Are Quakers Christian?
April 13, 2019 § 12 Comments
Last week I attended a viewing of a relatively new documentary on Friends titled Quakers the Quiet Revolutionaries by The Gardner Documentary Group. The principals of the group, Janet Gardner and Dick Nurse, are members of Princeton Meeting in New Jersey. The film is quite good. The production quality is excellent and they covered quite a lot of ground very well. There were a couple of egregious misrepresentations of Friends, in my opinion, but overall, I give it a favorable rating.
As for these misrepresentations, the film claimed, as many liberal Friends do, that the foundation of the Quaker faith is the belief that there is that of God in everyone, and the film explicitly invoked the notion of a divine spark as the meaning of “that of God”. As my regular readers know, I believe this springs from ignorance of Fox’s real intention when using that phrase and of its revisioning by Rufus Jones around the turn of the twentieth century. It just isn’t true that this is the foundation of Quakerism or our testimonies. But I’m not digressing now into that theme.
The film also highlighted the SPICES in a scene with kids in a Quaker school. This scene made it clear why the odious SPICES are so successful—kids get it and they can remember it, sort of. Problem is, they’re getting the wrong thing. But no digression here, either.
In this post, I want to address a question that came from the audience in the Q&A: Are Quakers Christian?
The MC, Ingrid Lakey, and Dick Nurse gave what I thought were fairly satisfactory answers, given how difficult this question is to answer with integrity in the liberal branch. Their answers were the usual disclaimers about how diverse we are (it depends on who you ask) and good personal answers about the Inner Light. Here, however, is how I would have answered that question: Are Quakers Christian? Yes, mostly, yes, and it depends.
Yes—historically. Some meetings have become post-Christian only since the middle of the twentieth century. By post-Christian, I mean dominated by Friends who either never were Christians or have left behind their Christian upbringing. But the roots of the tree are Christian and most branches still draw their spiritsap from the Christian tradition. We are a Christian movement even if some of our meetings no longer identify that way.
Mostly—demographically. The vast majority of Friends today are Christians.
Yes—technically. By this I mean that Friends hold that we retain a tradition, identity, or position until we change it in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that is, in a gathered meeting. Some yearly meetings have drifted into a post-Christian identity by a kind of thoughtless default as they remove more and more Christianity from their books of discipline. However, I know of no meeting that has ever clearly declared itself not Christian in a gathered meeting for business—or even considered the question, for that matter. Without such discernment, we remain technically Christian by our own standards—unless, as we apparently do, we consider these tacit unconsidered deletions from our formal statements of identity to be some kind of true discernment; or unless we think that just because our meeting doesn’t have many Christians that means Quakerism isn’t Christian. I don’t think this blind drift in our books of faith and practice does amount to true discernment, but I admit that this backing-out effect does carry some kind of weight—if there’s no Christianity there, then it’s not there—even if that weight is a negative weight of absence and is freighted with unconscious violations of the testimony of integrity.
Ultimately, whether we are Christian or not depends, not on who you ask or what you believe, but how you worship. It certainly is the case that many unprogrammed meetings are, in fact, post-Christian in terms of what most of their members believe. But more to the real point, since belief isn’t really the point, most liberal Friends do not put Jesus Christ at the heart of their religious lives and neither do their meetings.
That’s the real answer to the question, Are Quakers Christian? It depends, not on how a given individual might answer, and not even on how a meeting answers, but rather on how the meeting worships. Does your meeting worship Christ? Or—stretching things a little here—does your meeting understand itself to be worshipping in the spirit of Christ?
This begs a bunch of questions based on definitions, of course. What is worship? Who, or what, is Christ? And, following the stretch I offered just above, what is meant by “the spirit of Christ”? Questions for another post. Meanwhile, I think the answer for most unprogrammed meetings I know is: no, we’re not Christian. But are we then still Quaker?
As I’ve said many times in this blog, I think we in the liberal branch need to be more forthright about what our post-Christian reality really means. How can we claim to be Quakers and not be Christians? How can we claim to be a true branch of the vine when we have cut ourselves off from its roots? How can we claim our worship is true when it does not draw its spiritsap from the spirit of Christ?
I am going to make a bold apology for a clarified liberal Quaker identity that retains its roots and recovers worship in the spirit of Christ, but yet releases us from the orthodox Christian preoccupations that no longer speak to so many unprogrammed Friends.
It will take a while to unpack my thinking here. For one thing, I’m not done thinking. For another, a blog is really not the ideal format for the kind of long-form writing that careful theology requires. But this is the platform I have.