11 April 2024

"Are Quakers part of the Church?"


I don't think I've seen this question asked any more bluntly: "Are Quakers part of the [uppercase-C] Church?" Or what? Are we on our own? Are we a new religion or meta-religion for whom those old ties have gone stale?

Some background: I'm a third of the way into an inspiring six-week Woodbrooke course entitled "The Shared Quaker Story," presented by Ben Wood, a Woodbrooke associate tutor, with eldership and technical assistance provided by another Woodbrooke associate tutor, Windy Cooler of Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

My personal description of this course is that we are examining the Christian elements that gave the Quaker movement depth and coherence for much of its history, and we are considering the cost of losing those elements. I think (here's an unauthorized prediction!) that we will learn that the most precious of those elements can be restored without resorting to ancestor worship or doctrinal rigidity, and without reducing our hospitality to sincere seekers in all their variety.

This exploration and conversation focuses particularly on Britain Yearly Meeting, where many Friends experience (or practice) a reluctance to describe the faith, if any, that we hold in common. In particular, Christian language and God language are often held at arm's length. Quakers' ethical discipleship (a.k.a. the "testimonies") are held in high regard but are often described without reference to their Christian origins. The customs and folkways of meeting for worship and meeting for business are likewise faithfully maintained but their connections with what early Friends called "Gospel order" are often not emphasized.

This last paragraph is not from the course materials, but from my own observations and reading. However, I think it's fair to say that similar observations form some of the context for this course. They help explain the question from our course's first-week preparative materials, "Are Quakers part of the Church?"

You won't be surprised to know that my initial answer to the question is "Yes, of course! Why not?" But maybe it's not that simple.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post, "Are Quakers Protestant?" Among other points, I tried to emphasize the role we play theologically in that larger Church:

In conducting our loving and worthwhile dissent from the majority Christian perspective on certain issues—including the nature of leadership and discernment, the role of social status vs spiritual gifts in leadership, the disciple's attitudes to violence and wealth, and the realities of sin and perfection—we have every right to engage with our conversation partners as peers who love the same God and live in the same stream of salvation history. Protestantism, with all its defects, is a concrete, known, honorable movement in world Christianity; in comparison, what weight and presence does a disembodied, self-mythologizing Quakerism have?

Of course "dissent" can go both ways: if we are part of the Church, we don't just get to tell others where they go wrong; they may well tell us where we might be wrong, or where we (in our often high self-regard) may not understand what we're criticizing. As we slash away at anything that resembles liturgy, for example, we may not see how much of our practices begin to resemble liturgical forms of our own. And our criticism of sacraments would be far more useful if we actually knew something of the depth of sacramental theology instead of just assuming our superiority. (See here for Val Ferguson's "three misleading negatives.")

Another thought: if not all of us Friends feel as if we're part of the larger Church, does that invalidate our community's identification with the Body of Christ? If the only unit that factors with us is the radically separate individual, then the game is already lost; on our own, nobody simultaneously acknowledges all of our connections with the wider community and the planet, and we all have different priorities. Using citizenship as an analogy: some USA citizens are extremely patriotic, while others are totally skeptical about the very idea of citizenship, but for most purposes, they're all still part of the country. Happily, most of us are embodied in community most of the time, and we don't need to constantly inventory every connection we have for those connections to remain meaningful.

(The same is true for other member communions of the Church. Even those churches who place a very high value on ecumenical relationships have members who individually couldn't care less about those relationships.)

Just to get a bit more argumentative.... Considering those Quakers who do not believe they're part of the larger Church: do they even see themselves as members of the larger Quaker family?

My understanding of the Quaker movement is that the first generation of Quakers decided to go to Christ directly instead of relying on the Christian establishment of their time. In turn, those founders told their descendants (us) that we could do the same. Along the way, we've learned a lot about what it means to rely on Christ at the center of our meetings, including the ethical consequences. But at the same time, the "establishment" and the other rebels and reformers who preceded and followed us have also been listening and learning—making discoveries and mistakes along the way, just as we have. That's what we are part of, not the creation of a whole new separate religion.


While I'm taking this Woodbrooke course, I'm also reading Ben Wood's book The Living Fountain, which contains much of the background information he uses in "The Shared Quaker Story." I'm about a third of the way through his book; so far, so good—so very good.

Last week I linked to an article in The Atlantic about the social costs of no longer going to church. This week: here's a poignant article, "The Death of a Church," on the decline of the Methodist churches in the UK, again illustrating what we lose when these communities disappear from our lives.

Simon Barrow at Ekklesia provides a comprehensive annotated list of online resources to follow events in the Gaza Strip and the rest of Palestine. It ends with a list of articles and analyses as of April 3, promising to update as often as possible, and provides links to several organizations providing disaster aid.

While we're on the subject of resource lists, here is Joe Ginder's list of Five Reliable Online and Electronic Resources for Jesus Followers.

Daniel P. Horan in the National Catholic Reporter, on distinguishing nationalist pseudo-Christianity from the real thing. "To be clear, this is a real religion we're talking about here; it's just not Christianity."

And here's a Russian Orthodox case study on pseudo-Christianity: Paul L. Gavrilyuk on false prophecy and state policy.

Ishaan Tharoor in the Washington Post on the fallacy of "the West vs the rest" worldview.

[Matias Spektor:] ...The “rules-based order” and its liberal elements “were not created by Western fiat.” Rather, they are the product of decades of contestation and diplomatic battles that ran through an era of decolonization and through the emergence and consolidation of principles of human rights in international law and the global public debate.

Nancy Thomas: Meaningless! Poems from Ecclesiastes and More Poems from Ecclesiastes.

From Buddy Guy's farewell tour vlog: the European tour. "We're not here forever...."


  1. There are some untested assumptions in the post.

    "if not all of us Friends feel as if we're part of the larger Church, does that invalidate our community's identification with the Body of Christ?"

    I guess so? I feel no such identification, and if Christian Friends require this of all Friends in order for those Christian Friends to feel that way then they might have a problem. Does “our community identify with the Body of Christ” anyway?

    But that’s followed immediately by this non sequitur:

    "If the only unit that factors with us is the radically separate individual, then the game is already lost; on our own, nobody simultaneously acknowledges all of our connections with the wider community and the planet…"

    Is it really true that the only way that any Friend can acknowledge “all of our connections with the wider community and the planet” is by identifying with the Body of Christ? I’m pretty sure that I manage one without the other. That’s part of why I’m a Quaker. And I’m sure that many other non-Christian Friends manage to do this too.

    Is it really true that our only choices are either “being part of the capital-C Church (and the Body of Christ)” or being “radically separate individuals”? Can’t Friends feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves without that thing necessarily being Christian?

  2. Keith, of course Friends can feel as if they're part of something bigger other than or in addition to the larger Church. For one thing, many Friends I know believe (as I do) that we're part of a worldwide peace movement, and that movement includes many who don't identify as Christian.

    I was explicitly addressing whether or not we understand ourselves as being part of the Church (the Body of Christ). The answer to that doesn't foreclose other ways of being part of something bigger than ourselves.

    Thanks for checking!

  3. Great, thanks. So, to be clear, the condition “the only unit that factors with us is the radically separated individual” is not the only alternative to “all Friends agree that all Friends are part of the Body of Christ”, right?

  4. Right. My point there was that a substantial unity with the rest of the Church doesn't depend on 100% simultaneous conscious agreement among all individual Friends.