Undoubtedly, there are many, perhaps (though it is by no means certain) even a majority of Quakers in Britain who would self-define as Christians – according to their own understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Because of our history, Quakerism is generally assumed by many outsiders to be a denomination of the wider Christian Church, like Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, or the Church of England.
It isn’t really that simple, though. For the last 1700 years or so, most Christian Churches have held to more or less strict criteria as to what is required in order to be considered a Christian. Almost all of them require assent to:
- the Nicene Creed which refers to such things as the circumstances of Jesus’s conception, birth, execution, and resurrection,
- the doctrine of Trinitarianism which says God is comprised of the Father as creator, the Son as Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and
- the acceptance of the biblical Jesus as one’s Lord and Personal Saviour.
Individually, many denominations also require assent to extra beliefs, either to be considered a Christian at all or just to be part of their own Church, such as:
- belief in the Apostolic Succession, whereby all members of the church hierarchy must be able to trace their lineage by the laying on of hands right back to the apostle Peter,
- baptism, be it a splash of water as an infant or total immersion as a believing adult,
- the taking of communion in the form of bread and wine, and
- the belief in the Bible as the infallible and inerrant Word of God.
By these criteria, it has to be accepted that most other Churches and many individual Christians might not consider The Religious Society of Friends in Britain or some individual British Quakers to be Christians, due to our lack of assent to those same criteria. Technically, the Religious Society of Friends is considered to be a Protestant church by virtue of it not being part of the Roman Catholic church, but in fact it could said that Quakerism in Britain has always been just as much a ‘protest’ at the theology and practice of most Protestant churches as at the Catholic church.
However, Quakers don’t rightly care for the criteria of others, considering that creeds and statements of faith are divisive and exclusive, turning people away from God rather than bringing them towards God. We also particularly don’t care for creeds because of our sense that God is much too big to be reduced to a few short sentences or snappy slogans. It is however interesting to note that despite this, most other Churches are very keen to keep us involved in ecumenical bodies and initiatives such as Churches Together in Britain and Ireland or the World Council of Churches, feeling we do have essential challenges to offer them, and include special ‘Quaker clauses’ in their constitutions in order for us to be able to participate without subscribing to anything credal.
A number of Quakers are starting to use the term ‘post-Christian’, meaning they are rooted in Christianity (not least as a result of our heritage and common western culture) but open to new light, feeling that the old language of Christianity has some metaphorical value but does not necessarily express the Truth as they see it, and wish to be free to continue to find other language which does. Another popular description individual Quakers use is that of being ‘a humble learner in the School of Christ’. A number of other Quakers have actively found inspiration in the writings and practices of non-Christian faiths, most notably Judaism and Buddhism, and use for themselves the language of dual membership, self-defining as Jewish Quaker, or Buddhist Quaker. And there are indeed a number of British Quakers, be it through bad experiences in the past or simply the path of their own spiritual journey, who will have no truck with Christianity whatsoever, finding its language and concepts completely outside their own faith.