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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