15th Street Meeting's Seven Week Course on Barclay's Apology
We met from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Thursdays (April 12th, April 19th, April 26th, May 3rd, May 10th, May 17th and May 24th.) Attendance varied from 8 to 14, with some participants having to miss one or another session because of other commitments, but most sessions had at least 10 present. Those who came included two or three of the "usual suspects" (Friends already known to have a strong interest in early Quaker writings and/or in a Christocentric view of Quakerism), but many others came out of a less predictable curiosity. (The "usual suspects", I hasten to add, were extremely helpful, highly engaged with the text, and always ready with insightful comments). One man who made a good contribution came because he had seen a poster about the class and was curious. He is not himself a Friend, though he works for our Friends' school here as a security officer.
One Friend who I thought would be interested did not come because he thought my use of the Quaker Heritage Press edition of Barclay's Apology was somehow a slight of Dean Freiday, who prepared Barclay's Apology in Modern English. This disappointed me, as I think he could have added a lot. In fact, we wasted none of our limited time in critiqueing Freiday or anyone else, but concentrated on Barclay himself. If anything, our struggles with Barclay's syntax and sentence structure tended to increase my respect for the labors Freiday must have undergone to render as much of this as he did into "modern English". As it was, each of us in the course had to be our own Dean Freiday. In our own labor to understand, we may have avoided some of the errors that Larry Kuenning attributes to Freiday here, and we may have committed some of our own. But I remain glad that we engaged with Barclay's own translation of his original Latin prose. That way, the impressions we came away with were only first-generation-imperfect. That is, each of us has our own mental copy (however imperfect) of what Barclay meant to say, and not our own mental copy of Dean Freiday's interpreatation of what Barclay meant to say.
The schedule I laid out in the original announcement did not hold up. We spent more time than anticipated on the prefatory address to Charles the second, which I felt helped establish Barclay's historical context, on my own introductory overview of the 15 propositions, and on Propositions I and II.
As a result, we split the third session between "Concerning the Scriptures" and "Concerning the Condition of Man in the Fall" and by the end of the fourth class we had only gone as far as Propositions V and VI ("Concerning the Universal Redemption by Christ and also the Spiritual and Saving Light, wherewith every man is enlightened"). We therefore, very reluctantly, skipped over propositions VII, VIII and IX (dealing with "justification", "perfection", and "perseverance" respectively), in order to have enough time for a good discussion of the propositions on ministry, worship, baptism, communion, the limitations on the state's power over conscience, and the final proposition (on "Salutations and Recreations") where we met many familiar Quaker "testimonies", including the testimony againt war, in an unfamiliar context.
For some of these classes I asked the participants (if they felt so inclined) to come in with their own paraphrases of the propositions to be discussed that day. This generally provided a good starting point for discussion. In some cases, I distributed some excerpts from the chapter that had captured my attention and we discussed those. Often, participants came with particular passages in mind that were either especially edifying or especially troubling and we would discuss those. Throughout, I tried to maintain the stance that it was worth understanding what Barclay was saying whether or not we agree with him, that we are under no obligation to accept his judgement, but that we will be poorer as a Society of Friends if we don't understand something of where he fits into our tradition.
Frankly, there were some weeks when my own busy-ness at work or events in my personal life crowded out the time I had hoped to spend preparing for the class, so I had to "wing it" more than I had intended and to rely much more on the fact that the other participants had been reading and thinking that week, even if I had not. As far as I could tell, the class went just as well in those weeks as in the others, which is both reassuring and humbling. I suppose it did help that at least I was pretty familiar with Barclay already, having read him many many times.
My final conclusion? That Barclay is still relevant, and that Friends willing to read him carefully will find the effort worthwhile. When 17th century Latinized English gets in the way, it helps to read carefully and for readers to compare notes with each other on what he seems to be saying. Looking up the scriptural passages he quotes can also help. His views on some things (like "The condition of Man in the Fall") will seem completely surprising to some. His views on others (like "the Spiritual and Saving Light") will seem familiar yet somehow different than some of us at least in the more liberal meetings expected. In places Barclay's academic style is off-putting and discouraging for most readers. In other places, such as the propositions on worship and on ministry, his words still have power to inspire.