Monday 18 March 2024

Self Power & Other Power

"Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!"

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

In thirteenth century Japan, the influential Buddhist teacher Shinran pointed to the distinction between 'self power' and 'other power'.

While some versions of Buddhism emphasise the necessity of constant self-discipline, Shinran's 'True Pure Land' school taught that the way to enlightenment is not by our own efforts, but through faith in Amitabha Buddha. For Shinran, the power of the Buddha is infinitely beyond human capacities, but it is not distant from us - the Buddha nature is present within every person.

Modern Quaker culture places a strong emphasis on what Shinran would have called 'self power' - political activism, the effort to embody ethical values in our daily lives, and the conscientious performance of social responsibilities. The Quaker Way is often presented as if it consists purely of a set of commitments to ethical ideals.

Perhaps surprisingly, the original Quaker inspiration was strongly focussed on 'other power'. It was faith in the Inward Guide, rather than their own efforts, that early Friends relied on to guide their lives and to endure suffering and persecution. This Inward Guide, Teacher, Light or Christ was understood as something apart from our own resources: it was the presence and activity of God within each person.

The practice of early Quakers was to pay attention to this source of light and life within themselves; to 'stand still in the Light', and to allow themselves to be guided by it. The Quaker Way was not a set of values to try to live up to. It was a commitment to being guided by a divine presence, within their own experience but beyond their power to fully understand or to control.

'Self power' plays a crucial role in daily life. There are many things that we can and should make an effort to do, to support our well-being and that of others. Healthy disciplines and choices that are consistent with our considered values are essential to create and maintain a sound container for our lives. We need to develop enough resilience to negotiate a path through the world and to follow through on our commitments and leadings. But sooner or later we all reach the limits of our own resources. When suffering overwhelms us, 'self power' will not save us. In grief, sickness and fear we become aware of the primal longing for help in our need and distress. This is the condition described in memorable terms by William James:

"To suggest personal will and effort to one all sicklied o'er with the sense of irremediable impotence is to suggest the most impossible of things. What he craves is to be consoled in his very powerlessness, to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him, all decaying and failing as he is. Well, we are all such helpless failures in the end."

The Varieties of Religious Experience

Then the challenge is to avoid the temptation to despair or to put ourselves in the hands of external authority. We need to 'stand still in the Light', with the faith that this Inward Light can show us the way out of our darkness and bring us to new life.

This Inward Guide is the source of the 'other power' that has always been available to everyone, from 13th Century Japan to 17th Century England and just as much today. When we are at the end of our own strength, we are not alone. 

How have you experienced the guidance or support of the Inward Light when you most needed it?

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Live the Questions

Quakers sometimes make a distinction between ‘activist’ Friends, who are attracted by the social action, and ‘mystics’ whose focus is the Meeting for Worship.

For me, the Quaker way is not about becoming either an activist or a mystic. It is primarily a path of discernment - a way of enabling each of us to discover our own unique calling and potential, which will look very different for every person. For some, faithfulness to the Inner Light will lead to challenging systems of injustice. For others, it may be about building up community, supporting their neighbours, caring for children or listening to people who are lonely or struggling. And some people will be led into different kinds of commitment at different times, in response to their own circumstances and to the gradual unfolding of their own soul needs and capacities.

There is no standard template for a ‘good Quaker’ or a moral or spiritual person. Each of us has to discover our own gifts and our own contribution to the world’s needs, according to the inward guidance that is available to us.

How to do this is not a secret. It is summarised in the first sentence of the first of the Advices & Queries - “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.

We do this in Quaker Worship, when we allow our thoughts to become still, and our consciousness to ‘sink down’ to a place of inward listening. Here we may become more aware of what is going on in our hearts and souls, and more receptive to the movements of the Spirit within. But this way of discernment is not just for Meeting for Worship; it is an everyday practice of allowing the Inward Guide to talk to us, of “sinking down to the seed”:
Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Isaac Penington, 1661
Practising this receptivity to inward guidance means a willingness to tolerate uncertainty and anxiety. Perfect clarity is very rarely offered to us, and most often we have only subtle nudges of the Spirit or ‘glimmerings’:
[T]he travels begin at the breakings of day, wherein are but glimmerings or little light, wherein the discovery of good and evil are not so manifest and certain; yet there must the traveller begin and travel; and in his faithful travels … the light will break in upon him more and more.

Isaac Penington, 1665
Most often, the Inward Guide seems to work by showing us, not the ultimate destination, but just the very next step. We are asked to respond in faith, trusting that if we have the courage to follow the little guidance we have received, then we will see further to the step beyond. As Caroline Fox heard in Meeting for Worship in 1841, “Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.” (Quaker faith & practice 26.04)

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke expresses the same insight in his Letters to a Young Poet:
“[S]tay patient with all that is still unresolved in your own heart, to try to love the very questions, just as if they were locked-up rooms or as if they were books in an utterly unknown language. You ought not yet to be searching for answers, for you could not yet live them. What matters is to live everything. For just now, live the questions.”
How have you sought and followed inward guidance? Does your Quaker practice or community help you to discern your own leadings?

Monday 30 August 2021

Beauty Surrounds Us


Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

(Rumi, from 'Story Water', in 'Selected Poems')

Sunday 25 October 2020

The Forest Dweller

We are all ageing. If we are fortunate, each of us will pass through young adulthood into middle and old age; and yet our culture is strangely silent about these typical life-passages. The idea of a 'midlife crisis' is the closest our society comes to acknowledging the transitions that most of us experience in some form. Unfortunately, our stereotypes about midlife often seem to trivialise its challenges rather than offering any useful guidance for navigating them.

Without any cultural signposts to guide us through the transition from the first to the second half of life, we may experience it as a frightening rupture, instead of an anticipated stage of maturation and opportunity. 

Many other cultures do provide maps to guide people through the major transitions of life, and they can offer useful insights for those of us who are seeking to make sense of our own life passages.

Hindu culture has a tradition of four main life stages or ashramas; the student (brahmacharya),  householder (grihastha), forest dweller (vanaprastha), and wandering ascetic (sannyasa).

The tasks and values of each ashrama are very different. The student stage is focused on learning and self-discipline, and householders must devote themselves to earning a living and their many responsibilities for family and community. Traditionally, around the age of fifty, or when the first grandchild is born, the forest dweller stage begins.

The forest dweller's priorities are different to those of the householder. The householder was preoccupied with the responsibilities of work, family, and the struggle for material security. The forest dweller begins a gradual process of withdrawing from practical responsibilities in order to prioritise the inward work of reflection and contemplation, as well as mentoring the younger generation.

This transition from the householder to forest dweller stage corresponds to what the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr (in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life) calls the 'further journey' into the second half of our lives. He describes the task of the first half as establishing a 'container' for our lives - a home, family, relationships, an occupation and a sense of our place in the world. Of course for too many people the struggle simply to survive, to provide for themselves or their families, is unrelenting and never reaches a place of stability. But from a Hindu point of view, even if a person has managed to accomplish all these things, the most important tasks of life have not yet begun. The attainment of a home, a family, career, financial security, all of these, as good as they are, are only a preparation for the most crucial stages still to come.

When I reached the age of 40 I knew I needed a drastic change. With my characteristic tendency to go to extremes, this took the form of moving with my family to live in Zimbabwe, managing a rural development charity that was in acute financial crisis, in a country that had recently endured economic collapse, hyperinflation and famine.

Perhaps predictably this didn’t go that well for me, although our children had many valuable experiences. After returning to the UK I found, to my bewilderment, that I could no longer face the kind of managerial work I was doing before. I had become almost phobic about the life of meetings, offices and deadlines. Instead, I developed a passionate interest in working on the land. I retrained as an organic farmer and worked for several years on community food growing projects. 

Dramatic shifts like this are a common pattern as people move into midlife. Many people discover a desire to change career or to explore different sides of themselves, especially those skills or capacities they have neglected in the first half of life. 

These are signs of a transition to the second half of life, and the invitation to the forest dweller stage. Western culture recognises only the values of the first half of life, especially physical beauty, energy, status and achievement, and most of us try to cling onto these for as long as possible. Beyond youthful adulthood, ageing is usually thought of as an inevitable process of decline and deterioration. But the forest dweller stage has its own unique challenges and rewards.

Midlife can be an invitation to lay down some of the exhausting preoccupations of the householder life, and to begin to explore the quite different values of the forest dweller. The forest dweller stage opens opportunities for greater attention to the quieter and deeper satisfactions of everyday life. By withdrawing some of the time and energy previously invested in outward struggles and obligations, we can appreciate the simpler pleasures of time spent with friends and loved ones, of reflection, beauty and creativity.

The forest dweller stage does not usually involve a sudden renunciation of all practical commitments and responsibilities. Most people at midlife will continue to work and have responsibilities for family members and their communities. But there may be a turning of attention toward the inward work that has almost always been crowded out by the many obligations of the householder life.

For some this might mean reducing their hours of paid work, or changing to a less responsible or demanding job. People who have been very focused on achievement and recognition may find that these become less all-consuming goals. Instead of continuing to chase success they may be able to accept the place where they have arrived in life. 

The forest dweller also has important gifts to offer their community. Younger people may begin to turn to them for advice or support. Because the forest dweller is less invested in a competitive struggle for their own advancement, they can be more available to others. They can put their experience and maturity to use by sharing them with the generation that is still in the thick of the challenges and dilemmas of the householder life.

But increasingly the focus of the forest dweller's life may become what the Anglican contemplative Maggie Ross calls 'the work of silence'. This is her term for all of those practices that enable us to deepen our relationship with the inward source of life. Whether through traditional religious practices, or other creative, contemplative or ritual activity, the forest dweller's life may come to be increasingly centred on 
the unfolding activity of the Spirit within them.

By turning the focus of their energy and attention towards 'the work of silence', the forest dweller can discover new possibilities for a way of being in the world that is rooted in silence and open to mystery - an attentive and receptive stance that Ross calls 'beholding'. 
"The work of silence is so simple, yet to go against the grain of society and the culture is very difficult. But it is worth the effort: the work of silence and the way of being in the world that is beholding provide stability and even joy in a disintegrating world. People who undertake to live like this become beacons, islands of safety where others can find a refuge. The resonances of silence permeate the world around them, whether they are aware of them or not."
Do you recognise this description of the 'forest dweller' stage in your own life? What have you learned about the transition to the second half of life?

Saturday 27 June 2020

A teachable moment

White people in the UK are usually very reluctant to talk about race. We are anxious to avoid getting it wrong and causing offence, but above all we are frightened of having our own innocence challenged. Most white people have a set of unconscious strategies to defend ourselves from even thinking about the evident racial inequalities that are all around us. But current events are offering us a teachable moment.

The Black Lives Matter movement has created a breakthrough in white people’s awareness of realities that we have habitually hidden from ourselves. This provides us with an opportunity to listen and respond; allowing our understanding to be expanded to include a broader perception of reality.

Whenever we experience a prompting to greater awareness, this is the Inward Light at work. The Quaker experience is that the Inward Light reveals the hidden aspects of our lives, including all the things about ourselves and the world that we would prefer not to acknowledge. Generations of Quakers have found that the Light exposes both the brokenness of the world and our own collusion with it, often in ways that are deeply uncomfortable and challenging.

I have become more aware recently in my own conversation of the ways that I habitually avoid acknowledging the evident social realities of race. This includes noticing for the first time the little hiatus in my speech as I realise I am going to have to mention a person’s race, and mentally scramble to find a way out of it. This avoidance is not just verbal, but also social. White people’s awkwardness about race and lack of skills for talking about it inhibits us in our relationships with people of colour, contributing to our tendency to form close friendships primarily or exclusively with other white people.

White people’s habitual refusal to acknowledge racial dynamics in our society and relationships is not neutral. Avoiding the subject does not avoid causing offence. It causes active harm, because it makes white people unable to hear the impact of our own behaviour on people of colour. This constant evasion is harmful in itself because it forces people of colour to have to prove the reality of their own experience in a way that will be acceptable to white people.

Reni Eddo-Lodge describes her own experience of white people’s habitual response when confronted with explicit reminders of racial inequality in her important book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race:
At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are ‘different’ in case that offends us… I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.
White people who want to oppose racism are not innocent of this reaction. In some ways, we may be more inclined to defensiveness, because we so badly want to be in the right - to be seen to be innocent of racism and absolved of any responsibility for it:
White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived… White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”
(Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility)
Unfortunately, on the subject of race there is no guarantee of always being in the right. There is no way as a white person in a racially unequal society that we can be certain of never doing or saying things that have a racist impact. Having Quaker values does not prevent us from contributing to patterns of behaviour that are harmful to people of colour. Racism cannot be eradicated just by good intentions, because it is not simply a matter of white people’s explicit attitudes. Above all, racism is the way that even unintentional words and behaviour impact harmfully and repeatedly on the same people, because of unequal access to power.

Feeling guilty about this is not helpful to people of colour. Too often, it is just another way for white people to place ourselves at the centre, saying in effect “poor me for happening to be born white, and inheriting the blame for slavery and colonialism ”. Personally, I don’t feel any responsibility for what white people have done in the past. What I am responsible for is what I choose to do with the privileges I am given by that history, which has created persistent inequalities that benefit me at the expense of people of colour.

Like every other white person, and even in the very liberal circles where I usually move, I have often heard racially prejudiced comments and witnessed behaviour that reinforces racial inequality. Very rarely have I ever challenged this. Usually it has felt more important not to create conflict, or I have made excuses to myself because it was not 'intentional' or motivated by ill-will. Unfortunately, this is not just me. It is such a consistent pattern of behaviour that it has been given a name - ‘white solidarity’, the way that white people routinely collude with each other to avoid challenging racism. Whenever I and other white people have failed to challenge behaviour which has a racist impact (irrespective of the motivations of those involved) we have been a part of perpetuating and supporting that racism.

I have also worked with refugees and migrant communities for many years, and until recently have never seen the need to educate myself adequately about the nature of structural racism. As a result, I have undoubtedly done and said many things that have had a racist impact over that time, through my own lack of awareness.

The good news is that white people can choose to start taking responsibility for learning about the racist impact of our own and others’ behaviour. We can make the effort to seek out feedback on how our behaviour affects people of colour. Instead of defending ourselves against uncomfortable information, we can welcome it as an opportunity to grow and to learn; even when it challenges our idea of ourselves as well-intentioned people and ‘good Quakers’.

Early Friends talked about an experience that they called ‘the Day of Visitation’:
The basic idea of the Day of Visitation is that there is a period of time in everyone’s life when they are open to hearing the voice of the Divine and acting on it. If they are attentive and obedient to this Divine Seed, it will grow and flourish in them and they will be led into a greater and stronger faith. If they ignore it, if they push it down and trample on the seed, eventually it will stop growing.
(William Taber, The Day of Visitation)
For many of us, the current uprising against racism may provide a crucial opportunity for a ‘day of visitation’, when we can be opened to the liberating power of the Inward Light that ‘shows us our darkness and leads us to new life’. 

Has the Black Lives Matter movement affected your awareness or behaviour in relation to racism?
I'm conscious that what I have written here may well be racially problematic in ways that I don't realise. I would welcome feedback from people of colour about how to improve the way I communicate about this subject.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

One Wall, Two Prisons

There seems to be a traditional list of excuses for why so many Quaker Meetings fail to reflect the racial and social diversity of their local communities. These include:

“Silent worship doesn’t suit everyone.”

“We shouldn’t be trying to proselytise.”

“They prefer their own churches, which have lots of singing.”

“Muslims wouldn’t want to come to a Quaker Meeting anyway.”

“We do have lots of diversity, in people’s beliefs.”

“We welcome everyone, but we can’t force people to come.”

Despite their absurd inadequacy, versions of these statements are still frequently used to shut down the conversation as soon as this issue is raised in our Meetings.

But Friends who are not satisfied with these excuses, and want to encourage real dialogue about the possibility of more inclusive Quaker communities, are often unclear about the specifically Quaker motivation for this. Are there any reasons, beyond so-called ‘political correctness’, why Quakers should have a particular concern for the diversity of our Meetings and our movement?

It may be tempting to rely on the “Testimony to Equality” as a justification for wanting Quaker Meetings to be more inclusive, but I’m not convinced this is sufficient on its own. This is partly because the concept of “equality” is too vague to serve as much of a guide to actual practice. Quakers are very unlikely to dispute that people from different social and racial groups are ‘equal’, but this evidently doesn’t translate into any great motivation to get to know them. But relying on a testimony to equality also suggests that the motivation for wanting more inclusive communities is attempting to live up to an abstract ideal. In other words, it is because we think we ‘ought to’ be more diverse, as a way of doing a favour to ‘people less fortunate than ourselves’, rather than out of any desire for relationship with people who might actually have something valuable to offer.

In her eye-opening book ‘White Fragility’, Robin DiAngelo talks about the implicit message which white people receive from our culture; that we are not missing anything if we have no close relationships with people of colour. White people in racially divided societies such as the UK are brought up to assume that being isolated in a social bubble of whiteness comes without any cost, presumably because black and brown people have nothing to offer anyway. Relying exclusively on an ideal of ‘equality’ does nothing to challenge this assumption of white (and middle-class) self-sufficiency, and the status of everyone else as objects of Quaker philanthropy.

Instead of relying on ‘equality’ as the basis of a conversation about diversity in our Meetings, I think it would be more helpful to reflect on what our core Quaker practices need in order to fully realise their potential; especially the practice of discernment in our Meetings for Worship for Business.

In a perceptive discussion of Quaker discernment, Tim Peat-Ashworth and Alex Wildwood argue that “inspiration operating through diversity is God’s way of working”. (Rooted in Christianity, Open to New Light, 2009). In other words, difference is integral to the way that Quakers seek communal guidance.

Quaker discernment relies on a range of viewpoints and experiences being made available to the community through the contributions of its members. None of us individually has the breadth of perspective to be able to see every side of a complex issue, or to fully appreciate ideas that are very far from our own experience. In a community of people with diverse life journeys, we are given the opportunity to learn from each other how to see the world from many different points of view. It is this capacity to listen and learn from our differences that enables communities sometimes to get beyond partial or self-interested motives, and to recognise the divine ‘promptings of love and truth’, wherever they are leading us.

It is sometimes claimed that ‘it doesn’t matter who is in the Meeting for Worship for Business’; because it is God’s purposes we are seeking, rather than our own agendas. But this ignores the important part that each person’s knowledge and experience brings to the practice of discernment. I don’t believe the Spirit will magically give us all the information we need without our active participation (which is why we are urged to come to Meeting “with hearts and minds prepared”). So our own knowledge and experience matters, and the wider the range of experience we have to draw on, the greater our capacity to weigh all of the considerations that are relevant to the issue at hand.

The participation of people from different racial and class backgrounds, ages, abilities and other life journeys is not a matter of ‘representation’; as if they are expected to represent the agendas of competing interest groups. We should not value Friends for their identity labels, but for the different insights and life experiences they bring to our collective discernment. Just as we would consider an all-male committee inadequate, we should be able to recognise that Quaker approaches to politics or spirituality will be sadly limited if (as is often the case) they exclude the perspectives of people who are racially marginalised, working-class or under 50.

It is certainly true that it is not easy to change the composition of Quaker Meetings and committees; why should it be? But the inevitable challenges and failures have for too long been trotted out as reasons to stay as we are and keep doing things the way we are used to. Most importantly, we need to see the lack of diversity in many of our Quaker communities as ‘our problem’ rather than ‘theirs’. If we are serious about practising Quaker discernment faithfully, we will want to prioritise the participation of Friends with diverse life journeys, and be willing to make whatever changes this requires. Instead of making excuses for carrying on as we are, we would engage in a deliberate enquiry to discover what aspects of our current practice are experienced as exclusionary. This would involve, of course, actually asking people of different ages, social and racial backgrounds, instead of simply making assumptions about their needs and preferences.

On the Israeli side of the ‘separation wall’ surrounding the West Bank there is a piece of graffiti that reads “One wall, two prisons”. The truth this expresses is that exclusion and separation impoverish everyone. Our own society, which is so starkly divided by barriers of race and class, also deprives us of relationships with people whose life experiences are very different from our own. As Quakers, whose spiritual practice relies on collective discernment, we are even more reliant on learning from people with different backgrounds and life journeys. None of us has the whole picture: we need each other.

What is your experience of diversity (or the lack of it) in Quaker communities? Have you found ways to have useful conversations about this issue in your Meeting?

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Quaker Leadership in times of crisis

This is a guest post by John Gray, Zélie Gross and Wess Daniels. Together they are currently co-tutoring an online Woodbrooke course, Leadership Amongst Friends.

Leadership in a Quaker sense can often be compared to servant leadership – the gathering and promotion of the group as a whole, relying always on spirit-led decision-making rather than quick fixes, valuing people, showing authenticity, and modelling good leadership and good followership. In the phrase of George Lakey, leadership is ‘taking initiative in relationship’: the offering of ideas or inspiration whilst also relying on and building on the deep connection we have with the people around us. 
What might leadership by and amongst Quakers look like in a time of global crisis such as we are experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic? What can we offer when overwhelming external conditions wrench the helm of the boat out of our hands?

In parts of the world, an increase in violence is one of the many terrible consequences of the virus and community/economic lock-down – violence on streets or within communities, and behind closed doors. Children and other vulnerable people are being denied support which they may have had access to in the past. Quakers around the world, and their worshipping communities, are being challenged in how they respond, and facing stark dilemmas between acting to contain the virus and speaking up for the rights and protections of the vulnerable.

This article is not a call for heroic one-person “command and control” form of leadership. It is rather a wondering about how those in formal roles within our Quaker communities and organisations, and those who have informal influence within them, can ensure that effective worship and witness continue and that our communities flourish. The call on leadership at this time is neither to lose sight of the current realities, nor to neglect established Quaker principles and practices, nor to ignore possibilities in a changed future. There is a lot to take care of in all of that; Friends are called to express their leadership in the practical business of taking care in a range of necessary ways:

Taking care of others

Be an enabler – of community, of connections, of relationship, of mutual support.

Be a mediator: everyone is under pressure; before asking yourself which side you are on in a conflict, ask yourself how you can mediate.

Be a listener: do more listening than telling or explaining; you won’t be heard if you don’t listen. And be patient – listen for the stress, anxiety, fear and dismay behind anger, impatience or criticism.

Be alert to the fact that everyone is having to do things differently, and some will be much less comfortable or familiar with change (and with electronic platforms!) than others. Be prepared to teach or handhold to help people learn.

Taking care of yourself

You will be ahead of some in your community in responding to the crisis, and for others you will not be responding quickly enough. Both groups may criticise you (though for different reasons). Thick skins and personal support-networks really help.

Pay attention to your own spiritual and physical well-being! - you can't walk the path without caring for yourself as well as for others. What daily practices can you commit to, to support your own wellbeing and to refill the well of spiritual nurture? What are your support networks that you can draw on?

Some mindsets can help too: accepting we're all perfectly imperfect; good enough may in fact what’s required; and, "This too will pass...".

You should not feel as though you’re alone in all this; but if your community is unable to respond effectively to the crisis, it's unlikely that you on your own can pull everyone else through.

Taking care of the task

The core Quaker testimonies – to truth, peace, simplicity, equality – always remain as essential foundations for why we act, and the way we act.

The challenge of decision-making amidst volatile, unstable, complex and ambiguous events makes it even more essential to ensure our own communications are clear and unambiguous. New ways of working and communicating verbally may lead to power vacuums; and they may result in decision-making structures and allocations of responsibilities which don’t fit current realities.

The number and frequency of communications increases exponentially; you won't hear everything or notice everything which is demanding your attention. Be ready to re-prioritise, to call for focus on specific things, and re-negotiate about what's essential. Regular “Covid catch-ups” might be helpful, to keep key conversations going amongst convenors and clerks.

Other people's sense of urgency can trick you into reacting rather than responding. It's OK to ask for time, to consult, to discern.

Be a learner – this is new for all of us, and some things may never be the same again.

Navigation through and beyond the crisis

Often three stages can be seen in responding to a crisis: dealing with the immediate challenge; then keeping the overall community or organisation going; and then readying ourselves for the return of ‘normality’ - or as in this case, the likelihood of a new different normal. What might these phases look like in a Quaker community or a Quaker-led organisation within a lockdown area?

The immediate challenge: This phase may already be coming to an end for some: the safe closure of meeting houses and offices; the arrangements made for staff and committees; the shifting of worship into a virtual setting. Many Friends have made huge strides in these areas, strides which may not have been imaginable even a few weeks ago, and we are finding that for many of us virtual meetings for worship can still have depth and intimacy. As a community, these crisis moments show us our strengths as well as our weaknesses.

Keeping going: Once things have begun to settle a little, what else needs to be sorted or resolved after the urgency of the first few weeks? Elders and Overseers will be considering what a Quaker community in lockdown can look like: in the face of physical distancing, how can social and spiritual connecting be promoted? Trustees, treasurers and premises committees will need to remember the legal responsibilities still impinging on us. For those meeting houses and organisations relying on income to continue, what are the cash flow forecasts, and where can legitimate postponement or ending of expenditure take place? What contingency plans can be made? It’s worth remembering that most organisations go bust not because they are making losses, but because they run out of cash. Is this a potential risk in your context?

Being ready for the new future: It is natural to want times like this, times of uncertainty, to come to an end quickly so we can get back to normal. The reality is that we will not go back to the way things were, there will be a new future, a new normal. This is a time of great change – much of it is deeply scary and painful, much loss and grief has occurred already. But we can leverage this moment as Friends for positive change, for regeneration in our meetings and Quaker institutions. This can be a moment to recalibrate or reprioritize: how are we caring for the poor and most vulnerable in our communities? As so much of our lives, including our work and worship, have moved online, are there lessons from the things we see working well and which translate into this new context, about what is most important? Are we noting and learning from what is hard, lost in translation, or feels futile? Have you had time to think through how your personal life, your meeting life, and your work life will be like after lockdown? What changes can we already anticipate within our own Quaker communities? What needs are likely to be present in the local communities beyond our meeting house doors, and how should we respond? What will love require of us?

Wess Daniels is lives in Greensboro, North Carolina (USA). He is the Director of the Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College.

John Gray is an attender at York's (UK) Friargate Quaker Meeting. He works as an organisational coach, supervisor and consultant.

Zélie Gross lives in Penarth in South Wales (UK). She is the author of With a tender hand: A resource book for eldership and oversight (Quaker Books, 2015).

Saturday 18 April 2020

Introducing 'The Guided Life'

This is a brief introduction to my new book The Guided Life, which is part of the 'Quaker Quicks' series of short books about the Quaker way.

If you have already read it, please consider writing a review on the Quaker bookshop websiteGoodreads or Amazon.

I would also welcome your feedback about the book in the comments below.

I hope you are keeping safe and well in these troubled times.

Saturday 22 February 2020

Introducing Quaker Worship

As part of the work of the Book of Discipline Revision Committee, we have been experimenting with different approaches to what we are calling 'the voice of the book' - the explanatory text that introduces each chapter.

Some priorities we have already identified are making the language clear and accessible, and not assuming that readers will already be familiar with  Quaker practice. We are looking for ways to explain both how Quaker practices are carried out and why we do them like this, while acknowledging the wide variety of religious language and understandings within Britain Yearly Meeting.

This is still a work in progress for the committee, and no text has been agreed yet, but this is my own experimental attempt at our most recent exercise - to produce a short introduction to a chapter on Quaker Worship (which I would expect to be followed by a wide range of extracts reflecting different Friends' experience).
Quaker Worship 
Worship is a movement of our whole being towards a spiritual reality that is ultimately mysterious, but that we can know by experience. Quakers name this reality as God, Spirit, Light, or in a range of other ways. 
In the practice of Quaker worship, we meet together to turn our attention towards the Inward Light. Quakers have traditionally understood the Inward Light as a divine gift of spiritual perception. It enables us to see our true situation, by uncovering our deepest insights and motivations. This Inward Light also reveals the guidance of the Spirit for us as individuals and communities. In Quaker worship, we “wait in the Light”. We wait in stillness to see what is revealed to us in the depths of our own awareness. 
In a Quaker meeting for worship the gathered community may encounter a shared depth of stillness and a sense of divine presence. When this experience is shared by most or all of those present, there is a profound sense of being united in the Spirit that Quakers refer to as a “gathered” meeting; 
“a meeting where the silence is as soft as velvet, as deep as a still pool; a silence where words emerge, only to deepen and enrich that rich silence, and where Presence is as palpable and soft as the skin of a peach; where the membrane separating this moment in time and eternity is filament-fine.”
(Gerald Hewitson, 2013) 
Through waiting in the Light, we may come to a wordless encounter with the inward source of life and power – a sense of loving Presence beneath thoughts and concepts. In that place, we become receptive to the insights of love and truth that may arise to teach us, and that might lead us to offer spoken ministry.

In Quaker worship new insights may come to anyone in the community, whatever their age or experience, and they will be listened to as potential bearers of divine guidance. Anyone who takes part in a Quaker meeting for worship may be led by the Spirit to speak spontaneously to the meeting, to pass on whatever insights or guidance they have received. This reflects the Quaker emphasis on worship as a source of guidance towards action. The purpose of Quaker worship is to encounter the source of inward transformation that may inspire and lead us to act; to speak in a Meeting for Worship, to make some change in our own lives, or to work for change in our community or society. 
The Quaker way of worship is marked by its great simplicity. Quaker worship does not rely on a particular building or specially-qualified ministers. It is open to everyone on a basis of complete equality; whatever our gender, sexuality or background. Quaker worship does not require special techniques or great natural ability, but it does demand our self-discipline and self-surrender. 
“Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.”
(Isaac Penington, 1661)
I would welcome your thoughts and suggestions on this exercise in the comments below. If you have suggestions about the content of the next Book of Discipline you can also submit them directly using the online form at:

Sunday 22 December 2019

The Enchanted World

Most human beings who have ever lived have experienced an enchanted world. In every society on earth until recent times, people have lived in a world inhabited by non-human presences, powers and spirits. Every land has its places of power, healing and spiritual danger; its sacred mountains, wells, trees, stones and rivers. Spirits, animals, plants and natural phenomena spoke to humans in dreams and signs, watched them, protected or threatened them, and could be asked for blessings or invoked against enemies.

This is what is known as an ‘enchanted world’, and it is a near-universal characteristic of all societies that have not been transformed by the culture of modernity. People in an enchanted world are vulnerable to powers, beings and forces that can infiltrate their lives, thoughts and bodies. The world is a place of spiritual threat, filled with powers that must be propitiated or entreated to ensure human survival. It is a world where collective ritual is essential for the safety and flourishing of the community. Everyone has to play their part to ensure that the gods and spirits are properly honoured, so conformity in religious practices tends to be strictly enforced.

The positive aspect of life in an enchanted world is that it is filled with places, times and occasions that are already charged with meaning and power. Human beings are held within a web of relationships that connects them intimately with each other and with every aspect of their environment; with their ancestors and the spirits of the land and other non-human beings. The characteristic modern afflictions of meaninglessness and alienation do not arise in an enchanted world. The meaning of human life is received from a powerful, pre-existing reality; a world already filled with its own radiant and mysterious purposes, to which human objectives are subordinate.

In western societies, a long historical process of religious reformation, scientific enquiry and industrialisation has steadily undermined this traditional perspective. In its place, modern societies have produced an experience of human selfhood that is sharply separated from the outside world. This process is often described in terms of humanity overcoming superstition, growing out of primitive fears and fantasies into a mature realisation of our uniqueness as meaning-creating beings. As distinct individuals, we are no longer subject to the threat of being invaded or caught up in malign spiritual forces. But we are also isolated and vulnerable in new ways. The isolated, self-contained modern sense of self can feel like imprisonment in an impersonal and indifferent universe. As the philosopher Charles Taylor describes this modern predicament (in A Secular Age), the separate, boundaried self “can also be lived as a limit, even a prison, making us blind or insensitive to whatever lies beyond this ordered human world and its instrumental-rational projects. The sense can easily arise that we are missing something, cut off from something, that we are living behind a screen.”

Thankfully, even within a thoroughly disenchanted culture that denies the existence of spiritual powers and forces, very many people have intimations of a deeper, more mysterious reality within and around them. Meaningful dreams, visions and insights from a power beyond ourselves are still surprisingly common, even for people with no explicit spiritual beliefs. Ben Pink Dandelion describes one such encounter as a young ‘atheist/agnostic ex-anarchist’:
“I had an experience aboard a Greyhound bus in America that gave me a sense of being lifted up, held, and since then perpetually accompanied by what I call God, but which I know is ultimately a mystery that is not for me to know too closely.”
(Living the Quaker Way)
Some people who experience the breaking-in of spiritual reality find themselves led towards a religious community that still maintains some link with an enchanted perspective.

We need enchanted languages to make sense of the full range of human experience. This is not necessarily in the form of religious ‘beliefs’, but primarily a collection of images, stories and symbols that are adequate to honour our lived experience.

Ideas and images derived from many different religious and spiritual traditions may help us to articulate our glimpses of an enchanted world, and different symbols may be useful for expressing different kinds of experience. These may not fit neatly into a consistent theological system or completely agree with any religious scripture. It may be that we need to accept the limitations of our capacity to grasp the totality of the mystery of the world. What is most important is not to have a tidy, logically consistent intellectual theory, but that we have words and images to represent to ourselves and others the reality of our lives, including all the aspects of experience that are excluded from a disenchanted world.

Have you experienced the world as 'enchanted'? What language or images help you to make sense of this reality?

Tuesday 1 October 2019

Life in Community

As part of the work of the new Book of Discipline Revision Committee, we have been exploring the nature of a Quaker community, and what distinguishes it from a social club, political movement or meditation group.

The crucial insight for me is that a purely secular association is based on members' preferences. People may come together on the basis of shared purposes or interests, but it is their individual choices that are primary, and that define the basis of their membership.

There are many organisations, such as sports clubs, charities, political parties and trades unions, where members make generous commitments, and sometimes substantial sacrifices, for the causes that motivate them. The implicit understanding though, is that individuals opt in to these organisations on the basis of their pre-existing interests or values, and remain involved only to the extent that the group continues to serve or promote these preferences. In practice, of course, long-term involvement in any group also tends to form ties of loyalty and belonging which may go beyond the original motivations of their members. According to a purely secular understanding, however, these bonds are quite incidental to the explicit aims of the organisation.

By contrast, a Quaker community is (at least potentially) not just a collection of individuals with overlapping interests, but a 'people'. It is not grounded solely in the preferences of its members, just as the minute of a Quaker business meeting is not just the sum of individual opinions. Instead, people are led to participate in a Quaker community by the action of the Spirit, which may guide them in ways that remain quite obscure to their conscious intentions. A Friend in our Meeting once described to me how she had felt drawn to start attending a Quaker Meeting despite knowing very little about the Quaker way. This was not a matter of looking for a group through which she could pursue her existing interests, but being led by an inner dynamic that was drawing her towards new motives and a deeper encounter with life.

In reality, this Seed of Life is at work in many places in the world where it is not explicitly acknowledged. The Inward Guide is present to everyone, gently nudging them in directions that will enable their flourishing, or wrestling with their resistances and refusal of the Light. Many people are drawn into secular social movements, charities, political action or community groups by the action of this Spirit, drawing them towards opportunities for a more abundant and generous life.

The difference for a community that recognises the activity and guidance of God within each person, is that we can acknowledge this as the basis of our life together. Members of a Quaker community are not just individuals with similar social backgrounds, interests or values. A meeting community is formed by our common response to the same Spirit and Guide that is at work within each of us, however variously it is understood and described. It is our mutual recognition of this shared response that draws us together into community, even with people we might not otherwise choose and with whom we may have little else in common.

It is because we are responding to the same Inward Guide that we come to belong to each other, and to recognise our mutual responsibility and interdependence. We need each other to help us to be faithful to the Seed of Life within, and to practise the disciplines of worship, discernment and testimony that enable that Life to flourish in us and through us.

A community that is grounded in this mutual recognition and shared practice does not have to rely on being socially similar, or having the same opinions or attitudes. Becoming a Quaker does not depend on having the 'right' views or fitting in with a socially homogeneous group. We can find ourselves drawn to a Quaker meeting despite broad differences of background, experience and perspective, and expect both to enrich the discernment of the community through our differences, and also to be continually challenged and transformed ourselves.

Instead of expecting a Quaker community simply to serve or reflect whatever intentions we bring to it, we come in response to an inward call to go beyond our current motivations. Through the practice of the Quaker way together, we can expect our views to be enlarged, our resistances dissolved, our inward wounds healed, and even our desires transformed, so that we grow into "new thoughts, new desires, new affections, new love, new friendship, new society, new kindred, new faith; and new hope, even that living hope that is founded upon true experience..."
(William Penn, 1677, Christian faith & practice 37).

What is your experience of Quaker community?

Friday 13 September 2019

Suffering is not a mistake

Photo: Alan Paxton
The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake. 

Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.

The Quaker way, with its emphasis on the Inward Light, is sometimes mistaken for one of these otherworldly spiritualities. But Quaker experience includes a far more realistic appreciation of the role of suffering in human life. In modern culture it is generally taken for granted that the aim of life is ‘happiness’ (understood as a positive mood or pleasant emotional states) and that our choices should be based on deciding what will bring the most happiness and the least suffering. This is in stark contrast to the actions of those Quakers throughout history who have deliberately chosen persecution, impoverishment, and costly and dangerous commitments in response to the leadings of the Inward Guide. If their goal was happiness, Quakers would never have stood up to governments and oppressive church institutions to demand religious freedom. They would not have gone to prison for conscientious objection to conscription, or like the US Quaker Tom Fox, been murdered working for peace in Iraq. For the Quaker way, it is not happiness or freedom from suffering that is the goal of life, but faithfulness to the life of the Spirit within, whatever it brings. 

Why should anyone choose to follow such a path, if it does not promise to give us happiness or spare us pain? Perhaps one answer is that there is a deeper need; for a life that is charged with meaning through relationship with the Inward Guide. Happiness cannot provide a meaning for life, because it depends on finding a meaning in something else. Pleasure, comfort and luxury rapidly give way to boredom and restlessness. Our deepest need is for a sense of the meaningfulness of our life. We can tolerate endless hardships and frustrations in enthusiastic service of a goal which is full of meaning for us. Without meaning, all our pleasures turn to ashes, and no rewards are sufficient to motivate us to action. 

Quakers and others have been willing to endure persecution and hardship in the service of the Inward Guide, because its leadings have been charged with meaning and purpose. The guidance of the Spirit has illuminated their lives with profound significance that made sacrifices worthwhile and brought the possibility of joy in the midst of suffering. The Quaker philosopher John Macmurray has described this understanding of the religious path:
“When religion is real, it throws the centre of our interest and our action right outside ourselves. It is not about myself at all, or only incidentally and for a purpose that is not my own. It is about the world I live in and the part that I must play in it. It is not to serve my need but the need of the world through me. Real religion is not something that you possess but rather a power that lays hold of you and uses you in service of a will that is greater than your own.”
(Macmurray ‘Search for a Faith’)
This is an extract from my new book 'The Guided Life', which is available now from the Quaker Bookshop.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

The Guided Life

My new book, The Guided Life, isn't officially launched until November, but it is already available to buy from the Quaker Bookshop. The book tries to describe what I see as the central practices of the Quaker way and the role they have played in my own life, as well as in the lives of some other Friends throughout our history.

It is not so much another 'introduction to Quakers for newcomers', as an exploration of how traditional Quaker spiritual practices might be useful to anyone who is struggling with the challenges and dilemmas of modern life. The common modern experiences of constant change, mobility and insecurity can present deep challenges for many of us who are searching for a meaningful path through life. The Quaker approaches to discernment, worship and communal organisation that are described here can perhaps offer some helpful insights to anyone who is looking for a deeper experience of their life's purpose.

Rex Ambler has written this review of The Guided Life:
"This book will appeal to people who want a better understanding of the Quaker way. They might have heard what Quakers stand for, what sort of things they do – much has been said and written about these things. This book explores the experience behind all that. It shows how the practice of 'waiting in the light,' for example, can gives us an insight into our life that enables us to see how better to live it. The practice does this by putting us in touch with a source of wisdom within us that we are not normally aware of, because we rely too much on words and talk, on our own attempts to work things out for ourselves. The Quaker way is a matter of allowing ourselves to be 'guided'.
'The guided life', it must be said, is not a life that will appeal to many moderns. They want to guide life themselves. But Craig Barnett shows in this thoughtful analysis that taking control of one's life in this way, though helpful up to a point, eventually limits it and frustrates it. His many examples from contemporary experience, his own as well as others', will resonate with many people and help them see the point of the spiritual practice he recommends.
This is surely one of the best descriptions of the Quaker way of life we have. It explains so clearly the human experience on which it is based, the practical exercises we can undertake to follow it, and the outcome of following it in a wholesome, joyful life that is shared with other people."
(The Guided Life - an appreciation, Rex Ambler)

Saturday 18 May 2019

Speaking our Truth Part 2

This is the second and final part of Rex Ambler's talk to Lancashire Area Meeting in February 2019 on the theme of 'God, Words and Us'.
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.

Friday 26 April 2019

Speaking our Truth

This is the first part of a guest post by Rex Ambler, based on a talk he gave to Lancashire Area Meeting in February 2019 on the theme of 'God, Words and Us'.

We are going to reflect today on something we Quakers have found it difficult to talk about: the basis of our life as Quakers, the faith that grounds our life and guides us through it, holding us together with all our difference, and giving us hope when times get rough. We may be confident in ourselves about this faith, but not so much about how we describe it. The problem is that we have different ways of talking and some of us sometimes get upset by these differences. Can we speak about 'God', for example, or 'Christ' or 'Spirit'? Some Friends who are not happy with these words have got together to find ways of describing their faith in different words. They call themselves 'non-theistic Friends,' meaning they do not accept the traditional belief in God as a being beyond the world. (I'll come back to the meaning of 'theism' later. That is another word liable to misunderstanding.)

The difficulty we are in
Meetings which are aware of this difficulty find themselves reluctant to say what they really want to say. They are stymied on how to give ministry, for example, or how to write a minute. The fear of upsetting someone in the meeting and the discomfort of not being able to speak freely in the meeting have a stifling effect.

Matters have come to a head at the national level since Yearly Meeting decided to proceed, despite this difficulty, with the revision of the Book of Discipline. That decision was made last year. Before that, though, anticipating the revision, Yearly Meeting set up a body to look at these issues with religious language and advise on how we could approach them. You can see that at the national level we have a problem that may not have to be faced locally. When we speak as a Yearly Meeting we speak with one voice. In the Book of Discipline especially we speak on behalf of all Friends, or rather, we speak as one Society of Friends. Even if we have different voices in the text, deliberately to express our variety, we have a presiding voice which speaks on behalf of Yearly Meeting as a whole. And, of course, the point and purpose of our Book of Discipline is to give expression to our common faith and how it works out in practice. So we have a real problem here and we have to resolve it.

The group set up to look at this issue was called the Theology Thinktank, somewhat tongue in cheek, I think, because we Quakers don't focus on theology and don't try to solve our basic problems by 'thinking' about them. But some thinking was required here, or at least some thoughtful attention which could be undertaken in a Quaker way.

It was a very good exercise – I was part of it, as was Craig Barnett, who is speaking later. We made some progress in our understanding, though the 23 of us involved represented the wide spectrum of ideas and attitudes in the Society as a whole. And what we found most helpful was the process we underwent to come to that understanding. This was reported in the small book, published in 2017, God, Words and Us, and Craig and I are drawing on this report to present this workshop today. In fact, the report recommends that to bring the whole of the Yearly Meeting to a better understanding we should all go through this process in our various meetings.

So we shall do some participatory work here, later, but now I want to offer my own insights on how we got into this difficulty and how we might get out of it. And I shall be drawing not only on the recent book, but also on my life-long preoccupation with these issues, and in particular my discovery of the remarkable Quaker way through them, which led me to join the Society some 35 years ago.

How we got into this difficulty
The difficulty we have in speaking about God is not just our problem, and it is not just a problem with words. It is a problem we have in thinking about life in general, about the world in general, and it has been with us since at least the Renaissance and the Reformation some 500 years ago. Everyone back then thought of the world as revolving around God, who created everything and designed it for a purpose. The task of every human being was to discover that purpose for themselves and carry it out, otherwise they would lose all meaning in their lives and all hope. This was a tall order because God was so elusive, beyond human reach. But the church, which dominated society at the time, and had done for some one thousand years, was claiming that this God had revealed himself in Christ, and that Christ had passed on his authority to the church. The church therefore constructed an elaborate system of thought and practice, which explained how everything was made and how we were all to fit in, at our different levels of society.

However, this system was proving to be burdensome in the 16th century. The society was changing as people got wealthier, built cities, gained knowledge and invented new technologies. The church however was fixed, established by God apparently and so not open to negotiation. Indeed, it was not in principle open to change. What the church said and did, it had always said and done, and would do to the end of the world. So with new demands for change, it was coming to be felt as inflexible, insensitive, even dishonest. Also, people found the church's claim to authority now open to question. They began to realize that if they were to know how things really were in the world, or in their own personal lives, they would have to find out for themselves. Indeed, in many areas of life they would have to take matters into their own hands, even if this meant a clash with the church. Perhaps this was the only way to get the church to reform. So people began to assert themselves in every sphere of life, in religion, politics, trade and learning. Hence the Reformation which relied on personal faith in God, the new experimental philosophy which we came to know as modern science, the new experiment in politics which we came to recognize as democracy – and surprisingly, a new experiment in religion which we came to know as the Society of Friends.

The dominant response to authority, however, was not the Quaker turn to the light within, 'that of God in everyone.' It was the assertion of the known human powers of reason, creativity and physical force. It came to expression in the so-called Enlightenment, which sought to understand everything and control everything by the human 'light of reason.' This huge cultural change did not dispense with the idea of God or the authority that might come with God's self-revelation. But it did insist that the whole of faith and religion should be based on reason. So even the reality of God couldn't be taken for granted. It had to be investigated, and if found to be true, set out in arguments that any rational person could appreciate and accept. So arguments were put forward to show that God had to exist because the world wouldn't make sense rationally without God existing. This idea became known as theism. The idea that God's existence could not be shown by argument and therefore had to be rejected became known as atheism. We need to understand these rival ideas because they have shaped the way we think today. And we need to understand the underlying conflict which produced them, after the Reformation and the wars of religion: the conflict between faith in God as a being above and beyond the world and faith in ourselves as humans. This brought with it a change in the understanding of what God is. If the idea of God was to explain rationally how the world is or how we ourselves are, we have to understand clearly what God is, what is meant by this idea. God must be an 'intelligible being,' like a human being, perhaps, but on an infinite scale. It wouldn't do to say God was essentially a mystery, because that could not be demonstrated and it wouldn't explain anything. The idea that God could be known through experience, or 'sensed,' and only known this way was generally dismissed by the intellectuals as 'enthusiasm' or 'mysticism.' So the Quakers, along with other mystical or romantic groups, got sidelined in this new modern world as irrelevant.

In this struggle of our western society it is clear that human self-confidence has been steadily gaining ground, especially through its success in science and technology. We seem to have reached a turning point in our own life time. Only last year a survey found that for the first time more people in the UK described themselves as secular rather than religious – and 'religious' meant believing in God in a traditional way.

This week a BBC poll learned that its viewers had chosen, as 'the greatest person of the 20th century,' one Alan Turing, the scientist who cracked the Enigma Code and invented the computer. He came ahead of figures like Mandela, Luther King, Picasso, even Einstein. This tells us something of what people in Britain now value most.

Science in particular has gripped people's imagination, especially at a time when political and religious leaders are losing credibility. Science is thought of as our attempt to master the world with our own conscious resources. And it tends to set the agenda when it comes to questions of truth. Questions of value we non-scientists can decide, because the world disclosed by science appears to have no meaning or value or purpose in itself. It is up to us to provide meaning and establish what is worthwhile. In such a world there is no room for God or spirit or anything eternal. We are basically on our own.

Or is there something missing here? Is there another dimension to life? Is there perhaps some overall meaning or purpose which we cannot discern with our scientific glasses on?

That is the tussle in our modern society and within individuals themselves. And Friends have been caught up in it – as indeed we should be, since we're part of society. But this tussle is particularly real for those who have come to Friends from other faith traditions, including, if I may call it that, the humanist faith or the rationalist faith – the 'faith' of these non-religious people derives from the fact that they have to believe in humans or reason to make sense of their world and know how to live in it. Those who come to Quakers from this kind of background tend to see the Quaker way either as another and better way of being secular or humanist or as another and better way of being Christian, – or possibly Buddhist or Muslim. The Quaker way is very hospitable, and since it has no dogma or final, objective authority like the Bible it welcomes people from all directions, including those who once accepted an authority and have now renounced it, or only partially so, or are still fighting against it!

This hospitality is remarkable, and one of the most wonderful things about the Society of Friends today. What richness, what dynamism we have in this extraordinary mix of people, who nevertheless seem to get on well together, and unite on so many things.

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? There's the rub. Has our hospitality come at a price? Have we gained it too easily, too cheaply? This question was raised in our Yearly Meeting in 2018, minute 25, part 4: 'Our religious diversity is a richness, but it comes at a cost: a social cost as we risk our sense of community, a time cost and an emotional cost.' It could have added 'a spiritual cost,' as we struggle to say what our Quaker faith is. And what in any case do we do now?

The concluding part of Rex's talk is here.