Quaker Theology #14

Opening the Scriptures, Then and Now

By Stephen W. Angell

From East Africa to the Midwestern United States, the first decade of the twenty-first century has proven to be a momentous time for the Religious Society of Friends.

In Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, to which I belong, Friends have been discussing whether our minute on environmental sustainability should include the concept of "stewardship," that is, a concept of human responsibility for the world based on the belief that God is the owner and creator of the world and indeed of human beings. Not all Friends in Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting are comfortable with the Christian implications of this concept.

In Western Yearly Meeting, the Yearly Meeting Executive Committee this spring asked pastor Phil Gulley to participate in a "clearness committee." Some Friends in that Yearly Meeting have asked that Philís recording as a pastor be removed, because he has authored books in support of the thesis that God will save every person. They do not see these books to be in accordance with Quaker theology.

(Note: The Western Yearly Meeting Executive Committee brought up on the floor of their 2007 Yearly Meeting a minute to remove Phil Gulley's pastoral credentials. Phil was present for much of the discussion, but he did not speak. Needless to say, many other people did; and there was considerable expression of sentiments both in favor of removing Phil's credentials, and also in opposition to the Executive Committee minute. The clerk properly discerned that there was no unity on the issue. The meeting could not agree to agree, nor could it agree to disagree; the matter was sent back to the Executive Committee for further laboring.

Sources: Conversations with Susan Lee Barton, David Edinger, and Jay Marshall, August 2007.)

In Indiana Yearly Meeting, Friends have been discussing whether it is appropriate to give meetings the liberty if they choose to administer the outward sacraments, and, if so, under what conditions. According to the Superintendent of that Yearly Meeting, Doug Shoemaker, the discussions held throughout the Yearly Meeting on this topic have been "vigorous and polarizing."(IYM Minutes, 2006, 20)

The board meetings of Friends United Meeting, held in East Africa in February 2007, featured that bodyís reaffirmation of the Richmond Declaration of Faith, over the objection of every representative of FUMís five united, or dually affiliated, yearly meetings. Much of the discussion on Quaker blogs of this action have focused on what the Declaration has to say about the Bible. Can the Declarationís characterization of the place of Scripture in the faith of Friends be considered "Quakerly" or not? (Maurerís and Masseyís comments in Taberís blog)

And throughout much of the Quaker world, there continues to be debates on the propriety of "same sex" marriage. The Friends for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer Concerns currently lists 120 monthly or yearly meetings, widely geographically dispersed, that have approved minutes that would allow same sex marriages to be held under their care. Many other Friends continue strongly to disagree with same sex marriages. Indeed, a sermon preached at the Friends United Meeting board sessions in East Africa, mentioned above, opposed same sex marriages in the strongest terms, citing the first chapter of Paul Epistle to the Romans.

These diverse events in the world of Friends do not necessarily have much in common, but one commonality is that all are rooted, in some way or another, in how Friends interpret the Bible. Friends interpret the Bible in a multiplicity of ways, something Paul Buckley and I attempted to demonstrate in our recent collection of essays from Earlham School of Religion Press entitled The Quaker Bible Reader.

Are there distinctively Quaker ways of reading the Bible? This is a matter that Nancy Bowen and I attempted to address in a classroom filled with sixteen students, in a two-week intensive course we conducted this past January on "Quakers and the Bible." Given the controversy and contention within the Quaker world on matters that are more or less directly related to the various Quaker interpretations of the Bible, it might be appropriate to review some of the history of Quaker Bible interpretation that I presented in that classroom forum.

This is, of course, a huge topic, and I intend to be brief. Thus, I will be presenting mostly pointers, and it may well be that the most valuable contribution that this article will make is the bibliography at the end for your further reading.

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