What Can We Say? The Essentials of Quaker Faith

July 18, 2012 § 6 Comments

What follows is a general introduction to an essay that I began more than twenty years ago and have been working on ever since. After this introduction, I offer an outline version of a longer essay that is just too long for the blog format. Friends who want to read the full treatment can download this pdf, What Can We Say? The Essentials of Quaker Faith.

What do Quakers believe?

When someone asks a Friend (at least a Quaker from the ‘liberal’ branch of Friends), “What do Quakers believe?”, we often find ourselves fumbling for an answer. How can you give an answer that is true to the depth of our tradition and yet simple enough and short enough to serve in the situation? How can you give an answer that honors the full breadth of our tradition, that includes Friends from Kenya and Philadelphia, from London and Belize, from Richmond, Indiana, and Barnesville, Ohio?

Such an answer was given to me in 1991 at the Friends Consultation on Quaker Treasure. Each year (do they still do this? I haven’t kept up), Earlham School of Religion and Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana, co-sponsor a gathering of Friends from across the Quaker spectrum to consider some aspect of Quaker faith and practice. That year, the question was, “What do we all hold in common as Quaker treasure?” What are the essentials of Quaker faith? The full answer revealed to us that weekend was very much deeper and broader than the synthesis I offer here. But I have found myself led to distill the fruits of that labor into a framework that is both accessible and as faithful to the Truth as I can make it, hoping to put into the hands of Friends a way to answer the question of what we believe that serves both the needs of people who so enquire and, especially, the needs of Friends who want to be able to answer with integrity and confidence.

Friends at the consultation were brought into unity around four—and then five—basic tenets of Quaker faith.

  1. We believe—because we have experienced it ourselves—that we are each called to a personal, direct, unmediated relationship with God.
  2. We believe—because we have experienced it—that the meeting as a corporate body is also called to a direct, unmediated relationship with God.
  3. We believe in God’s continuing revelation.
  4. We believe that we are each called to live our lives as outward testimony to our inner truth.
  5. We are called to love—to love God, to love each other, to love even our enemies.

The consultation

Each year, Earlham School of Religion and Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana, co-sponsor a consultation at the conference center on a theme of Quaker interest. The 1991 consultation followed the year in which Friends United Meeting came to final closure on the issue of “realignment,” in which some Friends were calling for FUM to declare itself unequivocally evangelical in its perspective and separate itself from its post-Christian and even non-evangelical elements. Out of this struggle over internal theological diversity came this query as a focus for the consultation: what do we hold in trust together—what do we all have in common as essential Quakerism?

The format of these consultations is one of the great contributions of modern Friends to our tradition of discernment, in my opinion. It’s simple and it makes ample room for the work of the Holy Spirit. The consultation is invitational. Invited are seasoned Friends and Friends who are relatively new to the Society but who have passion and show promise. Each participant is sent a set of queries ahead of time, to be answered briefly in writing. The consultation begins on Thursday night, so it includes all day Friday. There are three presentations that are intended to provide some framework and serve as springboards for discussion. But the substantive work is done in small groups of six, each with a prepared facilitator. In the first small group session, each person shares her or his answers to the queries. In the next sessions, the small groups seek to come to unity on an answer to the queries as a group. Finally, the small groups bring their corporate responses to the plenary and the whole body seeks to come to unity on one combined testimony. A couple of seasoned Friends are appointed as prayer elders to hold the gathering in the Light and a couple of Friends serve as recorders, so that each consultation produces a record document. The documents for this consultation and for many others are available at a reasonable price from the conference center’s bookstore. They are really vauable resources.

This consultation was the most gathered meeting of Friends I have ever attended. On Saturday evening, we found ourselves agreeing to every one of the over fifty offerings presented in the small group reports. We were increasingly gathered in a Spirit of Love and Truth as we labored together, even as we felt our differences more and more acutely. Evangelical pastors and ‘liberal universalists’, Friends with a fundamental commitment to scripture and non-Christian Friends, programmed and unprogrammed Friends—across the full spectrum of Quaker faith and practice, we felt caught up in the presence of Christ in our midst. Though we named this Presence differently—and insisted on our separate names—yet we were shown experimentally that our experience was one, and that it was deeper than words or ideas. It was an experience of heart and soul, as well.

Some of us were literally Quaking during the Saturday evening plenary session. Most of us continued to feel this movement of the Spirit the next morning. I can still feel it right now, a little. So these ‘four things all Quakers believe’ are, for me, more than just a solid consensus representing today’s Quaker diversity. They have for me the authority of the Holy Spirit.

I must add, though, that since that gathering I have met a couple of Friends who literally believe—and felt at the time—that Satan had seized the gathering, leading it into untruth. These were evangelical Friends who obviously felt a spirit moving through us and whose deep commitment to Jesus Christ as the necessary center of Quaker faith felt, I think, that any expansion or softening of the boundaries to include beliefs and experience that were not fully centered in Christ were a movement away from the center, from the Truth and Life in Christ. That is Satan’s work.

So clearly, this attempt to express the essentials of Quaker faith that you are about to read speaks most clearly to liberal Quaker sensibilities and does not speak for all Friends. At the same time, this essay (the long version, at least) will probably feel very Christian and traditional to many readers. In the long version, I’ve included the Bible passages I know of that support each of these essentials and also quotes from George Fox that are saturated with his distinctive, forcefully Christian language. The vocabulary we have inherited from our tradition is Christian in its origins and in its ways of thinking. This worldview, these words and phrases, are so integral to the traditional language of Friends and the theology it expresses that opening up Quaker essentials without them would do real violence to the truth.

Liberal Friends have been moving away from this traditional language for a while, in several ways: by shifting to new vocabulary (for example, from “vocal ministry” to “speaking in meeting”); by redefining or ignoring the meaning of older language (for example, losing the context of divine judgment in the use of words like “testimony” and “witness”); and by our approach to theology itself, by redefining Quakerism in terms of values and behavior rather than tenets of faith, with an attendant nervousness and even hostility toward words and ideas, emphasizing instead the value of silence and personal experience. In the process, the content of traditional Quaker faith is dissolving. This is one of the reasons we have trouble answering the question, “What do Quakers believe?” With this short presentation and the longer essay, I seek to reverse this trend. We need our content. We need our tradition. We need to be able to articulate our faith, and still be faithful to our experience with our words. So this essay joyfully embraces our traditional language.

Moreover, I feel strongly that, for many important reasons, the Religious Society of Friends was and is still a Christian religion, even in its most liberal strongholds, notwithstanding the fact that post-Christian, nonbiblical, even post-traditional people and sensibilities now often dominate in liberal Quaker meetings. We are a Christian religion because of the weight of our history and the demographics of Quaker membership worldwide even today. More importantly, we are a Christian community because it is our practice that we only lay down a tradition for a new revelation when we know we have been led collectively to do so by the Spirit, as we have, for instance, in the case of slavery. Such a discernment—to declare ourselves post- or non-Christian—has never been undertaken by any meeting that I know of; it has only been taken for granted. Until we decide that we are no longer Christian in good gospel order, we remain what we always have been—a people gathered by Christ. Whether Christ still gathers us in our present state is a separate question.

Meanwhile, I feel very stronglly that Friends like myself who are not Christian are guests in Christ’s house, and we should act like guests: we should welcome Christian and biblical language among us—we should welcome Christ himself among us! And, when someone asks us what Quakers believe, we should claim our Christian identity and not just our Christian roots when we answer them, without hesitation or apology. That’s what I’ve tried to do with this offering.

But these issues divert us from our course and they demand much more thorough treatment than I can give them here. I just needed to say that such a stark difference in experience at the consultation has made me question my own experience. I have meditated on this a great deal, and it has humbled me. I remain confident that something powerful and positive happened that weekend. I have tried to make this synthesis of its fruits as faithful a presentation as I can offer. And it reminds us that basic questions of faith and religious experience still divide Friends. My readers need to know where I stand and I hope you will listen carefully to your own Inner Guide while reading, to test whether you feel the truth awakened within you, even when you’re feeling uncomfortable.

Why do I focus on these four Quaker essentials when we actually agreed to more than fifty at the consultation? The first four were explicitly mentioned in some way by each of the six small groups in their plenary reports. We ended up agreeing to all fifty. But we started out agreeing to these four. Furthermore, the rest of the fifty can be subsumed under one or more of the central four, so that they become ‘headings’ of a sort. Even the fifth, the commandment of love, finds a home under this rubric. I have found that one of the most valuable things about these four is that they can be unpacked and used as a springboard from which to elaborate on the full breadth of Quaker faith and practice. They provide a simple, convenient framework for a rich discussion of Quaker tradition.

What about the fifth Quaker essential, love? On Sunday morning, during our only fully programmed meeting for worship, our clerk Jan Wood showed us in her sermon that we had with our labor and experience manifested a fifth thing we held in common: love. She opened a number of passages from the Bible on love in the context of our work together and she named the spirit that we had felt ourselves gathered into the night before: love, love of God manifesting as love of each other. And through her sermon we were gathered up again.

Now: let’s look at these Quaker essentials in some detail. Actually, this is just a list. For a full treatment of everything in this list, I invite you to download the longer essay, What Can We Say? The Essentials of Quaker Faith.

The Essentials of Quaker Faith—An Outline

Friends believe (because they have experienced it themselves) that . . .

  1. God calls each of us into a direct, personal, and unmediated relationship.
  2. God also calls the community into a direct and unmediated relationship.
  3. God is continually revealing God’s self through God’s ongoing presence.
  4. God calls us to live our faith in practice.

Subsumed under these principles are the Quaker distinctives, the elements of tradition that make up Quaker faith and practice:

1.  God calls each of us into a direct, personal, and unmediated relationship.

  • The Light—there is a principle in every person (often called the Light, the Seed, ‘that of God’) that can know God directly.
  • Experience—what canst thou say? Friends base their religious lives on what they themselves have experienced.
  • No outward sacraments.
  • Universal grace.
  • Equality before God.
  • Ministry—God can call anyone into service.
  • Perfectionism.
  • Quaking.
  • Miracles.

2.  God calls the community into a direct and unmediated relationship.

  • Silent, waiting worship.
  • Business under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
  • Ministry—God generates ministry in the meeting for worship through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This alone qualifies a minister, not formal training, certification, or outward liturgical forms like ordination.
  • Corporate discernment: the meeting for business in worship, minutes for travel or service, released ministry, recording.
  • Corporate discernment: clearness committees, meetings for threshing.
  • Gospel order.
  • No ‘days and occasions’.
  • Opportunities.
  • Advices & Queries.
  • State of society reports.

3.  God is continually revealing, through God’s ongoing presence.

  • Continuing revelation/illumination.
  • Openings, leadings, and callings.
  • Biblical authority secondary to that of the spirit of Christ, and interpretation of Scripture “in the Spirit in which they were given forth”.
  • No creeds.

4.  God calls us to live our outward lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened in us inwardly.

  • Quaker spirituality of inward “listening”.
  • Ministry—God reveals the Truth through the prophetic ministry of Friends whom God has prompted to serve. This involves discipline, discernment, and discipleship on the part of the individual minister, and discipline, discernment, and eldership (both nurture and oversight) on the part of the meeting.
  • The commandment of love.
  • The testimonies.
  • Witness.
  • Service
  • Missions and evangelism.

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