Saturday, March 20, 2010

If Christians Were More Quaker: An Open Letter to Christian Friends by a Post-Christian Quaker

(This post is something of a response to Theo Hobson's Guardian article, "If Quakers were more Christian".)

Theo Hobson's article is a very direct personal testimony of one Christian's first reaction to the experience of waiting worship, as practiced by liberal Quakers. He emphasizes the absence of any Christian messages, "It strikes me that Quakerism has over-reacted against the dangers of institutional Christianity. It has got rid of priests, dogmas, rules – and whoops! – there goes a rather important baby along with all that bathwater. If Quakerism could somehow be re-rooted in reference to Jesus Christ, and be the minimalist, anti-authoritarian form of this particular religion, I think it might be for me."

A lengthy comment page has developed since the original publication on March 18. In typical intelligent and witty British fashion, Quakerism is alternately pilloried and admired. It is quite impressive to me that Quakerism in Britian has moved to such a prominent place in the cultural scene, with a national "Quaker Day" and a successful outreach program entitled "Quaker Quest" (which is in the early stages of an American debut).

I hope Theo Hobson finds his way to a Quaker Christian faith. I know that resources for such a faith are even more scarce in Britain than in the U.S.A. Here in the colonies we have four major divisions of Quakers, three of which are explicitly Christian, and the fourth not so much. In Britain, the main body of Quakerism is substantially unorthodox, and at best, only culturally Christian. Not that this is a bad thing, except for Christians like Hobson. As a post-Christian Quaker, I do hope he finds what he's seeking.

And, just to state my priorities here, I desire a vocal, impassioned, inspired revival of Christian Quakerism across the entire world. In a world wracked by warfare, domination, and oppressive banality, a vibrant Christian Quakerism is sorely needed as an alternative to Right-Wing establishment Christianity. That was what George Fox, the most influential early Quaker preacher, fought for his entire adult life.

As you may expect, there is more to my story. While I avidly support and encourage the advancement of the ministry of Christian Friends, I just as avidly disapprove of attempts by Christian Friends to undermine the theological diversity that has become normative within both Britain Yearly Meeting and the U.S.A.'s Friends General Conference. I firmly hold that there are multiple valid ways of being a Quaker and it is a waste of resources and source of disharmony to urge any sort of definitively Christian faith stance upon Britain YM and FGC.

In the U.S.A. our four traditions of Quakerism - Liberal, Evangelical, Pastoral, and Conservative - each have their unique charism. Each stream deserves unmitigated support in their distinctive missions in the wider world and their distinctive internal integrity. This is not to say that a Quaker of one sort may not criticize a Quaker of another sort. In fact, I expect that it will be impossible to prevent such inter-Quaker disagreement. In a wider perspective, Quakerism's diversity mirrors and reflects back the diversity and divisions of Western civilization, despite some naive illusions each tradition harbors about being "set apart" from the system of the world.

For example, I do try to influence Evangelical Friends to become more tolerant toward same-sex relationships. What I don't try to do is to convince Evangelical Friends to stop being Evangelicals. There is a growing movement within Evangelicalism, going back to the '70s, that promotes an lgbtq-affirmative reading of Scripture. While I personally disagree with Evangelicals' view of scripture, I don't believe it is a worthwhile endeavor to focus much energy on debunking inerrancy. As a leftist Quaker, I got bigger fish to fry than biblical literalism. I'd much rather try and get Evangelicals, Friends and otherwise, to take seriously the traditions of Christian pacifism and get onboard with anti-war activism. Keep your inerrancy, just lose your militarism and heterosexism.

So, what has really got me up on this soap-box? What's really bugging me, you may ask? Well, here it is. Embedded in the comment pages of Hobson's article is an all-too typical attitude among Christian Friends that violates all of the inter-Quaker respect that I am trying to champion. I am going to post it in full, but if you want to know who said it, you'll have to go to back to the Hobson article's comment pages.

One Quaker there, A.L., writes, "I think Theo, you intuitively identified the malaise that is essentially liberal Quakerism. Over the last 30 years in order to appear to appear "reasonable" to wider society, Britain Yearly Meeting's (BYM) central bodies have connived to whittle away the core elements of the Quaker faith in order to make itself more attractive to the general public. The justification for the de-Christianisation was 'we will put people off if we're too dogmatic...'. The end result is that liberal Quakerism has ended up with very little spiritual content, standing for actually very little, and you seemed to picked that up yourself. Ah yes, the truth is a last out... The liberal swing has just gone too far."

This is an seriously wrong-headed comment on liberal Quakerism. It betrays all sorts of ignorance about liberal Quakerism's pedigree and trajectory within the modern world. First of all, it implies that "de-Christianisation" is a recent phenomena going back a mere 30 years. To the contrary, various studies of the last two centuries of FGC and BYM have unearthed a much lengthier process of internal debate and liberalization going back to before the Hicksite schism of 1827. The Hicksite Quakers – forerunners of today's Liberals - were largely Christian, but a subset of them were in fact heading towards Unitarian ideas, most notably Lucretia Mott. Just as today's Quakerism isn't uniform, even among Evangelicals, Hicksite Quakers were diverse, and the seeds of today's developments are discernible within the schism itself. Lucretia Mott was so controversial that attempts were made to disown her, but failed. Reading her correspondence, many of which were published in 2002's Selected Letters volume, leaves no doubt that she was wholly within the liberal tradition.

As a passionate partisan of the liberal tradition, I take offense at the notion that liberal Quakerism “malaise” has “very little spiritual content” and “gone too far.” Friend A.L., you ain't seen nothin' yet! Liberal Quakers have a solid basis in history and a bright and sunny future. We may never be as big as Evangelical or Pastoral Quakerism, but we ain't going away either.

Here's a suggestion to my disgruntled Christian Quaker Friends (If you ain't disgruntled, I ain't talking to you). Start your own revival. Start moving in on other Christians, like George Fox did. We liberal Quakers aren't interested (OK, some liberal Quakers are actually interested!), most of us are committed to a pluralistic, open form of Quakerism.

Why would you want to win over some fraction of liberal Quakerism to the true faith once delivered? There ain't enough of us for that to be any sort of victory for Christian Quakerism. A real victory for Christian Quakerism would be for you to have a real impact on wider Christian churches. Imagine that, rather than trying to take apart liberal Quakerism, why not try building a truly authentic independent Christian Quaker movement?

(Afterthought: I held this post up for half a day to see if the anger that drove it settled, doing what Quakers call "seasoning." I still agree with what I wrote, so I'm letting it stand mostly unedited. I know that I have left out a lot of complexities, but, hey, this is just one little blog post, you can read some of my others here if you'd like more of how I approach this topic.)


  1. I'm mostly with you here, Charley, even as a theist Quaker with strong "Christian" leanings. In the mid-1990s I laid out a summary rationale for my own view, called "The Authenticity of Liberal Quakerism." It's online here:

  2. Hi Charley, as the 'AL' quoted in your post, it would have been nice if you could have let me know and give me a chance to respond to your criticism of my point of view.

    Don't you think?

    However I've taken the liberty of responding myself, you can catch my response called "If Quakers were more Christian : My Response to an Open Letter To Christian Friends by a Post-Christian Quaker" at Enjoy!

    Allistair Lomax

  3. When you say "Friend, you ain't seen nothing yet", I can only assume you refer to the inevitable end result of the pernicious influence for the worst of liberalism -the eventual disappearance of Quakerism as a separate denomination, because on current implosive negative "growth rates", that's exactly where you're headed!
    Without a firm emphasis on the risen, living Christ at the centre of both corporate witness and individual spiritual life, no Christian body has ever grown and prospered - as history shows. The sad thing is, the usual response from liberalism is "so what...?" and then when it reaches critical mass, it'll be too late. Very sad really. And in the case of Quakerism, particularly so, but not surprising at all when, as A.L (who I've had the pleasure of knowing closely for well over 20 years) points out, it has degenerated now beyond the point, in Britain YM for sure, of divisions centred on the place of Christianity in the body, but between theists and atheists/agnostics!!! Incredible, but not surprising to those if us who could forsee this decades ago. That's not "richness in diversity" or any other nonsensical liberal assessment held aloft with a sense of misplaced "pride" - it's a recipe for chaos, mistrust, argument disunity, decline (numerical AND spiritual) and eventual death - just as we see today...

  4. A.L., is there any possibility that you will accept comments on the Ripley blog? Or will you read comments here?

    A.L., you stated that there is less unity in liberal Quakerism about the testimonies. There doesn't seem to be an obvious way to measure this across all the many yearly meetings; maybe through comparing Faith and Practices? But in the case of the peace testimony, at least in the US, there is way less unity about this *outside* liberal yearly meetings, or at least, that is the impression I have.

  5. I'm happy to read comments here, that is providing Charley is happy with that. This is his blog, after all. Within specific liberal YM's, I question how widely the Peace Testimony is accepted. It is certainly presented as 'optional' within liberal YM's as all testimonies. Question is, what isn't optional?

  6. I'm very new at this whole Quaker thing, but I'm glad I found this post...what I'm finding tricky at the moment is the knowledge that I'm not a "conservative" type of Friend, but at the only liberal meeting I have found near me people sort of wince if one refers to "God" or "Christ" as though you've hurt their sensibilities or something. It's disconcerting, to say the least.

    I don't need everyone to use Christ-language, or think we need to draw lines around anyone or anything (or for that matter think it's my right to "need" anyone to do anything just because I think it's a good idea)--but if I have to muzzle my Jesus-language, I'm not going to fit here.

    So I have to say I Theo's original article did kind of resonate with's not that I wish ALL Quakers were more Christian, I'd just like to find some in a meeting I can get to on Sunday.