In the first part of his talk, Rex described the current difficulty facing British Quakers - "And yet we do not unite, as yet, on the most fundamental thing. What do we believe in or trust as Quakers? Do we trust ourselves or the great Other than ourselves? What is our truth? And how can we speak our Quaker truth to the world?"
How we are handling the difficulty
The way we are handling it at the moment could be described as a policy of toleration. That is, we agree to disagree. It is implied in that concluding section of the book God, Words and Us which says,
We agree that the Society of Friends is a community centred on the practice of waiting, listening meeting for worship, We agree that differences of understanding about what it is we listen to or worship do not prevent us from practising meeting for worship together. (p.79)That is a fair summary of where we got to in the Theology Thinktank and it marks the important realisation that, for all our differences, we Quakers were able to unite on our distinctive practice.
Have we then resolved the issue in this way? Can we retain our unity and mission by agreeing on the practice and allowing a great variety of interpretations of the practice? A similar question arises from our final minute and epistle at last Yearly Meeting, in 2018.
Quakers in Britain are diverse in matters of belief and the language we use to describe them and that is to be celebrated. We also experience in our meetings unity and oneness in the depths of our worship together. We should be true to our own beliefs, and listen deeply to other people's experiences, as well as their words. We remember that sometimes ambiguity, and archaic phrases from former times, enable Quakers to search for the meaning for themselves and interpret it as they are led. Who are we, and who do we aspire to be? Can we also offer each other support by sharing honestly our real lived lives, including the parts we are not so proud of?Toleration of diversity in this sense seems vital to the liberal culture we want to encourage among Friends and in society at large. Some Friends are even urging that toleration of different views is part of the meaning of Quakerism itself. It is part of what is meant by our commitment to equality and unconditional love. But we can see on reflection that this cannot be right. We do not tolerate practices that undermine our discipline or bring the Society into disrepute. We do not tolerate violent or abusive practices, or understandings of life which encourage these things. We are committed as Quakers to a certain understanding of life and how it is to be lived, which is why we have the practices we have. In particular, we have testimonies against war, oppression, poverty, untruthfulness and formal doctrine. We cannot really separate what we do as Quakers from the understanding that undergirds it and the understanding we want to convey to others by doing it. Our commitment is, and always has been, primarily to truth, that is, truth as we experience it and bear witness to it. Our understanding of the truth changes over time, of course, as the realities change. The above minute 31 also says, quoting our current Book of Discipline approvingly,
We are seeking but we are also the holders of a precious heritage of discoveries. We, like every generation, must find the Light and Life again for ourselves. Only what we have valued and truly made our own, not by assertion but by lives of faithful commitment, can be handed on to the future. Even then, we must humbly acknowledge that our vision of the truth will again and again be amended.That is one reason we cannot fix it in a doctrine. And that is one reason that we have a Book of Discipline and revise it every generation or so. Here is our written testimony to the truth of our situation as it now is and as we now see it.
If on the other hand we allow or encourage quite different understandings we will get into serious difficulty. We will not be able to share our experience of unity in words. We will not be able to express our understanding of things in public for fear of upsetting others who might not agree with us or accept our language. Without a common language and understanding we will not be able to acknowledge and resolve those important differences that remain and have to be dealt with. Sooner or later differences both great and small will be swept under the carpet. Communication is therefore stifled and the life of the meeting is atrophied. We are are also then unable to tell others outside the meeting what the Quakers stand for, why we do the strange things we do in meeting for worship, or for business, or to protest publicly against some evil in the world. And finally, we cannot speak as a body of Friends nationally, either to respond to crises emerging or to communicate with other religious bodies to engage in dialogue. In these circumstances the Society of Friends begins to lose its voice, its basis for unity and its very identity. Under these conditions it surely cannot survive very long.
So the attempt to resolve our difficulty about language by adopting a liberal policy of toleration will not help very much. It is helpful in politics, of course, and necessary, when there are conflicts in beliefs and ideas which cannot be resolved, so long as there is a modicum of respect for the law and the democratic process. But it does not help a faith community where disagreements on the faith itself need to be resolved. A policy of toleration may indeed make matters worse.
How we might get out of the difficulty
This impasse, however, might itself help us to find a way through. This conflict is about words, language, beliefs, things that can be written down on a piece of paper. Put this way, it reminds us that Quaker faith is not based on these things, on ideas or 'notions,' but on experience - specifically our experience of the realities that concern us most.
This was a discovery of the Thinktank. If we have a puzzling variety of beliefs and ideas, we realized, we must recognize that they are at best interpretations of our experience. So if the variety is troubling in some way we should return to the experiences from which these beliefs arose and check them out. And let us hear from one another how our different ways of thinking or speaking arose. The last thing we must do is to fix those interpretations and polarize them into opposite camps. We must rather look carefully at the variety we have and come to understand what it means and how it has arisen. This way we can see our differences more clearly, honestly and positively. One good image that emerged from the consultation was Rachel Muers' 'caravan in the desert'. It was summarised in the conclusion of the book (God, Words and Us, p.79)
We have used the image of a caravan travelling together through the desert – some in the centre, carrying luggage and supplies; others scouting the way or exploring nearby routes; all visibly travelling as part of the same body.It gave expression to the experience we had in the group when we had listened carefully and patiently to what everyone had said, appreciated the experience and thought out of which it came, and were then able to discern the underlying unity in our experience. We knew, not theoretically but experientially, that we were 'travelling as part of the same body.'
This reminded us of what often happens in a business meeting (as in Quaker Faith and Practice 3:01-07). The important truth we need to know is beyond what we might each initially have thought. When we have a difficult decision to make, we discipline ourselves to listen to what everyone has to say, without passing judgement. What we are looking for is not the best opinion or the winning argument, but the truth that we can all discern to be right, but which needs all of us to get there. I have reflected much on this since, because it indicates to me how we can get through the difficulty of our clashing beliefs. We don't normally apply our business method to such profound matters as our basis for living, but this is surely a time to do so, or at least an opportunity to see if we could do so. Let me quote from the Book of Discipline at some length, and I think you will recognize how relevant it is to the matter we are discussing here.
The right conduct of our meetings for church affairs depends upon all coming to them in an active, seeking spirit, not with minds already made up on a particular course of action, determined to push this through at all costs. But open minds are not empty minds, nor uncritically receptive: the service of the meeting calls for knowledge of facts, often painstakingly acquired, and the ability to estimate their relevance and importance. This demands that we shall be ready to listen to others carefully, without antagonism if they express opinions which are unpleasing to us, but trying always to discern the truth in what they have to offer. It calls, above all, for spiritual sensitivity. If our meetings fail, the failure may well be in those who are ill-prepared to use the method rather than in the inadequacy of the method itself.
It is always to be recognized that, coming together with a variety of temperaments, of backgrounds, education and experience, we shall have differing contributions to make to any deliberation. It is no part of Friends' concern for truth that any should be expected to water down a strong conviction or be silent merely for the sake of easy agreement. Nevertheless we are called to honour our testimony that to every one is given a measure of the light, and that it is in the sharing of knowledge, experience and concern that the way towards unity will be found....
The unity we seek depends on the willingness of us all to seek the truth in each other's utterances; on our being open to persuasion; and in the last resort on a willingness to recognize and accept the sense of the meeting as recorded in the minute, knowing that our dissenting views have been heard and considered....
In a meeting rightly held a new way may be discovered which none present had alone perceived and which transcends the differences of the opinions expressed. This is an experience of creative insight, leading to a sense of the meeting which a clerk is often led in as remarkable way to record. Those who have shared this experience will not doubt its reality and the certainty it brings of the immediate rightness of the way for the meeting to take.
(Quaker Faith and Practice, 3.05-06.)You notice that what a meeting is primarily concerned about, even in its discussion of practical affairs, is finding the truth of the situation they are concerned about. It is not about finding a course of action they can all agree on, or a compromise between different views, and certainly not a majority opinion. It is simply and bravely about the actual truth of the matter. And that truth might take us beyond what any of us might have previously thought. But when we see it, we know it's right and that we can commit to it.
When we come to the profounder matters of our faith and life as Quakers it might not be so easy to practise this discipline. How, for example, do we let go our individual viewpoints? We have a lot invested in them. So we will have to be more restrained and patient, and rely more on our practice of silent waiting and listening. We will have to become more aware, not only of our present beliefs and attitudes, but also of the experience of life that led us to them, perhaps over many years. This personal learning may then make us more ready and able to listen to the different ideas and experiences of others until we really do understand where we all come from. This discipline may be tough and challenging, but it surely bears fruit.
We found this in the Thinktank. When we talked about Meeting for Worship, for example, it sounded at first as if we were describing different experiences. Some understood they were worshipping God, others said they had no idea of God at all and were merely exploring the issues of their life. With more sharing, however, it became clear that they were not so far apart. Those who 'worshipped God' did not in fact have an idea of God in their minds; they were rather opening themselves to the reality beyond themselves which they dimly sensed to be the source of their life and made some sort of claim on them. Those who 'merely' explored the issues of their life said they were also, in a way, opening themselves to life itself, something ultimately mysterious and beyond their grasp. They didn't want to call it 'God', because that word indicated for them the idea of a being outside the world who somehow controlled it – that is, the idea of theism. But those who did want to describe it as God made it clear they had no such idea in mind. They used the word God to point to something which they could not understand but somehow nevertheless 'sensed' or 'felt', and wanted to acknowledge. In the group I was in I could sense this extraordinary coming together, which didn't mean that we now said the same thing about this ultimate reality, but that we recognized the genuineness of our different experiences – firstly – but also - secondly – the unity in our actual experience of worship.
Could we then describe this unity? Yes, but not in terms of the object of worship as something 'out there' or even as the source of it as something 'in here', like Spirit. We could express it by describing the experience itself, which in some way took us outside ourselves. This has something to do with the practice of silent waiting, which enables us to let go of our everyday concerns and become more aware of the world around us, the greater life that makes our life possible, that nurtures us but also demands a generous response from us. We even agreed that what we most valued in worship was the sense of belonging to this greater whole, the sense of awe at what was ultimately beyond our grasp, but which we could nevertheless trust and love. When I heard us saying this I felt there was nothing more that needed to be said, and very little more that could be said. We had touched the sacred, not least in one another, and our task was now to live in the light of it.
My conclusion from this experience and my reflection on it since is that we have the answers to the problem already in our Quaker way. We only need the courage to pursue it. Let me try to summarize that distinctive way of ours as it affects the way we speak our truth:
1. We do not put our trust in words about God that have been passed down to us from others, as in traditional Christianity. Nor on the other hand in words we ourselves have thought up to describe the world objectively and rationally. We finally let go of all words and open ourselves inwardly in silence to the reality of life as it presents itself to us. We discover that this reality is so elusive, though, as we open ourselves to it, that, however real we find it to be, we cannot form an idea of it or get a mental grip on it.
2. So the question is how we can speak our truth. We cannot describe it literally. It is not a factual truth about the world out there. It is not in this respect like science. So it is not only doubtful to speak about God as a being out there somewhere; it is a betrayal of our faith and vision. To be faithful to the truth we have discerned in silent waiting we need to speak in such a way as to express the insight that has come to us out of our experience of life and to evoke that awareness in others. We use stories, for example, poetry, advice, proverbs. Above all, we will speak from our personal experience. And for that reason we will all speak differently, even while speaking of a similar experience, because we ourselves are different. But these different testimonies to experience will enrich and enlarge us, if we recognise where they come from and and what it is in us that they resonate with Our own testimony will then become fuller and more inclusive.
3. To understand things more fully and deeply, we listen to one another with an open heart, not judging or criticising, and we look for the truth that we can all recognize and embrace. And the language that emerges as we talk openly with one another will be the language we can effectually use to communicate our truth to others in the world out there. We do not have to create this language with our own mental effort or imagination, or take it from some document we regard as authoritative. It is given to us in the conversation we have together about our experience – often in dialogue with friends past and present who have similar insights.
4. If we speak from our common and shared experience as a Society of Friends we will speak with one voice about the truth as we now discern it together.
Helen Rowlands, ed., God, Words and Us, Quaker Books, 2017.
Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker Faith and Practice, Quaker Books, 1995.
Craig Barnett, Quaker Renewal, The Friend Publications, 2017.
Rhiannon Grant, Telling the Truth about God, Quaker Quicks, The Christian Alternative, 2019.
Rex Ambler, The Quaker Way, The Christian Alternative, 2013, especially chapter 2 on 'Looking for God.'
Rex Ambler, Resolving Difference – in our ways of speaking about God or the ultimate reality, Quaker Universalist Group Pamphlets, 2016.