Our testimony is all of our actions; a whole way of life that testifies to who we are and to our experience of God. If we encounter spiritual reality and are transformed by it, we will lead a transformed life, and that is our testimony.
The specific actions of Quaker testimony have always been very various, and have also changed over time in response to different situations. For the first Quakers, the most important aspects of their testimony were plain and truthful speech and the refusal to support the established church. Later, our testimony developed in many directions, including opposition to war, anti-slavery, support for refugees and practising equal marriage.
It was only in the 1960s that all of these very diverse kinds of Quaker testimony were first grouped into the familiar list of 'Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace', simply as a convenient way of remembering and explaining them.
Unfortunately, since then we have got into the habit of talking about 'Quaker testimonies' as though they were a list of principles or values that we are supposed to accept and then try (and inevitably fail) to 'live up to'. This makes them into ideas in our heads, that we have to work out how to apply to real life, from the head down. This way of understanding testimonies as a list of values contradicts what is most essential about the Quaker way; that it is a way of practice, rooted in experience, not in principles or beliefs. Our testimony is what we do because we know from our own experience that it is what we have to do. Instead of starting from our heads, it rises up from the ground on which we stand.
Our corporate testimony is all of those actions that we have discerned together as a Yearly Meeting, including the refusal of violence and commitment to peacemaking, speaking truthfully, refusing to participate in gambling or speculation, and working towards becoming a low-carbon community. These aspects of our life together are not a list of rules or principles. The fundamental value of the corporate Quaker testimonies is as a guide to discerning our own leadings. By reminding us of the ways in which Friends have been led in the past, individually and collectively, the testimonies can help to sensitise us to the areas where the inward Guide may be nudging us in our own lives and situations.
Each of us will be led differently at different times in our lives, because each of us has our own experiences, talents and contribution to offer to the world. One of the gifts of being in community is that each of us brings something different, and that none of us has to try to do everything. Through the discernment of the whole gathered community, we are helped to see where our own blind spots and resistances are, to become more aware of the areas where we are less inclined to heed the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. The aim is not to be morally perfect, but simply to become more whole, more true to reality and faithful to the way that the Spirit is moving within us, for our happiness and for the healing of the world.
This post is based on a talk given as part of the Woodbrooke course 'A New Vision of the Quaker Way' in July 2015.