What Friends Have to Offer the Wider Church
Silence washed over the hundreds of women and men gathered together in the spacious chapel. Evening darkness accentuated the orange glow of a large, back-lit cross overlooking the altar. Our hearts were breaking, and the Holy Spirit rushed into the breach.
The silence endured. Five seconds. Ten. Fifteen. The Spirit of God rested gently, powerfully upon us; it hovered over us as above the pre-creation deluge. Something was ready to be born. Christ was present to teach his people himself.
But we were unprepared. The man who was directing our program that evening did not know what to do with so much silence. After waiting for what probably seemed to many like a very long time, he stepped forward and began speaking. Clumsily. Inauthentically. It grieved me that the witness of the Holy Spirit was being trampled down in such a fashion.
But then, there stood another man from among the audience. He cried out, “Thy Kingdom is come!” A few scattered amens came from different corners of the room. “Can we please take a moment to acknowledge God’s presence with us?” The man up front was clearly baffled—as were many of those in the audience—but he consented. We remained in silence for another half minute before moving on.
Afterwards, many people approached the man who had spoken. Most were worried that he was upset. Some had wondered at first whether he was a security risk. It was a big conference, drawing Christians from a wide variety of denominations and cities across the country. In such an environment, it can be hard to be sure of anything. Most did not seem to understand why he had spoken out as he did.
I also spent some time talking with him. This was easy, since we were already acquainted. He was a Quaker from New York Yearly Meeting, and we had met before at Earlham School of Religion. I did not have to ask why he spoke. I just thanked him.
A few others did, too: mostly Quakers and Pentecostals. Our traditions cultivate an awareness of the Holy Spirit’s movement, and we were trained to recognize our Good Shepherd when he showed up. In the case of Friends, we are taught to rise and speak when the Holy Spirit directs us. It was sobering to realize that most Christians do not receive this kind of preparation. That which is most central to my faith seems to be largely untaught in most Christian groups.
This all took place at the TransFORM East Coast Gathering, an event for Emergent Christians from across the country. With postmodern theologian Brian McLaren as its most prominent leader, the Emergent stream within the Protestant church emphasizes theological ambiguity and stands as a rival counterpart to the growing influence of neo-Calvinism in the Evangelical church.
I learned a lot at the TransFORM gathering. I discovered the Emergent Church as a postmodern iteration of the liberal wing of Protestantism. Emergent Christians include many orthodox believers, as well as others who might not fall easily within orthodoxy. The Emergent stream seeks to make sense of the ancient faith of the Church in the context of our increasingly postmodern, post-Christendom society. This lends itself to an atmosphere of vigorous experimentation, with many Emergent folks embracing a wide range of beliefs and practices drawn from a variety of Christian traditions.
Though I recognized pitfalls in some of the attitudes expressed at TransFORM, my overall impression was positive. Most folks there were hungry for a new reformation of the Church. No longer satisfied with simplistic answers and hierarchical structures, many were seeking ways to follow Jesus that were radical, relational, and transformational.
We as Friends could benefit from conversation with emerging Protestants. The emerging church’s openness to experimentation, when not taken to unhealthy extremes, is admirable. They freely borrow from the wealth of Christian tradition and are eager to contextualize the gospel in today’s postmodern, urban society. Many of those who identify as part of the emerging church take seriously Christ’s call to share the Good News, considering North America, Europe, and other developed nations to be this century’s great mission field. The emerging church’s emphasis on embodied, relational theology also stands out as something from which Friends could learn a lot.
I am also convinced that the emerging church could be significantly enriched by sustained conversation with the wealth of the Friends tradition. Quakers are best known for our long commitment to peace, and many in the emerging church would like to learn more about Jesus’ call to a life of self-sacrificial love that rejects violence. Others may be intrigued by our rejection of the clergy/laity distinction, our manner of church governance, and our understanding of Scripture.
If I could impart only one aspect of the Quaker tradition, however, it would be our experience of Christ’s real and immediate presence with us as individuals and as a community. The discovery that Jesus is alive and present—willing and able to lead us and teach us as a community—is just as radical today as it was when George Fox and the Valiant Sixty began to preach it in the 1650s. Moreover, Friends do not merely believe that this is so; we have ordered our entire community around this principle.
It would be an amazing gift to share our experience of Christ’s presence with the wider Church. And, for those who are willing to learn, we could take the next step: teaching the faith, practice, and way of life that lead to continuing communion with and guidance from the Holy Spirit.
Friends make up a minuscule portion of the worldwide Body of Christ, but God has entrusted us with amazing treasure to offer to the rest of the Church. Our practice of waiting on the immediate inspiration of God’s Spirit—a practice which extends not only to worship but also to our manner of making decisions—is still revolutionary, 350 years after the earliest Quakers began to preach it.
What would it look like for Friends to become intentional about sharing the gifts that God has given us? How is the Spirit calling us to engage with the wider Church in ways that would cause us to stretch and grow as a community? How can we receive the gifts that other Christian traditions have to offer? What would it look like for the Religious Society of Friends to become a more fully living member of the Body of Christ, receiving and sharing the gifts of the Spirit and the riches of the tradition that God has entrusted to us?