Friends’ Ecclesiology and The Quaker-Wide Web

By 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.

Friends have unquestionably become much more equalitarian and non-deferential in their attitudes about the Society, teasing apart the role of functionary from that of an authority, paying neither much deference. Especially in the liberal branches, such elevation is no longer welcome among us, and indeed hardly conceivable: “There is no king in Israel.” Both these roles are distinguished from that of “leadership.”

I think it is fair and precise to speak of this as a process of “disestablishment,” and I for one do not regret it. I further doubt very much that all the handwringing will change it much. The complaints come down to an example of what I have called the “apples and oranges” fallacy, which expects Friends to be one kind of group when in fact we are another.

It is no coincidence, in my view, that these complaints tend to predominate among functionaries and those aspiring to such posts, along with others still hankering after the older two-tiered model. Could this reflect disappointment of expectations of deference by their putative “flocks”?

Such chagrin notwithstanding, becoming an amphictyony is nothing to apologize for; indeed, we have the word of the Lord that it is a legitimate, even desirable communal form for God’s people.

But does this change really make Quakers today “anti-leadership”?

I do not think so. Rather, we have moved, in an unmistakable though admittedly inarticulate way, toward a different style of leadership, one that will be quite familiar to readers of the book of Judges as characteristic of the amphictyony: it is a “charismatic” type. Such “charismatic” leadership tends to be functional and situational: it arises out of given circumstances, when specific persons–often those whose names would not have occurred to us–come forward with definite leadings, and the ability to gather enough others around them to pursue a concrete project or witness. (“Servant leadership” is another common phrase.)

Once the leading or witness is completed, the project group tends to dissolve, and its “leader” settles back into the benches, taking up a rank and file role again.

The situations involved can be local and relatively obscure, as in working to revive a Monthly Meeting; but it has also encom-passed some of the most memorable Quaker witness of recent decades. The work of Jim Corbett of Pima Meeting in Arizona, who almost singlehandedly created the 1980s Sanctuary movement, is one prime example. (For more on Corbett, see Fager, 1996.)

R.W. Tucker calls this pattern one of “shifting derived charismatic leadership” (Tucker, 17), and he notes that the Religious Society of Friends may be specially well-suited to develop and support it. I think he is right.

(I don’t however, want to leave the impression that the work of such leaders is always easy or smooth. Hardly; in many cases it is a lonely and arduous path, beset by opposition and trials. But this is not a new situation either: one thinks of John Woolman laboring against slavery in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for 30 years. Or, good grief–one could just as easily cite Jesus, or the prophets. Indeed, even a cursory review of Quaker or Biblical history leads one to want to say to the handwringers: So, you want to be a Quaker leader? That’s simple enough: put your hand to the plow, and take up your cross. Oh–and quit whining.)

The progress of this tribal league model is not simply a futurist speculation. A large segment of American Quakerdom, encompassing the unaffiliated western bodies and the newer FGC Yearly Meetings, already operates this way, and they are doing quite well, thank thee.

Another prime example is the FGC Gathering: it appears each July like Brigadoon, conjured up mainly by the labor of scores of volunteers; it enriches the lives and witness of the 1500-2000 participants through a bewildering proliferation of workshops, committees, interest groups and many more playful activities. Then the bills are paid, and it vanishes until the next year–and nobody is “in charge.” True, there are a couple of paid staff working behind the scenes; and formal “leaders,” clerks, are appointed each year to oversee the process. Most serve with dedication and distinction; but they come from and return to the ranks, and few regular attenders could name the clerks from five years ago.

The Gathering’s current format, moreover, mirrors the evolution I am speaking of. For almost seventy years from its founding in 1900, the Conference (as it was called), was indeed “led,” by a succession of Chairmen, all of whom were white men in suits, and each of whom served a lengthy tenure. Most were, or had been, functionaries of a handful of Philadelphia or New York-based organizations.

These men presided overextended formal sessions which soberly considered carefully modulated and polite minutes on general good-government and world betterment themes, which were duly adopted and telegrammed off to Washington or the United Nations in New York. Then genteel entertainments and excursions were organized for the free time. And for half a century this all took place at the same location, a summer resort midway between New York and Washington, but closest of all to Philadelphia, as was FGC itself.

The shift from “Conference” to Gathering also coincided with the change in title from Chairman to Clerk, the accession of women to that post, the abandonment of formal business sessions, and an escape from the insular Philadelphia-centered orbit for a nomadic succession of college campuses as far west as Oklahoma, north to Minnesota, east to Massachusetts, and south to North Carolina. Each of these changes represented a move toward a de-centered, Amphictyonic form of faith community; and I believe each was also a step forward for FGC and Friends.

I have dwelt on the FGC Gathering at some length here because I consider it the working template and archetype of the new Quaker ecclesiology. It also precipitates out the conflicting perspectives now among us. From the vantage point of Handbasket Theology, it is a perfect mess: a babel of unseasoned voices and often unsound views, where no one is “in charge,” and “nothing” gets done. And from this angle, these complaints are perfectly valid.

But this is apples and oranges again: for an amphictyony, these same features all become strengths rather than weaknesses: there are many voices because there is much to be said and heard, especially from persons and groups formerly ignored or silenced; and in fact someone is in charge, namely the Spirit, and like the wind in John 3, it is blowing where it will.

Besides, if one only looks closer, the fact is that a great deal is getting done, in the many smaller groups and informal sessions of like-minded, and similarly-led Friends. Of course, one cannot make a nice apple pie with oranges, because apples are not oranges; but then they are not supposed to be.

One final aspect of the amphictyony model which makes it seem particularly timely and apt is the fact that it has a counterpart or analogue in the technological centerpiece of our culture, the World Wide Web. The web is a “distributed system,” which is defined on my search engine as follows (the italicized parenthetical insertions are mine):

“. . . a system of multiple autonomous processing elements (meetings and committees), cooperating in a common purpose (minding the Light, telling our stories, bearing our testimonies) or to achieve a common goal . . . .”

It adds that “Tightly coupled distributed systems have access to shared memory; loosely coupled systems do not. A system is fully connected if each element can communicate directly to every other element.” (Bradford)

A key term here is “cooperating.” The web has no center, no headquarters issuing marching orders or pronouncing anathemas. Or rather, one may say that there are many centers, or nodes, from which Friends and meetings make distinctive and enriching contributions to the whole network. There are, of course, techies whose work is necessary for certain maintenance functions; but they are not “in charge.” I hesitate to say the Spirit is leading the web; but its evolution is organic and unpredictable, which is a good worldly parallel. In any event, this new creature not only works, it is sweeping the field.

I believe the Quaker amphictyony of today is increasingly a religious “distributed system.” If this is so, Yearly Meetings can be expected to increasingly let go of the notion of being the center, while still providing certain limited “maintenance” services, on an as-needed basis. Likewise, they will increasingly give up the fiction of “speaking for” Friends to the world outside. (This process may be slowest in Philadelphia; but Penn’s Green Town has special burdens and deserves extra sympathy.)

At the same time, though, this amphictyony does not portend any less Quaker activity in the world. There will be–there is–plenty of witness, but it is increasingly the province of small, decentralized groups drawn together around common leadings.

I hope we will work toward making the “distributed system” era of Quakerism a more “tightly coupled” one, deepening and sharing our memories of Quaker heritage and conviction; and becoming more “fully connected” and communicative as a Society. A step toward doing so, will be paying heed to the ecclesiological wisdom and insight available in collective “hard drives” like the Bible. This looks to me like the path toward continuing to be the “chosen people” God wants us to be in a rapidly changing world.


Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Faith and Practice. 1988.

Bradford, University of (UK), School of Informatics. “Definition of a Distributed System.”

Dulles, Avery. Models of the Church. Doubleday, 1974.

Earlham School of Religion. Among Friends. 1999.

Fager, Chuck. “A Review of Among Friends.” Quaker theology #2, Spring 2000, 70ff. (A)

—————-. “FGC’s ‘Uniform Discipline’ Rediscovered.” Quaker History, Fall 2000, 51ff. (B)

—————. “Beyond the Age of Amnesia; Charting the Course of 20th Century Liberal Quaker Theology.” Quaker Theology, #3, Autumn 2000.

—————. “Friends as a Chosen People,” in The Harlot’s Bible and Other Quaker Essays. Kimo Press, 2001.

—————.Without Apology. Kimo Press, 1996.

Marshall, Jay. “Reclaiming the Concept and Practice of Universal Ministry.” Carey Memorial Lecture, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, 2000. Reprinted by Earlham School of Religion.

Scott, Janet. “Models of Ekklesia for Quakers,” in The Bible, The Church & the Future of Friends, edited by Chuck Fager, Pendle Hill, 1996.

Tucker, R.W. “Structural Incongruities in Quaker Service.” Quaker Religious Thought, Autumn, 1971.

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