As modern Quakers, we take great pride in our distinctive traditions, procedures, and culture. This is one of the main ways that we affirm our sense of identity as Friends. We know that we are Quakers because we worship on the basis of silence . . . right? Or maybe it’s because we do not have paid ministers. Then again, perhaps we are true Quakers because we adhere to Friends business practices.
What if our insistence on Quaker norms is getting in the way of the living Spirit who inspired our faith in the first place? In a recent article for Quaker Life, David Johns warns that, “All along the spectrum of Quakerism . . . there is a dangerous conservative impulse at work which is crushing the movement.” This applies to all Quakers, as “even the most liberal Friends are conservative in this sense.” Regardless of our theological persuasion, Friends have a tendency to prefer the safety of tradition over the risky business of following new leadings from God.
Far too often, our efforts to preserve the distinctive traits of our 350-year-old tradition have become more important than listening and obeying the living voice of the Spirit in our midst. We can get so bogged down evaluating whether we are sufficiently Quaker that we fail to ground our lives in the continuing revelation of Jesus and his good news. In our zeal for Quaker traditions, we risk losing sight of the very Spirit that these practices are meant to point us towards.
Let me give an example. A couple of years ago, I visited a small, unaffiliated worship group. As it so happened, the group was also visited that day by someone from a nearby yearly meeting. After worship, we all had dinner together, and the conversation turned to how or whether the worship group should seek formal affiliation with a wider community. The visitor from the nearby yearly meeting insisted they should join him, suggesting that the members of this fledgling group would only be real Quakers once they were members of a yearly meeting.
I personally feel that connection with the wider community of Friends is extremely important, and I would have been very much on board if this individual had spoken of the benefits that his yearly meeting could offer the new worship group. I am sure that there were many. But instead, the main argument for affiliation with his organization seemed to be that it would allow these worshipers to become “real Quakers.”
Far too often, we demonstrate more concern with making sure that everyone follows the right forms and procedures than with doing the work of following Jesus and receiving his Light in our hearts. At worst, we may actually come to believe that the primary purpose of being Friends is to perpetuate the institution of Quakerism, rather than speak to the deep needs of our friends, neighbors, and surrounding communities.
It does not have to be this way. What if, instead of our endless fixation about Quaker procedures and peculiarities, we focused on the experience and practice of God’s ongoing work in our midst? What if, instead of posing the question, “Are we real Quakers?” we asked instead, “Are we being faithful to the direction of the risen Lord among us, right now?”
The point of our life together as Friends of Jesus is to embody the living presence of his Spirit. Our traditions and procedures certainly have a part to play in this mission. The rich heritage of our spiritual ancestors can serve as a helpful instruction in our walk of faith. The witness of those who have gone before us is instructive as we seek to live faithful lives. But tradition is not the message. As David Johns so eloquently puts it, “Quaker-ism, as a thing we possess or a thing we are, must die if the faith of Quakers is to live.”
Are we ready to die to Quakerism so that the gospel Friends have experienced may find fullest expression? Are we ready to surrender our need to be “real Quakers” so that we can become children of the Light? Are we prepared to lay everything on the table so that we may be faithful to the continuing revelation of Jesus? Are we ready to move forward together in faith?