A couple of years ago, my daughters and I listened to the excellent Teaching Company course, The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era. The course covered the various movements in Christianity in the 15th and 16th centuries, both in the Catholic church and in the various Protestant groups that sprung out of it. Much of the material was new to us, and we had many discussions about the theological ideas behind the various schisms in the Church.
I was talking about this course with a Jesuit-educated friend of mine. "The Reformation," he said flatly, "was a failure. The reformers wanted to change the One True Church, but they only succeeded in splintering it. Every stream of Christianity already existed in the Catholic church; the Reformation broke up the body of the Church and left Christianity as a whole weaker."
I had never considered the Reformation in that light before. I'd always heard the Protestant point of view on the matter, and the Catholic point of view startled me. I grudgingly admitted that my friend had a point. When the Church schismed, the various streams of Christianity no longer had either the ability or the obligation to labor together to find the truth. Each sect could cling to its little truth and pat itself on the back for being right.
I'm not much for politics, myself. When people start fighting for turf, I slink down in my seat and head for the door. I don't like conflict. I feel much more comfortable in the role of peacemaker than in the role of warrior.
I've read many opinions in the Quaker blogosphere that imply that I oughtn't to call myself a Quaker. Indeed, judging from the crieria proposed, almost no one in either my monthly or yearly meeting would qualify. If we aren't willing to commit ourselves to the 17th-century faith of Fox, we have no right to be part of the Religious Society of Friends.
We're here. We've been accepted into membership in monthly meetings, and we feel that we are continuing the essential work of Friends. We don't always agree what that work ought to be, which is precisely why we meet to try to discern what our corporate direction ought to be. We labor together, as the body of the Church, to determine what God asks of us in the present.
The past can be a guidepost, but it's not meant to be a perfect template. We're not shackled to the revelations of the 17th century; we're meant to discern the living truth for ourselves in the present. Much has changed in the past 350 years, and I am glad that Friends have had the good grace to change to meet the challenges of their own times.
Imagine if John Woolman had accepted the Old Testament view of slavery instead of trusting to the Light that was given him. How much poorer would we be without the courage of those who followed their Light even when it went against the dictates of past generations.
Okay, so it's obvious where I stand in the old argument of Christ-centered versus Light-centered Quakerism. I'm from the Beanite branch of Quakerism, after all, in the very quarterly meeting started by Joel and Hannah after they were cast out by the revivalist Iowa Yearly Meeting. Who, not to put too fine a point on it, believed that they were the ones preserving original Quaker practice.
I want evangelical Friends to know that liberal Friends also think we're right. We have a version of history that indicates that we're the real heirs to George Fox's ministry, and that those who fell sway to the revival movement fell off the Quaker wagon at the same time. If anyone's entitled to the term
Quaker, it's us, not you. We're tolerant and we try to be polite, but, deep down, we believe that we're following the path that God has laid out for us.
So we have several groups of Quakers who think that they're right (and that the other groups are wrong). And, collectively, we all think that the rest of Christendom (and probably all other religions) got things at least a little bit wrong.
What are we going to do about it? Are we lining up for another schism, after our tentative coming-together? Are we, one of the historic peace churches, so bad at dealing with conflict that we can't even work things out with other Friends? Are we going to allow the outer forms of language and variations in religious practice keep us from laboring together?
Jesus said something about the beams in our own eyes, and certainly we all have them. He also said some things about forgiveness, and the importance of working things out with your brothers. (Being from a sexist society, as he was, he didn't say anything about working things out with your sisters, but he would have if he'd lived in modern times).
I try, I really do try, to read your blogs about the importance of Quakers being more Christian. I try to hear what you're saying, even when you use language that makes me uncomfortable. It would be a whole lot easier if you didn't lead with your judgment about how my sort of Quaker is no sort of Quaker at all. I might not be your sort of Quaker, but my tradition goes back in an unbroken line to Fox, same as yours, even if it's kept different bits of his original ministry than yours has.
We might have something to teach one another.