Quaker Spirituality and the Sacraments

by Irene Ní Mháille

About the Author

Irene ní Mháille of Monkstown Meeting entered an Irish missionary order in 1952 and served as a missionary sister from 1959 to 1980, mostly in Africa but also for a five year period in a black community in North Central Philadelphia, then after 10 years working in Religious Education in Ireland she returned to Africa as a lay person 1991 to 1996.  This article is based on a talk she gave in January 2011 in a series on Quaker Spirituality at Eustace Street Meeting House in Dublin.

First Impressions

When I first visited a Quaker service of Worship in 2003, I was filled with many emotions of delight and wonder. There was no sacrament of the Eucharist! Way was made, instead, for the presence of God’s Spirit!

For much of my life, I was required to believe that in the sacrament of the Eucharist, I received the body and blood of Jesus who is God. This doctrine distorted both my understanding of Jesus, and of God. Release from this distortion brought great joy!

These emotions of delight and wonder grew as I attended discussions – between 2003 and 2006 – in preparation for the revised draft of the Irish Quaker book Christian Experience (1962). During these discussions I learnt how Quakerism, while letting go of sacraments as external rites, had preserved the many treasures of Christian spirituality that lie hidden in the deeper, mystical notion of sacramental. For Quakers, the word sacramental seemed to me to refer to the throbbing heart of the whole of creation as it carries the imprint of the sacred, in the whole of the secular.

Roman Catholicism and the Sacraments

I had participated, for well over three decades before that, in the often very inspiring, but ultimately, as I see it, unsuccessful, efforts of Roman Catholicism, to revive Christian spirituality. The finding again of the sacred, not in a separate supernatural world, but in the heart of the secular, was the method used to bring the external rites of the Seven Sacraments into line with what people really believed. This involved a re-look at the development of the practice and theology of sacraments throughout the centuries, not only in Catholicism, but also in all the other Christian churches. It also involved getting down to the business of re-creating Christian communities. It was a most exhilarating time, full of promise!

I cannot speak with authority of Quakerism as I am a ‘blow-in’ of only eight years experience. I can, however, speak out of the inspiration and blessing that my encounter with Quakerism was and continues to be for me, on my own personal journey of Faith. I hope to be excused for interpreting Quakerism through the eyes of my former Roman Catholicism, the only eyes I have!

Reformation in Roman Catholicism really started in 1943 with the publication of Pope Pius 12’s encyclical, “Divino Afflante Spiritu” (With the Holy Spirit Blowing ) This encyclical marked the acceptance by Roman Catholicism of the historical/critical study of the Bible that took place, at first, among Protestant scholars, from the 18th century onwards. From then on, a literary interpretation of the Bible was impossible without belittling human scholarship. The teaching that Jesus founded the sacraments of the church, was seen to be very unclear from Scripture and so it became possible for Roman Catholics to discuss sacraments, from all angles.

In trying to refashion the sacraments, Catholics turned to the model of the Adult Catechumenate (community of adult Faith) of the early Christian church. As the early church developed, the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist were received at the end of 1-3 years of Christian living. For early Christians, what was important was Christian living. Sacraments did not cause or effect this, they were simply celebrations of it.

Sacraments understood in this way, were part of the living adult community of Faith and were not divorced from the sacredness of all of life.

Theology of Redemption

Gradually, however, as the image of Jesus, as Redeemer, took over from the image of Jesus as teacher, a theology of Redemption started to underpin the sacraments. Christianity taught that a sinful, passive humanity, unable, of itself, to approach God, was bought back into God’s favour by the merits of the death of Jesus. As Saviour, this Jesus, we were taught, washed our sins away. A deposit of the merits won for us by Jesus, enabled the Church to distribute these merits through the sacraments. Gradually, Christians, in the modern world, were starting to question this doctrine, so a discrepancy between faith and practice was a constant threat.

Sacraments, underpinned by Redemption theology, became separated from the sacredness of life and lent themselves to being perceived as magical, supernatural acts. Clergy, who actively administered, were separated from laity who passively received the benefits of Christ’s Redemption, made available through the sacraments.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was a very serious attempt to deal with this growing crisis. It had goals very similar to the reformations of Vatican Council 2, in Roman Catholicism, in late 20th century. Both represented a huge attempt to bring outward rites into line with inward experience.

Outward Rites, Inward Experience

But in both Protestant and Catholic churches, it seems to me, this struggle took place, only at the tactical level of structures and institutional conformity. Only gradually, in the 20th century, did more strategic questions, such as why Redemption theology, who is Jesus, what other doors are open to a vibrant Christian Faith, begin to surface for Catholics. Then, as strategic questions about people’s real beliefs surfaced, these were often crushed by clerical authority. And, alas for Catholicism, the hoped for reformation only happened in areas where clerical authority allowed it. That did not include Ireland!

The Difference with Quakers

Quakerism was different. Away back in the 17th century, it had asked, and answered, the most strategic question of all, do we need sacraments! But Christian history barely recognised this event! Was this strategic question too big a threat throughout past centuries? Is it still a threat today? Should it not be, today, at the heart of ecumenical discussion?

As part of the radical Protestant Reformation, the Swiss reformer Zwingli marked, it seems to me, an important milestone between institutional Christianity and Quakerism. He returned to the original meaning of the word “sacrament”.

The original Latin word “sacramentum” had a military use. It indicated the oath of allegiance that soldiers of the Roman army swore to the Emperor, before going to battle. This is hardly a word that would delight the heart of George Fox! But, wishing to rid the sacraments of their magical elements, Zwingli recommended bringing back this original idea of oath of allegiance.

Zwingli’s idea was that this oath should now be made, by a Christian, as a pledge of his faith in God. Thus, the reception of a sacrament would no longer be a passive act but an active renewal of an oath of fidelity to Christian Faith. Maybe, this is close to the idea of the early Christian catechumenate that stressed Christian living over sacramental rites. In the renewal of the oath of fidelity, Zwingli sought to deal with the problem of sacraments as merely outward rites, that lacked inward experience: over a century later, early Quakers claimed the inward experience without the external rite!

The Inward Experience

At the heart of Quaker spirituality is the inward experience, the inner light, the inner Christ, the eternal Shekinah of which the sacraments are but a sign. Living in tune with this inner Spirit is what constitutes religious life for Quakers. As long as one can have this inner experience of God, directly, of what use are the rites of the sacraments? Quakers ask. They are, therefore inessential.

Quaker worship is the place and time, par excellence, when Quakers seek the inner spirit but they, then, carry this dependence on the guidance of the spirit into all their activities. Worship in spirit and in truth replaces the Eucharist, the Mass or the Holy Communion services in other Christian churches. Quakers believe that human beings are capable of access to the divine without external intermediaries. They seek to find the divine within themselves first, and then in each other, and to live their lives in obedience to this belief.

This does not mean that access to the divine is seen as easy. George Fox taught that each human being must deal with this challenge of seeking and finding the divine life within themselves. He wrote:

“This worship in the spirit and in the truth, touches every man and woman: they each have to come to the spirit in themselves, and come to the truth of their own inner being. And this is public worship we are talking about, not private. If they are really to worship God in spirit and in truth, they have to surrender in spirit and truth and enter into them personally….They have to come to the truth in the heart, to the hidden self in the heart and to a humble and quiet heart.” (Epistle 222)
Finding the spiritual reality of which the sacraments are but a sign, requires a huge surrender, and is a constant sacrifice and challenge for each of us, as Quakers. I think the implication of what Fox means by, “the hidden self in the heart” is, that part of ourselves is hidden from ourselves but can be awakened by God’s spirit, particularly when we are gathered in communion of spirit, with others. Quakers use the lovely expression, “a gathered meeting” to express the outpouring of the spirit as it flows through the gathered group. This happens, not by receiving external rites, but by listening attentively to what our own being and that of others is saying in the silence, whether this is outwardly expressed or not.

A Bold and Colossal Claim

The Quaker book of Christian Experience (1962) carries this great quote (p.39), from A. Barratt Brown (1887-1947):

“It is a bold and colossal claim that we put forward – that the whole of life is sacramental, that there are innumerable “means of grace” by which life is revealed and communicated – through nature and through human fellowship and through a thousand things that may become, “the outward and visible sign” of an “inward and spiritual grace.”
In this quote, Barratt Brown does something wonderful for me. He takes the theological terms of sacraments as rites such as “means of grace”, “the outward and visible sign”, “inward and spiritual grace” out of the prison of theological discourse and releases them into the cosmos of God’s creation. Thus, the “bold and colossal claim that we put forward – that the whole of life is sacramental.”

There is further evidence of this movement from theology (sacramental rite) – to creation (life as sacramental) – in a beautiful passage from “Essays and Addresses” by John Wilhelm Rowntree(1868-1905), quoted in Christian Experience, p 40:

“To the soul that feeds upon the bread of life, the outward conventions of religion are no longer needful. Hid with Christ in God, there is for him but small place for outward rites, for all experience is a holy baptism, a perpetual supper with the Lord and all life is a sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This hidden life, this hidden vision, this immediate and intimate union between the soul and God, this, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is the basis of the Quaker Faith.

“We do not make use of the outward rites of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper but we do lay stress on the inward experiences they symbolise. Our testimony is to the reality of this experience without the external act”
As an example of the inward experience, without the outward act, D. Elton Trueblood (1968) is quoted in the two revised draft copies of Christian Experience as describing baptism by fire as, “one loving heart setting another on fire”.

When I first met these quotations during discussions on the new draft of Christian Experience, I realised the full significance of Quakerism for Christianity. Jesus, the Jew, has for me the same message that early Quakers re-discovered; years of theological accretions have hidden its awesomeness.

Knowledge of the Heart

Knowledge, for Quakers, is knowledge of the heart. It is the gift of God’s Spirit and is born in the “inner light”. When we read Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, not literally, but through its eternal images, we find it full of this invocation to inner knowledge. When the Hebrew psalmist sings “deep calls unto deep”, it is of this knowledge of the heart that he speaks.

Yet in the course of the centuries this ability was weakened, as head knowledge, prevailed over heart knowledge and the message of Jesus was packaged for “fallen man”. How come that George Fox could allow full sway to the presence of God’s Spirit, at a time in England when Anglicans, Puritans and Roman Catholics saw Christianity in terms of the redemption of “fallen man”.

There is a mystical passage in George Fox’s Journal (p 27 ff, Nickalls) that helps me to understand this a little:

“Now was I come up in the spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new and all the creation gave a different smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness and innocency and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus so that I say I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell.”
Fox never denies darkness or evil but he does not see them as primary. This is evident in several of his Epistles, for example in Epistle 240, Fox refers to the power of God that “goes over the fall to the beginning, where all things are blest”. For Fox original blessing preceded original sin. In this extract from his Journal, it’s clear that he sees the state of innocence as primary, “the state of Adam which he was before he fell.”
The struggle between darkness and light leaves us always in a state of humble striving. But a return to a state of “pureness and innocency” beyond “the flaming sword” that guards paradise, is, rather, a mystical vision that we strive for and need to keep constantly before us as the goal towards which God’s Spirit is guiding us.

I am making the claim here, for 17th century Quakerism, that it moved Christianity forward, out of an image of Christ as redeemer and mankind as sinful, into a new paradigm change that took Christianity out of the Roman Empire and back into the simple teachings of the human Jesus. Jesus lived so intensely with God that he became known as the Christ, the one who is anointed by God’s spirit. This is how I understand Fox’s “inner Christ”. This opens up a very difficult, but a very dignified way to live as a human being. Though elderly now, I feel ever new on this road and am aware that I have a lot to learn every day!


Eco-Quakerism is today a new, yet old, way of expressing a hymn of joy for God’s creation that makes “springs gush forth in the valleys, giving drink to every wild animal”! (Psalm 104). The colossal claim of Quakerism that all of life is sacramental, infuses our world and all that inhabits it, with immeasurable value! It gives rise to a Christian vision that can address the present ecological crisis. It allows human beings to, once again, walk with God in the Garden of Eden and even, perhaps, share this privilege with the creatures of planets yet to be found!

Does inner experience ever need external rites and could that be the sacrament of silence?