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British Quaker Theology Since 1895.

Martin Davie's book offers a detailed study of Quaker theology since the official Friends' conference in Manchester in 1895, at which the relationship between Quakerism and `modern thought' was discussed at length, and from which Davie dates the recent long ascendancy of liberal and then, from the 1960s, radical theology in the Society. The process has gone so far that some Friends have questioned whether Quaker theology needs to be grounded in the Christian tradition at all: they think of Quakers much more as questing individuals than as members of a body governed by theological and ethical rules shaped by a long historical tradition. Or, if they think in terms of tradition, they think of the past as justifying, by a process of change, the position which they hold today. Dr Davie, on the other hand, stresses that in the first half of the nineteenth century the Society had been deeply influenced by the Evangelicalism of Joseph John Gurney, Elizabeth Fry's brother, and he attributes the Society's divergence from this version of Christian orthodoxy partly to the willingness of Friends to adapt Christianity to modern culture, a tendency which he deplores, and partly to the widely-held view that intellectual tolerance was fundamental to the Quaker position. He argues that because Christianity is true, there must be limits to intellectual tolerance, and that since 1895 the impact of liberalism has been to make Quakerism deeply unsure of its theological identity. I doubt if Dr Davie does much more than illustrate strong trends in the history of twentieth-century Christianity by means of a Quaker example. If, for example, there was an element of `adaptation' in the briefly notorious report, Towards a Quaker View of Sex 1963), a publication which Davie interprets as marking the shift from a liberal to a radical Quaker theology, it was because at that time adaptation seemed, not just a matter of tactics, or of a craven falling in with the crowd, but theologically justifiable. The ethical pronouncements of the mainstream Churches on subjects like the position of women, marriage, divorce, homosexuality and so on, often seemed, as they still do, more concerned with the alleged good of society and the status of religious institutions than with the consequences of prescription for the individual. That division of opinion still dominates welfare politics and ethics in the 1990s, and divides Christians. Similarly, when Dr Davie alleges that `in the last thirty years only two Swarthmore lecturers, [Gerald] Priestland and [Hugh] Doncaster in his 1963 Swarthmore lecture That of God in Every Man, have described Christ as God incarnate', one accepts Davie's own orthodoxy, but is bound to add that Friends have done nothing worse than reflect serious theological doubts about the absoluteness of the Christian revelation. Content with the view that Quakers are too tolerant, too willing to adapt, and therefore theologically confused, he undervalues the Society's twentieth-century history, both as a source of humane endeavour and as a locus of religious inquiry.

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Author:Kent, John
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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