Six Essentials of the Quaker Way
February 11, 2018 § 2 Comments
An answer to the question, What do Quakers believe?
I have been thinking and writing about this opening ever since the original experience that I describe below happened in 1991. It keeps inspiring me and keeps bearing new fruit. Fairly recently, a new “architectural” metaphor for presenting these six essentials came to me. With slight editing, this little essay also appeared in my meeting’s newsletter in February 2018.
Have you ever been asked what Quakers believe and yearned for an answer that faithfully represents the considerable diversity among Friends? I feel like I was given such an answer at a consultation held at Quaker Hill Conference Center in 1991 on “What do we all hold in common as Quaker treasure?”
We were an extremely diverse group theologically and socially, and there was a lot of tension and even conflict. But we ended up coming to unity on four essential elements of the Quaker way in what was for me the most gathered meeting for worship I’ve ever experienced . . . except maybe for the meeting held the following morning, in which we added a fifth. So the answer I offer below has for me the authority of the Holy Spirit.
About forty Friends attended the Consultation and each of us had come with written answers to some queries we’d been given on the central question. We then labored for several days in small groups to come to unity on answers for each group. Then we gathered for a plenary session on Saturday evening in which we tried to arrive at a sense of the meeting on answers that spoke for all of us—and we succeeded.
That original discernment on Saturday night identified four essentials of Quaker faith that we all held in common. The consultation’s clerk Jan Wood gave us a fifth in her sermon on the Sunday morning following that climactic Saturday night session. A sixth element came to me later while writing of my experience, but this is my own idea and doesn’t come out of those gathered meetings.
Here then are what I see as the “Foundations of the Quaker Way”.
Foundations of the Quaker Way
The Quaker way is built on a foundation of four essentials of faith that we know experientially, four walls, if you will, that hold up the larger edifice of Quaker tradition.
The Light. The first wall, which holds the cornerstone, is the Light—direct, personal communion with God*. There is a principle in every person (often called the Light, the Seed, ‘that of God’) that enables the human to commune directly with the divine, without any mediating persons, rituals, or sacramental materials.
The gathered meeting. The second wall is like unto the first: Just as every individual can commune directly with God, so also the worshipping community can be led by and gathered into unity in the Holy Spirit as a community. We call this the gathered meeting when it happens in meeting for worship.
Continuing revelation. The third wall is continuing revelation. God is continually revealing God’s self to us, through God’s ongoing presence within and among us. God’s revelation did not cease with the writing of scripture, but continues for and in those who heed the Light, always offering to heal and forgive us, renew and strengthen us, inspire and guide us, and awaken us to truth and love.
Life as sacrament and testimony. The fourth wall is that we are called to live our faith in practice, to find in all our walkings that communion with God that is our spiritual birthright, regardless of time, place, or activity; and we are called to live our outward lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened inwardly within us. As a movement we have so consistently experienced some of these truths that we have settled upon them as collective “testimonies”, which we hold not as outward rules to live by, but as a witness to the world of our Truth and as a reminder to ourselves of our experience of God’s love.
The bedrock—direct experience. These four “walls” comprise the foundations of Quaker faith. They hold up the rest of the Quaker way—you can unpack them to talk about virtually all the rest of the Quaker ‘distinctives’, the elements of Quaker faith and practice that make us unique. These four walls rest upon bedrock. That bedrock is our own experience. We hold these truths, not as a blind leap of faith, but rather in confidence as things known directly in our own religious and spiritual lives. (This is the element that has come to me separately since the openings at the Consultation.)
The mortar—love. In her sermon in the one programmed meeting for worship we had during the Consultation, our clerk Jan Wood pointed out that, while not all the groups had named it, we had lived into a fifth essential in our discernment. That fifth element was love. She moved from one Bible passage on love to another, showing how divine love had manifested among us as we labored together. I think of love as the mortar that holds the whole edifice of our tradition together. Divine love gathers everyone into the bosom of the Spirit. Divine love gathered us together as a people of God in the 1650s. And that same love binds us one to another in fellowship today. It’s not always natural to us as struggling human beings, but we cling to it as a commandment—to love one another as we have been loved.
So the “elevator speech”, the short, confident, faithful answer to the question, What do Quakers believe? is this: the Light—each of us is called into direct communion with the Spirit; the gathered meeting—the community is also called into direct communion with God; continuing revelation; life lived as sacrament and as testimony; and the commandment of love.
* By “God” I mean the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience—whatever that experience happens to be.