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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

Towards Renewal Within the Religious Society of Friends, Part 1 of 2
by Bill Samuel

Reprinted with permission from Quaker Religious Thought #87 (May 1996)

I appreciate the invitation from the editor to respond to Grant Thompson's paper, "A Perspective on Friends Membership" (QRT #86). I will draw upon that and other articles in the same issue in a discussion of Christian renewal within the Religious Society of Friends, with a particular focus on Christians in meetings where Friends lack a corporate commitment to Christ. The second series of choices offered by Thompson is:

    2. Ideally, the set of requirements for membership in Friends meetings (a) should, (b) should not include, as a subset, the set of requirements for membership in the Church Universal (i.e., the Body of Christ).1

Thompson restricts his discussion to the first option. While I agree with Thompson that this should be the case, it is not in the Monthly Meeting (Adelphi) and Yearly Meeting (Baltimore) in which I hold my formal membership in Friends. For those of us for whom being part of the Body of Christ is central to our identity, this presents major problems.

Rupert Read suggests, in "On the Nature and Centrality of the Concept of 'Practice' Among Quakers," that it is practice rather than faith that binds Friends together. Furthermore, he maintains that it is not even important that Friends claim faith in God.2 John Miller responds to Read, in "On Faith," that "the biblical tradition and its special revelatory formations in the tradition of Fox, Fry, Barclay, Gurney, Jones, and many others"3 are essential to the meaning of the practice. I agree. In establishing the practices of Friends, Fox sought to serve the faith:

    This order of the gospel, which is not of man nor by man, but from Christ, the heavenly man, is above all the orders of men in the fall, whether Jews, Gentiles, or apostate Christians, and will remain when they are gone. For the power of God, which is the everlasting gospel, was before the devil was, and will be and remain forever. And as the everlasting gospel was preached in the apostles' days to all nations, that all nations might, through the divine power which brings life and immortality to light, come into the order of it, so now the everlasting gospel is to be, and is, preached again, as John the divine foresaw it should be, to all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.4

The practice has no meaning in itself. Its meaning comes from its service in bringing people to Christ, and keeping them faithful to Christ. Early Friends sought to live in gospel order, which is an order established by God.

Any unity in practice which is not based upon a unity in faith is not the unity of which our forebears spoke. Furthermore, it can become an empty formalism, just as much as the ritual practices which the early Friends so vigorously denounced. Sometimes, in Meetings such as the one in which I hold membership, it seems that the only thing which unites people is that they appreciate the form of the meeting for worship. There is no unity on the substance of worship or, in truth, even agreement that what Friends do in the meeting should be worship. While many in the meeting may be engaging in true worship, for the Meeting as a collective body it has become a ritual or, worse, idolatry.

The Situation of Christians in "Universalist" Meetings

As I have already suggested, those of us who hold that Christ Jesus needs to be at the head of our Meetings can have great difficulty when we find ourselves in Meetings in which there is no unity on that principle. Similarly, Christian5 Meetings can have great difficulty in yearly meetings which are not united on faith in Christ.

Many Friends who have not accepted Christ welcome the presence of committed Christians in their Meetings. They are distressed when Christians are uncomfortable in these Meetings. But when one's heartfelt desire is to be part of the Body of Christ, there can be an emptiness in our heterodox Meetings no matter how much one is loved and supported.

Christians in this situation react in different ways. Sometimes, they try to go along with the prevailing approach in the Meeting, despite personal uneasiness with it. They may concentrate their attention on warm feelings between themselves and others in the Meeting, and on shared commitments to peace, social justice, etc. But usually there remains a hunger for fellowship with other believers which is not satisfied in the Meeting community.

Others spend a lot of energy contesting with their Meetings, trying to re-shape them into communities more nearly resembling their personal visions of faithfulness. Such efforts can come into serious conflict with those who have come into these Meetings attracted by the lack of the faith commitments and practices for which the Christians yearn. This path often leads to great frustration and even depression.

I find that an increasing number of Christians drawn to the particular insights of Friends are leaving their Meetings, or never becoming fully involved in them. Some lack any regular corporate worship experience, and find their spiritual journeys to be lonely ones with little human companionship. Others become active in other Christian faith communities, but continue to yearn for companionship with those with peculiarly Quaker understandings of the Christian message.

For those in monthly meetings in which there is general unity on the Christian faith, but where such unity does not exist in the yearly meeting, the situation for individuals is different. These Friends may indeed have the kind of local faith community they need, if the Meeting's Christian faith is vital (unfortunately, there are Meetings which profess faith in Christ, but which are spiritually moribund). Some of the same dynamics I have noted for Christians in other Meetings may still exist for these individuals in relation to their yearly meeting, but they also have the option of simply paying little attention to the yearly meeting.

For a monthly meeting as a corporate body, the dynamics of its relationship to the yearly meeting tend to fall into patterns very similar to those of individuals in monthly meetings which lack a Christian commitment. A Christian meeting will yearn for Christian fellowship with other meetings on the basis of a shared commitment to Jesus Christ.

Some Christian meetings may be active in their yearly meetings, participating in the same way as other meetings. There may be no obvious conflict or uneasiness. But these meetings need to be careful that they do not compromise their Christian witness.

A number of Christian meetings have been engaged in frequent struggle with others in their yearly meetings, often around revisions to Faith and Practice or on issues on which some claim new revelation which appears to contradict traditional Christian understandings. They sometimes appear to be continually fighting rearguard actions, attempting to stave off tides of change which are moving in directions increasingly inconsistent with their Christian faith tradition. As meetings, they tend to become discouraged, frustrated and tired.

Some Christian meetings have largely withdrawn from the struggle, forwarding their share of funds for the yearly meeting's support but having little active involvement. In my yearly meeting, there are such monthly meetings that are almost invisible at the yearly meeting level. Under that quiet surface, there may be deep feelings of hurt and resentment about being part of a body about which they have serious reservations. At best, there is a sense of resignation about the direction of the yearly meeting.

A few Christian meetings have gone farther in their withdrawal from the heterodox larger bodies. Clintondale Friends Church last year withdrew from New York Yearly Meeting. Swansea Meeting is withholding support from New England Yearly Meeting, while not withdrawing its membership.

This review of some of the responses of individuals and meetings demonstrates the very real dilemmas they face. All too often, Christians are bitter, discouraged, cynical, frustrated, resigned, and/or exhausted from conflicts.

Continue on to Part 2
  1. Quaker Religious Thought #86, p. 22.
  2. Ibid., pp. 33-34.
  3. Ibid., p. 43.
  4. The Journal of George Fox, edited with an introduction and notes by Rufus M. Jones (New York: Capricorn Books, 1963), p. 463. This quote is from Chapter XVII, "At the Work of Organizing," in which Fox describes his organizational work among Friends.
  5. I use the term Christian to refer to those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, our Lord and Savior. I am aware that some Friends consider themselves Christian, but do not share such a belief. I do not include them when I refer to Christians in this article.

Quaker Religious Thought is published two times a year by the Quaker Theological Discussion Group. The Editor is Paul Anderson. Individual subscriptions are $16 a year, $30 for two years. Subscriptions, additional copies of issues, and a complete listing of topics and authors are available from:

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c/o Phil Smith, Religion Department
George Fox University, Newberg, OR 97132

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Subscription rates on request.

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