A Quaker Theologian in the Faith and Order Commission

Two of many moments on ecumenical journeys…

By Rachel Muers, 2020

I’m walking slowly down the long flight of steps towards the Nelson Mandela statue in Pretoria, where we’ll assemble for yet another ‘theologians travel the world to stand in front of things’ group photograph. I’m walking slowly because I’m behind an elderly and frail Coptic Orthodox bishop from Egypt (across his lifetime he must have spent the equivalent of several years in ecumenical meetings). One of the young men who sells souvenirs in the park runs up to him from a distance; he’s not trying to make a sale, he’s asking for a blessing, and I watch as the Egyptian bishop blesses him, and think, you couldn’t make this up, not what is happening, not the fact that I’m here to see it.

This nun is touchingly enthusiastic about everything she has to show us in this historic church and convent; here’s a tapestry of the life of Mary Magdalene, created by the sisters in the late medieval period, and here we are scholars and clergy from different churches around the world gazing at it; and there is late-medieval Mary Magdalene in a pulpit surrounded by a crowd, and the guide reads out the caption ‘hier predigt Maria Magdalena’. Our colleague translates it and the women in the group spontaneously cheer: ‘here Mary Magdalene is preaching’, because obviously, what else would she do?

I have had the privilege of serving on the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches as a nominee of FWCC. I’ve been asked to reflect, in this short report, not on what I have personally gained from being part of the Commission, but rather on the value of Friends’ participation in this body. 

I wanted to start with stories (some of many stories I could tell) to give a sense of the embodied character of Faith and Order work – with its opportunities, its gifts and its challenges. One might think that a theological think-tank would work mainly through words and texts, and that interpersonal encounter would make relatively little difference – and, writing this during the COVID-19 lockdown, I realise that we may be able to see a very significant shift in the scale and nature of the interpersonal encounter that the Commission can rely on. Still, one of the lessons I have learned through many Faith and Order meetings is just how much it can matter who is in the room when something is said, when a question is raised, when a paper is agreed. Sometimes this hits home with particular force; take for example a recently-approved text on the environmental crisis (“Cultivate and Care: An Ecumenical Theology of Justice for Creation”, to be published shortly). The theological content of this text is – I am sure its drafters would be happy to admit – not particularly new; what mattered was that it was approved in a meeting at which theologians and church leaders from every continent spoke of the crises that their communities were facing, heard each other deeply, and agreed the document as a marker of the unity they had reached in that conversation. The atmosphere in the room would have felt very familiar to anyone who has been in a Quaker business meeting when a “weighty” minute was agreed.

But what difference does it make to have a Quaker in the room? At first, considering this question, I thought that many of my contributions to Faith and Order processes had been made possible not because I am a Quaker but because of other things about me – I am an academic theologian with specific areas of interest including ethics, I speak English as a first language, I happen to be a fast reader and experienced editor. Serving on the study group addressing questions of “moral discernment in the churches”, much of what I contribute does not rely directly on my Quaker background. However, thinking about it again, I realised that there are several ways in which having a Quaker in the room in an international ecumenical conversation – sometimes even if she is not saying anything – does make a difference, not only to the ‘products’ of the work but also to the relationships and conversations.

First, I am more firmly convinced than ever that the Historic Peace Churches – the Quakers, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren – have a distinctive and vital contribution to make to international ecumenical conversations. For example, when we started our latest round of discussions of ‘moral discernment in the churches’, it mattered to point out that a question many churches relegate to ‘ethics’ – the question of nonviolence and pacifism – was, for some of us, at the heart of what it meant to be the church. Just being able to say this, and to set it out with conviction rooted in tradition, helps to challenge assumptions about how theology, church order and ethics relate to each other. Working with a Mennonite theologian to try to ensure that historic peace church perspectives are represented has given me new perspectives on Quakerism, which in turn I have tried to reflect in my contributions to the commission’s work.

Second, I have reflected on the peculiar gift, received from Quaker tradition, of having absolutely no interest or investment in ecclesiastical hierarchy – while being very interested in discerning the specific gifts that each and every person brings. Faith and Order, for many complicated reasons, is a space where hierarchies matter, and also where churches are often spoken about from the perspective of those in authority, and with a focus on the activities of clergy. It is important, even if it is not comfortable, to have people in the room who simply do not see churches in that way – for whom the idea that the church is all the people of God is not just one among many good things that could be said about the church, but rather is the place from which to begin. This is a position from which, for example, it has been possible to be enthusiastically supportive of the expansion of Faith and Order’s theological work to engage with a wider range of ‘world’ issues, the issues that confront the people of God as they follow their callings in the world – not seeing the church as an institution that can be separated from the world. It is surprisingly difficult in this context to hold to Quaker testimony and never to call anyone by an ecclesiastical title, but I think I have succeeded so far.

Third, I have reflected on my lifelong experience of being one of a ‘peculiar people’ – a permanent minority and, in ecumenical and academic-theological circles, a very odd minority at that (as Janet Scott has put it, a ‘footnote’ to the main text). It can be liberating, in a context like Faith and Order, to feel one has little power or status to lose and hence does not need to work very hard on defending one’s own corner. Occasionally this makes it possible, rather than speaking on my or Quakers’ behalf, to bring voices into the room that would otherwise be altogether absent or accidentally forgotten; or to use some experience of Quaker processes to contribute to consensus decision-making.

It has been difficult to quantify the “outputs” from the work I have been involved in, let alone my own personal contribution. The study group on moral discernment has been given a particularly challenging and often frustrating task – trying to make collective progress in an area where there are not only significant divisions between and within churches, but also very significant anxieties about even beginning to discuss the issues. All being well, an initial publication that includes a short paper I wrote, and an introduction I co-wrote, will appear soon – but a shared report, that might be owned by the Commission, is still in preparation and under discussion after many years and many drafts. It has been a great discipline to learn to live with slow and non-linear progress – helped by the long timescales of church life that are represented by the many ancient Christian communities represented in the room. I am enormously grateful to have been given the opportunity to play a small part in this work.