room. Within the next couple of weeks at other meeting someone rose from where he was sitting in the center of the meeting room and went on at great length how disturbing it was for people to come into meeting late. It was disrespectful and unacceptable and he, for one, certainly hoped the meeting took a stance to deal with these backsliding, self-centered, non-spiritual Friends. About ten minutes later he and the woman he had entered with looked at their watches nodded to each other and with great rustling rose and "slipped out" of meeting. The irony wasn't lost on any number of people in worship.
More importantly I've experienced in both meetings the sense of being gathered in God's infinite blessed presence during worship. Once or twice, against my better judgment, I've even given vocal ministry. These times of sensing the Divine Presence are all the sweeter knowing that left to our own devices we can become self-possessed caricatures of ourselves. It is that certain knowledge of the experience of God in my life and in our life as Friends that sustains and nourishes me. It is this real loving presence of God that makes the dry times sufferable and gives a sweet glow to the abundant times. And it is the expectant waiting of worship that brings these times to fruition. The kingdom of God--the experience of the Divine--is truly realized when we draw together in worship.
Just what is it that binds us together? The warp in the fabric of Friends is the sure knowledge that when we come together in worship it is entirely possible that God will join us. Not the memory of God, not the remembrance of a remote Divine spirit, but the vital and real actuality of the Divine seed blossoms in us. Like the Jews who leave an empty chair at Passover Seder for Elisha, Friends recognize that God walks among us. God can and will be present for the asking. We are bound together by a number of things. The certain knowledge that God is present with us when we worship is part of the warp that holds our fabric together.