Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Quakers and Christianity

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Friend of 26 September 2008

What a long way we’ve come since To Lima with Love (our last public response to the World Council of Churches in 1986, many quotations from which are to be found in Quaker Faith and Practice).

When I read the Quaker Committee on Church and Interfaith Relations’ (CCIR) Introduction to the Nature and Mission of the Church, I felt concerned that many Quakers today would be alienated by its Christian language. Yet it lies within the Quaker tradition, reaffirming so many of those radical seventeenth century insights which were my main reason for becoming a member. It is designed to send some powerful yet loving challenges to Christians everywhere.

This polarisation was expressed by Friends at Meeting for Sufferings, as some found this paper unacceptable both to themselves and to their Meetings, and others recognised the authentic challenge of true Christianity which it sends to other Churches. One Friend remarked that we appear to be treating the Christian tradition more harshly than we do other religious groups. Perhaps our desire to welcome refugees from other churches adds to this, and it feels good when people express their delight at ‘coming home’ and ‘feeling comfortable’; and yet….

‘Unprogrammed Friends’ worship may seem to be a time for uplifting reverie, for cultivating inspirational thoughts and pleasantly soothing reflections. Quaker worship then appears in the guise of a subdued escape into an attractive fantasy world. However pleasant (and however widespread) such a use of the silence may be, it is surely not what Fox and other early Quakers intended, not what ‘waiting upon the Lord’ is about.’

This quotation comes from a Pendle Hill pamphlet I discovered in the bookshop during the lunchbreak: A Quaker in the Zendo by Steve Smith.

When I applied for membership, I also felt I had come home. However as time went on, I realised that I needed to develop further spiritually. Steve Smith found what he needed through Zen, as I did through the discomforting satisfaction of deep Yogic meditation. Like him, I found that by working within a different tradition I could come close to what early Friends describe as true spiritual experience. What I had been searching for had been there all along at the heart of the Quaker way, but obscured by a number of factors: the polite and well-intentioned desire not to offend; an emphasis on peace and social activism without an explicit connection to its spiritual basis; the intellectual debt to secular humanism; and above all the reticence about inner spiritual experience among modern Quakers.

There was passion on both sides at this Meeting for Sufferings. I think this issue is at the heart of our Religious Society of Friends, and Janet Scott expressed this clearly in the challenge of her closing words. Are we working from our own individual intellects and egos, or are we reaching down into the depths where uncomfortable truths become visible to us, where we have to engage and struggle with the discomforting workings of the Spirit of God? Where through accepting our personal challenge to be transformed, we can hope to find true unity as a community?

I think that the distance we have moved since To Lima with Love has taken many Quakers away from the paradox of Quaker worship: the discomforting – but also strangely comforting – experience Penington puts so well:

‘Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee…’

Might an instant negative reaction to Christian language, to the teachings of Jesus however profound (and strangely similar to those of Thich Nhat Hanh and the current Dalai Lama), be a way of avoiding engagement with the experiential spirituality at the heart of being Quaker? We are so used to hearing Christian language spoken through the prism of right-wing fundamentalism that we are in danger of missing the universal truth of its teachings. The richness and relevance of our Quaker Christian roots provides our counter to right-wing, fundamentalist Christians who claim validity for the unequal, unpeaceful rhetoric that informs so many of their actions. This is a thoroughly Quaker struggle to establish the truth as it lives in and for us today. Each of us needs to see through the thick settled dust of interpretations which belong to previous generations, and the smokescreens erected by the world we live in. We need to find the truth within our own tradition which speaks to our present day. What Margaret Fell experienced when she first heard Fox preaching speaks to me today:

‘I saw clearly that we were all wrong. So I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves…’

I am glad that our first priority in the new Quaker Framework is to ‘strengthen the spiritual roots in our meetings and in ourselves…from which action can spring’. All our other priorities flow from this. I hope that Meetings throughout the country will share worship on this, and that Meeting for Sufferings will have time to devote another day to it.

If we don’t find the words to speak to other Christians, who else will? If we can’t unite in the profound experience and challenge of Quaker worship, where else is our unity?


Daddy Hardup said...

"...the polite and well-intentioned desire not to offend; an emphasis on peace and social activism without an explicit connection to its spiritual basis; the intellectual debt to secular humanism; and above all the reticence about inner spiritual experience among modern Quakers."

You describe very clearly and concisely here symptoms of the present low state of Quaker worship in Britain, at least as I have experienced it, and not just in my local meeting (which isn't Sheffield).

It's become a religion of the head, not of the heart. I see a lot of good practical peace and justice work being done by Quakers, but get little sense of piety, of a life-transforming holiness.

There's a rich tradition of Quaker devotion somewhere, the Quaker Christian roots you describe, but it's like the treasure hidden in a field. Few Friends will tell you much about it and you have to dig long and hard to find it, in books mainly. Not much ministry is coming from this source these days, perhaps because its characteristic language of Christ and Cross (never mind the Lamb's War!) is seen as hurtful and divisive.

The shift from Quaker Christianity to Universalist Quakerism has brought gains in terms of openness, tolerance and non-judgmental welcome, but the corresponding loss of a rich but tradition-specific language of spiritual growth has been great.

Is Quaker worship still a 'profound experience and challenge'? Do we, Friends and attenders in all our diversity, still have shared spiritual roots than can be strengthened?

Martin Kelley said...

It's humbling to hear that a public statement from only twenty years ago is now considered so radical that it would divide meeting for sufferings, but I fear the same would be true for most liberal Friends bodies here in America. It's gotten so our institutions have become allergic even to the word "God." This cultural shift largely happened outside of any formal process. What was mainstream liberal Quakerism is now suspect.

I'm not sure how vague talk of strengthening spiritual roots is going to help. But I'm glad to see you sharing this. Talking about what we've seemed to have lost and about it's purpose and maybe our purpose is important. Thank you.

Gordon Ferguson said...

Why is it that Quakers (at least the liberal sort) have become so afraid of words? Or is it that our spirituality has been infected by Political Correctness - it is one thing to engage socially without risking offence, quite another to speak plainly and truthfully in the context of fellowship and worship.
We are supposed to discover the deep meaning behind the smokescreen of words - even the bible merely points to the truth, so we say - after all that is the fundamental basis of silent worship. We do not want words to get in the way. But do the words associated with Christianity not point at the same deep truths as the words of Buddhism? or Paganism? or Native American Spirituality? What words are we to use? Is all meaningful discourse to be abandoned so that we retreat into the fragile shell of individualism, silently occupying our minds with who knows what?
Let me say this: ‘God’ (or whatever word/label/sound you choose to use) cannot fit inside the mind – there lies the loneliness of nihilism and the emptiness of atheism and the despair of alienation. It is in friendship and relationships that true spirituality is discovered. Are we to look blankly at one another, wondering pointlessly what we might mean? Or shall we limit our spirituality to relating to nature, brushing past one another in empty silence?
Not for me. We gain the full depth of spiritual meaning through discourse with one another, in relationship and worship, and to do that we needs must use words. So which ones?
For me, forcing all Christian language into the strait jacket of dogmatism very nearly destroyed any spiritual meaning. The ‘Truth’ was revealed, and that revelation was spoken and then written down, and any experience that could not be interpreted into this revelation was ‘of the devil’. But the experience was still there, for experience is prior to language, and indeed so is knowledge. After all what am I doing in that expectant silent waiting, if not waiting for knowledge? And then at times I am compelled to stand up and share this discovery – not with an expression of blank bemusement, but with words – faltering, unsure, words, since the knowledge that these words cannot convey the full depth of that discovery is at the very front of my mind as I open my mouth to speak. This is how I interpret the saying that ‘the words will be given to you’(Mark 13:11). Not some sentimental mystical experience, but the practical reality of shoe-horning the truth into the words available.
So I have no desire to abandon the use of Christian words, for this is what I am familiar with, both in my life and in my culture and language – instead the words have been transformed, since they are now pointers to that truth beyond words. Everything is now in its correct place – revelation is through experience, true knowledge is in the heart, and the mind knows its place.

Anonymous said...

I've been attending a meeting for about 9 months and this post addresses an issue that is so upsetting to me. There are many things I love about Quakers and Quaker worship, but why have they turned on their Christian roots, to the point where now it is accepted if someone stands up in MfW and says Christianity is a "perversion"? (This happened in my meeting.)

"One Friend remarked that we appear to be treating the Christian tradition more harshly than we do other religious groups. Perhaps our desire to welcome refugees from other churches adds to this, and it feels good when people express their delight at ‘coming home’ and ‘feeling comfortable’"

I don't understand it. If the above is true, don't Quakers want Christian attenders also to feel comfortable and at home? Part of me wants to leave and go to a church where I can feel unapologetically Christian and not hear things that are precious to me be attacked (I already have to deal with this constantly at college and it is spiritually exhausting) but I don't like other churches' style of worship or the perceived need for indoctrination. And in many ways I love my meeting. All I want is to feel safe in meeting as someone who loves Jesus.

Daddy Hardup said...


1959 Book of Discipline of London Yearly Meeting was called "Christian Faith and Practice".

1995 book of Discipline of Britain Yearly Meeting is called "Quaker Faith and Practice" (subtitled "The Book of Christian Discipline...")

I don't know the story behind this, but I imagine that compiling and titling the new book was a process by which the shift you describe was formally recognised and approved.

In the 1995 title/subtitle we see the same ambiguity as in the talk of strengthening spiritual roots. Are the roots Christian or not? Are they Christian but we just don't talk about it?

Bill Samuel said...

Today Friends often speak of their testimonies. But early Friends spoke of all aspects as "our Christian testimony." Have many Friends cut themselves off from the roots of what today they call Quaker testimonies?

I know dozens of people who have left Quakerism not out of objection to anything traditionally Quaker but because of the failure to be rooted in Christ. A community is not enough. We need Jesus Christ.

Brad said...

What has been most interesting to me as I have observed and participated in Quaker meetings of a broad nature is that, while there has been sharp and sometimes contentious reactions to the role of Christ, God and Atheism among Friends, there is often unity along political party lines to the point that people with differing opinions are not welcome. This comes on the heels of working with a variety of Christian congregations and organizations (mostly around HIV, but also touching on environmental issues, poverty, gay rights). With these groups, there was always unity on their theology, but differing opinions at the social justice and political levels.

I think Friends are at a crossroads after the last election. If what I saw at FGC Central Committee was any indication, I feel we need to gently step back from the politics (not the issues, but the politics). Often, it was pretty clear that were a Vote for McCain t-shirt to appear, it would not have been well-received, and yet within our own house we seem to be unable to have a healthy dialog about why we believe and stand for the things that are so important to us.

Gordon Ferguson said...


I could not agree more - this is the theme I explore in my recent blog 'Persons and Functions' (http://sheffieldquakers.blogspot.com/2008/11/persons-and-functions.html) and one a year ago 'Politics and Community' (http://sheffieldquakers.blogspot.com/2007/12/politics-and-community.html)

I can empathise with your political dilemma as well. Amongst British Friends, being a small government, low personal taxation, free trade and globalisation supporting capitalist liberal does not go down too well, yet this is where my spiritual journey has led me to express myself politically.

We are indeed at a crossroads - are we a 'Religious Society or a Friendly Society' (sub title of "Our Quaker Identity", Alastair Heron, Curlew Productions 1999) (http://www.eden.co.uk/shop/our-quaker-identity-1186600.html) Mentioned here:
and here: http://sheffieldquakers.blogspot.com/2007_10_01_archive.html

Unless our political position arises from out of our spiritual concerns, we will fall into being just another political agitation group. But going on demonstrations and waving banners and joining committees gains far more kudos than building up community through small untold (except in heaven) acts of kindness.

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7.21-23)

Anonymous said...

Dear Gordon,

This is my first footfall onto this perilous terrain so please indulge me.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that the (name and image) of Christ has been not so much impressed upon the civilisations of the western world as ploughed into them. Fox's appeal to the seed of Christ within gives rise to a religion that is essentially psychological and fully personal. There are levels of human psychological experience and you can move from one to another. If you stick with the essence of the Christ experience you will gradually undergo a metamorphosis in your thinking and experience of the world that I suppose is a mystical change in that it views more than one level of reality simultaneously and intuits causes behind phenomena in a way that is different to the ordinary. The outlook it engenders is singular because it amounts to adoption into a singularity.

As I said my main intention here is to see if this ends up on the blogsite. Please overlook the intrusion


Peter Lawless said...

Dear Brad how did you observe Friends? Sociologically were you a participant observer;someone plainly researching and made yourself known or in one of the many roles an observer can take? You say you participated but how? How did you go about sense-making in the situation as you seem to be able to make political splits amongst Friends? As an UK liberal Friend of 20+ years in membership I have never been able to make the distinctions which you have how did you other than a tee-shirt?
Are you generalising from the particular to the general? What was the size of your study group?
Basically what methodology did you use to support your argument?
I ask because though I can see issues within the Society I would not feel so strong in the evidence to support my opinions.
In Friendship

Peter Lawless said...

Dear Brad
I apologise for my tone towards you which I realise appears unduly harsh. Basically I was putting down the questions which had arisen when I read your piece and thus it turned out to be inappropriate in tone though I still have the questions which arose out of your comments about observing and participating in a broad range of Meetings.
That being said I realise that we must recognise our roots and not become purely a political lobby group.
In many respects I feel that it is part of the responsibility of the Elders and Overseers to maintain the spiritual life of the Meeting and thus the Society as a whole. Could part of the problem be in the fact that in some Meetings these roles are not adequately met?

chrissie h said...

I love your beautifully written post here Janey. It seems obvious by the number of comments that it speaks to many of us. Thanks for articulating your ideas so clearly. It's given me a lot to reflect on and speaks to me too.