Brief History of the Evolution of the
Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference
Written by Marge Abbott of Multnomah Monthly Meeting
The Women’s Group
In 1985, two women, one from an evangelical church, the other from a Liberal, unprogrammed meeting, formed a friendship as they traveled with others in Oregon and Washington, reporting on experiences at the World Gathering of Young Friends at Guilford College in North Carolina and at the Friends World Committee for Consultation Triennial (FWCC) in Oaxtepec, Mexico.
These two women dreamed of sharing on an ongoing basis the challenge and richness of their encounters with Friends of different traditions. They brought together several women from their respective meetings, Reedwood and Multnomah, some of whom had worked together organizing the FWCC Regional Gatherings in the Pacific Northwest. Our original stated purpose in meeting was to encourage each other in our individual ministries and leadership roles within the Society of Friends.
Since that original vision in 1985, an ongoing group of eight to ten women has met monthly. We call ourselves the “Multwood” Group after the two core meetings, but have expanded to include women from South Salem, North Valley (Newberg), West Hills (Portland) and Freedom Friends’ churches as well as Bridge City Monthly Meeting in Portland. Over the years some have dropped out, some moved away, and one dear friend died, but others have entered into this work of reaching across yearly meeting lines and building strong friendships.
Expanding the Interactions
At the Western Gathering of Friends in 1992, several women shared a vision of holding a Quaker Women’s Theology Conference in the Pacific Northwest. This vision was also carried by others who had attended the 1990 International Quaker Women’s Theology Conference in England and was gaining momentum among Liberal women in North Pacific Yearly Meeting. Those of us present at the Western Gathering knew we could build on the local experience organizing that event, yet we had to do some things differently in order to achieve more than token participation by Evangelical women. We saw an opportunity to start with the core Multwood Group and take small steps to expand this by holding a weekend retreat and inviting others to join us. A few weeks later at NPYM we worked out this vision with Jane and others.
For about a decade, starting in fall 1992, these annual retreats brought together approximately 20 women–9 from Northwest, 9 from North Pacific, and 2 from Canadian yearly meeting. Each year as schedule conflicts keep some away, we welcomed in a few more of the many women who seek the one Spirit which informs our many voices.
Prior to each retreat, each participant writes of her faith journey in relation to that year’s theme and shares this with the group. This discipline both develops trust and challenges each of us to articulate our faith in a way which spans the many preconceptions that separate us. In doing this, we focus on questions of experience rather than belief.
The format of our retreats also is centered on experience. This keeps us from arguing over meanings of words, and allows us to come to know and accept each other without having to defend particular belief systems against the prejudice of the others. One year a new participant mentioned that she could not tell who was from which yearly meeting and was glad we had not included this information on our nametags. Her comment made us realize both the value of that practice and how little we sometimes know each other even within our own traditions.
In July, 1995, over sixty women from the Pacific Northwest gathered at the Theological Conference which some of us dreamed of three years earlier. This conference was modeled on the International Quaker Women’s Theological Conference held at the Woodbrooke study center in England in 1990, which gathered women of all traditions from around the world. We gathered women from three yearly meetings which span the same range of theology, but without the diversity of culture and language. The annual retreats formed a significant core of Evangelical women who knew from experience the value of encounter with those of us from the Liberal tradition and willing to commit their energy to this dream. By doing this, we met our goal of balanced participation.
The Conference program was built around the concepts used at Woodbrooke and expanded with the experience of our annual retreats. The women at Woodbrooke were committed to find a role for each person present, as worship group or workshop leader, as a presenter at the gatherings of the whole, or in leading song. They also used the form of theology called “narrative theology”: using story to describe what we know of God. They did this to encourage each woman to speak from her own experience of the Divine. We also borrowed the shape of their program–a mix of small worship groups, creative workshops, and gatherings of the whole.
We introduced the practice from our retreats of requiring each participant to submit a piece in writing, responding in the case of this Conference, to the theme “What Canst Thou Say?” These writings were reproduced and shared with all participants in advance. We have found this to be invaluable in building trust and in setting an atmosphere where each woman is free to speak deeply out of her faith and her experience of God. One great surprise has been that it is impossible to determine from the papers alone who is “Evangelical” and who is from the “Liberal” tradition. We are also experimenting with the shape of the small worship groups and allowing each to take its own form, be it prayer, discussion, worship sharing, or a mix, depending on the desires of the participants.
The planning process for the first Conference took 18 months, with a planning committee drawn from the Retreats. We also received valuable assistance from other retreat participants as we developed the statement of purpose for the Conference and in practical details such as feasible dates and possible locations. Since the committee was scattered from Victoria, British Columbia to southern Oregon, we only met twice a year with one meeting following our annual fall retreat. Most of the work was done by mail, e-mail and phone.
Our first tasks were to find a site, develop the statement of purpose, and to seek start-up funds from the three yearly meetings. The women at the Retreats were quite clear that the Conference should be limited to approximately 60 women, roughly triple the Retreat size. Partly this was a desire that it not be too big. Perhaps more importantly, it meant that a significant core of participants would bring with them a relationship based on trust. These women shared the experience of being vulnerable with one another, and having learned it was safe to do so.
This first conference also published a report of its proceedings and named a new planning committee to go forward with a second gathering. The reader is invited to make their own judgment about the success of our work.