Peter H Bennett, Victoria Regional Meeting
It has recently been my great honour to represent Friends on the Faith and Unity Commission of the National Council of Churches in Australia.
The Commission met on the 20th and 21st June at the Centre for Ministry and Theology at the University of Melbourne. Churches represented were the Anglican Church, Churches of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Lutheran, Roman Catholic Church, Salvation Army, Uniting Church and the Religious Society of Friends.
The focus of our deliberations on this occasion was to provide a theological response to the World Council of Churches’ monograph “Together Towards life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes”. Preparing a Quaker response was particularly challenging as the monograph was firmly grounded in mainstream theology, such as a belief in and commitment to a Triune God, as well as mainstream approaches to evangelism.
What Canst Thou Say?
The World Council of Churches’ monograph “Together Toward Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes” explores and gives expression to core and mainstream Christian beliefs and a powerful rationale for the wider Church’s mission in the world. In response this brief paper provides a Quaker response to some of the matters raised in that monograph.
It is a complex task to give expression to the beliefs and theology of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) as it is encountered in the unprogrammed tradition found in Australia, the United Kingdom and many American Meetings. The faith tradition is apophatic (apophatic theology holds that the nature of God is beyond description and analysis) and as such, providing an explicit statement of fundamental beliefs is very difficult, though not impossible. Many Australian and English Quakers would walk with Wittgenstein when he said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Quaker hesitancy to ascribe attributes to God and the absence of a creedal statement of beliefs does not mean that the Society is in chaos nor does it mean that there are no shared beliefs and values; it just means that mapping those beliefs and prescribing some sort of moral imperative to them is not warranted.
In the absence of any Creed and in the presence of an apophatic tradition one is led, not unsurprisingly, to the question “What do Quakers believe?” One way to understand Quaker beliefs is to see them as analogous to the relationship between Common Law and Statute Law. Some mainstream churches have highly developed and evolved creedal statements (Statue Law), others less so. The Religious Society of Friends has no Statute Law, but it does have a number of shared beliefs which have emerged over the last four hundred years. There is no moral requirement that one ought to embrace these beliefs, but many Quakers would give their assent to them. They are:
There is that of God in each Person
Friends believe that God is present in the life and being of every human person (John 1:9 – the so-called Quaker verse). This existential belief has profound implications for how Quakers see the “other” and impacts Quaker belief on how others should be treated and encountered. It also has implications for how Quakers see themselves. The belief lies at the heart of Quaker pacifism. “Together Towards Life” powerfully affirms belief in a Triune God. Underpinning this language lies an orthodox conception of a God who may be said to be Omnipotent, Omni-present, Omniscient, Omni-benevolent, Transcendent and Immanent. An apophatic tradition is unable to engage in or give assent to such a characterisation and instead is likely to speak euphemistically of God with terms such as the Light and Spirit and Love (1 John 4:16) “God is Love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him/her.” (NIV) For Quakers, God is that which is experienced and yet is beyond saying.
The Priesthood of all Believers
In the unprogrammed tradition Quakers have no ministers, priests or episcopate, or perhaps, it may be more accurate to say that for Quakers, ministry is ubiquitous in that all Friends are ministers. In addition to preaching the gospel without words, Friends are welcome to speak during silent Meetings for Worship, if one is led by the Spirit. These spoken ministries are sometimes referred to as “leadings”, “testimony” and “ministry”.
All of life is Sacramental
Quakers have no sacraments yet believe that all life is sacramental. Friends do not celebrate any Mass or Eucharist yet believe that every meal is sacred. Friends do not celebrate any baptism yet believe that every act of ablution is rebirth. No day is more sacred than any other but all days are equally sacred. God is also believed to inhere in all creation
The presence of God may be discerned through silence and stillness (Psalm 46:10)
In the unprogrammed tradition, silence and stillness lie at the heart of Quaker worship. In these moments Friends wait patiently on God. The Meeting for Worship is a time of discernment, and seeking leadings from the Spirit. These leadings may result in an inner dialogue (prayer), spoken ministry or a deep non-verbal inner stillness. Quaker ways of worshiping are contemplative, mystical and experiential. In the silence, God is a living inner presence
Let your yes be yes and your no be no (Matthew 5:37)
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.” 34 But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.
Friends will not swear oaths in day-to-day life, courts of law or other forums, nor will they attach superlatives to their assertions or denials, believing that to do so is to imply that one’s avowals or disavowals can be qualified. This remarkably simple admonition by the Christ, and Friends’ widespread adoption of this teaching saw early Friends develop a reputation for being scrupulously honest. This reputation, in turn, saw Friends’ business enterprises become extraordinarily successful.
It is notable that none of these shared beliefs go to existential questions about the nature of the Godhead and therefore no beliefs can be enunciated about what would follow from such an ascription. Theistically grounded Friends will have worked out individually what they mean by “God”, but there is no corporate unified belief. God is that which is beyond saying.
Nonetheless, and despite these limitations, Friends are at work in the world, and always have been.
Let your life Speak
Modern Anglo/Australian Quakers have an antipathy towards proselytising and evangelism yet hope that by example their lives may speak to that condition which sees Christ manifest in each woman and man. Among modern Friends, mission and evangelism have a low priority. In Victoria, Australia, for instance, there are no committees for mission and evangelism. The closest modern Quakers (in Australia) come to mission is in the establishment of Outreach Committees. The primary focus of these committees, however, is more to do with publicising Friends’ existence in the world and holding days when enquirers can visit Friends’ Meeting Houses and learn about Quakers. Even when Enquirers do come to Meeting for Worship there is a general reluctance to say or do anything that might be interpreted as evangelism or proselytising. Enquirers come to Friends from a vastly diverse alumnus of religious and secular experiences. Many assert that these experiences have been painful, disorientating and spiritually toxic and as such Friends are reluctant to say or do anything that might exacerbate these negative experiences.
It was not always thus, however.
Early Friends were evangelical and travelled throughout the English countryside and later the wider world preaching and evangelising. This evangelical drive saw Quakerism established throughout the Americas, West Indies and later in Africa. Right from the earliest days of the movement, however, evangelism was underwritten by a powerful social justice imperative. This included incredibly significant relationship building with the first peoples of North America, abolition of slavery, prison reform, and the enfranchisement of women. “Friends were so adept at meeting the material needs of victims of war that the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947”.
Modern Friends continue to be deeply focused and committed to issues of social justice Today causes such as the treatment of refugees, care for the environment, nuclear disarmament, rights of LGBTQI people, rights of indigenous peoples, racial and gender equality are all primary concerns of Friends. Underpinning Quaker ways of being are the six Testimonies which may be thought of as avowed dispositions to guide daily living. These are::
The Testimonies are viewed as providing a sort of scaffold by which belief (theory) is driven and delivered as practice.
In this short paper I have tried to do three things – first, explicate the nature of fundamental Quaker beliefs as much as they can be explicated within what is essentially an apophatic faith tradition. Second, I have sought to give an account of Quaker approaches to mission and evangelism within the Anglo/Australian context. Third, I have tried to show that mission and evangelism are intimately linked to issues of social justice. For Australian Quakers, mission is social justice delivered within a worshiping tradition based on silence and stillness.
 Wittgenstein, L. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus p.89
 Welling, Jacalynn Stuckey in ‘Mission’ The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies (2015) p. 313