Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
The artwork above is by E. Burne-Jones, April 1888, for the first book edition of William Morris' A Dream of John Ball. Illustrates the couplet "When Adam delved and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?" which had international popularity in several Germanic languages as an equalitarian slogan during the medieval period.
This week, (27th of 3rd Mo, 2012), Quaker representatives belonging to Britain Yearly Meeting accepted an invitation to attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace and were invited to address Elizabeth Windsor, known to the world as ‘The Queen’.
You may begin to ask yourself why I am choosing to use the New Foundation Web site to draw to your attention to this piece of news. What on earth has this got to do with preaching the Everlasting Gospel of George Fox and the Early Quakers?
Ever since receiving this news, I have been exercised by the thought of not only the content of the address, but also its title, “A Loyal Address to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on behalf of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain (Quakers) on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee”, and indeed, the fact that members of Britain Yearly Meeting accepted the invitation in and of itself. (It was as reported, on behalf of the ‘Religious Society Friends in Britain’. I do hope they intended to exclude those very few of us in the UK who are affiliate members of Ohio Yearly Meeting, but that’s another issue).
The fact that the title of the address contains the phrase, “A Loyal Address to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” and the acceptance of the invitation, reveals an attitude of BYM to the monarch of the UK, and seems to me a tacit admission of a position of inferiority and the monarch as a ‘superior’.
I believe that the action of Britain Yearly Meeting was in direct contradiction to one of our most important Christian testimonies, which is that all people are created equal in the sight of God.
George Fox and the Early Quakers were quite clear and insistent on this point, and Fox urged Friends to bear witness to this fundamental equality by urging them not to be ‘respecters of persons’.
And, friends, live all in the Power of the Lord God, and in his truth, light, and life, that with it you may all with one heart, soul, and mind keep dominion; and in the light, life, truth, and power of God do true judgment, justice, and truth, righteousness, and equity in all your men and women's meetings, without favour or affection to relations, kindreds, and acquaintance, or any respect of persons; for if you do not so, judgment will come upon you from God, to put you down from your places. For the power of God, light, life, and truth respects not any, but justice, truth, righteousness, and equity, &c.
Epistle 263 ( Works 7:382)
Early Friends were particularly keen on rejecting social norms which re-enforced inequality in society, such as the use of titles, gestures, like bowing and curtseying, and flattering forms of speech. Fox writes to Friends and exhorts them not to conform to these patterns of ‘the world’.
So servants were not to bow one to another; and if they do, is it not reproved by the angel, and reproved by Christ, the seeking honour one of another? For ‘how can you believe, saith Christ, that receive honour one of another?’ John v. So it is a mark, that they are unbelievers, who receive honour one of another; and they are like the Pharisees, which love the praise of men, and are called of men master, and like the heathen, that will be called ‘gracious lords.’ For, saith he, you are all brethren, and have one master and Lord, Christ Jesus, and one Lord, who is the creator of all. For all things were made subject to man, and man subject to God; all creatures were to fear and dread man and woman, but men and women were to fear and dread God. So all christians are to have one heavenly spiritual head, Christ Jesus, and heavenly spiritual master, and they all as brethren are to serve and worship him
Epistle 261 (Works 7:318-9)
The message is clear here, as creatures of God, only He is to receive honour from human beings, we were not created to give honour to other human beings in place of God, or to regard others as 'superiors', and we are to have one head or ruler that is Christ Jesus. To acknowledge a human 'head' is to deny Christ as our true head.
[Note: For me the word, ‘honour’ denotes respect and acknowledgement of God as the only true authority for human beings]
In the extract from Epistle 261, Fox refers to important passages from scripture, the first one is from John 5: particularly verse 44, where Jesus asks “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” For Fox, this points to the truth that there is only one legitimate kind of honour or authority, and that is to God. Fox also quotes from Matthew 23 (8-11) where Jesus makes it clear that we are not to regard one another as masters, but only Jesus himself.
It is also worth mentioning that two other scriptures where often used by Early Friends to justify their claims that God considers all people as equals;
Acts 10:33-35 “Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.”
Galations 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus…”
These scriptures bear clear witness of how humans are to regard each other in the Kingdom.
For Fox and Early Friends, the desire of human beings to dominate each other arose as a result of the fall, but in Christ, and in his Kingdom, this is not to be so, as we are transformed up into the image of Christ, all are to be held as equal.
Fox was able to witness to this truth in his own life. Indeed, when Fox was given an audience with Charles the Second, he appeared before Charles but refused to remove his hat, and Charles suggested that “one of us should remove our hat…”
Fox understood the importance of such a witness and also understanding the implications of breaking that witness, to remove his hat would be to deny Christ’s teaching that all people are created equally, and that God really is a ‘respecter of persons’.
Our testimony to the equality of all people, as do all our testimonies, point back to the Living Christ, the foundation of our faith, and our ability to be faithful to these testimonies comes from the power he gives us to be obedient. To deny them, is to deny the Power and Presence of Christ Jesus in Creation, and the reality of his Kingdom on this earth and in our time.
I am saddened but not surprised by the compromises made by liberal Quakers in Britain Yearly Meeting, and their willingness to prop up what is essentially a vestige of the feudal system in the 21st Century, (not to mention the hypocrisy, as Stuart Masters, a Woodbrooke tutor, has pointed out, of congratulating the nominal head of the UK’s armed forces for her work for peace.) I am particularly saddened that, in addressing Elizabeth Windsor, as they did, Britian Yearly Meeting has chosen to abandon our testimony to the equality of all men and women.
Quakers are part of a long line of dissent in the UK which reaches back to the Lollards in medieval times, (This was a radical movement, which was centred in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, just a few miles from where George Fox was born), and I am happy to leave the final word to John Ball, a Lollard priest, and a key figure in the Peasants Revolt in 1381. I personally believe George Fox and the Early Quakers would have agreed with his words;
“When Adam dalf (dug), and Eve span Who was thanne a gentilman?… From the beginning all men [and women] were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord”
(from Thomas Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana)
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I can't help thinking that Advices and Queries number 38 is relevant here:
If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity, are you prepared to resist it? Our responsibilities to God and our neighbour may involve us in taking unpopular stands. Do not let the desire to be sociable, or the fear of seeming peculiar, determine your decisions.
Are we addicted to being liked?
Comment by Malcolm Winch on 4th day
Britain Yearly Meeting, without forethought, offered membership of the Society to practising members of the Church of England. How can one be an Anglican and a Quaker at the same time? How can someone who purports to be a Quaker pray for"our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth whom God has set to rule over us", and at the same time profess the absolute equality of all before God? Surely the error of this decision should have been seen at the time at which it was made. Britain Yearly Meeting is a farce that is damaging our movement. it is not accountable to Quakers in Britain. It is certainly not accountable to God. Its prime purpose now seems to be to attract new members at any cost, as well as acting as some kind of politburo commanding politcal action on the part of members. It claims, as one of its functions, to be an NGO. How far removed is this from being representative of a community of God's People. It is time for all convinced Quakers in Britain to separate from this organisation.
I am deeply committed to the early Quaker understanding of Christianity. However, I find the sectarian mindset deeply unappealing. I believe that the principal measure of 'true Christianity' is whether an individual/community commits itself to following Christ Jesus and the extent to which the life of that individual/community is conformed to Christ. I know of Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Buddhist, Atheists..etc who are more conformed to Christ than I am. That holds in check any sectarian impulse I may feel.
I’m not comfortable with a sectarian mindset either, or at least with the thought of being labelled as such. Fox wrote, (as I imperfectly recall), “...We are not a sect nor an opinion but we seek the good of all people upon the face of the earth...” That’s a good starting for thinking about our relationship to others.
God never leaves Himself without a witness in any situation so we can readily recognise others who know and are obedient to Christ in other places. When it comes to the denominations or institutions that they belong to, then we often see how it is the institutions themselves that are getting in the way of their obedience. For this reason, I am forced to agree with what Malcolm has said about the Anglican denomination in his comment, above.
I share with the Early Quakers the belief that it is possible to build a church “…against which the gates of hell cannot prevail…” (Edward Burrough). If we can’t realise the Kingdom in our history and time, then we are led to question the efficacy of the Power of God. The ‘churches’ which compromise with the world, and fall short of the Kingdom, have often seen the radical, witnessing churches, (like the Quakers and Anabaptists, for example) as ‘sectarian’, and have, as institutions, often denied the possibility of the establishment of the Kingdom of God here in earth. I think that this is a key issue and radical point of departure for Early Friends from ‘main-stream’ Christianity.
I agree with what you have said Allistair. I also recognise the very real problem of dual membership (of course some dual memberships are more problematic than others). It is also the case that some 'Christ-centred' Friends in Britian are moving into dual commitment/membership because of a need for the serious support and nurture of Christian discipleship they do not find in their Meetings (in the words of one Friend who is about to clarify his/her commitment in favour of the Catholic Church "I have to go elsewhere to get my Jesus").
Thanks for your comments, Stuart.
The movement of Christian Friends into dual membership and often away completely, into the other denominations has been ongoing for a number of years. What I find dissappointing is that very few BYM friends (apart from yourself), seem willing to acknowledge this as a problem. Surely the fact that there is a need for Friends to go elsewhere for Christian nurture should be recognised as a problem in itself?
With regard to Alistair's comment regarding the onward drift of Friends into dual membership, I would say that this is a fundamental problem, not only for Meetings, but for an organisation such as ours which should be stepping up its Ministry and trying harder to bring the Everlasting Gospel into Meetings which call themselves Quaker. We are really trying to build a movement in South East London, but it is an uphill task, and some of us are made to feel alienated.
I was particularly struck by your story about the non-theist who said she simply changed the wording to suit herself. I have observed this in my own interaction with non-theists. My observation is that they put themelves in a position to judge, evaluate, and reject anything which does not suit their views. I can't help having the feeling that they haven't joined the RSoF in order to learn how to become Friends; rather they have joined the RSoF to tell everyone else how it should be done and the way it should be done is by comforming to their opinions however arbitrary. There is what I refer to as a hyper-individualism and an exaltation of the ego; a lack of humility. At least that's how I see it.
Thy Friend Jim