Why I Find Quakers and Their Theology Intriguing (8)

For roughly 37 years I claimed to be an Anabaptist with a strong “overlay” of Pietism, which is a kinda precursor to evangelicalism.  However, for the past ten years I have found myself more and more unsettled with my “tried and true” religious orientation.  I have changed and so has “my” denomination.  In particular, I found the worship within the tradition to be very wordy, but lacking engagement with God.  Additionally, it seemed as though we were collectively cutting the ethical orientation of the Gospel’s anchor loose from the evangelism boat which dominated the Church’s agenda, thus resulting in our drifting on the currents of cultural engagement trends.  In other words, we fixate on evangelism, but seemingly we are not very interested in discipleship.

Since August, 2011 I have been attending an unprogrammed local Quaker meeting.  The Quaker, or the Religious Society of Friends, movement began in the mid-seventeenth century under George Fox’s leadership.  “Unprogrammed” Quaker meetings are silent as those present wait for the Light, the name Fox gave to the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of the Risen Christ, to move those present to speak a message.  Traditionally, Quakers believe God has placed the Light in everyone, but not everyone listens equally well to the Light.  Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa did.  Hitler, Tomas de Torquemada, and Pol Pot not so much.  Most people lie somewhere between these two extremes.  Despite our varied openness to listening to the Light, God still desires to communicate with us.

Because the Light has been given to all people and all people can listen to God’s leading there are no “ordained” clergy within the movement.  Thus, some people think the Quakers did away with the clergy.  However, as my (F)friend Fred Baldwin pointed out at one meeting, it is more accurate to say they did away with the laity.  Friends believe in the “priesthood” of all believers.  Everyone is a minister and responsible for embodying and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.  As Rufus Jones noted, “The kingdom of God is something men do—not a place to which they go.” (This quote is taken from his book Fundamental Ends of Life.  I assume he also meant to include women, but he wrote this work in 1925.)

The Gospel is primarily “embodied” in four basic ethical convictions.  Calvinists have their TULIPs and Quakers have PIES (seriously everyone should at least be tempted to investigate the Friends because of this imagery).  PIES is an acronym for peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity.  From the beginning, Friends have been part of the historic peace church movement.  They refuse to use violence to resolve differences.  A little known fact is that William Penn and the Quakers who founded Pennsylvania had a “non-aggression” pact with the Native American tribes in the colony.  This agreement lasted for seventy years…until the Quakers lost control of the PA assembly.  Anyone who follows current PA politics knows a return to a Quaker majority would be an improvement…hopefully.

As for integrity, Friends believe they are to live lives which are consistent with the ideals they espouse.  For example, Quakers were the first religious group to ban slavery among their fellowships.  And they gave their former slaves cash upon their emancipation.  In 1790 the Friends petitioned the US Congress to abolish slavery.  These early Friends were out of step with the society in which they lived as they attempted to follow the Light as they understood it.

Within a Friends’ gathering everyone is considered to be equal.  Positions of leadership, such as they are, can be held by either men or women.  The “clerk,” or informal leader, of our meeting, i.e. congregation, is a woman.  While she has been a given particular role, her voice or opinions are no more important than anyone else’s views.  This sense of equality goes back to the very beginning.  The first Quakers refused to “tip their hats” to their social superiors…because they didn’t believe there were any superiors.  Some were put in prison for this “anti-social” behavior.

Finally, Friends seek to live simple lives.  Simplicity impacts their places and forms of worship, which are plain and straightforward.  Their attire, homes, and vehicles are (ideally) functional.  They do not commit themselves to overcommitted schedules.  Generally speaking, their basic “life styles” reveal Quakers aren’t out to impress anyone.  They attempt to live without the multi-faceted clutter that plagues so many western lives.

My close friends who are not Friends point out that I am a sad example of a Quaker, and they are probably correct to make this observation.  I point out that I was also a sad example of a pious Anabaptist.  A better spokesman for the Friends is Rufus Jones.  His book The Faith and Practice of Quakers is a classic.  And if you’d like to worship with us some time let me know.

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Author: jaymcdermond

Hmmmm. Let's see. How about a string of descriptors: Christian, husband, father of two sons, father-in-law, retired (after 29 years) college prof, wrote one book--a commentary, lived in the UK for six years, rides a Vespa, and loves Newcastle United Football Club.

7 thoughts on “Why I Find Quakers and Their Theology Intriguing (8)”

  1. Found this blog via your Facebook page. Signing on via my RSS feeder. Am caught up with your posts so far. Your pleasure reading is more like my wife’s. (I’ll gate interesting things to her.) Your theological reading is more like mine. (I just finished McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.) I don’t care even 1% about your sports enthusiasm or milk bottles. But I like you. So don’t bash mathematicians, ex-gays, poor swimmers, retirees, or the Evangelical Free Church of America. I know where you live.

  2. Stumbled upon the Quakers in seminary. I know I visited a meeting once, maybe while at Messiah’s Philly campus? I visited Pendle Hill, near Philadelphia while writing a paper about education that was heavily influenced by Parker Palmer. I find myself and my peers having less use for typical Sunday morning experiences – although I love writing and giving a sermon – I feel a little uncomfortable that so much time is given to one person’s experience of the “light.” What I wonder is, how do Quakers cultivate discipleship outisde of meetings. Foster, of course, is very deep in spiritual disciplines, but is that typical of the “everyday” Quaker?

  3. That is a really good question, Kelly. I am so new to the tradition that I am not sure I can honestly answer it. However, here are my observations based on ten months. First, the Carlisle meeting intentionally organizes times for study and conversation. Currently, we are reading and discussing Douglas Gwyn’s book, __Conversation with Christ: Quaker Meditations on the Gospel of John__. Also, the Baltimore Yearly Meeting (conference) periodically sends “queries” to the local meetings for reflection and discussion. These queries tend to focus on the spiritual health and cultural relevance of the local meeting and members. A schedule of second hour meetings, after the hour of worship, are given over to these discussions. Finally, it is evident that members spend their lives outside of the meeting times processing religious/spiritual questions, thoughts and so on. Often a person’s message during worship is triggered by something that happened in the course of their week where they were thinking about God’s engagement with the world and how they sense we are to be responding. I would say this is perhaps the one factor setting Quakers (or at least the Quakers I know) apart–their daily lives seem to be more focused on the Other, as Rufus Jones would say.

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Jay. I, too, have found a home in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting.

    Something I find challenging is all I have learned about the hatred early (Christian) church leaders reserved for gnosticism, a theological thread that seems to me to run through modern Quaker faith. The way I have resolved it (partly) is by thinking about how the gnostics believed that they had a corner on the Light, that their interpretation/understanding of God is somehow superior, and that their secret knowledge isn’t open to the majority of humanity. Whereas Quakerism espouses the belief that the Light is in all and through all, and there are not special secret ways to gain access. There is still so much I want to learn…

    Anyway, I very much enjoy your blog and hope to hear more about what you’re reading these days. (And how is your commentary on the Johns selling?! I hope it’s doing well.)

    1. Thanks Janel. A fellow Quaker. Nice. What yearly meeting is your meeting a part of?

      I think the Friends’ approach to the faith helps resolve (in a way I can live with, but probably not in a final sense ’cause only God has the final sense) a number of issues other approaches to the faith don’t. Of course, the tradition’s perspective opens up new “issues”, some of which I am not quite “naturally” in tune with…yet. That is okay in my mind ’cause I am inclined to believe the Christian faith is a long process of learning and moving deeper into God.

      The commentary is selling well. Reportedly, there are less than around 500 copies of the initial run left.

      Keep well.

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