Keeping the Lord’s Peace: Quaker/Catholic Dialogue (Part II)

What’s the Point of Quakerism?

An indication of how far we’ve come in relation to Quaker-Catholic dialogue is vividly illustrated by G.K. Chesterton’s 1926 book Conversion and the Catholic Church. Ever the staunch apologist (and with characteristic bluntness) Chesterton observes:

It is not a question of comparing the merits and defects of the Quaker meeting–house, set beside the Catholic cathedral. It is the Quaker meeting–house that is inside the Catholic cathedral; it is the Catholic cathedral that covers everything like the vault of the Crystal Palace; and it is when we look up at the vast distant dome covering all the exhibits that we trace the Gothic roof and the pointed windows. In other words, Quakerism is but a temporary form of Quietism which has arisen technically outside the Church as the Quietism of Fenelon appeared technically inside the Church.[1]

Yet, the triumphalist world of Chesterton has now passed away. The Catholic Church no longer views other churches as merely unruly extensions of itself. There is now a deeper appreciation of the riches of other Christian traditions and the affirmation that ‘very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church’ (see Vatican II’s Unitatis redintegratio). There is also the welcome acknowledgement scattered through ecumenical documents that Protestant traditions (with their focus on the riches of the Word) can actively reflect what the Church should be back to Catholic Christians. Similar transformations have occurred in the Quaker tradition. As observed in the last post, few Friends now believe that Catholicism is a satanic conspiracy, nor that the Roman church is irretrievably separated from the spirit of the apostles. To use Chesterton’s imagery, we believe that both the Cathedral and the Meeting House are located within a greater landscape (the ever fresh grove of the Gospel, in which no community has complete ownership). Yet, this new situation of relative amity raises some thorny existential questions for Quakers especially.

If Quakerism is no-longer divided from other churches by old doctrinal disputes or naked sectarianism, what are our contemporary reasons for remaining Quakers?  Are we just enmeshed in a three-hundred-year old habit we find hard to break? Hardly. Anyone who lives and breathes the Quaker life knows its truth and internal coherence. We know when we gather we do so as ‘church’- not in terms of hierarchy or ceremony, but as hundreds of grace-filled lives lived. Silence is the vehicle for what others find crystallised in acts like Baptism and Eucharist. But we know now more than ever, that when we worship as Quakers we worship for others and not solely for ourselves. I think Macmurray called it right. Quakers wait and listen as a witness to the final peace and unity of the Church. Yet, if we really want to witness to that peace and unity, I think we need to let go of one more totem; the belief (variously expressed) that we are right to be other in relation to other Christians.

 Quakers Are Not Protestants

For my money, letting go of past division means first and foremost disinvesting ourselves of the allure of the Reformation. For many, this will be interpreted as a profoundly destabilising step. The roots of this reaction for many Quakers are beyond obvious. Throughout our history, Friends have found inspiration in the struggles of the Reformers. In many ways we are the children of Luther and Tyndale.  Our emphasis upon text (journals, epistles) and the spoken word (vocal ministry in worship) speaks powerfully to legacy of egalitarian preaching and teaching, which early Protestants regarded as the marks of a restored Church. Likewise, our commitment to truth and simplicity can be rightly understood as the radical outworking of Protestant social theology. Despite these abiding inheritances however, if we wish to achieve deep unity with other churches, British Friends need to acknowledge two things. Firstly, we need to accept that although we often act like it, Quakers are not Protestants.  Early Friends diverged from classic Protestant theology in ways which actually bring us closer to Catholic and Orthodox understandings of the Church. Take first the Quaker approach to Scripture. While many Protestants still insist upon Luther’s doctrine of Sola scriptura, Catholic, Orthodox and Quaker Christians, all insist that the Church (as inaugurated and sustained through the Holy Spirit) has primacy over the Bible. As Robert Barclay beautifully expressed this primacy in his Apology, ‘because they [the Scriptures] are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners.’[2]

Another startling point of convergence concerns the Quaker and Catholic accounts of worship. While Quakers reject the numbered sacramental system of Catholic orthodoxy, both communities are in agreement about the deep meaning of worship. While many Protestants believe that Christian ceremony mediates the presence of Christ to congregants (through the Word and ritual signs) for Quakers and Catholics, Christ is really present in the midst of the worshipping community. In this sense heaven is not some far off reality (remote and waiting for the dead) but a living presence that intersects with our world whenever followers of Christ meet in a spirit of reverence. Lastly, there is the matter of the delicate relationship between sin, grace and good works. In Fox’s travels throughout England in the 1640s, he encountered Puritans who were doubtful of the possibility that ‘good works’ could ever be related to salvation. The sheer magnitude of human sinfulness was said to negate any possibility that humans could achieve a state of sanctifying holiness in this life.  While many Puritans expected grace to effect a change in the salvic status of the believer (their merit before God) these steadfast Calvinists maintained that one couldn’t expect a manifest change in outward behaviour. But the chief problem with such a position is that it always seemed to fly in the face of the Scriptural record from which it was supposedly dependent.

We read in Luke for instance that: ‘In the time of Herod king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah, and whose wife Elizabeth was a daughter of Aaron. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and decrees of the Lord (Luke 1:5-6). Was Luke overestimating the moral status of his subjects? Not for Catholics and Quakers. Both communities reject the deep strain of exaggerated Augustinian pessimism which suffused the thought of the Reformers. While humans are often scarred by their collective estrangement from God, Quakers and Catholics take seriously Christ’s injunction, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48). God’s grace can perfect us, a process which is made manifest in the multiplication of good works. Instead of ‘pleading for sin’ (Fox’s phrase) there is a shared understanding between Friends and Catholics regarding the centrality of practical sanctification. As the Counterreformation Council of Trent (1545-1563) put it ‘in the justification of a sinner… the love of God is poured out by the agency of the holy Spirit in the hearts of those who are being justified, and abides in them’[3]

The Wound of the Reformation: The Call of Erasmus

Once we affirm these convergences, it is possible to take a further significant step; acknowledge the wounding and tragic nature of the Reformation. Speaking for myself, I wish that Luther had put his formidable intellect behind the pre-existing instincts of Devotio Moderna (see Part I) and that the Church had not opposed him in this critical task. I also wish Luther and Erasmus had put aside their differences and kept the show of a unified Church on the road (albeit, refreshed with a series of radical reforms). But Luther was too certain of the reading of Paul he had discovered. He was too invested in his insight to hear alternative voices in love. This hardness of heart ultimately split the Church and plunged Europe into conditions of bloody sectarianism. In this spirit of regret, I find myself at one with the theologian Stanley Hauerwas who notes:

Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.[4]

Thus, whenever Quakers say proudly that ‘we are part of the radical Reformation’, we perpetuate conditions of division. Whenever we refuse to say we ‘belong with other Christians’, we put a brave face on disunity. What am I saying? That the conditions of protest that formed Quakerism constituted a mistake? No. Am I saying that Quakers should ‘become’ Roman Catholic (Masses in the Meeting House and the like)? No, at least not in the superficial capital letters sense. The Quaker protest was right and wherever the old dragons of lifeless religion resurface, Quakers are still right. What we need to reject however is that we are radically ‘other’ from those confessions which existed prior to the Reformation. Indeed, we should spend time developing a greater level of Christian literacy, for it is in learning about other people’s experiences of the Light that we discover ourselves afresh. Part of developing confidence in thinking and speaking Christian involves accepting Quakerism that was and is present in the Churches we know call ‘Catholic’ (and that Communion we know as Orthodoxy).

By this I don’t mean that Paul or Jesus ‘were Quakers’ in any straightforward sense. Rather, I mean that the Quaker posture is perennial in the life of the Church. Whenever the spiritual well is too well-guarded, whenever sources of joy and love crystallise into hollow systems, the Spirit is there to call us back to what matters. Quakerism is one of its names, but it has other names, both known and unknown. While the Quaker Way came to birth in conditions of structural separation from the old conditions of Christendom, Quakerism can be shown to be sustained by all those who have ‘known and tasted of the love of God’ (Barclay). We are both ‘catholic’ and apostolic’, even if we are not ‘Catholic’. Such deep spiritual roots can be beautifully demonstrated in the thought of Penn’s beloved Erasmus of Rotterdam. At the heart of Erasmus’ vision of Catholicism was his commitment to a process of critical sifting he called ‘the philosophy of Christ’. At the heart of this procedure was the anxious realisation that the late Medieval Church was deeply at odds with the ministry of Jesus. As Erasmus notes sternly in his Letter to Lambertus Grunnius (August 1516):

There are monasteries where there is no discipline, and which are worse than brothels — ut prae his lupanaria sint et magis sobria et magis pudica. There are others where religion is nothing but ritual; and these are worse than the first, for the Spirit of God is not in them, and they are inflated with self-righteousness. There are those, again, where the brethren are so sick of the imposture that they keep it up only to deceive the vulgar. The houses are rare indeed where the rule is seriously observed, and even in these few, if you look to the bottom, you will find small sincerity. But there is craft, and plenty of it — craft enough to impose on mature men, not to say innocent boys; and this is called profession.[5]

When Erasmus surveyed the vast cultic superstructure of the Church of his day, he concluded that what Christendom needed was a radical turn inward, to a life of simplicity, prayer and reflection.  Instead of going on elaborate pilgrimages, or making elaborate offerings to the saints, the devout Christian is better going to his local Church and contemplating the life of Christ in the shadow of a simple crucifix. Instead of inquiring after the dubious tales of saintly miracles (like a kind of light entertainment) Christians should be more concerned about cultivating moral virtue. How are these noble reflexes to be sustained? As Erasmus suggests throughout his writings, it is the home-spun and unadorned practice of the apostolic church which is the basis for all genuine Christian unity. One of the most fascinating outworking of Erasmus’ approach for Quakers is his manifest commitment to peace. To walk in the way of Jesus and the Apostles means putting down one’s swords in order to love and serve one another. As Erasmus puts it beautifully in The Compact of Peace:

What induced the Son of God to come down from heaven to earth, but a gracious desire to reconcile the world to his Father? to cement the hearts of men by mutual and indissoluble love? and lastly, to reconcile man to himself and bid him be at peace with his own bosom? For my sake, then, he was sent on this gracious embassy; it was my business which he condescended to transact; and therefore he appointed Solomon to be a type of himself; the very name Solomon signifying a peace-maker. Great and illustrious as King David is represented; yet, because he was a king who delighted in war, and because he was polluted with human gore, he was not permitted to build the house of the Lord, he was not worthy to be made the type of Christ.[6]

Viewed through an Erasmine lens, Quakerism participates in the historic witness of Jesus and the apostles. Behind our peace testimony stands not just Fox, Penn and Fell, but Origen, Tertullian and Francis of Assisi. We subsist, as Scripture says, in ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1). Our lives are shaped and nurtured by all those who have walked the path of Christ before us.  In the past, some Friends liked to pretend that they had blazed the trail while everyone else was languishing behind. Yet, we have discovered through dialogue and prayer that as Christians we are brothers and sisters together, walking tentatively long the same road. It is no good denying the footsteps of others. Now more than ever, we should readily acknowledge (against the grain of much Quaker history) that Catholicism in particular, has deep apostolic roots that we Friends share.  Where does this acknowledgement lead us? As Friends, we should gravitate towards the marks of Apostolic simplicity and peace wherever we find it- whether a person deems herself Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.  We should be brave enough to find space in our hearts for all those who want to walk the path of Christ with tenderness. Our gift in a noisy church of councils, statement and ceremonies, is our deep commitment to prayerful silence. In the midst of a Christianity of many colours, we hold a space in which the Spirit can speak and refresh the body of Christ. In a Church frequently lacking peace, this is perhaps the most precious gift we can offer. Perhaps it is in moments of silence that the Church can glance its true unity, one not based on beliefs, but on a living faith.


[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume 3, (San Fransico, Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 101

[2] See Robert Barclay, Apology for True Christian Divinity, Proposition III,

[3] Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils vol. II, ed. N.P. Tanner (London: Sheed & Ward and Georgetown University Press, 1990), p. 673

[4] Stanley Hauerwas, Sanctify them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p.  255

[5] Erasmus, ‘Letter to Lambertus Grunnius’, in Life and Letters of Erasmus: Lectures delivered at Oxford 1893-4 (1894) ed. James Anthony Froude, p.180

[6] Desiderius Erasmus, The Complaint of Peace. Translated from the Querela Pacis (A.D. 1521) of Erasmus (Chicago: Open Court, 1917). 20/07/2016.


6 thoughts on “Keeping the Lord’s Peace: Quaker/Catholic Dialogue (Part II)

  1. I don’t agree that, historically and theologically, Quakers are not Protestants. Early Quakers, including George Fox and James Nayler were clearly Independent in both politics and religion, many taking up arms against the Establishment’s Arminianism (Anglo-Catholicism), at whose hands they suffered persecution. They were certainly not Presbyterian Calvinists, but their theology was not that distinct from that of the General Baptists and Congregationalists, with whom they continue to share their disestablishmentarianism. In many countries, the relation between Catholicism and the State remains uncomfortably close.

    1. I suppose it all depemds on whether the connections I highlight don’t dislodge Quakerism from the Reformation tradition. I genuinely think they do (particularly when you consider Catholic and Quaker responses to sin and grace). Here Quakers don’t sound like Protestants but the Cappadocian Fathers. But there is going to be plenty of debate about what that means. Was early Quakerism a protest? Yes, So in that general sense, we might call Quakerism Protestant……

    2. I think you’ve done a nice job of laying out your case. I, for one, welcome a revisiting of these terms that often divide us based on definitions and identities we assume without critical thinking. Naturally this discussion applies only to the Quakers who haven’t embraced the Wesleyan revivalism of the Evangelical movement(s). I think it’s safe to say those Quakers are some version of Evangelical Protestant at this point.

      Personally, I still see the early Quakers within the Puritan spectrum, using Sydney Ahlstrom’s definition of Puritanism as a spirituality that centered on “an unprecedented emphasis on the need for an inner experience of Gods regenerating grace” and “a concern for drawing out mans duties in the church and the world.” I see Protestantism, including the Puritan movement, in a looser, less theory-centric way than you do here.

  2. By a happy co-incidence I came across your essay – I am a Catholic monk and I have been doing a little private research comparing the mystical approaches in some Quaker texts with the contemplative approach found in Catholicism.

    I have greatly enjoyed reading your essay and heartily agree with your comments in your concluding paragraph. The Quakers deep commitment to prayerful silence is indeed a gift to the whole Christian family – I would also add the longstanding commitment to the social demands of the Gospel is another gift and a witness that challenges all Christians. Perhaps the monastic commitment to contemplative silence is a somewhat similar gift, and a challenge, to Catholicism.

    Peace and every happiness to you ~ Ignatius.

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