The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) as a Religious Community

Ann K. Riggs

At the Fourth World Conference in Faith and Order in Montreal, 1963, the Commission presented the influential text, “Scripture, Tradition and Traditions.”2 This text developed an understanding of Christian Scripture as the creation of “a tradition which goes back to our Lord.”

All Christians are “indebted to that tradition inasmuch as we have received the revealed truth, the Gospel, through its being transmitted from one generation to another. Thus we can say,” continue the Commission writers, “that we exist as Christians by the Tradition of the Gospel (the paradosis of the kerygma) testified in Scripture, transmitted in and by the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (# 45) The Commissioners continue:

What is transmitted in the process of tradition is the Christian faith, not only as a sum of tenets, but as a living reality transmitted through the operation of the Holy Spirit. We can speak of the Christian Tradition (with a capital T), whose content is God’s revelation and self-giving in Christ, present in the life of the Church. But this Tradition which is the work of the Holy Spirit is embodied in traditions (in the two senses of the word, both as referring to diversity of forms in expression, and in the sense of separate communions). The traditions in Christian history are distinct from, and yet connected with, the Tradition. They are expressions and manifestations in diverse historical forms of the one truth and reality which is Christ. (# 46-7)

The recent text of the Commission, “A Treasure in Earthen Vessels: An Instrument for an Ecumenical Reflection on Hermeneutics,” released in 1998, takes up the discussion of Scripture, tradition and traditions again.3 In this recent document, traditions are presented as articulating and transmitting the Gospel through a variety of means and forms. “Traditions,” it says, “are transmitted orally as well as through written texts … In addition to textual and oral tradition, meaning is conveyed through non-verbal symbols: Christian art and music, liturgical gestures or colours, icons, the creation and use of sacred space and time … As with symbols, Christian practices need to be taken into consideration.” (# 35)

The Religious Society of Friends or the Catholic Church or the Anglican Communion, seen as separate “churches” or “communions,” can be characterized as traditions within the larger Christian Tradition. Within or overlapping traditions may be a variety of subordinate traditions. The Episcopal Church USA may be seen as having its own tradition as contrasted with the tradition of the Anglican Church of Kenya. The two communities have different histories and have come to express the same Anglican heritage in differing forms. Or one might speak of Augustinian tradition, a tradition with expressions within the Anglican Communion, the Catholic Church and among Lutherans.

The Religious Society of Friends is a tradition within the Tradition. That is to say, within the Society “a living reality” is “transmitted through the operation of the Holy Spirit.” But in what way can the tradition of the Society of Friends, begun in England in the 1650s 4 and now a world-wide network of local and regional worshiping communities, be most adequately or fruitfully discussed?

Viewed from one frame of reference, the Religious Society of Friends operates as a church. Friends World Committee for Consultation, for instance, participates in meetings of the Christian World Communions. Friends General Conference, one of Quakerism’s North American regional provinces, and my own community, was one of the founding member churches of the World Council of Churches.

But the self-identification of the community as “Society” points in another direction. My proposal here is to consider Friends as a religious order rather than as a church. This approach is speculative and is not intended to contradict Friends’ ecumenical commitments. Indeed, it is intended as a further exploration of them. I hope it may be a serviceable way of viewing Friends as a tradition within the Tradition. Historically, monasticism and life in religious orders have roots in the early diaconal practices of the church and the fourth century phenomenon of a movement of individuals to the deserts and wild places of the Mediterranean basin, Gaul, Britain and Ireland for a life of prayer and intimacy with God. These individuals and communal groups, although sometimes accused of heterodoxy, cannot really be distinguished from the larger church community in terms of doctrine. Their concerns were not primarily about theology or doctrine, but about living. With time, these early impulses developed into ordered forms of life, with traditions of how to pray and live so as to maximize consciousness of relationship with God.

Similarly, what Friends teach is not as much distinctive theological doctrine as a distinctive way of life and prayer. In the words of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, “In the Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not to words but to a way.”5

In the present essay we will consider that “way” under two aspects: a way of life and a way of prayer. We will first consider three specific Friends practices, the use of “Advices and Queries,” the “historical testimonies,” and corporate discernment, and compare them to practices found in religious and monastic communities. Second, we will look at the tradition of prayer in the Society of Friends, identifying four characteristic features: light mysticism, silence mysticism, a characteristic intimacy, and a mixture of apophatic and kataphatic elements. We will be speaking of both personal and corporate prayer, for the same elements appear in both private devotion and public worship, although, of course, varying additional elements can emerge in each. Again, we will compare these to prayer traditions of monastic and religious communities.

A Way of Life


In Benedictine tradition, an important practice for continuing community formation in the tradition is the reading aloud to the assembled group of chapters of St. Benedict’s Rule. The community together meditates on each chapter in an on-going cycle, being reminded of aspects of the tradition, being open to deepening insight into the Rule and calling themselves to accountability to the tradition which they undertake to live out together.

The Quaker Advices and Queries serve these functions as well, and are considered corporately in a similar manner. The Advices and Queries are offered, according to Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, “for the comfort and discomfort of Friends.” 6 They are a record and a reminder of the “insights of the Society.” 7 Friends are traditionally cautioned not to see the disciplines and insights of the Advices and Queries as stultifying dead letters, but as Spirit filled: “that all with the measure of light which is pure and holy may be guided, and so in the light walking and abiding these may be fulfilled in the Spirit.”8

The formality with which written responses to the Advices and Queries have been prepared and the relative importance of the devotional and the disciplinary aspects of consideration of the Advices and Queries have changed over time. 9 Yet, they remain “a profile of the Quaker way of life and a reminder of the ideals Friends seek to attain”10 and a “quickening influence in shaping our daily lives.”11

Like St. Benedict’s Rule, the Advices and Queries contain guidance on participation in worship and community life. Chapter 19 of the Rule states:

We believe God is everywhere, and his eye beholds the good and wicked wherever they are: so we ought to be particularly assured of his special presence when we assist at the divine office. Therefore we must always remember the advice of the prophet, “To serve God in fear”: “to sing wisely”: and that “the angels are witnesses of what we sing.” (Prov. 15:3; Ps. 2:11; 47:7; 138:1) Let us then reflect what behavior is proper for appearing in the presence of God and the angels, and so sing our psalms that the mind may echo in harmony with the voice.12

Number 12 of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Advices and Queries urges:

When you are preoccupied and distracted in meeting let wayward and disturbing thoughts give way quietly to your awareness of God’s presence among us and in the world. Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within, recognizing that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be so for others. Remember that we all share responsibility for the meeting for worship whether our ministry is in silence or through the spoken word. 13

The Rule and the Advices and Queries contain, as well, guidance for growth in virtue. Among the list of “instruments of spiritual progress”14 of chapter 4 of the Rule is the admonition “to dash evil thoughts, as soon as they arise in the heart, against the Rock Christ; and to discover them to our spiritual father.”15 Number 32 of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Advices and Queries advises and asks: “Bring into God’s light those emotions, attitudes and prejudices in yourself which lie at the root of destructive conflict, acknowledging your need for forgiveness and grace. In what ways are you involved in the work of reconciliation between individuals, groups and nations?”16

Third, in differing ways, the Rule and the Advices and Queries propose an ordering of time and responsibilities. St. Benedict’s Ruleand the Advices and Queries of Britain Yearly Meeting address themselves to life circumstances which are the reverse of one another. Chapter 48 of Benedict’s Rule is addressed to the negative spiritual possibilities of too much free time: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul.”17 The Rule calls for a fixed part of each day to be spent in sacred reading and another part in manual labor. Number 28 of The Advices and Queries of Britain Yearly Meeting addresses a concern that Friends not fill their lives with more activity than is beneficial to their spiritual lives:

Every stage of our lives offers fresh opportunities. Responding to divine guidance, try to discern the right time to undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt. Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness.18


The early diaconal and contemplative impulses which led to the development of religious orders were associated with various forms of private and public commitment. Ignatius of Antioch, writing about 107, appears to speak in his letters to the Christians of Smyrna and Polycarp of pledged virgins.19 But the monastics of the fourth and fifth centuries apparently lived according to a common rule, without making formal public vows of commitment to that life.20 Continuing developments led to the institution, with which we are familiar today, of specific vows, undertaken with high solemnity and high levels of community enforcement.

The commitment to living out the “historical testimonies” of the Religious Society of Friends expected of Friends has similarities in content and function to vowed commitments to poverty, chastity and obedience.

Over time, the rigor and urgency with which the testimonies have been enforced by the community has varied. At present, entering into adult membership at Chapel Hill (NC) Monthly Meeting includes giving an account of the extent to which the “historical testimonies” are a meaningful guide to life for the prospective member.21 But during the slave era, living out the testimony to equality,22 and during times of serious military actions, living out the testimony to peace, 23 have been complicated and demanding institutional problems, involving questions about when failure to live up to the testimonies ought rightly to lead to “reading out of meeting” ­ loss of full membership in the Society of Friends. In 1700 Margaret Fell Fox, an early, influential Friend, was concerned that the Society was at that time becoming too focused on the outward observance of the testimonies:

Christ Jesus saith, that we must take no thought what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on, but bids us consider the lilies how they grow, in more royalty than Solomon. But contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour: this is a silly poor Gospel.24

Nevertheless, the testimonies are central to Quaker life. Howard Brinton gave roughly a quarter of his widely-used book Friends For Three Hundred Years to a discussion of the historical testimonies.25

The historical testimonies are, however, rather elusive of definition. Brinton used a list of community, harmony, equality, simplicity, incorporating truth within simplicity. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice lists truth, equality, simplicity and peace.26 Chapel Hill (NC) Monthly Meeting uses a listing of peace or non-violence, respect for individuality, community, simplicity, honesty and equality.27 Robert Barclay in his seventeenth century Apology identified a testimony against gambling, as a vain custom and habit. 28

The historical testimonies of Friends share a conceptual similarity to the Evangelical Counsels, to which present day religious vow themselves. Like the Evangelical Counsels, the testimonies identify specific actions, but they also point beyond themselves to something more difficult to articulate. In speaking of the Evangelical Counsels the New Catholic Encyclopedia used the helpful wording of “advisory directives of Christ … given as guides to closer approximation to perfection and imitation of Christ himself.” Out of the “whole complexus of such counsels, traditional Christianity has singled out poverty, chastity, and obedience.”29

Similarly, Friends have singled out simplicity, truth, equality, community, peace and respect for the uniqueness of each person, and related formulations, to point toward a way of life which itself points towards, and leans into, the eschatological future of God’s reign in-breaking into our world in the actions and person of Jesus the Christ. The testimonies are perhaps best defined as the behaviors of the Kingdom of God.

This passage from the Faith and Practice of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) gives a sense of the richness of the testimonies for Friends thought and life:

The heart of Quaker ethics is summed up in the word “simplicity.” Simplicity is forgetfulness of self and remem-brance of our humble status as waiting servants of God. Outwardly, simplicity is shunning superfluities of dress, speech, behavior, and possessions, which tend to obscure our vision of reality. Inwardly, simplicity is spiritual detachment from the things of this world as part if the effort to fulfil the first commandment: to love God with all of the heart and mind and strength.

The testimony of outward simplicity began as a protest against the extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600s. In whatever forms this protest is maintained today, it must still be seen as a testimony against involvement with things which tend to dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.

Simplicity does not mean drabness or narrowness but is essentially positive, being the capacity for selectivity in one who holds attention on the goal. Thus simplicity is an appreciation of all that is helpful towards living as children of the Living God. 30


In Friends in the Lord,31 a study in the pre-history and early life of the Society of Jesus, Javier Osuna, SJ, reconstructed the characteristics of the incipient Jesuit community and its evolving corporate decision-making style. The process described is notably similar to the Quaker process of group discernment.32

In 1534 the group of seven Parisian students united by personal friendship and a common desire for on-going conversion began to develop a community bond which went beyond the camaraderie of student life. Each of the young men had engaged in the individual discernment process of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, whom they viewed as a natural rather than formal leader and as an elder in the faith.33 Among them community and individual encounter with God were held in a living connection. As the director of the Exercises is expected to refrain from seeking to influence the retreatant in an emerging path of commitment, similarly the group sought to safeguard a “free communication of the creature with his creator and the direct action of God on the soul”.34 The group displayed a shared commitment to the specific “concrete ideal of apostolic imitation”35 offered by the Exercises. And, apparently, the men felt a tremendous gratification in the support of the community for each one’s individual spiritual life: the life of the group was a support to the achievement of the individuals’ spiritual goals.

As the group came to a point of commitment to one another as a community, they developed a manner of group discernment for common decision-making. They began from a shared agreement that they intended to do “whatever work will give greater glory to God”.36 When an issue arose on which they were in disagreement, they laid over their decision until a later time when more agreement might be possible, waiting for “greater spiritual clarity” and taking what interim steps they could.37 While waiting to move further on their deliberations they engaged in “an exquisite docility and openness to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”.38 They trusted that it would be obvious to them when a majority view among them was truly “the will of God communicated to the group as a result of a community discernment”.39 And they committed themselves to joining with that view rather than holding onto opposing positions when the sought clarity on God’s will for the group emerged. The group had a true cohesion as a community and they sought corporate guidance for this community with the intention that the implications for the individuals in the group would be accepted by each and lived out fully. The group had no superior to offer or enforce definitive decisions and in the decision-making process they sought the will of God “in the group itself as it deliberates in prayer”. 40

Friends, as well, seek to protect both the free communications of the unique individual with God and the formation and development of the community. Friends share a specific concrete apostolic ideal, the living out of the historical testimonies, as their own particular way. Friends view themselves as equals, while accepting the leadership and support of the elder and more experienced members of their group. The Clerk, the presiding official of a Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business, serves as the person charged to maintain the discernment process and as the one most responsible to hear the Spirit-led unity of judgment, the Sense of the Meeting, as it emerges from the group’s search for God’s will for them.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice offers a seventeenth century expression of what is still a Quaker ideal and is, at times, successfully practiced:

Being orderly come together [you are] not to spend time with needless, unnecessary and fruitless discourses, but to proceed in the wisdom of God … not in the way of the world, as a worldly assembly of men [or women], by hot contests, by seeking to outspeak and overreach one another in discourse, as if it were controversy between party and party of men [or women], or two sides violently striving for dominion … not deciding affairs by the greater vote … but in the wisdom, love and fellowship of God, in gravity, patience, meekness, in unity and concord, submitting one to another in lowliness of heart, and in the holy Spirt of truth and righteousness, all things [are] to be carried on; by hearing, and determining every matter coming before you in love, coolness, gentleness, and dear unity; ­ I say as one only party, all for the Truth of Christ and for the carrying on the work of the Lord, and assisting one another in whatsoever ability God hath given; and to determine of things by a general mutual concord, in assenting together as one man [or woman] in the spirit of truth and equity, and by the authority thereof. In this way and spirit all things are to be amongst you, and without perverseness, in any self-separation, in discord and partiality. 41

The forms of corporate discernment used by Friends and by the nascent Society of Jesus have clear similarities to the sobornost and synodality found in Orthodox church government 42 and other ecclesial decision-making practices which aim at a communal understanding of God’s will that reaches beyond human consensus. Three distinguishing elements of the Quaker use of group discernment, most possible in a community as small as the Religious Society of Friends, are 1) the utilization of this form of group government at every level of the community’s life; 2) its utilization at any time or place without specific ascetical or other preparation; 3) and its continuous use within the community for three and half centuries.

Way of Prayer


The Society of Friends came into existence through the encounter of George Fox and a group known as the Westmoreland Seekers, who had been meeting in silence, waiting to see what God would do next. Previous to the encounter between Fox and this community of Seekers, Fox had had a series of intense spiritual experiences. In his Journal, Fox described one such, which occurred in 1648:

Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shining through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.43

Fox recounted how the invisible power of God “opened” to him an awareness of the Light of Christ, enlightening every person and shining through all. The “two hands of God,”44 to use Irenaeus’ phrase, the invisible power of Spirit and the light of Christ, worked together in Fox’s experience, the one leading him to the other. The experience was, in Fox’s own view and in traditional Friends understanding, immediate, but it was an experience in consonance with the experience of the Church through the ages.

The light of which Fox speaks is understood by Friends to be the light of the Prologue of John’s Gospel and the first Epistle of John. It is the light which shines in the darkness and is not overcome. (Cf. Jn. 1:5) It is the light in which we are able to walk in fellowship with God and with one another. (Cf. I Jn. 1:7) It is the true light, which enlightens everyone. (Cf. Jn. 1:9)

In Quaker thought and life, the word Light, meaning God, is everywhere. Howard Brinton speaks of the Light dispassionately as he writes of conscience:

The Light Within is not to be identified with conscience. Conscience is not the Light in its fulness but “the measure of Light given us,” The Light illumines conscience and seeks to transform an impure conscience into its own pure likeness. Conscience is partly a product of the Light which shines into it and partly a product of social environment. Therefore conscience is fallible. But conscience must always be obeyed because it reflects whatever measure of Light we have by which to form our moral judgements. This measure of Light in the conscience may be increased; as this occurs conscience becomes more sensitive to moral Truth. 45

But, frequently, use of Light language in Friends spirituality refers to more passionate experience of God’s presence. Thomas Kelly wrote in Testament of Devotion:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimony to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.46

In such accounts one hears clear similarities to the light mysticism of The Discourses of Symeon the New Theologian:

“So I entered the place where I usually prayed and, mindful of the words of the holy man I began to say, ‘Holy God.’ At once I was so greatly moved to tears and loving desire for God that I would be unable to describe in words the joy and delight I then felt. I fell prostrate on the ground, and at once I saw, and behold, a great light was immaterially shining on me and seized hold of my whole mind and soul, so that I was struck with amazement at the unexpected marvel and I was, as it were, in ecstasy. Moreover I forgot the place where I stood, who I was, and where, and could only cry out, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ so that when I came to myself I discovered that I was reciting this. But Father,” said he, “who it was that was speaking, and who moved my tongue, I do not know ­ only God knows. ‘Whether I was in the body, or outside the body’ (2 Cor. 12:2,3), I conversed with this Light. The Light itself knows it; it scattered whatever mist there was in my soul and cast out every earthly care … there was poured into my soul in unutterable fashion a great spiritual joy and perception and a sweetness surpassing every taste of visible objects, together with a freedom and forgetfulness of all thoughts pertaining to this life … Thus all the perceptions of my mind and my soul were wholly concentrated on the ineffable joy of that Light.47


Friends have a similarly mystical understanding of silence in both personal and corporate prayer. “True silence … is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment,”48 wrote William Penn in 1699. Friend Pierre Lacout spoke more recently:

In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to grow ­ a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamor of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out.

Words must be purified in a redemptive silence if they are to bear the message of peace. The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other. The word born of silence must be received in silence.49

This understanding of silence as an active arena of nurture and communication is very close to monastic understandings of silence. Basil Pennington speaks of silence as “enough.”

“In the end the monk learns that God speaks by silence and can be heard in silence.”50 The anonymous author of The Call of Silent Love, a group of Carthusian novice conferences, speaks of the Carthusian Statutes and of silence:

In the Statutes we find wise and practical teaching to help us towards a life governed by the Holy Spirt. They emphasize the importance of silence.

Exterior silence first. We must protect it for sake of ‘devotion to the Holy Spirit dwelling within’ us ­ in ourselves and in others. ‘Long and uselessly protracted conversation is thought to grieve the Holy Spirit more’ (Statutes 2.14.4).

But even more important is interior silence. The criterion for judging whatever to admit secular information is listening to the Spirit. ‘Let each one, therefore, listen to the Spirit within him, and determine what he can admit into this mind without harm to interior converse with God’ (Statutes 1.6.6). This is but one example of the attitude of attentive listening, an attitude of interior receptivity, of pliancy and flexibility under the activity of the interior Master, who would set everything aside that might suppress his voice.

The longer he lives in cell, the more gladly he will do so, as long as he occupies himself in it usefully and in an orderly manner, reading, writing, reciting Psalms, praying, mediating, contemplating and working. Let him make a practice of resorting, from time to time, to a tranquil listening of heart, that allows God to enter through all its doors and passages. (Statutes 1.4.2)

The entire doctrine of guarding the heart is implied here. It is very important and can go a long way. Our silence is not something negative, but a form of attentiveness, a positive receptivity. It is rightly compared to the figure of Mary of Bethany seated at the feet of Jesus, giving all her attention to this word. In his silence, the monk opens himself to the Word in lectio divina, in prayer, in the simple gaze of faith that receives God in all his creatures.

A life of prayer without interior silence, is an impossibility. (In the structure of the intellect, there are two principle forms of resistance to the light of the Spirit: first, excessive attachment to purely rational insight, rationalism in all its forms, with the consequent distrust of any light that is not purely rational; pride and intellectual self-sufficiency; second, superficiality or lack of attentiveness to spiritual realities. Both can be found in hidden form in the Charterhouse.) This silence enables us completely to forget our interior conversation, our ideas and our selves, to enter into the silence of God who is fullness of life, of light and love, and where a single Word is spoken in Love, the Word who conducts us into the inaccessible light of the Father.51

A classic passage by Alexander Parker, an early Friend, from 1660, offers an insight into corporate participation in this same silence:

The first that enters into the place of your meeting … turn in thy mind to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were present but the Lord; and here thou art strong. Then the next that comes in, let them in simplicity of heart sit down and turn in to the same light, and wait in the spirit; and so all the rest coming in, in the fear of the Lord, sit down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light … Those who are brought to a pure still waiting on God in the spirit, are come nearer to the Lord than words are; for God is a spirit, and in the spirit is he worshiped … In such a meeting there will be an unwillingness to part asunder, being ready to say in yourselves, it is good to be here: and this is the end of all words and writings to bring people to the eternal living Word.52


In the passages quoted above, St. Symeon spoke of the Light as being outside himself, while Thomas Kelly and Howard Brinton spoke of the Inward Light. The Inward Light is a characteristic Quaker phrase and understanding. In the above passage Alexander Parker spoke of Friends in the Meeting for Worship as coming “nearer to the Lord than words are.”

Francis Howgill, one of the Westmoreland Seekers, asked:

Why gad you abroad? Why trim you yourselves in the saints’ words, when you are ignorant of the life? Return, return to Him that is the first love, and the first-born of every creature who is the Light of the World… Return home to within, sweep your houses all, the groat is there, the little leaven is there, the grain of mustard-seed you will see, which the Kingdom of God is like; … and here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging, and giving peace to all that love and follow Him.53

Similarly, in her work, Showings, Julian of Norwich recorded experiences of God as being “nearer to us than tongue can tell or heart can think,”54 and “closer to us than our own soul.” 55

Silence between human persons who are fully present to one another in that silence is also humanly intimate. Fox urged Friends to “meet together and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was.”56


To speak of God primarily as Light, as Friends do, limits discursive articulation and lends itself to apophatic ways of thinking about and approaching God ­ ways which emphasize the incomprehensibility of God to the human mind. Friends consider the infused prayer ascribed by Teresa of Avila to the Fourth Mansions of the Interior Castle to be a mysterious universal gift God offers to any one who will receive it. Teresa’s description of the fountain filled directly from the source, God, is very close to Friends’ expectations for prayer, both public and private, in which, as described by Parker above, Friends “sit down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light:”

The water comes direct from its source, which is God, and, when it is His Majesty’s will and He is pleased to grant us some supernatural favour, its coming is accompanied by the greatest peace and quietness and sweetness within ourselves ­ I cannot say where it arises or how. And that content and delight are not felt, as earthly delights are felt, in the heart ­ I mean not at the outset, for alter the basin becomes completely filled, and then this water begins to overflow all the Mansions and faculties, until it reaches the body. It is for that reason that I said it has its source in God and ends in ourselves ­ for it is certain, and anyone will know this who has experienced it, that the whole of the outer man enjoys this consolation and sweetness.57

Yet, the phrase, “answering that of God in every one,” found in Fox’s writing, is as central to Friends spirituality as is the apophatic aspects. In a classically kataphatic style, Fox speaks of seeing the light of Christ “shining through all.”58 In Meetings for Worship one hears many messages about encountering God in a relationship with another person, an event, an animal and many metaphors which utilize plants and weather to speak of spiritual realities.


The ecumenical formulation presented in the text ‘Scripture, Tradition and Traditions’ which declares that “we exist as Christians by the Tradition of the Gospel (the paradosis of the kerygma) testified in Scripture, transmitted in and by the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit” (# 45) has been one of the most fruitful contributions to recent ecumenical conversation. The encouragement given in “A Treasure in Earthen Vessels: An Instrument for an Ecumenical Reflection on Hermeneutics” to exploration of non-verbal means by which traditions transmit the Tradition is likely to be an important contribution to ongoing ecumenical thought as well. Exploration of practices of communal life and practices of prayer may open additional new avenues for ecumenical understanding of communities such as the Religious Society of Friends.

We have examined how three specific Friends’ practices, the use of ‘Advices and Queries’, the ‘historical testimonies’, and corporate discernment, may be fruitfully compared with practices found in religious and monastic communities. We have looked at the tradition of prayer in the Society of Friends, identifying four characteristics features: light mysticism, silence mysticism, a characteristic intimacy, and a traditional mixture of apophatic and kataphatic elements. Friends’ tradition of prayer also offers fruitful comparison to prayer traditions of monastic and religious communities.

Mewn dau gae, by the Welsh poet Waldo Williams, with its subtly woven references to encounter with God in elusive silence and the bright world of the senses, is characteristic of Friends’ way of seeing and understanding, and speaks, as well, to our ecumenical concerns in considering Friends as a religious community, through which the living reality of the faith is transmitted:

Where did the sea of light roll from
Onto Flower Meadow Field and Flower Field?
After I’d searched for long in the dark land,
The one that was always, whence did he come?
Who, O who was the marksman, the sudden enlightener?
The roller of the sea was the field’s living hunter.
From above bright-billed whistlers, prudent scurry of lapwings,
The great quiet he brought me.

Excitement he gave me, where only
The sun’s thought stirred to lyrics of warmth,
Crackle of gorse that was ripe on escarpments,
Hosting of rushes in their dream of blue sky.
When the imagination wakens, who calls
Rise up and walk, dance, look at the world?
Who is it hiding in the midst of the words
That were there on Flower Meadow Field and Flower Field?

And when the big clouds, the fugitive pilgrims,
Were red with the sunset of stormy November,
Down where the ashtrees and maples divided the fields,
The song of the wind was deep like deep silence.
Who, in the midst of the pomp, the super-abundance,
Stands there inviting, containing it all?
Each witness’s witness, each memory’s memory, life of each life,
Quiet calmer of the troubled self.

Till at least the whole world came into the stillness
And on the two fields his people walked,
And through, and between, and about them, goodwill widened
And rose out of hiding, to make them all one,
As when the few of us forayed with pitchforks
Or from heavy meadows lugged thatching of rush,
How close we came then, one to another –
The quiet huntsman so cast his net round us!

Ages of the blood on the grass and the light of grief
Who whistled through them? Who heard but the heart?
The cheater of pride and every trail’s tracker,
Escaper from the armies, hey, there’s his whistling –

Knowledge of us, knowledge, till at last we do know him! Great
as the leaping of hearts, after their ice age.
The fountains burst up towards heaven, till,
Falling back, their tears were like leaves of a tree.

Day broods on all this beneath sun and cloud,
And Night through the cells of her wide-branching brain –
How quiet they are, and she breathing freely
Over Flower Meadow Field and Flower Field –
Keeps a grip on their object, the fields full of folk.
Surely these things must come. What hour will it be
That the outlaw comes, the hunter, the claimant to the breach,
That the Exiled King cometh, and the rushes part in his way?59


1. The present essay is a revised version of two papers, “The Community of Prayer in the Religious Society of Friends” and “The Society of Friends’ Tradition of Prayer,” presented May 1, 1999 to the annual meeting of Religious for Christian Unity, Notre Dame Retreat House, Rochester, NY.

2. Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, “Scripture, Tradition and Traditions,” in The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices, Michael Kinnamon and Brian E. Cope, eds. (Geneva and Grand Rapids: WCC Publications and William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), pp. 139-44.

3. Commission on Faith and Order, “A Treasure in Earthen Vessels: An Instrument for an Ecumenical Reflection on Hermeneutics,” Faith and Order Paper No. 182 (Geneva: WCC/Faith and Order, 1998).

4. Historiography of the Religious Society of Friends has viewed Friends from the two perspectives of locating the origins of the Society from within Puritanism (e.g. Hugh Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1964) and from within Continental European traditions of mystical spirituality, especially Rheno-Flemish instances (e.g. Rufus M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion, London: Macmillan, 1909; Spiritual Reformers in the 16th & 17th Centuries, London: Macmillan, 1914; and New Studies in Mystical Religion; The Ely Lectures Delivered at Union Theological Seminary, New York, 1927, New York: Macmillan, 1927). There seems nothing remarkable in the presence of both Puritan and Continental mystical influences and elements in the early Society of Friends. Anglicanism has held, and holds, Puritan and Continental elements and influences in creative tension. In any case, our present concern is not with the historical origins of the elements and characteristics we are considering, but with their present configuration.

5. Introduction, Quaker Faith and Practice: The Book of Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain (London: Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), 1995), p. 17. From a certain perspective, of course, such a statement is doctrinal. Yet, it seems clear that Friends have not understood themselves as making doctrinally distinctive claims.

6. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.01.

7. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.01.

8. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.01 and Epigraph, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, Faith and Practice: A Book of Christian Discipline (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1972).

9. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.04-1.07 and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, pp. 187-8, 198.

10. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, pp. 187.

11. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, pp. 198.

12. “The Rule of St. Benedict” in Western Asceticism, Owen Chadwick, trans. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), p. 309; PL LXVI, col. 475-6.

13. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.02 # 12.

14. Rule, p. 299, PL LXVI, col. 298.

15. Rule, p. 298, PL LXVI, col. 206.

16. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.02 # 32.

17. Rule, p. 321; PL LXVI, col. 703.

18. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.02 # 28.

19. Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle to the Smyrneans”§13 and “Epistle to Polycarp”§ 5 in Early Christian Writings: the Apostolic Fathers, Maxwell Staniforth, trans. (New York : Dorset Press, 1986), pp. 123 and 129; PG V col. 857/858 and PG V col. 867/868.

20. Joan Chittister, OSB, “Vows” in The New Dictionary of Spirituality, Michael Downey, ed. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1993), p. 1011.

21. Chapel Hill Monthly Meeting, “Membership” (Chapel Hill, NC: Chapel Hill Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1995), Preamble and § Membership Questions and Queries No. 8.

22. See e.g. Stephen B. Weeks, Southern Quakers and Slavery: A Study in Institutional History (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1896); Thomas Edward Drake, Quakers and Slavery in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950); Judith Jennings, ed. The Business of Abolishing the British Slave Trade, 1783-1807 (London and Portland, OR: F. Cass, 1997).

23. See e.g. Peter Brock, The Quaker Peace Testimony 1660 to 1914 (York, England: Sessions Book Trust, 1990).

24. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 20.31.

25. Howard H. Brinton, Friends for Three Hundred Years: The History and Beliefs of the Society of Friends since George Fox Started the Quaker Movement. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1994, pp. 118-174.

26. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, §§ 19.33-19.48.

27. Chapel Hill Monthly Meeting, “Membership”, Preamble and § Membership Questions and Queries No. 8.

28. Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity(Philadelphia: Friends Book Store, 1908), p. 484.

29. J. D. Gerken, “Evangelical Counsels,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), p. 383.

30. Chapel Hill (NC) Monthly Meeting uses a listing of peace or non-violence, respect for individuality, community, simplicity, honesty and equality.

31. Javier Osuna, SJ, Friends in the Lord: A Study in the Origins and Growth of Community in the Society of Jesus from St. Ignatius’ conversion to the Earliest Texts of the Constitutions (1521-1541), Nicholas King, SJ, trans. The Way Series 3 (London: The Way, 1974).

32. An excellent study of Friends’ decision-making written from the point of view of an outsider can be found in Michael J. Sheeran, SJ, Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society of Friends (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1983). See also Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 3 and Brinton, pp. 99-117.

33. Osuna, p. 63.

34. Osuna, p. 63.

35. Osuna, p. 63.

36. Osuna, p. 56.

37. Osuna, p. 56.

38. Osuna, p. 56.

39. Osuna, p. 56.

40. Osuna, p. 57.

41. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, p. 84.

42. The Oxford English Dictionary, (Second ed., J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, eds., Vol. XV, Oxford: Clarendon, 1989) usefully defines sobornost as “A unity of persons in a loving fellowship in which each member retains freedom and integrity without excessive individualism”, p. 903.

43. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 19.04

44. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against the Heresies, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., Vol. I (Edinburgh and Grand Rapids, Michigan: T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), pp. 487-8, 527, 531; Adv. haer. IV.20.1, V.1.3, V.6.1; PG VII, col. 1032, 1123, 1137.

45. Brinton, p. 34-5.

46. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 2.10.

47. Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses, C. J. DeCatanzaro, trans. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), pp. 200-1.

48. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 2.13.

49. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 2.12.

50. M. Basil Pennington, OCSO, The Cistercians (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 48.

51. An [Anonymous] Carthusian, The Call of Silent Love: Carthusian Novice.

Conferences : II. Vocation and Discernment, trans. An [Anonymous] Anglican Solitary (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1994), pp. 96-7.

52. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 2.41.

53. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice: a Book of Christian Discipline, p. 46

54. Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund College, OSA and James Walsh, SJ (New York: Paulist, 1978), p. 320.

55. Julian of Norwich, Showings, p. 288.

56. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 2.35.

57. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, trans. and ed. E. Allison Peers (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 81.

58. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 19.04.

59. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 21.33, Tony Conran, trans.

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