Some while ago, I started reading G.K. Chesterton’s apologetic classic The Catholic Church and Conversion (1927) and was amused and delighted to find a reference to Quakers nestled in its yellowing pages. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Chesterton is not particularly interested in Quaker life or theology on its own terms. Indeed, Quakerism is only mentioned, insofar as it serves to support Chesterton’s core claim; that Christian sects possess their vivacity and truth only insofar as they partake in the Catholic tradition. In this vein, Chesterton argues that:
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 which 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…..The principle of life in all these variations of Protestantism, insofar as it is not a principle of death, consists of what remained of Catholic Christendom; and to Catholic Christendom they have always returned to be recharged with vitality (The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 3, (San Francisco, 1990, p. 101).
A conservative reaction among Friends is to say that Chesterton’s cathedral is a pernicious illusion. For early Friends, the Roman Church was not much a deep and vital wellspring, but the seat and zero-point of a ‘night of apostasy’. Rather than Quakers existing within the cathedral of Christendom, George Fox saw Catholics and others, as outside the Kingdom. This exclusivist view had great traction for a community whose members suffered horrific persecution. Blighted by torture and imprisonment, it was easy for early Quakers to see themselves as a new Israel midst a latter-day Babylon. Yet, alongside this sectarian tone, early Friends also reflected a dazzling and radical generosity, rooted in the experimental doctrine of the Inward Light. As the first-generation Friend Isaac Penington argued, Quakers should look upon the various Churches of Christ with sympathy rather than derision:
The great error of the ages of apostasy hath been to set up an outward order and uniformity, and to make men’s consciences to bend thereto, either by arguments of wisdom, or by force; but the property of the true church government is to leave the conscience to its full liberty in the Lord, to preserve it single and entire for the Lord to exercise, and to seek unity in the Light and in the Spirit, walking sweetly and harmoniously together in the midst of different practices. Yea and thee that hath faith and can see beyond another yet can have it to himself, and not disturb his brother with it, but can descend and walk with him according to his measure; and if his brother have any burden upon him, he can lend him his shoulder, and bear part of his burden with him [Christian Faith and Practice, 222].
As Friends moved from the realms of social ostracism to the edges of mainstream society, Pennington’s charitable attitude became a significant thread in the life of the Religious Society of Friends. By the twentieth-century and the advent of ‘Liberal Quakerism’ increasing numbers of Friends understood themselves as part of an outward-looking expansive Christian family. While few of these Friends would have subscribed to Chesterton’s implication that they were really disgruntled Catholics, Chesterton’s suggestion that Quakerism exists within the body of the Church became mainstream opinion. If we can indeed observe a Gothic roof within the Meeting House, what role should Quakers perform for the Church as a whole?
An inkling of that role emerges when we consider Chesterton’s claim that Quakerism is ‘temporary’. While the charge of temporarily has a ring of the diminutive about it, I suggest it can be read in a more positive way. Temporarily does not mean insignificance or worthlessness. Rather it means contingency and dependence. As Friends we always seek the guidance of the Spirit in the midst of our lives, and from our earliest days have been acutely aware that we do not succeed by our own effort. This is the first service Quakers can offer Chesterton’s Christendom; that of reminding the Church that its structures, actions and proclamations can only transform the world if they come from a place of being ‘led’. The Church on its own has neither an automatic right to exist nor a right to be heard. The Church continues to exist by graceful invitation only.
A second service Quakers could perform for the diverse followers of Christ is derived from what Chesterton calls our ‘quietist’ way. What Quakers bring to the table is the recognition that the quality of our spiritual life depends a great deal upon the quality of society’s use of silence. In our culture there are many forms of injury and injustice that manifest themselves as silence. There is the silence of the broken, the abused, the ignored and forgotten. There is the silence which masks anger, evasion and powerlessness. There is the deep silence of negation and nihilism which refuses meaning, joy and fellowship. And there is the silence provoked by another’s refusal to listen. This is the state of hopelessness expressed so vividly in Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence‘:
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
Yet in our worship together, Friends offer the Church a window into an ordered stillness which is at root sacramental. In place of silence as negation, Friends take joy in a silence of listening, a silence of comfort, in short a silence of trust. This is the silence experienced by lovers who do not need to speak, and the silence of the mystic who knows that words are not enough to encompass that which sustains and enlivens her life. With these gifts in hand, Friends should encourage fellow Christians to resist the logo-centric allure of the 24/7 media, which revels noisy commentary but shuns genuine insight. It is better that the Church provides a nugget of spiritual nourishment every twenty years or so rather than tie itself in vacuous and irrelevant conversations for decades at a time. The Quaker advice, ‘Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness’ is a call to the whole Church. In a world of seemingly intractable problems, the disciples of Jesus should not feel like they have to shoulder the troubles of the world alone. They should reach out to others- seeking solidarity and comfort as a means of achieving positive, if incremental change. Instead of worrying about ‘bums on seats’, social relevance, or the media spotlight, the ‘Body of Christ’ needs to concentrate on opening up and broadening out its priorities. We Quakers need to make sure we play a full part in this process. At times of great technological and cultural change it is all too tempting for Christians to become forces of reaction- more concerned about preserving time-honoured structures than proclaiming the perennial Good News of wholeness and healing. Yet such a ‘bunker-mentality’ needs to be firmly resisted. In times of upheaval, the Church needs to be more giving and more inclusive. For me, this is both the true meaning and task of ‘catholicity’- to be an open door, and a space of loving dialogue. And here again, we come back to the Quaker gift of silence. With moments of stillness and pause we allow ourselves to listen closely, to place ourselves in the shoes of others and develop those habits of mind which sustain peace and charity among different communities.