One of my favourite children’s books was The Lark in the Morn and its sequel, The Lark on the Wing, by Elfrida Vipont (there are more books in the series, but those two were the best). It’s about a girl who wants to become a singer, and she and her family are Quakers so Quakerism features largely in the whole series.
I loved these books and read them often, and by extension saw Quakerism through a mist of romance. What appealed to me in Quakerism was the simplicity – the empty room, the silence, the plainness, the directness of it all. When I thought of Quakerism, I thought that with none of the organisation, the ceremony, the grandeur of Anglo-Catholicism, there was also nothing in between you and God.
And yet… and yet. Conversely, I actually loved the grandeur. I loved the ceremony. Having attended an Anglo-Catholic Church from a young age, the beauty of the liturgy, the building and the music appealed strongly to the other half of myself. I loved the sense of history, and even more so when I discovered the Catholic Church with its immense claims to unity, to tradition, to the Real Presence.
For years I felt the lure of both sides. On the one hand simplicity, plainness, ‘nothing in between’. On the other history, tradition, beauty. I’ve never been particularly given to compromise, and following each principal to its logical conclusion, both of them seemed to make a lot of sense. Anglicanism, which is after all built on compromise, held less appeal than the two extremes of the Christian spectrum – the unified Catholic Church on the one hand and the individual encounter of Quakerism on the other.
I still see the romance in Quakerism, but these days I can see the downsides as well. For a start I’m the world’s worst at keeping my mind on what I’m doing, so I love the structure of the Mass – it helps to focus my mind and the music raises my thoughts to a higher plane than what I need to cook for dinner that evening (well, sometimes… most Catholic music is a painful topic for another post I think). I’m not fluent in Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic, so am wary of those people who cheerfully launch into their own Biblical interpretation in a translation that someone else has produced, ignoring the 300 or so years that the Bible didn’t exist in its current form, and pretending that Church tradition (that inconvenient thing which pulled the Bible together in the first place) is unimportant. I am very conscious that Our Lord Himself, as a devout Jew, would have worshipped in a structured way, with the worship led by someone, with Psalms chanted and prayers said aloud – and since He said nothing to suggest this was a bad way of doing things, it seems logical to build His Church along similar lines. Indeed from what I can tell, the early Church, led by the Apostles, bore far more resemblance to the modern Mass than to the Quaker meeting.
To add to all of that, though, we have explicit instructions from Our Lord about what He wants us to do in His Church here on Earth, and ‘Take, eat, this is my body…’ is one of the most important. I’m not going to get into a long discussion of the Real Presence, because that’s another post right there, but even the Anglican Church obeys the words, even whilst debating about whether they are literal or figurative. The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that Christ intends us to have a formal Church with formal worship, the Apostles continued this tradition, and it survives all the way through 2000 years of persecution and indifference to the present day.
And here’s the thing. I used to think that Quakerism was the essence of ‘nothing in between’. But now my feelings have changed. Quakerism seems to me to create a certain distance. Distance from tradition, distance from unity, even distance from the pattern of worship commanded by Christ. And the emphasis on individual, silent prayer to the exclusion of any other form of worship feels somehow isolating.
Contrast that to the Catholic Church. Some people think that the ceremony, the grandeur, the music, all serve to obscure the central mystery, but that’s not the case. Instead, when done properly, they point towards it. I know for a start that I instinctively drop my voice when I enter a building which is obviously designed as a sacred space, and the beauty of my surroundings lifts my thoughts heavenwards as well. The sense of tradition is palpable – I’m hearing the same words that Christ Himself said, and watching the same events unfold, every single time I go to Mass, and that’s important.
In fact that’s the most important thing. The point which really decided me was the Eucharist. In the Catholic Church, we don’t just worship Christ – we consume Him. We actually consume the Body and the Blood of Christ, which are really and physically present on the altar. I still have to repeat that to myself sometimes to get a grip on the sheer enormity of it all. And here’s the critical point – when you consume something there is no distance. A whole congregation can kneel for hours in adoration before the monstrance, and Christ does not appear only spiritually in the hearts of each individual, He is actually there before them in physical form. Each week when the Priest says the words of consecration, Christ is there and gives Himself to His faithful literally, really and actually. You can’t get any closer than that encounter.
So in the end, after my brief flirtation with Quakerism, I found that there was only one end of the spectrum that truly appealed after all. Catholicism had tradition, history, beauty, grandeur, ceremony – and at the end of it all a real encounter with Christ Himself, with absolutely nothing in between.