“Frequently Asked Questions” is a segment on this site where basic questions get answered from people with theological training. If you’re interested in asking a Question you can contact me, otherwise you can visit the FAQ category or it’s corresponding wiki for more information.
This week’s question is one I’ve received a lot and thought it would be good to address it in this format. Normally I’d make sure this was shorter but I have particular interests in the discussion and therefore thought it worthwhile to write a bit of longer essay to answer the question.
What are the practices of Quakers?
Before I can spell out some of the most important practices of Quakerism I need to say two things. First practices are activities that become a part of a community of people and which are aimed at common goods of that community. That is to say, the things we do in community are formed overtime and create the identity we are shaped by. This is an important distinction to keep in the back of our minds because these practices that I will name only make sense in terms of the larger tradition and local communities of people who participated in these activities together. There is no room for modern-individualism in this account of practices.
Secondly practices, as Alasdair MacIntyre often states, are activities that have goods internal to them, and those goods can only be attained first and primarily by accepting the virtues necessary of those practices and by following the accepted norms played out by the tradition as a whole. It is easy to understand this point if you think of the game of chess where there are certain moves and ways to form strategies that can only be learned by first grasping the virtues of the game, and we only know what a good chess player is by first becoming a chess player ourselves and recognizing the goods necessary to being sufficient at the game.
Therefore the Practices of Quakers have been formed overtime, within local communities and have shaped the lives of those people and the identity of the tradition. These practices have been aimed at reaching the ‘goods’ according to Quakers-as-informed-by-Christian-theology. And by participating in these practices we are able to attain the goods internal to the practices, such as being simple, hearing the voice of God, and loving our enemies.
I cannot spell out in depth all the practices that Quakers have done over the past 350+ years, nor could I. But here is a list with some short descriptions of some of the most important practices done within Quakerism. I’ve also focused my attention upon practices that are of particular interest to convergent friends.
Open Meeting – Quakers handle business meetings much differently than most other churches, instead of trying to get a majority vote they wait for a consensus to arise. Mennonite John Howard Yoder explains the importance of Quaker’s open meeting for all Christian communities because it gives room for everyone to have voice. In Body Politics Yoder explains, Consensus arises uncoerced out of open conversation. There is no voting in which a majority overruns a minority and no decision of a leader by virtue of his office (67).” Men and women, young and old have the same amount of authority in this structure, there is no hierarchy of rule all people in the body are understood to have the presence of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of God.
Queries – Queries as a form of community discernment are structured around asking facilitating questions that provoke story telling and cause the community to examine their consciences. In Who Will Roll Away the Stone, Ched Myers explains that these questions are suited to the searching mood of Friends at their best, they are broad, open-ended questions to promote self-examination under the leadership of the Spirit. They are non-dogmatic, non-hortatory not intended to discourage but to encourage.” Often times queries are used during worship times to help guide prayers.
Clearness Committees – Is a group of trusted people who gather to help one individual in finding solutions to personal questions, dilemmas or leadings. Parker Palmer explains clearness committees well when he says,
The Clearness Committee is testimony to the fact that there are no external authorities on life’s deepest issues, not clergy or therapists or scholars; there is only the authority that lies within each of us waiting to be heard.
Behind the Clearness Committee is a simple but crucial conviction: each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems.
Simple Dress – Among other practices that express the virtue of simplicity, dressing simply is a central one. Though it’s taken on various forms today, most Quakers are careful not buy clothes made from sweatshops, spend too much on clothing or put too much stock in our fashion because the focus is on letting our “lives speak” the truth of the Gospel rather than how we look. Further issues of justice that tend to surround the clothing business has always been a concern.
This is exemplified in the statement found within PYM’s Faith and Practice,
When we shed possessions, activities, and behaviors that distracts us from that center, we can focus on what is important. Simplicity does not mean denying lifes pleasures, but being open to the promptings of the Spirit. We friends seek to take no more than our share and to be sensitive to the needs of others, especially future generations (41).”
Publish – Early in the tradition’s history Friends wrote so many letters to country leaders and so many pamphlets arguing for this or that theological standpoint that they became known as the “Publishers of Truth.” For Fox and the rest of the Quakers publishing was one major way to share the Gospel. I found this practice to be especially fitting for Friends today because of the ever-growing Quaker blog-o-sphere.
Treat all with Equality – From the very beginning Women have been an important part of the Friends movement. This importance led to the first ever recorded female minister Elizabeth Hooten in the 1660’s. Not only have Quakers been ‘progressive’ in their stance toward gender equality but also in their stance towards racial equality. This is exemplified in the lives of people like William Penn and John Woolman. Penn and the early colonial Quakers created the first religiously free state in America and Woolman pioneered the anti-slavery movement in the 1700’s.
Silent Worship – Quakers have from the beginning stressed the importance of meeting together in silence, whether for the whole meeting or for a short time, to listen to God and if so led, speak out of the silence. The practice of silent worship is one of, if not the most important practice within the Friends tradition. It is intrinsically tied to the way all other practices and theology that stem out of the community.
Nonviolent Lifestyle – Quakers are a part of the historic “peace church” movement that is also seen in the Anabaptist tradition as well. George Fox in his journal repeatedly quotes Is. 2:4 which states, “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, either shall they learn war any more.” Historically, Quakers have always taken a pacifist stance towards war and have sought to live out ways in which peace was actively promoted.
Finally, Friends refused to take Oaths because they took seriously Jesus’ words “Let your word be Yes, Yes or No, No; anything more than this comes from the evil one (Matt. 5:37).” They saw this as a command to always speak the truth. They believed that being forced to take oaths was to give into “double-speak” which led to a two-tiered system of speech. What Quakers were rejecting was the notion that, “I only have to be really honest when I take an oath.” But this refusal was very costly, many Friends were imprisonment and even put to death at the hands of the courts in the 17th and 18th century. Refusing to take oaths was one way in which they exemplified the Christian virtue of truth-telling.
Practices are important to every tradition because they form the identity of the people who participate in them. Another question that would get at this more clearly is “What makes Quakers the way they are?” And to that we would answer with this and other lists of Quaker practices as well as an explanation of the traditions virtues, but that is for another day!