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Quaker Tour of England, Page 22 of 22 Some Reflections After Taking the Tour
The following are some personal reflections after going on the 1998 Quaker Tour of England with John Punshon, sponsored by Earlham School of Religion. Reflections are based on information learned on the tour and from other sources, but not on scholarly research. - Bill Samuel
[NOTE: A slightly edited version of these reflections appeared in the 21 August 1998 issue of The Friend under the title "Schism or opportunity?" (title picked by the Editor of The Friend, not by me). A slightly abridged form of that version also appeared in the September 1998 issue of the New Zealand Friends' Newsletter. - Bill Samuel]
While there was a focus on the beginnings of Quakerism, and I found this very helpful, there is much material readily available and widely distributed on this. Therefore, I am concentrating in these reflections on matters of the last two centuries.
Two centuries ago, British (as well as North American) Quakerism was in a quietist period, in which Friends were turned inward. Membership was declining, and Friends did not have a great deal of corporate involvement in the wider world.
In the 19th century, some British Friends were stirred by evangelical movements in the wider society. These Friends helped move British Friends out of quietism into broader involvement with the wider society. While evangelicalism was never universally (or anything close to it) accepted by British Friends, it became the dynamic center of British Quakerism for much of the century. London Yearly Meeting (now called Britain Yearly Meeting) became identified with the evangelical movement among Friends. It sided with the Orthodox side of the Orthodox/Hicksite split in American Quakerism, although British Friends did not split themselves.
Perhaps the best known of the British evangelical Friends was Joseph John Gurney. His famed 1841-43 travels in the ministry in the United States had an enormous influence on American Quakerism. Less well known is that the minute for this ministry was approved despite the reservations of many.
Gurney and his well-known sister, Elizabeth Fry, were only two of a number of activist British Friends who helped propel Friends in Britain into a wide range of activities addressing social ills. These covered such matters as prison reform, adult education, progressive treatment of mental illness, housing needs of the poor, etc. These activities were all tied to a concern for the souls of those served by these activities. The ministries were holistic, concerned with the total well-being of the poor and oppressed.
One of the places we visited was the Bunhill Fields Quaker burial ground in London. This was one of the few places available to Friends for burial in the early days, but it was not a site for regular Friends worship and other activities until the 19th century. Then the dynamo of Friends evangelicalism took advantage of Friends' ownership of this site to reach out to the population of this area, which was mired in poverty. They reached out with a variety of ministries, including tent revivals, adult education, and housing reform. A meeting was formed, and a meetinghouse built, with the words of John 3:16 in large letters on the wall of the meeting room.
Efforts such as those at Bunhill brought a number of people to faith in Jesus Christ. The ambivalence of British Friends towards these efforts was reflected in a special class of membership called associate member set up for those convinced as a result of the evangelical efforts at Bunhill and other locations in Britain. We were told that a large proportion of current London Friends are descended from these 19th century associate members.
Liberals eclipsed evangelicals in ascendancy in London Yearly Meeting in 1895. Like their evangelical colleagues, liberals embraced a wide array of social action activities in the wider society. The social action efforts begun by evangelicals continued in the new liberal area, and British Friends today are still heavily involved in social justice work. For example, the association which did the work at Bunhill is still active and is still headquartered at Bunhill, with a changed name of Quaker Social Action. However, such activities no longer have an element of proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The vestiges of the British Friends evangelical movement remain at a handful of British meetings in what American Friends would call programmed meetings for worship. In the British context, they are not called meetings for worship but rather evening fellowships which meet Sunday evenings while the "unprogrammed" meetings for worship meet Sunday mornings. The somewhat second class status of these gatherings is reflected not only in the different nomenclature, but in frequently limited involvement by attenders in the Meeting, we were told. This does not mean that these gatherings are necessarily weak sisters of the morning meetings. At Hartshill Meeting, where we visited, we were told that the morning meeting attracts only 3-4 attenders, while the evening fellowship attracts 20-25.
There is little Christian proclamation today among British Friends. Small independent groups like the U.K. branch of the New Foundation Fellowship and the Quaker Renewal Fellowship have sought to keep alive a distinctly Christian Friends witness in Britain. In addition, the Creamore Fellowship of Friends was established four years ago as a Christian semi-programmed meeting.
Those attracted to the Friends Christian message are often frustrated in Britain, as they are in North America in areas where no meetings have a clear Christian witness. Some participate in Friends Meetings, but yearn for more Christian companionship, while others are uncomfortable in associating themselves with Meetings that do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord and go elsewhere.
Questions for Consideration
1. Are splits among Friends always negative in impact? We tend to have a very negative view of splits, and may be aware of the elements of power struggle, personality conflicts, and plain nastiness in the splits in North American Friends. That British Friends avoided such splits is often seen as a pretty much unalloyed positive development. But with similar internal differences, the fruits of the different paths of North American and British Friends do not present such a clear picture in the light of Christian witness. The splits among North American Friends have resulted in the existence of corporate bodies which maintain a strong Christian witness, while corporate explicitly Christian witness has been virtually lost among British Friends. Similarly, the coming together of formerly divided yearly meetings in North America has generally led to a distinct diminution in Christian witness in those yearly meetings.
We must be careful not to fracture the unity of the body of Christ by being schismatic among Christians. There is also a place for working together on common concerns with nonbelievers. But the church's Christian witness is fatally compromised if the church is not clear on whose body it is. Unity needs to be based on a living relationship with Jesus Christ, not primarily on common historical connections.
2. What role should North American Friends play in nurturing Friends Christian witness in Britain? The tiny groups of nonpastoral Christian Friends in North America have sought to encourage their brothers and sisters in Britain through a number of travels in the ministry by American Friends from the New Foundation Fellowship and Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Should the larger bodies such as Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International also be playing a role in Britain? In a private dinner meeting two of us on the Quaker Tour had with someone active in the British Quaker Renewal Fellowship, that Friend raised the question of such support for the planting of Christian semi-programmed meetings in Britain.
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