One of the main sets of questions that I get from friends who are part of liturgical traditions center on the practices of baptism and communion. This essay will, hopefully, help clear up some misunderstandings of Quakers and the sacraments. Disclaimer: I am a Christ-centered Quaker and this essay is written from that perspective.
The beginning of the Quaker movement in the mid-seventeenth century saw horrible violence directed at differing factions of the Christian faith within England. Right before the Battle of Worcester, Justice Bennet attempted to have the Quaker’s founder, George Fox, pressed into service in the commonwealth army. Fox had already been jailed for refusing a commission and replied to the judge and commissioners that he “was brought off from outward wars…that where envy and hatred is there is confusion.”(Fox Journal of George Fox 1976 130) The general atmosphere of religious violence, while ultimately being about which Christians got to rule the country, was triggered by arguments over doctrines and the correct methodologies for the administration of the sacraments. The most contentious arguments of the time were over the sacraments of communion and baptism, the very things that were thought to be the hallmarks of Christian unity and belonging. The early Quakers looked at the mess around them and went to the “present teacher” (Jesus) and the scriptures to find out where they should stand on these issues and discovered that their call was to live in communion every moment of every day and to continually be baptized with the fire of the Holy Spirit, purifying their lives daily.
I will begin the exploration of Quaker sacramental living with a general Quaker understanding of sacraments, and then will examine Quaker perspectives on the individual sacraments of baptism and communion by examining second-generation Quaker Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity then modern Quaker understandings.
Quaker Views on Sacrament
It is a common misunderstanding to think that the Quakers do not practice the sacraments. While it is true that the rituals which are recognized as sacraments are not practiced (for the most part) by Quakers, we attempt to infuse our everyday lives with sacramental participation in the light and life of Christ. Sidney Lucas affirms this in his book The Quaker Message when he quotes the 1941 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Epistle: “We are called with a high calling to make every day of our lives a sacrament, that we may constantly live in that virtue and power that takes away the occasion, not only of war, but of the spirit of dissention and strife in every walk and area of life.”(Lucas The Quaker Message 1948 26) Through the recognition of God’s presence throughout the world, every moment is an encounter with the sacred… if we are paying attention. Anything that distracts us from this reality of God’s presence then becomes a hindrance. For the early Quakers the reliance on outward rituals that were mediated by a priest who was appointed by the government in a large building called a church hindered many from connecting their lives to the sacred reality of God’s presence outside of the ritual. Today, some Quakers in the Evangelical wings have shifted somewhat on liturgy since it is no longer being forced upon us as necessary prerequisites to participation in society.
In the Quaker community only one baptism is recognized as necessary for rebirth into the family of God, and that is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Barclay affirms that the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5 is that of the Holy Spirit and focuses his understanding of baptism on the inward purification that no amount of water would ever suffice to cleanse. Barclay asks how cleansing can be achieved “if it is not through the purifying action of the Holy Spirit on the soul, and the cauterizing of our unrighteous nature by the fire of his judgment?”(Barclay and Freiday Barclay’s Apology 1991 308) In Friend’s theology, baptism is not mediated through human agency, but is a direct experience of the present Christ, born within through the Holy Spirit. This is especially important when dealing with the issues around child/infant baptism, if the child in question shows signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their life; they are considered a full member of the meeting. I have witnessed meetings for worship and business in which children spoke and it was obvious they were prompted by the Spirit to do so. The early Quakers, living into their testimony, experienced persecution and denials of their rights under law. That persecution did not stop the children of the Quakers however, when parents were arrested and sent to prison their children continued Meeting.
Communion After the Manner of Friends
To understand the Quaker practice of communion with God, it is important to recognize that we are Mystics. Carole Spencer in Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism describes this part of our foundational structure as a call to perfection. This call “was born of mystical experience and a mystical consciousness. But it was not a private experience of initiation…or an absorption into God, but a theistic sense of being filled with God, reborn and transformed.” (Spencer Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism 2007 61) The way this transformation worked itself out was in the practice of waiting in silence, and listening for the voice of the Spirit in the context of a gathered group. Barclay articulates this process as “truly and really enjoyed as often as the soul withdraws into the light of the Lord and feels and partakes of the divine life by which the inward [person] is nourished. This may be witnessed at any time by the faithful, although it is especially so when they are assembled together to wait upon the Lord.”(Barclay and Freiday Barclay’s Apology 1991 333)
The times of silence that others may call meditation or prayer are, for Quakers, acts of communion with God, and when part (or the whole) of our weekly meetings, communion with the body of Christ: the church. In The Quakers, Pink Dandelion underscores the mystical and practical nature of this communion by saying: “Through silence…God could be best encountered and heard. This was the medium of approach to God, and the medium for experience of God…the use of silence ran throughout the devotional and practical aspects of church life.”(Dandelion The Quakers 2008 38) Communion with God then becomes focused on the actual experienced relationship with God and is no longer constricted to a symbolic gesture, and is freed to encompass all of life. Every person then, from the youngest child to the eldest senior can participate in the life of the church through the practice of silent waiting on the voice of God.
Current Quaker Views on Sacraments
As with many other movements the Quakers have fragmented and come to new understandings of various points in doctrine and the ways our relationship with God works out in real life. In his book A Living Faith Wilmer Cooper describes three current responses to the sacraments as performed in mainline churches. The first view holds to the George Fox’s understanding that the sacraments are impediments in the way of actual relationship with the living Christ.(Cooper A Living Faith 2001 113) The second view is a bit more nuanced in that it sees the sacraments as non-essentials. “The sacraments are not efficacious as a means of grace and therefore not necessary for worship or for personal reconciliation with God…their symbolic representations might be helpful to some in worship but are not necessary.”(Ibid.) This view would fit with Robert Barclay’s writing that those who do this in good conscience should be indulged. The last view is that we need to re-examine our understanding of the sacraments. There are three main schools of thought behind this call to re-examination:
1) Baptism and communion are desired by some coming into our meetings from other denominations and have pointed out that there is nothing biblical against the practices.(Ibid. 114)
2) “If Friends held too narrow a view on this issue it would only serve to impede ecumenical unity.”(Ibid.)
3) Some Friends have communicated that occasional participation in liturgical worship services has been helpful to them. (Ibid.)
At this point in my journey I lean more towards the second view, that those who practice in good conscience should and those who feel a different call should not. The important piece for me in all of this discussion is to hold my understanding lightly and humbly, mainly because I am convinced that dogmatism is the opposite of communion.
Barclay, Robert and Dean Freiday. 1991. Barclay’s Apology in Modern English. Newberg, Or.: Barclay Press.
Cooper, Wilmer A. 2001. A Living Faith : An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press.
Dandelion, Pink. 2008. The Quakers : A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Fox, George. 1976. Journal of George Fox. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press.
Lucas, Sidney. 1948. The Quaker Message : Extracts from Quaker Writings Showing the Belief and Practice of Quakers and the Present Significance of Their Underlying Principles. Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill.
Spencer, Carole Dale. 2007. Holiness : The Soul of Quakerism : An Historical Analysis of the Theology of Holiness in the Quaker Tradition. Milton Keynes: Paternoster.