back to table of contents
Quaker and Ecumenical essays by Eden Grace
© 2022 Eden Grace

Friends Relating to Other Christian Churches

Identity, Authority & Community Consultation II
Pendle Hill Conference Center
Wallingford PA
July 19, 2000

In December 1998, I stood in an enormous tent in Harare Zimbabwe with over 5,000 other people, praising God together. We came from almost every country and almost every denomination in the world. The choir was leading us in a South African praise song. We stood, and waved our arms over our heads, and I felt fully released into the joy and presence of that moment. My American and Quaker inhibitions melted away as tears streamed down my face. I could see around me that elderly hierarchs in black robes were moving with that same Spirit. Young African men hungry for justice were tasting freedom. Indigenous women from the mountains of Peru — European bishops — Indians from the untouchable caste — Africans whose Christian faith springs from African spirituality rather than colonial legacy — Methodists from tiny south Pacific islands — Sudanese refugees — a 30-year old Quaker mother and graduate student from Boston — we all were seized by the one Holy Spirit and, as our bodies moved together, we became the one body of Christ. Our churches have written volumes denouncing each other as heretics, yet the living word of Christ who knows each heart gave complete assurance to our unity. Even the tent itself began to move, as a fierce thunderstorm raged around us. This baptism by fire was the opening worship of the World Council of Churches Assembly, and it was a point of no return on my personal quest for a vision of Christian unity.

So, the topic of this session — Quakers relating to the other Christian churches — is a deeply personal one for me. The fact that it has been a recurrent theme through my spiritual journey has led me to do both theological and practical work on the subject. This presentation will weave my own story together with my analytical work.

I discovered Quakers at the age of 14, when a friend from school invited me to attend a Young Friends event. At that time, I was actively involved in the youth group of my Unitarian Universalist Church. However, I immediately sensed a profound difference between the UU youth group and Young Friends, and instantly began calling myself a Quaker. I didn’t know any Quaker history or theology yet, but I knew a depth of spiritual experience — of open and honest seeking, of loving community, and of integrity between words and actions — which were utterly new and convincing.

I had been raised in a family without any denominational loyalty. We changed churches whenever my mother became dissatisfied or restless. My childhood memory includes Quaker, Congregational, charismatic Catholic, and Unitarian Universalist churches. However, it was the UU church which had the most formative influence on me. It was there that I learned that all truth claims are relative, that faith is a matter of personal choice, and that all choices are equally valid. The logical conclusion of these lessons was that there is no objective entity called “God” with whom we have a relationship of substance — no Truth (with a capital T). I learned a rational system of ethical/humanistic philosophy that removed spiritual experience from my palate.

Quakers, even Quaker teenagers, offered shocking evidence of another possibility. I threw myself into Quaker experience, reveling in the deep open worship and blessed loving community of Young Friends. I committed every day, with the full zeal of a teenager, to “walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.” I renounced my former UU ideas as a heresy of relativism. But if UUs were too rational, I still thought that Christians were irrational and misogynistic. For the next eight years, I called myself a Universalist Quaker, and bristled under any implication that there was only one path to the top of the mountain.

Therefore, it came as quite a surprise, to both me and my husband, when I became a Christian on our honeymoon! We were at the World Conference of Friends in Kenya in 1991, and for the first time I was hearing impassioned, convincing, personal testimony from Christian Quakers, especially the Africans. It was making me very angry, and I was fighting with every masculine word I heard. Then came a particular moment — and I know not all conversion experiences happen in a sudden way, but mine did — while I was listening to Miriam Were, a Kenyan Quaker. I was stricken by the devastating knowledge that I had been refusing God’s invitation to a deeper, more intimate and fulfilling relationship. I sometimes liken this moment to Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. It wasn’t gentle and comforting. It was a searing experience to see my own sins so clearly. I wasn’t given any ready-made answers — I had to work those out little by little, starting from scratch. But I was unmistakably changed. God picked me up from where I was standing, spun me around, plunked me down facing in a new direction, gave me a shove on the back, and said “go that way.” Go find Jesus.

Immediately I began reading theology, and within two years I had discerned a vocational call to ministry and began studying at a seminary. I wanted to understand Quakerism, particularly the divisions between the branches of Friends. The leading which had taken me to Kenya in 1991 — to be a reconciler and healer among the divided family of Friends — further developed as I came to understand Quaker theology more deeply. Studying at an Episcopal seminary within an ecumenical consortium of nine seminaries gave me an education in Church history and tradition which allowed me to view Quakers “from the outside,” so to speak. Taking courses with John Punshon at Earlham School of Religion gave me an opportunity to articulate a Quaker theology “from the inside.” I began developing an understanding of Quakers as a Christian church within the historical stream of the Christian Tradition — an ecumenically-informed Quaker ecclesiology (ecclesiology being the doctrine of the church).

One of the most formative influences on me was Lewis Benson’s book Catholic Quakerism. I was inspired by his confidence in the Quaker message and mission. His comprehensive doctrine of the church made a lot of sense to be. I became a Bensonite. I’d like to take the time here to review Benson’s theology, since in many ways my subsequent personal struggle to articulate a Quaker ecclesiology which has integrity for me has been a struggle against Benson.

Before proposing his own ecclesiological model for Friends, Lewis Benson reviews four other contemporary ways of classifying Quakerism. The “Mystical Quakerism” model traces our spiritual ancestry through the stream of Christian mystics in history. This model would see Quakers as the mystical arm of Christianity, allied with mystics from the other world religions. The “Liberal Quakerism” model emphasizes intellectual speculation and individual liberty, with each person free to pursue his or her own spiritual path. In this model, Quakerism is destined to be a small group, since not many people thrive in this intellectual and spiritual freedom. The “Evangelical Quakerism” model adopts the worldviews of Calvinism and the Wesleyan revival, downplays the Quaker distinctives, and allies with other evangelical denominations. The “Radical Puritanism” model looks at the historical roots of Quakerism in Puritan England, and finds that Quakers were simply the most radical version of the larger Puritan movement. There are certainly further models for describing Quakerism than these four, and I will offer a somewhat more comprehensive list later on. But this is what Benson offers as his “straw horse” before dismissing them all with the statement that “each of the four types of modern Quakerism is leading the Society of Friends away from a sense of universal mission. Each has been willing to complacently accept the role of a small sect in a big world.” (p.11) This, then, is Benson’s test of a view of Quakerism — is it universal or is it sectarian?

Benson names his proposal “Catholic Quakerism.” (Catholic, to him, meaning universally true or whole unto itself, although this is a distortion of the meaning of catholic in the creed, as I will say more about later on.) Benson feels that we have to believe that Quakerism is the true church, in distinction to all other churches, in order for Quakerism to make any sense. He claims that the early Friends believed this about themselves.

Here’s a summary of Benson’s argument: the root of the church is the new covenant, initiated by God through the perpetually new act of redemption by Jesus Christ on the cross. Participation in this new covenant involves obeying Christ and being gathered into the community of believers. The new covenant creates relationships rather than institutions — it is a religion-less way to God, rooted in God’s initiative rather than our own inventiveness. Very early in the history of Christianity, as we can see from the pastoral epistles, the church lost touch with this root of perpetual newness as it built structures and institutions for self-perpetuation. Thus it devolved into a community of the old covenant, of laws and external rites. It became the Constantinian Church — the church built by men, with human rather than divine leadership. It is this church which the early Friends describe as apostate, meaning fallen away from the true faith.

Through the centuries, the church continued to build on this root of apostasy, creating structures and rituals which lacked the true spirit. According to Benson, “this man-made Christianity [became] a system of religion which completely eclipsed the new way to God that Christ had inaugurated.” (Benson, p. 14) Although the Reformation was a divinely-inspired impulse away from apostasy, the Reformers stopped short of restoring the true and pure Christian church, and rather slipped back into the spirit of Popery. Benson quotes an early Friend, Edward Burrough, as saying: “the Protestant church, and worship, and ministry, are not another in nature and being, than the Romish Church, ministry and worship, but are sprung therefrom as branches out of the same root, the ground being one and the same though differing in appearance.” (Benson p. 14-15)

Quakerism, according to Benson, is not an attempt to reform the church, but 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, which is the dialogic relationship between God and humanity. Quakerism it the church of the cross, a “major reorientation” (p. 16) of Christianity which is in utter opposition to the institutional “Christian religion.”

With such a definition of Quakerism, we should not be surprised that Lewis Benson is opposed to the ecumenical project, as he understands it. He sees the ecumenical movement as implying that the church is, of necessity, an institution; and that denominations are fragments of a greater whole (ruling out the idea that one denomination might be whole unto itself). Benson pleads for us to challenge these presuppositions of ecumenism and not accede to them. We have been too willing to accept a definition of ourselves as sectarian, small and marginal, rather than claiming who we really are — the new covenant church in its wholeness. “Not many Friends today would agree with the early Friends that Quakerism is good and true for all men [sic] everywhere in all ages, and that it is destined to be the prevailing pattern for the Christianity of the future.” (p. 90) Rather, we see ourselves as a special order with a higher calling within the church. But Benson claims that “the day when the Quakers accept the status of an order within a church structure based on Constantinian presuppositions will be the day when the early Quaker vision will cease to have any power to shape Christian history.” (p. 42)

When I first read Benson, I was inspired by that level of confidence. It made my being a Quaker meaningful and purposeful. It stood in profound contrast to my Unitarian Universalist Church teaching, in which all truth was relative and therefore somehow untruthful. I wanted to believe in something that I really believed was True (capital T) — true for everyone, everywhere. I wanted a confident faith, and Benson was the person who showed it to me.

I still do believe in Truth with a capital T, but now Benson’s form of confidence strikes me as triumphalistic. He 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 a priori — based on a theoretical doctrine which precedes and trumps experience. It is certainly true that, throughout much of its history, the church hierarchy has been intermingled with secular power to such a great degree that horrible atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of Christ. However, it is also true that Christ’s saving power has been at work in the church — I have only to stand in the holy quietness of a great cathedral, to listen to a sung mass, or to read the testimony of people like Julian of Norwich, to know that the Holy Spirit has never abandoned the church. And while I’m not an early Friends scholar, I can say that it is profoundly historically inaccurate, as well as ungrateful, to claim that the early Friends did not drink from the cup of those who came before them.

Benson’s use of the term “catholic” to describe Quakerism shows a profound misunderstanding of the catholicity of the church. He uses it to mean that Quakers are uniquely universal and whole unto ourselves. This is in some ways the antithesis of the intent in the Nicene creed, in which the universality and wholeness of the church is rooted in the divine embrace of all creation. Catholicity is the mark of a church which is, through its worship in communion with God, transcending all human barriers of race, class, gender, age, and culture. Catholicity is about the fusion of horizontal and vertical relationships — both human-with-human and human-with-divine — such that each penetrates the other. No one church can claim exclusive right to the designation “catholic”; such a claim negates itself, for catholicity implies an intercommunion which transcends lines of difference. In some ways, our testimony on integrity, which expresses the quality of wholeness of our faith, is our distinctive articulation of the catholicity of the church.

I have also come to doubt the depth of Benson’s understanding and the extent of his personal experience of the ecumenical movement. Although it was a stepping stone for me in my journey, I now seriously doubt the relevance of his outdated and uncharitable description of ecumenical goals and presuppositions. Much of his discussion of ecumenism consists of comparing our best to someone else’s worst, an attitude which is indeed incompatible with the ecumenical movement, and I would think also incompatible with the Quaker movement. But these critical reflections on Benson only developed for me over time. When I first read him, he was enormously influential to me, and it was with his definition of Quakerism in mind that I entered the ecumenical movement.

Back to my personal story — I got involved in Friends United Meeting in 1993 as a representative from New England Yearly Meeting to the FUM General Board. At that time, FUM had just come through the Realignment Controversy — the proposal that American Quakerism realign itself into two groupings, liberal and evangelical, thus eliminating the middle ground which FUM tries so hard to maintain. Although the proposal was defeated, it left wounds which were still fresh when I joined the FUM General Board. Many of the same issues which drove the Realignment proposal — the desire to separate from perceived doctrinal impurity, and the feeling that our freedom is curtailed if we cooperate with those who are not like us — reemerged almost immediately in the form of a proposal that FUM resign from the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. I didn’t know anything about these councils or the ecumenical movement, but I knew on a gut level that separation was wrong, that we need not fear the other if we know ourselves. I saw that what was at stake in this question was our own deepest self-understanding.

FUM sent the matter of its ecumenical relationships to the member Yearly Meetings for study and response. I became involved in New England Yearly Meeting’s process, and decided to educate myself about the issues involved. I read a whole stack of materials from those Friends who were calling for resignation, and began to see that much of the information they were using was neither accurate nor reputable. Yet beneath the ideological diatribe from the Christian Right media, there was the very real question of who we are as Friends, and what that implies about our attitude toward the other churches. At a meeting of the Yearly Meeting Ministry & Counsel Committee, I again felt seized by God. I knew that God was leading me to work further on this question of Quaker ecumenism, and this became the focus of my academic work. I also offered my name to the Nominating Committee of FUM to represent FUM at the 8th Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

I was dogged by the question which Lewis Benson provokes — what if I believe that my church is the one true church? On what grounds, then, do I consent to cooperate with other churches? (And by the way, the WCC does not, as Benson claims, prejudge the answer to those questions.) Benson’s undifferentiated a priori judgment of all other churches struck an increasingly dissonant chord when I began actually encountering the other churches, especially in their worshipping life. They at their best didn’t seem, to me, to be so starkly different from Friends at our best. I felt spiritually compelled to cultivate a generous attitude. Yet I wasn’t willing to surrender the quest for a confident self-image of Quakerism. As Benson puts it, I was not willing “to complacently accept the role of a small sect in a big world.” (Benson p. 11)

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. 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. Barclay, in the Conclusion to his Apology, in which he describes the distinction between Friends and the other churches, calls those others “the dead, dark, corrupt image and mere shadow and shell of Christianity with which Antichrist has deceived the nations.” (Barclay, Freiday ed., p. 439). Given the level of persecution which early Friends experienced, and the extent of political power and corruption in the churches of the time, one can hardly blame them for their anger. Yet it is also the case that every church reform movement sees itself as “begin-again Christianity”, and engages in polemic against that from which it separated. In this respect, we are in fact no different at all.

I would claim that there is an abiding truth which rises from that early polemical rhetoric, in the form of a doctrine which is normative for all Friends everywhere. However, contrary to Benson, this normative doctrine is not the a priori rejection of other churches as being hopelessly apostate. Rather, it is the rejection of the ungodly powers and principalities of this world and their attempt to use Christ’s church for their own purpose. It is this which is “Constantinian”, and it is this which we still refute today. When I speak so positively about my experience of the other church traditions, I do not, by any means, want to imply that there is no place for a prophetic critique. The demonic does still maintain some hold on the church and world, and will undoubtedly continue to do so until the final consummation. Where the powers of racism, of sexism, of violence, of oppression, exclusion and privilege, are at work in the church today, we are rightly called to name this “apostasy” — a falling away from true Christian faith.

Thus my experience as a Friend amid the variety of the world’s Christians has prompted me to do some thinking about Quaker ecclesiology — a Quaker understanding of the church — in order to articulate an alternative to Benson. I don’t claim to have read everything that’s been written on the subject, but I have developed a proposal for a Quaker ecclesiology — a confident Quaker self-image — which is not based on an a priori rejection of the other. It seeks to express in positive terms the uniqueness of Friends by describing our experience of the marks of the church — the qualities which define “church”. According to the Nicene creed, the marks of the church are oneness, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. The reformation articulated the marks of the church as “word and sacrament” — the church is present where the word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. While not excluding any of these other marks, I would claim that they are secondary to the primary mark of the church, which is the experience of God’s immediate self-giving initiative.

I propose that the grounding principle of Quaker ecclesiology is the radically real presence of the living Christ in the worshipping community. The church, by definition, is the community of that presence — of that gift which we neither create nor capture, but only enjoy. The presence is radically, scandalously real, not symbolic or remembered. It is operative in our midst, actively teaching, leading, ministering, and healing. It is the living Christ, the Jesus of Scripture and Christian tradition, the incarnation of God and resurrected savior, who is present in the room with us. Christ’s presence is experienced in the community as community, in the transformation of relationships, in the growth of a reconciling spirit, in the gathering of diverse persons into profound unity, in the continuity of the community through history.

It is this 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 eucharist, or the profession of a particular creed. Neither, though, does a true church require rejection of these things. These may or may not be infused with Christ’s presence, and it is the presence which validates the church. Ultimately, it is God, by the gift of His presence, and not human structures and institutions or the absence of them, which create a church.

I have concluded that Friends have more in common with the other churches than we have different — because the living Christ is One — but that doesn’t mean our radical witness isn’t necessary. The churches and the world are hungry for the immediacy and simplicity of Quaker experience. I propose that an understanding of Quaker mission within my proposed ecclesial definition would see us holding the memory and proclaiming the possibility, indeed the experiential reality, of the radically real presence of the living Christ. Our charism as Friends — our spiritual gift — is that we are particularly attune to Christ’s presence and leadership in the church. We have taken the consequences of His presence to such an extent that we represent a profound challenge to the rest of the Christian Tradition. As Britain Yearly Meeting stated in a document explaining Friends’ witness on the sacraments: “we believe we hold this witness in trust for the whole church.” (To Lima With Love, London Yearly Meeting, 1987, ¶ 23) We have a corporate experience as a Religious Society, and we have a corporate leading to witness to this experience. We are certainly not the only ones throughout history to witness to this experience. To claim this as our leading doesn’t require that we’re the only ones who experience Christ’s presence in our midst.

Essential to the integrity of our witness is the conscious practice of recognizing Christ’s presence wherever we discern it, refusing to allow it to be held captive to human categories. We have based all our institutions of church order on the central principle that a human institution can not domesticate God. But the corollary of this is that a human institution can not prevent God from being present either. We can rejoice in the presence of the Lord, whether we are experiencing that presence in the silent meeting, or in the Holiness tent revival, or in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. We can welcome Christ into every experience, responding to His presence even when it comes in unfamiliar ways. If we cease to be receptive to the presence of God in the other, we cease to be Quakers.

This foundational ecclesiology and spiritual orientation make a profoundly fertile ground for Quaker ecumenical participation. We can rejoice in fellowship with other Christian churches, and confidently witness to our experience as Friends. The truth of all truths, the thing we are most compelled to proclaim, requires that we seek the Lord in every corner. We are called upon to maintain an open and generous heart toward those who are different from us. We have much to give, and much to gain. To isolate ourselves with a sociological or theological hedge is to give anti-witness to the Truth as revealed to Friends, both by withholding our truth, and by closing ourselves off from the truth as experienced by others.

As Maurice Creasey put it in an essay entitled “The Ecumenical Role of the Society of Friends”: “Out of the three centuries of our experience we have important things to say to the churches, not a few of which are clearly feeling after some such understanding of Christian discipleship in community as the Society has always sought to embody. At the same time we have to recognize that our particular insights require to be related to the whole context of Christian faith and experience in all its richness and variety if they are to be saved from exaggeration and exclusiveness.” (Creasey, “The Ecumenical Role of the Society of Friends,” in No Time But This Present: Studies preparatory to the fourth world conference of Friends, 1965, p. 53)

One area where, in my opinion, we are most in need of being ministered to by the other churches is in our view of the sacraments. Our testimony is that: “however valid and vital outward sacraments are for others, they are not, in our experience, necessary for the operation of God’s grace.” (To Lima with Love, ¶ 23) While I wholeheartedly affirm this statement, my experience is that in practice, very few Friends (at least in North America and Europe) are in the habit of recognizing and naming the operation of God’s grace in their lives, of offering public testimony to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, of recalling the communion of Jesus with his disciples as we gather in worship. We have lost a corporate sense of what the sacraments represent, so that we are unable to recognize and name such spiritual events when they occur. How often do we hear a Friend state that Quakers don’t believe in the sacraments — what could be further from the truth! Rather, we hold the sacraments in such high regard that we are unwilling to ritualize them. Or at least, we ought to hold them in that regard. But we’ve forgotten what they mean in their liturgical usage, which makes our testimony of non-liturgical usage ring rather hollow. I have been greatly enriched, and I believe Friends at large would be too, by a careful study of such things as the WCC document on “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry”, not for the purpose of calling into question our testimony on sacraments, but rather so that we might be renewed in our testimony.

Unfortunately, many contemporary Friends, from all branches, are afraid of contamination, of being weakened by contact with the theologically “other”. Listening to the witness and tradition of another person, church or culture which has a different experience can feel enormously threatening. Forming a community with those whose voices are different from ours can make us fearful of losing our own voice. This is as true on an interpersonal level as it is on a corporate level. There is a strong human desire to isolate into homogenous communities, because difference is scary. In one anti-ecumenical article in Quaker Life, the author equates the testimony on integrity with uncompromising purity, with being “ever vigilant of our associations.” (Quaker Life, June 1995 p. 23) She concludes that, in order to preserve our integrity, we must sever our ties with the ecumenical movement. To my mind, this is a profound misunderstanding of the integrity to which we are called. It shows distrust of God.

The goal of the ecumenical movement — to bring Christ’s divided people into a fellowship of love and service in communion with God — is also precisely the goal of Quaker worship. When we speak of a “gathered meeting”, we are speaking of the unity which we receive as a gift, when our broken corporate body is raised up to participate in the divine nature. I have found it helpful to hear this experience described in trinitarian language. The Holy Trinity, itself a unity of distinct persons in mutual self-giving relationship, becomes the model for the church. Just as the unity of God is a triunity, so our unity as Christians is multifaceted and richly textured. We aim not at uniformity, but at blessed community. This blessedness is not something we receive in order to possess, nor is it a demand which we strive to fulfill. Rather, it is a quality of the divine nature in which we participate. To willfully separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters out of an obsession with purity is to willfully remove ourselves from participation in the triune nature of God. Just as Jesus was not compromised by his association with sinners and tax collectors, but rather it was in these relationships that his gospel was most clearly revealed, we are not called to be pure and set apart.

My experience has been that to be a Quaker within the ecumenical movement has brought spiritual riches to myself and my community, strengthening my Quaker identity rather than diluting it. God has offered me opportunities to stretch and grow, to witness and influence others, to listen and be influenced, and to re-articulate ever more clearly what I believe to be the essential message of Friends. I am surprised to find, after only two years of involvement, how deeply connected I feel and how much I’ve grown. Much of this is due to my service on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, which is the WCC’s governing body. When I was in Harare at the Assembly, I discovered my name on the list of nominations for the new Central Committee. I still don’t have an explanation of how my name came to be on that list (although I’m certain that the quotas for participation of women and young people had something to do with it). I spent a torturous several days seeking clarity on whether to allow my name to go forward. I prayed and wrote in my journal. I emailed my elders at home for advice. I sought counsel from the other Quakers who were there, from some people who had experience with the Central Committee, and from the other youth delegates. After 11 hours of frantically trying to phone home, I finally reached my husband Jim and talked the matter through with him. More than anything else, I was tortured by the idea that my call to ministry would be harmful to my children (who were ages one and two-and-a-half at the time). How could God call me to two incompatible lives at the same time? Could I be both a public Friend and a mother? As we talked and prayed together on the phone, I came to understand that God’s undeniable leading in my life was not a burden on my family, but rather a blessing. My children could experience my work as a gift. Now certainly they don’t always perceive my frequent travel as a blessing at that time, but I have felt confirmed over and over again in the truth that my faithfulness yields spiritual fruits which ripple out beyond my own personal spiritual life. As I have been faithful in walking through the doors God opens for me, I have found abundant riches on the other side.

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from my ecumenical involvement has been my encounter with the Orthodox churches. Most western Christians — Protestants and Roman Catholics — tend to be unaware of the Eastern church tradition. For 500 years, Western theological discourse has been consumed by the Protestant/Catholic dialectic. When Quakerism emerged, it was conceived of as a “third way”, neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic. While I agree that Quakers are neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic, this designation ignores the fact that there already exists a third way, which is in some respects the first way, the oldest church tradition.

By Orthodox churches, I actually mean two families of churches — Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. The Eastern Orthodox include Greek, Russian, and all the other Eastern European Orthodox churches (Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Romanian, etc). The Oriental Orthodox churches are those which did not accept the Chalcedonian formulation of the dual natures of Christ in the year 451. They include the Coptic (Egyptian), Ethiopian, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox churches. Through the modern ecumenical movement, these two families of Orthodox have worked hard to reconcile their differences, and are well on their way to full communion (by which is meant complete recognition of each other as churches in the fullest sense).

I have been surprised and delighted to find many points of similarity between Orthodoxy and Quakerism. However I’m certainly not the first to discover this synergy. One of my friends in the World Council of Churches, Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky, the representative from the Orthodox Church in America, tells an anecdote about Fr. George Florovsky, one of the great 20th century Orthodox theologians. Fr. Florovsky was a lone Orthodox attending an ecumenical event in which participants were seated by confessional family. The organizers asked if he would like to sit with the Anglicans. He replied that, while on the surface, the Orthodox liturgical tradition bore similarity with Anglican worship, in terms of a deep experience of the Holy Spirit, he’d prefer to sit with the Quakers. The outward form of worship between Quakers and Orthodox could not be more different, but the spiritual intent, the focus on the real spiritual presence, is identical. Fr. Kishkovsky, a widely respected ecumenist, has told that story several times at ecumenical events in which I was a young newcomer and most participants were unfamiliar with Quakers. I can’t help but feel that he did it in order to give me some personal credentials, to express an Orthodox stamp of approval of Quakerism, and I’ve been enormously grateful.

Orthodox churches do not readily offer approval to other church traditions. Their self-concept is, in some ways, identical to Lewis Benson’s. They see themselves as the one true apostolic church, the bearers of the unchanging Christian Tradition through 2000 years. While they are rigorously ecumenical, their paradigm of Christian unity is often expressed in terms of the schismatic churches returning to the apostolic (i.e. Orthodox) tradition. There is a great range of Orthodox thought on ecumenism, although ultra-conservatism has been on the rise since the fall of the communist governments in Eastern Europe. Several of the Orthodox churches have been expressing increasing dissatisfaction with the World Council of Churches, and two have resigned from membership. This has provoked a significant crisis within the WCC. One of the ways I’m currently most active in the WCC is that I’m a member of a 60-member body (half Orthodox/half Protestant) called the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, which is charged with proposing a “radical restructure” of the WCC in order to take account of Orthodox criticisms.

I felt led to offer my name for the Special Commission for several reasons. I know that my ministerial gifts lie in the area of church governance and organization. I like nothing better than organizational restructure when it is undertaken via theological reflection. I also recognized that many of the anti-WCC criticisms which arose within FUM were echoed by the Orthodox concerns. While FUM is a miniscule church whose criticisms hadn’t quite made it onto the radar screen in Geneva (not that anyone within FUM tried very hard, as far as I know), the Orthodox churches are a powerful voice within the WCC. I hoped that, by my personal participation in the Special Commission, way might open for FUM’s internal wounds to be healed as well. Finally, I was keenly interested in knowing more about the Orthodox church.

At a meeting in Damascus, Syria in March of this year, I presented a paper on Quaker decision-making. The Orthodox members of the WCC are very interested in moving the WCC toward a consensus model of decision-making, since this is much more consistent with their own ecclesiology and practice. Like Quakers, the Orthodox approach the question of church governance from a profoundly theological basis, and they reach essentially the same conclusions we do. My paper on Quaker practice was very well received by the Special Commission sub-committee on Membership, Representation and Decision-Making. The sub-committee also heard a presentation from the Uniting Church in Australia, which recently changed from using Roberts Rules of Order to using a consensus model. These two presentations lay the groundwork for the subcommittee to recommend that the WCC adopt consensus decision-making at all levels of governance. It also sparked my interest in studying the Orthodox approach to ecclesiology and church governance in greater depth.

The past semester, I was fortunate to do some independent research at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology on Orthodox ecclesiology. I was looking particularly at Orthodox conciliar theory — the theology which expresses the fact that the church is fundamentally conciliar, is a council which unites diverse persons and experiences through participation in the triunity of God. I was astonished to find many passages on Orthodox conciliar theology which could have been written by Quakers.

I was particularly impressed by a lay theologian named John Zizioulas, whose work on Orthodox ecclesiology is considered normative. I hope you’ll forgive me for quoting him at length, but I believe he is instructive for our own sense of identity as Quakers. In his discussion of the catholicity of the church — by which is meant the church’s quality of wholeness — Zizioulas emphasizes that:

“the Church is catholic, not because she is obedient to Christ, i.e. because she does certain things or behaves in a certain way. She is catholic first of all because she is the body of Christ. Her catholicity depends not on herself but on Him. She is catholic because she is where Christ is. We cannot understand catholicity as an ecclesiological notation unless we understand it as a Christological reality. … The Christological character of catholicity lies in the fact that the Church is catholic not as a community which aims at a certain ethical achievement (being open, serving the world, etc.) but as a community which experiences and reveals the unity of all creation insofar as this unity constitutes a reality in the person of Christ. To be sure, this experience and this revelation involve a certain catholic ethos. But there is no autonomous catholicity, no catholic ethos that can be understood in itself. It is Christ’s unity and it is His catholicity that the Church reveals in her being catholic. This means that her catholicity is neither an objective gift to be possessed nor an objective order to be fulfilled, but rather a presence, a presence which unites unto a single existential reality both what is given and what is demanded, the presence of Him who sums up in Himself the community and the entire creation by His being existentially involved in both of them. The Church is catholic only by virtue of her being where this presence is.” (Zizioulas, Being As Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, 1997, p. 158-160)
To paraphrase Zizioulas in my own words: we don’t create a church by what we do. Our Christian vocation is neither a gift which we receive once-for-all, nor a demand which we strive to fulfill. Rather, Christ creates a church by his presence with us, and that presence creates a certain quality of wholeness and ethical imperative in our community. The unity of the church and its universal scope are consequences of Christ’s unity and universality. I was stunned when I read this passage, describing the Orthodox church — a church which, according to Benson, is apostate, full of empty forms, being not in the power of the living God.

My experience confirms that the living God is powerfully present in Orthodox worship, in the ancient chant, transcendent iconography, and majestic liturgy, as well as in the generous Christian hearts of all those I’ve met, from Patriarchs to students. I have to admit that it’s been a challenge to get past the ponderous clerical garb and the complicated system of honorific titles. But I have been clear that my spiritual calling is to see past these surface elements in order to meet one another as Christian brothers and sisters. I have found my Orthodox friends warm and open. I strive to present myself as an equal, while avoiding outright rudeness. I have discovered that the testimony against titles is distorted beyond recognition if it is used to scorn the other or to wallow in pride and superiority about the advanced state of equality among Quakers. Alternatively, refusing titles is itself an empty form if, in our hearts, we are intimidated by the personal power of the other. I have felt called to engage with church hierarchs as brothers, in a relationship of substance rather than form (or the refusal of form), and I have been universally received as a sister. My confidence comes from knowing Christ’s presence in my life, and I am not intimidated even as I address a Patriarch.

While the titles and visible hierarchy of the Orthodox church have presented a challenge for me, worship in the Orthodox tradition has been a pure gift. The ancient chants are a powerful, visceral connection with the communion of saints, the centuries of Christians who have come before. In Syria, I even had the opportunity to worship in Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke. The rural Oriental Orthodox community in Syria still speaks Aramaic in daily life. Hearing such a language used vernacularly and liturgically amid the stark landscape of the Galilean hills was surely a spiritual highpoint of my life. Icons, portals to the transcendent realm, are truly powerful, whatever opinion we might hold about iconographic theology. Indeed, my experience with different worship traditions in their wholeness and integrity does not make me any less a Quaker or desire any less the simple worship of Friends. Neither do I wish for an amalgam of all the traditions, a potluck with a dollop of everything which soon turns to mush on the plate. Rather, I praise God for the infinite diversity of creation and the multiplicity of forms, languages and rituals with which we can respond to Christ’s self-giving presence.

There’s one place I’ve found where mush is spiritually profound. At the World Council of Churches, all business is simultaneously translated into five languages — English, Spanish, French, German and Russian. The reality of colonialism is that almost everyone in the world speaks one of those languages, although this puts native speakers at a significant advantage over those for whom a European language is their third or fourth tongue. However, the WCC’s tradition in worship is that each person prays and reads scripture in their native language, and this is not translated. It is an indescribable experience to hear the Spirit speaking through words which carry no meaning to me. Most profound of all is the Lord’s Prayer. The entire worshipping congregation — in Harare that was 5,000 people — spoke the Lord’s Prayer together, each in his or her own native language. That was truly mush, and it was utterly staggering. It was immediately clear that God speaks all languages and none — that language is a deeply human construct which God both completes and transcends. Truly, our mush was acceptable corporate prayer, for it is the heart that prays, and thus we were praying in unison.

My experience has been that my individual uniqueness, and the uniqueness of Friends, is upheld and celebrated by a Christian unity which participates in the triune nature of God. I feel confident about the Truth of Friends without needing that truth to come at the expense of other Christian voices. I am convinced that the more deeply we rest in our Quaker identity — in our experience of the radically real presence of the living Christ in our worshipping community — the more freely we are able to join in the blessed community of all Christians.

As I have been working over the last two years on this topic of Friends relating to the other Christian churches, I have been developing a chart of various models of Quaker ecclesiology and their ecumenical implications.

[This chart may be viewed as a PDF file by clicking here: if-then-chart.pdf]

Discussion questions for small groups:

Share your story:

Did you come to Friends from another religious affiliation?
Since you’ve been a Friend what has been your personal experience of encounter with other Christian churches?
Does your Meeting/Church engage in any organized ecumenical activities?
How have these encounters surprised you? confirmed or called into question any assumptions you might have made?
How has your experience of other churches shaped your understanding of Quakerism?

Reflect on my proposed ecclesiology:
“I propose that the grounding principle of Quaker ecclesiology is the radically real presence of the living Christ in the worshipping community.”

What is your response to this proposal?
Does it adequately describe the core of Quakerism, in your experience?
What does it imply for your Friends Meeting/Church? for its understanding of itself? for its relationships with the other churches in your area?

Think about the chart together:

Why do you think people choose your Friends Meeting/Church over the other churches in your town?
What other church, organization, movement or ideology is most akin to Quakers, in your experience?
What do these things tell you about what kind of thing Quakerism is?
Once you know what kind of a thing Quakerism is, what does that mean for how Quakers will relate to others?
What model(s) on the chart most closely reflect(s) the attitudes and practices of your Meeting/Church?
Are there models from your experience which are not represented on the chart?

© 2003 Eden Grace

back to table of contents

The work published on this web site is the intellectual property of Eden Grace, who retains full copyright (except where noted). Nothing on this web site may be reprinted in whole or in part without written permission.