Thursday, June 7, 2012

Quakers in context: Russia

Part of the genius of the early Quaker movement was the way it prophetically spoke to its context, 17th century England. The doctrinal emphases as well as specific testimonies addressed concrete needs and abuses in the surrounding society. These emphases included an acknowledgment of the centrality of Jesus, present and active in the midst of his people; the need to drop forms that had lost their integrity; and values such as simplicity, peace, equality and honesty. Many of these have proved transcultural and trans-temporal. They are lived out today by people in yearly, regional and local Friends meetings around the world. Each cultural context encourages a different expression, while certain threads hold true and allow us to maintain a larger sense of family as Friends.
This cultural adaptation—“contextualization” is the word—is necessary for a movement to take root in a place. A healthy contextualization holds true to the basic tenets of a movement while engaging with the local culture, both affirming and challenging culture. Finding this balance is not easy.
Among the purposes of our recent trip to Russia were discerning how God is at work in that place and what part Friends could play. Of course any reflections I have after only 11 days in a place as vast and complex as Russia will be superficial—more the observations of a spiritual tourist. My apologies. This is a beginning.
I draw heavily upon conversations with our hosts, Johan and Judy Maurer, people who are dedicated to knowing, loving and serving Russia. We were also privileged to attend the Moscow meeting and visit Moscow Friends House. And we’re learning something of the small but significant history of Friends in Russia.
Here I just want to present some preliminary reflections on what Friends have to offer Russia. What aspects of our doctrines and testimonies would lend to a genuinely contextualized gospel presence in this place, at this time?
Part of this reflection takes place in light of the Orthodox Church, a tradition deeply embedded in the history of Christianity in Russia. This tradition today presents a paradox. In one sense, it has become largely irrelevant to the vast majority of the Russian people. According to Nathaniel Davis, ten years ago only about 1.5-3% (up to 6 million people) of the traditionally Orthodox people in the whole country attended a service on a non-holiday week, and these were primarily women in rural areas (2003, A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy). And yet, as Davis affirms, “…the Russian Orthodox Church manifests a luminous faith. It plays a key political and spiritual role and has immense influence. It remains the largest community of believers in all but the Islamic south and east. It is one of the few institutions widely and deeply revered in Russia today.”
We had the privilege of attending two Orthodox services in Moscow and I was impressed by the sense of glory the architecture, icons, chants and pageantry produced. I also enjoyed meeting and talking with several Russian friends of Johan and Judy, one being a young woman who is a practicing Orthodox believer and others who are resentful of the tradition.
Based partly on conversation with Johan and Judy and partly on observation, I see several Quaker points of contrast to Orthodoxy that address the problems people have with the older tradition. Quakerism offers the absence of hierarchy and a community where everyone can participate, where laity and clergy merge. Quakerism also offers direct access to the Scriptures and encourages people to commune with the “Presence in the Midst.” The inclusion of justice, peace and mercy in the whole gospel message is another powerful draw, as well as the emphasis on integrity and honesty.
In common with Orthodoxy, Quakerism values the person of the Holy Spirit and contemplative devotion.
I love the Orthodox emphasis on glory, and yet as I stood in the worship services, almost overwhelmed by the beauty and pageantry, I wondered where community and personal transformation were to be found. I wondered if the priest ever looked people in the face. And I remembered that Paul’s teaching that the church is to be “to the praise of his glory” was written to the poor, marginal people who were part of the Ephesian church.
There seems to be something in Orthodoxy that corresponds to the Russian spirit. Here I’m speaking intuitively and more as a lover of Russian literature than as a person with real life experience in the culture. I think Russia demands that glory, passion, beauty and what Paul refers to as “the breadth and length and height and depth” of gospel truth be part of her spirituality. This is transcendence, and Russian Orthodoxy emphasizes the transcendent otherness of God. But Russia’s people also seem to long for the imminence of community, values that touch everyday life, and the very Presence in the midst, with or without the splendid trappings. The call may be for a gloriously splendid simplicity.
The Quaker heritage bears both transcendence and imminence in its DNA.  We are (or have been) those who quake in the presence of the wholly/holy Other One, and at the same time we are those who call themselves Friends of Jesus. Our Friendly side is alive and well. And while we may need to call down the wind of the Spirit to fan the flames and revive us as Quakers, it’s still who we are.
Is this part of what Quakers have to offer Russia?


  1. This is a pretty amazing distillation of all the things you had thrown at you during those intense days! Maybe it takes a poet ...

  2. And maybe the poet needs wise hosts.