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.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Meaning of Membership

‘Our membership is of no importance whatever unless it signifies that we are committed to something of far greater and more lasting significance than can adequately be conveyed by the closest association with any movement or organisation.’
(Edgar G Dunstan, Quaker faith & practice 11.02, 5th edition)

For a religious society without a separate class of leaders, in which every Friend shares responsibility for the governance of the community and its resources, membership has played an important role in Britain Yearly Meeting. It has provided an opportunity for newcomers to make a deliberate act of commitment to the Quaker community and to assume a full share of responsibility for its governance and financial support. Membership has served to indicate acceptance of mutual accountability for upholding collective discernment, including faithfulness to corporate Quaker testimony. The membership process has also offered a way of recognising and celebrating an inner transition from seeker to ‘convinced’ Friend.

Over recent decades membership has become a contested issue for British Quakers, leading to regular calls for its abandonment or radical revision. Some object to the membership process on grounds of principle, such as the supposed conflict with our ‘testimony to equality’ created by drawing a boundary between insiders and outsiders, or the process of 'judging' who is acceptable to become a member.

It has become common for people to attend meetings for many years, and to take on roles of responsibility within them, while being clear that they do not intend to apply for membership. As fewer attenders join, the proportion of members has decreased markedly. In many meetings it has become difficult to find Friends to fulfil responsibilities which require membership (such as eldership and oversight), leading to the growing practice of appointing attenders to these roles. This further undermines the rationale for distinguishing between members and attenders at all, which increasingly appears to be a meaningless distinction.

In fact we have made membership almost meaningless by our practice of it. For several decades our membership processes have failed to reflect a shared understanding of the core commitments involved in membership. Quaker faith & practice includes some quite clear statements about the application process which may make surprising reading:

‘Membership is still seen as a discipleship, a discipline within a broadly Christian perspective and our Quaker tradition, where the way we live is as important as the beliefs we affirm...
Membership is also a way of saying to the meeting, and to the world, that you accept the fundamental elements of being a Quaker: the understanding of divine guidance, the manner of corporate worship and the ordering of the meeting’s business, the practical expression of inward convictions and the equality of all before God.’ (11.01)

I suspect that in most meetings it is rare for any explicit reference to these ‘fundamental elements of being a Quaker’ to be made at any point in the membership process. Instead, membership practices seem to have diverged quite widely between different area meetings. Some meetings might emphasise one or another particular aspect of Quaker tradition (my area meeting asks explicitly about acceptance of the peace testimony). Generally, however, the most common tendency is to have little or no accepted standard for membership at all, beyond the individual’s desire to join.

The consequence over many years has been that Quaker membership no longer means that someone shares any common understanding of, or commitment to, the Quaker way. As Patricia Loring has observed in Listening Spirituality, ‘the consequence of having no standard [for membership] is that the Meeting conforms to the vision of those it has admitted.’ Hence, most British Friends share the culture and values of the liberal middle-class background that they largely belong to, without necessarily having any common commitment to specifically Quaker traditions, testimony or practices.

Renewal of our Society’s spiritual roots in core Quaker practices needs a re-assessment of our membership process. All of the elements of a more meaningful understanding and practice of membership are in fact already contained in the current version of our Book of Discipline. They simply need digging out and deciding to take them seriously enough to practice them.

Preparation for potential new members.

Our meetings could make use of the advice given in Quaker faith & practice 11.08 to ‘nurture and support individuals of all ages so that they can develop a sense of belonging and an understanding of our shared beliefs, testimonies and spiritual discipline.’ This could be done in an intentional and explicit way to encourage attenders to become more familiar with the ‘fundamental elements of being a Quaker’ (and especially our understanding of core Quaker practices for worship, discernment and testimony). This would, of course, require all of those involved in the membership process, including overseers, elders and visitors, to work on exploring and challenging their own understanding of the Quaker way.

At Sheffield Central meeting, we have offered a regular series of talks and discussions on the ‘Quaker Basics’, particularly intended for attenders. These are quite easy to organise, running for an hour after meeting on Sunday, with each session introduced by a different experienced Friend. The topics we have included are worship, discernment, origins, testimony and community. Last year, we concluded with an additional session specifically on membership.

Mentoring or spiritual friendship

There is an important role in the membership process for personal relationship with one or more experienced Friends, to accompany and support the person considering membership. Our idea of how to help people understand Quaker practices has often been limited to giving them a book or leaflet, which is inadequate on many levels. Quaker faith & practice 11.08 makes reference to the possibility of ‘special nurturing or supporting Friends’ who could accompany potential new members, both before and after the formal membership process, to offer supportive listening and sharing of experience.

There is already a model for this mentoring process in the 'Becoming Friends' learning resource, and it could easily be extended to offer one-to-one support to any attenders who are considering membership. In some cases, this might need to draw on Friends from outside the local or area meeting. Given the very unequal distribution of Quaker numbers and resources between meetings, this could also offer a way for larger and better-resourced meetings to support others that are struggling.

Collective discernment

The practicalities of setting up a more meaningful and helpful process for potential new members are straightforward enough. More fundamentally, however, they rely on shared discernment by the existing members of an area meeting, and agreement about what the core commitments of Quaker membership are. In many meetings, this is likely to be the real stumbling block to any improvement in membership practices. The current tendency is often to try to avoid potential conflict by avoiding discussion about the requirements of membership, or immediately abandoning any attempts at change as soon as someone challenges them as ‘exclusive’. We need to have a deeper conversation than this, one that is not afraid to question current assumptions about the minimal meaning of membership, if we are to enable membership to perform a useful role in the life of our communities.

What does Quaker membership mean to you? Are there ways that your meeting has tried to improve the membership process?

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Breaking of Images

There is an enduring tendency in many of the world's religions, known as iconoclasm (literally 'the breaking of images'). Iconoclasm is the desire to eliminate all human creations that are judged to be idolatrous; including all images, organisations or rituals seen as standing in the way of the purity of religious truth.

The beginnings of the Quaker movement were strongly influenced by the Puritan culture of 17th century England, which was fiercely iconoclastic in the most literal way possible. Mary Penington (who was married to Isaac Penington) wrote approvingly of her first husband William Springett, a colonel in Cromwell's army, that:

"In every employment he expressed great zeal against superstition; encouraging and requiring his soldiers to break down all idolatrous statues and pictures, and crosses; going into steeple-houses, and taking away the priest's surplices, and distributing them to poor women. When he was upon the service of searching popish houses, whatever crucifixes, beads, and such like trumpery he found, if they were ever so rich, he destroyed them without ever reserving one of them for its beauty or costly workmanship; nor ever saved any other thing for his own use."
(On Quakers, Medicine and Property: The Autobiography of Mary Penington, 1624-1682)

She even has one startling anecdote which describes him visiting the house of a close friend and fellow Parliamentarian, where he found religious paintings hanging on the walls:

"But my dear husband thought it a very inconsistent, unequal thing, to destroy those things in popish houses, and leave them in the houses of their opponents. He therefore, with his sword, put them all out of the frames, and putting them thereon, carried them into the parlour; and the woman of the house being there, he said, "What a shame it is that your husband should be such a persecutor of the Papists and yet spare such things as these in his own house! But (said he) I have acted impartial judgment, by destroying them here." (ibid)

The religious revolution of George Fox and the early Quakers went even further than the Puritans. The first Quakers comprehensively rejected all contemporary church institutions, rituals, creeds and buildings, as well as art and music. This was all in the service of a direct, unmediated personal encounter with the 'Inward Christ'.

All religious images, structures, creeds and rituals have a tendency to become empty forms over time. The history of religion is littered with practices that began by pointing toward the mystery of spiritual encounter and ended up becoming tokens of group identity to be defended, imposed and fought over. Throughout history, the dynamic of renewal within religious traditions has involved the destruction of images that have become obstacles to spiritual insight, in order to open up the possibility of renewed contact with the spiritual reality that they have obscured. 

But we live by images. As soon as we destroy one set of images we are impelled to seek replacements. Spiritual renewal occurs when new, living images are found (or rediscovered) to replace those that have been outworn. This is what early Friends achieved, through the marvellously imagistic new religious language of 'the Seed', 'the Guide', 'the Inward Christ', 'the Inward Teacher' etc. They were also soon busy creating a new form of church organisation, and a unique Quaker culture, with its own ritualised forms of language and behaviour.

Iconoclasm privileges the word over the image. In its least constructive forms, it tends to focus on 'correct' belief; whether conceived as conformity to official orthodoxy, or as rational consistency. Some of the 'modernising' tendencies in our current Quaker culture also embody this iconoclastic principle, which represents the rationalising impulse applied to religion.

Iconoclasm aims to replace the profusion of traditional religious images, stories, local devotions and festivals, with a single, uniform and minimalist version of belief reduced to 'the fundamentals'. For fundamentalist religion this might be adherence to a literalistic creed. In liberal traditions such as British Quakerism this minimal, rational residue of religion, stripped of all its imagery, history and particularity is reduced to a list of 'values'. This exclusive emphasis on rational purity of belief can create an arid wasteland of the soul, with nothing to nourish the imagination or move the heart. 

Both secular and religious fundamentalist versions of iconoclasm share a too-exclusive emphasis on our 'head needs' for certainty, consistency and clarity, while ignoring our heart and soul needs for a measure of ambiguity and mystery; for images that touch the heart and fire the imagination. We need living, soulful images far more than rationally consistent 'beliefs'.

How can we find, or rediscover, the living images that can renew our capacity for spiritual awakening and encounter?

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Faces of God

"There is a fine old story about a student who came to a rabbi and said, 'In the olden days there were men who saw the face of God. Why don’t they any more?' The rabbi replied, 'Because nowadays no one can stoop so low.'” 

(Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1963)


For many Friends today, it is difficult to know how to make sense of Quaker worship, given the radical differences in religious understanding within Britain Yearly Meeting.

When we do not share our spiritual experience and beliefs with each other, differences are easily ignored. So long as we abide by the 'behavioural creed' of the Quaker meeting for worship (ie sitting still, and speaking without any suggestion of certainty) we all appear to be doing the same thing. But this only works if Friends are careful in their vocal ministry to avoid words or topics that they suspect may generate strong reactions from others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why spoken ministry tends towards the anodyne in many meetings. We are semi-consciously steering away from sentiments that may expose the hidden reefs of disagreement that lie just under the smooth surface of our meetings for worship.

Needless to say, this is not a recipe for spiritual vitality or prophetic ministry. So perhaps it is a hopeful sign that there seems to be a growing level of open disagreement in some of our meetings, as more Friends are finding the courage to discuss their beliefs with each other. This can be an uncomfortable process, and it may be tempting to try to suppress conflict by returning to a culture of inhibition. But conflict can signal the potential for renewal, if we can deal with our disagreements in a constructive way, with a sincere desire for the flourishing of our Friends and growing mutual understanding.

The chapter on 'approaches to God' in Quaker faith & practice includes a wide range of perspectives on the meaning of worship; from adoration of a divine Being, to simple awareness of present experience. It is not always clear that these understandings of worship are mutually compatible, and some of them may feel very alien to some readers. Perhaps one helpful way to approach an understanding of such very different perspectives is through the image of the differing ‘faces’ which spiritual reality can present to us.

The mystical traditions of many religions testify that the mystery of spiritual reality is greater than any of our concepts of it. This suggests that understandings which appear to be very different, and even incompatible, may reflect fragments of a greater whole seen from the perspectives of people with different temperaments and experiences. One of the most obvious differences is between personal and impersonal understandings of spiritual reality (or ‘God’, used as a symbol for the totality of spiritual reality beyond our limited categories).

The Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote that God has both 'personal and impersonal aspects'. Contrary to the way that this is often caricatured, a personal understanding of God does not mean believing in 'an old man on a cloud'. Instead, spiritual reality is known as an active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence. This understanding reflects an extraordinarily common experience among people from very different religious traditions. It is reflected in the writings of virtually all Friends until very recent times, expressed in diverse images including 'Guide', ‘Creator’, ‘Lord’, ‘Inward Christ’ and many others.

Another common way of experiencing God is as an impersonal energy, principle or universal interconnectedness. This perspective is particularly emphasised in religions such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It also runs through the Christian tradition from very early times, especially in mystical writings such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as modern theologians such as Paul Tillich. The language of early Quakers is also full of images that reflect the 'impersonal face of God', including 'Seed' 'Inward Light', ‘Principle of Life’ and ‘Universal Righteousness’ among others. The use of these impersonal symbols reflects a concrete experience of God as a source of energy, illumination and connection to ultimate reality.

Of course, this distinction between the personal and impersonal faces of God highlights only one dimension of the diversity of religious experience. It is also possible to experience and understand the divine in a multitude of other ways, including an agnosticism which is attached to no definite views or concepts, but is simply open to the possibility of encounter with that which one does not yet know.

All of these ways of experiencing and relating to 'God' can be brought into the practice of Quaker worship. 'Our response to an awareness of God' does not rely on any particular belief about which aspect of God we are responding to - whether personal, impersonal or otherwise. Quaker worship is not limited to those who use the same concepts and images, or who experience God in exactly the same way, since these all vary according to our particular life history, temperament and cultural background.

It is profoundly unhelpful to turn our different experiences and images into a game of identity politics; saying in effect 'I am a nontheist and I need to stand up for nontheists against theists’ (or vice versa). This kind of thinking is premised on mutual suspicion and only tends to escalate it. We would do far better to refuse to play this game, and instead practice listening to each others' experience in order to enrich our own understanding of the inexhaustible breadth of spiritual reality.

Rather than defending my images and opposing yours, we could accept the necessity of multiple images for appreciating the many-sided nature of God. This requires me to acknowledge the validity of other people’s experience of spiritual reality, even where it differs from mine. This presupposes, of course, that I do not already ‘know’ that everyone who claims to have any kind of experience of God is deluded, and that there is ‘really’ no such thing as any spiritual reality at all.

It is not coincidental that it is the small number of Friends who reject even the possibility of spiritual experience who have been most active in promoting the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’. In fact, the most significant distinction for the practice of Quaker worship is not between those who adopt personal or impersonal images of spiritual reality, but between those Friends who are open to the possibility of spiritual experience in any form, and those are not.

Anyone who is open to the possibility of encounter with some kind of reality beyond our own thoughts and opinions can enter into Quaker worship expecting to be changed, challenged and illuminated by a reality that is outside our control. Such an encounter may expand our understanding of reality, so that new words and images become meaningful to us. We don't need to confine ourselves to narrow identity categories that exclude the possibility of change and growth. We simply need to be willing to meet whatever face of God is presented to us, to welcome and respond to it, and to listen and learn from the very different experiences of others.

How do personal or impersonal images of God speak to you? Has the practice of Quaker worship changed your experience and understanding of spiritual reality?

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.