Friends’ Ecclesiology and The Quaker-Wide Web

Chuck Fager

Ecclesiology, the nature of the church, is a bubbling issue among American Friends today, at least of the unprogrammed variety.

Almost anywhere you care to look, Yearly Meetings are struggling with their structures, worrying about staff or no staff, laying down or propping up committees, taking corporate sabbaticals, and so forth.

This is a very interesting process, and for any individual body, it’s not possible to predict how or when it will reach some conclusion or at least stability.

But amid this to-ing and fro-ing, I’ve heard a lot about organizational charts, but next to nothing in the way of orderly theological reflection on the process. Doubtless this reflects the general ignorance of the field among us; and that’s too bad, because like the Preacher said so long ago, there’s nothing new under the sun.

While one meeting may be reshuffling the deck, and another earnestly reinventing the wheel, the view from here is that there is much useful grist for the mill in the work of those who have labored over the underlying ecclesiological issues down the centuries.

As evidence, let’s look briefly at one such source here, namely the Bible.

Theologians in the Jewish and Christian traditions have been turning to these texts for a long time for models of ekklesia. And what they’ve found there, at least the honest ones, is a variety, even a plethora of models for the church.

British Friend Janet Scott identified some of these Biblical models in an essay for Pendle Hill. The church, she noted, is variously described as “the New Creation” (by Jeremiah, Zechariah and Revelation); the Body of Christ (that’s Paul, of course, in 1 Corinthians and Romans); the Spirit-filled community or “koinonia” (from the early chapters of Acts); and the Pilgrim People (drawing on the saga of Exodus).

Scott suggests that “using models of the church can be helpful as a way of looking at the life and activities of our meetings, finding ways of challenging what we do, and suggesting how particular issues might be approached.”

I think Friend Janet is quite correct in her counsel, as when she adds, “there are other models which could be explored.” (Scott, 237; a longer, more detailed treatment is in the Jesuit scholar Avery Dulles’ standard work, Models of the Church.) There are three other venerable Biblical models which I think may be particularly relevant to what is underway among American Friends today.

The first of these is the church as the Chosen People: the church as a group specially selected, shaped, and guided by God, for some divine purpose.

This is an ancient model, and a central ecclesiological image in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. (E.g., Deuteronomy 7:6; 26:17-18, and 27:9) It is also one of the earliest self-definitions of the Religious Society of Friends, from as far back as Fox’s Pendle Hill vision of “a great people to be gathered.” Indeed, I have shown elsewhere that the description of Friends as a “peculiar people,” is etymologically equivalent to “chosen people,” and goes right back to this model. (Fager, 2001)

The principal value of this peoplehood model can be to give some seriousness to the task, by resacralizing the collective. Many current books of Faith and Practice in the liberal branches define Quakerism as essentially an individual search for, and relationship with, the divine. Take for instance that of my own, Baltimore, which begins with the declaration that

“The Religious Society of Friends holds as the basis of its faith the belief that God endows each human being with a measure of the Divine Spirit. . . .Each person must prayerfully seek individual guidance and must follow the Light found within.” (1988)

When a corporate Quaker identity is mentioned in these books, terms such as “family,” “community,” “renewal,” or, of course, “society” recur. By and large these place the initiative and dynamic in its members, regarding it essentially as a human invention.

This is a striking shift from as recently as the 1880s, when the Disciplines of both Orthodox and Hicksite groups opened with the same statement, as they had for most of the century:

“As it hath pleased the Lord in these latter days, by his spirit and power, to gather a people to himself; and releasing them from the impositions and teachings of men. . .these have been engaged to meet together for the worship of God in Spirit, according to the direction of the holy Law-giver. . . .”

In this model, members are not unlike draftees into an army: the group is not, at bottom, a voluntary human contrivance; it was founded by divine initiative, and individuals were “called” into it. (Echoes here of John 15:16:“You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit.”) The group has some kind of mysterious spiritual reality apart from the individuals in it. While the members certainly have their part to play in its preservation and improvement, they are not the only actors, and perhaps not even the main ones, in its destiny: they(we) are stewards, to borrow another Biblical image.

But what form should this chosen people take? And can this form change? Here this model is less useful: it reminds us that the body is important, and that it somehow exists apart from its human members, but it doesn’t yield much specific advice.

The answers to these questions in the Biblical texts, however, are clear:

There are a variety of legitimate forms for authentic religious communities; and A given form can and does change, evidently with divine approval, or least forbearance.

For understanding contemporary Quakerism, another Biblical model comes to mind, which has also been important in Quaker history: the Holy Nation, or a nation of priests, based on Exodus 19:6, and 1 Peter, 2:9: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” With the cognate phrase, “a royal priesthood,” the verse from Peter was one frequently cited by Fox in his epistles to early Friends.

In Biblical history, this model goes with the period of the Israelite monarchy and its supportive priesthood. This ecclesiological model was, I believe, dominant among Friends for most of two centuries, and is associated with the quasi-presbyterian structure that resulted from the accession of Ministers and Elders, in their “select meetings,” as “shepherds” or rulers of the Society.

By the 1840s, however, an increasing number of militant Hicksites found this structure oppressive and stifling. It was soon openly challenged by them and by the Progressive Friends, and was discarded by the FGC bodies in the mid-1920s; the unaffiliated groups never had it. Some voices today decry this change, citing it as the root of all perceived backsliding, Ranterism, and numerous other supposed maladies among liberal Quakerism. (Such “HandBasket Theology” was critically discussed in Quaker Theology #2.) While this model is of great historical interest, a return to it seems to me unlikely, at least not without great conflict.

But if neither of these Biblical models is of much concrete use to the efforts to rethink and revise our structures, what can be?

Well, it turns out that the royal priesthood model was a relatively late development in Biblical history. It was preceded by what scholars call, in one of their more tongue-twisting exercises in jargon, an amphictyony.

An amphictyony is a league, an association of autonomous subgroups. (We baseball fans have an advantage here: think American and National Leagues.) Before the monarchy came to Israel, there was a league of tribes or clans, organized not around politics, but rather a common religious heritage and practice. There were some “religious professionals” among them, the Levites, who took care of sites and objects commonly regarded as sacred, but they were not the league’s rulers.

The league’s tribes came together voluntarily at specified times for ritual observances and festivals, and at other times under charismatic leaders for common defense. The basis of the league’s religious practice was the sense of having been called by God and given some specific instructions (the Torah), and the prospect of continuing divine guidance.

The period of the league or amphictyony is perhaps best evoked in the book of Judges. The narrative here is tumultuous and bloody, culminating in the truly horrible tale of the Levite’s concubine, whose gang-rape and murder lead to massacre and civil war (Judges 19-21).

The compiler of this book is clearly horrified by this saga, not only because of the bloody incidents, but more basically by the entire situation. Four times in the last five chapters a tut-tutting refrain is repeated, that at that time, “There was no king in Israel,” (18:1, 19:1), to which is twice added, “and every man did what was right in his own eyes.”(17:6, 21:25)

These scandalized comments evidently reflect the view of an editor-compiler working in the heyday of the monarchy. As a fan of the royal system, he (less likely she) recoiled delicately from the memory of such centuries of “anarchy.” And sure enough, when the historical narrative resumes in First Samuel, the prophet-judge Samuel is soon hearing the cries for Israel to have “a king. . .like all the nations!”(1 Samuel 8:5)

The people get their king, but not before Samuel asks for divine guidance in the matter. What is striking here is that God accedes to their wishes, but does so reluctantly and only after charging Samuel to warn them of what they could expect from such kingly “law and order,” namely taxes, oppression, conscription, war–and perhaps most ominous, God’s silence in response to their cries for relief (8:10-18), because “they have rejected Me from being king over them.”(8:7)

The subsequent history of the Israelite kings bore out this gloomy prophecy in spades, and retrospectively adds a distinctly ironic note to the condescending comments about “no king in Israel” in Judges. But it also make clear that the league-amphic-tyony model was a legitimate one, even if the tribes had made a hash of it–as the kings were later to make a hash of their reigns.

The point of this exegetical excursus is this: the trend I perceive among unprogrammed Quaker groups today seems clearly in the direction of a league-amphictyony model.

In this version, Monthly Meetings are the clans; Yearly Meetings the tribes, and the larger umbrella associations like FGC provide a nondirective linking mechanism among them, perhaps comparable to the Levites who cared for certain sacred sites and objects. The commonality among these various groups is based on their history, common religious practice, and voluntary cooperative activities arising from an evolving understanding of their religious imperatives.

Such a model is in distinct contrast to that of earlier Quaker eras. The language of the old (pre-1926) Disciplines was centrifugal and hierarchical: Monthly Meetings (and Quarters) were unmistakably “subordinate” to the Yearly Meeting, and were to “render an accounting” when demanded by their superiors. This is still the case to some extent in the pastoral branches.

But this era ended for FGC in its Uniform Discipline of 1926, which declared that the “The Monthly Meeting is the fundamental working unit of the Society.” (Fager, 2000B) But while all FGC member bodies adopted this language, it has taken some of them decades to play out the full implications of the shift. It is this which, in my view, accounts for the current unsettledness in many places.

Of the overarching bodies, Friends General Conference seems to me to have best accommodated to this emerging condition: it consciously eschews denominational headquarters pretensions, does not “take positions” on public issues, and concentrates on providing a limited number of services, like a thriving Bookstore, to its members. Its centerpiece, moreover, is the week-long annual Gathering of Friends. Now a century old, the Gathering corresponds to the religious festivals of the days of the Judges. There will be more to say of it below.

Those Yearly Meetings which are structurally the most in flux (New York, Philadelphia, and to a lesser extent Baltimore), seem to me to be still under the (dead) weight of a corporate church headquarters model, which is based more on the secular corporation than on any religious pattern.

Whether this corporate structure ever really fit the Quaker ethos is an intriguing question which we’ll have to leave for another time. But the evidence now seems unmistakable that it doesn’t work well anymore: from all sides we hear that Yearly Meeting committee slots are increasingly hard to fill; many committees don’t function, or if they do are simply ignored by Monthly Meetings; and there is neither the will nor the capacity to exercise oversight from the center over local meeting life.

The same goes for the related notion of the Yearly Meeting as a legislative voice of the body, speaking corporately to the world. Most still go through the motions; but few spectacles are more inelegant than watching a Yearly Meeting session wrangling over a minute on one social issue or other, tendentiously pushed by some internal lobby and on which very few present are more than minimally-informed. The earnestness of the advocates is matched only by the irrelevance of the outcome.

Such opinion minutes, when adopted, may be of interest to future historians, and make their sponsors feel good; but the deflating truth–that no policymaker with any sense gives a hoot what such a body thinks it thinks on these issues–is beginning to be more and more widely suspected among them, and it’s about time.

As this awareness spreads, it seems likely to reinforce the trend toward a new amphictyony, in which Yearly Meetings move toward being cooperative assemblies of autonomous meetings, more congregational than anything else. By this model, Yearly Meeting sessions will be more like festivals than city council deliberations, and business time will be devoted mainly to the real needs and concerns of the collective (e.g, budget). Work on social concerns and other external matters will be undertaken mainly by subgroups of Friends who feel called to inform themselves and labor together on them.

Another key feature of this new amphictyony has to do with leadership. There is in some circles a good deal of handwringing these days about what is called an “anti-leadership” attitude among Friends. (Marshall, 13) The 1999 report, Among Friends, by Earlham School of Religion (ESR) includes more than a page of such complaints, e.g.: “We’re anti-leader. . .”; “Using Quaker and leadership together is an oxymoron”; and so forth. (Earlham, 33)

I have argued elsewhere that this perspective is part of “Handbasket Theology”and is deeply flawed (Fager 2000 (A)); here I want to suggest one major reason for this, namely that it reflects misconceptions and confusion about the terms involved.

By “leadership” such complaints are commonly referring to what could better be called “authority.” Jay Marshall, Dean of ESR, reported on his amazement, during a visit to the old Jordans Meeting in England, at the discovery that its facing benches were elevated, embodying the higher position in the Quaker pecking order held by the ministers and elders who once sat there. (Marshall 15) These ministers and elders, appointed for life, also expected deference from those below, and for a long time they got it.

Another level of confusion evident in the recent handwringing is a conflation of such “authorities” with those whom R.W. Tucker, in a brilliant 1971 essay identifies as “functionaries.” (Tucker) Most Quaker paid staff, including pastors, are by this definition, functionaries: they perform mainly routine tasks which help keep an organization’s normal functions going. This is, of course, honorable work, to which some are called as surely as anyone. But it is not the same as “leadership.”

There is, of course, much precedent for this equation: in many churches, especially those with established hierarchies, the paid functionaries are often also the authorities, and they are looked to by the flock as the “leaders.”

It is also correct to say that many Friends today have a deeply-felt antipathy to such arrangements: we did not sign up to be managed or directed by some professional or clerical guild. Those who do functionaries’ work perform a valuable service; but they are not thereby our “leaders,” determining where we are going and how we get there. The fact that in our history there was once an elite of ministers and elders, succeeded in many places by paid professionals who for a long time quietly ran the show, does not change the current reality: Friends are no longer that kind of body.

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