29 July 2010

The Quaker baptism

Flat Stanley
goes to Moscow

Our Flat Stanley comes
comes from Tami
Burton and her 

students. Here (above)
he is waiting at 
Fryazevo station to 
board the train to 
Moscow.
On the train.
Temperature might
be 100, but Stanley 

doesn't sweat.
On the Moscow
Metro.
It's a lot cooler
underground.
Last week's post was on "the Quaker mass." By a remarkable coincidence, at the end of the very next meeting for worship of Moscow Friends, one member who was also ordained in another denomination celebrated  communion with us in observance of the fortieth day since his mother's death. I think this is the first time that I've seen a communion service, with wafers and wine, in an unprogrammed Friends meeting for worship.

A few days later, a newsletter item from a Friends outreach in another part of the world gave me more food for thought. It reported on Friends conducting baptism services for a number of families. One visitor from the USA wrote, "Many of us had only observed a few baptism services growing up in the Friends Church, so this was an interesting experience for us.."

The report contained a number of other interesting points--the excitement in the families' faces bearing testimony to the Holy Spirit in this step they were taking; the courage required to make such a public expression in their social context; and the fact that there is written paperwork involved with becoming baptized--paperwork that goes to the authorities and is an additional act of bold testimony. We're asked to pray for the yearly meeting; its ministry of public baptisms is described as "a very visible expression of lives devoted to Christ."

Fascinating! To risk oversimplifying, it's as if 375 years ago in Great Britain, Friends bore social risks by not being outwardly baptized upon making a Christian commitment; now these new believers are running a social risk by being baptized upon making that same kind of commitment.

I haven't asked whether water baptism is being presented to these new Friends as a theological imperative; I suspect not. What impresses me about this story is their deep desire to make a public commitment, and this practice is the outward form that is presented to them as a way of doing that.

Nearly two years ago I posted some thoughts on baptism here on my blog. I'm not going to repeat them now; at that point I was mainly dealing with the emotional importance of initiation and the need for Friends to have a conversation about how we (often inadequately) address that topic. This news item about the newly baptized Quakers adds a dimension I only vaguely touched on before--the public nature of the testimony.

Most of us who try to describe or shape normative Quaker faith and practice in the West operate in a context of social safety--a safely partly based on social class and partly based on our societies' trivializing and privatizing religion. When we traditional Quakers begin harrumphing about water baptism among Friends, we ought to pause humbly and think about that safety factor. What did we gain and lose by committing to the household of faith through the Quaker door? Did our faces shine with the confirming presence of the Holy Spirit?

I don't want to argue for the thrill of public piety, which is not a reliable long-term indicator of faithfulness. (The impermanence of emotional commitments is an old theme.) All the classic revivals in Christian history had a prophetic, ethical dimension. True, different people have different gifts, so not every new believer will be a prophet. And, true, sometimes simply declaring oneself to be a religious minority in a repressive culture is an act of prophetic courage. But Jesus is not a flag to wave enthusiastically over "our" religious camp as against "their" religious camp. When believers are on the move in a society (and, importantly, when that move is self-giving, not demanding privileges!), history tells us that important things happen--things relating to justice, equality, education, hope. I pray that those things are and will be happening where our new Friends were baptized.

In comparison to all that, the adoption of one or another way of celebrating Christian initiation may take its proper perspective. But that perspective is not insignificant. Early Friends' rejection of the religion industry and its hierarchies and ceremonies was not for the purpose of avoiding irritating the eternal seeker or weakening biblical authority; they experienced Christ coming to teach his people himself, and refused to set up yet another intermediate structure. All I ask is that we contemporary Friends do the same. At some point, all new Friends deserve to learn the full picture of our radical approach to Spirit-led worship and community--not as rigid quakerly folkways but as a costly heritage of discipleship. Then: if the Holy Spirit is in it, please splash away and I'll keep my doubts to myself. If not, please don't lead us back into shadows and forms.



Whatever I might have said in this post a couple of weeks ago, most British Friends do identify as Christian, according to survey results published in Katharine Mellor's MPhil dissertation, Christian belief in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers): A response to the claim that British Friends are post-Christian. The dissertation is available in PDF form here (registration may be required). The full work includes a number of nuances that should prevent playing fast and loose with the numbers, but in case you can't wait for the bottom line: Mellor finds that, of her 1,035 respondents, "...863 or 83.4% indicated that they believe in God. 751, or 72.6% of those who took part, indicated that they consider themselves to be Christian. 833, or 80.5% of those who took part, indicated that they would answer that they are Christian on an anonymous survey. Fewer than 5% of those who took part in the survey are clearly not Christian. This research suggests that the majority in the Religious Society of Friends in Britain still considers Quakers to be Christian."

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10 comments:

Alice Y. said...

Thanks Johan!

Love the thoughts about baptism. Thanks for the link to the stuff about Quakers in the UK as well.

SavageDL said...

Very thoughtful post. "We don't practice water baptism (outward statement) vs "we emphasize the identification with Christ to our culture" (inward statement). We ALL have a tendency to focus on the outward which we need to guard against lest we trade one ritual for another.

Karen said...

In her thesis, Mellor says,

"In my analysis, I use the term ‘Christian’ to describe a person who answered affirmatively to the following question:

Do you consider yourself to be Christian?
i) Those who answered ‘yes’ to this question I called ‘Explicit hristians’.

I use the term ‘Implicit Christian’ to describe any respondent who answered at least two of the following questions affirmatively:
ii) Do you believe that Jesus’ ethical teachings are meaningful to you?
iii) Do you believe that Jesus’ spiritual teachings are meaningful to you?
iv)Do you use Jesus’ teaching or example to help guide the way you live your life?
v) Would you identify yourself as Christian on a census?
vi) Are you a 'Humble Learner in the School of Christ'?
And who answered the following question negatively:
IX) Do you follow another faith, such as Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Zen, etc.?
"

Which is interesting, because I have been wrestling with whether or not to call myself Christian for years - as a Pagan, I have no problem with venerating Jesus; as someone who has no wish to offend those who do self-identify as Christian, I am wary. Not an Explicit Christian, then.

Implicit? I cannot be, because although I answer ii, iii, iv, and vi in the affirmative (twice the minimum score she looks for), I answer IX in the affirmative, too.

So it seems that the rule of thumb for determining whether or not a person can be a Christian is not about the quality of their relationship with Jesus, but whether or not their relationship with Jesus is exclusive.

It's genuinely fascinating.

Jeremy Mott said...

Kate Mellor's thesis is certainly
enlightening and encouraging---at least about British Friends. About
73% consider themselves Christians
(including a few Christian
"atheists" or agnostics) and about
22% are implicit Christians, by a
definition that I think few Friends would argue with (they are
followers of Jesus, and are not in
another religion).
I hope that a survey or two like
this will be done among Friends in
the U.S.A., in a liberal (FGC)
yearly meeting and in a united
yearly meeting. I would not be
surprised if the results were not
similar. There might even be fewer
explicit Christians and more
implicit Christians.
I think Kate Mellor made a mistake
in saying that Friends do not believe in the Holy Ghost. Don't
almost all of us believe in the
Holy Spirit?
In the U.S.A., among liberal Friends at least, one would need a
question about Friends who are also Jewish. Most of them are
porbably implicit Christians, I would guess.
And I see no reason why Friends who are both Buddhist and followers of Jesus, both Muslim and followers of Jesus, etc., should not be couneted as implicit
Christians as well. This is a
hard trick to pull off, but some
Friends seems to do it successfully.
Thank you Johan for bring this thesis to our attention.
Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

I don't know in what country the Quaker outward baptisms took place.
Maybe India, where it is legally
difficult to convert to Christianity?
Certainly not in the U.S.A., where
there is great social pressure on young Friends to conform and use the outward sacraments, whenever one leaves the "liberal bubbles."
I don't think that outward ordinances among Friends in the U.S.A. often amount to much else--
just as I don't think the rejection of these ceremonies among liberal Friends in the U.S.A, often amounts to much else.
Like other people, Friends tend
to conform to their neighbors
socially, unless there is a good
reason not to do so. This should
not surprise us or worry us too
much.
Jeremy Mott

Vail Palmer said...

The most notorious Quaker outward baptisms took place in the 1880s in Ohio -- David Updegraff and Dougan Clark. Clark lost his job as head of the religion department at Earlham College because of this action. And the controversy over whether these actions should be "tolerated" was a primary reason that Ohio Yearly Meeting (now Friends Church - Eastern Region) refused to become part of the Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting).

Vail Palmer

Vail Palmer said...

Correction -- Updegraff, who was a leading minister in Ohio Yearly Meeting was actually baptized by a Baptist pastor in Philadelphia -- but then actively encouraged the practice in Ohio.

Vail

Jeremy Mott said...

Vail, there's no doubt you're right
about the origin of outward ordinances among Friends in the
U.S.A. I think that they're in almost univeral use now in EFC-ER,
and in common use in EFC-SW as well. But surely there is no place
in the U.S. where one must report
a baptism to government authorities. I would guess that
these ceremonies happened in some
mainly non=Christian country. Or
possibly in a Roman Catholic or
Orthodox country, such as Romania,
where almost all infants are
christened. Will Johan let us
know where these baptisms occurred? Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

Just last night, I was reading an
on-line report by Friend Malesi
Kinaro, a Kenyan, about Friends in
Africa. And in this report she wrote that Friends in Burundi do not use water baptism, but Friends in Rwanda and eastern Congo do use
it---partly to avoid being labeled
as cultists.
I have heard that water baptism is a matter of continual argument among Friends in Guatemala, Bolivia, and Mexico. It is practiced among evangelical Friends in the Philippines---but this group is a daughter of EFC-ER.
And I have heard that several
meetings in Indiana Y.M. (FUM) dissent from the usual Richmond
Declaration statement on outward
ordinances and wish to use them.
Jeremy Mott

Johan said...

The baptisms I was describing took place in Asia.