August 11, 2006


I went to the local Presbyterian church this past Sunday with my girlfriend. I sometimes go with her there, and she sometimes comes with me to meeting. (Relations between Quakers and Presbyterians seem to have softened since the 1650s.)

This Sunday was Communion. During the ceremony, the ushers brought the bread and juice to our pews. I declined, though I was eligible according to the requirements stated at the start of the ceremony. I also didn't take it when I was at a Good Friday service earlier this year.

I took Communion once at my grandmother's funeral Mass, and I've regretted that since. (I also went to a Moravian Love Feast but that isn't actually Communion.)

I also avoided Communion once in a spot where I thought it was going to be difficult to avoid it, not really knowing the etiquette of what to do. I was a pallbearer at my great-uncle's funeral, and he'd been a Catholic priest - a thoroughly conservative one, and one of my favorite people. I especially didn't want to take Communion at his funeral, as I hadn't undergone confirmation, confession, or penance, a sacramental path he'd not only participated in but overseen.

His funeral Mass - not in Latin, though I'd had some hopes for seeing that - was conducted by the local bishop, and the church was packed. As a pallbearer, I was in the front row, with seven of my cousins. I was the second in the pew from the center aisle, and as we stood up for Communion I was wondering what I should do. Should I shake my head to the priest? Say I wasn't taking it? I had to get up and out of the pew so the six cousins to my left could take it.

My cousin to the right stood up, got into the aisle, and turned immediately left to go around the pew and back in, never having to say anything. I followed him gratefully, not sure I would have realized that was an option had I been sitting where he was. The next six cousins all took Communion.

This time, the Presbyterians weren't making any taxing demands of me before I was eligible to take Communion - no sacramental penance, no need to be a member. There was no claim of transubstantiation, that the Communion bread and wine are themselves made body and blood by the blessing, and it wasn't my great-uncle's funeral.

Still, I couldn't take it. It's not just that I didn't want to - I couldn't. (I actually did want to share it.)

I'd like to say it was a leading, but I think it may only be a first tiny step toward wherever I'm being led - a blocking that doesn't yet have a positive direction.

I'm well-aware that early Quakers abandoned the sacraments as outward ordinances. There seems to have been some discussion about whether taking communion was actually a bad thing or simply meaningless. Nancy Bieber writes in her Pendle Hill Pamphlet Communion for a Quaker:

Quakers, from their beginnings in seventeenth-century Britain, have eschewed the outer acts. Early Friends dealt with the Catholic, Anglican, and non-Conformist sacraments of their day by declaring them simply no longer necessary. We live, George Fox said, in a time of new covenant when the old forms are no longer needed. The living Christ is already present and within us.

In 1676, Robert Barclay wrote in his classic Apology that "we are certain that the day has dawned in which God has risen and dismissed all those ceremonies and rites. He is to be worshipped only in Spirit." While Barclay urged tolerance to those who still "indulged" in Communion, his contemporary, Isaac Penington, advised friends to "keep steadfast in that holy testimony to keep from outward and dead knowledge, and out of dead practices and worships after man's own conceivings into an inward principle, and into worship in spirit and truth." (9-10)

I share Bieber's conclusion that "the sacramental experiences of communion in our daily lives bring us into real community and a deep unity with others... into Christ-service, into a compassionate being for others," and I think that experience also happens in meeting at times.

Communion at meeting has also been an issue in the more recent past, as Walter Williams notes in The Rich Heritage of Quakerism:

One of the vexing questions which had to be faced during this period of change stemmed from the free mingling of Friends with members of other Christian communions. In some Friends meetings the question was soon arising: "Should not Friends, as others, observe the outward ordinance of water baptism and the Lord's supper?"... Understandably, many other Friends felt uneasy at such disavowal of the historic position of Friends in this regard. (203)

I'd be startled at the introduction of any of these "ordinances" into Quakerism, and couldn't encourage them. I'm more wondering about visiting other churches. I love the symbolism of communion and the way it seems to draw communities together, but share early Quakers' doubts about its religious significance.

Reflecting on communion seems like a good path for a while.

(Incidentally, I find the word "ordinance" much stranger than "sacrament", despite its efforts to be a less dramatic word. I also wonder if Quakerism's treatment of these as inward blessings returns some religious mystery to them, power that disappeared when many of the reformers declared the Eucharist to be a remembrance in food and drink, not body and blood.)

Update, 5/29/2007: I took communion yesterday at my wife's Lutheran church, the church in which we had held a second wedding ceremony the day before. It was Pentecost Monday, and the pastor held a longer period of silence than usual, during which I felt strongly led to take communion this time. I seem to take it once every 18 years, approximately. Hmmm....

May 31, 2006

New Light on George Fox

Some discussion on the QuakerInfo forums led me to this book, which is now fifteen years old. It's a collection of essays presented at a 1991 University of Lancaster conference marking 300 years since the death of George Fox, and its various essays look at early Quakerism from a variety of perspectives rather different from the canonical view of Quakerism created by Fox's Journal and the writings of Friends like Robert Barclay and William Penn.

Perhaps the most startling theme of these essays is the early development of Quakerism, especially during the swirling chaos and explosive expectations of the later years of the Commonwealth. Millenarianism, the slow development of the Peace Testimony, and a sense of Christ's physical presence go well outside my usual expectations of Quaker doctrine. They do, however, help to explain a lot of seemingly strange situations in the 1650s, especially James Naylor's Christ-like entry into Bristol and his ensuing blasphemy trial. Splits like that of John Perrot, the Wilkinson-Story separation, and the Keithians make more sense when the early Quaker enthusiasm is looked at more for what it was than what it became.

The early radicalism and later (relative) conservatism also help explain how Quakers of varying kinds can go back to the writings of George Fox and find a variety of messages to support their current causes. One essay looks at how Robert Barclay (the 19th century descendant of the theologian) could argue that Quakers were predecessors of 19th century evangelicals, while another essay looks at how a cautiously anti-slavery tract by Fox was published in Philadelphia by Friends eager to slow abolitionist tendencies. Many early Quaker pieces were later edited heavily, notably Fox's correspondence and Journal, and it seems that later printings of early tracts were often more cautious than the original.

I suspect I'll be citing this book a lot in the future, but for now this summary, from David Boulton's essay, seems a good place to stop:

Quakerism was born in a critical overlap between a time when faith in regeneration by political means, strongest in the civil war period, was dying but not yet dead, and a time when faith in a 'kingdom not of this world' was making waves but had yet to reach high tide. Fox and his fellow Quaker pioneers of the early 1650s had to face the confusions and uncertainties of this transition (which they did not know was a transition), and their early utterances on public policy illustrate the tension between the old vision, not yet wholly discarded, and the new, not yet fully embraced. Paradoxically, not until after the restoration to power of Quakerism's bitterest enemies did the movement fully develop its unique and most radical approach to politics and public policy, when the perceived demands of the 'kingdom not of this world' led them into direct action and civil disobedience as means of furthering social justice in this world.

(Unfortunately, the book is now listed at $119 on Amazon, though it was $31.25 at Quaker Hill Bookstore in an earlier edition. It's definitely a book worth finding through a library, excellent though it is. For a much cheaper, shorter piece that still conveys much of the chaos of the 1650s and its impact on Quakerism, try the Pendle Hill pamphlet The Atonement of George Fox, which looks at Fox and James Nayler.)

(Correction: The $119 book referenced above has a similar title and publication date, but it's for a book that expands on one of the essays in the conference papers collection. Amazon lists New Light on George Fox: 1624 to 1691 (ISBN: 1850721424) as unavailable, so it doesn't come up in searches.)

February 8, 2006

Pendle Hill Pamphlets

In addition to books on Quakerism, the Pendle Hill Pamphlets series offers a tremendous amount of information in small packages. They started publishing in 1934, and just released pamphlet #382, Holding One Another in the Light. A number of pamphlets are available for free online, while most can be ordered from the Pendle Hill Bookstore's catalog.

Pendle Hill, home of the bookstore and pamphlets, is "a Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation", located in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. It's named after Pendle Hill, on which George Fox wrote that "the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered." (Nickalls, 103-4; QR, 70; QS1, 78-79; QS2, 30 )