In every generation the church faces new, as well as old, challenges. For many years, Christendom allowed a basic stability within the culture for the church to remain in tact. It was a false sense of security, human capital because people were expected to hold membership in a local church, but security nonetheless. Thus, during the years of the church’s chaplaincy, at least in the West, much of where the struggle lay within the church was with itself. However, in a post-Christendom society, what many argue we are now in, the challenge is even greater. Not only are there the internal challenges and competing narratives of the church, but now the external crutch is corroding, or has corroded.
Quakerism was birthed during a great time of both internal and external upheaval. While Christendom remained in tact, the question was “Whose Christendom was to be in power?” The Protestant Reformation proved that one Christian tradition need not have a monopology on state power. George Fox and his band of revolution-minded, prophetic, missionaries sought to re-convert the Church of England into a lived faith that would reject the Constantinian power it had assumed only so many years before. My reading of some of George Fox’s most famous statements are as anti-Constantinian critiques, meant to short-circuit the state-power amassed by church authorities, with the authority of Christ alone. But beyond their internal critiques, and they were vast, early Friends were quick to travel outside England with the purpose of spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God.
Like every movement, the first generation is made up of visionaries, and the fire and zeal needed to get the thing up and running. Subsequent generations struggle, not only with living in the shadow of the first generation, but they also lived in light of a changed culture, a new time, and new questions. No generation can simply continue to do what those before it did if it wants to remain faithful in its time and place. One main question every generation must ask, is not what needs to be recollected, or core truth to be retrieved, from that first generation but what gesture must we undertake in order to be faithful to the call (of the Kingdom). That is, what pattern that must be repeated, rather than truth recollected?
This is also our question. And it was the question that early Friends asked. My sense is that by asking the right question and living with those implications, rather than having the right answer about this or that core belief, we will be able to “recover” what actually motivated early Friends, and other missionary (renewal) movements like it.