Friends Relating to Other Christian Churches
Identity, Authority & Community Consultation II
Pendle Hill Conference Center
July 19, 2000
In December 1998, I stood in an enormous tent in Harare Zimbabwe
with over 5,000 other people, praising God together. We came from
almost every country and almost every denomination in the world.
The choir was leading us in a South African praise song. We stood,
and waved our arms over our heads, and I felt fully released into
the joy and presence of that moment. My American and Quaker inhibitions
melted away as tears streamed down my face. I could see around me
that elderly hierarchs in black robes were moving with that same
Spirit. Young African men hungry for justice were tasting freedom.
Indigenous women from the mountains of Peru — European bishops
— Indians from the untouchable caste — Africans whose
Christian faith springs from African spirituality rather than colonial
legacy — Methodists from tiny south Pacific islands —
Sudanese refugees — a 30-year old Quaker mother and graduate
student from Boston — we all were seized by the one Holy Spirit
and, as our bodies moved together, we became the one body of Christ.
Our churches have written volumes denouncing each other as heretics,
yet the living word of Christ who knows each heart gave complete
assurance to our unity. Even the tent itself began to move, as a
fierce thunderstorm raged around us. This baptism by fire was the
opening worship of the World Council of Churches Assembly, and it
was a point of no return on my personal quest for a vision of Christian
So, the topic of this session — Quakers relating to the other
Christian churches — is a deeply personal one for me. The
fact that it has been a recurrent theme through my spiritual journey
has led me to do both theological and practical work on the subject.
This presentation will weave my own story together with my analytical
I discovered Quakers at the age of 14, when a friend from school
invited me to attend a Young Friends event. At that time, I was
actively involved in the youth group of my Unitarian Universalist
Church. However, I immediately sensed a profound difference between
the UU youth group and Young Friends, and instantly began calling
myself a Quaker. I didn’t know any Quaker history or theology
yet, but I knew a depth of spiritual experience — of open
and honest seeking, of loving community, and of integrity between
words and actions — which were utterly new and convincing.
I had been raised in a family without any denominational loyalty.
We changed churches whenever my mother became dissatisfied or restless.
My childhood memory includes Quaker, Congregational, charismatic
Catholic, and Unitarian Universalist churches. However, it was the
UU church which had the most formative influence on me. It was there
that I learned that all truth claims are relative, that faith is
a matter of personal choice, and that all choices are equally valid.
The logical conclusion of these lessons was that there is no objective
entity called “God” with whom we have a relationship
of substance — no Truth (with a capital T). I learned a rational
system of ethical/humanistic philosophy that removed spiritual experience
from my palate.
Quakers, even Quaker teenagers, offered shocking evidence of another
possibility. I threw myself into Quaker experience, reveling in
the deep open worship and blessed loving community of Young Friends.
I committed every day, with the full zeal of a teenager, to “walk
cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.”
I renounced my former UU ideas as a heresy of relativism. But if
UUs were too rational, I still thought that Christians were irrational
and misogynistic. For the next eight years, I called myself a Universalist
Quaker, and bristled under any implication that there was only one
path to the top of the mountain.
Therefore, it came as quite a surprise, to both me and my husband,
when I became a Christian on our honeymoon! We were at the World
Conference of Friends in Kenya in 1991, and for the first time I
was hearing impassioned, convincing, personal testimony from Christian
Quakers, especially the Africans. It was making me very angry, and
I was fighting with every masculine word I heard. Then came a particular
moment — and I know not all conversion experiences happen
in a sudden way, but mine did — while I was listening to Miriam
Were, a Kenyan Quaker. I was stricken by the devastating knowledge
that I had been refusing God’s invitation to a deeper, more
intimate and fulfilling relationship. I sometimes liken this moment
to Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. It wasn’t
gentle and comforting. It was a searing experience to see my own
sins so clearly. I wasn’t given any ready-made answers —
I had to work those out little by little, starting from scratch.
But I was unmistakably changed. God picked me up from where I was
standing, spun me around, plunked me down facing in a new direction,
gave me a shove on the back, and said “go that way.”
Go find Jesus.
Immediately I began reading theology, and within two years I had
discerned a vocational call to ministry and began studying at a
seminary. I wanted to understand Quakerism, particularly the divisions
between the branches of Friends. The leading which had taken me
to Kenya in 1991 — to be a reconciler and healer among the
divided family of Friends — further developed as I came to
understand Quaker theology more deeply. Studying at an Episcopal
seminary within an ecumenical consortium of nine seminaries gave
me an education in Church history and tradition which allowed me
to view Quakers “from the outside,” so to speak. Taking
courses with John Punshon at Earlham School of Religion gave me
an opportunity to articulate a Quaker theology “from the inside.”
I began developing an understanding of Quakers as a Christian church
within the historical stream of the Christian Tradition —
an ecumenically-informed Quaker ecclesiology (ecclesiology being
the doctrine of the church).
One of the most formative influences on me was Lewis Benson’s
book Catholic Quakerism. I was inspired by his confidence
in the Quaker message and mission. His comprehensive doctrine of
the church made a lot of sense to be. I became a Bensonite. I’d
like to take the time here to review Benson’s theology, since
in many ways my subsequent personal struggle to articulate a Quaker
ecclesiology which has integrity for me has been a struggle against
Before proposing his own ecclesiological model for Friends, Lewis
Benson reviews four other contemporary ways of classifying Quakerism.
The “Mystical Quakerism” model traces our spiritual
ancestry through the stream of Christian mystics in history. This
model would see Quakers as the mystical arm of Christianity, allied
with mystics from the other world religions. The “Liberal
Quakerism” model emphasizes intellectual speculation and individual
liberty, with each person free to pursue his or her own spiritual
path. In this model, Quakerism is destined to be a small group,
since not many people thrive in this intellectual and spiritual
freedom. The “Evangelical Quakerism” model adopts the
worldviews of Calvinism and the Wesleyan revival, downplays the
Quaker distinctives, and allies with other evangelical denominations.
The “Radical Puritanism” model looks at the historical
roots of Quakerism in Puritan England, and finds that Quakers were
simply the most radical version of the larger Puritan movement.
There are certainly further models for describing Quakerism than
these four, and I will offer a somewhat more comprehensive list
later on. But this is what Benson offers as his “straw horse”
before dismissing them all with the statement that “each of
the four types of modern Quakerism is leading the Society of Friends
away from a sense of universal mission. Each has been willing to
complacently accept the role of a small sect in a big world.”
(p.11) This, then, is Benson’s test of a view of Quakerism
— is it universal or is it sectarian?
Benson names his proposal “Catholic Quakerism.” (Catholic,
to him, meaning universally true or whole unto itself, although
this is a distortion of the meaning of catholic in the creed, as
I will say more about later on.) Benson feels that we have to believe
that Quakerism is the true church, in distinction to all other churches,
in order for Quakerism to make any sense. He claims that the early
Friends believed this about themselves.
Here’s a summary of Benson’s argument: the root of
the church is the new covenant, initiated by God through the perpetually
new act of redemption by Jesus Christ on the cross. Participation
in this new covenant involves obeying Christ and being gathered
into the community of believers. The new covenant creates relationships
rather than institutions — it is a religion-less way to God,
rooted in God’s initiative rather than our own inventiveness.
Very early in the history of Christianity, as we can see from the
pastoral epistles, the church lost touch with this root of perpetual
newness as it built structures and institutions for self-perpetuation.
Thus it devolved into a community of the old covenant, of laws and
external rites. It became the Constantinian Church — the church
built by men, with human rather than divine leadership. It is this
church which the early Friends describe as apostate, meaning fallen
away from the true faith.
Through the centuries, the church continued to build on this root
of apostasy, creating structures and rituals which lacked the true
spirit. According to Benson, “this man-made Christianity [became]
a system of religion which completely eclipsed the new way to God
that Christ had inaugurated.” (Benson, p. 14) Although the
Reformation was a divinely-inspired impulse away from apostasy,
the Reformers stopped short of restoring the true and pure Christian
church, and rather slipped back into the spirit of Popery. Benson
quotes an early Friend, Edward Burrough, as saying: “the Protestant
church, and worship, and ministry, are not another in nature and
being, than the Romish Church, ministry and worship, but are sprung
therefrom as branches out of the same root, the ground being one
and the same though differing in appearance.” (Benson p. 14-15)
Quakerism, according to Benson, is not an attempt to reform the
church, but to begin again at the source. It is the recovery of
the new covenant church, the religion-less community. It is thus
in stark discontinuity with both Protestantism and Catholicism —
it is a Christian community again grounded in the root and foundation
of Christianity, which is the dialogic relationship between God
and humanity. Quakerism it the church of the cross, a “major
reorientation” (p. 16) of Christianity which is in utter opposition
to the institutional “Christian religion.”
With such a definition of Quakerism, we should not be surprised
that Lewis Benson is opposed to the ecumenical project, as he understands
it. He sees the ecumenical movement as implying that the church
is, of necessity, an institution; and that denominations are fragments
of a greater whole (ruling out the idea that one denomination might
be whole unto itself). Benson pleads for us to challenge these presuppositions
of ecumenism and not accede to them. We have been too willing to
accept a definition of ourselves as sectarian, small and marginal,
rather than claiming who we really are — the new covenant
church in its wholeness. “Not many Friends today would agree
with the early Friends that Quakerism is good and true for all men
[sic] everywhere in all ages, and that it is destined to be the
prevailing pattern for the Christianity of the future.” (p.
90) Rather, we see ourselves as a special order with a higher calling
within the church. But Benson claims that “the day when the
Quakers accept the status of an order within a church structure
based on Constantinian presuppositions will be the day when the
early Quaker vision will cease to have any power to shape Christian
history.” (p. 42)
When I first read Benson, I was inspired by that level of confidence.
It made my being a Quaker meaningful and purposeful. It stood in
profound contrast to my Unitarian Universalist Church teaching,
in which all truth was relative and therefore somehow untruthful.
I wanted to believe in something that I really believed was True
(capital T) — true for everyone, everywhere. I wanted a confident
faith, and Benson was the person who showed it to me.
I still do believe in Truth with a capital T, but now Benson’s
form of confidence strikes me as triumphalistic. He has been accused
of being “historically ungrateful”, and I would say
this is an understatement. According to his version of church history,
no true church existed between the time of Constantine and the time
of George Fox. His sweeping rejection of all non-Quaker churches
is a priori — based on a theoretical doctrine which
precedes and trumps experience. It is certainly true that, throughout
much of its history, the church hierarchy has been intermingled
with secular power to such a great degree that horrible atrocities
have been perpetrated in the name of Christ. However, it is also
true that Christ’s saving power has been at work in the church
— I have only to stand in the holy quietness of a great cathedral,
to listen to a sung mass, or to read the testimony of people like
Julian of Norwich, to know that the Holy Spirit has never abandoned
the church. And while I’m not an early Friends scholar, I
can say that it is profoundly historically inaccurate, as well as
ungrateful, to claim that the early Friends did not drink from the
cup of those who came before them.
Benson’s use of the term “catholic” to describe
Quakerism shows a profound misunderstanding of the catholicity of
the church. He uses it to mean that Quakers are uniquely universal
and whole unto ourselves. This is in some ways the antithesis of
the intent in the Nicene creed, in which the universality and wholeness
of the church is rooted in the divine embrace of all creation. Catholicity
is the mark of a church which is, through its worship in communion
with God, transcending all human barriers of race, class, gender,
age, and culture. Catholicity is about the fusion of horizontal
and vertical relationships — both human-with-human and human-with-divine
— such that each penetrates the other. No one church can claim
exclusive right to the designation “catholic”; such
a claim negates itself, for catholicity implies an intercommunion
which transcends lines of difference. In some ways, our testimony
on integrity, which expresses the quality of wholeness of our faith,
is our distinctive articulation of the catholicity of the church.
I have also come to doubt the depth of Benson’s understanding
and the extent of his personal experience of the ecumenical movement.
Although it was a stepping stone for me in my journey, I now seriously
doubt the relevance of his outdated and uncharitable description
of ecumenical goals and presuppositions. Much of his discussion
of ecumenism consists of comparing our best to someone else’s
worst, an attitude which is indeed incompatible with the ecumenical
movement, and I would think also incompatible with the Quaker movement.
But these critical reflections on Benson only developed for me over
time. When I first read him, he was enormously influential to me,
and it was with his definition of Quakerism in mind that I entered
the ecumenical movement.
Back to my personal story — I got involved in Friends United
Meeting in 1993 as a representative from New England Yearly Meeting
to the FUM General Board. At that time, FUM had just come through
the Realignment Controversy — the proposal that American Quakerism
realign itself into two groupings, liberal and evangelical, thus
eliminating the middle ground which FUM tries so hard to maintain.
Although the proposal was defeated, it left wounds which were still
fresh when I joined the FUM General Board. Many of the same issues
which drove the Realignment proposal — the desire to separate
from perceived doctrinal impurity, and the feeling that our freedom
is curtailed if we cooperate with those who are not like us —
reemerged almost immediately in the form of a proposal that FUM
resign from the World Council of Churches and the National Council
of Churches of Christ in the USA. I didn’t know anything about
these councils or the ecumenical movement, but I knew on a gut level
that separation was wrong, that we need not fear the other if we
know ourselves. I saw that what was at stake in this question was
our own deepest self-understanding.
FUM sent the matter of its ecumenical relationships to the member
Yearly Meetings for study and response. I became involved in New
England Yearly Meeting’s process, and decided to educate myself
about the issues involved. I read a whole stack of materials from
those Friends who were calling for resignation, and began to see
that much of the information they were using was neither accurate
nor reputable. Yet beneath the ideological diatribe from the Christian
Right media, there was the very real question of who we are as Friends,
and what that implies about our attitude toward the other churches.
At a meeting of the Yearly Meeting Ministry & Counsel Committee,
I again felt seized by God. I knew that God was leading me to work
further on this question of Quaker ecumenism, and this became the
focus of my academic work. I also offered my name to the Nominating
Committee of FUM to represent FUM at the 8th Assembly of the World
Council of Churches.
I was dogged by the question which Lewis Benson provokes —
what if I believe that my church is the one true church? On what
grounds, then, do I consent to cooperate with other churches? (And
by the way, the WCC does not, as Benson claims, prejudge the answer
to those questions.) Benson’s undifferentiated a priori
judgment of all other churches struck an increasingly dissonant
chord when I began actually encountering the other churches, especially
in their worshipping life. They at their best didn’t seem,
to me, to be so starkly different from Friends at our best. I felt
spiritually compelled to cultivate a generous attitude. Yet I wasn’t
willing to surrender the quest for a confident self-image of Quakerism.
As Benson puts it, I was not willing “to complacently accept
the role of a small sect in a big world.” (Benson p. 11)
Benson seems to require an oppositional stance in order to assert
a collective Quaker self-confidence. In order for us to be “true”,
all others must be false. Although I’m not an early Friends
scholar, it is undeniable that the early Friends engaged in a good
bit of this type of rhetoric. Barclay, in the Conclusion to his
Apology, in which he describes the distinction between Friends and
the other churches, calls those others “the dead, dark, corrupt
image and mere shadow and shell of Christianity with which Antichrist
has deceived the nations.” (Barclay, Freiday ed., p. 439).
Given the level of persecution which early Friends experienced,
and the extent of political power and corruption in the churches
of the time, one can hardly blame them for their anger. Yet it is
also the case that every church reform movement sees itself as “begin-again
Christianity”, and engages in polemic against that from which
it separated. In this respect, we are in fact no different at all.
I would claim that there is an abiding truth which rises
from that early polemical rhetoric, in the form of a doctrine which
is normative for all Friends everywhere. However, contrary to Benson,
this normative doctrine is not the a priori rejection of
other churches as being hopelessly apostate. Rather, it is the rejection
of the ungodly powers and principalities of this world and their
attempt to use Christ’s church for their own purpose. It is
this which is “Constantinian”, and it is this which
we still refute today. When I speak so positively about my experience
of the other church traditions, I do not, by any means, want to
imply that there is no place for a prophetic critique. The demonic
does still maintain some hold on the church and world, and will
undoubtedly continue to do so until the final consummation. Where
the powers of racism, of sexism, of violence, of oppression, exclusion
and privilege, are at work in the church today, we are rightly called
to name this “apostasy” — a falling away from
true Christian faith.
Thus my experience as a Friend amid the variety of the world’s
Christians has prompted me to do some thinking about Quaker ecclesiology
— a Quaker understanding of the church — in order to
articulate an alternative to Benson. I don’t claim to have
read everything that’s been written on the subject, but I
have developed a proposal for a Quaker ecclesiology — a confident
Quaker self-image — which is not based on an a priori
rejection of the other. It seeks to express in positive terms the
uniqueness of Friends by describing our experience of the marks
of the church — the qualities which define “church”.
According to the Nicene creed, the marks of the church are oneness,
holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. The reformation articulated
the marks of the church as “word and sacrament” —
the church is present where the word is rightly preached and the
sacraments are rightly administered. While not excluding any of
these other marks, I would claim that they are secondary to the
primary mark of the church, which is the experience of God’s
immediate self-giving initiative.
I propose that the grounding principle of Quaker ecclesiology is
the radically real presence of the living Christ in the worshipping
community. The church, by definition, is the community of that presence
— of that gift which we neither create nor capture, but only
enjoy. The presence is radically, scandalously real, not symbolic
or remembered. It is operative in our midst, actively teaching,
leading, ministering, and healing. It is the living Christ, the
Jesus of Scripture and Christian tradition, the incarnation of God
and resurrected savior, who is present in the room with us. Christ’s
presence is experienced in the community as community, in the transformation
of relationships, in the growth of a reconciling spirit, in the
gathering of diverse persons into profound unity, in the continuity
of the community through history.
It is this radically real presence of the living Christ in the
worshipping community which makes something a “church”.
This means that a church is neither validated nor invalidated by
any other criteria. To be a true church does not require such things
as bishops in apostolic succession, outward practice of the eucharist,
or the profession of a particular creed. Neither, though, does a
true church require rejection of these things. These may or may
not be infused with Christ’s presence, and it is the presence
which validates the church. Ultimately, it is God, by the gift of
His presence, and not human structures and institutions or the absence
of them, which create a church.
I have concluded that Friends have more in common with the other
churches than we have different — because the living Christ
is One — but that doesn’t mean our radical witness isn’t
necessary. The churches and the world are hungry for the immediacy
and simplicity of Quaker experience. I propose that an understanding
of Quaker mission within my proposed ecclesial definition would
see us holding the memory and proclaiming the possibility, indeed
the experiential reality, of the radically real presence of the
living Christ. Our charism as Friends — our spiritual gift
— is that we are particularly attune to Christ’s presence
and leadership in the church. We have taken the consequences of
His presence to such an extent that we represent a profound challenge
to the rest of the Christian Tradition. As Britain Yearly Meeting
stated in a document explaining Friends’ witness on the sacraments:
“we believe we hold this witness in trust for the whole church.”
(To Lima With Love, London Yearly Meeting, 1987, ¶
23) We have a corporate experience as a Religious Society, and we
have a corporate leading to witness to this experience. We are certainly
not the only ones throughout history to witness to this experience.
To claim this as our leading doesn’t require that we’re
the only ones who experience Christ’s presence in our midst.
Essential to the integrity of our witness is the conscious practice
of recognizing Christ’s presence wherever we discern it, refusing
to allow it to be held captive to human categories. We have based
all our institutions of church order on the central principle that
a human institution can not domesticate God. But the corollary of
this is that a human institution can not prevent God from being
present either. We can rejoice in the presence of the Lord, whether
we are experiencing that presence in the silent meeting, or in the
Holiness tent revival, or in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.
We can welcome Christ into every experience, responding to His presence
even when it comes in unfamiliar ways. If we cease to be receptive
to the presence of God in the other, we cease to be Quakers.
This foundational ecclesiology and spiritual orientation make a
profoundly fertile ground for Quaker ecumenical participation. We
can rejoice in fellowship with other Christian churches, and confidently
witness to our experience as Friends. The truth of all truths, the
thing we are most compelled to proclaim, requires that
we seek the Lord in every corner. We are called upon to maintain
an open and generous heart toward those who are different from us.
We have much to give, and much to gain. To isolate ourselves with
a sociological or theological hedge is to give anti-witness to the
Truth as revealed to Friends, both by withholding our truth, and
by closing ourselves off from the truth as experienced by others.
As Maurice Creasey put it in an essay entitled “The Ecumenical
Role of the Society of Friends”: “Out of the three centuries
of our experience we have important things to say to the churches,
not a few of which are clearly feeling after some such understanding
of Christian discipleship in community as the Society has always
sought to embody. At the same time we have to recognize that our
particular insights require to be related to the whole context of
Christian faith and experience in all its richness and variety if
they are to be saved from exaggeration and exclusiveness.”
(Creasey, “The Ecumenical Role of the Society of Friends,”
in No Time But This Present: Studies preparatory to the fourth
world conference of Friends, 1965, p. 53)
One area where, in my opinion, we are most in need of being ministered
to by the other churches is in our view of the sacraments. Our testimony
is that: “however valid and vital outward sacraments are for
others, they are not, in our experience, necessary for the operation
of God’s grace.” (To Lima with Love, ¶ 23) While
I wholeheartedly affirm this statement, my experience is that in
practice, very few Friends (at least in North America and Europe)
are in the habit of recognizing and naming the operation of God’s
grace in their lives, of offering public testimony to the baptism
of the Holy Spirit, of recalling the communion of Jesus with his
disciples as we gather in worship. We have lost a corporate sense
of what the sacraments represent, so that we are unable to recognize
and name such spiritual events when they occur. How often do we
hear a Friend state that Quakers don’t believe in the sacraments
— what could be further from the truth! Rather, we hold the
sacraments in such high regard that we are unwilling to ritualize
them. Or at least, we ought to hold them in that regard. But we’ve
forgotten what they mean in their liturgical usage, which makes
our testimony of non-liturgical usage ring rather hollow. I have
been greatly enriched, and I believe Friends at large would be too,
by a careful study of such things as the WCC document on “Baptism,
Eucharist and Ministry”, not for the purpose of calling into
question our testimony on sacraments, but rather so that we might
be renewed in our testimony.
Unfortunately, many contemporary Friends, from all branches, are
afraid of contamination, of being weakened by contact with the theologically
“other”. Listening to the witness and tradition of another
person, church or culture which has a different experience can feel
enormously threatening. Forming a community with those whose voices
are different from ours can make us fearful of losing our own voice.
This is as true on an interpersonal level as it is on a corporate
level. There is a strong human desire to isolate into homogenous
communities, because difference is scary. In one anti-ecumenical
article in Quaker Life, the author equates the testimony
on integrity with uncompromising purity, with being “ever
vigilant of our associations.” (Quaker Life, June
1995 p. 23) She concludes that, in order to preserve our integrity,
we must sever our ties with the ecumenical movement. To my mind,
this is a profound misunderstanding of the integrity to which we
are called. It shows distrust of God.
The goal of the ecumenical movement — to bring Christ’s
divided people into a fellowship of love and service in communion
with God — is also precisely the goal of Quaker worship. When
we speak of a “gathered meeting”, we are speaking of
the unity which we receive as a gift, when our broken corporate
body is raised up to participate in the divine nature. I have found
it helpful to hear this experience described in trinitarian language.
The Holy Trinity, itself a unity of distinct persons in mutual self-giving
relationship, becomes the model for the church. Just as the unity
of God is a triunity, so our unity as Christians is multifaceted
and richly textured. We aim not at uniformity, but at blessed community.
This blessedness is not something we receive in order to possess,
nor is it a demand which we strive to fulfill. Rather, it is a quality
of the divine nature in which we participate. To willfully separate
ourselves from our brothers and sisters out of an obsession with
purity is to willfully remove ourselves from participation in the
triune nature of God. Just as Jesus was not compromised by his association
with sinners and tax collectors, but rather it was in these relationships
that his gospel was most clearly revealed, we are not called to
be pure and set apart.
My experience has been that to be a Quaker within the ecumenical
movement has brought spiritual riches to myself and my community,
strengthening my Quaker identity rather than diluting it. God has
offered me opportunities to stretch and grow, to witness and influence
others, to listen and be influenced, and to re-articulate ever more
clearly what I believe to be the essential message of Friends. I
am surprised to find, after only two years of involvement, how deeply
connected I feel and how much I’ve grown. Much of this is
due to my service on the Central Committee of the World Council
of Churches, which is the WCC’s governing body. When I was
in Harare at the Assembly, I discovered my name on the list of nominations
for the new Central Committee. I still don’t have an explanation
of how my name came to be on that list (although I’m certain
that the quotas for participation of women and young people had
something to do with it). I spent a torturous several days seeking
clarity on whether to allow my name to go forward. I prayed and
wrote in my journal. I emailed my elders at home for advice. I sought
counsel from the other Quakers who were there, from some people
who had experience with the Central Committee, and from the other
youth delegates. After 11 hours of frantically trying to phone home,
I finally reached my husband Jim and talked the matter through with
him. More than anything else, I was tortured by the idea that my
call to ministry would be harmful to my children (who were ages
one and two-and-a-half at the time). How could God call me to two
incompatible lives at the same time? Could I be both a public Friend
and a mother? As we talked and prayed together on the phone, I came
to understand that God’s undeniable leading in my life was
not a burden on my family, but rather a blessing. My children could
experience my work as a gift. Now certainly they don’t always
perceive my frequent travel as a blessing at that time, but I have
felt confirmed over and over again in the truth that my faithfulness
yields spiritual fruits which ripple out beyond my own personal
spiritual life. As I have been faithful in walking through the doors
God opens for me, I have found abundant riches on the other side.
One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from my ecumenical
involvement has been my encounter with the Orthodox churches. Most
western Christians — Protestants and Roman Catholics —
tend to be unaware of the Eastern church tradition. For 500 years,
Western theological discourse has been consumed by the Protestant/Catholic
dialectic. When Quakerism emerged, it was conceived of as a “third
way”, neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic. While I agree
that Quakers are neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic, this designation
ignores the fact that there already exists a third way, which is
in some respects the first way, the oldest church tradition.
By Orthodox churches, I actually mean two families of churches
— Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. The Eastern Orthodox include
Greek, Russian, and all the other Eastern European Orthodox churches
(Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Romanian, etc). The Oriental Orthodox
churches are those which did not accept the Chalcedonian formulation
of the dual natures of Christ in the year 451. They include the
Coptic (Egyptian), Ethiopian, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox churches.
Through the modern ecumenical movement, these two families of Orthodox
have worked hard to reconcile their differences, and are well on
their way to full communion (by which is meant complete recognition
of each other as churches in the fullest sense).
I have been surprised and delighted to find many points of similarity
between Orthodoxy and Quakerism. However I’m certainly not
the first to discover this synergy. One of my friends in the World
Council of Churches, Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky, the representative from
the Orthodox Church in America, tells an anecdote about Fr. George
Florovsky, one of the great 20th century Orthodox theologians. Fr.
Florovsky was a lone Orthodox attending an ecumenical event in which
participants were seated by confessional family. The organizers
asked if he would like to sit with the Anglicans. He replied that,
while on the surface, the Orthodox liturgical tradition bore similarity
with Anglican worship, in terms of a deep experience of the Holy
Spirit, he’d prefer to sit with the Quakers. The outward form
of worship between Quakers and Orthodox could not be more different,
but the spiritual intent, the focus on the real spiritual presence,
is identical. Fr. Kishkovsky, a widely respected ecumenist, has
told that story several times at ecumenical events in which I was
a young newcomer and most participants were unfamiliar with Quakers.
I can’t help but feel that he did it in order to give me some
personal credentials, to express an Orthodox stamp of approval of
Quakerism, and I’ve been enormously grateful.
Orthodox churches do not readily offer approval to other church
traditions. Their self-concept is, in some ways, identical to Lewis
Benson’s. They see themselves as the one true apostolic church,
the bearers of the unchanging Christian Tradition through 2000 years.
While they are rigorously ecumenical, their paradigm of Christian
unity is often expressed in terms of the schismatic churches returning
to the apostolic (i.e. Orthodox) tradition. There is a great range
of Orthodox thought on ecumenism, although ultra-conservatism has
been on the rise since the fall of the communist governments in
Eastern Europe. Several of the Orthodox churches have been expressing
increasing dissatisfaction with the World Council of Churches, and
two have resigned from membership. This has provoked a significant
crisis within the WCC. One of the ways I’m currently most
active in the WCC is that I’m a member of a 60-member body
(half Orthodox/half Protestant) called the Special Commission on
Orthodox Participation in the WCC, which is charged with proposing
a “radical restructure” of the WCC in order to take
account of Orthodox criticisms.
I felt led to offer my name for the Special Commission for several
reasons. I know that my ministerial gifts lie in the area of church
governance and organization. I like nothing better than organizational
restructure when it is undertaken via theological reflection. I
also recognized that many of the anti-WCC criticisms which arose
within FUM were echoed by the Orthodox concerns. While FUM is a
miniscule church whose criticisms hadn’t quite made it onto
the radar screen in Geneva (not that anyone within FUM tried very
hard, as far as I know), the Orthodox churches are a powerful voice
within the WCC. I hoped that, by my personal participation in the
Special Commission, way might open for FUM’s internal wounds
to be healed as well. Finally, I was keenly interested in knowing
more about the Orthodox church.
At a meeting in Damascus, Syria in March of this year, I presented
a paper on Quaker decision-making. The Orthodox members of the WCC
are very interested in moving the WCC toward a consensus model of
decision-making, since this is much more consistent with their own
ecclesiology and practice. Like Quakers, the Orthodox approach the
question of church governance from a profoundly theological basis,
and they reach essentially the same conclusions we do. My paper
on Quaker practice was very well received by the Special Commission
sub-committee on Membership, Representation and Decision-Making.
The sub-committee also heard a presentation from the Uniting Church
in Australia, which recently changed from using Roberts Rules of
Order to using a consensus model. These two presentations lay the
groundwork for the subcommittee to recommend that the WCC adopt
consensus decision-making at all levels of governance. It also sparked
my interest in studying the Orthodox approach to ecclesiology and
church governance in greater depth.
The past semester, I was fortunate to do some independent research
at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology on Orthodox ecclesiology.
I was looking particularly at Orthodox conciliar theory —
the theology which expresses the fact that the church is fundamentally
conciliar, is a council which unites diverse persons and experiences
through participation in the triunity of God. I was astonished to
find many passages on Orthodox conciliar theology which could have
been written by Quakers.
I was particularly impressed by a lay theologian named John Zizioulas,
whose work on Orthodox ecclesiology is considered normative. I hope
you’ll forgive me for quoting him at length, but I believe
he is instructive for our own sense of identity as Quakers. In his
discussion of the catholicity of the church — by which is
meant the church’s quality of wholeness — Zizioulas
“the Church is catholic, not because she is obedient
to Christ, i.e. because she does certain things or behaves in a
certain way. She is catholic first of all because she is the body
of Christ. Her catholicity depends not on herself but on Him. She
is catholic because she is where Christ is. We cannot understand
catholicity as an ecclesiological notation unless we understand
it as a Christological reality. … The Christological character
of catholicity lies in the fact that the Church is catholic not
as a community which aims at a certain ethical achievement (being
open, serving the world, etc.) but as a community which experiences
and reveals the unity of all creation insofar as this unity constitutes
a reality in the person of Christ. To be sure, this experience and
this revelation involve a certain catholic ethos. But there is no
autonomous catholicity, no catholic ethos that can be understood
in itself. It is Christ’s unity and it is His catholicity
that the Church reveals in her being catholic. This means that her
catholicity is neither an objective gift to be possessed nor an
objective order to be fulfilled, but rather a presence, a presence
which unites unto a single existential reality both what is given
and what is demanded, the presence of Him who sums up in Himself
the community and the entire creation by His being existentially
involved in both of them. The Church is catholic only by virtue
of her being where this presence is.” (Zizioulas, Being
As Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, 1997, p.
To paraphrase Zizioulas in my own words: we don’t create a
church by what we do. Our Christian vocation is neither a gift which
we receive once-for-all, nor a demand which we strive to fulfill.
Rather, Christ creates a church by his presence with us, and that
presence creates a certain quality of wholeness and ethical imperative
in our community. The unity of the church and its universal scope
are consequences of Christ’s unity and universality. I was
stunned when I read this passage, describing the Orthodox church
— a church which, according to Benson, is apostate, full of
empty forms, being not in the power of the living God.
My experience confirms that the living God is powerfully present
in Orthodox worship, in the ancient chant, transcendent iconography,
and majestic liturgy, as well as in the generous Christian hearts
of all those I’ve met, from Patriarchs to students. I have
to admit that it’s been a challenge to get past the ponderous
clerical garb and the complicated system of honorific titles. But
I have been clear that my spiritual calling is to see past these
surface elements in order to meet one another as Christian brothers
and sisters. I have found my Orthodox friends warm and open. I strive
to present myself as an equal, while avoiding outright rudeness.
I have discovered that the testimony against titles is distorted
beyond recognition if it is used to scorn the other or to wallow
in pride and superiority about the advanced state of equality among
Quakers. Alternatively, refusing titles is itself an empty form
if, in our hearts, we are intimidated by the personal power of the
other. I have felt called to engage with church hierarchs as brothers,
in a relationship of substance rather than form (or the refusal
of form), and I have been universally received as a sister. My confidence
comes from knowing Christ’s presence in my life, and I am
not intimidated even as I address a Patriarch.
While the titles and visible hierarchy of the Orthodox church have
presented a challenge for me, worship in the Orthodox tradition
has been a pure gift. The ancient chants are a powerful, visceral
connection with the communion of saints, the centuries of Christians
who have come before. In Syria, I even had the opportunity to worship
in Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke. The rural Oriental
Orthodox community in Syria still speaks Aramaic in daily life.
Hearing such a language used vernacularly and liturgically amid
the stark landscape of the Galilean hills was surely a spiritual
highpoint of my life. Icons, portals to the transcendent realm,
are truly powerful, whatever opinion we might hold about iconographic
theology. Indeed, my experience with different worship traditions
in their wholeness and integrity does not make me any less a Quaker
or desire any less the simple worship of Friends. Neither do I wish
for an amalgam of all the traditions, a potluck with a dollop of
everything which soon turns to mush on the plate. Rather, I praise
God for the infinite diversity of creation and the multiplicity
of forms, languages and rituals with which we can respond to Christ’s
There’s one place I’ve found where mush is spiritually
profound. At the World Council of Churches, all business is simultaneously
translated into five languages — English, Spanish, French,
German and Russian. The reality of colonialism is that almost everyone
in the world speaks one of those languages, although this puts native
speakers at a significant advantage over those for whom a European
language is their third or fourth tongue. However, the WCC’s
tradition in worship is that each person prays and reads scripture
in their native language, and this is not translated. It is an indescribable
experience to hear the Spirit speaking through words which carry
no meaning to me. Most profound of all is the Lord’s Prayer.
The entire worshipping congregation — in Harare that was 5,000
people — spoke the Lord’s Prayer together, each in his
or her own native language. That was truly mush, and it was utterly
staggering. It was immediately clear that God speaks all languages
and none — that language is a deeply human construct which
God both completes and transcends. Truly, our mush was acceptable
corporate prayer, for it is the heart that prays, and thus we were
praying in unison.
My experience has been that my individual uniqueness, and the uniqueness
of Friends, is upheld and celebrated by a Christian unity which
participates in the triune nature of God. I feel confident about
the Truth of Friends without needing that truth to come at the expense
of other Christian voices. I am convinced that the more deeply we
rest in our Quaker identity — in our experience of the radically
real presence of the living Christ in our worshipping community
— the more freely we are able to join in the blessed community
of all Christians.
As I have been working over the last
two years on this topic of Friends relating to the other Christian
churches, I have been developing a chart of various models of Quaker
ecclesiology and their ecumenical implications.
[This chart may be viewed as a PDF file by clicking
Discussion questions for small groups:
Share your story:
Did you come to Friends from another religious affiliation?
Since you’ve been a Friend what has been your personal experience
of encounter with other Christian churches?
Does your Meeting/Church engage in any organized ecumenical activities?
How have these encounters surprised you? confirmed or called into
question any assumptions you might have made?
How has your experience of other churches shaped your understanding
Reflect on my proposed ecclesiology:
“I propose that the grounding principle of Quaker ecclesiology
is the radically real presence of the living Christ in the worshipping
What is your response to this proposal?
Does it adequately describe the core of Quakerism, in your experience?
What does it imply for your Friends Meeting/Church? for its understanding
of itself? for its relationships with the other churches in your
Think about the chart together:
Why do you think people choose your Friends Meeting/Church over
the other churches in your town?
What other church, organization, movement or ideology is most akin
to Quakers, in your experience?
What do these things tell you about what kind of thing Quakerism
Once you know what kind of a thing Quakerism is, what does that
mean for how Quakers will relate to others?
What model(s) on the chart most closely reflect(s) the attitudes
and practices of your Meeting/Church?
Are there models from your experience which are not represented
on the chart?
© 2003 Eden Grace
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