FAQs: What are the practices of Quakers?

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“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.

The Practices

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.

You can visit a recent post which talks more about the use of Queries or some sites I’ve bookmarked.

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 life’s 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.

Conclusion

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!

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Wess

...is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

9 thoughts on “FAQs: What are the practices of Quakers?”

  1. wow cool. So this begs the question, why, since I can shout amen to all of these things, am I not a Quaker? hmmm….one question. I have heard that there is a trend away from christology and soteriology in Quakerism (i.e. a de-emphasizing of Christ and his atonement), is this true?

  2. Hello, Makeesha,

    What you state is true depending on which “branch” of Quakerism one refers to.

    The majority of those in North America that worship in the “unprogrammed” style have decidedly moved away from Christ as central and Bible as source of guidance. There are a few local groups or individuals that hold to this, but they are the minority.

    There are “conservative” “unprogrammed” Quakers (a different branch of Friends in the States) that tend to hold to what you mention.

    Quakers have historically objected to written creeds. The liberal unprogrammed branch has taken this to mean that there should be no “test” or requirement for agreement on certain matters of faith. I think of this branch as a mystical version of Unitarian-Universalists.

    Wess – hope you don’t mind me jumping in here. 🙂

  3. Given that you cite Alasdair McIntyre and his discussion of practices as embedded within community, requiring commitment to virtues and values — its interesting that your spin on these practices comes from quite specific cluster of fragments within those communities.

    Example: labelling our decsion making practioces consensus embeds the practice within a set of political ideals external to Quakerism. And you already have a posting by someone saying, hey, I believe in consensus, I believe in off-setting the tyranny of the majority, maybe I’m a Quaker and don’t know it! Yet what Quakers understand themselves to be doing in our manner of decision making tends to be different — there is a theological interpretation which cahnges the texture of the activity. And a movement away from accepting the label consensus.

  4. @Makeesha, thanks for the comment. See Joe’s comment for a good answer to the question. There are still Quakers who have orthodox Christologies and the like, I am one of them, and the foundations of the tradition are orthodox in this way. But some of the weaknesses of the tradition, in my estimation, is that it didn’t have all the necessary parts to remain orthodox in a time of “epistemological crisis.” But that conversation is for another time.

    @Joe thanks for jumping in!

    @David I am not quite sure what you mean. I understand that the activity within the group is such that it embodies a kind of virtue that allows for such a process – but I am not really sure what I’ve done other than use wording that John Howard Yoder does in his attempt to praise this practice. And I am not so sure translating this practice into a broader context for others to understand is such a bad thing. I personally hope more church polities pick this stuff up.

  5. David,
    I’ve been rolling your comments over in my head this afternoon and was hoping you’d help clarify somethings so if my position or “slant” if misrepresentative I can fix it.

    Can you explain what you mean by,

    “Its interesting that your spin on these practices comes from quite specific cluster of fragments within those communities.”

    I just don’t think I understand what you’re saying here.

    I do think I understand what you example means, that I have used an external label to name an internal practice? Would you say that is correct? And that by using this kind of label I’ve misdirected the implications from theological to political? If this is so, it’s certainly not what I meant to do, and I think the point can be salvaged. I agree that the theological virtues of this practice such as silence, equality, humility, are what enable Quakers to embody this kind of worship meeting and polity.

    However, if I’ve read this correctly I hope there are two further points that can be made and that you’d agree with.
    A) That these theological virtues and the context of the worshiping community as exemplified in the “open meeting” has political implications.

    B) What is done in open meetings can be translated if all the theological virtues remain in tact to other Christian communities for people like Makeesha above who find this a “better account” of how the body should function.

    Finally, and this is something I should have mentioned in the post more clearly, none of these practices can be understood in isolation from the very cultural context and narrative history from which they were birthed. That is why this post is as long as it is, and should be much longer. In order to completely understand open meetings, if we are ever to translate them into new contexts, we must first understand their narrative continuity within the tradition and this continuity is something my 1300 word essay failed to do.

    David – I look forward to your response (as well as others) and trust that you’ll be able to help sharpen the discussion further.

  6. Sorry if I was unclear.

    The notion that what we do in business meeting is “consensus” traces back to a book called Beyond Majority Rule written by a Jesuit political scientist. Based on that I recall activists showing up on our meeting doorseps in the 80s looking for advice on how to run their groups on pro-anarchic principles.

    What we do in in M4W4B maps closely to the consensus based decision making of secualr anarchist groups. But there is a religious sub-structure to it. We are not just seeking the corporate wisdom embeddd in the group — we are seeking something more transcendant.

    And I have run into folks deliberately correcting people when they refer to our processes as consensus. there is a backlash to this political read on what we do. Partly from a concern that we often settle for mere consensus when something much more holy is possible.

    Now it may be these folks are splitting hairs. But it also indicates that the label of consensus is not one that Quakers share but a lable owned by own of teh “Quaker fragments”. I’m not sure what else to call “Quaker fragments” — I think its descriptive but it too comes from a particular theological stance — Hauerwas and Willimon describe Christianity after the fall of christendom as life amongst the fragments.

  7. David,
    Thanks for the clarification. I can see the importance to the point you were making and will definately include that important distinction from now on. I agree with you that often times what gets picked up from the Quakers example is the generally the “corporate wisdom embeddd in the group” and if that’s what it gets simplified down to it leads to something secular and disconnected from the life of the Spirit. Anyways, I appreciate your points made.

    And I see and know what you mean by fragments as well. And oddly enough I’ve seen this secularized-consensus among Evangelical Friends.

  8. The same thought occurred to me about the word “consensus.” The practice in Pacific Yearly Meeting, at least, is clear enough that we are seeking “unity.” And here’s the religious substructure that David refers to: That we are seeking unity with God’s will for us as a community at that point in time.

    Unprogrammed Friends certainly can vary in practice, took from a “lowest common denominator” seeking of whatever will get people to agree and move on, to a deep and powerful searching together for Way to open. The latter is what we’re after, in my opinion.

    — Chris M.

  9. It’s not just 1980s anarchists turning to Quakers–the flow started the other way, when activist Friends in the 1970s started building activist communities built on a Quaker model stripped of spiritual motivation. This eventually coalesced into the Movement for a New Society. For six years in my twenties I worked with a spin-off, New Society Publishers, and this was my first experience of Quakerish process (our staff evaluations were “clearness committees”). When I started getting more deeply involved with Friends I had to rethink these familiar routines, realizing that now we were using them to seek the direction of the Holy Spirit. Only later did I realize that some of the processes I thought were traditional Quaker were just the modern de-Quakerized processes brought back to Friends (“clearness committees” as we know them started in the 1970s and functionally replace the old committees of ministers).

    It’s wrong to think that liberal Quakers aren’t evangelical. We’re fiercely so, it’s just that what we do is evangelize and export Quaker values without the Quakerism. Look at our Friends Schools (with a 2% Quaker student population), look at AFSC, etc., Quaker institutions whose primary audience is not Friends. Unfortunately we’ve gotten so good at articulating a non-Quakerly Quakerism that we’re afraid to talk religion. I don’t think the divide between process/values and religion serves either function well and that we’ve ended up being more marginal than we’d like to believe both in our activism and our spiritual direction.

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