Quaker Theology #9 -- Fall-Winter 2003 -- continued -- 2
The Church: Called, Gathered, and Faithful
Friends United Meeting Theological Commission
Patrick J. Nugent, Center for Quaker Thought and Practice,
Stephen W. Angell, Earlham School of Religion
David Johns, Earlham School of Religion
in response to
The Nature and Purpose of the Church:
A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement
(1) This response is the product of a group of theologians commissioned by Friends United Meeting. The Ecumenical Task Group of the General Board of FUM revised and approved this document in its meetings on February 9, 2002. The General Board received and commends this paper to the Faith and Order Commission and FUMís member Yearly Meetings for study. Friends United Meeting is an association of Yearly Meetings (regional gatherings) of Friends in North America, Africa, and the Caribbean, and other bodies of Friends in Mexico and Palestine.
(2) Other bodies of Friends may choose to compose similar responses, and we welcome these contributions to the broader ecumenical conversations. While we would have differences of nuance and emphasis in some areas and some substantial differences in others, we want to register our appreciation for the thorough and thoughtful responses crafted by Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting and Friends General Conference.
(3) In the Religious Society of Friends, we are blessed with some provocative and life-giving thought on the nature of the church given us by our forebears in the first few generations of our comparatively short history. Many of us long for greater familiarity with this thinking. Yet in the last one hundred fifty years, major changes in our styles of worship and ministry have brought about tremendous diversity, and Friends United Meeting encompasses this more so than any other Friends body. We confess that in the last century or so we have not thought systematically or intentionally about the nature of the church, though our experience of church has been vibrant, uplifting, and salvific. At present, our inherited ways of acting as church combine the theological and practical heritage of our own Society with that of the broader Anglo-American free church movement, and particularly the Wesleyan tradition. These developments have been both life-giving and problematic, and we recognize the need to deepen among ourselves a theologically substantial process of reflection on the nature of church as we experience and understand it.
(4) We recognize that much of what follows in our response, and much of what other Friends have written in theirs, will register that Friends cannot unite with some important principles and practices held broadly among Christian churches. In the last hundred years, Friends have lived in tension between our sectarian heritage, which we believe has an important witness to make to the broader church, and our desire to learn from and co-operate with other Christian bodies. We are committed to learning better to see the manifestation of Christís Church in other churches, and we want to participate in the broader dialogue among Christians. We hope that other Christians will read our response in the context of our deep appreciation for the impulses toward greater communion among Christians; we wholeheartedly welcome this spirit and wish to accompany it.
(5) Friendsí theological stance on three questions in particular make institutional merger with other churches very difficult. These questions are (1) the necessity of water baptism as compared with the baptism of the Holy Spirit; (2) the sacrament of the Lordís supper as compared with communion with the living Christ; and (3) the humanly-ordained priesthood as compared with the free gospel ministry.
(6) It is our sincere hope that institutional merger is never confounded with the visible unity possible among Christians. Communion with other Christians in the living Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ is a reality we believe possible and desirable.
(7) We are gratified by the WCC documentís clear enunciation that "The Church . . . is the creation of Godís Word and Holy Spirit." It is a central claim of Quaker faith that whatever may happen in particular local meetings of various religious societies, Church, when it happens, is the work of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, and not the result of any particular human arrangement, covenant, contract, appointment, sacramental ordination, or inherited authority. For this reason, for a great part of our history and in many local congregations still, we are cautious about using the word "church" to name ourselves, for fear of presuming that we are Church simply because we have a building and a congregation. "Church" is a work brought about by God among the community of believers, and this work is not dependent upon our human arrangements. The Church is gathered by the Holy Spirit; it is not taken as a given by virtue of outward marks. Many Friends happily call their fellowships churches in conformity with general practice, but others maintain our testimony that the term "Church" properly refers to the "invisible church." In traditional Quaker thought, the Church catholic is the body of those persons, whatever their nation, "of such as God hath called out of the world, and worldly spirit, to walk in his Light and Life," and who have responded to this call with amendment of life by Godís healing grace, regardless of whether they have heard the outward Gospel or have benefit of the scriptures.1 The particular churches of Christ are characterized by outward profession of faith in Jesus Christ but, in them also, this inward work of holiness is still necessary.
(8) We note, however, that Friends stand in the "Believersí Church" tradition of Christianity in which commitment by others on behalf of an infant or child is not sufficient for full membership in the gathered, visible church. The visible fellowship is a voluntary association of those who are inwardly convicted of sin by the Light of Christ and desire to accept the offer of redemption, and who have actively sought and been granted membership in the gathered church. It also includes those seekers who worship with us but have not yet asked for formal membership. Yet our witness to this principle has not been unambiguous, and among ourselves we struggle somewhat with a longstanding, but now faded, practice of "birthright membership." We are nonetheless agreed that it is not the meetingís grant of membership, but the inward work of the Holy Spirit, to which the soul yields in humble obedience, which constitutes a personís adoption into the body of Christ.
(9) We would add further that this work of the Holy Spirit is not merely the transformation of individual souls and the collection of those individual persons into a body. Rather, the Spirit continues to work collectively upon the gathered body, as the World Councilís document so clearly enunciates. Quakers hold fast to the faith that it is in the context of that "gathered meeting" under the covering of the Holy Spiritís power that the depths of Godís redeeming grace can be fully known and the will of God for us fully discerned. Friends bear testimony to the unique power of the gathered meeting waiting upon the Lord with open attentiveness, and we profess that apart from our corporate waiting upon the Lord, our ability to attend and respond to the inward work of Christ is incomplete. The fullness of Christian discipleship is possible only in the visible body of Christís church, waiting in expectant hope of the manifestation of his presence among us. Further, that manifestation is not complete until it is realized in both the visible transformation of our own lives and the corporate witness which is, with the power of the Holy Spirit, world transforming. While Friends differ from other Christians in our position on the necessity of outward sacraments, we joyfully join them in confessing that the fullness of the Christian response to Godís gracious offer of redemption is possible only through the working of the Holy Spirit in the worship of the gathered church. This we believe to be the substance of other religious societiesí reliance on outward sacraments, and insofar as those outward sacraments better enable a congregationís openness to the operation of the Holy Spirit, we rejoice in the reality of that grace.
(10) On the controverted question posed in the document, "whether the preaching and the sacraments are the means of, or simply witnesses to, the activity of the Spirit" (par. 13) we may offer a mediating formula. While we as a body do not accept that any outward sacrament is necessary and do not practice them ourselves, we recognize that in other bodies, the sacraments can be not only the witnesses to, but at times the means of the "immediate internal action upon the hearts of the believers." Nevertheless, we must testify that we can accept no intrinsic connection between outward sacraments and inward grace. The performance of the sacrament can never ensure the operation of grace, but Godís generosity may at times choose to work through the sacraments. We believe that, with regard to any outward means of communicating Godís grace, the salvific operation is the real and inward transformation of the human heart.
(11) In this spirit we are able to affirm the sentiment expressed in par. 20, "Through Holy Communion their participation and communion in this body is renewed again and again," though we emphasize that the communion which makes us ever more deeply the body of Christ is not the outward re-enactment of Jesusí last meal with his disciples, but rather koinonia a communal sharing between ourselves and God, "participation in the body of Christ" graciously offered and effected by Godís work in the gathered community. We confess that among us this is accomplished in the depths of waiting upon the Lord. We also joyfully confess that in the gathered meeting in which we experience the depth of communion with one another and with God, it becomes possible to discern in unity the will of God for us personally, corporately and for our witness in the world. We believe that this discernment of Godís will is in fact the purpose of the communion into which God draws us.
(12) The document professes that the church, "as a communion of all believers held in personal relationship with God . . . is already the eschatological community God wills" (par. 36). We would add that when this is true, it is because of the real presence and work of Christ in its midst which is the essence of Jesusí eschatological promises and the churchís eschatological hope. From the earliest days Friends have claimed, eschatologically, that "Christ has come to teach his people himself," and is present and working among us as our head, our Lord, our bishop, our priest, our prophet, our king. The church is the "eschatological community God wills" because Christ is among us, and only when we yield to his work in faithfulness and love.