Being Quaker Is Not the Point

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?

Micah Bales is a founding member of Capitol Hill Friends in Washington, D.C. He serves as web and communications specialist for Friends United Meeting, and as a development associate for Ramallah Friends School. He blogs regularly at www.lambswar.com.

Posted in: April 2013: Conflict and Eldering, Features

7 Responses to Being Quaker Is Not the Point

  1. Gerard Guiton March 30, 2013 at 9:31 am #

    Good piece, thank you. Please read my book The early Quakers and the ‘kingdom of God’. It’s right up your alley!


  2. John April 6, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this. You hit the nail on the head. Being a Friend or Quaker is only a demonstration of how we worship the Risen Savior. It is not the end of our faith.

  3. Renee Axtell April 17, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Sure would be nice if a Quaker denomination affiliation was a guarantee of solid Quaker teaching. I was excited to move to a town in rural western Kansas that had an EFCI affiliated church. I had no experience with EFCI, but from what I had read prior to coming, I thought the Quaker teaching was something I could really get on board with. However I have discovered that they have left all the Quaker distinctives behind and are now indistinguishable from any other Evangelical Protestant church. Very disappointing.

  4. Flo Fflach April 17, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Intention is a word that springs to mind as I read your words. If intent becomes too bound in the form it is a hollow shell. And yet the form can be useful at difficult times, a pattern, a proceedure in which to sit. But then it has to go, our individual relationship to the divine has to be seen, that is what is real — in all its glories and difficulties

  5. nowvoyager April 17, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    Great article. I’ve always found that the prioritising of form & rules over listening to spirit to be exactly like the old religions; catholic & episcopalian etc. For me, being Quaker is about not letting form & function get in the way of the still small voice.
    I think it’s easier to adhere to rules so I get why some are drawn to this way of being Quaker. I know that’s not for me.

  6. Jonathan Brown April 17, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    In my experience as a member of a very young monthly meeting in a western liberal unprogrammed independent yearly meeting, most people participate in our meetings because they aspire to do things (worship, build community, make decisions, celebrate life’s passages, work for peace‐justice‐environmental‐sustainability, etc.) the way Quakers (apparently) do. Membership in the Religious Society of Friends (that is, formally being a “Quaker”) means, for the most part, being recognized for doing things the way other people in the same monthly meeting do things.

    Some of us experience leadings, some of which some of us believe might come from something some of us might call “God,” others have no faith in any thing by that name. I agree with Micah, which is to say that I would suggest that there would be little (spiritual or secular) unity around the idea of corporate faithfulness to a revelation of any “God,” unless that means doing things the way Quakers (apparently) do.

  7. Karolina August 21, 2014 at 11:08 pm #

    Hi Micah! My husband and I used to worship with you and Faith for a bit several years ago. I’ve recently returned to seeking out the Quaker way after a spiritual dry spell. I loved what you wrote here, as I feel like I need a label to identify my religious convictions, yet I am spiritually in between religions, if you will. I feel like a Quaker at heart, and I’m only beginning to embark on the journey of discerning official conversion/convincement, so I was researching what to call myself in the interim. Imagine my surprise when I realized I had actually met you in real life! t

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