What is a Quaker? Reflections on What We Might Become

A few weeks back I was invited to talk with some college-age Friends during a weekend retreat. It was my first visit to Plainfield, Indiana and I had a nice time meeting these students and their adult leaders from Western Yearly Meeting. I was invited to sit on a panel with three other people to answer “What is a Quaker?” And later in the day, I led a workshop on “How Quakers Might Worship.” My take on the first question was to look at what Quakerism might become in our hands rather than offer a historical or objective set of practices that determine whether we are Quakers or not. Here are some of the thoughts I shared:

  • This question, what is a Quaker, is an open-ended question and needs to be treated that way. There is no longer any “right” answer to this question, at least not in the sense that one can offer some clearly argued historical or theological point and persuade all his or her hearers of that truth. But there are some who offer better answers then others. Some versions of what it means to be a Quaker today are far more compelling and make better sense of what we know than other versions. What makes something compelling is not simply its logic, but how well it works on the ground. We are most convinced of the truth of something when we see it worked out in real life. This is no less true of the Christian faith.
  • Because we ask the question, “What is a Quaker?” we are alerted to the fact that the Quaker tradition is in crisis. Things aren’t what they used to be, times have changed and things we were certain about are no longer easily assumed within our culture. It’s not unlike the kind of crisis a lover has who finds out that his beloved is no longer in love with him and has found another. Quakerism awaits to be remade/reborn in our hands, this will happen through the work and guidance of the Holy Spirit and Inward Light of Christ.
  • Quakers are a part of the Christian Church. A Quaker is (usually) a Christian with a particular family resemblance. There is no such thing as just a Christian anymore, maybe that was true in St. Paul’s time, but now the Christian world is far to fragmented to miss the importance of particular traditions and theological schools that guide our theologies, practices and assumptions about the world. They are like other Christian traditions, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anabaptist etc. but like the Anabaptists they have tended to challenge the dominate political and cultural ideologies of their time in light of the Gospels and authority of Jesus Christ. Families are messy, there are always “black sheep,” there are always those whom we don’t get along with, or don’t see eye to eye with, yet we are still family and share a common history.
  • So a Quaker is a person who finds something deeply compelling about the stories that make us the Quaker family. Not only are they deeply compelling to them, but they find themselves within those stories.  I remember reading Robert Barclay’s Apology for the first time. I kept thinking to myself, this is the kind of stuff I’ve always believed, or I have believed this my whole life without even knowing it! I found myself in a theological story written hundreds of years ago.
  • It is someone who care for the practices of the Quaker tradition but also recognizes that God’s Spirit is never limited to “they way we’ve always done it.” To be a Quaker is to be renewal worker for the Body of Christ.
  • A Quaker is a person who has a life-changing encounter with the living Christ and gives his or her life over to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
  • They live in the reality of God’s kingdom come. The kingdom is not something off in the distant horizon, it is here now.
  • A Quaker is a missionary, an evangelist, a radical, nonviolent, plain, a monastic and a creative kingdom dreamer.
  • Quakers are young and old, quiet and loud, faithful and doubters, politically involved and nonconformist, peaceful and transformative, they believe reconciliation with God’s Spirit is what the spiritual as well as the material world really needs.
  • It is you and me an what we make it in our generation. It is ready to be remade in light of what God is doing a new in our generation.

These were some of my reflections. There is obviously a lot that I didn’t touch on, but then again I tried to say most of this in 5 min. I really enjoyed having the chance to share some of my ideas and convictions with the group and I think it connected with at least some there. Being there helped me to remember how much I love working with those in the church, teaching, encouraging and guiding the body of Christ.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger 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.

8 thoughts on “What is a Quaker? Reflections on What We Might Become”

  1. Wess writes, ". Not only are they deeply compelling to them, but they find themselves within those stories. I remember reading Robert Barclay’s Apology for the first time. I kept thinking to myself, this is the kind of stuff I’ve always believed, or I have believed this my whole life without even knowing it! I found myself in a theological story written hundreds of years ago."

    This echoes my own experience. Even before I stepped into a Friends Meeting, I attended a small house church in Yonkers, NY that called itself a "New Testament Church' where they did not have a programmed meeting. Rather they felt the individual members needed to listen to the Spirit and bring forth the ministry they had to share "for the edification of the body." Although we had few moments of actual silence, I felt I had landed into something that conformed to my own inner spiritual longings and understandings.

    In 2001 when I sat in on my first Friends meeting for worship, I once again recognized something that was happening around me. I felt as if I had come home.

  2. Adam, Great question. Maybe I should do another survey?! I'm not really sure to be honest. I know of Friends who think this way, or would agree on some of these points but maybe not all. It seems to me that those who consider themselves "convergent" would be the closest to this assessment, though there is certainly diversity there as well.

  3. Wess, I'm not sure why I missed this post when you first put it up. …I like to answer this sort of question–What is a Quaker?–by talking about what it looks like from an outsider's perspective and what it looks like from an insider's perspective: Outsider's view–A Quaker is someone who works for peace and justice; worships (and/or dresses) in an unconventional way; seems to be an "early adapter" of certain causes and movements. Insider's view–A Quaker is someone who regularly seeks God's guidance; opens oneself to the Light of the Inward Teacher; engages in spiritual discernment through prayer and community support; has a deep understanding of and has come under the weight of the traditions and manners of Friends (e.g. worship, ministry, the Testimonies and their root, conducting business, etc.) …..It's always good to take stock and reflect on some basic questions…

    Blessings,
    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  4. Wess, it was so great having you at our retreat! I think you hit the nail on the head by saying "Because we ask the question, 'What is a Quaker?' we are alerted to the fact that the Quaker tradition is in crisis." As I come across more and more young people in the Quaker circles I'm in, I've found this to be oh so true. Quakerism is being defined by the younger generations I meet, as a group of people who are constantly in conflict, which prohibits them from doing ministry and finding a way to be relevant in our culture because of our own ambiguity and confusion. We need a new definition or we’re going to keep losing our young people!

    To the King! To the Restoration!
    Katy Palmer
    WYM Christian Ed. Director

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