What DO We Have in Common?
by Sarah Way
Quakerism has a long history of internal disagreements leading to splits and separations. Recently North American yearly meetings have been broken apart by disagreements over same-gender marriage, with Wilmington Yearly Meeting experiencing a schism just last year. The issue is part of a wider disagreement on biblical interpretation and the role of the Bible as an authority. The beliefs of meetings, which are communities of Friends experiencing “continuing revelation,” evolve over time, sometimes in ways that are different from other meetings in their area. Meetings have chosen to separate because they could not tolerate belonging to a group — a yearly or quarterly meeting — whose beliefs are counter to their own.
There is no central authority, no Quaker Pope, to tell us what we have to do to qualify as “Quaker.” A meeting doesn’t lose its Quaker status over its belief in gay marriage or the primacy of Scripture. If that’s true, what is it that we do have in common? The most fundamental Quaker belief, to me, is that there is that of God — a divine spark, an inner Light — in everyone. This belief leads directly to the Quaker testimonies of equality and non-violence. Surely Quakers can agree on the priniciple of equality, if nothing else. I sampled the online Faith and Practices of a diverse group of yearly meetings to find out.
In the Witness section of our NYYM’s Faith and Practice, under Equality, it says, “The Holy Spirit, which we all share, makes us equal.” Under Nonviolence and Reconciliation: “Nonviolence is a way of living every day, every hour, in our personal choices as well as mass struggles for justice. Through it, we affirm the divine Light in every human being and act on the belief that truth and love can overcome ignorance and hate.”
In the Spiritual Maturity section of Friends United Meeting in East Africa’s Christian Faith and Practice (2002), the practice of non-violence results from following Christ’s teachings. Under Peace and Nonviolence: “When the standards of society tell us to hate our enemies, we follow Jesus’ command to love them. When the standards of society seek violence, we seek non-violent resolution to conflict.” Under Equality, in the same section: “Friends believe that all people are made in God’s image and are equal in God’s sight.”
From the Faith and Practice of the Orthodox, Christ-centered Western Yearly Meeting, in Indiana and Illinois, under Concerns for Equality, comes this aspirational idea: “(Friends’) conception of a Light Within as an endowment of persons makes it impossible for Friends to draw lines of distinction in capacity or privilege between different races or nations. George Fox, in an epistle to Friends in America, wrote, “Let your light shine among the Indians, the blacks and the whites, that ye may answer the truth in them, and bring them to the standard and ensign that God hath set up, Christ Jesus.”
Northwest Yearly Meeting is a community of Christ-centered, evangelical Friends churches. From Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church’s Faith and Practice, 2016: “Vision, Mission, and Values: All life has its origin in the creative work of God, and human life is to be regarded as a sacred gift from God. Because all persons have equal value and are created in the image of God, we must treat others with respect and dignity, regardless of human measures of merit or value.”
It was more difficult to find common ground in the Faith and Practice of the Eastern Region of the Evangelical Friends Church. Their Faith and Practice does have a section on equality, though it does not include the belief that every person has a divine Light within them. Under the heading Equality of Persons: “Evangelical Friends believe that all people are equal in the sight of God and all are loved by God. All believers, regardless of their race, nationality, sex, social status, or affluence, are encouraged to worship and participate in the life of Evangelical Friends Churches (Genesis 1:27; I Corinthians 12:21-26; Galatians 3:26-29).”
It looks like a belief in spiritual equality is something all Friends can agree on. I’ll close with this passage quoted in Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, under Unity and Diversity: Friends and Other Faiths. It suggests there is room in Quakerism for all of us:
“Universalism is by definition inclusivist, and its adherents accept the right to free expression of all points of view, Christocentric or any other.... From the beginning the Quaker Christian faith has had a universal dimension. George Fox saw the Light ‘shine through all’ and he identified it with the divine Light of Christ that ‘enlightens every man that comes into the world’ (John 1:9). He pointed out, as did William Penn in greater detail, that individuals who had lived before the Christian era or outside Christendom and had no knowledge of the Bible story, had responded to a divine principle within them. In these terms, all Quaker Christians are universalists. Obedience to the Light within, however that may be described, is the real test of faithful living.”
—Alastair Heron, Ralph Hetherington, and Joseph Pickvance, 1994
Christian Faith and Practice in the Friends Church: Friends United Meeting in East Africa, 2002, at www.quakerinfo.com/eastafricafandp.pdf
Faith and Practice of Western Yearly Meeting of Friends Church, 2005, at https://www.westernyearlymeeting.org/s/FP.pdf
Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church’s Faith and Practice, 2016, at nwfriends.org/faith-practice
Evangelical Friends Church, Eastern Region: Faith and Practice, 2018, at www.efcer.org/829
Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, 2015, at qfp.quaker.org.uk
Fager, Chuck. “The Separation Generation.” Quaker Theology. Winter 2019. quakertheology.org
Huffenberger, Gary. “Several Churches Leave Wilmington Yearly Meeting Over Same-Sex Marriage.” Wilmington News Journal. July 31, 2018. www.wnewsj.com