Sunday, 25 September 2016

Spiritual Generosity

For many years Quakers in Britain have been deeply reluctant to share the riches of the Quaker way with others. We have labelled any attempt to welcome potential new Friends as 'proselytising', but as Paul Parker has pointed out, "there is a big difference between proselytising and not hiding." Our long-standing refusal to actively invite newcomers is not just liberal reticence. It is a failure of generosity and of imagination; an inability to imagine that people who are not 'just like us' might also find something of value in Quaker practices.

By refusing to reach out to people beyond our existing social circles, expecting them instead to 'find us when they are ready' without any assistance from us, we have become narrowly self-selecting in our social make-up. The culture of British Quakers is dominated by the views and experiences of a very restricted social group; white, elderly and overwhelmingly drawn from the education and health professions. There are many good and valuable things about this subculture, but it is inevitably very limited in its range of experience and perspective on the world.

We have unintentionally backed ourselves into a subcultural ghetto, which both restricts the range of insights available to our ministry and discernment, and also makes it extremely difficult for the vast majority of people in our society not to feel uncomfortably out of place in any of our Meetings. 

In recent years, initiatives such as Quaker Quest and national Quaker Week have challenged Friends to overcome this exclusive 'culture of hiddenness'Meetings which have done this have often encountered unexpected benefits as Friends have learned much more about each otherquite apart from the energy and enthusiasm brought by new attendersEven those Meetings which have experimented with some form of outreach, however, are not always clear about the reason for doing it. Is it in order to grow as a Meeting, to prevent Quakers in Britain from dying out, or for some other reason? 

The Religious Society of Friends is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for nurturing the spiritual practices that can sustain a more fully human life – one that is guided by and surrendered to the Principle of Life within.  What Quakers in Britain have to share with others is a tradition of spiritual practice that enables us to encounter a source of healing, guidance, meaning and purpose within ourselves, and the quality of the community life that emerges from sharing these practices together. The motivation for our outreach is spiritual generosity towards all of those people who are experiencing the confusion, meaninglessness and disconnection that are so characteristic of our times. 

Authentic spiritual practices are remedies for the soul-sickness of a culture that suppresses and distorts our inner lives in order to keep selling us distraction. The Quaker way offers a path through the modern condition of meaninglessness and isolation by drawing us into the purposes of God, by which our own healing and growth into maturity are brought to participate in the healing of the world. 

Spiritual generosity challenges all of us to move outside our comfortable social ghettos and to share the life-giving riches of the Quaker way with people of different cultures, experiences and life-journeys. We need to be willing to enlarge our image of what a Quaker community might look, sound and act like. We need the generosity to reach out to welcome those whose differences can enlarge and enrich our experience of Quaker community, and our insights into the leadings of the Spirit for our times. 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

In Praise of Conflict

It is a Quaker clichĂ© to claim that ‘co-operation is better than conflict’. In reality neither co-operation nor conflict is inherently ‘better’. Powerful elites are effective co-operators in the service of their own interests, often at others' expense. Scapegoating and bullying at work and in communities often depend on the co-operation of bystanders who fail to challenge wrongful behavior. As Gandhi famously stated, “non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.”

On the other hand, when conflict is handled skillfully and nonviolently it has great potential to enable constructive change. In our personal relationships we often rely on conflict to reveal unmet needs and to deepen our understanding and care for each other. It is only when a lover or a friend objects to some of my thoughtless behavior, and requires me to change, that our relationship can improve. Without the capacity to work constructively with conflict, marriages or friendships quickly become stuck in patterns of behavior that frustrate intimacy and growth.

Similarly, significant social change usually requires challenging existing power structures, which means intensifying conflict rather than avoiding it. The US civil rights movement of the 1960s adopted a strategy of deliberately provoking conflict with enormous success. Black Americans made the racist structures of their society visible through marches, Freedom Rides and sit-ins. By transgressing the limits of what they were permitted to do, they provoked a response, which was often violent and sometimes murderous.

This strategy attracted plenty of criticism at the time, including from many liberals who were dismayed at the level of conflict, and who argued that Black Americans should avoid confrontation and simply be more patient. Martin Luther King’s response has become a classic statement of active nonviolence:

"Structures of evil do not crumble by passive waiting. If history teaches anything, it is that evil is recalcitrant and determined, and never voluntarily relinquishes its hold short of an almost fanatical resistance. Evil must be attacked by a counteracting persistence, by the day-to-day assault of the battering rams of justice.
We must get rid of the false notion that there is some miraculous quality in the flow of time that inevitably heals all evils. There is only one thing certain about time, and that is that it waits for no one. If it is not used constructively, it passes you by.”
(Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1968)
Three hundred years earlier, the first Quakers were already discovering the power of active nonviolence by publicly challenged authority and deliberately provoking conflict in the cause of Truth. Travelling ministers preached their radical message of the 'Inward Light' in market squares filled with hostile mobs, and Quakers were seen as a revolutionary force in Restoration England because of their resistance to State repression. Early Quakers such as James Nayler described their nonviolent but highly conflictual mission with the provocative phrase 'the Lamb's War'. This kind of language tends to be considered 'unQuakerly' by modern Friends, but it expresses an important aspect of active Quaker spirituality, which is usually neglected in favour of the non-conflictual imagery of ‘quiet processes and small circles’. (Quaker faith & practice 24.56)

Our practice of corporate discernment too, depends on enabling conflict to come to the surface, revealing and weighing sometimes deeply felt disagreements. If we cannot accept conflict within our Meetings for Worship for Business, our discernment and decision-making will suffer, because we will miss out on some of the views and experiences that we need to hear. As Margaret Heathfield wrote in her 1994 Swarthmore Lecture:

“If we make it all too smooth and slick, if we do not allow conflict to emerge, we are not really practicing our Quaker business method. To maintain a worshipping stance and yet to tolerate conflict is quite a challenge, but the search for Truth may require both. Two equally valid aspects of the Truth may be being put forward, and it may require some conflict, effort and time to reach towards the over-riding Truth which contains them both.”
(Being Together: Our Corporate Life in the Religious Society of Friends)
Perhaps modern Quakers’ preference for co-operation over conflict reflects a widespread lack of confidence in dealing with conflict, which often leads us to try to avoid conflict at all costs, instead of engaging skillfully with it, and realising its great potential.

But conflict avoidance has its own dangers. It can lead to unresolved resentments and erosion of trust. The fear of confrontation may also prevent Friends from challenging disruptive or domineering behavior, allowing the most opinionated or aggressive individuals to dominate a community. As Quakers, perhaps we need to rediscover the insight that peace is not the absence of conflict, but a continual process of nonviolent and creative conflict resolution.

Conflict is difficult to deal with. For most of us it is deeply uncomfortable and disturbing. But it is both inevitable and necessary in any relationship and any genuine community. The successful resolution of conflict depends on a refusal to resort to violence or dehumanising language, and a willingness to listen carefully to the real needs of the other. It also requires the courage to speak up when something is wrong, to express our own needs clearly and honestly, and to refuse co-operation with unjust situations. These are skills that can be learned. I have been part of a Quaker-inspired programme which teaches mediation skills to school pupils, and I have seen children as young as ten become remarkably skilled and effective at resolving conflict. In a culture that valued peace, we would be teaching and practicing these conflict resolution skills at all ages, including in our Quaker communities.

Have you experienced any positive outcomes from conflict? What enabled the conflict to be resolved in a constructive way?

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Way of Practice

“It is not opinion, or speculation, or notions of what is true, or assent to or the subscription of articles or propositions, though never so soundly worded, that … makes a man a true believer or a true Christian. But it is a conformity of mind and practice to the will of God, in all holiness of conversation, according to the dictates of this Divine principle of Light and Life in the soul which denotes a person truly a child of God.” 
(William Penn, 1692, in Quaker faith & practice 26.78)
As William Penn makes explicit in this passage, the Quaker way is not a set of beliefs but a way of practice. To follow the Quaker way does not mean believing that there is ‘that of God in everyone’ but the practice of turning our attention towards the divine Guide within ourselves, and following in the way we are led, as individuals and communities.

In a society that was obsessed with doctrinal conformity, the first Quakers rediscovered Jesus’ emphasis on action over words:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7: 21)
The early Quakers certainly engaged in controversy and argument, but they did not stop at it, as so many other groups did. They saw that for Christianity to be real it had to be not just preached but enacted; in the streets, in courtrooms and in prisons. They ‘let their lives preach’ by demonstrating what it looked like to live from the power and direction of the Inward Christ.

This is what early Friends called their ‘testimony’- not just believing in ‘truth’ and ‘equality’ but refusing to swear an oath in court or bow to social superiors, and suffering imprisonment or beatings as a consequence. Without this stubborn witness in action they would have been just another quarrelsome sect, easily silenced by the threat of persecution.

The weakness of our current language of ‘Quaker values’ is that it can lead us to focus more on our thoughts and feelings rather than our actions - emphasising what we value and believe over what we do. We have tended to turn the Quaker way into a list of values, beliefs and principles. Perhaps this is because it serves our need to feel secure, comfortable and good about ourselves. Just as 17th Century Puritans could use the orthodoxy of their religious ideas to convince themselves of their own superiority, it is tempting for us to congratulate ourselves on the rightness of our values and principles. But the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ - allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

How do you experience ‘the surrendered life?’ How have you been led to respond to the guidance and power of the divine life within you?

Saturday, 9 July 2016

A Contemporary Quaker Language

One of the ways that contemporary Quaker practice has become impoverished is by the loss of a shared spiritual language. Instead of a common vocabulary for sharing our experiences and understanding, we have a multitude of individual languages that often rely on borrowing from a wide range of other traditions.

We have come to assume that the only way we can communicate at all is by trying to ‘translate’ each others’ words into some other terms that are meaningful for us. This may work when our experiences are similar enough that we are ‘just using different words to talk about the same thing’. But it doesn’t help us to hear and to take seriously Friends whose experience is significantly different to our own. By translating their words into our own preferred language, we sidestep the reality of difference, instead of allowing ourselves to be challenged and enriched by it.

The absence of a shared language can also be an obstacle when we want to produce collective statements, such as minutes or outreach materials. If we try to include only words that no one will object to, we are left with an increasingly restricted vocabulary that is ever more dominated by the bureaucratic language of the wider culture.

There is an alternative. We could choose to cultivate a contemporary Quaker language that is rich enough to express the full diversity of our varied experiences. There is an extraordinarily creative spiritual vocabulary to draw upon in the writings of Quakers throughout our history. A contemporary language would also be continually open to whatever images, words and symbols arise from our current experience of Quaker practices.

A shared Quaker language would include multiple images and metaphors that reflect the multifaceted nature of spiritual reality. Quaker practices open us to the possibility of encounter with a reality that may be experienced as personal and impersonal, masculine, feminine, immanent, transcendent or otherwise. So words and symbols such as ‘God’, ‘the Guide’ or ‘Inward Christ’ might be recognised as valid ways of expressing the personal nature of some of our experiences - such as a sense of loving presence and guidance. At the same time, and without contradiction, such a language would also include impersonal images such as ‘Light’, ‘Energy’, or ‘Oneness’, which can point to experiences of illumination, empowerment and inter-relationship.

A shared language would involve accepting all of these images as valid, but none of them as sufficient in themselves. It would be rich enough to enable everyone to express the depth and variety of our personal experiences. At the same time its diversity would point towards the inexpressible nature of spiritual reality, which is always beyond our capacity to fully name, identify or control. By acknowledging the validity of numerous ways of encountering spiritual reality, it would also create space for change and growth in our religious understanding, so we might be less inclined to rely on narrow theologically-defined identities.

Instead of defending our own concepts and images, and trying to exclude those used by other Friends, we might recognise a wide range of experiences, images and symbols as equally important for expressing the full range of Quaker experience.

Many of us also draw insight and inspiration from other religious traditions, and would continue to make use of other spiritual languages as well. But a sufficiently rich Quaker language would not depend on importing concepts from other traditions. It would be broad and subtle enough to communicate the breadth and depth of Quaker experience with each other and with the wider world – including the varied insights and commitments that arise from our shared Quaker practices, and their practical expression in our lives.

What words, images and symbols help to communicate your experience of Quaker practice?

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Friends and Truth

Photo: Lee Taylor
As Quakers, we often seem to struggle with the idea of truth. It has become common for Friends to substitute the expression ‘my truth’ or ‘our truths’ instead of ‘the truth’. This reflects the huge influence of relativist ideas on the wider culture, which have led many Friends to reject the validity of any claims to religious truth.

Anyone who has studied social sciences, philosophy or literature in the last thirty years will have been taught the postmodernist orthodoxy that we cannot speak about objective truth. There are only ‘truth-claims’ that are justified according to the culturally-relative standards of certain audiences in certain contexts. We cannot say anything about ‘truth’ as such, only the particular 'truths' contained within specific cultural stories. Even the claims of modern astronomy and physics are no more true than medieval ideas about the nature of the universe. They are just different stories, justified according to culturally-relative criteria, and useful for particular culturally-specific purposes.

In his consistently fascinating blog, the Quaker theologian Ben Wood has recently attempted to build a bridge between traditional Quaker spirituality and the postmodernist ideas of some non-theist writers, by arguing that the Quaker way does not depend on claiming the truth of its stories about God. According to this view, it is not the truth of our words and actions that are important, but simply their consistency with our shared narratives:

"The knowledge-terrain changes from matters of ‘objective truth’ to the more complex arena of narrative consistency. The question is not, what can I say is ‘out there’? Rather, the issue is, what can I say which is consistent with the stories I hold dear?"
(Boulton, Lindbeck and Rorty: Imagining a Quakerism without metaphysics)
"According to this account, how do we know when we are speaking and acting coherently as Quakers? We know because our speech and consequent action are consistent with our story of ‘peace’, ‘truth’ and ‘love’." 
(Boulton, Lindbeck and Rorty: Imagining a Quakerism without metaphysics Part 2)
I find Ben's approach appealing and convincing in many ways; particularly his argument that Quakers should not try to justify our faith on the basis of philosophical theories of knowledge that are alien to our tradition. Instead, it is our shared language and stories, which are open to interpretation in a wide range of ways, that sustain a common tradition of Quaker practice. I also agree that it is the fruits of our practice in the lives we lead that are the final criteria of the authenticity of our faith.

But does this mean that truth is irrelevant to the Quaker way? Truth has played an important role in our tradition -‘Friends of the Truth’ was one of the earliest names adopted by the Quaker movement. It is difficult to imagine that Friends such as James Nayler and Mary Dyer, who were killed for proclaiming the Quaker message, would have been prepared to die purely for the sake of ‘narrative consistency’. They believed that their lives and actions testified to the truth of the nature and purposes of God, and this belief was central to the Quaker story that they inhabited:

"My life not availeth me in comparison to the liberty of the truth."
(Mary Dyer, 1660)
According to the Quaker tradition itself, truth is not a matter of abstract philosophical argument. It is the conformity of our words, actions and lives to the reality of God. This does not rely on any particular theory about the precise nature of the relationship between statements and reality, about which there are many flavours of philosophical opinion. But it does require a belief in a real world, apart from the stories we tell ourselves, for our words and actions to conform to.

To claim that there is something called ‘truth’ does not imply that the Quaker way is the only true story about the world, or that it includes the whole truth about reality. But the possibility of truthfulness does imply that our statements and actions can, to a greater or lesser extent, be in a right relationship to the world as it is. This relationship may always and inevitably be partial, because of the apparently infinite subtlety and complexity of the world. But a conviction of the possibility of truth is internal to the Quaker story. It cannot be jettisoned and replaced with an ‘ironic’, fictional reading of our religious tradition without rejecting something that is essential to Quaker faith and practice.

None of us can ever lay claim to possession of absolute truth, which will always be beyond any of our stories about it. But it is meaningful to aim at a greater rather than a lesser degree of truthfulness, of conformity between our lives and the order of the world. The test of that truthfulness does not lie in philosophical arguments, but in the degree to which our lives faithfully reflect the peace, justice and compassion of God.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

What Quakers can learn from Beekeepers

Logo: Sheffield Beekeepers Association
This year, as part of my efforts to acquire practically useful skills, I have been learning to keep bees with the Sheffield Beekeepers' Association. Unexpectedly, I have observed some striking similarities between beekeepers and Quakers, as well as aspects of their work that may have something to teach Friends about well-functioning communities.

As with Quakers, one of the immediately apparent things about beekeepers is that any five of them seem to have six opinions. There is a surprising diversity of ideas and approaches to beekeeping methods, given that people have been keeping bees for several thousand years. Within one local group there are many different views about the best methods of swarm prevention, hive design, disease control etc, and no apparent pressure to conform to a majority opinion. Many beekeepers also experiment with different methods and approaches, so that practices are in a continual state of development.

At the same time, there is a clear focus on the common goals of raising healthy and productive bee colonies. This enables an impressive amount of sharing of experience, mutual co-operation and collective action, including an ambitious project to improve the gene pool of Sheffield's bee population. The skills acquired through these practices are also put at the service of the wider community, by offering free swarm collection to Sheffield residents who unexpectedly find themselves with an attic or hedge full of honey bees.

By contrast, it seems to be much more difficult for contemporary Quakers to agree on the common goals of our Quaker practices, although this has not always been the case. The goals of the Quaker way have been expressed at various times in terms such as 'faithfulness to divine leadings', 'walking in the light', or 'following the Guide'. Expressions such as these point to a shared understanding that our task as a community of Friends is to be receptive and faithful to the Spirit that is available to illuminate, transform and guide us. In meetings which lack any such shared understanding of the aims of Quaker practice, it can be difficult to reach practical agreement on a wide range of issues, including the conduct of worship and spoken ministry, teaching of Quaker practices and the right ordering of meetings.

Another apparent advantage of a group that has a high degree of agreement about its shared goals, is that it seems to be able to cope with a broad range of social diversity. Sheffield beekeepers include a much wider range of social backgrounds than is commonly met with in a Quaker meeting, from upper-middle class landowners to traditional working class Yorkshiremen and women. By contrast with Quaker meetings, people who are brought together around a well-understood common practice seem to have much less need for class-specific cultural norms such as Guardian reading, herbal teas and Radio 4.

Sheffield's beekeeping association also demonstrates an impressive commitment to training new beekeepers, which could serve as an example to British Quakers. Their biggest regular project is an annual training programme for beginners, which takes place over several months and attracts about forty new participants each year. This reflects a keen appreciation of the necessity to continually recruit and train new beekeepers, not just for the continuation of the association, but for the future of the practice of beekeeping itself. Beekeepers are not content to be a community that focusses solely on their own needs, because their commitment to the flourishing of the practice requires an attention to the future.

By contrast, our Quaker communities have for many years been equivocal about attracting and teaching new Friends. We have often flattered ourselves on 'not proselytising', and told ourselves that 'people will find us when they are ready'. What this has often amounted to is a complacent focus on the preferences of current members, and an almost complete indifference to the spiritual needs and condition of people who are not already Quakers, as well as the future of the Quaker way as a tradition of spiritual practice.

Thankfully, in recent years Quaker Quest has stirred many meetings to make deliberate efforts at reaching out and communicating with seekers who want to explore the Quaker way. There are still, perhaps, relatively few meetings that are investing the same degree of continuing commitment to the future flourishing of our practice as are Sheffield's beekeepers.

Have you participated in any other communities that might have something to teach Quakers? How can we show a greater commitment to social diversity, inclusivity and the future flourishing of the Quaker movement.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Spiritual Eldership

“Some Friends, whether called elders or not, have been looked to for spiritual counsel from the beginning. So in 1653 William Dewsbury proposed that each meeting should appoint ‘one or two most grown in the Power and the Life, in the pure discerning of the Truth’ to take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the meeting and its members.”
Quaker faith & practice 12.05

Reading chapter 12 of Quaker faith & practice, one could gain the impression that eldership is primarily yet another administrative function within the Quaker meeting. There is a long list of responsibilities, but relatively little reflection on eldership as a spiritual gift and ministry.

Quaker eldership is just one expression of the vital ministry of nurturing the life of the soul, which is recognised in many religious traditions, and which can take place wherever the gift of spiritual eldership is accepted and exercised. Spiritual eldership may take place through formal appointment to a Quaker role, or informally through our relationships with the Friends and others who act as spiritual accompaniers, guides and nurturers throughout our lives. Reflecting on my own history, I realise how blessed I have been to receive the gift of spiritual eldership from so many people, and how essential it has been in my life. Some of these 'spiritual elders' have been Quakers, but most are people from other traditions who have supported my own confused searching over many years.

As I have served my area meeting as an elder, I have experienced the privilege of being invited to listen to Friends’ struggles and leadings, the joys of spiritual awakening as well as their disappointments, frustrations and hurts. Whenever I am invited into someone’s life in this way, I am profoundly conscious of the great responsibility and trust involved in the exercise of eldership.

The ministry of eldership is a spiritual gift, a calling and a challenge. It is this gift and calling that we aim to recognise through the appointment of elders for our area meetings, but it can be received and exercised by anyone, whether or not they are formally appointed. It is the calling to make oneself available as a midwife to the soul, a mothering and fathering of the inner life of another person, through attentive and compassionate listening.

Exercising the ministry of eldership does not mean setting oneself up as a spiritual teacher. The most crucial insight of the Quaker way is that the Teacher is within. There is a vital role for the teaching of Quaker practices within our meetings, but the aim of all of our practice is to come to the Inward Teacher and Guide. None of us can teach another person how to live, or know how the Spirit is leading them. The spiritual elder does not point the way, but simply by listening reminds their Friend that they already have a reliable source of inward guidance, and encourages them to put their trust in it.

The ministry of eldership also nourishes and re-affirms our covenant with each other as members of a Quaker community. Where eldership is faithfully practised, with tenderness and in response to a calling of the Spirit, it fosters relationships of mutual nurture and accountability within the meeting. Eldership is a reminder that we are not alone, but members of a community who participate in a shared commitment to discern and follow divine leadings. In a Quaker community, each of our individual talents and leadings are part of the Spirit’s gift to the whole meeting. We belong to each other, are responsible for each other, and also accountable to each other for the faithful discernment and exercise of our leadings in spoken ministry, Quaker service and testimony.

This relationship of mutual accountability and nurture in a Quaker meeting is profoundly countercultural. It challenges the dominant culture’s assumption that we are all isolated individuals who are not answerable to anyone else. This assumption is so widespread among Friends that it often leads to a suspicion of the eldership as a form of inequality or hierarchy.

The role of Quaker eldership has certainly been abused in some times and places. There are undoubtedly meetings in which some elders have caused great hurt by assuming the right to suppress or manipulate others. In our current Quaker culture though, these failings are readily identified and challenged. It is far more common for contemporary Friends to fail in the exercise of eldership through a timid reluctance to engage with the calling and responsibility that is laid on them by the whole area meeting. We are too often afraid to do anything for fear of being accused of elitism or authoritarianism. In this way, our commitment to mutuality and community can be undermined. Without the confident exercise of eldership to encourage mutual listening and accountability, a few especially assertive Friends can easily come to dominate the worship or decision-making of the community. The needs and insights of newcomers or less dominant Friends can be neglected, in the absence of elders who are prepared to actively include and support them.

This is the challenge of the calling to spiritual eldership. It can attract criticism and conflict, and requires the courage to be faithful to the responsibility laid on elders by the community. Exercised faithfully and with humility, eldership can also be a joyful opportunity to nurture our communities, and to be invited into our Friends’ lives, to wonder with them at the miracle of divine life that is present within each person.

How have you experienced spiritual eldership in your life, whether in a Quaker meeting or some other context? Is there someone who has acted as a 'midwife to your soul'?

This post is a response to the 'Reading Quaker faith & practice' project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.