Silent Subversion: Quaker Ecclesiology of Old and New
(This is a paper I wrote in the spring of 2018 for a Christian history course I took in seminary. I have a fascination of Quaker ecclesiology, so in good Quaker fashion, silently read.)
When one imagines Quakers, overthrow of powerful institutions may not be the first image to come to mind. Many may think of the cheery figure who graces the cover of Quaker Oats. Others more acquainted with American religion may imagine the pacifism exhibited by many Quakers. Yet, in the plain living, silent worship, pacifism, and oat-making of Quakerism is an iconoclastic subversion of some of the most powerful institutions and systems. From the dawn of the tradition to the present, the foundations and implications of Quaker ecclesiology subverts many institutions some understand to be simply the given. In this paper I examine the radical early history of Quaker ecclesiology and its foundational values, suggest its subversion of self-preservation, traditional hierarchical ecclesial leadership, and systemic injustice, and present ways in which the subversion of Quaker ecclesiology continues to this day.
Early Quaker Ecclesial Values and History
Under great frustration with the Church of England, George Fox became convicted that one could personally experience the Light of Jesus Christ without service of the church institution’s ordained clergy. Out of this conviction came the Quaker tradition.
Fox’s ecclesiology arrived at five conclusions. First, the gathering of people into the persons of the Trinity is the Church. This deconstructed, for a lack of a better term, ontology of the Church laid the foundation for an apophatic approach to ecclesiology. His second conclusion was that “only God’s power working immediately in the hearts of men (sic) can bring about this gathering.” While there are fair critiques against this conclusion, Fox desired to emphasize the present-moment working of God. Fox’s third conclusion may be his most radical. He posited that because all humans are given God’s power all “have the possibility of belonging to this gathering which does not consist in participating in any structural organization.” Unlike the ecclesial structure of which Fox grew frustrated, creating a gathering in which all belong equally thus negating the need to structuralize said gathering. His fourth conclusion suggested because Christ is spiritual, physical existence too must be spiritual. This conclusion simply supported his second conclusion, in which one was to have a personal spiritual experience with Christ. Lastly, he echoed the Reformers, in that he suggests faith alone is all that is required to be a part of the Church. In supplement to his first conclusion, Fox desired to subvert the degree to which was required of one to be a part of the Church – in which he concluded simply faith alone is all that is required.
These early Quaker ecclesial values theoretically subverted ecclesial structures of the day (of which I will provide examples later), yet one may be skeptical of its effectiveness practically; however, early Quakers were largely able to embody Fox’s five ecclesial conclusions. Despite the odds due to its lack of official doctrines, early Quakers gained unanimity in message and organization (or lack thereof). Some organization organically arose, in which each meeting as a whole naturally consented to who their leaders would be. While most other 17th century English ecclesial structures clearly separated meetings of worship and business, Quakers blurred the lines of worship and business meetings by only holding each in response to the prodding of the Spirit. Without any rituals or pre-arranged agenda, both meetings waited in silence until the Spirit led them to say whatever the Spirit led them to say.
After the initial history of the movement, Quakers quickly experienced their first significant theological and political turmoil that threaten their established organizational structure. While still early on in the Quaker movement, the tradition was met with fervent political persecution after the Restoration Settlement in the mid-17th century, which re-established the Church of England as the national church. This led to a need to develop a more cohesive organizational structure to better withstand the political persecution. Quaker leaders also sought to develop a more cohesive organization structure in response to unrestrained rise of individualism that threatened the burgeoning movement. One particular leader, John Perrot, gave other Quaker leaders reason of suspicion. Perrot “carried the idea of individual guidance to a narrowly logical conclusion, ignoring the social element in it.” He considered only an individual feeling immediately moved to a religious activity as valid. He postulated public worship was to have no fix times or places.
Yet, other Quakers leaders foresaw the impractical nature of Perrot’s ecclesiology. In contrast to Perrot’s unrestrained individualism, Fox and other Quaker leaders were “deeply conscious of the social element in individual guidance as well as the experience of corporate spiritual guidance.” Later on Fox organized the Quakers more by setting up regular religious and business meetings throughout the nation. One such meeting, The Two Weeks Meeting in London, consisted of Quaker elders and carried out a number of different functions for the movement, one of which was to care for the poor and sick. This meeting also established one of the subversively revolutionary aspects of the Quakers. In connection to the Two Weeks Meeting in London, a women’s Two Weeks Meeting was established and functioned similarly to the male counterpart. Elizabeth Hooten, for example, was one of the first preachers of the movement. I should note Hooten preached in the mid-17th century; therefore, further highlighting the radical subversiveness Quaker ecclesiology was to its ecclesial structures of the day. Later in the 17th century Fox developed the first system of organization of the Quakers. It was not necessarily a new system of organization but rather a summarization of organization that had organically developed over the century. Its most important ramification was it instituted regular business meetings, ranging from monthly, quarterly, and annually. Fox’s system of organization also stated the way representation was organized and decided upon for these regular meetings. Ultimately, due to political and theological pressures, it was necessary for the Quakers to develop more organization. Yet, the ecclesial vision remained, as the Quakers were still committed to Fox’s five original ecclesial conclusions.
Subversion in Practice
As I suggested earlier, Fox’s five conclusions were deeply subversive theoretically to the political and ecclesial structures of his day. However, in practice these five conclusions subverted institutional self-preservation, hierarchical leadership, and injustice.
Quaker ecclesiology subverts one’s self-preservation in the way the gathered community discerns its ontology and mission. No one person or select group of people have power to discern the gathered community’s ontology and mission. There is not a clergy that discerns (whatever it may be that is decided) on behalf of the rest of the community. The responsibility of Quaker leaders is to create space for the community to be led by the Spirit in the process of discernment. The interrelationship between the community and the Spirit guides the discernment process, thus placing each person in equal power to one another. Institutions often can abuse power when an individual or a group of individuals gain considerably more power than those who institutions are to serve and support. In a way institutions can gain an unrestrained individualism as well, in that a certain individual or group of individuals accumulate too much power over other individuals. Quaker ecclesiology subverts the self-preservation of both institutions and individualism by committing to discernment as an act of the gathered community. Quakers highlight the importance of the gathered community insofar that even some suggest the primary activity of God occurs in the midst of the gathered community. Present-day Quakers may even propose that communal discernment in the gathered community extends beyond simply those in the present meeting but even extends to the meeting’s neighborhood. Listening and serving the meeting’s neighbors are not simply extensions of the activity of God from communal discernment but are the very activity of God in community in and of itself. Present-day Quakers are also freed from ecclesial self-preservation for most Quakers recognize God is already active in everyone’s life. Ecclesially, this frees Quakers from the oppressing weight of understanding the ecclesial community as the only space in which God is active. Understanding the ecclesial community as the only place in which God is active places great power in an ecclesial community, power that often cripples said community. Therefore, from the very act of discerning in community to listening and serving the community’s neighbors, Quaker ecclesiology subverts self-preservation.
Similarly to its subversion of self-preservation, Quaker ecclesiology also subverts hierarchical ecclesial leadership. Quakers hold that God gathers all people to God’s self without the need of “special delegates to pray for them or show them how to pray.” According to Quakers, Christ alone shows how one is to minister in his or her own particular way. The calling to ministry was a vertical relationship for a Quaker– it only required immediate the immediate call of the Spirit. Despite being a vertical relationship between God and the one called to ministry, this subverts the vertical hierarchical ecclesial leadership in that each derives ministerial authority by his or her turn to the light of God rather than a governing body determining the qualifications of one. Other ecclesial structures at the time determined qualifications of one’s ministerial ability by a governing body through an “external rite of ordination, a particular intellectual preparation, or social status.” Quakers also denied the hierarchical leadership of apostolic succession, instead posited for one to be a successor they simply had to live in the same Spirit as the apostles. However, it should be noted that even early on in Quaker history, certain individuals in local meetings became more accepted by their communities as holding more power in their ministerial call than others. Yet, the value of subversion of hierarchical leadership in ecclesial structures still remained. This subversion of hierarchical ecclesial leadership led to the next, and perhaps most well-known, subversion.
Quakers ecclesiology is perhaps most subversive to systemic injustice, most notably gender injustice. As mentioned earlier, Quakers held to that the only requirement to the call of ministry was to be turned to the Spirit. This value was taken quite literally, which meant it was extended to women. Therefore, Quaker women served the same ministerial roles as men, including preaching, as noted earlier with Elizabeth Hooten as a well-known example. Early Quaker, Robert Barclay in his apologetic defense of Quakerism, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, writes, “when God moveth by his Spirit in a woman we judge it no ways unlawful for her to preach in the assemblies of God's people.” From the infancy of Quakerism, the value of ministerial equality between men and women existed, at a time in 17th century England when gender equality could not have even been comprehended. Quakers have long been at the forefront of subverting systemic injustice, as they were some of the first abolitionists and one of the first Christian traditions to be affirming of LGBTQ+ persons. Therefore, subverting systemic injustice, especially gender injustice, has been a part of the very sinew of Quaker ecclesiology since the tradition’s beginning.
Subversive Practice in Present-Day Quaker Meetings
The Quaker tradition in many ways has changed from its early form. Most Quakers today are considered programmed, meaning they meet and organize similarly to many Evangelical churches. Others have intertwined the programmed worship and organization with the more informal style from earlier in its history. These Quakers are considered semi-programmed. Yet, there are many unprogrammed Quakers who still meet, worship, and organize similarly to the tradition’s early beginnings. To share all the delightful subversiveness of those Quakers who still hold to many of the tradition’s early ecclesial values, QuakerSpeak began. QuakerSpeak is a YouTube channel that shares the history, modern-day issues, and nuances of Quakerism. While one may not necessarily think of a YouTube channel as the means by which Quakers express their tradition’s subversiveness, the channel shares many of the ways present-day Quakers still embody their subversive ecclesial structures. Three QuakerSpeak videos in particular share the ways Quaker ecclesial structures still subvert self-preservation, hierarchical ecclesial leadership, and institutional injustice.
Present-day Quakers subvert self-preservation, much like their tradition’s ancestors, in their ecclesial worship of silent listening for the Spirit. In the QuakerSpeak video “What to Expect in Quaker Meeting for Worship,” Christine Duncan-Tessmer, a participant in the Chesnut Hill Friends Meeting, encourages for when one listens during a Quaker meeting to “be aware of all that’s around you and all that’s within you, and how that’s all connected to everybody else in the room.” Like the subversiveness to self-preservation through listening for the Spirit in the process of discernment, listening silently during Quaker worship prods one to become more aware of the way in which the Spirit is moving within him or herself and within the rest of those in the meeting. It simultaneously is a self-awakening and self-emptying act. Becoming more awaken of one’s own self allows for one to be exposed to their finitude in relationship to the finitude of others which frees us from desiring to preserve ourselves, our power, or our reputation over and against others. It also allows us to be more aware of that which we never realized was there before, such as emotions and thoughts that were once unconscious but then made conscious in the stillness of silent listening. thus self-awakening through the listening of the Spirit is subversive. Like self-awakening, becoming more emptied of ourselves undermines the ego, allowing us to recognize the ways in which the Spirit is moving equally within others, which subverts self-preservation, for the Spirit moves equally within all. Therefore, listening for the Spirit in present-day Quaker worship is subversive just as it was in early Quaker ecclesial structures.
In the spirit of early Quaker ecclesiology, present-day Quakers subvert hierarchical ecclesial leadership. Rania Campbell-Bussiere, in the QuakerSpeak video “What is the Quaker Approach to Leadership?,” gives the analogy of the leadership model of Quakers is like a tree, in which the leadership comes from the roots, with the roots “giving the community what it needs to thrive and it’s facilitating growth but it’s not directing it.” This leadership model alludes to early Quaker ecclesial structures, in which a number of leaders organically emerged. This emergence of leaders came about not through the decision of an individual or a small group of individuals but through the community discernment on who the movement of the Spirit was calling to lead. Jesse White, in the same QuakerSpeak video, evokes similar vegetation imagery when describing the uniqueness of Quaker leadership:
“I think the dominant idea about leadership is one in which the leader has a lot of power and invokes a community to move forward somehow with their power. I think what’s different about Quaker leadership is that it’s the Spirit moving through us, hopefully to find some kind of unity on a topic, and that’s where our power is, in being a reed, being a vessel, letting it move through us.”
As White suggests, the power of hierarchical leadership is subverted in present-day Quakerism by situating power in the whole community as the vessel through which the Spirit moves just as it did in early Quaker ecclesiology.
Like their 17th century spiritual ancestors, present-day Quakers are at the frontlines in subverting institutional injustice. Living into the imagination of Jesus’ concept of the kingdom of God, Quakers have “always been very active in addressing our government and its rule. They had started out in the earliest days having to try and change laws that were affecting them directly. As time went by a century later they were among the most active lobbyists to end slavery (and) active in women's suffrage.” Present-day Quaker theology, and ecclesiology more specifically, continues the tradition of actively working into the Kingdom of God by the way in which they relate to one another. Noah Merrill, in the QuakerSpeak video “A Quaker Vision for Political Action,” posits that embedded within Quaker ecclesiology is that humans are to recognize the power by which we construct the world. Therefore we are called to construct systems and structures that enliven flourishing and subvert injustice. Because Quaker ecclesiology is framed by relationality, one of those ways by which we construct a flourishing world is to distribute our resources, especially power, because the work of relationality prophetically confronts injustice. Therefore, early and present-day Quaker ecclesial structures distributing power through relationality has and continues to subvert institutional social and political injustice.
Quakers from its beginning to the present day has evolved expansively. The Quaker on the box of Quaker Oats oatmeal does not look much like a Quaker today; however, the subversiveness of Quaker ecclesiology has not floundered. It remains as vibrant as ever – just with a 21st century twist. Within the historical sinew of Quaker ecclesiology is a rich history of subverting self-preservation, hierarchical ecclesial leadership, and systemic injustice in its theoretical values and lived practice. This rich history of subversion continues to this day in the 21st century modality of YouTube by sharing the subversive ecclesial structures to the world. Quaker ecclesiology may be silent, but it is ever so subversive.