Some Quaker FAQS-Part 5: Creeds & “Consensus”
— For New & Curious Friends
Q. How Are Progressive Quaker Beliefs Different?
Some of the differences are not about “beliefs”, but about the ways the two groups do things. At the evangelical church I call New Covenant Temple, there are pastors and big gatherings with lots of music, and videos and talk and noise.
For Progressive Quakers, worship is based around silence, and doesn’t have a pastor leading it. Speaking or singing are possible, but mostly it’s quiet. (A few meetings are somewhat hybrid, with some silence and some planned singing or preaching; they’re often called “semi-programmed. There are also many meetings which employ pastors and have formally programmed worship; we’re not talking about them here.)
In one sense this is just a difference of style: a Quaker could believe almost the same things about God, the Bible and Jesus as someone from New Covenant Temple, but prefer to express them in a silent meeting rather than a noisy one with a pastor.
Q. What About “Creeds”? And Why Do Progressive Quakers Dislike Them?
But for most Progressive Quakers, the difference in style grows out of some different beliefs. And here we have to be careful, for one of these Progressive Quaker beliefs is that we don’t write up such official belief statements. We call them “creeds,” and mostly we’re against them. (New Covenant Temple, OTOH, is in favor of them; at least, in favor of theirs.)
(A reminder: this series of FAQs is definitely UN-official.)
We think it’s not possible to reduce God or religion to a particular set of words. And besides being impossible, doing so is usually a bad idea. In church history, creeds have too often been used to exclude people who didn’t fit or agree with them. Creeds have even been used to start wars, and terrorism, to persecute and kill people who differed, as “heretics.”
(Nowadays, creeds are still being used in some creedally-oriented Quaker groups to purge those persons and Meetings which don’t “measure up” to the dominant interpretations. I wish that wasn’t so; but it is. If you want to read more about that, browse through the earlier posting on this blog.)
And anyway, over time our understanding of God and the spirit changes (we hope it gets better). But creeds don’t — although in actual church history many have in fact been revised from time to time.
Q. What’s a Paradox, And Why Does Quakerism Have So Many?
Even so, this no-creed idea has problems too: if your church, in this case Progressive Quakers, doesn’t have some kind of statement of beliefs – then how do Quakers know what they believe, or don’t? Or can (as some of our critics say) you believe anything, or nothing, and still be a Progressive Quaker?
These are good questions, with no easy answers. And doing without a creed has a lot to do with why many young people have been raised among Liberal and Progressive Quakers without having had much (if any) clear teaching about all this. After all, if Quaker parents or a Quaker meeting are not clear about their beliefs, and are against writing them down as creeds anyway, what are they going to teach youth or newcomers? And if parents (or parent-approved authority figures) don’t teach children about their religion, where and how will they learn about it? Doesn’t that convey a message that there’s hardly enough to it even to be learned?
This is a paradox, a situation that seems to contradict itself. And paradoxes usually don’t get “resolved”; at best, one learns to live with and manage them. But if it’s any consolation, a lot about other religions involves paradoxes too.
Take this whole series, and the book on which it’s based: I’m setting out to “teach” about Progressive Quakerism and how its beliefs are similar to or different from those of a typical evangelical church I call New Covenant Temple. Yet what is said here, while I believe it, and believe many other Progressive Quakers believe it, is not based on a “creed,” an official statement of beliefs that everyone has agreed to.
Q. Is The “Sense Of The Meeting” A Quaker Substitute For A Creed?
Part of the way to manage this no-creed paradox is the Quaker idea of the “sense of the meeting,” or as it’s sometimes called, consensus. In most Liberal or Progressive Quaker groups, many people agree on enough beliefs at a given point in time that they can worship and work together. That would be a “sense” or consensus.
And while the sense of the meeting can change, these changes usually come slowly and carefully, so everyone gets adjusted to them. (As an example, Quakers once believed that slavery was okay. But then they changed their mind and declared slavery an evil thing. But the change took time; about 75 years. And even though it was slow, it was not always painless.)
Let me sketch out what I see as some items in the Liberal-Progressive Quaker “sense”/consensus as of early 2016, in the United States. These are features I observed, not necessarily what I think “should” be the case:
Most Progressive/Liberal Quakers today agree that they want their worship to be based on silence, conducted by the Spirit rather than leaders like pastors. The “sense of the meeting” is that they can listen for God better in quiet waiting.
They also agree that in business meetings they will make decisions without taking votes; here they write down the “sense of the meeting” on concrete decisions, and reach this usually (but not always) by unanimous consent.
(The “not always” part opens a big can of worms, which we can’t go into in detail here; it deserves its own book, and more than one has already been written about it.)
These Friends know this decision making method can take longer; but they believe it gets them closer to what God (or whatever they call it) wants the group to do. And the patience (or endurance) involved can also be a valuable spiritual discipline.
The “sense of the meeting” also takes the form of what Quakers call “Testimonies.” You’ve likely heard about some of these (most likely peace and equality). They represent pieces of the “sense/consensus” that are ongoing actions or priorities, which are supposed to be of concern to all the members of the group that formulated them.
In the early Quaker Books of Discipline, testimonies were regarded as more or less equivalent to divine revelations to the group. And their character, number and content differed quite a bit from those that are popular today. I find this history and evolution fascinating (and sometimes, frankly, a bit ridiculous); but I’m resisting the temptation to go into all that, because it too would need another book (or several) to explore adequately.
Anyway, one of the other things Progressive Quakers usually agree on is that they don’t have to agree on everything, and that they want, if possible, to avoid fighting about the things they disagree on.
Of course, that can be easier said than done. Sometimes the consensus among Progressive Quakers breaks down. And like many other churches, we have had disagreements that become conflicts; we’re only human. But for the most part, our meetings are able to keep going like other churches, having our worship, doing our business, and solving our problems. That is to say, our consensus works well enough.
Soon we’ll go back to the New Covenant Temple’s creedal statements from the Web, and see what they look like from a Quaker perspective. It’s time to talk about that, because there’s more to Progressive Quakerism than just not having a creed.
Like what? Let me answer that question with a story, that answers another question.
The other question is: Can You Sum Up Quakerism In Only Two Paragraphs?
My answer is: Yes.
But that’s not the story. We’ll get to that next time.
This post is adapted from the booklet, “Some Quaker FAQs,” by Chuck Fager.