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Quakers and Ecumenicity

In the most recent Quaker Religious Thought (#114), David Johns has an article titled, No Apology Required: Quaker Fragmentation and the Impossibility of a Unified Confessional Apologia. In it he is arguing that a modern-day Quaker apology is not needed nor is it possible. While much could be discussed about this issue, I want to note one aspect he focuses upon that is helpful for me as I think about the Quaker movement today, especially as it is interpreted by the younger generation of Quakers.

It is not new to most people that younger generations of Christians are increasingly un-denominational – that is, there are not strong ties to a particular expression of Christian faith. Theologians would call this, broadly, ecumenicity. I don’t believe that in not choosing a denomination, younger Christians are intentionally embracing the various streams, as Richard Foster calls them, in their spirituality. I do know that the sociological ties to certain denominations in the past are no longer present.

The Quaker movement, with this information in mind, is left with two options:

1) Hunker down and force people to accept the quirky aspects of the Quaker movement – Johns states it well: “It has long concerned me that Quaker rhetoric sometimes takes a form that is both spiritually arrogant and dismissive of the legitimacy of the wider religious world” (12).

2) Begin to recognize and live into the fact that, as Johns notes, “Quakerism does not exist on its own; it did not come into existence on its own, and has no future apart from the future of other religious bodies” (11).

As Johns believes, and with him I agree, the way forward is for the Quaker movement to recognize and live into the realization that the, “Religious Society of Friends does not have a life of its own and should not. In fact, Friends are a corrective, and ought not to exist beyond their usefulness to the Church catholic” (11).

This does not, as some fear, lead to the decline of the Quaker movement – instead, it adds life to the larger Christian church.

And that is what is needed at this time in history.

Categories: Book Project, Christianity
  1. December 23, 2010 at 12:26 PM

    I really can’t decide whether I agree with this argument or not. Ultimately it leads us even further down the path of assimilation. “Quaker” and “Friend” become just nostalgia markers, with little significance because our faith and practice has undistinguishable from mainstream American Christianity. I think that would a sad end-state. A lot of the Quaker “peculiarities” are totally contemporary–needed messages in today’s world, that they would speak to the condition of a lot of spiritual seekers. But who’s around to advocate for them?

    Some years ago now I was at a party hosted by a member of the local hipster non-denominational church. Standing around in party chit-chat mode, I asked one of the eager members how he’d describe his church. He answered quickly and surely: “we’re primitive Christianity revived!” I was surprised first by the appropriation of one of William Penn’s favorite descriptions of the Friends movement. But I was equally surprised to hear someone eagerly putting this forth as a religious ideal. You certainly don’t hear that phrase bandied about much in Philadelphia Friends meetinghouses. I really wanted to follow up his remarks with an invitation to visit a local meeting to see how we embody primitive Christianity revived but really, why bother? His hipster church was surely closer in spirit to William Penn than any local meeting I could name.

    I’m reading one of Penn’s intros to Friends and every page is full of interesting spiritual insights. The Quaker way he’s describing really is radically different than contemporary mainstream spirituality. I think there’s a third option: to be radically Quaker but not arrogant, to be part of the mainstream religious conversation and not closed off in a parochial Quaker world. A larger percentage of the 20-something Quaker kids in the Philadelphia area have started attending that non-Quaker hipster church, and I myself feel like an outsider to local Quaker circles. I think there is a third option and there’s a number of us reaching for it, but I don’t see this exploration being supported by established Quaker bodies. Do we really need to organize outside the RSOF to find others wanting primitive Christianity revived?

    • December 23, 2010 at 3:47 PM


      I agree! One of the “difficulties” of maintaining a 350 word limit on blog postings is that there is more that could be said that is not said. My preference is the third way you have described. I also think that focusing on those “peculiarities” of the Quaker, yet situation them in the larger Christian conversation is helpful, at least for those in the younger set. Perhaps a product of “hipsterdom” they don’t want to look too different, but they are drawn to the practices of the Friends church like pacifism, social justice, the individual/communal approach to worship, etc. The Quaker movement, I believe, speaks the language of this younger generation. But if we are too apt to “name it and claim it,” we will only scare them away. Thanks for your interaction!

    • Quaker Seeker
      December 29, 2010 at 6:19 PM

      This may be the first time I’ve posted on a blog…

      I myself feel like an outsider to local Quaker circles. I think there is a third option and there’s a number of us reaching for it, but I don’t see this exploration being supported by established Quaker bodies. Do we really need to organize outside the RSOF to find others wanting primitive Christianity revived?

      Your words speak to me, Martin, and I am sitting with them and, I think, I have been living them – perhaps without knowing there are others out there who are as well.

      I am actively involved in a gathering of Christ-Centered Friends in the NorthEast who will gather for the third straight year on Labor Day 2011 that has no official standing within the RSOF. I am also involved in starting a worship group that has no official standing either. Someone in the worship group remarked recently that maybe our unity was around the idea of “Primitive Christianity Revived” – or might I say “Primitive Quakerism Revived?”. This is what our experience together has felt like, although we’ve been taking our time naming what we feel…

      I guess I have always assumed that both groups would be folded in to some wider Quaker organization, but your words have made me wonder about that… In both groups, attenders come from within Quaker circles, but, like you, a number of them have felt like outsiders there… Thank you for giving me more to think about…

      • December 30, 2010 at 6:20 AM

        Quaker Seeker,

        What a neat group you have – when I lived in MA for 8 years, I would have loved this type of group. Thanks for doing it. In terms of how it fits, I think you are on the right track of continuing to pursue, and not worrying about its fit. The work you are doing is important work – thanks for being faithful to the movement of the Spirit in your midst!

      • Gayle Powers
        January 2, 2011 at 6:03 PM

        Those words tease a thirst I have for Primitive Friends reality. Would you mind me asking where you meet and how did you get together with others of this same mind?

  2. Christine M. Greenland
    December 23, 2010 at 12:33 PM

    Thanks so much for the reflection…

    My own understanding of who I am as a Quaker — (I’m not exactly of the “younger” generation)is that my Christian faith needs to become more all-encompassing and inclusive. While I finally have lived into some of the testimonies and peculiarities so that they are my own, I remain sympathetic to a variety of religious expression. It is for this reason that I’m pulling back from “institutions” of church and am striving to live more fully into the being “in the world but not of it.”

    • December 23, 2010 at 4:00 PM


      Thanks for your thoughts. It certainly is more journey-like than arrival-like. I’m thankful for your discerning heart, and trust you will continue to be led into the Truth.

  3. Nat
    December 24, 2010 at 6:17 AM

    Not sure what is meant by ” Church Catholic” , thanks.

    • December 24, 2010 at 8:25 AM

      It’s just another way to say the worldwide or universal church. That’s why the lower case c is used.

  4. December 29, 2010 at 11:29 PM

    When I conduct my experiment of anonymously describing what it is that Quakers believe and value, the inevitable response from Gen X and Y is, “Oh yes, if only there were a church like that I think I could be a Christian.”

    • December 30, 2010 at 6:16 AM


      Yes! I am in full agreement with you. Next week I am going to write on this very topic – I hope you’ll come back to engage some more.

  5. Roger Dreisbach-Williams
    December 31, 2010 at 6:18 PM

    Our God, the Creator, is over all, and the experience of all should be related. The more I learn, the more I see this as true. The naming of days and months was a concern of others in the 17th C. The 19th C. saw divisions in many communions, not just Quakerism. And more recently the resurgence of spirituality among Friends is taking place in other groups as well.

  6. Quaker Seeker
    January 3, 2011 at 9:11 PM

    That would be great if you could join us! We are in Uxbridge, MA. You can reach me at info@uxbridgefriends.org for more information or if you have questions about my journey with this. We are in our infancy at the moment, but our meetings have been very Spirit-led and intimate. We do sense that our unity may be around the idea of “primitive Quakerism revived.” Starting this worship group has been a long-term leading for me. Since beginning my more public journey with it last year with a clearness committee, Friends and friends have found us only by word of mouth. There is a wonderful historic meetinghouse in town that we worship in during the warmer months. A local church has been gracious enough to lend us space in the winter. The rest is up to God. We are trying our best to be faithful.

  7. January 6, 2011 at 5:27 AM

    @Quaker Seeker — Maybe there are more of us up here in the northeast than we thought? I’m in Monadnock Meeting and rode my bike past Uxbridge to attend NEYM this summer! (So I participate in institutions, I guess. But then, NEYM business sessions refer to Jesus quite a bit, actually. And listen to him sometimes, IMHO, praise be.) Anyway, I hope I can come visit someday!

    I sincerely seek for that third way Martin and Jamie are talking about. Learning how to say it and spread it takes dedication!

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