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Quaker 101

June 21, 2013

My wife, Diane, and I were out for dinner with another couple last weekend when Ericka commented, “I haven’t read your latest blog post yet, but it had an intriguing lead-in about you making a decision. What was the title again?” and I replied “Midlife Seminary.” Mike jumped in: “What kind of seminary?” “Quaker,” I replied. With both of them now baffled, Mike continued “I know nothing about Quakers. Can you give me a quick summary?” “You mean like an elevator pitch?” “Exactly!”

“So … Imagine Ben Kingsley in ‘Gandhi,’ except dressed like Ben Franklin (same glasses!). He discovers a magic oatmeal in 17th Century England that turns anyone who eats it into a pacifist. It’s an overnight sensation, with 360,000 Quakers worldwide after only 350 years.” (OK, no “Book of Mormon” musical potential there …)

In reality, the explanation I gave at dinner took longer than an elevator ride, though I’m not sure any substantive spiritual tradition could be boiled down to a 30-second pitch. Still, I recognize that my friends, family, and readers might want to know a little more about what I will be studying over the next few years, though not enough to read a Wikipedia article on Quakers, much less to listen to me babble on at length. So, in this post, I have set myself to the “elevator pitch” challenge, mindful that the goal isn’t to tell the whole story, just to get invited back for a longer conversation.

As the Good Witch of the North says, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” The Quaker tradition – the Religious Society of Friends – originated with George Fox in England around 1650, and his story has long resonated for me. As portrayed by one biographer, “Fox as a youth had been repulsed by cold formalism and power politics in the church [my experience of Catholicism in the 1960/70s] and by empty pleasure-seeking outside the church [also my experience of that time] … He longed for authentic faith to match the Bible’s message,” especially the teachings of Jesus. Out of this Fox experienced a third way: a direct, unmediated connection with the Spirit of Christ – the “Inward Light,” the “Present Teacher.”

From the earliest days, Quakers have believed that the Spirit is there to teach if we are there to listen, and that the voice of God can best be discerned through three core spiritual practices, each reinforcing the other: silent individual prayer (“when you pray, go into a room by yourself and shut the door”); open worship as a gathered community of Friends (“where two or three meet together in my name, I am there”); and the study of scriptures and sacred writing (the source of these quotes, among countless others). Quaker worship does not make use of sacraments, liturgy, or ritual.

Many other Quaker distinctives arose from these core discernment practices. First and foremost, there are no clergy: each individual owns the work of having a relationship with God. Some meetings, including mine, hire pastoral staff to provide spiritual insight, guidance, and counsel, but all Friends are considered on equal footing as ministers. Consequently, Quakers also have no overarching governing hierarchy; indeed, Quakerism barely qualifies as “organized religion,” though there are groups and affiliations that facilitate broader community among Friends and support for Quaker traditions.

Lacking infrastructure, and with a core belief (implicit in the discernment practices) that God’s truth is continuously being revealed, it is no surprise that the theological orientation of various Quaker meetings has evolved to span a wide range of labels, including conservative, evangelical, liberal, universalist, and even non-theist (I’m still working to understand that last one). Despite this, however, Quakers have historically been in unity with some distinctive (and often unpopular) positions, including:

  • Equality and Justice – Some of the most important associates of George Fox (and of Jesus, for that matter) were women, and from the beginning most Quakers have accorded women full equality in recognizing spiritual gifts. More broadly, Friends believe that God works through people without regard for race, age, gender or (in my meeting and many others) sexual orientation. These beliefs have put Quakers on the forefront of many social justice movements, including universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and, increasingly, marriage equality.
  • Witness for Peace – Quakers places great emphasis on Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels regarding peace, and on how he modeled non-violent confrontation in his life and death. Quaker youth commonly receive Conscientious Objector status, but they do not avoid serving in conflict zones – indeed, the Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for their service during wartime. These same teachings lead Friends to oppose the death penalty.
  • Commitment to Simplicity – As one evangelical site puts it, “As Friends we have a long tradition for adhering to scriptural injunctions for plain living. In this respect, we are encouraged to work toward transforming the values of our culture rather than conforming without question. We recognize our responsibility for the care and use of the earth and, therefore, our obligation to maintain a style of living that will conserve resources for future generations.” As a traditional Quaker saying has it, “that Friend speaks my mind.”

So what kind of tradition is this, you ask, where conservatives, evangelicals, and liberals are (mostly) in unity on such matters? I’m glad you asked, but time is up for this elevator pitch. Did I interest you in a longer conversation? If so, I’m good for breakfast, coffee, lunch, wine/beer, dinner, phone chats, or e-mails, and, of course, you can click the “Follow” button on the right side of this blog to follow Midlife Seminary.  I look forward to the conversation …

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