When people ask you what Quakers believe, what do you tell them? Many Friends re-spond in one of two unhelpful ways. The first is to "dissemble"—give a long, convoluted explanation of how different Friends believe different things; that no one can speak for all Friends; and so on. (This happens, I assume, because many of us are afraid of saying anything that might offend some other Friends.) The other response is to list all the things Quakers have discarded, deny, or disavow. (This response is usually—though not always—more concise and useful than the first type, but it presents a generally unappealing and at best incomplete picture of Quakerism.)
We may be proud of the fact we do not have preset prayers, fixed liturgies, priests, pastors, or creeds. But what we lack is not likely to be what draws seekers into membership. People who want to avoid those things do not need to become Quakers to do so; they can just not go to church. Rather, people who are looking for a spiritual path and a community of faith that will nurture and empower them to live whole and meaningful lives will need to know who we are in positive terms.
So how do we begin to frame a more engaging and appealing presentation of Quaker faith and practice? We need to take a fresh look at our religious heritage and our personal experiences of faith, and then consider what positive insights we have discovered regarding our relationship to the Divine and the life of the Spirit. The power of our Quaker faith to enrich and transform our human existence lies more in what it calls us to celebrate than in what it calls us to renounce. It is what we have learned about the empowerment that can occur in the life of the Spirit, and what commitments this requires, that we should be sharing with others. We may renew the strength of our present Quaker communities if we refocus our personal reflections on these positive insights.
Here are some examples of affirmative statements, based on the kinds of interests and questions I see newcomers bringing to our meetings:
Visitors and newcomers to our meetings often ask, "Well, who leads the service? Who gives the meeting direction? Who provides pastoral care?" Too often our only response is, "Friends don’t have clergy." But in one sense, that is not true. Fox and the other founders of Quakerism did not see this as a movement where there were no ministers, but rather, as one with no laity. They took Martin Luther’s notion of the "priesthood of all believers" to its logical conclusion.
The response to an inquirer’s question about ministry can emphasize how Friends see everyone as having a shared responsibility for ministry. We can say that we hope to create a community of faith where all will be called upon to exercise their spiritual and practical gifts in ministry. Our community is intended to be one where all will be serving and caring for, upholding and guiding, teaching to and learning from, preaching to and praying for one another, as individuals’ gifts, leadings, and opportunities allow. This, I suggest, is a vision of a community of faith that would excite many present-day spiritual seekers.
Many non-Friends have never heard an explanation of why Quakers gather for worship in silence. We need to be able to articulate what we anticipate and experience in this manner of worship. For comparison’s sake, we can note that the purpose of liturgies and rituals in most religious traditions is to create an occasion where people are moved in emotional as well as spiritual ways so as to become more open to experiencing the presence of God. We can explain that the stillness we create in our meetings for worship is intended to serve just this same purpose. Early Friends talked less about silence and more about an "expectant waiting" for the Divine Presence, which they believed would be made known "in spirit and in truth."
I think we also need to be honest with seekers—and ourselves—about the joys as well as the responsibilities inherent in this form of worship. It allows for the full participation of every sincere person who wants to experience the Divine Presence with others. However, it also requires genuine openness; it cannot be vicarious. An individual must be fully present to the moment to know the Presence and Love of the Holy Spirit.
Service as well as Worship
Quaker worship can inspire and prepare persons for service. Every meeting for worship is intended to be an occasion in which one can learn and relearn the most basic skill of discipleship: opening oneself to divine direction. The key to Quakerism’s storied effectiveness in putting faith into action lies in the way that our practice of worship can teach us how to listen and respond to God’s will in each new situation.
Many who come from other Christian traditions inquire about our view of the sacraments. How do we—or why don’t we—baptize people? How do we celebrate communion? Early Friends discarded the outward sacraments because they felt God could be encountered in more immediate ways. We feel we do not need rituals and fixed signs to experience the presence and love of God; indeed, we see a risk in using such techniques in that people may begin to think the Holy Spirit can only be experienced in those limited ways. Quakers can affirm, instead, that whenever we are fully attuned to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives and align ourselves with it, we can become visible signs of God’s grace ourselves by the way we live our lives.
Our meetings for worship are designed with the hope of always invoking the experience of communion. The cleansing and renewal of our spirits (baptism) happens at the Holy Spirit’s initiative with our consent. Our service and ministry in the world is always intended to be "sacramental"—that is, a way of making God’s love and truth visible.
Truth and Doctrine
So what do we have to say about "God’s truth"? What may be most difficult for many non-Friends to accept is how Quakers constitute a single religious body when we do not have any doctrine or creed that we can all affirm. If we really want to reach out to those who are alienated from other expressions of faith, then it is most important for us to demonstrate a positive alternative. Although many of the people who seek us out are tired of dogmatic formulas and arbitrary claims about God’s truth and who holds it, they want to hear more about what unifies us than phrases about tolerance.
Instead of talking about a creed, we need to speak in terms of a shared vision. The first generation of Friends did not need a creed to define the membership of their community because they were united in a vision of the right character of a Spirit-filled life. This was their source of inspiration and unity in the face of persecution. They were united and energized by a common vision of the possibility of actualizing "the kingdom of God"—God’s reign of harmony, peace, and justice—in their own time. They spoke of themselves as "primitive Christianity revived." They saw the early chapters of the Book of Acts as a model for the kind of community of faith they wanted to become.
Their desire to see the emergence of God’s reign pervade the larger society drew them into the world witnessing to and serving the needs of others. They also found in Jesus’ life a sustaining model for how to love and care for all of God’s creation, and a source of hope that a human being could become a perfect instrument for God’s love. They were empowered by a vision of the joy and creativity that could be unleashed by a community of people committed to that possibility.
Can we say to inquirers that we are still united in our recognition of the need to build communities—indeed a world—where harmony, justice, and peace can be realized for all people? And are we united in our quest to be in regular, deep communion with the Divine Spirit, and become fuller instruments of God’s love? This we know provides the only firm foundation and sure guidance for lives of wholeness and the building of such communities. This, we believe, answers the deepest aspirations of the religious spirit.
©2003 Thomas H. Jeavons