The universal Church refuses to be fractured

Father John A. Kiley

The East Blackstone Quaker Meeting House is an early nineteenth century building boasting a door, walls, roof, floor, windows, a few pews, a pulpit, an organ, and a wood burning stove. The dull blue and gray edifice is clearly true to its name: Quaker. There is not a religious sign, spiritual symbol or sacred emblem anywhere within the four walls. Some patterned woodwork on the back of the organ is the only relief the eye gets within the stark chamber.

The rural neighborhood tends to this relic of New England’s religious past, a task probably limited to mowing the grass and shoveling the snow. Quarterly, however, clergy from one of the area churches are asked to lead a service of prayer, Scripture, song and a word of reflection. Such a simple service befits the remainder of the building’s title: Meeting House. This is definitely a Meeting House. This is no church. There is no altar certainly, not even a Communion Table. There is no Cross, no candle, no bell, no baptistery, no visible Bible and positively no statues. Deliberately and decidedly, the only sacred element within these hallowed walls is the congregation themselves who are here not to offer a sacrifice as Catholics do nor to hear a sermon as Protestants do but simply to gather, meet and happily be moved by the Holy Spirit, the inner Light of Christ.

The founder of Quakerism was not William Penn but rather George Fox who knew the Bible thoroughly and could quote it at length. He also “probably” believed that the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit. And, yet, Fox felt that the Bible was secondary to one’s direct experience of God. He often described the Bible as “the words of God,” but not the “Word of God” for there was only one “Word of God” and that was the Living Christ or “the Light Within.” Hence, Quakers meet neither to ponder the words of Scripture nor to celebrate the Eucharistic Presence. Rather, they simply meet to let “the Light Within” inspire, guide and direct their hearts and their gatherings. This drill could mean long periods of silence on a Sunday morning or it could mean a fiery outburst of sudden inspiration, as George Fox was wont to vent in his day.

Years ago, many years ago, a seminary classmate made reference to “fractured Christianity.” He observed that a number of Christian communities zealously embrace certain worthy aspects of the Gospel message but then ignore other traditional elements that have formed a regular part of the Christian life. The Salvation Army for example deserves much credit for its practical good works, but those charitable folk have no liturgical life whatsoever. The Quakers prefer neither the Scriptures nor the sacraments but are simply sustained by the interior experience of quiet prayer. A number of Evangelical Protestant communities are spiritually nourished only by the proclaiming and preaching of the Bible — and some, only the King James Version of the Bible! Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian Protestants favor Scripture but only embrace one or two sacraments. Lutherans and Episcopalians maintain much of the Biblical, sacramental and hierarchical traditions of the universal Church, but famously resist Papal authority. The state Council of Churches has given itself over almost exclusively to social justice issues. The broad extent of the authentic Christian message has indeed been fractured.

Consider now that each one of these laudable pursuits — good works, quiet prayer, Bible study, effective preaching, liturgical rites, equal justice, sacramental discipline and hierarchical order and certainly the Office of Peter — is found alive and well within the Roman Catholic Church. The St. Vincent de Paul Society almost exactly parallels the work of the Salvation Army. Carthusian and Cistercian monasteries devote hours a day to quiet prayer as do the many Catholic parishioners who reflect on the Eucharistic Presence and the mysteries of the Rosary. So the Quakers are not alone in relishing the “Light Within.” Bible readings at Mass, Bible preaching from pulpits and Bible study in parish halls are a happy legacy of Vatican II matching the Scriptural experiences of many Evangelicals. The ceremonies in Rome’s basilicas visibly match the rites celebrated at London’s Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Catholic Church is truly catholic.

The universal Church refuses to be fractured. Christ’s Church cannot espouse one revealed truth while neglecting another and still be true to its Divine roots. St. Paul instructs in this Sunday first reading: “Do not quench the Spirit. Test everything. Retain what is good.” All the riches of worship, Word and work that the authentic Christian life offers are found happily in the Roman Catholic Church. Some truths are emphasized in different eras; other truths are dutifully revived when neglected. But the wholeness of revealed truth is distributed broadly among the faithful in every time and place. Indeed, “God is admirable among his saints,” each believer reflecting in some small portion and all believers reflecting in great measure the abundant glory of God.