When it comes to the Friends practice of the sacraments, there is a great deal of misunderstanding. Quakers do believe all of life is a sacrament, and are known for for saying “let your life speak” while abstaining from the ritual use of sacraments. This sentiment inspired one teacher at Fox from another tradition to wryly quip, “Quakers believe that everything is sacred…except bread and wine!” Frankly, I can see how someone could come to that conclusion. Early Quakers took issue with the way many standard biblical texts were used to justify the practice of ongoing rituals. They were forced to reflect back on these biblical texts during a tumultuous time of heavy handedness in the state controlled church of the English reformation. Their experience caused them to call into question many of the standard practices of the church.
For early Quakers, the Reformation did not go far enough. They radically saw the time “true worshippers would worship in spirit and truth” mentioned in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:23), as their own.[i] In re-examining these biblical texts looking for evidence to justify the practice of “the ordinances” as they saw them practiced, they began to see holes in the tradition handed down to them. The Latin “sacramentum” is a non-biblical term used in place of the Greek “mysterion,” a word which was never used by the biblical authors to justify establishing ongoing “ordinances,” hence the need for this category of theology stands mostly on traditional, not biblical ground.[ii] As the church evolved and became more organized, rituals became standardized and were reworked into levers of power and control. Quakers saw the work of Christ as completed, and criticized both Roman Catholics and other Protestants for—in praxis—trying to “finish in the flesh something God had began by the spirit.” In the perspective of early Friends, these rituals were not practiced by the earliest church, but were later borrowed from pagan rituals, decades—if not centuries—later to make Christianity more palatable to the Romans.
To explore this further with more specificity, Quakers saw for instance, two types of baptism in scripture: John’s baptism of repentance, and Jesus’ baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire at Pentecost. They saw little in the pages of scripture to back up the modern notion that the water from John’s baptism was a necessary precursor to the spiritual baptism Jesus promised that was recieved in the upper room. They saw the former baptism simply as a transitional foreshadowing of the latter. John the Baptist himself made a distinction between his baptism and Jesus’, and Friends took quite literally the church’s call to practice “one baptism.”[iii] Quakers saw Jesus’ command in the great commission as having less to do with dunking people in water, but as a command for them to personally embody a life lived as a catalyst of the inbreaking kingdom of God. For them, water baptism, like circumcision, had passed away even during the time of Paul, a man happy he did not practice baptism often among his Gentile converts.[iv]
Likewise, for early Friends, as Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples, He did not intend to set up an ongoing ritual. As an observant Jew surrounded by observant Jewish disciples, Jesus’ participation in the Passover makes sense. Jesus used the Passover to illustrate His destiny among Jewish disciples saying, “do this in remembrance of me.” He was not setting up a new system of sacrifice, or initiating a new feast for the church. As the author of Hebrews points out, these types of sacrifices are no longer required because Jesus, as our High Priest, fulfilled them in totality. When one looks at the rarity of texts concerning the Last Supper (bare mention in one Gospel and one Pauline Epistle), and their vagueness concerning how continued practice should be done, and then one compares this with the specificity of the foundational Old Testament texts containing instructions about how to celebrate the Passover, it is easy to see a striking difference.[v] No wonder the reformation could not agree on a specific biblical sacramental theology or standard practice: it is simply not spelled out with clarity.
While much of Christianity has fractured and divided itself by delineating specific methodologies for administering these rituals, Quakers have not. When one talks to a Quaker about these things, it is helpful to note that there are at least three contemporary views on participation in the ritual of “the sacraments”: The first is the impediment view, which takes the view that these rituals actually hinder or distract the believer from God’s mystical presence. This pessimistic view is often found among unprogrammed Friends, but is certainly not limited to them.
The second is the non-necessity view, which sees these rituals as purely symbolic. They may be helpful pointers for some, but are not necessary to practice, nor are they meritorious or efficacious for receiving God’s grace in any real way. Those who find them helpful should not be condemned for doing so, but there is in the end a “more excellent way” to experience the reality of God when these “training wheels” come off. This is often the view of programmed Friends, and it can at times seem to smack of spiritual arrogance for both insider and outsider alike.
The third view is the Friends view re-examined, of which there are three variations. The first variation is based on a “freedom of conscience to practice the ordinances.” Programmed Quakers in Ohio for instance, have reintegrated these rituals into their worship experience on the grounds that there is nothing in Faith and Practice that forbids Quakers to participate in them. The second re-examined view advocates a similar freedom of conscience, but bases it upon a concern not to impede ecumenical unity. This view warns against becoming “frozen in an irrelevant debate” and allows that these rituals may be practiced corporately in a way that is complementary to traditional Quaker worship practices and concerns. The third advocates, generally among unprogrammed Friends, the freedom to seek out and participate in communion services held by other denominations.[vi]
As one can readily see, there is actually a great diversity and freedom among Quaker practices when it comes to these rituals. In my context, they are rarely practiced, but if someone wanted to be baptized with water or share “outward” communion, they would be heartily supported in doing so. For the most part, it is the meaning behind the ritual and not the ritual itself that is emphasized among Quakers. For instance, communion is alive and well in the Quaker church. It just takes the form of a corporate silent time of experiencing God’s presence. Far from the typical protestant view of seeing bread and wine as symbols, the Quaker view is closer to a Roman Catholic understanding of the “real presence of Jesus” in the sacraments.[vii] The only difference is, that the Quakers encourage “basking in union with God” without the use of symbols at all. There is no need for theologies like transubstantiation, or consubstantiation if one focuses only on the spiritual union with God that the bread and wine represent[viii]. Likewise, with baptism, a believer is sealed by the Holy Spirit in a powerful encounter with God’s presence with or without actual water[ix]. Instead of water baptism marking the beginning of a disciples’ journey with God, the “journey before the journey” is recognized for its fruits and its evidence of what God has already done and is doing in the life of the believer. Quaker baptism is an inward baptism of the whole life of the participant.[x] In my experience, baptism came in the form of prayer and the laying on of hands. There was no water involved, but I do not question whether I spiritually died and rose with Christ because I knew this spiritual reality in deep personal experience. A Quaker understanding of what are known as the sacraments has nothing to do with Augustine’s formula about “visible signs of God’s invisible grace.” They are seen simply as outward signs of an inward reality or change.
The good side of the Quaker emphasis is that people are not expected to participate in the form of a ritual without having first experienced an inward change and then later find themselves expected to “fake it till you make it.” This typically does not lead someone into thinking of their baptism as simultaneously both the beginning and the end of their spiritual journey. If you do not participate in a ritual, say a few “magic words”, and instantly become “saved” you are spared a great deal of “theology of arrival.”
There is, however, also a negative side of this “spiritualization only” view of the sacraments. We are not disembodied spiritual beings, but have bodies that appreciate touch and other senses! While the outward forms are not necessary for salvation, at times, we do many a disservice by acting as though these things are not even helpful. The outward forms cannot replace the inward realities they represent, yet they point to them and pointing is good! As Thomas Kelly said, “something as simple as a three inch finger can point toward even the most distant star.” Once the Shekinah Glory of God is fully in view, the finger that pointed to that glory is forgotten. At no point does the finger become bad! A lot of the Friends sacramental theology arose in a tumultuous time and in a context of spiritual abuse, how long must an experience of abuse define us? It seems to me that participating in physical rituals does not necessitate a distraction from God’s presence. It does not have to trick people into thinking their spiritual journey has ended before it has even begun either. The common argument that something will become mundane if overdone is also on shaky ground. I would hardly encourage someone not to participate in silent prayer too often because their prayers might become shallow! The fact is, silent prayer is yet another ritual, albeit a very simply one. Whether or not the earliest church practiced them, these rituals do have great value in fostering ecumenical unity: Communion is—at the very least—one of the most ubiquitous Christian acts of worship, and one that has endured for millennia! If we are not careful or thoughtful about what we practice in our sacramental theology, an unhealthy platonic dualism, or Gnosticism, can dominate our worship in ways that divide us from other Christians and lead us into new forms of unchecked legalism. We must also be careful not to inadvertently discredit the experiences of others who value tangible reminders of the historic truths of Christianity, casting ourselves as some kind of spiritual elitists. “Primitive Christianity revived” requires more from us than black and white thinking and polar extremes on praxis.
[i]Jack L. Willcuts, Why Friends Are Friends: Some Quaker Core Convictions (Newberg, OR: Barclay Press, 1984), 26.
[ii] Wilmer A. Cooper, A Living Faith: an Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs, 2nd ed. (Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 2001),120.
[iii] Robert Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English. Dean Friday Ed., (Newberg OR: Barclay Press, 1991) 308.
[iv] Willcuts, Why Friends Are Friends, 27-28.
[v] Ibid, 30-33.
[vi] Cooper, A Living Faith,113-114.
[vii] Willcuts, Why Friends Are Friends, 31.
[viii] Margery Post Abbott, To Be Broken and Tender: a Quaker Theology for Today (Palo Alto: Friends Bulletin Corporation, 2010), 152.
[ix] Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, 308.
[x] Emilie Griffin and Douglas V. Steere, eds., Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings (San Francisco: Harper One, 2005), 18.
Willcuts, Jack L. Why Friends Are Friends: Some Quaker Core Convictions. Newberg, OR: Barclay Press, 1984.
Cooper, Wilmer A. A Living Faith: An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs. 2nd ed. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 2001.
Barclay, Robert. Barclay’s Apology in Modern English. Dean Friday Ed., Newberg OR: Barclay Press, 1991
Abbott, Margery Post. To Be Broken and Tender: a Quaker Theology for Today. Palo Alto: Friends Bulletin Corporation, 2010.
Griffin, Emilie, and Douglas V. Steere, eds. Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2005.