Quaker Shaped Christianity

At the end of October, I got an email. Would I review a book in exchange for a free copy? Well, sure I would. (First time this has happened to me.)

It’s Quaker Shaped Christianity: How the Jesus Story and the Quaker Way Fit Together by Mark Russ, whom I had a chance to meet briefly in Britain last summer. It took me three weeks to read the book systematically, taking notes a little bit at a time, but there’s no reason the casual reader couldn’t zip through it in an evening. I recommend snuggling under a blanket with cocoa.

This book is a personal story. It’s theology, but it’s neither objective nor pretending to be. Mark takes us through his childhood and young adulthood, during which he tried a number of approaches to the Jesus story, all of which many have tried before. Outright rejection, literalism, universalism, Jesus-of-Nazareth-wise-teacher-but-not-Messiah…

“I’d hear Christians talk about the Bible as if it was an easy-to-read instruction manual,” Mark says, “but there was nothing clear about it.”

What I like most is Mark’s refusal to chip away at Christianity so that he’ll find it more palatable. He approaches it with humility, trying to engage with it on its own terms, as something that started in a very particular time and place and among a very particular people. He rejects so-called obvious Christian doctrines that are actually relatively recent interpretations in order to focus on the actual text. But he grapples with it all, not just the parts that are convenient.

Mark’s book won’t be easy for all Quakers to read. Some on the more theologically liberal end may struggle with his gentle but frank insistence that Quakers do have specific theology, which is important to our path and identity. And those on the more theologically conservative end may struggle with Mark’s unapologetic queerness, which he names as a God-cherished and inextricable part of who he is. But Mark calls us to share our stories, as he has shared his, and not to hide from potential disagreements under the illusion of united silence. That resonates with me. To me, this is at the heart of our peace testimony: we live it best by committing to difficult relationships, and not by simply avoiding disagreements.

Ultimately, I experienced this book as encouragement to engage with Christianity—again—as a powerful call to truth-telling, recognition of societal sin, hope for redemption, and a demand that we not settle for less than the fulness of the Kingdom of God. 

What’s the Quaker position on civil disobedience and other forms of resistance to injustice? 

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

What’s the Quaker position on civil disobedience and other forms of resistance to injustice? 

Friends have a history of civil disobedience. From our beginnings, many Friends have believed that eternal principles outweigh laws when they conflict. Sometimes Friends go to jail or pay fines for civil disobedience. Some Quaker groups have systems in place to help cover court costs, etc., when a Friend is under legal threat for following their conscience.

I’m not sure whether there was ever a time when the majority of Quakers were actively practicing civil disobedience, but that’s not the case now. Most of us support it as a theory but comparatively few are doing it. Is that because we’re not being called to practice it or because we’re choosing not to follow that call? I don’t know the answer to that question.

Some Friends have wondered exactly how our peace testimony works here. Does non-violent protest allow for property destruction, for example? I’ve met Friends who say yes and others who say absolutely not

We also don’t have unity about what is acceptable protest for other people. Would we support movements that include some people practicing violent protest? My personal feeling is no, but not all Friends agree. Questioning the form of protest of oppressed people gets complicated.

What’s a support committee and how do I get one?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

What’s a support committee and how do I get one?

Support committees are also called anchor committees, care committees, and ministry oversight committees. They’re small groups of Friends (3-6) who meet with a Friend who is doing sustained ministry of some kind. Some meet monthly, some slightly less often.

These committees exist to support the ministry, not the minister. They make sure the minister has the necessary physical, emotional, financial, logistical, and spiritual resources necessary to be faithful. They can help with discernment, communicate with the minister’s meeting, and challenge the minister when necessary. They worship, ask questions and offer reflections (like clearness committees do), and sometimes offer direct guidance and advice (which clearness committees usually shouldn’t). 

Usually, ministers have a short-term clearness committee first. The clearness committee helps with discerning the existence of a ministry and the general shape of it. The clearness committee also helps figure out what supports need to be in place, including a travel minute (sometimes) and a support committee (sometimes) and how to attain those.

Often, support committees form under the care of a meeting’s ministry and counsel committee or equivalent group. However they come together, it’s important for support committees to be accountable to some larger body of Friends.

Do reading clerks have jobs other than reading stuff out loud? Couldn’t the clerk or recording clerk do that?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Do reading clerks have jobs other than reading stuff out loud? Couldn’t the clerk or recording clerk do that?

Not surprisingly, many Quakers who are used to reading clerks consider them essential, while Quakers who aren’t used to them sometimes find them odd.

Reading clerks read out loud. They read epistles, announcements, roll calls, reports submitted by absent Friends, etc. They don’t read minutes because recording clerks do that. 

In some places, reading clerks have additional, less obvious jobs. I know of one yearly meeting that chooses reading clerks who are experienced, grounded Friends because part of their role is to huddle with the presiding clerk and offer advice when a situation gets tricky. Another yearly meeting asks reading clerks to join clerks’ gatherings as extra listening ears who contribute to things like how the agenda is formed. In some places, the reading clerk receives announcement submissions and decides which are time-sensitive, important, and clear enough to read at the rise of business. And I know of one yearly meeting that asks teenagers to take turns serving as reading clerk in order to give young people a chance to sit at the clerks’ table.

The flexibility of this role is its value. It’s often helpful to have an extra person ready to serve and able to do whatever’s needed.

Is it possible for Quakers to work with groups who don’t share the peace testimony?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Is it possible for Quakers to work with groups who don’t share the peace testimony?

Work with them on what? I think yes, usually.

For me, working together across differences is the way I live the peace testimony. There are very few people with whom we don’t share any common goals. If we want to improve the local school, let’s work together. If we want to intervene in child poverty, let’s work together. If we want the community center vacuumed more frequently, let’s work together. 

In pursuing a common goal, we get to know one another better. We see each other’s humanity. It’s very hard to hate somebody with whom you’ve sat down and broken bread, or cleaned a bathroom, or thrown a party. You can still disagree vehemently, but once you know each other, it’s hard to deny that the other person is a person.

So yes, in some contexts, I think we can and should work together with people who support war or who encourage violent protests.

Both liberals and conservatives sometimes resist being in relationship with the “other” for the sake of ideological purity or emotional safety. That’s not never the right choice, but I suspect we err in that direction too often.

Could there ever be new testimonies?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Could there ever be new testimonies?

If we think of testimonies as Friends used to—ways of behaving that result from an inward spiritual transformation—then I’m sure we have new testimonies all the time. Individual Friends often alter their behavior as a result of spiritual transformation: they stop using plastic, or they change the nature of their interactions with strangers, or they start using social media differently…

Could we have new corporate testimonies? Across the Religious Society of Friends, for example, we’re in pretty solid agreement about the peace testimony, though not exactly what behaviors demonstrate it. So I’d call that testimony corporate—a testimony of the body as a whole.

I know a couple Friends who say we’ve already developed new testimonies, which I guess means testimonies that we live but that aren’t commonly named as testimonies out loud. I think that’s the most authentic way that new testimonies could appear. If we all try to discern whether we do or don’t have a new testimony to add to SPICES, we’ll trip over ourselves doing it. (Besides, who would pick the new acronym?) More likely, we’re now living testimonies that we haven’t articulated and that some historian in the future will notice and name.

When do you stand aside and when do you stand in the way?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

When do you stand aside and when do you stand in the way?

Honestly? I don’t think either makes sense ever.

In theory, “stand aside” means “I think it’s wrong, but I’ll let it go forward.” And “stand in the way” means “I think it’s wrong, and I won’t let it go forward.”

But finding sense of the meeting means affirming how the group as a whole is led by Spirit. We trust the group’s discernment.

When the group finds sense of the meeting and we still disagree, we don’t need to say that out loud (“stand aside”). We’re asked to affirm sense of the meeting, not agreement. A person who stands aside verbally does that to express disapproval or concern. But if they’ve expressed a concern in worship already, the concern belongs to the group.

And an individual doesn’t have the power to “stand in the way” of sense of the meeting. Once they’ve spoken faithfully, again—they’ve released what they’ve said to the group. If the rest of us didn’t listen properly, that’s a problem, but it’s not the individual’s responsibility to fix it.

Many Friends do use “stand aside” and “stand in the way” as part of standard practice. But I think it’s a misunderstanding of what corporate discernment means.

Where did the testimonies come from?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Where did the testimonies come from?

Howard Brinton didn’t exactly invent SPICES in the 1940s, but Quaker historians roughly agree that he was the first to codify Quaker testimonies. Before that, testimonies were ways of behaving in the world that came from spiritual convincement. God changed our hearts, and therefore, our behavior changed. There wasn’t a list or anything.

When George Fox said, about William Penn’s fancy sword, “Wear it as long as thou canst,” he meant that God would eventually transform Penn’s heart to the extent that his conscience would not allow him to wear it. But until that happened, it would be silly to pretend his conscience told him something it did not.

Nothing prevents us from thinking of testimonies this way now. What ways of behaving in the world have you developed because God has transformed your heart?

And of course, the SPICES acronym isn’t as widespread as some Friends think. Simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship/sustainability are mostly unheard of outside theologically liberalish United States meetings. British Friends sometimes say STEP (simplicity, truth, equality, peace). 

But lots of yearly meetings don’t use testimony acronyms at all, which makes sense, given our historical resistance to creeds.

Why do Quakers take forever to get anything done?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Why do Quakers take forever to get anything done?

We don’t always. But we often do.

Finding sense of the meeting takes time. Everyone needs a chance to speak. We have to assemble everyone. Sometimes we wait a few months for the next gathering. And if we then discern a need for more preparation, we have to wait for the next gathering.

Humans get into bad habits, though. Sometimes Friends think, “It takes forever—so why worry if it takes a little longer?” Individuals delay in getting reports or notes written, or they’ll have objections and wait until the last minute to raise them. When we waste everyone’s time because we didn’t do our homework (read ahead of time, contact the committee), that’s rude.

(Sometimes an objection is made at the last minute for good reason. But usually, it could have been dealt with sooner.)

Many Friends’ groups now permit clerks or secretaries to speak on their behalf, without corporate discernment, when something is both urgent and important. This takes trust and doesn’t always work perfectly. But it makes things possible that otherwise wouldn’t be.

I wish people didn’t make light of “Quaker time.” Ideally, it’s about “God’s time” or “at the right time.” That doesn’t always mean slow.

What do Quakers say about Jesus?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

What do Quakers say about Jesus?

Oof. This is a hard question. Also a question I wish people asked more often.

Even by the 1800s, Quaker Christology differed from branch to branch. 

Some Friends believe Jesus is our Messiah who redeemed us from sin on the cross and was literally resurrected. Some of this group says it only counts if you accept Jesus; others say it counts no matter what.

Some Friends believe Jesus lived and died and was divine but don’t believe in the redemptive crucifixion or literal resurrection—but the story as metaphor is central to their faith. Some of this group say Jesus was uniquely divine (Son of God), some not.

Some Friends believe Jesus was sent by God with a specific ministry: to live and demonstrate a sinless life.

Some Friends believe Jesus of Nazareth was an ordinary good man worthy of emulation.

Some Friends don’t think about Jesus at all.

I know there are perspectives, and combinations of perspectives, that I didn’t articulate.

What concerns me most is when one Friend assumes (without asking) that they know what another Friend thinks about Jesus and then gets angry about it. So weird. Just asking is almost always more helpful than preemptive condemnation.