The Spirit moved in mysterious ways and sent us on a 1,300 mile journey. After much indecision about whether we should go to the Friends of Jesus Fellowship (FoJF) Fall gathering in Ohio, we decided it was too far, too expensive, and just plain unworkable. Resigned to a quiet weekend on the land, we got an email from a friend at QIV-C saying ‘I’m going to DC in two days, wanna come?’ So we ended up in DC with Micah and Faith, members of FoJF, and got a ride with them to Barnesville, OH.
We had one whole day to ourselves in DC, so we gave ourselves over completely to sight seeing. The National Mall in Washington DC is both a gift to tourists and undeniably weird. This neighbourhood of impressive museums and colossal monuments has all the photo opportunities you’d want within walking distance, and we really enjoyed the sights and a sunset bike ride round the illuminated memorials. For all the talk of separation of church and state, the memorials are shrines in all but name. The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials are based on the Roman Pantheon and Athenian Acropolis respectively, their stern figures taking the place of Mediterranean gods.
The next day we travelled to Olney Friends School in Ohio, a world away from the solemn pageantry of the Mall. The Friends of Jesus Fellowship is a network of Christian Quakers that’s been going for around two years. There are groups based in Detroit, Michigan and Washington DC, and other individuals dotted around the States. They meet as a body twice a year at their Spring and Fall gatherings. I came across them when I discovered Micah’s blog.
‘Go and make disciples’
The gathering we attended took ‘the great commission’ as its theme, where the resurrected Christ exhorts his disciples to:
‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ [Matthew 28:19-20]
I can’t say I’ve ever heard this particular piece of scripture discussed amongst Quakers in the UK, so I was intrigued as to what would emerge from our discussions. Our discussion on baptism was particularly enlightening. I already knew that the traditional view of Quaker baptism is based on the words of John the Baptist:
‘I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ [Luke 3:16]. What was new to me was that for early Quakers there were two baptisms. The first, John’s baptism, is one of repentance. It rests on our own choice to turn around and follow Jesus. The second, Jesus’ baptism, is an ongoing process of sanctification, and is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are then able to baptise others as our cup runs over with the Holy Spirit, splashing it around as, to mix metaphors, it catches like wildfire.
I felt a kinship with FoJF in our shared dissatisfaction with liberal Quakerism. More importantly, they shared my understanding that our identity as a religious people rests in unity around a common story, something that is very contentious within liberal Quakerism. One Friend, commenting on her own experience of liberal Quakers, said ‘It’s like we can’t be in unity about anything important to the spiritual life, like the existence of God, but we insist on unity about the colour of the Meeting House carpet’. As someone who co-clerked a Meeting through the replacement of the Meeting House windows, I second that sentiment!
I often hear British Friends talk as if we need to jettison our history to move forward, but I believe that knowing your history means knowing who you are now. At the National Museum of the American Indian, we learnt about the importance of story to tribal identity. We also learnt how Empire demands assimilation, as American Indian children were taken from their homes and educated in boarding schools as European ‘Americans’. We must preserve and unite around the Quaker story (which I believe is synonymous with the Jesus story) as an alternative narrative to the Empire’s approved history.
The weekend also presented me with several challenges. Like FoJF, I realised that I too inhabit a Quaker non-man’s land. It’s a while since I’ve read Barclay’s Apology (the classic statement of Quaker Christian theology), but our discussion on baptism highlighted that the majority of my Christian education has come from non-Quaker sources such as Workshop and Greenbelt. A decade of membership in the Religious Society of Friends in Britain, and my understanding of traditional Quaker theology is still pretty basic. How far am I a Quaker in my understanding of Christianity? I feel like a Christian mongrel, finding myself at odds with liberal Quakers but ignorant of conservative Quaker theology.
Another challenge was the charismatic worship we experienced on the Saturday night. A Friend had prophesied on the Friday that there would be a ‘Holy Spirit explosion’, and that’s what seemed to happen. The two hours of worship involved speaking in tongues, physical shaking, crying, laying on of hands and prayers for healing, of an intensity the group had never experienced. Micah later described the experience on his blog:
‘The only way I knew how to describe it afterwards was to say – It felt like the lid was about to come off. The room was literally shaking with the prayers of those present, our bodies and voices trembling under the power of the Spirit. As a Quaker, this intensity of feeling makes me suspicious. It’s hard to know sometimes whether our emotions are being stirred up for human reasons, or divine ones. Yet, from everything I witnessed, I believe that our time of fervent prayer bore the marks of the Holy Spirit. There was real healing taking place as hidden hurts and heartbreaks came to light.’
This was all new to me, and a bit weird, although I didn’t feel alienated by it. It’s one of those experiences that, the more I reflect on it, the less I have to say about it. Something happened that was very significant for many of my fellow worshippers so I’ll leave it at that.
Quaker Renewal UK
It was great to meet all the FoJF folks. There was a great feeling of fellowship and connection. We are so glad that way opened for us to go. There are three things that excite me about what they’re doing, and that I’d like to bring back with me to the UK:
- They are involved in thorough and honest engagement with the Quaker tradition. They are unashamedly Christ-centered and ‘seek to lead lives that demonstrate the reality that Christ is here to teach his people himself.’
- They are happy to exist outside established Quaker institutions. They are disillusioned with the religious pluralism of liberal Quakerism, but they are unable to fully ally themselves with conservative Quaker bodies due to their affirmation of LGBT people and same-sex relationships. They are in a Quaker no-mans land, which is both a challenging and exciting place to be.
- They are experimental, both in the sense of trying new things, and in the original Quaker use of the word, seeking to know things experientially. They use waiting (silent) worship in addition to worship songs and vocal prayer, and they expect to experience the transformational power of the Holy Spirit.
The weekend left us with a lot to process, and we felt completely drained on returning to QIV-C. The emotional intensity of the gathering and the many hours on the road had washed us out. I had enough strength to check some emails, and discovered that fellow Quaker blogger Craig Barnett had created a new group called Quaker Renewal UK, seeking to ‘explore the spiritual renewal of the Quaker movement in Britain’, and appointed me as an ‘elder’ of the group. To add to the already exciting discussion happening there, here’s what I envisage a revitalised British Quakerism to look like:
It will be lived – This means not just talking about it! We should be experimental, trying out new things and expecting to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in our worship.
It will be local – This means not just going to national Quaker conferences and talking about it. Conferences at Woodbrooke and elsewhere are great, but they are not a surrogate for a local community. Quaker renewal will start small, and I believe that discussion around New Monasticism could be very fruitful.
It will be liberated – Renewal is not trying to convince your local meeting to hold an extra bring-and-share. It definitely doesn’t mean starting any new committees. Renewal is not a reformation of Britain Yearly Meeting institutions. It doesn’t require Area Meeting approval. BYM does not own the Quaker story.
It will be logical – Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber feels that ‘you have to be deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity’. Renewal will be congruent with the Quaker narrative. This… therefore… This doesn’t mean do as we’ve always done, but neither does it mean we make it up as we go along. It means a re-engagement with tradition. I believe this will involve a re-engagement with Jesus and apocalyptic Christianity. We shouldn’t settle for a theological fudge, or a wholesale forgetting of our Christian roots. We can’t claim to have Christian roots but have no knowledge of what those roots involve.
I came to Quakerism because of the space it offered me to explore. I stayed in Quakerism because of how the amazing discoveries of early Friends resonated with me. I deeply long for a spiritual renewal of the Quaker movement in the Britain, and this will only come about through hard work and a willingness to do things differently. Are we disciplined enough to make disciples? Are we full enough of the Spirit to baptise others? Do we obey the Inward Teacher, and help others to recognise its voice? Do we trust that God is really with us?