I just published a piece in Liturgy journal. When the editor first contacted me over a year ago, he wanted to know if I could write about Quaker liturgy in a rural setting. It was a strange request. We Quakers are basically the anti-liturgy sect:
Quakers can be defined by what we do not do and what we do not have during our times of worship. In the Quaker meetings I have attended, we do not have a written liturgy. We do not recognize sacraments of the Christian church or the church calendar. We do not have clergy in the traditional sense or a laity; each one of us is considered a minister. We do not have a programmed worship at all but opt for an hour of silence, trusting the members of the gathering to vocalize short messages leaving pauses in between messages. Sometimes we have a complete hour of quiet with no words spoken aloud.
Thinking about the rural setting though got me reflecting on Quakerism and how the worship itself is a way of sliding into the natural world even in meetings in the heart of major cities.
Throughout Quaker history, Friends have pointed to two natural sources to help describe their spiritual quest. The first is the Light. Quakers speak and write regularly about the “Light within” and the process of “holding in the Light” a person who needs prayer or an important issue. Light is natural, emanating from the sun, and it is a natural element present in urban settings as well as in rural. Unlike fresh air, one does not need to slip away from an industrialized city to discover light. One simply needs to open the shutter or curtain and let it in. What we lack in cities, however, is darkness. The urban environment has so much light that the wilderness of natural darkness is obscured.
The other natural object regularly referred to in Quaker writings and vocal ministry is “the Seed.” Tiny and full of potential, the seed is usually something hidden from sight deep underground, waiting to burst forth with new life and growth. Unlike looking to trees and flowers and animals, the seed speaks to the quiet place of waiting, patiently, longingly, while believing in greater things to come.
Quakerism started in England before the Industrial Revolution, but continued to grow as the world grew louder, more mechanized, crowded, dirty, gray, and hectic. Quaker meeting houses and the worship they offered gave Friends in English cities a chance to escape the crush of the streets and the sounds of industry—to enter into a spiritual secret garden of serenity. No wonder Quakers flourished in large industrialized cities like Birmingham and London. People with less and less access to the peace and quiet of nature needed a retreat. The quiet and stillness of Quaker meeting provided this.
Writing about all this though, I continued to return to a theme that has been knocking around my head for the past few years–the complicated relationship many LGBTQ people have had with nature, particularly in rural spaces.
Like many gay men in America I originally come from a rural community that I escaped the first chance I had after high school graduation. Born in the city of Stamford, Connecticut, we moved to the Catskill Mountains in New York State when I was five, in part to help me flee the pollution of the city that routinely sent me to the hospital with asthma attacks. Coming of age in rural New York state during the HIV/AIDS Crisis and a growing organized movement to protect the church and family from what was called “The Gay Lifestyle,” I consumed secular and religious messages that told me I would be more valuable if I were heterosexual and masculine.
It was in a rural independent Bible church that I gave my heart to Jesus and determined to repent from homosexual attractions and possible future gay relationships. I began an odyssey to de-gay myself through Ex-Gay programs and ministries and through pastoral counseling. While many gay men flocked to cities where large lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities formed, I moved to New York City to join a fledgling gay conversion therapy Christian ministry. We were about forty men and women struggling with homosexual desires and also from the homophobia we experienced in our rural communities back home. We believed it was wrong to be gay, and if we prayed enough and got close enough to God, our same-sex attractions would get burned off like fog on a lake in the morning sun. I felt committed to this path and ultimately spent seventeen years and $30,000 on three continents pursuing a cure for being gay so that I could finally be eligible for Christian service in the churches I chose to attend.
If you would like to read the entire piece, check it out at Liturgy: Quaker Liturgy in a Rural Setting (unfortunately there is a paywall that I can’t get around)