Quaker Theology -- Issue #7 -- Autumn 2002
"Wait upon God for the Living Bread, that never fades away." George Fox
"I myself am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger: whoever trusts in me will never thirst." (John 6:51)
I. A Eucharistic Theology for Quakers?
In a recent paper, Scott Holland, a minister and seminary professor in the Church of the Brethren, criticized the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder for tending to collapse the sacraments into social processes, just as many have charged Yoder with collapsing systematic theology into social ethics. Anabaptists, Holland pleaded, need to develop a rich sacramental theology which understands and experiences the sacraments (by which he meant only baptism and communion) as mediating the awesome and majestic presence of God.
What about Quakers: do we likewise need a sacramental theology? Do we already have one? Is the common Quaker claim that all of life is sacramental really true to our experience, or do we lodge this claim superficially in order to dismiss uncomfortable theological and biblical questions?
Liberal unprogrammed Friends are accustomed to answer questions about the sacraments with this claim, or with a short and dismissive rejection of "ritual." Yet there are good reasons for arguing that certain kinds of Quaker practice are in fact deeply sacramental, in the Christian and biblical sense: outward signs of inward grace rooted in the practices of Jesus. At their best, Quaker worship and our practice of table fellowship are eucharistic practices; further, they are, and ought to be, faithful to biblical eucharistic mandates. (Similar arguments might be made about the baptismal character of Quaker worship, but are best left for another occasion.) The sacramental character of Quaker "eucharistic" practice deserves to be explored and more thoroughly grounded in biblical tradition, partly because our own theological tradition is grown thin, and partly because other Christians ask these questions of us.
Friends from pastoral traditions face a different and, for them, more troubling question: how do we justify as biblically faithful our rejection of the so-called "Lordís Supper" in the face of Jesusí command, "Do this in remembrance of me?" Even though Early Quakers understood scripture differently from twentieth-century American or African evangelicals, they would not think this question strange. And even if the question seems irrelevant to some modern Quakers, to others it is a burning one. Students at Friends Theological College in Kaimosi, Kenya, where I am principal, are deeply vexed about this question and under terrible pressure from other African Christians to propose an answer.
The answer given them by the missionaries of the first sixty years "Quakers just donít do that" has, as in other instances, betrayed them and left them theologically impoverished. Whether American liberals like it or not, African and North American Friends of a more evangelical stripe need an account of their practice which demonstrates thoughtfulness and fidelity about the biblical eucharistic mandates.
Closer to home, it is an open secret that in many places in the United States, Quaker Meetings do celebrate some version of the Lordís Supper. This is prima facie evidence that Friends over the last century have failed to address this difficult question. Why are we not bound by the scriptural injunction, "Do this in remembrance of me"? If we are held to the biblical injunctions to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, refrain from killing, and the like, why are we exempt from the eucharistic injunction?
This paper does not systematically address that question from the standpoint of early Quaker arguments about the Eucharist, nor does it seek to explore systematically the ways early Friends used eucharistic language to encode their experience of the divine. Rather, it seeks to give some modern theological and practical substance to a claim that some may find astonishing, but which others may recognize from offhanded jokes about pitch-in suppers. Namely, in our worship, our ethical practice, and our practice of open table fellowship, Quakers, already are a eucharistic people, and indeed we ought to be. What follows is a theological meditation on this question.
A. On Brethren Being Brethren: The Inwardness of Sacramental Power
First, a digression which helped me not only to frame the question but point to one important way in which Quaker spiritual practice is eucharistic. In the spring of 2002 Bethany Theological Seminary gathered a group of Quaker and Brethren youth ministers for a consultation. The Quakers present were from both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting. Two professed the influence of Conservative Friends. We were nevertheless in the minority: five Quakers, fifteen Brethren. In small group discussions the Brethren articulated frustrations about youth ministry which they believe to be symptoms of deeper adult problems in their congregations. The Quakers shared many of these frustrations.
The great strength of the Church of the Brethren is the clear articulation of Christianity as discipleship grounded in the Gospel, an ethical response of loving obedience to the commands of Jesus, living the life Jesus wanted his followers to live. My Brethren colleagues, however, mourned because they have lost this tradition of discipleship and the systems of accountability to the church community which had been a their hallmark. Once upon a time, the church community could articulate a Christian, Anabaptist ethic and then, on that basis, care for relationships and mediate disputes in preparation for the celebration of the Lordís Supper. A congregregation could not celebrate the Supper if disputes remained unresolved and members unreconciled.
For better or for worse, this authority had long ago collapsed. Brethren, the conferees complained, are so worried about losing members that they hesitate to articulate the demands of Gospel ethics including pacifism and nonresistance. The result: excessive individualism abounds and a rich ecclesial community has collapsed into a pleasant but ineffectual social gathering. One participant quoted Dale Brown with both chagrin and appreciation: "Catholics go to church to receive Godís grace in the sacraments; Calvinists go to church to receive Godís grace in the preached Word of God; Brethren go to church to see one another."
I know both youth ministry and the Church of the Brethren too well to embrace this anguished venting as unvarnished truth. But my colleaguesí mourning revealed they had lost what Quakers would call a spirituality and that their richness of ecclesial experience had disintegrated into social process complaints familiar to Friends of all stripes. I also detected in their words some characteristic themes of Brethren Christianity. The fundamental experience of Christianity, one participant declared with the force of fundamental doctrine, is ethical action in the form of obedience to the commands of Jesus, acting in love in the world, bringing about reconciliation, and resisting violence. Further, they articulated to one another that when Brethren argue (if you want to know what people really care about, ask what they argue about), they argue about doctrine, ideas, and ethical observance (not, for instance, relationships, decision making processes, or styles of ritual).
In a small group discussion I pressed the Brethren to talk about how and where Brethren experience the presence of God. They thought the question a little odd, but one youth minister finally articulated that Brethren experience God when they act in obedience to the commands of Jesus, living the life he taught them to live. This seemed to me to collapse spirituality into ethics. With some consternation I asked, "Do Brethren have a spirituality?" The group was silent for a moment. Then one member said quite simply, "no."
I know this is not true, and I continued to be vexed. In the larger group, I reflected what I had heard. (I was searching, in helplessly Quaker fashion, for how Brethren experience Christ inwardly.) I left my deepest thought unuttered, a thought grounded in my own experience of the Catholic piety with which I grew up: these youth ministers discern in their church no living sense of the Real Presence of Christ.
I did suggest aloud that I was hearing nothing about a crucial component of the Brethren tradition. In their emphasis on ethics, discipleship, and the authority of the church community, they sounded like good Mennonites. But Brethren have historically another distinct characteristic that sets them apart. Brethren are not just Anabaptists, they are also Pietists. They are nurtured by the same stream of eighteenth-century spirituality that nourished the Moravians and John Wesley, the conviction that Christian faith and action are grounded in an inward, personal, and intimate relationship with Christ. The group agreed that the Church of the Brethren has lost, or is losing, its Pietism. And therefore, I thought silently, their sense of the Real Presence, the living bread that nourishes and never fades away, which I take to be the goal of the Quaker meeting for worship in any of its forms.
Later in the day we were discussing activities we might offer as part of a youth gathering of Brethren and Quakers on the theme of the vocation of the peace churches in the context of a global church. A Brethren participant, stretching, I am convinced, for an experience of transforming sacramentality suggested we incorporate some non-Christian practices such as the sweat lodge for which he had enormous enthusiasm.
I lost my patience. Brethren complain that they have lost their spirituality and their distinctiveness. If we want to help Brethren youth identify more deeply with their own tradition, I asked, why not help them experience that distinctiveness in bodily, Christian, Brethren ways rather then gadding abroad? Brethren do have a spirituality: a corporate, sacramental spirituality, centered around the Lordís Supper, foot-washing, the holy kiss, and the love feast. Why not show Brethren youth the deep spiritual power of these most characteristic Brethren practices? Why not re-articulate the precisely sacramental piety of Brethren, especially since this has traditionally warranted and grounded the ethical commitment and the Pietism of personal experience that distinguishes Brethren?
B. Real Presence: The Heart of Spiritual Power
This exchange left me a little bewildered to see myself a former Catholic, an anti-liturgical and anti-sacramental Quaker urging Brethren to preserve the spiritual power of their sacramental practice. I regretted the Brethrenís loss of sacramentalityĖnot the practice of fixed, outward rituals, but the corporate awareness of the real, inward, and transforming presence of Christ in themselves and in their midst. Quaker worship, both silent waiting on the Lord and pastoral Quaker worship, attracts me and holds me fast precisely because it mediates the living, palpable, transformative presence of Christ, what Roman Catholics call the Real Presence. It does exactly what the Catholic Eucharist claims to do.
Sacraments are a failure when the outward performance distracts attention from the real presence of Christ and from the transforming work of God which they are supposed to mediate. But in churches which practice them, sacraments are often the last and best hold they have on the Real Presence.
I am a Quaker precisely because I am a disappointed Catholic. I was brought up to believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist but never experienced it inwardly through the sacraments and knew very few people who did.
Where I did experience it was in the practice of silent and wordless contemplative prayer. I became and remain a Quaker because the traditional Quaker conviction that Christ has come to teach his people himself satisfied my Catholic longings and proved experientially true. In waiting upon the Lord among Friends I have experienced the bread of life, the real Real Presence. Unprogrammed Quakers have only fragmented and isolated language for naming this experience, but what keeps us together is our shared sense that in worship at its best, we experience the transforming presence of the divine. (The proliferation of "Nontheist Friends" workshops at Friends General Conference Gatherings may portend the loss of even this fragile thread of unity).
I am bold enough to believe and to assert with Robert Barclay that whenever goodness radiates and transforms the heart, whenever the conscience rises up and stands in the revealing and liberating light of goodness, whenever the creative power of God, the Logos, moves people to loveĖthere, whether named or not, is the bread of life which never fades away, the redeeming presence of the risen and living Christ (see Barclay 1908, prop. 2). One cannot enter the fullness of spirituality without a sense of the Real Presence; without it, even if we disagree about whose or what presence we mean, religion consists only of empty outward performance. It is precisely this empty outward performance against which the early Quakers railed.
Similarly, to risk a comparison, Muslim piety at its richest is not only the performance of salat or the recitation of the Qurían. Real salat is the inward appropriation of the real presence of God, embodied in the Arabic words of the scripture which emanated directly from Godís being and which therefore bear the divine presence on the believerís lips or in her ears. To speak or to hear the words of the Qurían is to be directly in the presence of God.
Comparisons from Hinduism and Buddhism abound as well. The Quaker Thomas Kelly puts it simply: "What is the ground and foundation of the gathered meeting? In the last analysis, it is, I am convinced, the Real Presence of God" (Kelly 1966, 79). Quakers have been no strangers to eucharistic language to express this Real Presence in the gathered meeting. Daniel Wheeler, the Quaker minister and civil engineer and traveling minister to Russia, wrote of a meeting near St. Petersburg in 1818:
Last First Day, in our little meeting, the Master was pleased to preside, and it was indeed a "feast of fat things"; and the language which arose in my heart was, "Take, eat, this is my body." I never remember being under such a covering, and my desire is, that I may never forget it (Wheeler 1842, 79).
True to Quaker form, however, the immediate issue of this communion was ethical and inspired him to a sense of "communion" with humanity. The evangelical Wheeler continues,
and oh! that the fear of the Lord may so prevail amongst us, as to entitle us to His Love, which can alone enable us to Ďrun through a tropp, or leap over a wallí: and which at this time enableth me to call every country my country, and every man my brother.
Quakers are a eucharistic people, though we would hardly put it that way. Because we insist traditionally that the foundation of both spiritual life and ethical action is the real, inward, transformative presence of the Living Christ, Quakers reject outward sacraments because we want to be possessors, not professors who have got "the form, without the power." We want the Real Thing, not the sign; the moon, not a sacramental finger pointing to it; the body and blood of Christ, not bread and wine. We want to build communion, koinonia, fellowship, deep engagement in one anotherís lives through sharing good meals together in open table fellowship, not a churchly ritual in which a priest dispenses bits of pseudo-bread and tiny sips of wine.
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