Information for Seekers: Quaker 101
We hope the following topics (and associated links) provide a better understanding of Quaker principles, values and practices.
- Religious Language
- The Light Within
- Relationship with Christianity
- Quakers and the Bible
- Social Concerns
Branches: Varieties of Quaker Belief and Practice
Anyone who looks at the Society of Friends in the United States today will notice two styles of worship.
In an unprogrammed Meeting for Worship, worshippers wait in silence for the voice of the Divine, and for a feeling of spiritual unity with others. All who attend are listeners. After contemplating whether a spiritual message is mean for oneself, or also for others, any listener may become a minister, and rise to speak. Such speaking is called “vocal ministry.” Silence, however, can be a form of ministry too. There are no designated “leaders,” no order of service, no prepared sermon, no hymn singing (although someone will feel called to sing or recite a poem). Each month, someone is asked to read the Ädvices and Queries” for that month; otherwise there are noprepared readings.
In contrast, a programmed Quaker meeting is led by a minister, elder or pastor, follows a set order, and contains elements found in many Christian Protestant services, such as Bible readings, singing and prepared sermons. More often called a service than a meeting, Quaker programmed services sometimes also include a period of silent worship.
In England, where Quakerism began, all Quaker meetings are unprogrammed. In many other parts of the world, all or most meetings are programmed. More Quakers in the world today attend programmed than unprogrammed meetings.
Outward differences in worship style mirror inward differences in belief and religious practice. Programmed meetings tend to profess an evangelical, Christ-centered message based on an infallible Bible; unprogrammed meetings tend away from these things. Unprogrammed meetings are often called liberal, unprogrammed conservative. This might seem like a fair characterization if you’re willing to overlook the details, but you would be nissing some of the core similarities that allow both branches to consider themselves Quakers. The issue is complex.
Orange County Friends Meeting is an unprogrammed meeting. Most of the material on this website reflects the point of view the so-called liberal branch of the Society.
Among the various Quaker organizations, Friends General Conference (FGC), consists mostly of unprogrammed, liberal-leaning meetings, while Evangelical Friends International consists of mostly programmed, pastoral churches with an evangelical emphasis. Friends United Meeting consists of both programmed and unprogrammed meetings, and is broadly Christian in scope.
Some interesting articles on “liberal” or unprogrammed FRIENDS vs “conservative” or Pastoral friends:
- The Authenticity of liberal Quakerism by Chuck Fager
- The Political Ideology of Unprogrammed Quakers by Jack P. Powelson
Quakers encourage one another “to distinguish the language of the pure Sprit which inwardly move upon the heart,” rather than focusing on seeking names for God.
In the course of following their spiritual paths, many Friends find great depth of meaning in familiar Christian concepts and language, while others find more universalist language speaks to their condition. Although this phenomenon may seem perplexing to a casual observer, it does not trouble many seasoned Friends who have discovered deep unity with one another in the Spirit. The breadth of Friends’ terminology promotes latitude in expression and appreciation for what may be subtle differences in understanding.
… tell them in the name of God that there is to be no wrangling about words: all that this ever achieves is the destruction of those who are listening.2 Timothy 2:14 (New Jerusalem Bible 2)
The Light Within
The Light Within, which is the central Quaker idea, is no abstract phrase. It is an experience. It is a type of religion that turns away from arid theological notions and that insists instead upon a real and vital experience of God revealed to persons in their own souls, in their own personal lives… We no more need to go somewhere to find God than the fish needs to soar to find the ocean or the eagle needs to plunge to find the air…. The pioneer Quakers believed with all their minds and strength that something like that was true, that they had discovered it, tested it, and were themselves a demonstration of it.Rufus Jones
Relationship with Christianity
Friends are often asked: “Are Quakers Christians?” Whether one interprets the Quaker movement as a strand within Protestantism or as a third force distinct from both Protestantism and Catholicism, the movement, both in its origin and in the various branches that have evolved, is rooted in Christianity.
Early Friends considered themselves Christians; they interpreted and justified their unique vision in Biblical and traditional Christian terms. However, from its inception the Quaker movement has offered critiques of many accepted manifestations of Christianity while at the same time empathizing with people of other faiths.
Quakers and the Bible
For many Friends, the Judeo-Christian Bible is an interpretation of God’s revelation over many centuries and a rich and sustaining source of inspiration.
While early Friends affirmed the inspiration of the scriptures, they made a distinction that has remained vital to this day. In Henry Cadbury’s words:
Divine revelation was not confined to the past. The same Holy Spirit that had inspired the scriptures in the past could inspire living believers centuries later. Indeed, for the right understanding of the past, the present insight from the same Sprit was essential.
- Friends (Quakers) and the Bible by Bill Samuel (1998)
- A Quaker Approach to the Bible by Henry Joel Cadbury, 1953
from Pacific Yearly MeetiNG Faith and Practice(2001), 22-23
Friends recognize that special moments of particular insight and spiritual awareness do occur, but they do not require prescribed rites or external sacraments.
Like most people, Friends cherish the passages and life experiences often marked by traditional sacramental forms and community recognitions. Friends hold special Meetings for Worship where some of the content is planned in advance, specifically on the occasion of marriage or death. Many Meetings also hold small, usually informal, celebrations for the birth of a child, graduation, new membership or another special event. These often take on the sacred character of a community united in its focus on the divine: a sacrament. Wary of how quickly a spontaneous celebration can become an empty ritual through repetition, Friends have avoided adopting rituals governed by outer rules or supervised by an ordained individual.
Our experience leads us to emphasize the fact that entrance into the community of Christ’s people requires no outward rite, but is to be known only through trust, obedience, love and commitment. As there are brought forth in us, we find ourselves drawn together into a unity with one another in which the presence of the Spirit of God is realized. Similarly, we believe that our corporate experience at its best justifies us in claiming, in humility, that Christ’s real presence is indeed known by us when even two or three are gathered together, in quite expectancy, in his name. As some Friends would even say that they have come to know, in Quaker worship and fellowship, a communion with Christ which goes beyond anything they had previously experienced in the sacramental practice of other Christian groups.Maurice A. Creasey
From the Mission Statement of the American Friends Service Committee, 1994
We cherish the belief that there is that of God in each person, leading us to respect the worth and dignity of all. We are guided and empowered by the Spirit in following the radical thrust of the early Christian witness. From these beliefs flow the core understandings that form the spiritual framework of our organization and guide its work.
We regard no person as our enemy. While we often oppose specific actions and abuses of power, we seek to address the goodness and truth in each individual.
We assert the transforming power of love and nonviolence as a challenge to injustice and violence and as a force for reconciliation.
We seek and trust the power of the Spirit to guide the individual and collective search for truth and practical action.
We accept our understandings of truth as incomplete, and have faith that new perceptions of truth will continue to be revealed both to us and to others.