Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
March 15, 2013
I’ve been re-reading John Punshon’s Reasons for Hope: The Faith and Future of the Friends Church (Friends United Press, 2001). I read it quickly in 2001 when it came out, but now see I didn’t give it the care and attention it deserved. What’s more, I can’t find any indication there was much substantial discussion of it among Friends. I think it was and is worth our careful attention. Punshon is among the very best of our contemporary Quaker religious thinkers: spiritually deep, well-read, probing, and fearlessly willing to say what he thinks.
In Reasons for Hope his topic is the Future of the Friends Church, and by that he means the evangelical, largely pastoral portion of the Friends spectrum. (He has little to say either to or about FGC Friends.) He thinks that the Holiness Movement brought a promise of fresh vitality to Quakerism, but that we never worked out an enduring synthesis of Holiness and older Quaker ideas. That unfinished business is what he’s working on in this book. Failure to work out that synthesis puts us in peril, but he’s hopeful because he thinks we can and certainly should.
Punshon believes in a dynamic church. We never can get it right once and for all. The world changes around us, materially and intellectually and spiritually, and we need to adjust to continue to be an effective, vibrant, living church. He believes that early Friends were unusually responsive to the challenges of the world around them in the 17th century, but in subsequent centuries Friends turned inward, grew stale and stagnant, and as a consequence became less effective.
Evangelicalism – particularly in the form of the Holiness movement – brought new energy and new promise to Friends. These new currents allowed Friends to break out of their isolation and to begin reconnecting with the world. Thus, Punshon is impatient with efforts that would simply have us go back to the writings of early Friends. Continuity with the past is very important to him. A church is a living, growing organism for him, but the church also has to take on new challenges. Going backwards won’t do this.
Thus, he believes, we have the challenge of knitting together Evangelical (especially Holiness) ideas with the ongoing current of Quaker beliefs and practices. Some Friends are reluctant, he believes, to fully embrace Holiness contributions. Others are so willing to embrace them that they would jettison distinctive Friends beliefs and practices. Punshon is equally critical of both. He believes that the key to working out the life-giving synthesis will involve our lifting up our distinctives, using them self-consciously and confidently to build local religious communities.
What are these distinctives? Our egalitarianism (and how clerks function among us), our suspicion of creeds, our belief that we can have direct, unmediated communication with God, our testimonies, our rejection of sacraments, and much more. These he would lift up and emphasize even as we find common cause with other evangelicals.
Also posted on River View Friend