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Quaker and Ecumenical essays by Eden Grace
© 2004 Eden Grace

A Witness Held in Trust -
perspectives on the nature and purpose of Friends

Intermountain Yearly Meeting
Abiquiu NM
June 13, 2002

This paper is also published on the web by Friends Bulletin at:
http://westernquaker.net/witness_by_eden_grace.htm

I Corinthians 12

14Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. … .21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I have no need of you!” 22On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. … 26If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

introduction

This past November, I was in eastern Hungary at a World Council of Churches meeting. As usual, I was the only Quaker there. The task of this commission involves reform of the structures of power and decision-making in the World Council — politically sensitive work. Usually, I have access to email during these meetings, so that if I need to I can get immediate counsel from the circle of wise Friends who have agreed to advise me. In this case, however, the AOL server in Budapest was refusing my attempts to connect, and I was feeling very isolated. This feeling was compounded by my surroundings in the seemingly endless wheat fields of rural Hungary. Even in the best of circumstances, it is very difficult to be the only Quaker at a meeting, and to feel the weight of representing world-wide Quakerism. And these were not the best of circumstances.

In the midst of this meeting, a subcommittee brought a proposal for a new way of evaluating churches for membership in the World Council. In addition to the broad affirmation that we share in the Christian faith, it was proposed that churches conform to a set of criteria about baptism, the eucharist (also called communion or the Lord’s Supper) and the Nicene Creed. The idea was to create a more “meaty” sense of what the churches expect of each other, to move beyond the fairly “thin” existing common affirmation. This list of criteria was meant to describe a minimum standard by which a church could be considered recognizably Christian.

The group bringing this proposal had very courteously thought to include a footnote at the bottom which read: “It is noted that there are a small number of founding member churches that do not practise a credal/sacramental ecclesiology.” That means us, the Quakers. The clear implication is that, since we’ve been around from the beginning of the ecumenical movement, they aren’t going to try to exclude us now, but we obviously don’t fit at all into the attempted consensus represented by the list of membership criteria.

Here I am, faced with this proposal, with no one to consult. What do I do? Should I be content to be acknowledged as a rogue who, while welcome, nonetheless doesn’t fit the paradigm at all? Or should I press on this growing consensus in such a way that it might include Friends? We’ve been footnoted plenty of times before. It’s a safe and undemanding place to be. We don’t have to speak about our experience, and no one else has to try to understand us. But is this really the best place for us? What do I believe Friends have to offer, that keeps us going in this process which sometimes seems to have a very alien agenda? I struggled — what do I do, in the remote wheat of fields of Hungary, that might change the way Friends are seen by the other member churches of the WCC?

Who are we, as a church? What is our particular “charism”, meaning spiritual gift? How is God calling us to offer it? How do we ask the other churches to see us? How do we interpret our position as a “rogue” church? These may sound like abstract questions, but in my work as your representative to the other churches, sometimes this becomes very personal. Before I tell you what I did about the footnote in Hungary, I want to explore what’s at stake in these questions.

But before I do that, let me offer you a definition of ecumenism, rather than assuming you all know what I’m talking about. The ecumenical movement is the movement of Christian churches to heal the centuries of division between them, for the sake of their unity in prayer, witness and service to the world. The urgency of this reconciling work is based on Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that his followers would be one, as he and God are one — one in a trinity of love which creatively maintains diversity in unity. The ecumenical movement is distinct from interfaith dialog — both because our work toward Christian unity draws on our common faith in Christ, and because the ecumenical goal is not only mutual understanding and harmony, but “visible unity” in mutual recognition of each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Ecumenism happens at many levels and in many places. My involvement has been focused on the statewide level in Massachusetts, and on the global level, through the World Council of Churches. My ecumenical leading also calls me to work toward the healing of divisions and schisms between the branches of Friends, especially through Friends United Meeting, which has this as part of its purpose.

In this talk, I want to explore the identity of Friends, as seen from an ecumenical perspective.

negative construction of identity

Quakers, like most other small denominations, are quite good at nurturing a theoretical concept of how we relate to the other, bigger, more institutional churches. I’m afraid, though, that this is often based more on an abstract theory of the others, than on actual experience of them. We, like many other churches with sectarian roots, carry some heavy baggage of rejection of the ones who once rejected us. Unfortunately, the load of that baggage weighs us down and stands in the way of a positive understanding of who we are as Friends.

When a co-worker or neighbor asks you what Quakerism is, do you find that the easiest answer is the one full of negatives? I do. It’s very tempting to define ourselves as the ones who don’t – who don’t have clergy, who don’t practice the sacraments, who don’t have a creed, who don’t use scripted prayers and liturgy, who don’t vote. We fall back on a self-definition which is based in the rejection of the other churches. Certainly there was a strong element of this among early Friends. Many of those who first gathered around George Fox had already rejected their village church. And as the movement grew, and experienced persecution, a polemical tone was quite natural. Thus Robert Barclay characterized the other churches (Catholic, Anglican and Reformed) as “the dead, dark, corrupt image and mere shadow and shell of Christianity with which Antichrist has deceived the nations.”1 That’s a pretty heavy negative!

These days, our unprogrammed meetings are full of “religious refugees”, people who have come to us after having been wounded by another Christian church. The wounds are real, and we become a safe haven for healing and the tentative renewal of faith. These people are very clear about what they are rejecting, but not so clear on what they want to embrace. They come to us because we know that God has not left them comfortless, and we trust that, in the safety of the waiting worship, they can experience spiritual healing. Unprogrammed meetings have a very special and important ministry with this population. Yet there is a danger that, in seeking to provide this ministry, we inadvertently allow the refugee’s rejection to become the cornerstone of our common identity. This is a serious mistake. When the meeting as a whole looses sight of our shared faith, rooted in our common experience of God, we in fact lose what gifts we have with which to minister to the wounded seekers among us. A group gathered around the rejection of others is not likely to be a place of spiritual healing.

Liberal unprogrammed Friends today are, on the whole, more easy with an anti-identity – what we are not – than with attempts at a pro-identity – what we are. I too have struggled with this. It wasn’t until I came into meaningful contact with those supposedly corrupt churches, that I began to see the need to move beyond defining myself as their opposite, and look for a more trustworthy and faithful basis for a Quaker self-understanding and confidence. Because the truth is that a negative construction of identity leaves a hole at the center of the self. It gives the power to define us to the one we reject. And it is very hard to know who we are and where we are headed, when we are wrapped up in pushing away from something.

My journey toward a positive understanding of the nature and purpose of Friends included a period in which I considered myself a “Bensonite” — a follower of Lewis Benson’s theology, as described in his book Catholic Quakerism. His ideas were profoundly formative for me, because they offered what felt like a positive, confident understanding of Quakerism — just what I was searching for at the time.

Here’s a summary of Benson’s version of church history: Jesus Christ on the cross initiated a new covenant, one marked by relationships rather than institutions — a religion-less way to God. Yet before long, the disciples regressed into the old covenant by creating structures and institutions for self-perpetuation, marked by laws and external rites. This church of the old covenant, with human rather than divine leadership — the Constantinian Church — persisted until the time of George Fox. According to Benson, “this man-made Christianity [became] a system of religion which completely eclipsed the new way to God that Christ had inaugurated.”2

Quakerism, according to Benson, is not another attempt to reform the church, but is rather a movement to begin again at the source. It is the recovery of the new covenant church, the religion-less community. It is thus in stark discontinuity with both Protestantism and Catholicism — it is a Christian community again grounded in the root and foundation of Christianity. Quakerism is the church of the cross, a “major reorientation”3 of Christianity which is in total opposition to the institutional “Christian religion.”

Now, Benson has been accused of being “historically ungrateful”, and I would say this is an understatement. According to his version of church history, no true church existed between the time of Constantine and the time of George Fox. His sweeping rejection of all non-Quaker churches is based on a theory of the others which precedes and negates actual experience of the others.

When I first read Benson, he seemed to offer a confident and positive definition of Quakerism, albeit with a heavy negative judgment of the other churches. But is it really? Benson seems to require an oppositional stance in order to assert a collective Quaker self-confidence. In order for us to be “true”, all others must be false. In order for Quakerism to be relevant and revolutionary, the other churches must be totally corrupt. Although I’m not an early Friends scholar, it is undeniable that the early Friends engaged in a good bit of this type of rhetoric. But is this polemic normative for a Quaker identity? Do we have to bash others in order to feel good about ourselves? Or does God have a different source of identity and self-confidence to offer us?

Benson’s characterization of the entire institutional church leaves no room for actual experience of those churches. It rules out any possibility that the Holy Spirit has been at work through the centuries among those who call themselves Christian. As long as I had no contact with any other church, Benson’s vision of Friends as the One True Church felt positive and empowering. But when I began worshipping with other Christians, and perceiving the presence of the Spirit among them, I had to question Benson. With each opportunity to chant the ancient prayers of the church, or witness the faithfulness of Christians in non-violent struggles for justice, or experience the authentic spiritual power of the eucharistic liturgy, or perceive the deep personal faith and pastoral gifts of bishops and archbishops, the neat “us vs. them” fabric became further tangled. The model fell apart in the face of my actual experience.

a witness held in trust

So who are we, as a church among the churches? As a Friends representative in the ecumenical movement, I stand in a line of gifted Friends who have both been able to translate Friends’ peculiar ways such that others can understand us, and been able to perceive the true presence of Christ in the other churches without that provoking a Quaker identity crisis. I, like them, seek a positive construction of Quaker identity — one which draws us into relationships with our sister churches. I should point out that this is a somewhat different task from that of describing the mission of Friends in a secular society, or the relationship of Friends to other world religions. I don’t attempt either of these tasks here. Rather, my particular question has been “who are we, as a church among the churches?”

The model proposed by Benson fell apart for me when I began my involvement with the World Council of Churches in 1997. At about that time, a new model started to emerge, based on a phrase which nearly leapt off the page the first time I read it. “We believe we hold this witness in trust for the whole church.”4 In 1986 London Yearly Meeting (now Britain Yearly Meeting) wrote these words in response to the World Council of Churches document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. My sentence — “We believe we hold this witness in trust for the whole church” — comes in the context of the British Friends explaining our understanding of the sacraments. The very Quaker distinctive which we most often hold up as our “vis-à-vis” or negative, they have turned into a testimony which leans toward, rather than away from, the conversation partner.

“We believe we hold this witness in trust for the whole church.” I have taken this as my paradigm for Quaker ecumenism, extending it beyond the specific question of sacraments. What does it mean to hold a witness in trust? What witness? Trusted by who? To do what? When? Toward what end?

We hold a witness, not a propositional truth. We claim an experience, to which our lives testify (at least, when we are at our best). Our doctrines about that witness are secondary to the power of the witness itself. It doesn’t belong to us, but has been entrusted to us by God, for more than just our own sake. We are compelled to share it. It is the Testimony which lies behind the Quaker testimonies.

What is this witness? What is the content of that which we hold in trust? In other words, what lies at the core of Quaker faith and life?

We are sometimes tempted to think that what we have to offer is our peace testimony, but Friends who spend any time in ecumenical peace and justice work soon have that bubble burst — for many other churches are just as committed to peace and justice as we are, and are pursuing it with at least as much vigor. It can come as quite a shock for Friends to find that our understanding of the gospel as a message of peace is not a Quaker distinction, but rather a point of commonality within the ecumenical movement. The other churches do look to us to provide leadership in the area of peace theology — and this is an opportunity for us to lead from our strength, rather than translating and interpreting ourselves into an unfamiliar framework. But it would be quite inaccurate to say that the peace testimony is the area of Christian truth which we hold in trust for the whole church.

Rather, our challenging message is our understanding of the nature and purpose of the church itself. What we hold in trust is our experience of divine leadership in the gathered meeting. The church, in our experience, is most fundamentally the community of the divine presence, before it bears any other marks. If taken seriously as a legitimate Christian experience, this witness requires a reframing of the terms of the ecumenical debate. It is here where our experience can and should have a significant impact.

God is the primary agent at work in the church, and the sacrament we celebrate is the experience of communion with God in the intimate and transformative moments we call “gathered”. Friends place an extremely heavy emphasis on the real, living presence of Christ as the initiator and sustainer of the faithful community. Christ’s presence is experienced in the community as community — in the transformation of relationships, in the healing of brokenness, in the forgiveness of sins, in the growth of a reconciling spirit, in the gathering of diverse persons into profound unity, in the continuity of the community through history. We receive the grace of divine presence, and respond to it in conversion of life. The Spirit is known among us by the fruits of our transformation.

The grounding principle of Quakerism is the radically real presence of the living Christ in the worshipping community. This is the witness we hold in trust. From this starting point, let me make five points about the content and spirit of this witness.

eschatological experience of the presence

The first point of our emphasis on the real presence of Christ is our understanding of the work of God throughout time and at the end of time, and of what time it is now, and of what kind of church is required at this time. Let me try to make this more concrete by reading a passage from Ephesians, chapter 4:

11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

Early Friends claimed that they had “attained the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”, as Paul promised. They had an experience which led them to claim that Christ was present among them. It was not that they misunderstood the ascension, when the resurrected Christ rose to heaven (and left the apostles in charge in his stead). It was rather that they claimed that the second coming was come among them. They experienced themselves as living within the final consummation of history. The community which gathered around this experience knew itself to be ultimate rather than intermediate. This way of positioning the community and of interpreting the experience of Christ’s presence is of paramount importance to understanding Quakerism and its claims.

vulnerability and discernment of spirits

The second point I’ll make about our emphasis on the presence of Christ is our willingness to be vulnerable. This is a direct consequence of what I’ve just said about the fullness of Christ’s presence and leadership. If Christ has come to teach his people himself, then we are no longer infants, tossed back and forth by popular opinion and needing the protection of a strong teaching authority in the church. Friends testify to the spiritual maturity of a community which lives under Christ’s headship and is willing to risk exposure to untruths in the pursuit of truth. Jesus said in John 16:13: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Friends believe that this Spirit has come and is guiding us.

When we claim that the living Christ, present among us, is our teacher and priest, we open ourselves to a tremendous amount of both freedom and risk. Friends are willing to subject ourselves to an unregulated flow of ideas, in the conviction that to protect ourselves from error will also inadvertently close out the power of God. (Unfortunately, some evangelical Friends have been overly influenced by Christian movements which are motivated by a fear of theological and moral contamination).

Friends at their best are risk takers, trusting in the Holy Spirit to preserve them in the truth, and thus eschewing fear of error. Yet when Friends do not make serious practice of the discernment of Spirits, and seek to know whether that which we are hearing is indeed “of God” by testing it against Scripture, Christian tradition through the ages, and the wisdom and practice of Friends, we become subject to the whim of every theological trend, unable to discern which new pop-spirituality paperback will lead us toward God and which will not.

The freedom we claim is truly risky. This is the most frequent comment I get from folks from other churches when I describe the practice of unprogrammed worship — how can you prevent erroneous teaching? My answer is that we can’t, and that we testify to the fact that we shouldn’t try to, but rather that we rely on the presence of the Holy Spirit to reveal truth and expose error. This is an extraordinarily risky position which I fear too few Friends feel in its full weight. In 1 John 4:1 we read: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” We do not have a “magisterium”, a teaching office of the church whose job it is to discern truth and error. This responsibility falls to each group of Friends, to each Yearly Meeting, relying the presence of the Spirit as a trustworthy guide. If we have little sense that we carry this tremendous responsibility, and little understanding of the sources of accountability to which we look in judging spirits, we are indeed at the whim of every passing fad in popular spirituality.

to be an apostolic church

My third point is our understanding of apostolicity — of what it means to claim that we are living in continuity with the church of the apostles. The claim of apostolic continuity is central to many definitions of the Christian church, including that found in the Nicene Creed. I have been asked how Friends see ourselves conforming to this mark of the church, since we do not have any structures to safeguard and perpetuate apostolicity. Our consistent answer, as Friends, is that we live and worship in the same Spirit which was with the apostles.

Our reliance on the real presence of the Spirit among us gives us both a strong theology of continuity — since it is the same Spirit of Christ at all times and places — and a dynamic theology of change — since we are ever open to the fresh teachings of the Spirit. As Britain Yearly Meeting put it: “Our continuity in the apostolic faith does not depend on [our book of discipline] or any other form of ‘institutional continuity’, but in the dwelling in us of the same Spirit that the apostles received, and our obedience to its guidance.”5

Our dependence on God’s power, on the Holy Spirit as the guardian of the faith, and our acceptance of both the freedom and the risk which this implies — these are indeed gifts which the other churches need to receive from us. We represent a challenge to the all-too-easy institutional theology which sees the sacraments and orders of the church as the guardians of the faith rather than as expressions of our faith.

our view of institutional churches

The fourth point I want to make in this section is about how we view those churches which look to us like they invest undue importance in human arrangements and structures of authority. FUM recently stated “We insist that the ‘presidency’ in our worship belongs to Christ alone, who is present as our priest to intercede for us, our bishop to oversee us, our prophet to speak to us, our Lord to govern us. None of these powers can be usurped by a human being or lodged in a church office.”6 How then, do we view those churches with human priests and bishops? Simply put, I propose we evaluate them in the same way that we ask them to evaluate us — by looking for the fruits of the Spirit in the life of faith. As Britain Yearly Meeting has said, “the validity of worship lies not in its form but in its power. … Absence of form and of structure no more guarantee depth and spirituality of worship than do their presence”7 And when the other churches look at us, we become a reminder that every human gesture and initiative takes its meaning only in relationship to the living Christ among us. This is our positive message, the witness we hold in trust for the whole church and the whole world.

It is the radically real presence of the living Christ in the worshipping community which makes something a “church”. This means that a church is neither validated nor invalidated by any other criteria. To be a true church does not require such things as bishops in apostolic succession, outward practice of the baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or the profession of a particular creed. Neither, though, does a true church require rejection of these things. They take their meaning in relationship to Christ’s presence among them. They may or may not be infused with divine presence, and it is the presence which validates the church. Ultimately, it is God’s gift of divine presence, and not human structures and institutions or the absence of them, which create a church. We can look to the qualities of life in relationship with Christ, and be glad to find the fruits of the Spirit in our sister churches. And as long as we’re around, our sister churches will need to grapple with what our experience implies about their structures and rituals.

being generous with our witness

My final point in this section is about the spirit with which we offer our witness. When we move away from the negative formation of identity and toward claiming a positive “charism” or spiritual witness for Friends, we begin to nurture a generous spirit toward the other manifestations of Christian faithfulness. We find ourselves able to see the gifts in other churches, and not just the flaws. We cease to compare our best to their worst. We find that we can rejoice in their times of joy and grieve in their times of sorrow (rather than the opposite). We experience the fruits of the spirit in our relationship with the churches in our community. Then we can know that the spiritual message of Friends is right and true and absolutely necessary to the future of Christianity, and still affirm with love the gifts of the other churches.

In doing a web search for something else, I found an interesting quote from a Baptist congregation in Britain. I don’t know any more about the context than what I can see on the web page, but this is from a letter from this congregation to the local council of churches in their town: “We gladly acknowledge Christians of other traditions, but believe that we are holding certain things in trust for the coming Great Church and so for the time being must remain separate.”8 They are using the language of “held in trust”, but this is profoundly different from the concept of “held in trust” advocated by me here. For this congregation, it is quite explicit that they look to a future eschatological time in which their gift will be required. Their responsibility in the meantime is to preserve the gift with all purity and vigilance. Friends, on the other hand, do not believe in a “meantime.” We are already living in the time of all significance. We are not called to wait for the offering of our gift. It is for the church and the world now, not the future perfected church. For the congregation on the web site, those “certain things” which they are holding in trust are precious and fragile and could easily become damaged by contact with the wrong sorts of people and ideas. Friends have a much more robust image of that which we hold in trust. With confidence in the Holy Spirit to preserve us in right order, we are not fearful of contamination. We do not shield our witness from the scrutiny of others, in the name of purity. We are bold to say “We believe we hold this witness in trust for the whole church” and to offer it with sincerity and confidence.

the footnote and its alternative

Of course, this is an idealized version of Friends. In fact, we are not always faithful in offering our testimony. We aren’t always sure we believe that our testimony is relevant. And we aren’t always attentive to nurturing our communion with the presence in our midst, so that we can testify with integrity to our experience. As I said before, we have a long history of consenting to being footnoted, letting the big guys sort out the big issues. We sometimes fail to see how absolutely relevant our witness is to the ecumenical conversations on things like sacraments, creeds and ordained ministry. Let me give you some examples of our footnote:

The most recent instance, as I said, was in Hungary on the draft membership criteria. It read “It is noted that there are a small number of founding member churches that do not practise a credal/sacramental ecclesiology.” This is much less gracefully worded than the usual footnote. It’s stark factual statement reveals much — there is no attempt to couch it with an implication that, as a founding member church without creeds or outward sacraments, we might carry any significance in the ongoing discussion. When I first read it, I felt that the committee was saying “It is noted with regret…”.

Other footnotes make a somewhat better effort. In the recent study “The Nature and Purpose of the Church”, we are footnoted in these words: “There are communities/Christians who do not celebrate the rite of baptism, yet share in the spiritual experience of life in Christ.” This is similar to the footnote in the Lausanne Faith & Order statement of 1927, which reads: “Others again, while attaching high value to the sacramental principle, do not make use of the outward signs of the sacraments, but hold that all spiritual benefits are given through immediate contact with God through his Spirit.” Both of these footnotes allow for our view of things, in which we can distinguish between the spiritual reality and the outward elements.

Other versions of the footnote go beyond allowing for us, and attempt to imply that the other member churches ought to recognize something in us. In 1963 and again in 1991, we were footnoted in these words: “we gladly acknowledge that some who do not observe these rites share in the spiritual experience of life in Christ.” This is indeed gracefully put. It “gladly acknowledges” that we do in fact share in the spiritual reality of the sacraments. In 1996, after stating that the goal of the ecumenical movement is “visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship”, the WCC Central Committee acknowledged that “This [vision] requires the readiness to be renewed by the action of the Spirit in encounter with other member churches which do not observe the eucharistic rite.”

Despite how graciously we are acknowledged and allowed, and how clearly the other churches would like us to continue in fellowship with them, we are consistently seen as outside the framework of a growing consensus. We are included as exceptions to the normative view that the sacraments define the church as church, and that the sacraments themselves are defined by their outward elements. Thus these footnotes attempt to include the anomaly of our practice (or rather, of our failure to practice) without making the attempt to include the truths to which our peculiarities testify. As Britain Yearly Meeting put it: “We wonder if the seriousness of the challenge that our position poses is fully recognized?”9 In the attempt to include, we are in fact marginalized.

When we are content with this marginal position, we are consenting to our own silence.10 We have conceded that there is no need for the other churches to attempt to come to grips with what we represent. We have conceded that we don’t, in fact, represent anything essential, but rather only a marginal and optional variant. We have in effect said to our sister churches — you have no need of us.

So, now let me get back to the footnote in Hungary last November. I felt tremendously uneasy about perpetuating the footnote, and all it represents (both for others and for us). There was a list of the criteria by which the churches would recognize each other as belonging to the same fellowship, which was framed entirely in terms of outward recognition of sacramental practice. We were footnoted, begrudgingly, as exempted from these criteria. Is that satisfactory?

After searching prayer, and without the possibility of consulting with other Friends, I proposed that the footnote be deleted. I offered instead a preface to the list of criteria which read “member churches should understand themselves as conforming to the following criteria, and be ready to give an account of their faith and witness in these terms, although these may not be the exact formulations most congenial to them.” This would allow for the possibility that our understanding of sacraments and leadership in the church could be heard and recognized by the other churches. My proposal was accepted and the footnote was deleted.

When I returned from Hungary and shared this development with my fellow Quaker ecumenists, I received a very mixed reaction. Some Friends agreed that, if we are faithful to the trust God has given us, we should not be relegated to a footnote, but should attempt to influence the body of the agreement. Others felt that the footnote was the only honest place to be, and that we do not belong in the ecumenical dialog about sacraments or the nature and purpose of the Church, since these questions are alien to the way we think and talk as Friends. What do we actually want? Do we want to be an acknowledged exception to the ecumenical consensus, or do we want to help reframe the consensus so that it truly embraces the witness we believe we hold in trust? Do we ourselves believe that our experience of divine leadership in the church is essential or only a quirky fringe option?

In my proposal to preface the whole list of criteria with a statement about the testimony of faith and life, I was trying to open the way for the Quaker position to be incorporated and to help shape the overall consensus. I do not believe that discussions of the work of the Holy Spirit in the sacramental life of the church are alien to Friends. It is grossly inaccurate to state that Friends do not “believe” in the sacraments. But I do recognize that our position on sacraments requires some translating — that if you look at the typical book of Faith and Practice, you will find little to directly relate to the ecumenical dialog on baptism, communion, creeds and ordained ministry. Yet I consider it my job as a Quaker ecumenist to do the translating and interpreting so as to “give an account of ourselves”, even if most Quakers would not describe themselves in these terms. Because I have listened sensitively to what these things represent in the theological systems and spiritual life of the other churches — and not just what they represent in the polemical literature of Friends — I appreciate the spiritual reality which lies within the outward sacraments, and can connect this reality with the experience to which Friends testify. This is a two-way street. If we want other churches to recognize the validity of our spiritual communion in the gathered meeting, and to grant that it has sacramental significance, then we must also be willing to grant the sacramentality of the same spiritual communion as experienced in other churches. This interpretation is the particular task of the Quaker ecumenist.

What would it mean if the other churches took our position on the nature of the church seriously? To quote again from Britain Yearly Meeting: “What then can we contribute to ongoing ecumenical dialogues about valid sacraments and authentic orders of ministry? Perhaps little more than our testimony to such fruits of the Spirit as may still be evident among us. Over more than 300 years we have witnessed to a redemptive religious experience.”11 In other words, we call on the other churches to examine whether, in fact, God’s grace has been manifest in the Society of Friends, and if so, whether this might require rethinking the role of sacraments in the operation of grace. Of course, this also places a high demand on us, to live up to the witness we proclaim, and to be willing to confess when we don’t. Ultimately, it is the integrity of life which preaches, not the proclamation with words. Do our lives preach?

Our radical witness to the other churches is not primarily in what we do or don’t do, but in why. Quakerism is not a package of practices to be exported, but a coherent system of belief based on our experience of divine leadership in the church. Because we know Christ as our present teacher, we await the word of God in our vocal ministry — we seek the will of God in our meetings for business — we receive communion with God in our gathered meetings — we celebrate the baptism of God in the transformation of our lives — we recognize the ordination of God in the ministries of our members — we hold ourselves accountable to the authority of God present in the faithful community — we witness to the kingdom of God in the testimonies of our lives.

Friends, by the witness of our experience, serve as a reminder to the other churches of the true source of the church. In my experience, it is rare that I actually need to assert a Quaker “position” in an ecumenical debate. Rather, the effective witness I make is in how I participate in the process. I focus on being a Quaker rather than arguing for Quakerism as a fringe option. I fully believe that the potential of the Quaker witness lies not in the doctrines we reject but in the spirit we embrace and seek to embody.

Our witness implies a particular approach to Christian reconciliation — recognizing and nurturing kinship in God’s terms, rather than seeking agreement in human terms. Christian unity lies not in convergence on a single understanding of the church and its structures, but rather in convergence on the common experience of the one Christ who is at work in all the world. “Jesus Christ is the center of a Gospel that is not primarily a creed or a doctrine but a life.”12 The particular approach of Friends to Christian faith and life is needed and desired. Do we have the confidence to offer it? Do we have the option to withhold it?

1Robert Barclay, Apology, Freiday ed., p. 439.
2Lewis Benson, Catholic Quakerism, 1966, p. 14.
3Benson p. 16
4To Lima with Love, Britain Yearly Meeting’s 1986 response to the WCC statement on “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.”
5Britain Yearly Meeting’s recent (2000?) response to the WCC statement on “The Nature and Purpose of the Church” (NPC), par.15.
6Friends United Meeting’s recent (2002) response to the WCC statement on “The Nature and Purpose of the Church” (NPC), par 24.
7Britain Yearly Meeting NPC response, par 36-37.
8http://website.lineone.net/~saints/cti/ctinews10.htm
9Britain Yearly Meeting’s NPC response, par. 24.
10I’m grateful to Janet Scott of Britain Yearly Meeting for her reflections on this matter in her essay “Silent or Silenced? The Religious Society of Friends and Ecumenical Dialogue.” (2001, unpublished)
11Britain Yearly Meeting, To Lima with Love
12statement by the Friends delegation to the 1927 Lausanne World Conference on Faith and Order, printed in Ferner Nuhn, Friends and the Ecumenical Movement, Friends General Conference Publications, 1970, p. 20.

© 2002 Eden Grace

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