Dear Friends: In the last issue of Western Friend, I described the formation of our new Sierra Cascade Yearly Meeting of Friends (SCYMF), which is both Christian and Quaker. It turns out that carrying both those identities at once is not easy. SCYMF was formed by “welcoming and affirming” Quakers who were required to leave a yearly meeting whose Christianity cannot be both welcoming and affirming. When our little group of churches and meetings considered joining the welcoming and affirming North Pacific Yearly Meeting, we realized that our Christianity would be a major problem for many!
“Christianity needs to curl up and die,” I heard at an unprogrammed meeting in Portland, OR, a few years ago. Friends who were present knew I was visiting from a programmed, pastored meeting, but I doubt they also knew how much I agreed with the feeling behind those words. I agree there is too much falseness in what Christianity has become, too much betrayal of the teachings and examples of Jesus and His followers.
How deeply ironic that Early Friends had to justify – to the Christian Church and Christian Government of their day – that they were, indeed, Christians. In their eloquent, solid, reasoned arguments, Robert Barclay and Isaac Penington cited the Bible extensively to justify Quaker faith and practice as the true Christianity. We Quakers who claim Christianity today make similar arguments to Evangelicals. But now, we also need to explain ourselves to our fellow Friends who are non-Christians – and even non-theists.
Evangelical Christianity today is not the Christianity of SCYMF. Nor was it the Christianity of Early Friends. Evangelical Christianity today has been reduced to exhorting all people to accept certain statements about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection as “factual,” and thus be granted safe passage to Heaven when they die. That is the “gospel” these Evangelicals preach. It is not the gospel Jesus preached, though surely there are some areas of overlap. Creedal statements are not what the Early Friends experienced, lived, and shared.
Jesus said this, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) Isaac Penington wrote, “The way of unbelief is broad, yea, the way of belief is broad also. It is easy for a man so to believe concerning Christ, or in Christ, (as his heart may call it) as to miss of the nature of the true faith, and of the sweet and blessed effects which accompany it.” (1761) That is, if a person is too focused on traveling the “broad way” of religious belief (or theology), they can easily overlook the narrow path of true faith.
I became a Quaker because my prior form of Christianity had led me to destruction. (I realize that statement needs a lot of unpacking, for which there is not space here. However, if you consider the cooperation that Evangelicals have developed with the holders of political power today, you’ll get my drift.) For a while, I abandoned my deeply held Christian theology altogether. Then the Early Friends showed me a different gate, a different path. In becoming a Quaker Christian, among other changes, I now experience the tension of seeing the value and worth of many spiritual traditions while at the same time seeing that to go deep, I gotta pick one. And, despite my initial resistance and reluctance, I was led by my Inward Teacher back to my Christian faith. This faith is more than a theology.
What I think all Friends hold in common is that we all recognize those precious moments when we feel the Presence of God – both in personal moments of worship and in our gathered meetings. That direct experience, more than the words we find to describe it, might just be “enough” to hold the centrifugal words “Christian” and “Quaker” together in Sierra Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.
“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. . . . and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (John 10: 2-5)
Julie Peyton is a member of West Hills Friends Church and Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.