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.