Stephen Burns. Guest Contributor.
The late liturgical historian James F. White took a very positive view of Protestant pluralism, noting that the fifty tumultuous years from 1520 produced what became the Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, Anglican and Puritan traditions, and that since then, durable ecclesial forms have emerged at a rate of about one per century: Quakerism in the seventeenth century, Methodism in the eighteenth, the more-or-less American “Frontier” tradition in the nineteenth and Pentecostalism in the twentieth. Together, White suggested, these give witness to “a long process of liberation” as “new peoples [have] successively achieved power to worship in ways they find natural.” [note: James F. White, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), p. 209-210.]
Into the twenty-first century, Pentecostalism continues to grow most exponentially, although interestingly alongside a massive resurgence of forms of eastern Orthodoxy. And notably, both Orthodox and Pentecostal churches have very recently begun to be drawn into the work of bodies like the previously pan-Protestant (though closely “observed” by Rome) World Council of Churches [note, for example, Thomas F. Best and Dagmar Heller, eds, Worship Today: Understanding, Practice, Ecumenical Implications (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2004).]–and, apart from anything else, this is helping to broaden the discipline of liturgical studies in which James White was a leader.
So as a result of a wider inclusiveness the landscape is (slowly) changing in both inter-church relations and academic study–though perhaps quite how participation in centralised, consensus, bodies relates to “liberation” remains an open question. This notwithstanding, whilst the twentieth-century was justifiably described as “the ecumenical century,” for various reasons–and not least the Roman Catholic Church’s recently revised liturgical forms, which sever it from the use of texts for prayer that at least many Christians have held in common–ecumenical prospects in the new millennium look more dicey. “Receptive ecumenism” is, however, one encouraging development, if somewhat more modest than the grand “dialogues” of previous decades.1
My present reflections are a sketch within its mould, contemplating how Christians of diverse kinds might be enriched by the gifts of Quakerism.
The twenty-first century has seen some significant studies of Quaker worship being placed into ecumenical and liturgical studies circles, notably by Pink Dandelion, a Friend based in Birmingham, England.2 Dandelion’s work sits alongside that of others in related but different genres which have also opened up Quaker “spirituality” to a broad audience, notably Michel Birkel, Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition (London: DLT, 2004) in the series “Traditions of Christian Spirituality.”] Whilst he focuses on the distinguishing mark of Quaker worship, silence, Dandelion also shows how liturgical practices kept by other churches are as it were internalised, experienced inwardly, by Quakers. That is, they are not so much jettisoned, but re-appropriated–though their outward forms may be critiqued, and radically, in the process.
Other Christians in their turn could do well to absorb characteristics of Quakerism. They might, for example, recognise in Quaker habits of mindfulness much to enrich their practices concerned with ministry of the word. In “mainstream”/“old-line” churches this revolves around readings (usually, but not exclusively, scripture), some form of reflection (often, but by no means exclusively, preaching), and responsive prayer (in broadly “eucharistic,” gratitude-centred, as well as intercessory, compassion-tempered, modes). To this, Quaker mindfulness offers expansive pathways into paying attention to what many–in both Quaker and other Christian communities [note: I am of course aware that Quakers may or may not confess Christianity, just as members of many Christian churches are not necessarily doctrinally “orthodox” or deeply “traditioned” in one way or another.]–regard (perhaps only complexly) as revelation, and can yield insight into processes in which a sense of revelation may be given voice in contemporary witness as “letter” “takes life” in the present moment.
Itself drawn from the text of scripture (think Rev. 8:1), the core “text” of mindfulness is silence (or at least silence is a defining strand that attracts or animates other fragments) and attention to how Quakers seek and practice mindfulness can give clues to other Christians about how (or indeed, if) they participate in silence as integral to whatever it is that they do with “word.” Curiosity and respect about mindfulness invites non-Quaker Christians towards all kinds of alliances they may or may not have already discovered with affective and stirring forms of prayer within Christian spiritualities (as just one example, of an Ignatian kind) and in broader resources (as just one example, forms of meditation with Buddhist heritage).
Yet appreciation of Quaker disciplines of mindfulness may both push and focus such alliances. Furthermore, Quaker mindfulness is a life- as well as liturgical practice; by no means is it “cloistered” in the context of worship. It invites connectedness, a habit of awareness, an openness to graced presence in the midst of life’s dailiness that can offer depth and texture to what other Christians do within and beyond their assemblies.
If silence is “text” for Quakers, it is evidently also “sacrament.” Indeed, Quakers have not been shy about using (sometimes very strong, maximal) sacramental terms with respect to the spiritual intimacy that may be entered in silence (think Rev. 3:20). Silence may be conceived as not just equivalent to sacramental mediation of divine reality but its consummation in communion by means even more fragile and “ungraspable” than the fleeting, contingent matter of bread, wine, water, oil or whatever else other Christians may have trusted themselves to.
But by no means is resistance to elaborate rites and dependence on vessels to be confused with an empty sense of absence. At least for very many Quakers, Quaker liturgy may have a great deal to do with “raw” presence: God here now. And as the title of Dandelion’s book on Quaker worship makes clear, however much reserve about outward rites Quakers may sometimes have mustered, they do have their liturgies–ritual patterns, gatherings for events with certain (albeit simple) shapes.
Sometimes in Quakerism this has embraced styles of unreserved bodily presence: moaning, groaning, shaking, quaking, in ways at least akin to the sense of the Spirit’s epiphany in Pentecostal Christianity: glossalia along with other overwhelmings.3 For all the apparent restraint of silence, the body may also be graced by unambiguously physical (if on other ways ambiguous) means. Other kinds of Christians should be able to find much to be engaged by the unswerving insistence on a rich immediacy close to and perhaps on the surface of Quaker practice.
And whilst no doubt some contemporary Quakers back off from some of the more demonstrative episodes that their tradition teaches them is indeed part of their heritage, mixed up with the evident vitality of Pentecostalism (and much other contemporary charismatic spirituality) their own receptivity to others may in turn open them up to renewal of expressive experience.
Silence, according to the Quaker theologian Rachel Muers, may best be understood as God’s listening.4 This is a rich insight that illumines what Quakers can share in mindfulness as it does the intensity that can manifest in meeting. It challenges other Christians to re-explore how they conceive the inter-play of word and sacrament and to trust more deeply into what they hope and find available in what their own traditions name as means of Grace. Receptivity to the silence of divine listening may be a rewarding part of receptive ecumenism. As encounter with God, it may also perhaps have a role in receiving afresh a kind of “liberation.”
Stephen Burns is Associate Professor of Liturgical Theology and the Study of Anglicanism at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, having formerly been Research Fellow in Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University (North Parramatta Campus). His recent publications include Worship and Ministry: Shaped Towards God, Pilgrim People: An Invitation to Worship in the Uniting Church, Christian Worship: Postcolonial Perspectives (co-author with Michael N. Jagessar) and Christian Worship in Australia (co-editor with Anita Monro).
1. [note: See Paul Murray, Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning: Exploring a Way for Contemporary Ecumenism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) and other contributions, such as “Redeeming Catholicity for a Globalizing Age” in Natalie K. Watson and Stephen Burns, eds, Exchanges of Grace: Essays in Honour of Ann Loades (London: SCM Press, 2008), 78-91. There are popular resources about receptive ecumenism at the website of Churches Together in England: http://cte.churchinsight.com/Groups/91312/Churches_Together_in/Local_Ecumenism/Resources/Worship_and_reflection/Receptive_ecumenism/Receptive_ecumenism.aspx].
2. [note: Pink Dandelion, The Liturgies of Quakerism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005) and other contributions, such as “The Liturgy of Silence: Quaker Spiritual Intimacy” in Stephen Burns, Nicola Slee and Michael N. Jagessar, eds, The Edge of God: New Liturgical Texts and Contexts in Conversation (Peterborough: Epworth, 2008), 253-261.
3. [note: Note, for example, Wolfgang Vondey, Beyond Pentecostalism: The Crisis of Global Christianity and the Renewal of the Theological Agenda (Grand Rapids, IL: Eerdmans, 2010), which like Jean-Jacques Suurmond, Word and Spirit at Play: Towards a Charismatic Theology (London: SCM Press, 1994) stresses the interpretive category of “play” with respect to Pentecostal participation in liturgy.]
4. [note: Rachel Muers, Keeping God’s Silence: Towards a Theological Ethics of Communication (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).]