quakers, sacraments and practices

AJ Schwanz has once again written a thoughtful post about Quakers ideas of the sacraments. She’s been reading Bolger’s book and this of course brings up many questions about the use of sacraments for old and new faith communities. Many Emerging Churches do away with the wafer and grape juice for a more authentic communion of breaking bread together in the form of community meals.

Quakers have, since the time of George Fox and Robert Barclay had a very unique, and ingenius, understanding of the sacraments that was founded on the apocalyptic understanding of Christ’s Spirit within the creation. This meant that for Fox and the early Quakers they saw all of life as holding the possibility of being sacramental. This is the positive side of their doctrine, the negative side is that they did not do the eucharist during their church services. This latter fact has always puzzled non-Quakers.

What the Friends have lost over time is the original intention of Fox and Barclay, it wasn’t to do away with “the sacraments” but to enrich the Christian community’s understanding of them. Elton Trueblood, 20th Century Quaker philosopher/theologian has written extensively on the idea that Christians are to live “sacramentally.” In other words we should not limit our understanding of the sacraments to the seven the Catholics practice, or the two (Baptism, Eucharist) that the majority of the Protestant church use. All of life, everything we do can be “a symbol that reflects the reality of the Lord.” Quakers over time have sometimes done well, sometimes failed at living sacramentally.

What is most important is that we do well at the original intention of the Lord’s Supper as instituted by Jesus himself. I agree with John Howard Yoder’s interpretation in “Body Politics” of what this is, the original intention of the breaking of bread, was a common meal of fellowship where all were welcome and fed. Jesus broke the exclusive “table practices” of the day, by welcoming sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors and even his own betrayer to his dining table. In those days, who you ate with were understood to be the people you associated with. Not only was Jesus’ practice radical by who ate with him, but it was also radical because he made one of the primary practices of all people (eating) intricately linked to the practice of the church “whenever you do this.” 

Further, not only is the church a welcoming group of people who practice an “open table” and feed those who are in need, giving them their daily bread, but we are promised that when we do these things we are participating with Christ’s Spirit. The life and crucifixion of Jesus is the content and reason for why we gather together. When we break the bread and drink the wine with one another, the outcasts of the world, and as the people of the Holy Spirit, we share in the work of Jesus, until he comes again.

For the Friends Church, as with the Emerging Church it is important that we don’t settle with the routine practices of partaking wafers and grape juice and suppose that we are really fulfilling the whole “sacrament” of eating together. These ways only mirror what Christ has really called us to do. We must finds ways to live sacramentally, enriching our faith by following the subversive practices of Jesus.

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11 responses to “quakers, sacraments and practices”

  1. Hey Wess,
    Back in my seminary days I did an independent study looking at the Spirit and the Church. One of the papers I did for that was a consideration of communion from a slightly different perspective, viewing it pneumatologically, and finding that the traditional emphases miss what seems to be the primary purpose of the Lord’s supper, which really community bonding through a common cause.

    The Spirit draws us together, and the Spirit unites us, focusing us on Christ, for Christ, in Christ together. In the meal we celebrate this reflection of Christ, focusing on Christ above, in history, and in us.

    By emphasizing the elements, by emphasizing the bread and wine themselves, the Church has lost a sense of how to really recognize the Body, that is the body of Christ, which is all those who are celebrating the meal.

    We’ve made what was intended as the primary method of unity into what is now the primary reason for disunity. The enemy is good at his work.

    The Quakers, who are good at recognizing the common priesthood of believers, seem to be unconvinced by the historical interpretations of the supper, but I wonder if the sacraments could be renewed in their understanding if the interpretation was shown to really celebrate the Quaker values of community involvement.

    The supper is not just a celebration that Christ died for us, but that he died for all of us, and can serve as a potent retuning of our often selfish perspectives. If each week we, in our liturgies, and through the week, in our lives, were continually pushed to acknowledge the importance and real value of others I suspect the Church, in all its forms, would do some fairly fine work in this world.

    Here’s the paper, by the by, if’n you’re interested.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response: I greatly enjoy hearing from others perspective, especially when it looks from a current, holistic experience rather than “well, that’s the way we’ve *always* done it.” I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who believes there’s gotta be more to doing this whole church life/sacraments/tradition thing. I appreciate you not only bringing in “postmodern” sensibilities, but also drawing upon theologians’ thoughts: well-balanced. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I used to attend a Baptist church while still attending the Friends church I grew up in. It in highschool that I made a conscious decision to start taking communion and to be Baptised, but my reasons had absolutely nothing to do with the sacramental nature that people associate with these acts. I simply wanted to follow Christ fully. I knew what it was supposed to “mean” but in the end, I just did them because I felt like it was one step closer to allowing myself the room to experience a crucified self.

    Of course, for many Quakers that previous paragraph sounds like mumbo-jumbo, and maybe that’s why we have such a hard time talking about it all.

  4. There is something that is lost in the Friends Church if we avoid all repetition of anything? I know that for Fox and others they wanted to get out of “vain repetitions” which is a great idea, but I’d like to think that we can go from vain repetitions to transformed practices. In fact Quakers have their own set of practices, that have no taken on an almost sacramental mystique. Worshipping in expectant silence, leading decision making through open meeting forums, and allowing everyone to speak during any meeting are all practices that have become a part of the church and help us to interact with and evoke the Spirit of God.

    There are other practices that I believe we must reincorporate back into our narrative as Quakers, eating the common meal of the Lord’s supper is one of those things. This is much different than eating a wafer and drinking welshes on sunday morning, and it not only reaches core values of Quakerism but reaches back to the Word’s of Christ “When you do this, do it in memory of me.”

  5. Hi Wess,
    I just wrote a rather long post on this issue, using Aj’s post and this post as starting points, written from a traditionalist (but I hope not too grumpy) perpsective.

    I do want to add that I appreciate what you said in your comment:

    There are other practices that I believe we must reincorporate back into our narrative as Quakers, eating the common meal of the Lord’s supper is one of those things. This is much different than eating a wafer and drinking welshes on sunday morning, and it not only reaches core values of Quakerism but reaches back to the Word’s of Christ “When you do this, do it in memory of me.

    I went “GRR…” when I read the first sentence, but if you are saying what I think you are saying – that perhaps we should give many of our existing common meals a Eucharistic interpretation, rather than just instituting communion on Sundays – then I think maybe I can handle other Friends doing that, and I might even consider doing it myself. (:

    (PS – I’m loving this “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail… need to switch to WordPress soon…)

  6. Zach – thanks for the comment, I look forward to reading your post about the issue, I always enjoy what you have to say. And you are right to assume my intention of what I’ve been saying, we need to eat together in our communities, and share our food with those in need outside our direct communities of faith – all with a “Eurcharistic meaning.” I am not asking to break out the welch’s and wafers on sunday morning, I am calling for something that would require more time, energy, and have more personal risk involved.

  7. […] I ended up finding a youth ministry position at a Friends Church in Northeastern Ohio while my wife, Emily, and I were both still in college. It was there that we spent more time learning and absorbing the Quaker narrative, learning how to embody this version of Christianity. The problem then was, not so much that people on the Evangelical side of the tradition were adverse to us taking seriously notions like pacifism, simplicity, women in ministry, and sacramental living, but we realized our views were marginal in the larger body. We certainly are not the only ones within the Evangelical Friends Church to believe this stuff, but as a whole the tradition has moved away from discipling its people into the kinds of practices that cultivate Christians that look like our earlier counterparts (see my posts on Evangelicalism for more on this subject). […]

  8. I don’t know to ascribe this to a quirk in technology or divine intervention, but a few minutes ago when I clicked the button to open this blog I got this posting from nearly eight months ago, and was unable to get more recent postings. Maybe I read this before, and just don’t remember it (I seem to do that a lot) but there were a number of things said here that are worthy of deep consideration, more than I will be able to take in tonight.
    When I was young I went with my parents to the Methodist church, and continued to do so until I was near 30, so I have witnessed that ritual performed more than 300 times. In the nearly 30 years that I have been attending Quaker meeting the term “Lord’s Supper” has taken on new meaning for me. When I hear it, I am more apt to think of the scripture from Revelation 3:20 (Behold, I stand at the door and knock) or the account of the risen Christ supping with the not yet comprhending disciples that he had met on the road to Emmaus. Certainly, all three views are important in understanding how we commune with the divine. However I am left wondering if I am not experiencing the depth of understanding that I should be receiving from the account of the night of the betrayal because I tend to block it out of my mind after all those years of witnessing the Methodists’ one dimentional interpetation of it.