We've been having an interesting discussion on the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005 listserv about what, if anything, all Quakers hold in common. Colin Saxton posted a summary of a book by Will Cooper, "A Living Faith," which I haven't read and he said he didn't have it right in front of him, so he paraphrased Cooper thus:
1. We can know God in our experience
2. We are given the life & power to obey God
3. We are called to community
4. We are called to a sacramental view of life
5. We are called to peace
6. We are called to simplicity
7. We are called to integrity
8. We are called to equality
The WGYF people said perhaps these summarize a majority of Quakers, but of course some wouldn't want to be characterized by any sort of belief in God, although they might agree with most of the others. Some evangelical Friends also might not agree with calls to peace, equality, etc., but they also might not really think of themselves as Friends, mostly just evangelical Christians.
So for those of us to whom "Quaker" or "Religious Society of Friends (of Jesus)" is an important monicker, does this seem to fit who we are as a Society today, worldwide?
I think it names our heritage pretty well--we come from a group of people to whom the real presence of someone Other was very important, and it was on the direction of this Other that they based their actions for peace/simplicity/equality, etc. Most Quakers worldwide are Christians, and most still hold to the other distinctives, although I think the one we've lost the most is the idea of all of life being sacramental.
I think maybe we can say this is the center of Quakerism, although we've always been anti-creed, so it's not like people have to sign this statement to hang out with us. Anyone is welcome to be a part of Friends fellowship, but the things that truly characterize Quakerism are well encapsulated in Cooper's list. I don't think early Friends were against creeds because they didn't think Friends should be on the same page about what they believed, but because it's not saying a set of words that brings salvation, but living in the true life and power of God in Christ.
The problem is, if we define Quakerism like this, some people feel left out. I guess that's the problem with defining any social group. And yet, naming something necessarily includes some and excludes others. Defining things as one thing and not another is helpful--it's helpful to be able to say that a tree is a tree, not a flower, and that trees and flowers are living but not animals. These distinctions help us know how to live within the world, providing categories of meaning.
If a name ceases to mean anything, should it still be used? I think not. And Quakers are rather dangerously close to this place, where being Quaker could just mean "mostly nice people who get together some First-days and do something spiritual in whatever way they think best." Is this enough? And if we disagree with others about what it means to be a "real" Quaker, who gets the power of naming what's true? What do we base it on? Numbers? Consensus? Historical data? Lowest common denominator?