Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Barclay and the Church

Proposition 10 in Barclay's Apology deals with ministry. But before he goes into his elaboration on that subject he spends some time talking about the church. He says that before he talks about offices of the church he should say something about the church in general. Barclay defines the church as “the society, gathering, or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit, to walk in his Light and Life.” This includes not just those still alive but also those who “having already laid down the earthly tabernacle are passed into their heavenly mansions.” This is the one universal church made up of “as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be (though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures), as become obedient to the holy Light and testimony of God in their hearts, so as to become sanctified by it and cleansed from the evils of their ways.” This universal church is the Body of Christ.

In addition to this universal church there is also the “particular” church. This is made up of “a certain number of persons gathered by God's Spirit, and by the testimony of some of his servants raised up for that end, unto the belief of the true principles and doctrines of the Christian faith, who through their hearts being united by the same love, and their understandings informed in the same truths, gather, meet, and assemble together to wait upon God, to worship him, and to bear a joint testimony for the Truth against error; suffering for the same; and so becoming through this fellowship as one family and household in certain respects, do each of them watch over, teach, instruct and care for one another, according to their several measures and attainments.”

The inward calling of God and the turning of the heart to righteousness is required for membership in the particular church just as much as it is required for membership in the universal church. But in addition, membership in the particular church requires outward profession of their faith. For Barclay, this faith is a “belief in Jesus Christ and those holy truths delivered by his Spirit in Scripture.” According to Barclay, it is due to the work of the devil, this has become twisted so that some Christians claim that one cannot become part of the universal church without outward profession of belief and that with the right rituals and confessions, one can enter the Church of Christ while still inwardly unreformed.

I don't know that I would go so far as Barclay and ascribe the current confusion among Friends to the work of the Devil, but part of the problem is a confusion between the two churches. Liberal Friends have taken the idea that one can belong to the universal church regardless of their religious beliefs and apply that to questions of membership in their particular church, or in this case, monthly meeting. Likewise, when other Friends advocate the Richmond Declaration as a statement of faith, Liberals hear it as a statement that if you cannot accept this statement, you cannot be acceptable to God and cannot be part of the universal church.

The particular church (and that could be a denomination or a congregation) is a subset of the universal church where people have been gathered together to worship together and to provide each other with support and guidance as they attempt to live out the implications of their faith. For any particular church, there needs to be a certain degree of unity of faith or experience so that the body can make an outward profession of their faith. It finds unity in “their hearts being united by the same love, and their understandings informed in the same truths.” Many liberal meetings are not easy exploring whether their understandings are indeed informed by the same truths. They claim to be united by the same love, but sometimes it appears to be acceptance of those who share certain unspoken social, cultural and political norms. On the other hand, there are also Friends who are so concerned about insuring that all are informed by the same truths that they ignore the need to be united in the same love. There is a dynamic tension between these two requirements. It has always been a challenge to find the right balance between being loving and accepting of all the tender-hearted and of having enough coherence of belief that the community can speak with one voice on matters of importance. The history of Friends in the last two centuries is full of our failures to find that balance.

Last weekend I was at a meeting of the FUM General Board. Since its founding, FUM has been marked by an ongoing struggle between its liberal and its evangelical factions. This struggle has been very present in the organization lately and both sides take it very seriously. At this meeting I saw the whole struggle in a different light. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and we are acting like it. Not in the pious loving terms we usually think when we think of brothers and sisters in Christ. No, we are acting like siblings who are on a long journey sitting in the back seat of the car. “She's touching me.” “He's looking at me. Make him stop.” “Are we there yet?” Do we really think that God only loves our faction? Are we afraid that God loves the other faction more? Is there a limit on the love of God so we have to struggle to get our share?

Barclay says that the church is made up of those whom God has “called out of the world and worldly spirit, to walk in his Light and Life.” When we consider people for membership, do we consider if their association with Friends has made a difference in their lives? I have been told that Cuban Friends make new attenders at their churches wait for a year or two before they can become members. In that time they expect to see positive changes in that person's life and behavior. If they don't see that, they cannot join.

In the earliest period of Quakerism, there was no such thing as membership. One became known as a Friend because your language, wardrobe and behavior changed. These days the changes would be more subtle. What changes would you expect to see in someone becoming a Quaker?

Will T