The Question of Christianity

April 27, 2011 § 12 Comments

A digest and commentary on a sociological study of the question in Britain by Kate Mellor

I have been reading The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion edited by Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, a collection of essays that seek to provide a sociological profile of British Quakerism with often quite personal reflections on the sociology of religion in general and the role of sociology and sociologists among Friends in particular. This is a fascinating book with some important and often surprising insights into liberal Quakerism, at least as it’s practiced by British Friends.

It’s often said and assumed, I think, that British Quakerism is farther down the trajectory toward universalism and liberalism than even liberal Quakerism in America. I’ve not spent enough time there to be able to comment on that from personal experience, but the modest amount of British Quaker books I’ve read suggest that this might be true. I have found the work of Ben Pink Dandelion (1) and Alastair Heron (2) especially valuable in understanding British Quakerism.

I want to digest several of the chapters in this book in later posts, to give American Friends, especially, easier access to its content, and I want to start with Kate Mellor’s startling essay on whether British Friends are Christian (pages 70-87). Two previous sociological surveys addressed this question, the first by Dandelion in 1996, and then by Rosie Rutherford in 2003. Each seemed to conclude that British Quakerism had lost its Christian identity and this seemed to confirm the anecdotal evidence of contributions to The Friend over the past several decades and, especially, the conclusion of Alastair Heron in his 1995 book, Quakers in History: a century of change 1895-1995. Mellor’s results, however, contradict the findings of Dandelion and Rutherford rather dramatically, in some ways. And yet, it seems to me that the accepted characterization of liberal Quakerism (at least in the UK) as post-Christian still holds.

Mellor conducted her survey in three stages in 2005 and 2006. She began with 80 members and attenders of Poole Meeting, then sent her questionnaire to the other Preparative Meetings in the Bournemouth and Swanage Monthly Meeting (a Preparative Meeting is one of several meetings that meet for worship weekly but send their business up to a Monthly Meeting), and then to 1006 Friends in the Yearly Meeting. I’ve made a pdf file of her table of responses to her questionnaire.

Mellor finds that 90% of British Friends believe in God, 80% consider themselves Christian, 97% find Jesus’ ethical teachings meaningful, 91% find his spiritual teachings meaningful, and 91% use his teachings or example to guide their own lives. In Dandelion’s study, 50.7% answered that they “would describe” themselves as Christian from among a set of options; in Rutherford’s sample, 45.5% answered that they “think of themselves as Christian”. The difference, Mellor proposes, is the way in which the question was posed; in particular, she allowed respondents to define “Christian” however they liked, whereas Dandelion and Rutherford used their own definitions. Dandelion used belief in Jesus as unique to define Christian, and this definition was not disclosed to his participants.

When allowed to define ‘Christian’ in their own terms, a very healthy majority of British Friends said they were. On the other hand, almost exactly the same percentage (79% versus 80%) said they did not believe in the Atonement. 66% did not generally use the title Christ, 58% did not believe Jesus was or is the Son of God, 54% claimed to be Universalist, and, perhaps most astoundingly, 82% claimed to be Agnostic and 89% followed some other faith. At the same time, 74% said Fox’s famous declaration that “There is one, even Jesus Christ, who can speak to they condition” ‘rang true for them’ and 79% would describe Quakerism as a Christian faith.

This is really a mixed—I would say even contradictory—picture. It’s fair to say that British Friends self-identity as Christian, but they have radically redefined what that means. They seem unwilling to let go of their Christian tradition while they have at the same time largely abandoned that tradition as it has traditionally defined itself.

To my mind, a set of very crucial questions are missing from her study, and from the others, too—questions about religious experience as opposed to belief. I might phrase them this way: Have you experienced Jesus Christ as a meaningful or transformative presence in your life? Is Jesus Christ the center of your religious life? Do you conduct your religious life in the context of relationship with Jesus? Have your formative religious or spiritual experiences taken place in the context of Christian (or for that matter, Quaker) tradition?

The Christianity of British Friends, as revealed in Mellor’s study, seems to me to be a matter of positive feeling for Jesus’ teachings and a desire for continuity of tradition and identity at the surface. But the fact that almost 90% follow some other faith seems to suggest that very few British Friends actually practice Christianity as their religion.

I would love to see a similar study conducted among American Friends that included questions about experience, in addition to questions about belief.

(1)          A Sociological Analysis of the Theology of Quakers: the silent revolution, 1996; The Creation of Quaker Theory: insider perspectives, 2004; The Liturgies of Quakerism, 2005.

(2)          Caring, Conviction and Commitment: dilemmas of Quaker membership today, 1992; Quakers in Britain: a century of change 1895-1995, 1995.

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§ 12 Responses to The Question of Christianity

  • […] a particularly startling implication but in a UK context when Quakerism seems has been moving in an increasingly post-Christian direction the assumption is intriguing since it seems clear that whatever else he was Fox was clearly working […]

  • The most interesting thing to me that you wrote is your impression that British Friends seem to identify with Christianity but don’t practice it. Can you help me with what you mean by “practice it?” It seems to me that you might be saying one of three things: that while British Friends identify as Christian they don’t believe the rationalistic set of propositions from which Christian orthodoxies are built or that they don’t go to a Christian church regularly or that they don’t use Christian metaphors and symbols to rationalize their “belief.” Or do you mean something different than one of those? Thanks.

  • Joe Turner says:

    Hmm.. that is very interesting. Do you think the respondees are reacting to a certain form of the theology of the atonement (as expressed by conservative evangelicals, say) or are they saying that they don’t believe in it, period?

    Or is it just that the atonement is of no significance to them?

    • It might be all three. I think the conventional evangelical understanding—that we are sinful by nature, deserve God’s wrath as a result, and are only saved from His (sic) judgment by Christ’s atonement on the cross—may be the only form of the theology most Friends are familiar with, that they don’t believe in it and it’s not relevant to them, mainly because they are no so focused on sin as the essential human problem. I suspect they believe in—or at least would want to believe in—a more loving, less judgmental God. And Meads’s survey suggests that, correspondingly, it’s Jesus’ moral and spiritual teachings that most British Friends (and American liberal Friends?) find meaningful and attractive, not the gory drama of the cross.

  • kiwihelen says:

    I would say from my experience of different friends meetings in the UK that the more “middle class” the meeting, the more likely it is to be post-christian in its flavour.

    Looking at Mellor’s methodology, they would have been a self-selecting bunch who were likely to respond in that manner.

  • broschultz says:

    I think this is true of most mainline churches. It is certainly in line with my experience with the Catholic Church and its members. There is a remnant in every church who’s faith is based on a spiritual experience which they interpret through their religious background but the majority of church goers treat religion like nationality and don’t get into the theology.

    • Iain says:

      I think there is a subtlety in the question: I would expect most people who find meeting for worship an important part of their lives here in the UK have had spiritual experiences as a result of their attendance. Otherwise they would not keep coming.
      But, what is the source of those experiences? That is why we keep seeking.

      • I think your comment gets right to the heart of liberal Quaker identity. For Christian Friends, the source of their experience is clear; even if the experience itself does not have Jesus’ nametag on it, by which I mean that, in the moment, in the experience itself, one may not sense the presence of Christ, but at least your faith allows you to ascribe the experience to Christ with some confidence. But without direct experience of Christ and without a Christian framework for understanding your experience (and without any other ‘divine’ presence in the experience or some other spiritual/religious tradition in which to frame it), one is left wondering what the source of one’s spiritual experience really is. Liberal Quakerism has yet to offer an alternative, coherent tradition, or vocabulary, or framework for understanding one’s religious/spiritual experience,

        I think most Friends just don’t bother too much about it. Who needs a theology? Isn’t the experience itself enough? Many Friends turn to other traditions and cobble something together. The result is a mosaic of spiritual frameworks consisting of personal and unique attempts at self-understanding working side by side in a meeting community, combined with lots of nebulous ‘no-frameworks’ on the part of all the Friends who just don’t need one. This makes it virtually impossible for the community as a whole to arrive at a shared framework and vocabulary that’s useful. And it tends to make the community turn elsewhere for unity, primarily to shared process rather than content. It even makes the community nervous about the very idea of a shared religious ideology/theology, emphasizing instead that we have no creed, by which Friends often mean that we have no theology. We have a behavioral creed, but no theological creed, as Ben Pink Dandelion has put it.

        Is it possible—or even desirable—for liberal Quakers to reflect on our experience, at least upon our shared experience, in a way that would give us a common framework for sharing our experience, both amongst ourselves and with the wider world? I would like to think so. Just trying would be good for us, I think. But it would almost certainly entail some friction, even conflict, and God forbid we should argue any more than we already do. Meanwhile, “what canst we say?” How do we articulate our faith, to our children, to newcomers, to the world around us?

  • Casper says:

    I’ve just had a look at the price and at £30+ I will have to wait for the book to decrease in price a bit but thanks for highlighting the book, it looks really interesting.

    I am based in the UK and anecdotally the description of Quakerism as post-christian seems to be the consensus (i don’t think that’s quite the same as non-Christisn). that is actually an issue of concern for me as I have considered taking the plunge to attend meetings personally – most other areas of the worlkd i suspect i’d have joined long ago!

    Also, on the subject (but not really an academic text) I came across the small book “Rooted in Christianity, Open to New Light” which is a conversation between Tim Ashworth and Alex Wildwood on the very nature of UK Friends and Christianity (it is published in 2009 by Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre)

    • One of the reasons I want to digest some of this book’s chapters (and of some others) is the cost of buying the whole thing. Press runs for Quaker books tend to be so small that the cost is necessarily fairly high. I’m lucky; I can pay for borrowing privileges from Princeton Theological Seminary library, the largest seminary library in the US, for a very reasonable $50 US a year, and their Quaker section is pretty good.

      Thanks for the comment and thanks also for the recommendation of Rooted in Christianity. Unfortunately the library does not have this book.

    • Casper says:

      O and apologies for the spelling, I really should start proofreading before I press “submit”!

  • Rosemary says:

    I agree that questions about experience need to be asked. The fact that they weren’t perhaps says more about the state of Friends today than any of the statistics about beliefs.

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