Monday, April 28, 2008

Are the Quakers Going Pagan?

From Christianity Today:
When his partner died in 2004, Kevin-Douglas Olive reached a crossroads in his faith. Even though he had been a Quaker for almost two decades and put his trust in Jesus, he began to explore other ways of tapping into the divine.

“I had this experience of (my partner) after death, and he spoke to me and woke me up out of my sleep,” Olive says. “It freaked me out, because I really didn’t believe in that stuff; . . . my faith in God had disappeared when my partner died.”

He started to explore Wicca, a nature-based pagan religion, surrounding himself with pentacles, candles and incense. But that didn’t stick. “It seemed like more make-believe on top of the Christian make-believe,” he says. “I was rejecting one; I didn’t want to bring in another.”

Even after Olive found his way back to Jesus, he retained some elements of paganism. While he upholds the standard traditions of his local Quaker meeting hall, he privately incorporates pagan ritual into his prayer.

He’s part of a small but growing movement of Quakers who also identify as pagan — a trend that may or may not exist in other Christian traditions, but certainly not in such an organized, public fashion.

Across the board, the number of Quakers is dwindling, to roughly 100,000 in the U.S. But if Quakerism continues to catch on among the estimated half million pagans in the U.S., those who embrace both traditions predict that could reverse the Quakers’ downward trend. Still, some Quakers worry about losing their own traditions through the process of accepting new ones.

In the last decade, this dual faith has sprung up around the country, including Quaker-pagan gatherings, seminars, an extensive presence on the Internet, and even explicitly Quaker-pagan congregations. There may be only several hundred Quaker pagans, but among American Quakers, their presence can be distinctly felt.

“It seems that now, in most liberal meetings at least, you can always find a few members that identify as pagan,” says Stasa Morgan-Appel of Ann Arbor, Mich., who has facilitated a Quaker pagan interest group since 2002.

Quakers — officially the Religious Society of Friends — are divided into four main branches, three of which are explicitly Christian. Pagans have been generally joining the liberal fourth branch, the Friends General Conference, which counts 30,000 members in North America, including Morgan-Appel.

Liberal Quakers are less tied to the Christianity and instead hold established Quaker practices, such as unprogrammed pastor-less meetings, as the basis of their faith. Because of that flexibility, many liberal Quakers no longer see Jesus as divine, and some don’t believe in God at all.

It may seem strange that pagans would join the Quakers, which began in the 1600s with strong anti-pagan sentiment. Founder George Fox even altered the days of the week because of their pagan roots. To this day, Quakers refer to Sunday as First Day, Monday as Second Day and so on.

Witnessing about Jesus in Olive’s meeting has become infrequent. “People here come from so many different places, spiritually,” he says. “Meetings can be very quiet, as many people are afraid to voice views that others might not hold to be true. We talk about God, but we don’t really put a name to him or her.”

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