Monday, March 26, 2012

Experiencing the Light as a Quaker and as a Methodist

For over twenty years I was married to Kathleen Ross, a Methodist minister whom I met at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation. She had a deep affinity for Quakerism, and I came to appreciate Methodism during the course of our wonderful marriage.

Kathleen passed away three years ago, and I have remarried to a woman who is also a Methodist--a "free" Methodist, a branch of Methodists who split off from the mainstream Methodists in the 19th century because they didn't want to pay for their pews (as was the custom then) and because they strongly opposed slavery.

Obviously, I feel drawn not only to Methodism but also to Methodist women, so perhaps it might be helpful to explain what Methodism and Quakerism have in common.

When Kathleen and I were married in the manner of Quakers at a Friends Meetinghouse in Claremont, California, most of the 150 or so people who attended our wedding were Methodists. In keeping with Quaker practice, we didn’t have an assigned minister or any set order of worship. We just sat in front of the congregation, said our marriage vows, and waited for the Spirit to inspire us. There was a long silence, and then various people stood up and shared their messages. Some sang hymns. Some told stories. One Methodist pastor who was Kathleen’s buddy even told a joke. Everything happened spontaneously, and it was one of the most beautiful experiences of our lives. It’s amazing what happens when you let go and let God conduct the worship service!

When Kathleen first told her Methodist friends that she was marrying a Quaker, some of them asked, “Does he wear buttons?” So let me begin by saying that Quakers are not Amish. We Quakers believe in living simply, but we aren’t opposed to modern technology. As Quakers, what we try to do is get rid of anything in our lives that stands between us and the Spirit.

Like the Amish faith, Quakerism began during a time of violent social and religious upheaval. The world was being torn apart by religious wars. Religious fanaticism was rampant. Sad to say, things are not so different today.

Then along came George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. He was of humble origins, a leather worker by trade, and he was looking for answers to spiritual questions. He went to the ministers and religious gurus of his time, but none of them could help him. Then one day George sat down in utter despair and waited on the Lord. Here’s what he said about this experience in his Journal:


When all my hopes in [preachers] and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy….And this I knew experimentally.”

This was the beginning of a radically new “experimental” religious movement. By “experimental” Fox meant that religion has to be based upon inward experience rather than upon dogma or external authority. All the trappings of religion—stained glass windows, church buildings, even hymn-singing and the sacraments—have to be eliminated so we can have a direct experience of God’s presence. Quakers come together, sit in silence, and wait on the Lord. There is no order of worship, no paid minister, no prearranged sermon. People speak out of the silence only when they feel a leading of the Spirit. This seemingly formless form of worship sounds simple, but it is very powerful and profoundly changed people’s lives.

In its early days, Quakerism was very evangelical. Quakers traveled all over England, and the rest of the world, sharing their Good News. “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” That was the Quaker message. Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit to teach us, and this spirit is available now, just as it was in the time of the apostles. Each of us has a direct link to Christ. We just have to keep our phone line open, so to speak, and the Lord will answer.

Early Quakers had other good news. They believed that there is “that of God” in every person. This meant that women as well as men could preach the Word of God since everyone is equal in God’s sight. This was very controversial then. In the eighteenth century, Dr. Johnson said of a Quaker woman preacher. “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on its hinder legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised that it is done at all” (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, p. 327). Fox along with other Quakers felt quite differently about women preaching. Long before other Christian denominations recognized women ministers, Quaker women could get up in meeting and preach just like men. Many Quaker women became leaders in prison reform, the anti-slavery movement, and the women’s rights movement.

The other important Quaker message was non-violence. Quakers believe that Christ does not intend for us to fight with what George Fox called “carnal weapons.” To overcome evil, we must do use spiritual weapons, and the most powerful spiritual weapon of all is love. Over the past three and a half centuries, many Quakers have preferred going to prison to going to war. In the 20th century many Quakers became conscientious objectors, and so many became active in doing relief work after wars that in 1947 they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

What do Methodists have in common with Quakers?

The Quaker historian John Punshon has noted that “there are many parallels between the emergence of Quakerism as a force in the Seventeenth Century, and the rise of Methodism in the Eighteenth. Each is due in considerable measure to the work of one tough, energetic man of vision and deep spiritual experience. George Fox and John Wesley came from different stations in life, but each found, ultimately, that the church of his birth was too narrow to contain him. Each spent his life bringing other people to Christ. Each in his way emulated Paul. Wesley was a great traveler for the faith, Fox was a great prisoner for it” (p. 148).

As many of you no doubt know, Wesley’s dramatic conversion experience took place aboard a ship heading back to England after an unsuccessful ministry in Georgia. A great storm arose, and the ship began to rock back and forth so violently that many people were terrified that the ship would sink. Only one group seemed unperturbed: a group of Moravians who cheerfully sang hymns while the storm raged. Wesley came to realize that religion is more than just following rules and being a good person. You have to have total faith in God’s love and grace. When Wesley opened himself up to that faith, he had what he called a “heart warming experience.” He knew from experience, and not simply from reading the Bible, that God’s love is limitless and can utterly transform our lives. This is also the belief of Friends.

Like Wesley, Quakers believed that God wants to save everyone. This may seem obvious today, at least to most of us sitting in this room, but it wasn’t obvious to everyone in Wesley’s time. The Calvinists and Catholics felt that only a select few were predestined to be saved by God. The vast majority of people are hopelessly damned. Methodists and Quakers have always believed that God’s plan is for everyone to enjoy eternal happiness. This is called “Universal Salvation” or “Universalism.”

Here’s how John Punshon described the enthusiasm of early Methodists and Quakers. “The religion that [the Methodists] preached was, like the Quakers’, based on personal experience and the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. The Methodist converts, like the early Quakers, were possessed of an irrepressible joy” (p. 149).

The core of the Methodist faith lay in small groups of people coming together to experience and share the good news of Christ entering and transforming their lives. This experience seemed so close to Quakerism that many Methodists became Quakers and vice versa.

In 1748, Wesley became concerned about the excessively cordial relations between Methodists and Quakers, so he wrote a tract pointing out the theological differences between the two groups. Unlike Quakers, Methodists do not deny the importance of sacraments. Methodists are also much more Christ- and Bible-centered than Quakers.

Despite these differences, Quakers and Methodists have had many fruitful contacts over the years. John Wesley became opposed to slavery largely because of a Philadelphia Quaker named Anthony Benezet. Many Methodists have been influenced by Quakers who were pacifists or activists in the feminist and Civil Rights movements.

Methodists have also influenced Quakers. If you go to a Friends Church, such as the one in Whittier or Long Beach, you might imagine you were at a Methodist worship service. There is a paid minister, hymns, and Bible reading. The only differences you’d notice is that there are no sacraments such as baptism and communion. Instead, there is ten minutes or so of silence in the middle of the worship service. This is called “communion in the manner of Friends.”

Programmed worship developed as Quakers moved West in the nineteenth century and felt the need to “compete” with evangelical churches like the Methodists.

I am a bit unusual because I have been involved with both a Friends Church and unprogrammed Meetings. When Kathleen and I lived in Whittier during from 1986-2002, I was a member of both First Friends Church and an unprogrammed traditional Quaker meeting called Whitleaf that meets on the Whittier College campus.

I am also a card-carrying Methodist. I was given a card by the Methodist men of Del Rosa United Methodist Church when I served as a youth pastor at my wife’s church in San Bernardino for five years. I was so impressed with the youth work done by the Methodists that I helped to start a youth service program for Quakers here in Southern California.

To tell you the truth, religious labels don’t mean a lot to me. The more experience I have with God and God’s people, the less concerned I am about whether what faith people say that they belong to. What really matters is how we live our faith.

Let me conclude with the words of William Penn, the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania. Three hundred and fifty years ago, when many Christians were killing each other over matters of doctrine and ritual, Penn wrote:

“The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries [or clothing] they wear here [on earth] makes them strangers.”

I say, why wait until we are dead to take off our masks and discover that we all belong to one religion? We need to experience and share this good news today. We are all part of God’s family—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even those of little or no faith. We have been placed on this earth not to be strangers, but to be friends. Do I hear an amen?
****

Anthony Manousos joined the Religious Society of Friends in 1985 and for eleven years was editor of Friends Bulletin, the official publication of independent Western Quakers. He has also served on the board of numerous interfaith organizations, including the Parliament of the World's Religions, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, etc.
 Anthony has been involved in many Quaker projects and has edited five Quaker books, the most recent being "Quakers and the Interfaith Movement" (2011).


In 1993 Anthony helped to start a youth service program under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee and has led youth and adults on service projects to Mexico and various other places. He has published several pamphlets, including one entitled “Islam from a Quaker Perspective.” He earned a B.A. from Boston University and a Ph.D. in British literature from Rutgers University. He taught at various colleges and universities before becoming a full-time Quaker editor and peace activist.

2 comments:

  1. From a Quaker Methodist to a Methodist Quaker... Excellent Comparison! :) Whether we label it Inner Light or Prevenient Grace... the unconditional, healing, loving, guiding, presence of God is active in the hearts of everyone. Wesley Methodists have a "method" of accepting, experiencing and sharing the Love of God..."Growing in Grace". This "Means of Grace" includes: baptism, communion, worship, bible study, prayer, personal reflection and service to others. Quakers keep it simple: In the silence, the inner connection with God is experienced... through service to others, God becomes visible. We are indeed Kindred Spirits, thank you.

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  2. Thank you for this Anthony. As a Methodist minister my journeying, discipleship and of commitment to mission and development (of 40 years) owes much to the Soc of friends. Now in 'retirement and an occasional visitor to the local meeting house, I am preparing a talk in response to an invitation and your reflections have been more than a little helpful. Peace Peter

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