A Radical Quaker Message for Our Time

“I’m envious of a vision that sees 600,000 Quakers in Britain as a reasonable goal, and I’m also trying to figure out how to cope with my sense that this “quakerism” is a new religion that has almost nothing but historical links with me or my yearly meeting or with the majority of Friends on the planet.

The major feature of this reframed quakerism is perhaps revealed in the epistle of the Woodbrooke “Whoosh” workshop that Craig Barnett attended.

He writes: “The final epistle recorded that ‘we discern a growing confidence within the Religious Society of Friends that our experience-based religion is increasingly what many people are looking for. Growing numbers of people have rejected all claims to absolute truth, but are hungry for a path of personal and social transformation. This could be a “transition moment” for British Quakers, as we discover a new radicalism in response to turbulent times.”

It’s not for me to gainsay the excitement that Barnett records for his own Sheffield Meeting or that was evident in the Woodbrooke workshop. But my struggle with cynicism is part of the conversation I’m having inside myself about all these various linked documents: What is the difference between a genuinely radical message (Jesus: “Repent and believe the good news”) and what is out-and-out pandering to a congenial market?”

Johan Maurer, “Cynicism and Truth.” From Can You Believe? blog <johanpdx.blogspot.com>, 8/2/12.

Quakers today are very different than the founding generation of George Fox. If you aren’t familiar with today’s divergent forms of Quakerism, it may be helpful to briefly review this situation.

The largest group of Quakers in the world today are on the African continent. African Quakers are mostly affiliated with Friends United Meeting, which originated in North America as one branch of a schism that occurred in 1827 between “Orthodox” and “Hicksite” factions in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, FUM being the descendant of the Orthodox. There was one significant split in the Hicksites, called the “Progressive Friends”  who were abolitionists and feminists that were expelled by the Hicksite leadership for being too worldly, similar to how they viewed the Orthodox. In a sense, the Hicksites separated from their right-wing, only to turn around and eject their left-wing. By the time the Hicksites formed Friends General Conference in 1900 to more closely connect their several Yearly Meetings, Progressive Quakers still living had mostly rejoined their original meetings, though some drifted away from Quakerism entirely. A significant later split for my purpose here – and there have been others – is the split between Orthodox and Evangelical Quakers. More about them further on.

I am rehearsing this history in order to lay the ground to address the question of the future and radical message of Quakerism, which I’ve touched on somewhat inadequately in an earlier posting. The trigger for my current foray is the recent blog by Johan Maurer, a Quaker affiliated with FUM who now resides in Russia. I read Johan’s blog regularly, and he seems to me to be among the most ecumenically-minded of his tradition. This recent entry challenges what he sees to be some problems with a burgeoning spirit of outreach now forming in Britain Yearly Meeting and I’ve quoted him above with what I take to be his central point. Britain YM never underwent a schism on the order of the Hicksite separation. However, BrYM did shift from its endorsement of the Orthodox in the 1820s, to endorsing the Hicksites by 1900. This signified a generational shift from Orthodox to Progressive viewpoint within BrYM.

As a Quaker, I am firmly allied with the Progressive tradition that links abolitionism, feminism, pacifism, and commitment to social progress to an open toleration and even encouragement of theological diversity. This has resulted in the situation that vexes Johan, who cannot square the unorthodox pluralism of BrYM or FGC with his conception of the authentic Quaker tradition. However, despite my endorsement of this pluralism, I will admit that this “tolerant” pluralism often includes a contradictory form of hostility to Orthodox and Evangelical Quakers. This directly impacts the question of outreach, since in the U.S. Evangelical and Orthodox Christians are still the majority of the general population, a fact that is less true of Britain. This impacts questions of outreach by Quakers to grow their numbers because meetings that have an strong anti-Christian animus will be likely to see slower growth on statistical grounds alone. Britain avoids some of this tension because British society is less orthodox in its understanding of Christianity as a whole. British persons often use the term “Christian” as a sort of synonym for “conventional morality.” In the U.S. the term is more likely to involve questions of fidelity to church doctrines or a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

So, in truth, I find Johan’s concern about this topic as more a problem for American Quakers than for British Friends. However, even in the U.S. the question of how Progressive Friends relate to our more orthodox cousins has become intensely visible in the aftermath of the recent “World Conference of Friends” in which dozens of North American and British Quakers went to Kenya this past summer for a week of dialogue and mutual engagement. Something of a tempest broke over this gathering around the question of lgbtq inclusion, but every Quaker I’ve met from FGC who attended has confessed to having their comfortable American perspective soundly jostled. That, even as I feel their pain, is a good thing. In a global perspective, the relations of Europeans and Euro-Americans with the rest of the world is often not understood with a sharp enough attention to the vast inequalities that exist between us and our fellow human beings. Africa is the poorest continent on the planet, with parts of Asia and the Near East not far behind. Johan barely touches on this point, but I know he grasps it.

What I am less sure that he grasps is that Evangelical and Orthodox Christianity are deeply implicated in the colonialist ventures of that European and Euro-American civilization. That forms of Evangelical and Orthodox faith hold sway across vast stretches of the impoverished areas of the world is not a sign that this faith is somehow more liberatory for such suffering humanity, but that this form of Christianity was in some sense precisely calibrated to extend European and Euro-American hegemony in those regions. Quakerism in its first generation was a direct prophetic protest against the Puritan and Anglican churches and state religions that themselves gave birth to the international missionary movements. I almost wrote “imperialist missionary movements.”

I began this blog posting intending to do a patient parsing out of the nuances of the conflict between Evangelical, Orthodox, and Progressive Quakers. As I write, however, maintaining my patience is becoming more challenging. Religious conflicts do not take place in a socio-political vacuum. We can’t discuss the problem of how to persuade more Europeans and North Americans to consider becoming Quakers, whether Orthodox or not, without facing a bigger problem, what does Christianity or Progressive Quakerism have to say to the global problem of U.S. and European hegemony? Didn’t Jesus announce the imminent inbreaking of a radically new social order of justice, peace, and love that would overthrow the kingdoms of this world? “Repent” wasn’t a call to feel guilty about one’s personal sins, but to a break in one’s consciousness and actions with a demonic world order to join a new radical assembly (church) and community/movement dedicated to world change.

Although regular readers of this blog will know that I am an ex-Pentecostal Christian, what they may not know is that I embrace the story of Jesus and his earliest followers as a revolutionary forerunner of today’s radical movements. As my earlier posting this week outlines, I am dedicated to a renewed radical vision of a Communism of Love. In this, I am preceded by Gerrard Winstanley, a radical Leveller who was buried in a Quaker cemetery. His movement of “Diggers” were Communists who formed communes in several parts of England in the same decade as the beginning of George Fox’s ministry. There is evidence in Fox’s writings and sermons that he had been influenced by Winstanley. Both men preached an inward Voice of God that compelled radical change. This truth is rarely heard in Evangelical or Progressive Quaker circles these days. I would not be surprised that it might emerge more forcefully among Evangelicals than Progressive Quakers, since I first learned this view of Jesus from progressive Evangelicals and Anabaptist Christians.

So, I am convinced that we Quakers do have a radical message to recover, and it is neither the guilt-ridden Puritan message of personal salvation, nor the liberal message of quiet inclusive reformism. It’s the message of a new world order that must be born to save this planet from self-annihilation. It isn’t a message of enlightened liberals fixing the problems of the third world or zealous missionaries winning souls for a heavenly reward. The message of Jesus, Winstanley, Fox, and those left-wing Progressive Quakers is an apocalyptic/revolutionary message that within every human being there is a capacity for radical love in action. It has been deformed, degraded, compromised, and misguided by the weight of the Enemy powers of this world and our willingness to accept less than a world of justice for all.

How Evangelical and Orthodox Quakers will recover this message is up to them, I can’t define that recovery for them. I expect that most Quakers on whatever side of the divides will want to water down this message in some form. Liberal FGC Quakers often compromise with middle-class respectability. “At least we aren’t those heartless Republicans.” This safe haven is temporary, make no doubt about it. The ruling class fully intends to make every living being into a slave of its profit and power. Remember the story of Nazi Germany, “first they came for the Communists, I said nothing because I wasn’t a Communist, then they came for me.”

If that sounds like fear-mongering, Plato said that real courage is knowing what things we should really fear. Too often we’re merely afraid for ourselves, not the bleeding, suffering, dying world outside our fragile class privilege. To the degree that Maurer is challenging that class insularity, I share his skepticism about a Quaker renewal in Britain. However, my view of what would constitute a real revival of radical Quakerism is somewhat different.

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4 thoughts on “A Radical Quaker Message for Our Time

  1. One of the issues that enters into my consideration of “Primitive Christianity Revived” or “Progressive Quakerism Re-energized” is the very different religious culture of the 21st century and the 17th century. Although there were clearly “Diggers,” “Ranters,” “Seekers of Truth,” etc. in Britain and Europe, which included a strong influence on early Friends, in my opinion, of “Mystics.” at the time with some knowledge of “Eastern Religions.”

    However, the strong influence of, for lack of a better word, Wesleyan
    evangelism that pervaded the western movement in the US, to the point that when Kansas finally “approved” the “hireling ministry,”usually of “circuit riders” who wanted to settle in a community with a “meetinghouse” that became a church when the preacher came to town, a letter was sent that it “was easier to give them what they wanted than to teach them to be Friends.” This coupled with the advent of scientific discoveries that shook a fundamentalist literalist reading of the “Bible,” led to a counter reaction of “liberal” “progressive” Friends who read the Bible more as a metaphor than “science text.” In addition the influence of “Eastern Religions,” especially for the last 50 years or so has led to very clear and “acceptable” alternatives to the Friends “message” which has led to less distinctiveness of Friends. It has reached the point in many “liberal” Meetings that it seems a “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell” policy is in force. “Don’t Ask” for “personal beliefs” since this might imply that there actually are “personal beliefs” that matter in the daily lives of individuals. It is not enough that different personal beliefs can be untied in a sharing community, but only if we share ou deepest BELIEFS. It is so often that ask each other to “tell their story” about how they arrived where the are, but when we ask what were the underlying beliefs that led to the actions, we are often asked not to ask these questions. When we tell our “stories,” if we stray too far from “just the facts” and enter into beliefs and bases in scriptural metaphors/passages we often find a rejection since we seem to be “imposing” on others our beliefs.

    I apologize for the “denseness” of my discussion which includes many quotation marks to indicate “catch phrases” that often need paragraphs to explain what I mean by them, but I have often been accused of saying too much with too few words anyway.

  2. Actually, Johan is an Evangelical Friend. He is a member of Northwest Yearly Meeting, which is part of Evangelical Friends Church International. And he is a missionary in Russia.

    I am curious, what would a real revival of radical Quakerism look like to you?

    1. Ah, I never knew that he became Evangelical. He was General Secretary of FUM until 2000, which was when I learned of him.

      I have been pretty specific, we need to prophetically challenge the social order of capitalism, racism, sexism, and elite politics that oppress, repress, and exploit humanity around the world. This was the work that I believe Moses, Jesus, and many others have done.

      I also believe in becoming enlightened through contemplation, somewhat Buddhist, with some Christian elements as well.

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