On Easter Sunday, or “the day that is called Easter” to use an old Quaker way of speaking, I was worshipping with my Quaker community. Much of the vocal ministry (Spirit-inspired words spoken during worship) referred to Easter and the Resurrection, with even the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon getting a mention.
This made me uncomfortable. Quakers don’t have a church calendar, at least officially, and historically have rejected designating any one day as more special than another. This has been called the ‘testimony against times and seasons.’ No Christmas, no Easter Sunday, and even the names of months and days rejected in favour of a simple numbering. So Easter Sunday, falling as it did on 17th April in 2022, could be ‘first day, 22 of the fourth month (the day the World calls Easter).’ The way Easter Sunday seeped into our worship that morning felt to me like a forgetting of our Quaker identity.
What makes my discomfort strange is that I’m actually strongly drawn to the Christian liturgical year. As a Christian Quaker in a post-Christian community, I really appreciate being among people where the Jesus story is central. The liturgical year is an opportunity to rehearse and absorb the Jesus story, forming a Jesus-shaped community. I particularly love the theatrical nature of worship in cathedrals, having attended magical Midnight Masses at Christmas, and powerful Easter Sunday services full of candles, incense and glorious music. Sitting in Quaker Meeting for Worship that morning, I thought “If I wanted an Easter service, I could have gone to the Cathedral and they’d have done it better!”
This is fairly typical of my personality. I want to be all in or all out. Either we commit to a Quaker ‘plaining’ of the year, or cast off the plainness and revel in the smells and bells of ritual. A half-way house rarely works for me. But when I reflect on how I reacted to my fellow Friends’ mention of Easter, I was being unfair. Quakers in the past may have had a ‘testimony against times and seasons’, but this is no longer true in Britain today. Many Quaker meetings, including my own, will have Christmas-themed worship in December. We have abandoned referring to Monday as ‘second day’ and June as ‘sixth month’, except in some formal documents like marriage certificates. In practice the testimony has fallen away, but nothing positive has replaced it. We find ourselves in a half-way house, with no clear corporate answer on the place of times and seasons in the Quaker faith.
If we take a look at why Quakers opposed times and seasons in the first place, we might be able to construct an approach that makes sense for us today.
Why did Quakers oppose times and seasons?
When Quakerism emerged in the mid-17th century, we can see four currents at work in the shaping of this testimony.
- There was the desire to return to ‘primitive Christianity’, to strip away all the idolatrous layers that had encrusted the Church over the centuries. This meant rejecting anything seen as nonbiblical or pagan, including Christmas celebrations and the names of days and months.
- As wells as looking backwards, there was also a looking forwards. Christ has come again inwardly in the experience of the Quakers, the future had arrived, and so any ‘meantime’ festivals or rituals where no longer needed. Jesus no longer needed to be remembered in bread and wine for he was present spiritually in the here and now. Christ’s coming broke the circular time of the liturgical year, in a sense ending history. With Christ present inwardly, every time (as well as every space) was equally holy.
- There was also a strong moral element to this testimony. Festivals like Christmas were seen to encourage drunkenness, excess and immorality. Marking out Sunday as the Lord’s Day was seen to encourage religious hypocrisy. The festivals of the church meant nothing if they did not lead people to live more Christ-like lives. In this, early Friends were in harmony with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible, where festivals, fasts and sacrifices are to be despised if they are not accompanied by justice (e.g. Isaiah 58:6 and Amos 5:21-24).
- By rejecting times and seasons, Quakers were visibly countercultural. By refusing to celebrate Christmas or by opening their businesses on Sundays, they marked themselves out as a peculiar people. Their behaviour drew people’s attention to the difference between the ‘shadow’ and the ‘substance’, which Paul speaks about in Colossians 2:16-17: ‘Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.’
Does this testimony still make sense today?
Are Quakers today still attempting to returning to primitive Christianity? Many Quakers still find inspiration in the life of Jesus, whilst disagreeing on whether he was purely human or the Son of God. The Jesus story is foundational for Quakers historically and globally. In a post-Christian society where Biblical knowledge is thin, it could be argued that a liturgical calendar is an important vehicle for communal storytelling. Perhaps adopting a form of liturgical year would help Quakers educate each other about their Christian roots. However, Quakers in Britain are post-Christian. If the testimony against times and seasons has any practical function today, it’s that it allows for a theologically diverse community. By not marking Christian festivals (at least officially), room is made for Quakers who find inspiration from outside Christianity, or who find Christianity to be unhelpful or harmful. The idea of rejecting pagan names of days and months no longer makes much sense, as there are Quakers today who also identify as pagans. The idea of returning to a primitive Christianity isn’t as useful as Quakers once found it to be.
Do Quakers still experience the future as having arrived? Again, Quakers have diverse approaches to this. When speaking of the ‘Kingdom of God’, most Quakers will emphasise its presence in the here and now, although few identify this with the Second Coming of Christ. My belief is that, whilst I affirm the presence of Christ inwardly as the early Quakers did, I see Christ as ‘arriving’ but not fully ‘arrived’. The fulfilment of Christ’s arrival is still to come, as is evident from all the terrible, evil things that people continue to do to one another. I also think that the early Friends (and perhaps Quakers historically) haven’t taken seriously enough the fact that we are creatures shaped by time and space. We exist in a particular location, moulded by geography and culture. We age and change. As time-bound creatures we live in a rhythm of ebb and flow. We are part of a wider community of creation. Our experience of life shifts as the seasons do, as anyone with seasonal affective disorder will tell you. I find it much easier to commit to things for a season, like reading the New Testament during Lent, than to doing the same thing every day. Perhaps the most common understanding of the testimony against times and seasons is that every day is equal, but I think we know this isn’t really true. In my experience some days and times are more special than others. Celtic spirituality speaks of ‘thin places’, places that feel particularly spiritually potent. I think there are also ‘thin times’, like wedding days and other celebrations and ceremonies. To say that all days are equal risks every day becoming dull and grey. A testimony against times and seasons that doesn’t address the way we are creatures of time isn’t a sustainable testimony.
Is there still a moral argument against times and seasons? Quakers are certainly not the first to suggest that festivities should be accompanied by justice. Every other Church would agree with, say, keeping the spirit of Christmas all year round. It’s possible to ethically celebrate and commemorate together. Although many Christians would agree that the excessive consumption, waste and expense of the Christmas season is immoral, most would not see this as an argument to stop celebrating Christmas altogether.
Is the testimony still countercultural? The claim that all days are equal is no longer shocking. The electric light bulb has freed us from the rhythm of sunrise and sunset. You can visit casinos in Las Vegas where time doesn’t exist – restaurants, bars and slot machines open 24 hours a day in windowless, brightly lit halls. Trading on Sundays is no longer a remarkable thing (although in the UK Christian festivals still receive privileged treatment, from reduced trading hours on Sundays to public holidays on Christmas and Easter.) When every day is a day to buy and sell, the testimony against times and seasons doesn’t mark Quakers out in any useful way.
How we might approach times and seasons now?
If the testimony against times and seasons doesn’t make as much sense as it used to, we may want to officially abandon it, and formally recognise what is already happening – Quaker communities are free to celebrate whatever times and seasons they see fit. Another option is to reframe the testimony so that it becomes a useful part of the Quaker toolbox once more.
I would find it helpful if our Quaker practice reflected the fact that we’re creatures of ‘times and seasons,’ fully part of the non-human creation, rather than disembodied spirits. I would also find it helpful to be part of a storytelling community, where I can share with others the Jesus story that is fundamental to my faith. As we’re now a post-Christian, theologically diverse community, we can’t adopt the Church calendar once more, but we could communally acknowledge those points of the year that mark the changing seasons – the solstices and equinoxes. These points can be meaningful to many people without attaching a specifically Christian interpretation. These natural waymarkers have the potential to be tent-like canopies under which we can tell each other our stories. They could be containers for the different symbols we each hold dear, a way of sharing our beliefs without demanding doctrinal conformity.
This might sound like a complete abandoning or reversal of the testimony against times and seasons. If we see this testimony as purely a rejection of the liturgical year, then yes it is. But the ‘negative’ testimony of the Quakers (to use theologian Rachel Muers’ phrase) always has a positive implication. By saying ‘no’ to something we are saying ‘yes’ to something else. By saying ‘no’ to war, we are saying ‘yes’ to a God of peace. By saying ‘no’ to times and seasons, we are saying ‘yes’ to a Spirit who cannot be contained by any special festival or building. ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Cor. 3:17). I see the Quaker rejection of bread and wine, holy water, special buildings and Christmas as testifying to this Spirit of Freedom. Every day has the potential to be a time and place where God is revealed. The Spirit is free to be present where She wills, whether that’s bread and wine or the silence of Quaker worship. The Spirit is free to break through any structures we might build to contain Her. We can still keep this as a central Quaker understanding. There is nothing to stop us from witnessing to the presence and work of the Spirit in unexpected times and places.
Seasons such as midsummer, Christmas and Easter can be redeemed. They can be times of life-giving celebration that bring us closer to God and inspire us in our search for God’s Kingdom. At the same time, times and seasons which are contrary to God’s Kingdom can still be rejected. Celebrating some days doesn’t mean celebrating all days. We are still called to ‘test the spirits to see whether they are from God’ (1 Jn 4). In the UK we will shortly be ‘celebrating’ the Queens Jubilee. Is this sort of celebration consistent with our Quaker witness? Hot on its heels will be ‘Armed Forces Day.’ Although we no longer reject the names of days dedicated to the gods Odin (Wednesday) or Thor (Thursday), we can still reject a day dedicated to Mars, a day designed to cement the necessity and inevitability of armed conflict in our consciousness. We may even feel moved to witness against these days. One year on November 11, ‘Remembrance Sunday’, I rejected the traditional two minutes silence by leading two minutes of singing under an apple tree. I couldn’t bear to take part in a ritual that, as I saw it, blessed violence as our saviour.
So perhaps the best way to keep the testimony against times and seasons as a useful part of our Quaker toolkit, is to keep it flexible. Quakers should not be a people who are hemmed in by dos and don’ts set in stone. If we follow the Spirit of freedom, then we ourselves should embody that freedom. We are free to improvise as we go along, always guided by the rhythm of the Holy Spirit. When approaching any festival, if we ask “What helps nourish us as a people of the Light? What helps us bear witness to the reign of the Spirit of Freedom?” then we won’t go far wrong.