Quakerism and Unitarian Universalism

Liberal Quakerism and Unitarian Universalism are certainly comfortable fellow-travelers. Today I had an opportunity to compare them in a structured way. The Unitarian Universalist Association (where I work) has a newcomers bulletin board, where visitors can post questions and have them answered by staff. Today this came into my email (edited, of course, for privacy):

> Kenneth,
> Would you be willing to reply to this question?  The response will be
> posted on the Newcomer’s Bulletin Board at
> http://www.uua.org/newcomers/newcomerbb.html, which I maintain.  If you
> don’t want to respond, that’s fine.  Just write back to me with either
> your response or a note with any suggestions you may have.  Thanks!
> ‑Erika

> Subject: Newcomer BB Post: how do UUs differ from liberal Quakers?
> name: Bess
> citystate: NSW (Australia)
> questionself: How do UU differ from liberal Quakers?

And here’s my reply (which I don’t make any assumptions will be used as a public answer–it seems a bit Quaker-centric, an answer to “how do liberal Quakers differ from UUs):

You’re in luck! There happens to be a liberal Quaker on staff, albeit an American. Quakers in Australia, of course, may answer differently, as will the majority of Friends in the world who are not “liberal” Quakers but rather evangelical or orthodox.

I’ll base my answer on the Principles and Sources used by the Unitarian Universalist Association, with a UU statement followed by an RSF (Religious Society of Friends) commentary.

UU “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote“
RSF Quaker meetings exist as part of the Religious Society, rather than the Society being a product of a voluntary association. There is no creed nor is there a unified statement that meetings have negotiated and agreed to affirm and promote.

UU “The inherent worth and dignity of every person“
RSF Liberal Quakers say “there is that of God in every person.”

UU “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations“
RSF Quakers would agree.

UU “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations“
RSF Again, Quakers would tend to agree, but the spectrum of acceptable belief in Quakerism includes many more Christians and theists and far fewer atheists.

UU “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning“
RSF Integrity is a core Quaker value, which affirms the need for individual searching, but this is understood in tension with a tradition of capital‑T Truth as discerned by the community of Friends.

UU “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large“
RSF Quakers value the right of conscience (for example, in advocating for the right to conscientious objection to military service or to paying taxes for military purposes) but do not advocate the use of a democratic voting process within the meeting. One of the distinctive Quaker practices is decision-making based upon the sense of the meeting, which is an attempt to discern God’s will for the meeting. While sense of the meeting should include everyone, it does not depend upon unanimity. It is certainly not determined by voting.

UU “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all“
RSF Quakers heartily concur.

UU “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part“
RSF Liberal Quakers have over the last decade or two begun to emphasize environmental concerns as a corporate and individual witness.

UU “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources“
RSF The Quaker tradition has been influenced by several outside movements, notably the Wesleyan revival, modernism, humanism, the antiwar and social justice movements, and the New Age, but does not intentionally and corporately draw from “many sources.”

UU “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life“
RSF Quaker theology and practice is built upon faith in direct, unmediated experience of the divine.

UU “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love“
RSF Liberal Friends are quite similar both in drawing inspiration from prophetic individuals and in tending to worship our ancestors.

UU “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life“
RSF Many, if not most, liberal Quakers draw inspiration from the world’s religions, but this is a recent addition to the historic focus on a Quaker understanding of Christianity.

UU “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves“
RSF Quakers would agree.

UU “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit“
RSF There are and have been many Quaker scientists who have not seen any conflict between spirituality and “reason and the results of science.” Even when not Christians, liberal Friends are much less likely than UUs to be atheists.

UU “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature“
RSF While paganism has influenced some individuals and plays a part in their spiritual life and practice, it is not called upon as a source for corporate Quaker life.

There is also a significant difference in the understanding and practice of ministry, which isn’t revealed in the Principles and Sources:

UU The majority of UU churches and fellowships employ a minister or ministers who lead the worship service and deliver a sermon. Even lay-led congregations follow an order of service that includes rituals like a chalice lighting, readings, congregational singing, and a prepared message or sermon. UU ministers, as described elsewhere on this website, undergo academic preparation resulting in an M.Div. degree, professional training, an internship, and a denominational process leading to ministerial fellowship. UU ministers are ordained by a congregation.

RSF Liberal Quakers worship on the basis of shared waiting for divine guidance. Anyone present may feel a leading to share a short message, a prayer, or a song. There is no human leadership of the worship service. Even in meetings that recognize the ministry of individual Friends, there is no ordination and no requirement (among liberal Friends) for academic qualification.

One Reply to “Quakerism and Unitarian Universalism”

  1. Hey, congrats — this essay really handled the nuances well.

    Now, about your final point...

    ...you state the facts objectively without acting as a cheerleader, but I think Friends in general are secretly confident about the superiority of our ability to Do It Yourself (or perhaps “Thyself”?), without the need of a professional (aka “heirling”) ministry and staff.

    As for me, the longer I stay in this spiritual business, the more concerned I am that we may have lost more than we gained when we decided to rely upon untrained, unpaid volunteers for practically everything in the life of our Meetings, short of sweeping the floors and returning phone calls.

    The notion of corporate responsibility for both care and ministry is a lovely ideal, but like so many other Quaker ideals, it needs to be balanced against the gritty realities of life on Earth as we know it.

    I would rather see Quakers open themselves fully to a careful examination of how Unitarian and United Church of Christ professionals serve the human and organizational needs of their members, and ask ourselves whether too often our needs, by comparision, “fall through cracks” when entrusted to volunteers.

    At a higher level, to be perfectly honest, I look with admiration on the prominent role that the United Church of Christ occupies today in their advocacy for social justice and separation of church and state. By their leadership, they are today pretty much where Quakers, followed by Unitarians, were in our glory days (the nineteenth century).

    This is not a case of sectarian rivalry on my part. I don’t begrudge either UCC or UUA becoming effective voices for reason and justice. All I’m saying is that it’s a shame Quakers are not more influential in modern society... and is there nothing we can do about it?

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