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Quaker and Ecumenical essays by Eden Grace
© 2004 Eden Grace

Reflection on what Quakers bring to the ecumenical table

Massachusetts Council of Churches
Board of Directors

December 11, 2003

I’ve been asked to reflect this afternoon on the gifts Quakers bring to the ecumenical table, and I’ve decided to speak about sacraments. You might think that our position on sacraments is not a gift, but a thorn in the side! After all, we are always the ones to object when Councils of Churches try to describe Christian unity in terms of eucharistic fellowship. None the less, I believe that our stance is a gift which we bring, and which the rest of the churches truly need to receive from us.

I’ll start with a story. There were three Quaker delegates to the first Conference on Faith and Order, in Lausanne Switzerland in 1927. The Quaker position on sacraments — that we do not celebrate the sacraments in any outward way — was mentioned in a sub-section, and grew into a heated controversy in the plenary about whether Quakers could be considered Christian. The three Friends submitted a clear statement of our theological position, and then said no more, while the debate raged around them. As one of the Friends present reflected later, “large issues were involved — not simply the acceptance of the little Society of Friends as part of the organized Christian Church, but the far wider question of religious liberty and deep theological principles.” (quoted in Ferner Nuhn, Friends and the Ecumenical Movement, Friends General Conference, 1970, p. 21) Finally, Bishop Charles Gore, of the Church of England, settled the question by stating with great authority that “God is not limited by His own sacraments.” (Nuhn p. 21) Not only was way open for Friends to become part of the ecumenical movement, but the movement as a whole had taken an enormously significant decision — that there was to be no single criterion which would determine whether a church could be considered fully a church.

So why do we take the position we do regarding the sacraments? And what, really, is our position?

We do not reject the spiritual realities toward which sacraments point. We recognize baptism as the transformation of life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We recognize communion as the presence of Jesus Christ in our corporate worship. We recognize ordination as the diverse giftedness for ministry of all people. We recognize these things, and rejoice in them, but we do not believe that the church should seek to initiate them through ritual means.

Without getting too deep into theology, it is important to bring in here the fact that our understanding of the nature of the church is based on a realized eschatology of the new covenant. The old system has passed away, and Christ is present among us to lead us into an experience of the kingdom, here and now. Therefore, we reject all interim structures of authority, and seek in all ways to be obedient to the immediate leadership of Christ. As the Friends in Lausanne stated, “We believe that a corporate practice of the presence of God, a corporate knowledge of Christ in our midst, a common experience of the work of the living Spirit, constitute the supremely real sacrament of a Holy Communion.” (Nuhn p. 20)

Our position is that Christian faith does not require outward sacramental practice. Rather, Christian faith requires a spiritual experience of sacramental reality. Clearly, this poses a difficulty for the ecumenical movement. But can you see how it is also a gift? Quakers in Britain, in response to the WCC document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, stated: “However valid and vital outward sacraments are for others, they are not, in our experience, necessary for the operation of God’s grace. We believe we hold this witness in trust for the whole church.” (paragraph 23 of To Lima With Love, London (now Britain) Yearly Meeting’s 1986 response to the WCC study document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.)

We have often been footnoted as the exception to the growing ecumenical consensus. Yet I would plead that our witness deserves more than a footnote — we hold it in trust on your behalf. It deserves to be heard, and its implications carefully considered, by all the churches. As my British colleageue Janet Scott has said:

“Are the other churches ready to hear what we have to say? … For when we start to state our position positively we are putting forward a very serious challenge. For we are talking about Christianity as a way of life which puts God at the center and sees dependence on the Holy Spirit as a daily gift. Thus, baptism with water is unnecessary because the Spirit baptizes all those who respond to the Light; outward ritual in worship is unnecessary because true worship waits on God to receive the power and inspiration of the Spirit; the Spirit ordains those who are to speak and this ordination lasts for as long as the message is being delivered. There is no creed because the Spirit cannot be fettered by words; whether someone is a Christian is shown by the quality of a faithful life rather than by what is said or believed. … Let us pull Quakers up from being the footnote and bring them to the center of the page. For once the Quaker perspective is recognized and accepted, the whole discussion of unity and diversity is changed, indeed turned on its head, for most of the former questions become useless and have to be replaced. The central questions then become: how do we recognise the Holy Spirit at work in this church? how is Christian witness manifest in its life?” (Janet Scott unpublished essay Silent or Silenced? The Religious Society of Friends and Ecumenical Dialogue, 2001)

Indeed, it is this emphasis on the witness of life that becomes the center of what Quakers bring to the ecumenical table. As British Friends stated: “What then can we contribute to ongoing ecumenical dialogues about valid sacraments and authentic orders of ministry? Perhaps little more than our testimony to such fruits of the Spirit as may still be evident among us. Over more than 300 years we have witnessed to a redemptive religious experience. Though this has been without baptism, eucharist or ministry in the traditional senses, it has been a consequence of personal and repentant response and corporate worship in the context of silent, receptive waiting upon God.” (To Lima with Love, paragraph 57)

In other words, we call on the other churches to examine whether, in fact, God’s grace has been manifest in the Society of Friends, and if so, whether this might require rethinking the role of sacraments in the operation of grace. Of course, this also places a high demand on Quakers, to live up to the witness we proclaim, and to be willing to confess when we don’t. Ultimately, it is the integrity of life which preaches, not the proclamation with words.

Friends, by the witness of our experience, serve as a reminder to the other churches of the true source of the church. “Jesus Christ is the center of a Gospel that is not primarily a creed or a doctrine but a life.” (Nuhn, p. 20) We believe we hold this truth in trust for the whole church, and that it is our gift to the ecumenical movement. The other churches need us, lest they forget that all our ecclesial responses to God’s divine presence are provisional and subject to God’s judgment. We do not need to be tolerated and footnoted as some sort of Christian aberration. For the sake of all Christians, the truth we hold in trust must be welcomed by our ecumenical brothers and sisters, as a real gift to the ecumenical movement.

© 2003 Eden Grace

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