Keeping the Lord’s Peace: Quaker/Catholic Dialougue (Part I)

Quaker Identity and the Church

For at least the last two centuries, British Friends have been attempting to develop a coherent account of the relationship between the Quaker Way and other Christian confessions. Are Quakers part of the Christian Church? And if so, in what respects? Answers to these questions have varied widely, ranging from a radical rejection of wider ties (see recurrent Quaker disquiet about membership of organisations like Churches Together) to a renewed hope of sustained reconciliation. And it is undeniably this latter tendency which has carried the day.  In general Friends are outward facing and generous towards other churches and can frequently be found at the forefront of inter-church dialogue. What frames these activities? The contours of this generosity can be summarised in the following terms:

1) Quakers are part of ‘the Church Eternal’.

2) We need the notion of Church ‘to remind us that a faith- particularly the Christian faith- is a community.’ (Priestland, Reasonable Uncertainty, Swarthmore Lecture, 1982, p. 22.)  

3) The fundamental theological disagreements that once separated Quakers from other Churches no-longer feel particularly urgent.

In this post I want to consider where this posture comes from, and what its implications might be for the immediate future of ecumenical relations. A particular focus in this discussion will be a close excavation of Quaker responses to Catholicism, for it is here that the fractures and modifications in Quaker identity can be seen most clearly. Before considering specifics, let’s first look at how early Friends framed their identity in relation to other confessions.  In their first generation, British hammered out an internally coherent rejection of the ‘sects of Christendom’- with particular scorned reserved for the Church called ‘Catholic’.  An excellent Quaker example of such religious othering can be observed in Isaac Pennington’s 1658 tract The Way of Life and Death.  In this text Pennington uses the Pauline dualism of the Spirit and flesh (Gal. 5:17) in order to construct a comprehensive critique of Catholic worship. As Pennington declares:

Among the Papists, a very gross worship; a worship more carnal than ever the worship of the law was: for that, though in its nature it was outward and carnal, yet it was taught and prescribed by the wisdom of God, and was profitable in its place, and to its end; but this was invented by the corrupt wisdom, and set up in the corrupt will of man, and hath no true profit, but keeps from the life, from the power, from the Spirit, in fleshly observations, which feed and please the fleshly nature. Look upon their days consecrated to saints, and their canonical hours of prayer, and their praying in an unknown tongue, with their fastings, feastings, saying of Ave-Marys, Pater-nosters, Creeds, &c., are not all these from the life, out of the Spirit, and after the invention, and in the will of the flesh? Ah! their stink is greater than the flesh-pots of Egypt.[1]

According to this highly sectarian reading, while Quaker worship dwelt in the simplicity of Christ, Catholicism was irretrievably mired in the intricacies and deceptions of human tradition.  What were the ultimate sources of these manifold deceptions? Some Friends (most notably George Fox and Francis Howgil[2])  sort to understand the structure of Catholicism through the lenses of key apocalyptic texts like Revelation 16:11. Carried along by the charismatic fervour of their own preaching, some Friends concluded that Catholicism was not merely false, but depended for its existence upon the intervention of Satanic powers.[3]  Just as John of Patmos had prophesied the suffering of the saints (Rev 14:12), the Catholic Church (with its inquisitions, chains and prisons) was serving the desires of the Anti-Christ.  Yet, our present questing after a stable Quaker identity at the present time, is a vivid testament to fact that such vision did not hold. The roots of this attitude’s dissolution can be found in the apologetics of early Quakerism itself

Openness Foreshadowed

Alongside Fox’s vision of all-embracing Popery, early Quakerism always possessed a receptivity to other Christian churches. This tradition of appreciation begins fairly early in Quaker apologetics, with Robert Barclay’s inclusion of Catholic contemplatives like Bonaventure and Bernard of Clairvaux in that class of those who have ‘known and tasted of the love of God.’[4]  Alongside these early trends, both Ben Pink Dandelion and Carole Dale Spencer have both noted the influence of French and Italian Quietists on early Quaker identity.[5] With their focus on stillness, prayer and the annihilation of the self-directing ego, these Catholic sects offered Friends a ready-made devotional vocabulary for the operations for the Inward Light of Christ. A third strand in the Quaker reception of Catholic thought can be observed in the appropriation of the techniques and vocabulary of the Catholic movement known as Devotio Moderna. Beginning in the 14th century Rhineland, Devotio Moderna sought to return the Church to a state of primitive simplicity through an intensification of austere self-denial and personal holiness. Among the most influential text of the movement was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471). Eschewing the pilgrimages, cults and elaborate ceremonies of popular piety, à Kempis exhorts his readers to encounter Christ within. Speaking evocatively of the over use of outward observance, à Kempis remarks:

The life of a good Religious should shine with all the virtues, so that what appears outwardly to others is matched by inward practices. Indeed, there should be far more inward goodness than that which appears outwardly; for God searches all hearts. We must respect Him above all things and live purely in His sight, like the Angels. Each new day we should renew our commitment and exert ourselves in devotion, as if it were the first day of our conversion and say ‘Help me, O Lord God, in my good resolution, and Your holy service; help me to start this day perfectly, for so far, I have achieved nothing’.[6]

In this task of ever-renewing commitment, there are manifold distractions. Doctrines[7], monastic austerities[8] and the Eucharist[9] can be a stumbling block if disconnected from a soul’s desire for God. Given such a radical interiority, it is perhaps unsurprising that William Penn[10], Barclay and John Woolman[11] drew generous connections between Quaker simplicity and à Kempis’ meditative piety. Similar reflexes of welcome can also be detected in Penn’s sympathetic attitude to another great advocate of Devotio Moderna, the Catholic reformer, Erasmus of Rotterdam.[12]  How did these nascent gestures of generosity shape Quaker attitudes in the proceeding centuries towards the sacramental churches? By the 19th century, British and American Quakerism were beginning to modify the sectarian stance of the movement’s founders a number of significant ways.  An excellent exemplar of this new mood is the American Quaker and diplomat Anthony Morris who visited in Spain in 1813. While Morris was critical of the Catholic ceremonies he observed, he was careful to distinguish between the outward structure of Catholic worship and its divine object. Catholics and Quakers may be divided by form, yet they are undivided, in their deep worship of God.[13] Here, we find this little known American Quaker introducing the Religious Society of Friends to a possibility implicit in Barclay. According to this reading, Catholicism is not a straightforward enemy to be defeated, but a mistaken, yet respected companion, to be counselled.

Quakerism: A New Terrain Revealed

The decisive switch from hostility from generosity had its effect. By 1920, the Quaker philanthropist George Herbert Wood in his Swarthmore Lecture, Quakerism and the Future of the Church, noted with some confidence:

The fact is that the circumstances have changed. The Church of England which we know, is not exactly the Church of England from which the Pilgrim Fathers separated. This is at least this big difference, that attendance at its worship is State-enforced, and membership in it is not a matter of course…. Something similar has happened to the controversy with Rome. Rome has changed despite her claim to be sember eadem.[14]

If the ‘old ecclesial enemies’ no-longer could or would exercise that ‘satanic’ tyranny under which early Friends have rebelled, what was the relation of the Quaker Way to other churches? Wood was clear: Friends should seek substantial rapprochement with other Christians. His language is still striking nearly a century later: ‘The question, Which of our present churches is the true Catholic church? is a misleading one. It cannot be answered and ought not to be asked. We must recognise that all churches are imperfect and incomplete, that the outward body of Christ is outwardly divided.’[15] Yet, despite such hopefulness, a fundamental contradiction plagued Wood’s reflections. Despite a cluster of warm ecumenical sentiments, Wood is still clear that the separation between Churches (initiated by Luther) served some great and worthy purpose. In a reflex reminiscent of an early generation of Quaker apologetics, Wood claims, ‘since Rome is unable or unwilling to repudiate the Inquisition and the untruthfulness of some of their recognised teachers, the moral necessity of Protestantism remains unaffected. [16]  Yet even when Wood wrote these words, forces were afoot which would undermine his criteria for continued separation. A mere two decades after Wood’s death, forces were afoot which radically undermined this serene ‘unaffected’ status. Not only did the Second Vatican Council provide a forum for stern critique of the Inquisition and its practices (particularly in relation to persecution of the Jews) it also reoriented Catholic doctrine both internally and towards the churches of the Reformation.[17]

A flavour of the impact of this new mood upon British Quakers can be gaged in John Macmurray’s 1965 Swarthmore Lecture, Search for Reality in Religion, where this formidable philosopher declared that the problem with the Church of Rome (and indeed some Protestant bodies) lay principally in issues arising from its historical entanglements with the state.  Anticipating the substantial critique of the Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder, Macmurray suggested, ‘In accepting the invitation to become the religion Roman Empire, Christianity had to refer its teachings, even where it has clear social implications, to another world.’[18] The problem for Macmurray is not Catholicism nor the status of Protestantism per se, but rather the aberrations of dogmatism and disfiguring hierarchies which dull the radical message of Christianity. According to this analysis, the role of Quakerism is not to subordinate itself to another Church, nor attempt to the combat of other Christian confessions. Rather, Friends are called to model for the future unity of the Churches. Taking the Quaker rejection of systematic doctrine as ecumenically significant, Macmurray declares ambitiously: ‘If [the] Quaker standpoint were accepted by the other Christian bodies, reunion could take place tomorrow.’[19] No-longer is Quakerism tied to a simplistic dualistic rhetoric, but models the future and peace of the Church. Yet, as this settlement came to terms with the intensification of ecumenical activities in the 1980s, there were still aspects of Quaker ecumenical engagement to be hammered out. In particular, what should Quakers make of the substantive commitments of other Churches? Macmurray as we have seen scatted over the issue, believing that doctrinal discussion could only be a distraction the quest for Christian unity. Yet, in practice, doctrinal matters were ever and always going to be part of inter-church discussions and needed to be addressed.

This missing piece of ecumenical realignment was addressed by Gerald Priestland in his 1982 Swarthmore Lecture Reasonable Uncertainty: A Quaker Approach. Departing somewhat from Macmurray’s ambivalence about the role of doctrine in the Christian life, Priestland suggests that doctrinal discussions with other Christians should be seen as sustaining Quaker theology and worship. Unconsciously building on Wood’s depiction of a changed ecclesial landscape, Priestland suggests that doctrines are no-longer hard and fast litmus tests of truth (invested with a totalitarian intent) but windows into a common Christian language. Viewed generously therefore, doctrine and its character does not automatically divide or fragment, but can enrich, deepen and sustain a genuine pattern of discipleship. As Priestland notes: ‘[Doctrine] provides the explorer of God with a set of tools and techniques with which we can tackle the mountain face. If he declines to use them, he cuts himself off from a wealth of experience and forces himself to start from scratch.’[20]  While in previous centuries doctrines were marks of an oppressive and defective Christendom, the Church which now used these formulae are what Priestland calls ‘churches of reasonable uncertainty.’[21] As Priestland goes on to explain: ‘In the course of my pilgrimage, I found no series theologian in the mainstream of any tradition who was prepared to say of doctrine ‘This is the absolute and complete truth’. They might say ‘This is true in the sense that it is not false. We believe it contains truth, though we are not able to comprehend it fully’.’[22]  If openness and provisionality are now key planks of doctrinal discussions across the churches, old Quaker protests against ecclesial dogmatism can no-longer apply. Another key Quaker totem is now legitimately cast aside.

[1] Isaac Pennington, ‘Some Positions on the Apostasy’, in The Works of Isaac Pennington, Volume 1. (Farrington: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995), p. 36

[2]  Edward Peters, Inquisition, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 7

[3] See George Fox, ‘The great mystery of the great whore unfolded; and Antichrist’s kingdom’, in The Work of George Fox, Volume III, (New York: Isaac T. Hopper, 1931).

[4] Robert Barclay, Truth Triumphant, Through the Spiritual Warfare, Christian Labours and Writings, (New York: Benjamin Stanton, 1831), p. 351

[5] Carole Dale Spencer, ‘Early Quakers in Divine Liberation from the Universal Power of Sin’, in Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives, ed. Jackie Leach Scully, Ben Pink Dandelion, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), p. 46

[6] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Robert Jeffery, (London: 2013), p. 30

[7] à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Robert Jeffery, (London: 2013), p. 5

[8] à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, p. 27

[9] à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, p. 103

[10] See William Penn, The Papers of William Penn, Volume 5: William Penn’s Published Writings, ed. Edwin B. Bronner & David Fraser, (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1986), p. 43

[11] Geoffrey Plank, John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire, (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 2012), p. 23

[12] William Penn, No Cross, No Crown, (Philadelphia: T.K. & P.G. Collins, 1853), p. 147

[13] H. L. Dufour Woolfley, A Quaker Goes to Spain: The Diplomatic Mission of Anthony Morris, 1813–1816, (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2013), p. 103

[14] George Hebert Wood, Quakerism and the Future of the Church, (London: The Quaker Home Service Committee, 1920, p. 82

[15] Wood, Quakerism and the Future of the Church, (London: The Quaker Home Service Committee, 1920, p. 85

[16] Wood, Quakerism and the Future of the Church, p. 82

[17] See John A. Radano, Lutheran and Catholic Reconciliation on Justification: A Chronology of the Holy See’s Contributions 1961-1999 to a New Relationship Between Lutherans and Catholics, (Michigan, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), p.35

[18] John Macmurray, Search for Reality in Religion, (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1965), p. 61

[19] Macmurray, Search for Reality in Religion, (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1965), p. 70

[20] Gerald Priestland, Reasonable Uncertainty: A Quaker Approach to Doctrine, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1982), p. 27-28

[21] Gerald Priestland, Reasonable Uncertainty: A Quaker Approach to Doctrine, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1982), p. 28

[22] Gerald Priestland, Reasonable Uncertainty, p. 27


3 thoughts on “Keeping the Lord’s Peace: Quaker/Catholic Dialougue (Part I)

  1. A very interesting discussion – thanks Ben. I have been thinking for some time about how many mainstream churches appear to have moved quite a long way towards a ‘Quaker position’ over recent decades on a wide range of issues, including political, ethical, ecclesial and theological. Or perhaps we are all just converging on a common position as a result of the massive gravitational pull of liberal modernity…

    In Friendship,

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