Quaker Complementarity


One important reason why I became a Quaker was that faults in the mainline church were shaking me. I should clarify that word “fault.” A fault is a crack. In geology, a fault line is a place where two colossal rocks come together, rub against each other, and make everybody near the fault line shake. So, let us consider one enormous rock, the belief that Jesus is the ultimate peacemaker for humanity, a belief constitutional to the early church. Now, let us consider another massive rock, a global church that proclaims Jesus as Peacemaker, but that also sends their children into the military, waves the flag of the greatest imperial power on earth, and celebrates holidays that commemorate war victories. These two humongous rocks exist on the earth, albeit in the cultural sphere. They collide with each other like two continents. If you happen to have a life-story that places you, psychologically speaking, on that fault line, sooner or later you are going to be shaken.

I was shaken by other faults, too. While studying the teachings of Jesus, I read that the rigid defenders of ritual –the priests of his day—were usually (but not always) opposed to him. While the priests promoted formal, community prayer in a sacrificial structure, Jesus promoted private prayer (Matthew 6:6). While the priests promoted the lighting of a special lamp in the temple, Jesus taught his disciples, “The eye is the light of your body.” (Matthew 6:22-23). If the priestly way of doing things was oppositional to Christ’s Way, why does the contemporary church continue to endorse formal prayer and light candles the way the priests did? It seems the church should be a fellowship rather than a set of formalities, a fellowship joined by a conviction of divine adoption, adoption perceived through the Spirit and not under a steeple. I became convinced the Spirit acted on souls and had acted on mine, in ways that had nothing to do with all the pomp and circumstance of the mainline church.

Enter the Quakers, with their belief in the vision, voice, and value of the individual, their peace testimony, their continuing revelation, and their radical egalitarianism. Surely, a suitable gathering of the body of Christ would not involve scripted movements and authorities, but rather would involve careful searching for the Spirit’s guidance, punctuated by occasional, spontaneous expressions of truth as revealed; and no rituals of repeated prayers or candles. When I first came to the Buffalo Meeting, the rituals of the mainline church began to seem like superstition to me, unauthentic gestures standing in for true faith just as processed sugar stands in for true food. 

I had heard of something called the “programmed” Quaker church, but my first reaction was to be suspicious that a programmed church would be too much like the mainline I had left. Would they have all the formalism I wanted to escape? Thus, I was a little wary when I first accepted the invitation to perform supply preaching at the Collins Society of Friends.  

My fears quickly proved unfounded. On my first day at Collins, I encountered a loving, supportive community, eager to be disciples of Christ. They sing hymns I am familiar with and had an order of worship that was familiar, but not as scripted as the orders in the mainline church. There is no communion service and no candle lightings – both liturgical practices of the mainline church that I find too ritualized. Prayer is a part of the Collins service, but the service also promotes private prayer both in and outside of the church.  So, while the Collins Friends gathering is “programmed,” it is still much less formalized and scripted than the mainline church. After a while, I began to see the programmed worship at Collins as an adaptation of basic Quaker values, rather than a regression into ritualism.  

At first, I admit, I tried to impose the practices of the Buffalo Meeting on the Collins Friends. I thought a time of spirit-seeking punctuated by spontaneous expressions of truth would satisfy the Quaker mandate for radical egalitarianism. However, the Collins Friends do not rise to speak in the manner of the Buffalo Meeting; such is not their tradition. I had to realize that what radical egalitarianism in the Quakers is really about is the right of lay-people to have a voice. The service has a time dedicated just to prayer and spirit-seeking, but the Friends remain silent during this time. However, the service has a lot of lay-participation. A time of Quaker Sharing during the service creates an opportunity for lay people to express whatever spiritual thoughts they have. During the time of prayer, the Collins Friends provide information about the needs of the community. It is during these times that lay people find their voice. I also learned as I continued with the Collins Friends that I could invite verbal ministry from the congregation by asking them questions. Such Q and A time during the sermon makes the encounter with truth more participatory than dictatorial. In short, in time I saw that the programmed meeting of Collins is just as true to the original Way as the Buffalo Meeting is. I now greatly enjoy my time in Collins, as I enjoy my time at the Buffalo Meeting. The existence of programmed and unprogrammed meetings should be seen as Quaker Complementarity, and not the clash of continents.