Thursday, 29 January 2015

What Can We Say?

Part of the Quaker way we have inherited is a tradition of corporate testimony. Quakers are well-known for our opposition to war, but there are many other kinds of testimony that Friends in modern times have acknowledged as collective commitments. These include refusing to tell lies, participate in gambling (including financial speculation), take oaths and use or accept honours or titles (such as 'Reverend' and 'Your Majesty').

Over recent years these collective testimonies seem to have fallen increasingly into disuse. Many Friends have either never heard of them, or don't consider them relevant to their own lives. Even our national representative body Meeting for Sufferings has sometimes forgotten its centuries' old rejection of flattering titles, to the extent of delivering a 'Loyal Address to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II', for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Over the last few decades we have changed our understanding of testimony, turning it into a set of abstract 'Quaker principles' instead of specific commitments to action. I have argued in another post that this is unhelpful, because it sets us up to fail at 'living up to' impossible ideals. Another effect of this understanding of testimony is that by focussing on vague ideals rather than concrete actions, it encourages a wide range of individualistic interpretations. Instead of a collective public witness that Quakers will not take part in lotteries or tell a lie, we now expect to interpret for ourselves the very general 'shared values' of Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace, and even to select which of these separate values is more or less important to me as an individual.

A much broader cultural shift towards ethical relativism has also encouraged Friends to adopt a privatised version of discernment. It is common to hear Friends talk about 'my truth' and even 'my inner light', with the implication that what is 'true for me' cannot justifiably be questioned or challenged by anyone else. If there is no acceptance of over-arching moral or religious claims, then we cannot be accountable to each other for our faithfulness to shared standards of behaviour. At most, we can only encourage each other to decide for ourselves what is true 'for me'.

Despite this individualistic emphasis, our Advices & Queries still sometimes assume that Quakers will acknowledge some shared specific standards of behaviour, eg 'Taking oaths implies a double standard of truth; in choosing to affirm instead, be aware of the claim to integrity that you are making.' (A&Q 37), and 'Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparations for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? (A&Q 31).

The recent commitment of Britain Yearly Meeting to 'work towards becoming a low carbon community' might even be considered an attempt to revive the tradition of corporate Quaker testimony. The vision for this originated from Pam Lunn's 2011 Swarthmore Lecture, which called for a collective Quaker response to the climate crisis. In the event, despite adopting the 'Canterbury Commitment' as official policy (including Britain Yearly Meeting's disinvestment from fossil fuel companies), response at local meeting level has so far been patchy and ambivalent. While a few meetings have embraced the challenge to green their meeting houses or undertake other carbon reduction projects, there has not been a discernible Society-wide response. My sense is that the reason for this is not so much the issue itself, since most Friends are probably making some individual attempts at a 'greener lifestyle' already. It seems to be more an expression of resistance to any call to collective witness and action, which is increasingly perceived as contrary to Friends' right to decide for themselves.

A balance between collective and personal discernment has traditionally been central to Quaker spirituality. Testing our individual leadings through the discernment of our Quaker community, from our local meeting outwards to the national level of Yearly Meeting, is how we have balanced the centrifugal pressures of individual liberty of conscience, with its dangers of impulsive and misdirected enthusiasm.

At the same time, our responsibility for discerning how the Spirit is leading us to act cannot simply be surrendered to the collective, no matter how much we trust its processes and its wisdom. Early Friends such as Isaac Penington were insistent that each of us is 'not to take things for truths because others see them to be truths, but to wait till the spirit makes them manifest to me.' (The works of the long-mournful and sorely-distressed Isaac Penington, 1761) It is our own fidelity to the 'Inward Guide' rather than our conformity to the customs or mandates of any group that keeps our faith and witness authentic. What if our personal discernment is at odds with the discernment of our community, whether our local, area or yearly meeting? Should we simply copy the testimony of other Quakers, even if we have no inward leading to avoid gambling or oppose war?

My own understanding is that being a Quaker involves a respect for our collective discernment, but not necessarily a submission to it. Individual Friends have often been a source of new insight for the Society as a whole, even when they have maintained a solitary position in tension with the Society's collective discernment for many years. Specific testimonies, such as the original Quaker rejection of music, have changed in response to an altered context or new insights. This kind of change is not just a forgetting of former testimony, but deliberately testing and questioning it, to discover what, if anything, is still of value. Such 'faithful challenging' is not the same as simply ignoring our collective testimony and treating it as irrelevant if it doesn't immediately agree with me.

Simone Weil wrote in a similar way about her relationship to (Catholic) Church teachings as 'a permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention, but not an adherence.' (Letter to a Priest, 1951). In another text, she added '[f]or me, in the effort of reflection, a real or apparent disagreement with the Church's teachings is simply a reason for a considerable slowing-down of my thought, and for pushing attentive and scrupulous inquiry as far as it will go, before daring to affirm anything. But that is all.' (Last Text, 1962).

For me, one of the obligations of membership in the Religious Society of Friends is to make myself aware of its practices, including the corporate testimony that it has adopted through the collective discernment of Friends. This does not just involve learning an acronym for four abstract 'Quaker principles', but something much more like an 'attentive and scrupulous inquiry' into the discernment of the wider community, including recent decisions of Britain Yearly Meeting such as the Canterbury Commitment. It is central to the Quaker way that our consciences cannot be compelled to follow others; but it is equally central that we each carry a responsibility for an 'attitude of respectful attention' to the discernment of the community as expressed in our corporate testimony.

Is corporate Quaker testimony important in your life? How do you see the balance between individual leadings and collective discernment in your meeting, and in the wider Quaker community?

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Imaginary Theist

In a Quaker committee meeting recently, a group of us were asked to place ourselves in a line, with one end marked ‘theist’ and the other ‘non-theist’. Along with one other Friend, I felt unable to participate in this exercise, because of my discomfort with both of those terms.

My sense is that the way in which our discussion about Quaker religious language has been framed in recent years is extremely unhelpful. If we genuinely want to understand each other’s experience, and to discern and worship together, we will not be served by thinking of our differences in terms of a debate between theists and non-theists. 

I am convinced that this is, in fact, a completely false distinction. It seems to be based on the assumption that anyone who uses the word ‘God’ is something called a ‘theist’, who holds a specific set of theological beliefs. Once this is assumed, it seems to follow that anyone who doesn’t hold those beliefs must be a ‘non-theist’. This leads directly into attempts to classify ourselves and others, and even to a competitive spirit, in which we line up on opposing sides. At the moment any use of the word ‘God’ in Quaker minutes and publications has become controversial, because it seems to privilege ‘theists’ and exclude ‘non-theists’. In the very worst tradition of religious factionalism, we have fallen into mutual suspicion over a word. 

Theism is an academic concept used in the comparative study of religion. According to the Oxford dictionary, it means ‘belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.’ Crucially, theism is a label used to classify certain beliefs and teachings; it is not a word that people usually apply to themselves. In other words, the idea of 'theist Quakers' is a myth. It is a label applied to others, which almost always misrepresents their own experience and self-understanding.

Most Quakers who use the word God are not speaking of an ‘old man in the clouds’, or the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of pre-modern theology. Liberal Quakerism has inherited from the wider mystical religious tradition an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable. This tradition typically uses the word ‘God’, not as the name of an external ‘being’, but as a signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality. 

Religious language in this tradition is not used to make dogmatic intellectual propositions; it is much more like poetry. The poetic, allusive language of faith has plenty of room for flexible and diverse interpretations. Some Friends use the word ‘God’ to describe their personal experience of spiritual encounter, or being guided or accompanied. For others it points to their sense of awe at the mysteriousness of existence, of the interconnection of all of life, or the depth and holiness of personal relationships. Other Friends might have similar kinds of experience while using very different language to describe it.

For many people the word God has so many unpleasant associations with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths. There is no right answer here; it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences.

My own thinking about spiritual reality has been influenced by people from many different traditions who have lived with compassion, selflessness and courage. Many of them have called the source of life within them ‘God’, and I am happy to use the same word for the inward dimension of reality that I recognise in my own experience. Does this make me something called a ‘theist’, as if I subscribed to a list of abstract intellectual propositions that are in reality completely meaningless to me?

The (extremely unorthodox) Christian mystic Simone Weil wrote that God has both 'personal and impersonal aspects', and 'an atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.' (Letter to a Priest, 1951). This suggests that there may be different ‘faces’ of spiritual reality, which are more apparent to different people, at different times, and emphasised by different traditions. This understanding does not require us to divide ourselves into camps, according to whether we believe in the existence of a personal God or not. Just as physicists have learned to accept that light is neither a wave nor a particle, but exhibits wave-like or particle-like behaviour depending on how it is observed; there is no reason to expect that spiritual reality should be more straightforward than matter and energy.

Surely we can use a range of religious language to communicate with each other and the wider world, without trying to eliminate or insist on the use of any particular word. Instead of labelling others, or ourselves, as ‘theists’ or ’nontheists’, couldn’t we listen to each other’s actual experience? Instead of assuming that any use of the word 'God' in Quaker literature presupposes a particular set of theological beliefs, could we accept it as simply one word, among others, that is used by Friends in a range of ways and with diverse interpretations?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

A common tongue

Madonna and child mural at Cyrene Mission, Zimbabwe
Some years ago, I used to attend a Catholic church in a run-down area of inner-city Liverpool. The congregation was a mix of White working-class locals, African and Eastern European asylum-seekers, people with learning disabilities from the L'Arche community, young L'Arche volunteers from numerous countries, and a sprinkling of elderly nuns, political activists and left-wing intellectuals.

All of these people, with their vastly different backgrounds and educational experience, could not be said to have identical beliefs. Religious traditions such as Catholicism offer a broad umbrella for very different social groups and types of personality, with a correspondingly wide range of theologies and interpretations of their faith. What united this congregation, though, was more than just an agreement to kneel down at the altar rail together. They shared a common religious language, including the imagery and narrative of the Eucharist that enabled them to practise it together as one faith community. As they took part in the sacrament, they were united by their participation in a story that included, but was greater than, all of their personal interpretations.

Every religious tradition includes such a shared fund of stories and images. A shared language doesn't imply uniformity of thought or belief. A common language offers a set of stories, images and concepts, without necessarily imposing a single perspective or interpretation. It gives us common ground to communicate with each other, even across great divides of experience and temperament. A shared spiritual vocabulary allows us to share our experiences, to support, encourage and challenge each other, and to engage in common practices and dialogues within a diverse community.

It is this shared language that the Quaker community in Britain struggles with so much today. Instead of a common vocabulary we have a multitude of incompatible personal languages, often drawn from other spiritual or ideological traditions. In the absence of a shared repertoire of stories and images, we have no option but to resort to a continuous, and often unsuccessful, attempt to translate each others' words into something else that has meaning for us.

Each of us has our own personal story, our own distillation of narrative and belief worked out through the unique circumstances of our lives. Have we given up on the possibility of also having shared stories, that enable us to talk together in a common tongue, instead of continually having to translate between a host of private languages?

Buddhists throughout the world also share a collection of stories, images and teachings. Different schools of Buddhism have their own distinctive texts and traditions, and in different countries and cultures these are taught, expressed and interpreted very differently. Individual Buddhist practitioners also bring their own unique histories and personalities, which often include elements of other religious traditions. It is very common for western Buddhists to have a background in other spiritual traditions, and to continue to draw upon a wide range of spiritual resources. In that sense, there are plenty of Christian-Buddhists, Pagan-Buddhists, and possibly even Quaker-Buddhists.

Like Quaker meetings, Western Buddhist meditation classes are usually open to anyone who wants to attend them, without any requirement to adopt particular beliefs. A significant difference is that Buddhist groups are clear and explicit about the content of their teaching. If an attender at a Buddhist group were to state that they didn't like the word 'meditation' and preferred to spend the time thinking instead of watching their breath, they would be perfectly free to act in this way. The Buddhist community would be unlikely to recognise this attender as a practising Buddhist, however, and certainly wouldn't alter the teaching to accommodate these objections.

By contrast, many Quakers see it as the duty of the meeting to accommodate everyone's preferences, and to encourage everyone to interpret Quaker faith and practice in the way that is most congenial to them. Some Friends object to the language of 'worship', 'discernment' and 'divine guidance' because it does not fit with their rationalist intellectual conceptions. In many cases this leads to the shared language of the Quaker way being quietly dropped, and replaced with anodyne terms such as 'a time of quiet'. Without this shared language, what we can say to each other and to the world is reduced to a minimal vocabulary, largely drawn from the political and bureaucratic language of the dominant culture. This impoverished language leaves us few resources for expressing the distinctive teachings of the Quaker way and communicating the insights of Quaker experience.

The loss of a common language may also prevent us from engaging in core Quaker practices in mutually intelligible ways. Quaker practices such as meeting for worship and business meetings do not just rely on conformity to rules of behaviour. They rest on a level of shared understanding of what the activity is for. Without a shared language for meeting for worship it becomes simply a 'format' rather than a collective spiritual practice. The meeting can become a group of isolated individuals each on our own solitary spiritual journey, rather than a gathered people on a shared spiritual path.

A shared language need not be static or immune to development. Early Quakers developed a rich spiritual language, full of creative imagery. Much of it was drawn from the poetic language of the Bible, but used in creative ways to draw the imagination away from rigid, institutionalised and dogmatic interpretations. They described their spiritual experience in novel and unexpected ways, through expressions such as 'Inward Guide', 'Teacher' or 'Light', 'the Seed', 'the Principle of Life', 'openings', 'clearness' and 'testimony'.

Our Quaker language today has little of this exuberant creativity, although it proliferates in the bureaucratic language of committees, risk assessments, consultations and project management. Perhaps it is one of the tasks of contemporary Quakers to discover fresh possibilities for our religious language today. Instead of whittling it away to conform to the dominant culture, could we keep our language fluid and alive, responsive to the currents of the Spirit in our time and place? Might we come to extend our vocabulary of spiritual practice and experience, to echo all the struggles and joys of contemporary life, while staying rooted in the collective wisdom of Quaker practice over many generations? What might such a revived common tongue sound like?

Friday, 31 October 2014

Cycles of Renewal

Looking around at the condition of the Quaker movement in Britain, it is tempting to grow nostalgic about the profounder spirituality of a previous age. I want to encourage us to resist this temptation. We should not aim at a return to the Quaker forms of the past. Instead, we need a more disciplined attention to the practices that can help us to be faithful to the Spirit in our contemporary world.

By concentrating on the lives of 'great Quakers' of the past, we can easily overlook the fact that Friends such as John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry or Rufus Jones were not at all typical of the wider Quaker movement of their time. For most of our history, Friends have been largely what we are today – spiritually tepid and deeply compromised by our accommodation to the surrounding culture.

The life-cycle of every religious movement begins in a blaze of inspiration, which is quickly smothered by a growth of authoritarianism and bureaucracy. Most of these groups rapidly burn themselves out in a puff of disillusionment, but a few manage to renew themselves, sometimes in very different forms and contexts. Those religious movements that do survive tend to go through cycles of short-lived spiritual vitality followed by much longer periods of decline. The longest-lived religious traditions, such as Catholicism, Judaism and Zen Buddhism, have been through this cycle of decline and renewal several times over many centuries.

There are good reasons why long-lived religious movements need to be continually renewed. Once the first generation of charismatic leadership is lost, their original followers often fall out with each other, and turn to legalism and hierarchy to enforce their authority. This happened very early in the history of the Christian church (see Galatians 2: 11-14). It was also a feature of the growing authoritarianism of 18th century Quaker culture, which soon began to insist on rigid rules of dress, speech and behaviour. Margaret Fox (née Fell) was already protesting this trend in 1700, just nine years after George Fox's death.

'We are now coming into that which Christ cried woe against, minding altogether outward things, neglecting the inward work of Almighty God in our hearts, if we can but frame according to outward prescriptions and orders, and deny eating and drinking with our neighbours, in so much that poor Friends is mangled in their minds, that they know not what to do, for one Friend says one way, and another another, but Christ Jesus saith, that we must take no thought what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on, but bids us consider the lilies how they grow, in more royalty than Solomon. But contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour: this is a silly poor Gospel.'

Processes such as this quickly tend to extinguish the enthusiasm of a religious community. As formal structures and bureaucracies develop, members' energy is increasingly drawn into perpetuating the organisation, rather than serving the original spiritual mission of the community. The organisation's culture and structures soon become closely geared to the interests of its most influential members. These structures eventually push increasing numbers of spiritually seeking members to the edges of the community, or even out of it altogether.

Once a religious organisation is in this condition, it is usually very difficult to get out of it. The existing way of doing things approximates to the preferences of a core of regular members, and any newcomers who are looking for something very different are quickly selected out. Bureaucratic structures constantly acquire new committees and functions, which hoover up an increasing share of members' time and energy, sapping the potential for disciplined spiritual practice and courageous testimony.

This is very much the situation I see in large parts of Britain Yearly Meeting. As a Friend in one struggling meeting asked Paul Parker after his talk on 'vibrant meetings', 'We already have too much to do. Are we supposed to be vibrant now as well?' We currently have an organisational culture and structures that suit a dwindling group of members in many scattered, mostly very tiny meetings. A wider group of attenders come to meeting semi-regularly to re-charge their batteries on a Sunday morning, but are deterred from getting more involved by the onerous demands of administration or the absence of real spiritual vitality. Most of the newcomers who occasionally turn up to try a Quaker meeting on Sunday never come back, or attend for only a short time before drifting off to look for something more spiritually nourishing. Yet we rarely ask ourselves what it is that might be missing from our worship and our community.

In large part, British Quakers are asleep; but we are stirring. A growing number of voices are asking whether the way we have come to 'do Quakerism' over the last few decades really serves the needs of our communities or the leadings of the Spirit. Many meetings have confronted their settled opposition to 'proselytising', and started to actively encourage new attenders to our meetings. Some Friends are even starting to question the hardened liberal dogmas that have outlawed the teaching of Quaker spirituality and the ministry of leadership in our communities.

These fitful stirrings have not yet reached a critical threshold of awakening. We may be at a crucial point in our story as British Quakers. Will we toss and turn, only to roll over and go back to sleep? or will we come awake at last, while we still have enough energy and hope to renew our Society and ourselves, to realise the unique possibilities of a renewed Quaker Way for our times?

We have been here before. In the 1860s, when Quakers were in danger of dying out from the loss of members due to rigid enforcement of prohibitions against 'marrying out', we threw away the rule book and embraced engagement with a wider religious and social world. At the very end of the 19th century the 'Quaker Renaissance' movement of John Wilhelm Rowntree, Rufus Jones and Edward Grubb introduced the era of liberal Quakerism. This renewed form of the Quaker Way unleashed a new wave of spiritual vigour and social engagement. It also contributed to the heroic achievements of Friends during the 20th century; from conscientous objection, to the Kinderstransport, famine relief and anti-war movements. We need a new kind of 'Quaker Renaissance' today.

Many other religious communities have been in the same place before us. Most have slid gradually but inevitably into irrelevance and historical obscurity – such as the Muggletonians (yes really), Familists and many others. A few have managed to wake up and renew themselves before it was too late, leading to a new flowering of creative spirituality and social transformation. In her 1993 James Backhouse lecture for Australia Yearly Meeting, Ursula Jane O'Shea drew on the analysis of Catholic religious orders which had successfully renewed themselves (sometimes several times over), to identify the characteristics of successful spiritual renewal. She argues that the renewal of a religious community cannot be achieved purely by reforming structures (although new, more well-adapted structures will result from a renewed community). Neither can renewal be achieved solely by a small group of leaders. Instead, a profound change of community direction depends upon the re-awakening of a willingness and desire for relationship with the divine. For us as Quakers, she argues that:

'Healing spiritual malaise within a group and initiating revival cannot be accomplished by office-holders or weighty Friends. It must be the committed task of a large section of the community, if not all of it. Transformation of a group can begin nowhere else but within each person. Willingness in many members to begin the hard work of inward transformation, without waiting for others to go first, may be the test of a community's desire and capacity to be revitalised...

Renewal of the Society waits for the choice of each Friend: Am I willing to risk the disturbing, transfiguring presence of the Spirit in my life? To obey it? To expect 'the Cross' and dark days as I discover and nurture who I am before God? When we choose to live the spiritual life the Quaker Way, these are the experiences we are committing ourselves to, whatever words we put upon them. If significant numbers of us are not interested in, or willing to live by these experiences, the hoped-for renewal of our meetings cannot occur. But if our collective spiritual power gathers strength it will infect other Friends and newcomers. Ministry will become more grounded in the Spirit and individuals will be inspired by the Spirit to serve our meetings as nurturers, prophets and conservers.'


I welcome your insights into the possibilities of Quaker renewal in Britain. For those who use Facebook, there is also a new group to explore these questions and share suggestions and resources for 'waking up' at Quaker Renewal UK - please join and invite your Friends.

There will also be a weekend on Quaker renewal at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in July 2015, following on from Ben Pink Dandelion's Swarthmore Lecture. More information and bookings here

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Amazing Absence of Quaker Worship

If the Quaker Way has something unique to offer the world, perhaps it is the experience of a gathered meeting for worship. This was described in memorable words in last year's Swarthmore Lecture:

'Unless we are extremely unfortunate in our journey through the Society of Friends we all know when we have experienced a gathered meeting: a meeting where the silence is as soft as velvet, as deep as a still pool; a silence where words emerge, only to deepen and enrich that rich silence, and where Presence is as palpable and soft as the skin of a peach; where the membrane separating this moment in time and eternity is filament-fine.'
(Gerald Hewitson, Journey into Life )

This experience of gathered worship is the living power of the Quaker Way, with an amazing capacity to heal, renew and transform our lives. This is what will make our communities alive; awakening our children to the possibilities of spiritual experience and demonstrating to new attenders that there is something real to discover in our meetings

Given the wonderful possibilities of Quaker worship, I often wonder why we have such low expectations of some of our meetings. In some meetings gathered worship is a rare occurrence, because the disciplines that enable and sustain it are not being practised.

It is easy to have the form of a Quaker meeting without the reality. On the surface, a group of people sitting in a circle, perhaps with someone occasionally standing up to speak, looks like Quaker worship. But an authentic meeting for worship is much more demanding than it appears; it requires the whole group of worshippers to faithfully practise the disciplines of listening and speaking.

The discipline of listening in worship is a wholehearted attention to our experience. This often begins with the thoughts, feelings and images that surface in our consciousness. Beneath these we gradually become aware of subtler movements of the soul; perhaps a sense of longing, anxiety or sadness that we usually manage to ignore. Deeper still, we may come to the place of renewing, peaceful silence described by Gerald Hewitson as the 'still pool' of gathered worship. In that place, we become receptive to the 'promptings of love and truth' that may arise to teach us, and that might require us to offer spoken ministry. In this place of gathered worship we become open to a wordless encounter with a source of life and power, healing or illumination – a sense of 'Presence' beyond thoughts and concepts.

Some fortunate people find this process of becoming still and receptive relatively easy on their own. For the rest of us, whose minds struggle against the stillness and continually wander into thoughts and daydreams, the disciplined attentiveness of our fellow worshippers is invaluable. The 18th century Quaker Isaac Penington described this process of mutual strengthening in worship as 'like an heap of fresh and living coals, warming one another, insomuch as a great strength, freshness, and vigour of life flows into all.' (A brief account concerning silent meetings, 1761)

The discipline of speaking in meeting for worship means discerning whether our intention to offer spoken ministry is a response to a specific leading of the Spirit. It asks us to relinquish the natural urge to speak from the needs of the ego – to claim attention, to rebut or to persuade. We have to learn to speak only when our message arises from the deeper place of responsiveness to spiritual reality. When we minister from this place, our simplest words have a special power to draw others into awareness, to encourage, to console or to challenge.

Worship is a movement of the whole being towards a spiritual reality that is ultimately mysterious. It requires the commitment of our whole selves - mind, heart, body and will, to something beyond our rational categories, greater than our own values, thoughts and preferences. It is easy to keep ourselves at the centre, making worship into another activity of the conscious mind. The disciplines of worship require us to let go of our thinking, analysing and need to be in control.

Where the disciplines of listening and speaking are not practised, the meeting for worship can no longer function. Although the outward form may appear similar, such a meeting has become something else. It may turn into a debating or co-counselling group, or a quiet time to think our own thoughts. In these meetings, spoken ministry tends toward political discussion, reciting uplifting quotes or summaries of radio and TV programmes. Such ministry is rarely experienced as contributing to the depth of worship. Instead, Friends tend to tolerate each others' messages in a spirit of generous non-judgement, rather than embracing them as words with the power to speak to our hearts.

The fact that it is difficult even to name this departure from our Quaker disciplines without seeming judgemental is a symptom of our struggle to engage in honest conversation about our most central practices. It seems that the authenticity of spoken ministry can never be mentioned without a well-meaning Friend quoting from Advices & Queries 12, 'Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it is not God's word for you, it may be so for others.' This is essential guidance, and I try to follow it in meeting, but it is only a part of the discipline of Quaker worship. It should not be an excuse to ignore the many other passages that emphasise the self-discipline required for genuine ministry, (especially Quaker faith &practice 2.55 to 2.70).

Elders have a particular responsibility for reminding Friends of the disciplines involved in Quaker worship. In practice, elders' willingness to do this is severely undermined by many Friends' insistence that worship and ministry are purely subjective and not subject to community standards. For many years we have tried to avoid conflict within our meetings by evading mutual accountability for the quality of our worship. We have not expected new Friends and attenders to learn the disciplines of Quaker worship. Instead we have encouraged each other to re-interpret the practice of worship wherever it conflicts with our own preferences and assumptions.

The disciplines of the Quaker Way have often been downplayed in the name of inclusivity - justified by the supposed preferences of potential enquirers. There is a widespread assumption that new attenders are looking for a content-free 'space' which will not demand anything from them. But there are very many people who are seeking a greater depth of spiritual encounter to guide and ground their lives. These are the potential Quakers who may not return after their first experience of an undisciplined and lifeless meeting for worship.

A gathered meeting need not be a rare and memorable 'one-off'. Practised with self-discipline and self-surrender Quaker worship can be a reliable vehicle for encounter with spiritual reality, for enlarging our awareness of our grounding, interconnectedness and calling. There are some meetings, where the disciplines of worship are being practised faithfully, where gathered worship is their 'normal' experience each week. If we are not in one of these meetings, perhaps it is up to us to improve the quality of our meeting for worship. We can put more effort into teaching and threshing our understandings of worship. We can support more active and courageous eldering, and we can encourage in each other a commitment to personal spiritual practice beyond an hour on a Sunday morning.

Weekly meeting for worship cannot support the whole weight of our spiritual lives on its own. If our daily life is so hectic and overstretched that we come to meeting with minds filled with jangling thoughts all clamouring for attention, we will miss the possibility of gathered worship. This is a struggle for many in a society that constantly pushes us into overwork, over-stimulation and over-consumption. If we truly want to open ourselves to the possibilities of worship, we also need to make regular space in our daily lives for stillness and reflection, “to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit … to find the inward source of our strength”. (Advices & Queries 3)

If a Quaker community is to exist as something beyond a social club for like-minded people, it needs to be rooted in an authentic experience of worship. A gathered Quaker meeting has the power to heal, transform, embolden, to make us more sensitive and more aware. It is the life-giving sap that is needed for vital, outward-looking communities. One of the greatest qualities of the Quaker way of worship is its utter simplicity. It needs no special building, no specially qualified clergy or guru, no holy objects or texts. It is open to everyone on a basis of complete equality, without distinction of gender, sexuality, or background. Quaker worship does not require special techniques or great natural ability, but it does demand our self-discipline and self-surrender:

'Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.'
(Isaac Penington, 1661)

I would be grateful to hear about your experience of meeting for worship. Do you recognise this description of a 'gathered meeting'? and how does your meeting community teach and practise the disciplines of Quaker worship?

Sunday, 31 August 2014

What does it mean to be a Quaker?

James Turrell 'Skyspace' at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
At our Yearly Meeting Gathering recently, British Quakers have been exploring the question 'what does it mean to be a Quaker today?' As Ben Pink Dandelion pointed out in his Swarthmore Lecture, in some ways this is a curious question. It is a reflection, perhaps, of a widespread and long-standing confusion about just what the Quaker Way consists of, or even if there is such a thing at all.

Some Friends would identify certain core Quaker beliefs, such as in 'that of God in everyone', or 'all of life is sacramental'. Others point to a set of values such as equality, peace, simplicity or social justice, although there is no definitive statement of these values or where they are derived from. There are also some Friends who claim that the distinctive thing about Quakers is that there is no specific teaching or content to it at all. A Quaker Meeting is simply an accepting 'space' for people to explore their own values and pursue their own private spiritual journeys.

One result of this radical lack of shared understanding is the emergence of a lowest common denominator of 'Quakerliness', based on conforming to a fairly narrow set of prescriptive behaviours. These principally consist of sitting quietly for an hour on a Sunday morning and speaking without any suggestion of spiritual certainty. This is what Ben Pink Dandelion has identified as the 'behavioural creed' of modern liberal Quakers. This behavioural creed can easily blend into a narrow social and cultural creed, which identifies Quakerliness with 'people like us', who read The Guardian and drink herbal tea.

I want to suggest that there is a living tradition of spiritual teaching and practice that makes up the Quaker Way, which is not defined by a particular social group, behavioural norms, or even values and beliefs. Central to this tradition is a small number of distinctive Quaker practices, principally the Meeting for Worship and the Meeting for Worship for Business. These practices have never been static; Meetings for Worship have changed a great deal since the 17th Century when they could last three hours and contain lengthy Biblical sermons. New Quaker practices also emerge over time, including Meetings for Clearness and Experiment with Light, and they are always subject to adaptation and reinterpretation. But it is through participation in these practices, including in discussions about their meaning, that we take part in the Quaker Way.

Practices such as these are not just a set of 'behaviours' like sitting quietly in a circle, which might equally describe a dentist's waiting room. Quaker practices are inherently social and collective. They involve some degree of shared understanding of the meaning of the activity, which makes it something that we do together, rather than just what I am choosing to do in the privacy of my own consciousness. These practices involve self-discipline; they require us to develop our capacity for discernment, and to restrain our natural impulses towards self-assertion and defensiveness. A shared understanding of these practices doesn't mean that we all have identical beliefs. It does require enough of a common language and shared assumptions about the meaning of the practice that we know how to engage in it together in mutually intelligible ways.

The Quaker Way involves a continuing, open-ended discussion about the meaning of these Quaker practices. It cannot thrive in a prolonged period of silent détente between individuals or factions who are unwilling to talk and listen to each other. The collective nature of Quaker practices is also undermined by the bland acceptance of any individual interpretation, which bypasses the mutual challenge and discovery involved in taking the Quaker tradition seriously enough to test our own ideas and preferences against it.

During the last few decades, we have failed to maintain this shared discussion about the meaning and nature of our Quaker practices. In the absence of this continual conversation, we have created a climate of mutual incomprehension, which easily leads to fear, blame and resentment of those who don't share our assumptions. So there are Friends who assume that a Quaker who uses the word 'God' believes in an 'old man in the sky'. Since no-one has explained to them that the word 'God' is almost always used by Quakers to refer to an ultimately mysterious spiritual reality rather than a mythological being, we now have Friends adopting oppositional postures against a belief system that no-one around them actually holds.

Similarly, many Friends have been admitted to membership under the impression that they were joining a group with no spiritual teaching of its own to agree or disagree with. Some of them may be alarmed and resentful to suddenly be told that the Quaker Way has its own distinctive tradition of spiritual practice and understanding, which may be in conflict with some of the beliefs they have brought with them from other contexts.

Misunderstandings, confusion and hurts such as this are an inevitable consequence of having avoided discussing the nature and meaning of our Quaker practices for far too long. It is my impression that these discussions have been evaded largely because of the fear of conflict. For some Friends in our Meetings these conversations are unwelcome, because to talk about the Quaker Way as something in particular is also to state that it is not just whatever they would like it to be. They may also be worried about becoming exclusive or unwelcoming if we start insisting on a particular interpretation of the Quaker Way.

British Friends almost without exception recognise the value of spiritual questioning, seeking and diversity, and there is little danger of our becoming an intolerant, fundamentalist sect. What some Friends are proposing is a 'rebalancing' of our approach to the Quaker Way, which embraces both the corporate and individual aspects of our faith. This is what Simon Best and Stuart Masters have called a 'creative tension... between being “a gathered people” with a common identity, practice and message, and the value of individuals who bring a diversity of gifts and insights to that community.'
('What can we say today? Questions for the revision of the Book of Discipline', the Friends Quarterly, Issue 3, 2014)

A Quaker community with a shared understanding of its core practices is not exclusive. The Quaker Meeting for Worship is open to everyone, whether or not they share the community's understanding of its worship, discernment and testimony. But we only have this experience to offer if we know enough about our own tradition to be able to practice it authentically together. If an enquirer comes into a Meeting for Worship in which half of the Friends are reading newsletters, and others are continually standing up to debate political points, they have been deprived of the opportunity to find out what Quaker worship can be. This is not inclusivity or openness, it is a failure to inhabit our Quaker tradition, to learn from it, to contribute to it and to share it with others.

For me, it is a hopeful sign that in so many different places across the Quaker community these conversations are at last starting to surface – in the recent Swarthmore Lecture at Yearly Meeting Gathering, at conferences and Woodbrooke courses, in travelling workshops and in Quaker publications and social media. What this highlights to me is that the renewal and rediscovery of our Quaker tradition as a living way of spiritual practice is in our own hands. If we want a deeper experience of community, and a renewed spiritual depth of worship and testimony, we need to take courage. We mustn't allow the fear of 'Quaker squashing' to silence a serious dialogue about what the Quaker Way is. We all have opportunities to begin conversations about the meaning of our Quaker practices within our Meetings and throughout the Society. We can encourage each other to take the Quaker Way seriously as a path of spiritual practice to learn about, to discuss with each other, and above all to work at, allowing it to transform us and the world around us.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Some thoughts on the Swarthmore Lecture

'Quaker problems' meme from: quakerprobs.tumblr.com
This year's Swarthmore Lecture was presented at Yearly Meeting Gathering by the well-known Quaker scholar Ben Pink Dandelion. You can listen to a recording of the talk by clicking on the orange button below, and the book is available from the Quaker Centre bookshop.

This is a very challenging lecture, and must have taken considerable courage to write. Ben's previous books for (rather than about) Quakers, including Celebrating the Quaker Way and Living the Quaker Way, are very much affirmations of liberal Quaker spirituality. So it was a surprise to me that his Swarthmore Lecture offers such a sharp critique of contemporary Quaker culture. It includes an explicit call to resist secularism and individualism, and to recover a clearer sense of our identity as a religious community with a specific understanding of our shared faith; 'Maybe we've too much said “we love you and who would you like us to be?” rather than, “we love you and this is who we are – you're welcome to join if that works for you.”'



Ben's lecture identifies individualism and secularism as the critical challenges for British Quakers. Both contribute to pervasive confusion about core Quaker practices such as Meeting for Worship, discernment and testimony. Ben asks us to recover the 'core insights' of the Quaker Way, which he identifies as 'Encounter' (direct experience of God), Worship, Discernment and Testimony (which is not a list of 'Quaker values', but 'the life we are called to lead').

The lecture argues that far from being a 'DIY religion', the Quaker Way is inherently collective. Instead of inventing our own individual interpretations of every aspect of Quaker life, we need to 'inhabit our tradition' – to take it seriously as something that makes a claim on our lives. Ben also argues that we cannot re-interpret the Quaker Way in purely secular terms, as a code of ethics or human values. Without getting into the 'head exercise of arguing about the detail of the Divine', we need to 'reclaim the spiritual and the spiritual basis of our life together', and to recognise that 'there is spiritual experience at the heart of what we do'. He directly challenges those Friends who would like to expunge the term 'God' from contemporary Quaker life, asking 'can't we hear the word God, even if it's not the language we use? Maybe we're in the wrong place if we can't do that.'

Ben's analysis makes an appeal to Quaker tradition, as a source of critique and as a resource for renewing the vitality of the the contemporary Quaker Way. Tradition is a problematical concept for many Friends. The argument of Ben's lecture could be misunderstood as 'harking back' to some outdated version of Quakerism, refusing to engage with current thinking and experience. This is not the way that Ben is using the concept of tradition. He is explicitly encouraging us to examine our habitual ways of doing things, and to change them wherever we need to. But perhaps we do need to reclaim the idea of Quaker tradition as a resource that offers us an alternative to the modes of thought and action of the dominant (secular, individualist) culture.

The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has described a tradition as 'an argument extended through time' (in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? 1988). In other words, a tradition is not something static. It is a continuing conversation that involves us in a shared enterprise with each other and with our predecessors, as well as with generations to come. A tradition changes over time, in response to new insights and challenges, but it is not just whatever individuals choose to think or believe. Being rooted in a tradition means being in dialogue with others, including people of former times and different cultures. It involves making the effort to take seriously their claims and insights, and to consider how they bear upon our own situation. A commitment to a particular community, with its own living tradition, means that I don't just claim the 'right' to think and do whatever I like, without reference to the experience and continuing discernment of the community.

This doesn't imply that by joining a community such as Quakers we should surrender our autonomy and adopt an unthinking conformity to the group. On the contrary, it entails accepting a responsibility to participate in the community's unfolding dialogues. We need to offer our criticisms and challenges as well as our loyalty, and to further enrich the tradition for the benefit of future generations.

For British Quakers, the continuing evolution of our tradition is summarised in Quaker Faith & Practice, and in his lecture Ben makes a strong appeal to modern Quakers to take 'The Red Book' much more seriously. He points out that instead of embracing Quaker Faith and Practice as the principal resource for our shared understanding of the Quaker Way, we have 'left the book on the shelf'; resorting to individual interpretations of every aspect of 'our own' spiritual journey.

Whether or not we decide this week to start the process of revising our book of discipline, Ben encourages us to at last fully adopt it. He wants us to take it seriously as the current, always provisional and improvable, but authoritative statement of our shared enterprise of discerning God's purposes for us as a religious community.

While I am sympathetic to this argument, I am not wholly convinced that the current Quaker Faith & Practice can do quite as much work as Ben's argument requires. Clearly, our book of discipline is the outcome of a process of collective discernment within Britain Yearly Meeting which aims to represent the current spiritual experience of this generation. It should therefore reflect the current state of our Quaker tradition. The problem is that the diversity of viewpoints represented in our current book sometimes makes it impossible to come to any coherent interpretation. The section on Meeting for Worship, for instance, includes passages such as 2.51, which describes worship as looking around at people in Meeting, seeing someone unemployed, and going on to 'think of some of our social problems' etc. This passage seems very much at odds with others that describe worship in terms of 'a pure still waiting upon God in the spirit' (2.41), or 'our response to an awareness of God' (1.02.8). In some sections it is as if we are being positively encouraged to take a 'pick and mix' approach to the Quaker tradition, since there is almost sure to be some passage that will appear to support our own individual preferences.

Perhaps our current book of discipline simply reflects some of our contemporary incoherence about the meaning of the Quaker Way, and if we do manage to reach a more fully shared understanding of our tradition at some point in the future, an updated version would be able to present this more unified perspective.

I would very much like to hear your responses to the Swarthmore Lecture. There will also be a weekend course at Woodbrooke in 2015 (3rd to 5th July) for those who would like to explore the implications of the lecture for the renewal of contemporary Quaker spirituality. I will be helping Ben to facilitate the course, alongside Rosie Carnall and Simon Best, and I hope to see some of you there.