Within the Roman Catholic tradition, there are a number of monastic orders that maintain a certain level of autonomy and distinctness from the wider Church. Each of these orders has a particular sense of call and a special gift that they lift up for the wider Body. This special purpose, the particular giftedness and mission of the smaller order within the Body, is called a charism. Some orders focus on teaching, others on missionary work, still others on dedicated prayer; whatever their particular call as a community might be, it is this charism that justifies their existence as a semi-autonomous order within the Church.
I have long felt that the Religious Society of Friends is, in effect, a sort of religious order within the wider Christian Church. Believing that this is so, I am led to ask: What is our charism as a community? What is it that justifies the separate existence of the Quaker Church? If we are ultimately merely a subset of the worldwide orthodox Christian Church, what reasons can we offer for existing as a distinct society - an order - within the wider body? To put it another way: What are the special gifts that we bring to the wider Body? What is our particular mission as a people within the universal Church?
I would argue that our most essential calling as a people is to lift up a compelling witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is indeed risen from the dead. In our experience, this is not a figure of speech nor merely a fact that will only become truly relevant at some point in the future, when Jesus returns. We believe and we testify to our experience that Jesus has returned in a very important sense. He is available to us now, as he promised, whenever two or three are gathered together in his name.(1) The most basic mission of the Religious Society of Friends is to proclaim and make visible the fact that Jesus Christ is here, now, teaching and leading us himself.
Flowing out of this experience of Christ's literal presence in the midst of the community, Friends have developed certain beliefs and practices that make us unique, distinct from the rest of the Christian Church. Because of our faith that the Holy Spirit will lead us in our life together as a community, we seek to submit ourselves to its guidance in all things. Rather than attempting to interpret the Bible like a legal code, we seek to allow the very Spirit that inspired the Scriptures to inspire us as well, so that we can understand the true meaning of the holy texts. We wait on Christ, trusting him to open the Scriptures to us, just as he did for the early Church.(2)
This direct reliance on the Holy Spirit for direction not only gives Friends a distinctive relationship with the Bible, it also changes how we understand human authority. For much of the Christian Church, a human system of government is set up as the ultimate authority for the community. Whether it is a hierarchy of bishops and priests, bodies of elected representatives, or simple voting at the congregational level, most of the Church operates essentially under human control.
Truth be told, much of the time Quaker churches and institutions make their decisions with same degree of functional atheism as within the wider Church. However, at the core of our tradition is a practice of inward listening and trust in the living presence of Christ to guide us as a community. Out of our testimony that Christ is literally here, the functional Head of his Church today, we have developed a method of decision-making that involves group discernment of God's will. Rather than relying on human hierarchies or political-style voting, our charism expresses itself in a practice of voteless decision-making, where all the members come together and are (more often that one would guess) brought into clarity and unity by the present Spirit of Christ.
The discernment of God's will by the entire membership of the Church, waiting to be brought into unity by the Holy Spirit, is one of the most profound characteristics of the Religious Society of Friends that justifies its autonomous existence within the wider Church. We believe that this is a practice that the entire Church should adopt, and the best way we can witness to this super-human way of being guided directly by God is to continue to practice it as a distinct community.
Out of this process of waiting together as a community for the guidance of Christ's risen presence and power, a number of other distinctive beliefs and practices have emerged. Once again, we believe that these beliefs and practices are fundamentally faithful to the Truth of the gospel, and we feel that we are justified in remaining a distinct community within the wider Church so that we might continue to witness to the truth that has been revealed to us.
One part of our particular mission as Friends is to witness to the primacy of the spiritual reality of the gospel over the formal ritualism that so often threatens to choke out the Seed of Christ. Because we believe that the inward baptism of the Holy Spirit is so important, we feel led to refrain from participating in the outward ritual of water baptism. Similarly, because we feel that communion with Christ is fundamentally a spiritual reality, we refrain from conducting the ritual of the Lord's Supper within our community. Instead, we receive communion with Christ through a form of sacramental silence and prophecy.
Most Christian bodies believe that water baptism and the Lord's Supper are essential for salvation, and we know that many will be worried for the state of our souls. Yet it is precisely for this reason that it is so important that we maintain our witness in this regard. While we do not believe these traditional Christian rituals are wrong per se, it is our fervent belief that Jesus Christ desires lives of holiness and love, not religious ritual. We pray that, through our abstention from these forms (and, admittedly, adoption of different forms) we might help to reveal the truth that God is truly sovereign and that we cannot control God through ritual.
There are a number of other distinctive beliefs and practices that form part of the Quaker charism: Acknowledgment of the spiritual equality and ministry of women and men; denying participation in war and preparation for war; care for the Creation; refusal to swear oaths, and a general intensity in our call to be truthful at all times. All of these beliefs and practices are rooted in our experience with the risen Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. In our desire to be faithful to him, we feel called to remain a distinct society - an autonomous order within the wider Church - until such a time as our faith and practice is fully integrated into the entire Body.
For Friends: What is your response to this? Does this resonate with your sense of our charism, our mission as a community? For Friends and others: How does this relate to you and your faith community? How do we maintain a distinct witness in a culture that is both intensely sub-divided and yet skeptical of commitment to any one path? How do we affirm our distinctive call as a community while staying engaged with the wider Body of Christ?
1. Matthew 18: 20
2. Luke 24:32