Reviewed by Chuck Fager
The Swarthmore Lecture is the prestige gig for Britain Yearly Meeting. It’s been given every year for more than a century, since 1908.
Every year, that is, except 1948, when it was abruptly cancelled. It seems a Swiss Friend named Edmond Privat had been tapped, and it was learned that he planned to insinuate – to imply, perhaps even to suggest – that one perhaps might not need to be a Christian to be a Quaker.
This was intolerable. Some heavy feet were put down, and Privat was banished. Well, banished to a side room, where he gave his talk anyway, but unofficially; in exile, as it were. (http://quest.quaker.org/Manous-os-QT-17.html)
Yet this re-assertion of orthodoxy by the “powers that were” did not seem to stick. Privat’s shocking notion, soon to be dubbed “Universalism,” was even then by no means his alone, and did not disappear. Like rust and mildew in the damp British
climate, it kept coming. Furthermore, dispatches from across the pond told of echoes being heard among some American Friends as well.
About this time, a recently-convinced Sheffield schoolteacher named Maurice Creasey began graduate study, focused on the thought of Robert Barclay, the dominant figure in the skimpy tradition that passes for theology in the Society of Friends. Creasey’s studies took him eventually to a doctoral degree, and more significantly, in 1953 to the post of Director of Studies at Woodbrooke, the British Quaker study center in Birmingham.
I don’t know who selected Creasey for the Woodbrooke post, but it was likely a committee concerned among other things about the danger perceived in Edmond Privat’s “Universalist” notions, and the fact that “silencing” him had not silenced them. Creasey must have seemed splendidly prepared to take up the struggle to preserve the hegemony of what has come to be known as “Christ-centered” Quakerism.
Creasey was indeed well-prepared, and evidently eager to take up this work. Year after year he taught and lectured widely, with an abiding focus on several related themes: the centrality of Christ to genuine Quakerism; the need for Friends to grapple with the current theological debates in Protestantism; and as a crucial companion task, to join in ecumenical work in the national and world councils of churches. He brought these themes to America as well, both in person and in print.
In 1969, Creasey had his turn as a Swarthmore Lecturer. But once he retired from Woodbrooke in 1977, he essentially disappeared from sight: no more publishing, few lectures, and only rare attendance at his meeting in Nottingham.
Why the abrupt withdrawal and lapse into silence for the last 27 years of his life? This is a question that nagged at editor David Johns, who teaches theology at the Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana. Johns points out that there were personal considerations, especially a disabled and declining spouse needing care.
But taking a step back, to a view of British Quaker evolution during these decades, suggests an additional possibility: despite all his pleadings, Creasey had decisively lost out on every one of his main points: by the end of the 1970s, British Quakerism was unmistakably “Universalist” and pluralist in its religious ethos; indifference to Protestant theology in particular, and serious religious thought in general, was standard; and affiliation with the ecumenical councils was widely resisted, and actual involvement was marginal at best, irrelevant to the larger life of the body.
This thumbs-down verdict on Creasey’s efforts was ratified in 1980, when Swarthmore Lecturer Janet Scott rhetorically asked, “Is Quakerism Christian?” and answered flatly, “It does not matter.” (Quaker Studies, Vol. 12 No. 2, March 2009, p. 224) This was not so because Janet Scott said it; but it was and is so; and somewhere, Edmond Privat was smiling. Whether for good or ill, this is undeniably the “condition” of liberal Quakerism on both sides of the Atlantic. In this setting, Creasey’s work quickly sank into obscurity, where it languishes to this day.
Not that the “Christ-centered” remnant in Britain threw in the towel entirely. At Woodbrooke they soon had another champion, in the person of John Punshon, a barrister turned Quaker studies tutor. But did he have any more success? It seems doubtful: in his turn Punshon delivered a Swarthmore Lecture in 1990 — and the next year decamped across the pond to Indiana. There he found greener pastures at the Earlham School of Religion: a professorship of Quaker Studies, and a strong affinity with Quaker evangelicals. Punshon, now in quiet retirement back in England, wrote the Foreword to the book in hand.
So we have something of an apostolic succession here. David Johns wants to close the circle by bringing Creasey back to Quakers’ attention. He sees Creasey as occupying the “spacious middle” in recent Quaker thought, and considers his work “a treasure.” To back up his contention, since Creasey produced no full-length books expounding his views, Johns has brought together most of Creasey’s significant essays, including a previously- unpublished valedictory address at Woodbrooke, as a means of returning him to our attention.
Reading through these essays, I felt some sympathy for Creasey’s project, but was also reminded of those days among American Friends, where I came in about ten years after Creasey began his work. He was a non-resident member of a circle of intellectual US Friends, mostly disaffected liberals who were mounting a similar effort, mainly through a journal called Quaker Religious Thought, based in Pennsylvania. I enjoyed QRT, and even published in it. But over the following years I watched its influence vanish under the waves of change much as Creasey’s work did in England. (QRT still exists, as an evangelical organ, based in Newberg, Oregon.)
The change was not like the bitter separations of the nineteenth century, with duelling ministers and ugly floor fights and rival bodies claiming the same name; though we do hear tales of individual struggles and disappointments. Rather, it was more like watching a tide rise and engulf a sand castle: no one was in charge; the process was a force of nature, and as relentless and unstoppable.
To repeat the old cliche, the Christian “center” of liberal Quakerism to which Creasey was so dedicated, did not hold. “Christ-centeredness” didn’t disappear, but was decisively demoted from an accustomed place of pre-eminence, to take a new seat as merely one among the plethora of worldviews (one hesitates to call them theologies) that floated in on this tide. Whatever one thinks of this shift, and Creasey was not alone in objecting, it seems clear enough by now that there’s no going back.
“What is our attitude,” Creasey asks in “The Nature of Our Religious Fellowship” (1960), “to the sincere agnostic–or even atheist – who may wish to join us? Do we accept the idea of Hindu or Buddhist Quakers?” (p. 272) Well, yes “we” (liberal Quakers) do; but he didn’t. His Quakerism was a place for Christians, or those on the way to being so.
What, I wonder, would he make of how the Faith & Practice of my own Baltimore Yearly Meeting expresses this revised status quo, with studied delicacy:
“The Society of Friends arose out of personal experience of God as revealed in Jesus Christ,” it begins, making what for many is a strictly historical statement; then it moves directly into plurality: “The Divine Spirit, which Friends variously call the Inner Light, the Light of Truth, the Christ Within, That of God in Everyone, has power to reveal, to overcome evil, and to enable us to carry out God’s will. . . . Quaker faith welds the beliefs of its Christian foundation with the conviction that the Holy Spirit speaks to men and women and children of all races at all times. . . . A Friends Meeting . . . should involve frequent, regular coming together in a common spiritual search ”
So there it is: the “search,” in which our non-theist and pagan members join, is the thing; like it or lump it.
It appears that Creasey lumped it. But the question at hand is, could a revival of his work help fulfill this hope of restoring the long-lost Christian “center” to such Friends? Editor Johns thinks so: “It may be argued that Maurice Creasey is the most important contemporary theologian Quakerism could have,” he writes, “were his work better known.” Johns regards him as embodying “intellectual curiosity, academic credibility, and ecumenical sensibility.”(xx)
Having read the essays, though, I’m left with doubts. Yes, they could be an intriguing resource for those who wish to take the measure of the “Christ-centered” view in the 1950s to 1970s. More broadly, I’m for anything that pierces the know-nothing atmosphere among too many Liberal Quaker circlesin which theology and Christianity are seen as outmoded relics of an era we have now “outgrown,” and anyway something Quakers have not bothered with since Barclay. But to say Creasey is the most important theologian among Quakers of his day (and ours) is to judge him by a rather low standard of achievement. And on the evidence of these writings, his “theology” as expounded here is rather thin.
Why so? Consider: making Christ the “center” of one’s religious system is not as simple as it might sound. That’s because Jesus doesn’t come alone; he arrives with a large retinue, like an extended family, not of physical kinfolk, but of doctrines and theological issues. Some indeed are relatives: there’s the touchy, overbearing father-figure Jehovah. And that other one, Paraclete; tied to his ankle and clanking behind is all the stuff about that word Robert Barclay was careful never to use, the “Trinity.”
This is not to mention the matter of how Christ does whatever it is that putting him at the center is supposed to do for us: Salvation. Atonement. Heaven? Hell? Then there are the texts that tell us about it: the Bible, its credibility, interpretation and authority. Plus the question of the church Jesus supposedly founded: Did he really? Are Quakers it? If not, who is, and why?
None of these items is new. I mention them here because, in these essays at least, Creasey does not; or if he does, it is so briefly, en passant, that I missed the references. Surely he was familiar with them; but they are not dealt with here, though they are the bread and butter of a serious Christian theology.
There are two significant exceptions to this list of no- shows. One is the nature of Christ’s church (yes, there is one), and what about those who aren’t in it: Creasey repeats an amalgam of Barclay and Paul Tillich on how Christ’s spirit draws many who don’t “know” him into a “latent church” (p.108) that is still ultimately and hegemonically Christian.
That may satisfy Creasey, but it doesn’t wash in our current circumstances. The only kinds of Christianity that liberal Friends today will put up with, and rightly so in my view, are de-centered ones, ready to join the group without insisting that they deserve top billing as the “real” or “authentic” core of the community. Likewise, such notions as the “latent church” are especially inadequate in contemporary interfaith encounters. That kind of theological imperialism, however dressed up, has been exposed and discredited.
The other exception has to do with the outward sacraments, which Quakers traditionally avoid. Creasey rather likes them, at least baptism and communion (I was raised Catholic, where there are seven sacraments; but Creasey accepts the Protestant tally of only two without further comment). Indeed he devotes an entire essay to deconstructing the Quaker arguments for eschewing them, and urges Friends to permit the two, but without “adopting” them (227) If that distinction is unclear to you, it was certainly unclear to me; but never mind.
I happen to be one who agrees with the Johns-Creasey agenda in part: like them, I lament the galloping anti-intellectualism in matters theological that has come with this sea-change in liberal Quaker culture; it is paradoxical too, given that we seem to be drawn from a rather highly-educated demographic. Likewise I believe it is a good thing to study Quakerism’s Christian origins, and even do some arm-wrestling with Jesus’ doctrinal family members. (Sin, anyone?)
Why else does David Johns want to retrieve him? I gather it’s because he resonates to Creasey’s outlook, and agrees with his sense of being in the “center” of Quaker religious thought. Johns came from a background in the Church of God of Anderson Indiana, and taught at Malone College in Ohio. Malone is affiliated with the Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region. Both of these groups are close to funda-mentalist in their theological positions. But he has shifted somewhat away from that. Just how far is unclear; Johns hasn’t yet published much to define his own theological stance. But his move to the Earlham School of Religion by itself is telling: At the Church of God’s seminary, the Bible is still officially held to be “historically reliable” throughout; in Eastern Region, for instance, ESR is widely regarded as a nest of renegades, apostates, or worse, liberals. It’s easy to imagine how “centrist” Creasey seems from that vantage point, and I would not quarrel with the placement from that perspective.
Yet while there are some good questions in Creasey’s work, I doubt it will be much more than a beginning for many who are drawn to explore Christianity and Quakerism. This is a new century, a new millennium — emphatically not a better one, if you ask me, but here we are. And today the kind of imperial “Christo- centrism” Creasey advocates continues to be marginalized among liberal Friends, and rightly so in my view. Further, the conciliar ecumenical work Creasey thought so much of has fallen on very hard times: the national and world councils are going bankrupt, fiscally and theologically. The prime forces to be engaged with now are much more on the interfaith front: Islam and Judaism, for instance. Inside Christianity it is the evangelical and fundamentalist groups, which never had any truck with councils anyway; and about these interwoven worlds Creasey is no help: all but entirely silent and seemingly ignorant, as most Quaker liberals certainly are.
For that matter, if there was a word about women, feminism, or feminist theology in the entire collection, again it escaped me. To grapple with those, we’re obliged to look elsewhere. This field was still in its early stages as Creasey finished his work; yet it was beyond the beginning; and given Quaker pretensions about elevating women’s status, one is startled not to find even a passing mention.
More practically, for an effort to re-introduce Creasey’s thought to Quakers, this volume is a very unlikely vehicle. Priced at $150, none but a few research libraries will ever buy it, and none but the grad school drudges who frequent such temples will ever see it. That is an utterly ridiculous strategy for reaching Quakers. But it is the standard modus operandi of the publisher, Edwin Mellen, a press with a decidedly mixed reputation as an outlet for reputable scholarship. Mellen somehow gets away with charging such prices despite a complete lack of proofreading. This text is unfortunately much the worse for the lack thereof, which further tarnishes its scholarly bona fides.
Some British Quaker writers, evidently desperate to be seen as academically credible, have taken a similar path with books about “Quaker theory” and the like, published for about a hundreds bucks a pop. I’ve read some of those because review copies were sent; but if I am acquainted with more than a half dozen others who have even heard of them, I’ll be surprised. Maybe this is a way to get tenure; maybe it builds a self-selected circle of cognoscenti; but as a way of circulating new ideas in this community, it is so lame that only an academic could believe in it.
Today technology has transformed publishing more dramatically than practically any other field touching on the academy. It’s time to catch up: for this collection to be truly useful to actual Friends in 2011 and ensuing years, it needs to be proofread, then put into a PDF file and uploaded to the web ASAP. For hard copies, short run and print-on-demand options abound which could produce them for a pittance compared to Mellen’s overpriced clunkers.
If the Brits had it together, that’s what they’d do with their Swarthmore Lectures. Indeed, if anyone wants to find the “center” of Quakerism in this new millennium, the web is more and more the place to start looking.
Manousos, Anthony. “Howard Brinton and the World Council of Churches: The Theological Impact of Ecumenism on Friends.” Quaker Theology # 17 , Spring – Summer 2010. (http://quest.quaker.org/Manousos-QT-17.html )
*Collected Essays of Maurice Creasey, 1912-2004. Edited & With an Introduction by David Johns. 480 pages. Edwin Mellen Press; $149.95.