Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Author’s note: I have taken the liberty of making use of Ben Pink Dandelion’s reference to a specific manner of Quaker practice as “liberal-liberal” Friends. As one who identifies closely with Conservative Friends, I am a Hicksite and identify as an FGC liberal Friend. My comments are more concerned with identity and intelligibility than an overarching critique of FGC Friends, which has a far different character.
It is important that I find a way to speak to a Friend whom I am very close to in a gentle way. I was pained, and even somewhat hurt, by this individual’s generalizing about Quaker faith and practice, and perhaps unwittingly making claims on behalf of all Friends that were simply not true, even in our own meeting. It has come to a point in my journey with liberal-liberal Friends that I have come to feel that, not only is my experience not trusted by Friends due to my Christ-centered faith and love of the Bible. It has also come to a point where I begin to realize that the nature of the broader spectrum of Friends in the United States is rendered insignificant due to the projection of individual experience and opinion onto Quaker faith and practice as a whole.
In the midst of ongoing conflict in our monthly meeting, a conversation occurred between me and another Christ-centered Friends who has been with the meeting for more than 40 years. During a dialogue between us, she indicated that a particular action undertaken be me was particularly hurtful. In listening to her, and reflecting on my behavior – I confessed that I was wrong and had sinned against her because I was acting in a manipulative manner. My confessing to her in a public manner is foundationally biblical, and meant to begin a reconciliation process by agreeing to be held accountable to a community and corporate authority in a time of conflict. Unfortunately, my confession that made use of a language familiar to Christ-centered Friends was rejected by a long-time member of our meeting who was trying to “keep peace.” She stated, in response to my reflection and reaching out to another, that “Quakers don’t believe in sin, and we don’t need to get down on ourselves.”
In fact (and I am not insistent upon facticity), many, if not most of the people who call themselves Quakers do believe that sin exists, even amongst Friends, and that evil exists in our experience. However, because an exchange between two Friends made another individual uncomfortable – it was simply disregarded as a necessary aspect of reconciliation. It is my belief that our measure of Light cleanses us of sin, that sanctifying process that Quakers have historically called convincement. We may be perfected – ever closer to our goal of spiritual maturity – but this is no indication that sin does not exist, nor is there any historical evidence that Quakers did not believe in sin. It is simply a preferred way for many liberal Friends to understand the nature of humanity (and, I do not believe in depravity or the potential for a human being to be “evil’) and avoid judging another individual’s behavior. Liberal-liberal Friends seem to eschew the nature of accountability, and when I made use of Christian narrative to ask forgiveness from a member of our community, one person rejected a key component of that narrative according to a personal understanding of Quakerism.
I have been absent from worship for some time, being released from ministry to work with a Methodist Church. Upon return to worship, we had some visitors, and this individual shared a little about Quaker faith and practice while we were still gathered after worship. Again, she identified Quaker practice according to her own beliefs, and not only ignored the beliefs or understandings of many individual in our meeting, but seemed to obliviate the nature of Friends diversity. She also swept 350+ years of Quaker witness into a dark corner. “We don’t believe in baptism” she stated firmly.
Not only is this statement untrue of Friends historically, it is untrue in differing ways of Friends today. Historically, and in the beliefs of many liberal Friends, and most every conservative Friend, we do experience baptism. Friends have traditionally rejected the necessity of water baptism, and historically, Friends only accepted spirit baptism as legitimate. However, spirit baptism has always been a major component of Friends faith and practice, and has simply been ignored as archaic and unnecessary in the beliefs of a growing number, if not a majority, of liberal-liberal Friends.
More importantly, an increasing number of liberal-liberal Friends refuse to maintain relationships, or even a working knowledge, or the diverse nature of Quakerisms that exist today. Just south of our state line, FUM Friends are practicing water baptism. They indeed call themselves Quakers. Evangelical Friends also practice water baptism in some of their churches. Sweeping generalizations about Friends that do little more than self-justify our own preferences not only reject the need for dialogue with others who call themselves Quakers, but limits participation in our own meeting. Especially when someone speaks out about testimonies in a manner that conflicts with entrenched practices of those who are considered “elders.”
During this sharing time, I also learned that Friends do not practice communion but have potlucks instead. Table fellowship is certainly a necessary aspect of Friends faith and practice, and it may be considered an act of communion. More importantly, however, is the tragedy that this Friend rejected the most important aspect of worship; that being the belief of Friends far and near that waiting worship is an act of communion – inwardly and without form. To reduce inward sacraments to potlucks, or to simply reject them out of hand and ignore the very real potential for the Holy Spirit to welcome an individual into new relationship and life-changing spiritual awareness is detrimental to the community as a whole. The suggestion that “Quakers don’t baptized” is to marginalize the very nature of what Friends found to be foundational. That Christ is our inward Light that will wash away sin and make known to us our own measure of Light.”
Truly, the sudden recognition of this transformative grace is indicative a baptism by fire and Spirit, and indicative of early Friends experience. The painful aspect of my perception is that this conversation cannot be had. Liberal-liberal Friends refuse to be held accountable for their beliefs or understandings, yet insist on shaping the nature of Friends faith and practice to suit their own assumptions and preferences. At least six individuals left meeting thinking that all present at the meeting were represented by the statements of one Friend.
Perhaps we should simply begin to qualify every statement we make to others as related to the nature of Quaker beliefs. I often find myself doing that, mostly to prepare folks who might visit meeting that they will hear a lot of ideas that do not represent the meeting as a whole, even though they are stated in a manner that suggests the opinion is universally held. A question I ask of myself is: How can we begin to talk, when certain concepts are immediately rejected as illegitimate. I don’t mind if folks who attend meeting simply reject the experience of baptism out-of-hand, but please don’t generalize or project.
A final plea.
It is impossible to have discussions when others say that “I’m not like that, and my meeting isn’t like that.” I am grateful if your FGC meeting “is not like that.” But, please understand that for years, many Friends have experiences like those stated in this blog, and it is a very common occurrence. The “fact” that the critique is not representative of your liberal Quaker belief does not mean it does not exist.
A statement meant to exonerate your own practice and belief, as well as the belifs or practices of your meeting, It immediately cuts the conversation short by discrediting the experiences and observations of those who are challenging the liberal-liberal Quakerism.. In fact, I rarely if ever hear liberal-liberal Friends challenge such blanket statements, However, these Friends who are “not like that” will certainly be quick to challenge Christ-centered critiques.