Without Apology: Review

Without Apology: The Heroes, the Heritage, and the Hope of Liberal Quakerism by Chuck Fager. Media, Penn.: Kimo Press, 1996. xvii +170 pp. $8.95, from Pendle Hill bookstore, 1-800-742-3150.

This is not your usual book on theology, although that is what it purports to be. Marked by the lucid incisiveness that characterized Chuck Fager's renowned and, in some quarters, lamented A Friendly Letter, this new book is at once a defense of what its author calls "Liberal Quakerism" and an assault on evangelical Quakers who denigrate it.

Because of the kind of book it is, there is a defensive tone about it, as the title implies. But it also evinces an aggressiveness, an effort to carry the debate to the other side and force a response. Hence Fager names names: not only oldies like Joseph John Gurney but contemporaries like Norval Hadley, Arthur Roberts, Stephen Main, and Dan Whitley. He does not, insofar as I can tell, charge them unfairly but takes their published statements and shows how they depart from his understanding of Quakerism.

In this case, as in others, it is not the kind of staid, biblically-studded work that commonly passes for theology. (Although as a student of the scriptures, Fager gives and takes on that level also.) It emanates from one who cherishes the Society of Friends, its heroes, heritage, and hope, and it almost literally sparkles with explosive prose.

Fager italizes and iterates his definition of "Liberal Quakerism":

An ongoing effort to make visible a particular portion of the true Church, by means of the specific traditions and disciplines of the Religious Society. This very idea of manifesting the true Church is, I believe, rooted in the early Quakers' unique and inclusive understanding of the Society's Christian background and origins. The key Quaker disciplines by which this part of the Church is constituted are: silence-based, unprogrammed worship; a free ministry led by the spirit; decision-making by the worshipful sense of the meeting; church structures kept to a spartan, decentralized minimum; cultivation of the inward life of both individual and the group; a preference for unfolding experience of truth, or continuing revelation, over creeds and doctrinal systems; and devotion to the historic but evolving Quaker testimonies, especially peace, simplicity and equality (pp. xi-xii, 43).

Until the last third of the 19th century in the United States, Fager believes, the Society of Friends mostly adhered to those standards. Then pastors appeared, and ever since they and their defenders have insisted that they represent the main stream of Friends' heritage. When Fager takes on Hadley, Roberts, et al, he does so because he is convinced that they are a part of a sincere if misguided effort to hijack Quaker history and use it for sectarian purposes.

These purposes bear fruit, he argues, in efforts to hive off large sections of Friends United Meeting by realignment, to impose a centralized polity to prevent any local churchs acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate expression of sexuality, to root out any remaining residues of such heresies as the "inward light of Christ," and to deny legitmacy to such liberal Quaker heroes as Elizabeth Watson.

Lest any think Fager's arrows are reserved for evangelicals, let it be said that he aims at some on his side also. He says his Wiccan "cousins" refuse to take evil seriously enough and have stereotypical misconceptions of Christianity. And he mentions eight Liberal shortcomings, ranging from ignorance of the Bible and Quaker history to failures in reaching out beyond a hidden "Secret" Society of Friends. In one example, he relates how a woman at a Liberal gathering spied his tee shirt with John 3:16 printed on it. Taken aback and looking for the right words, she finally could only exclaim, "It's, it's, . . . it's sexist". Amid his tears, Fager had to laugh (p. 153).

In quarters where journalists are suspect for revealing human foibles, Fager's reputation may be none too high; people who have this view are not likely to reach for his book. They turn away at their peril, for Without Apology is an important addition to any Quaker library. I know of nothing else quite like it anywhere in the Quaker corpus. It will repay many times over the provocation its compelling prose offers.

What I most fear is that Friends will ignore Fager's thoughtfulness, take his critical stance as only the goings-on of a nay-sayer, and pass by on the other side of the road. Some will not like his strictures, but ignoring them will be worse. To leave his points to be considered only by later historians would be a disservice to his efforts and would testify to Friends' refusal to engage in vigorous debate that can only move us toward an encounter with Truth.

Larry Ingle
Last modified: Sat Sep 20 16:57:28 EDT