Are Quakers Christian?

One Quaker’s Views By Stephen Petter, 25/7/06.

What is not usually appreciated that the answer to a question depends on the reason it is asked, by whom, and why. In other words, one has to consider the position of the questioner. If the reader rejects this assertion, let him or her consider a question such as "Where do we come from?", asked by a child to its mother, a teenager, an anthropology student, a discussion group on ‘aliens have landed’. Same question; very different answers.

So, who might ask "Are Quakers Christian"? I’d said broadly there are four possible questioner types. First, students of comparative religion. Second, Christians of most denominations. Third, leaders of Christian churches, who we can assume are or listen to theologians. Fourth, Quakers. But since this is likely to be read most by Quakers I need to differentiate. There are liberal Quakers who regard themselves as post Christian or definitely non-Christian, and there are those who while holding to what they regard as the true basis of Christianity (for instance as taught by Jesus, without the later accretions). I must also make clear that I am using the term ‘Quaker’ to refer only to those in the liberal, unprogrammed tradition, as are found in Britain, the former Commonwealth, most of Ireland, mainland Europe, and the eastern states of the USA. World-wide, the majority of those calling themselves Quakers, are evangelical Christians very similar in faith and practice to other evangelical Christian denominations.

A student of comparative religion, asked if Quakers are Christians, would have little doubt in replying ‘yes’. Why? First, Quakers are rooted in Christianity. The founders of Quakerism were all deeply steeped in the Bible and used it as their primary justification. Secondly, where else might Quakerism be slotted? It clearly is not Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Wiccan, etc etc. Is it a world faith in its own right? Clearly not, unless one redefines ‘world faith’ so as to call hundreds of sects, faiths.

Christians of most denominations, if they know anything of Quakers (most do not) will say they are Christian. Or perhaps ‘were’ in that many think that Quakerism has died out. Those who know of Quakers, having met them in ecumenical groups, peace and social witness campaigns, would also say ‘yes’ - Quakers are Christian. However if their attention was drawn to Quaker faith and practice, many might start to have doubts. Quakers do not do most things that most Christians regard as essential features of Christianity. We do not say the Lord’s Prayer. We do not have creeds. We do not have priests or other ordained ministers. In fact we are led by each other, with no requirement for any religious training or examination. We do not sing hymns. Attending our services, which we call meetings for worship, in our meeting houses (definitely not ‘churches’) they will seldom hear mention of God and virtually never of Jesus. The visitor would see no baptism, no Eucharist. They would be unlikely to hear of heaven, certainly not of hell, nor even of salvation, seldom of sin. I could go on. Quakerism is most easily defined by listing negatives. So we can conclude that most practicing Christians if fully informed would be very dubious that we were Christian.

The situation is very different if the leaders of the main churches are asked whether Quakers are Christians. When in the 1990s the Christian world-wide ecumenical movement was re-organised the Christian Churches in Britain and Ireland (CCBI) agreed a statement (Clause 2a) defining what churches needed to subscribe to if they were to be eligible to join. (It was something like "accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour according to the Bible…".) (see footnote 1.) It was clear that they very much wanted Quakers to join. We said we’d like to but we could not accept clause 2a as it was credal. So the CCBI inserted a clause 2b (Footnote 2), which said that any organisation that the others agreed would be eligible but for their objection to credal statements, were eligible. This illustrates the full acceptance of Quakers as Christians by other denominations’ leaders and theologians. It seems they regard us at least as worthy of the name Christian and in fact want us in their organisation for all we offer them.

The fourth type of questioner is Quakers. There are many who will give a firm and even shocked ‘No!’. Some have had experience of other Christian churches or organisations such as the Student Christina Movement and have found Quakers to be a safe haven from language and attitudes they came to abhor. Some feel so strongly they will burst into tears if the subject comes up. Reasons include: concentration on a doctrine of sin; hierarchies and patriarchy; requirement to accept incredible beliefs in doctrines such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the miracles; repetition of prayers without regard to their content; distancing from the activities of evangelical Christians, dislike of any authoritarian leadership; irritation with the distractions of ritual. Whether Quakers who feel this way are a majority or not, those who do not feel this way nevertheless are tender to their feelings, and so avoid traditional Christian language. But many Quakers do firmly believe in some essentials of the Christian message. Many would reply to our question: "It all depends on what you mean by ‘Christian’." I have written elsewhere "What Quakers Believe", and incidentally "What Quakers Do". I would summarise it by saying Quakers try, perhaps harder than many other Christians, to do as Jesus of Nazareth (who undoubtedly lived and preached a new message centred on love, forgiveness and self-sacrifice) would have us do.

To sum up. We have clear yeses from comparative religionists and from Christian church leaders. We have a no from most other Christian lay-people if they are well informed about Quakers, but a yes if not well informed. We have a firm no from some Quakers and a muted yes from others. Two and two half yeses, vs two half-nos. Thus I assert, Quakers are Christians whether they like it or not. Or as one said, "We’re Christian, but a funny sort of Christian."




Note 1: The ‘credal basis’ that Quakers could not accept:

ARTICLE I BASIS: CHURCHES TOGETHER IN ENGLAND unites in pilgrimage those churches in England which, acknowledging God’s revelation in Christ, confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures, and, in obedience to God’s will and in the power of the Holy Spirit commit themselves: to seek a deepening of their communion with Christ and with one another in the Church, which is his body; and to fulfil their mission to proclaim the Gospel by common witness and service in the world

to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Note 2: The clause added to let Quakers in:

B. any Church or Association of Churches which on principle has no credal statements in its tradition and therefore cannot formally subscribe to the statement of faith in the Basis provided that it satisfies 75% in number of those full members which subscribe to the Basis that it manifests faith in Christ as witnessed to in the Scriptures and it is committed to the aims and purposes of Churches Together in England and that it will work in the spirit of the Basis.

(i.e. what we do (‘manifest’) matters more than what we say we believe.-SP)

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