Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Some thoughts on the Swarthmore Lecture

'Quaker problems' meme from:
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.


  1. I confess I have not heard the lecture yet as we got to Bath on Monday. I downloaded the recording and will listen, because I believe I missed something vital at Yearly Meeting. Thank you for posting this.

  2. The lecture is certainly very powerful – and timely given the clamour to revise Quaker Faith and Practice. Secularism and individualism – and the idealism that underpins them - is indeed poisonous and pernicious. Religion (or spirituality) has become a private matter for the individual, and so instead of entering into a covenantal relationship in a community, membership has been degraded into a 'compact' between the individual and the society based on no interference whatsoever with the individual's personal beliefs. Thus religion or spirituality becomes socially ineffective and functionless and we become just another political pressure group.

    Our current 'Red Book' of Quaker Faith and Practice, being a snapshot in time is bound to have a 'diversity of viewpoints' and to be to some extent 'incoherent', especially as time moves on and the 'community's dialogue unfolds'. So we will probably never have a version that presents a 'more unified perspective'. But we should not read the book as an isolated individual looking for values to live by – we read the book in the context of our life in the community of believers.

    Passage 2.51 is very important to me, and I practice it's advice – but only at the beginning of the meeting. I do not come to meeting for worship as an isolated individual seeking some sort of divine guidance for my life, but as a member of a worshipping community. If I try to grasp at the flower of grace for myself, it will wither in my hands, and its sweet perfume turn to putrid stink. If I am to be an effective channel of ministry for the meeting, how can I do so if I have not taken up the joys and sorrows of those around me into my heart?

    Because we are so caught up by idealism and the secularism and individualism it spawns, we are liable to blindly turn community and tradition into yet another ideal, and this indeed is what Alisdair MacIntyre is criticized for – what is called 'communitarianism'. What religion or spirituality does when freed from individualism is to create a dynamic and creative tension between the equality and freedom of the individual on the one hand and the community on the other. This is realised in the day to day cooperative activities of the group, enlarged in time to link the living with the the tradition of the dead that came before us as well as forward to generations unborn, and taking place under the conditions imposed by 'Nature'. Or put simply: God's Grace at work in Creation. As well as testifying about equality, we need to testify about community. But not social equality – which is an ideal – but equality of relationship practised in the context of actually existing community in the world.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful response Gordon. What I find difficult about passage 2.51 of Quaker faith & practice is not the looking round at fellow worshippers (I also want to be aware of whom I am sharing worship with), but the going on to 'think about social problems'; rather than being 'still and cool in thy own mind and from thine own thoughts', as advised by George Fox.
      I fully agree with your point about the 'dynamic and creative tension' between the individual and the community. This point which is also made by Simon Best and Stuart Masters in their article in the current issue of the Friends Quarterly, in which they argue implicitly for a 'rebalancing' of contemporary Quaker practice to include both individual diversity and community belonging, rather than the currently popular pure individualism.
      Incidentally MacIntyre rejects the label of communitarianism, and opposes the forceful imposition of community values on individuals. His main interest is in the shared goods, virtues and social practices that are made possible by communal enterprises, and the traditions that support them.
      In Friendship, and with thanks as ever for your careful reading and criticism,

    2. I agree, Craig, given your clarification: the last sentence of 2.51 does not 'ring true', and on reflection, it illustrates the problem of idealism - the emotional attachment to ideas ('social concern') rather than to personal relationships ('grace'). Sufficient reason then, despite the quality of the rest of the piece, for deleting it from any future edition.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)