Saturday, 19 January 2019

What is Renewal?

A number of Friends have been writing and talking about Quaker renewal for several years, sometimes with very different ideas of what it means. Is ‘renewal’ primarily about reversing the decline in membership, or becoming more socially diverse, or more experimental in our approaches to worship and community?

For me, the essential starting point for the renewal of our Quaker communities is to rediscover the promise of the Quaker way. This is the promise that the source of our purpose, healing and transformation is within, and it can be encountered and followed through collective Quaker practices of worship, discernment and testimony.

The point of this message is not to make abstract claims about what we should believe, or values we should try to live up to. It is practical advice about the direction in which we need to look for guidance and transformation in our lives and communities. The source of our life, of direction, purpose and healing is not somewhere outside, in external authorities, teachers or doctrines; it is within:

"Return home to within, sweep your houses all, the groat is there, the little leaven is there, the grain of mustard-seed you will see, which the Kingdom of God is like; … and here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him."
(Francis Howgill, 1656, Quaker faith & practice, 26.71)
Most of us have a tendency to search for answers, meaning and purpose from external authorities, groups and leaders. It is tempting to look to others to tell us how to live, what to think, and who we should be. In every sphere of life, we seem to want to find someone or something to give us the security of authoritative answers to the dilemmas and uncertainty of our own experience. In politics this results in the dangerous appeal of populist demagogues; in popular culture, the worship of celebrities; and in religion, a dogmatic reliance on the authority of scriptures, doctrines, leaders or institutions.

Instead, the Quaker way offers a path to encountering the source and guiding power of our life within our own experience; “to know the Spirit of Truth in the inward parts, and to be led thereby.” (George Fox, Journal, 1648)

It is possible to understand this source of inward guidance in many different ways. The first generations of Quakers deliberately used very diverse language to describe it, including both personal and impersonal metaphors such as the Seed, the Light, the Guide, the Inward Christ, the Principle of Life and the Inward Teacher.

This original Quaker message can be difficult for many modern Friends to hear because of its Christian imagery. References to God and Christ lead many to dismiss it as outdated or irrelevant to those who don’t consider themselves Christians. But what early Friends were doing involved a radical reinterpretation of Christian stories and symbolism, which can offer us a way to reclaim valuable elements of Christian and other religious traditions.

Many of those today who reject the idea of God are rightly objecting to the concept of a God ‘out there’, above and outside us in some heavenly realm. In fact, this is exactly the misleading idea of God that the original Quakers turned away from, recognising that the true God was not above the sky but within their own experience:

“They said [God] was above the skies, calling it Heaven, but I felt the hand of the Lord within me…”
(William Dewsbury, The discovery of the great enmity of the serpent, 1655)
Increasingly, Christian stories and images are also being supplemented by insights from other religious cultures. What is valuable and important about Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, Sufi and other stories and traditions is not labels of identity, but the ways that they testify to the presence and activity of the same illuminating and guiding Spirit within the lives of people in every culture throughout history.

The Quaker way offers us a key to recognising what is authentic within any religious tradition, including Christianity, and distinguishing it from the distortions of power, privilege, literalism and dogmatism that tend to corrupt every human enterprise. Whatever stories and images display the guiding power of the Inward Light, in any tradition, can help to reveal the life of the Spirit and encourage us to encounter it for ourselves.

Partly as a result of growing tensions over religious language and identity in recent years, we have tended to confuse the Quaker way with yet another system of beliefs and values. The Quaker way is often presented as the belief that there is that of God (or Good) in everyone, or as a set of ‘values’ such as simplicity, truth, equality, peace and sustainability. But this obscures the revolutionary insight of the original Quaker movement: the Quaker way is not a set of beliefs or values to adopt. It is a way of spiritual practice that enables us to become more sensitive and responsive to the presence and activity of the seed of Life within.

The renewal of our own lives and our Quaker communities depends on rediscovering a shared sense of the purpose of Quaker practices; to enable us to continually deepen and renew our experience of the inward life of the Spirit. A deeper and more transformative experience of Quaker worship will lead to more vibrant communities that are attractive to more diverse kinds of people. A renewed practice of discernment will make our leadings clearer and more compelling, enabling us to take risks with confidence in the empowerment and accompaniment of the Inward Guide. This will result in a renewed commitment to Quaker testimony, and a more powerful impact and visibility in the wider world.

This renewal depends on each of us. It is easy to blame our feelings of frustration or lack of spiritual vitality on our Meetings, or on other Friends with whom we disagree. But everything that we need for spiritual renewal is already here. It doesn’t depend on organisational reforms or waiting for others to change. As Ursula O'Shea pointed out over 25 years ago, "r
enewal of the Society waits for the choice of each Friend":
"Transformation of a group can begin nowhere else but within each person… The spiritual vitality of our meetings depends on each of us being faithful to the inward guide.”
(Living the Way: Quaker Spirituality and Community, 1993)
 We are all in need of renewal. We are continually shrouding ourselves in habits of dullness and self-defeating compulsions, resigning ourselves to situations that need to be challenged and neglecting the subtle voice of the Spirit within. Institutions and communities also need regular renewal, as they become caught up in the demands of their own administration and accommodations with the status quo. Spiritual renewal cannot be engineered by organisational changes, but if we practise seeking and following the guidance of the Spirit in our communities, we will be enabled to simplify our organisations to reflect our new priorities and purposes. Instead of sacrificing so much of our time and energy to the maintenance of Quaker structures, we would recognise that all of our organisations exist only to support our Quaker practice, and anything that distracts or interferes with the purpose of finding and following the Inward Guide can be replaced or abandoned.

Renewal is not repetition. The Quaker way of the 21st Century will not use the same words or adopt all the same attitudes as those of the 17th. To be renewed is to become ‘new again’; to encounter the original source of inspiration and vitality that is still continually available within our own experience. It is the discovery of "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 does renewal mean to you? Have you experienced the promise of the Quaker way?

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

The Shape of the World

The stories that are embedded in the institutions of our society are immensely powerful. Ideas that were once scandalous can become so much part of our everyday lives that they seem completely self-evident. One of these stories emerged at the end of the 19th Century, as such a subversive idea that one of its main exponents described himself as ‘the Antichrist’. It is the idea that:

“Nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present — and it was we who gave and bestowed it.”
(Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science 1882)

The story that the world is inherently meaningless; that we are free to invent our own values, and project them onto the blank screen of an indifferent universe, was once a deliberate attack on western civilisation. In less than a century, the claim that ethical values are purely subjective preferences has become so embedded in the modern world that anything which contradicts it appears implausible. As Don Cupitt describes it:

“Modern people increasingly demand autonomy, the power of legislating for oneself… they want to live their own lives, which means making one’s own rules, steering a course through life of one’s own choice, thinking for oneself, freely expressing oneself and choosing one’s own destiny.” 
(Taking Leave of God)
Perhaps this is the principal reason for the continuing decline of religious interpretations of life in western societies. Religions differ in many ways, but one of the characteristic features that leads us to consider a tradition as ‘religious’ is that it is rooted in a collection of stories that make definite claims about the meaning and purpose of human life. Religious traditions do not typically encourage people to ‘make their own rules’ and ‘choose their own destiny’, because their religious stories and practices aim to enable people to realise the possibilities of human life in a world that is already alive with meaning and that includes real spiritual consequences.

For the Quaker way too, as practised for its first three centuries, life has a definite purpose; to become completely responsive to the leadings of the Inward Guide. This means allowing ourselves to be led, loosening our grip on the reins of our life and consenting to the life that wants to be lived in us. The goal of the Quaker way is not autonomy and independence, but the ‘guided life’, an experience of life that is surrendered to the healing and transforming power of the Spirit within.

Of course, this does not mean submitting to external rules or arbitrary authority, but it is far from claiming the right to choose one’s own values. Quaker practices are ways of becoming responsive to a spiritual reality which is not in our power to choose or control. We can no more ‘make our own rules’ than we can choose our own laws of physics.

Some British Friends may be surprised by this description of the Quaker way, because they have been told that the distinctive character of Quakerism is that it offers the freedom to choose one’s own beliefs and identity. In fact this reinterpretation of the Quaker way as a neutral space for private individual searching is a very recent development. Quakers since the late 1960s have tended to re-cast their tradition in the mould of the wider culture. As we have gradually abandoned a shared alternative story about the meaning of human life, we have inevitably absorbed the background assumptions of our society, which exclude any possibility of a public and objective standard of truth. We have increasingly come to take for granted that all claims about moral and spiritual values are equally arbitrary and subjective. There can be no spiritual truth that makes claims on us apart from our own choices, only our own ‘personal truths’. Inevitably, this leads to a compulsive focus on individual beliefs and identity, as it is assumed that the only place where spiritual values can exist is in the privacy of our own minds.

By contrast, the sacred stories of religious traditions point to the reality of meaning ‘out there’ in the world. As the Quaker philosopher John Macmurray has described:

“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.”  
(Search for a Faith)
The sacred stories and practices of religious traditions are part of our common life, not private mental objects like ‘beliefs’. In fact, for most of those who follow a religious path, religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, but a way of living in the world.

For most religious traditions, including the Quaker way, sacred stories and practices are more central than any list of beliefs. The regular practice of the disciplines of Quaker Meetings for Worship and for Business help to form our dispositions; our habitual attitudes and tendencies to act. The sacred stories that inform our tradition, and the practices of collective Quaker worship, discernment and testimony, gradually tend to orient us in a particular stance towards the world; hopeful, trusting, confident, grateful and compassionate.

Sacred stories do not describe the world, so much as shape us in relation to it. The function of religious stories and practices is to transform human consciousness and intention; our habitual ways of seeing and acting. Religious stories typically use symbolic, mythological language and imagery to dramatise the existential realities of human life in the world. They are not principally claims about historical facts (although this is one among many ways of interpreting them), but stories that point towards a way of seeing and being in the world.

The dispositions that are formed by particular stories can fit us for the world or unfit us for it, because the meaning of our lives is not arbitrary or infinitely malleable. The world has a shape; it pushes back. There are inherent consequences to our transgressions of moral and spiritual reality. 

Dostoevsky’s novel ‘Crime and Punishment’ was written just as the modern myth of a meaningless world was making its appearance. The central character Raskolnikov, an impoverished student, murders and robs an old woman. He explains that he decided to kill by asking himself whether Napolean would have scrupled to commit the murder. Raskolnikov decides that:

“it would not have given him the least pang… he would not have seen that there was anything in it to pause over, and that, if he had had no other way, he would have strangled her in a minute without thinking about it! Well, I too … left off thinking about it … murdered her, following his example.”
Raskolnikov imagined himself in the place of a ‘great man’ to whom everything is permitted, who is free to make his own values and decide for himself the meaning of good and evil. But after the murder he finds himself crushed by the spiritual reality of his crime. He discovers the fantasy of believing he could choose his own values. Instead he finds that through the action he had tried to justify as his free choice, “I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all, for ever.…”

The spiritual reality of the world can be narrated by many different stories, but it is not arbitrary. The consequences of our failure to respect the real limits of human life are severe and inescapable. We don’t get to choose our own ethical values, we have to learn the shape of the world.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Quaker Stories

There is a lot of concern at the moment about differences of belief among Quakers. Some Friends are afraid that their beliefs may not be acceptable to others in their Meeting. Many are uncertain about what kind of language it is acceptable to use in ministry, or in collective statements such as minutes and outreach materials. Since Quakers now seem to have very few beliefs in common, what can we say collectively that truthfully reflects our views and that doesn’t make some feel excluded?

It is often claimed that even if we have different beliefs we all have the same underlying experiences in common. Listening to Friends who are willing to talk about their spiritual experience, though, it doesn’t take long to discover that this isn’t the case. Some Quakers have had profound experiences of oneness with the natural world, others encounter the sacred in other people, some experience the presence and guidance of a personal God, others have described visions and encounters with personal spiritual beings of other kinds, some find their deepest source of meaning in ethical principles or values, and so on.

Both beliefs and experience differ widely among Quakers, but this is not, in itself, either unusual or problematic. There is no religious community in which everyone has identical beliefs. Every person's own understanding of faith will depend on their differing experiences, temperament and education. In the Quaker movement, diversity of religious understanding, opinion and experience has been a particularly marked feature throughout most of our history.

What has changed in recent decades is that until the late 1960s the Quaker community as a whole shared a collection of sacred stories. They knew and used the stories of the Bible, including the life and sayings of Jesus, the creation story, the history of Israel, and the writings of the prophets and apostles, to explain the meaning and purpose of their community and its practices.

The first generation of Quakers called their movement ‘Primitive Christianity revived’; identifying themselves with the story of the early Church. George Fox drew on the Gospel stories in which Jesus promised to return at the end of history to claim that ‘Christ has come to teach his people himself’, in the form of the ‘Inward Christ’, within the lives and bodies of the ‘Children of the Light’. This made sense of Quaker worship as the way that the gathered community encounters the presence of Christ and expects to receive inspired ministry and guidance. The distinctively Quaker versions of the Christian stories explained their Meetings for Church Affairs as discerning God’s purposes for the community. Quaker testimony was shaped by the Sermon on the Mount, which prohibits oaths, violence, empty ritual and religious hierarchy. Early Friends understood their testimony as the way that God was revealing the Divine intentions for the world through the Quaker community.

Because Quakers had these stories in common, they shared a language for describing their experience. Quaker writings until about 50 years ago are filled with references to Biblical characters, parables, myths and symbols, which all carried shared meaning because of their resonance with familiar stories. Quakers used these stories and symbols in distinctive ways, which were often sharply at odds with official versions of Christianity. They were also given creative new interpretations, according to individual Friends’ differing perspectives and spiritual experiences. The use of these shared stories was not a sign that Quakers all had the same beliefs, but that they had a common vocabulary for expressing and interpreting their differences.

Since the late 1960s, as British society has become more plural and more secular, British Quakers have also become much more diverse in the stories we use to make sense of the world. We do not now share a common vocabulary of Biblical stories. Some Quakers are very familiar with the Bible, many others are more familiar with Buddhist, pagan, humanist or other traditions of thought. Many of us use stories and ideas from many different sources to try to make sense of what we do, and to understand and describe our experiences. Because we don’t share a common language that we can expect to be accessible to all, we rely on others trying to ‘translate’ whatever language we use into their own terms to understand what we are saying. But since we don’t know what concepts or stories others are using to ‘translate’ our words, it is difficult to know what, if anything, we have managed to communicate.

In the absence of shared stories about what we are doing in worship, in discernment and in our testimony, we don’t have a collective way to explain or justify how we practise them. Without any shared explanation for spoken ministry in Meeting for Worship, or why we agree minutes in a Business Meeting, these practices become increasingly difficult to learn and to pass on to others. Simply saying ‘that’s how Quakers do things’ is not enough to convince people who are new to Quakers or who have got used to doing things another way. As a result, many Quaker committees and even some Local Meetings have abandoned the Quaker business method, as it seems to be more convenient to have meetings that follow the conventions of modern workplaces. For a long time we have been able to rely on a collective tradition of ‘how we do things’, without being able to justify or explain them to newcomers or each other, but this tradition is being steadily eroded as we increasingly tend to conform to the norms of the wider culture, in the absence of any convincing reasons for maintaining distinctive Quaker practices.

This is not, at root, a problem of individual differences of belief; it is the loss of a shared communal resource. Just as a group can’t sing together unless they all know the same songs, we cannot practise the Quaker way together unless we are familiar with the same stories. Knowing the same stories does not mean having the same beliefs. Religious stories can be approached in many different ways - as historical accounts, mythological allegories, poetry, psychological truths, philosophical statements, moral teachings etc. Our way of interpreting sacred stories will usually change over time. As adults we are unlikely to understand a parable such as ‘the Good Samaritan’ in just the same way we did as a child. Stories are, by their nature, open-ended and flexible; open to endless possibilities of personal reflection, re-working and creative imagination. Sacred stories work by engaging the imagination and emotions as well as our rationality. At the same time, they provide the shared resources of symbols, characters and narratives that enable a community to have a collective conversation, instead of each person being isolated within their own personal language.

When Britain Yearly Meeting made the decision recently to rewrite our Book of Discipline (currently Quaker Faith & Practice), we set ourselves the challenging task of explaining why we carry out our practices for church government as we do. Having an explanation for the Quaker business method or Quaker forms of organisation relies on having shared stories to tell about the meaning and purpose of these practices. At the moment we don’t have these shared stories, but perhaps it is possible for us to find them.

I do not think it is possible for us to go back to relying on Christian stories alone for our shared language. We live in a culturally and spiritually diverse society, and our community includes people from many different backgrounds, with all sort of religious influences. Like many others, I first started to explore spirituality through practising Buddhism. There are many different stories and traditions that are important sources of insight for Friends, including some that are not explicitly religious, such as the psychological approaches of Jung and Carl Rogers for instance.

For these different influences to become part of a shared Quaker story, rather than just private preferences, we would need to do something that we have tended to avoid. We would have to share them. This means talking to each other about the stories that give us insight into the meaning of our experience, and that help us to interpret our Quaker practice. If we have learned something important from Buddhism, or from Jung or Starhawk or Rumi, that helps us to understand what happens in Quaker worship or business meeting, or that informs how we live as Quakers, we could share with each other the stories that have helped us, so that other Friends can also find out what we have learned from them.

There’s a reason we don’t usually do this. It makes us vulnerable to open ourselves up to others. We might feel anxious that our experiences will be dismissed, that our stories will be judged and rejected. We risk exposing ourselves to challenge; perhaps having to think about the stories we are using and how we interpret them. How do they fit with other people’s stories? Are they complementary or incompatible? If I find another Friend’s stories strange or disturbing, where does my reaction come from? We have too often tended to rely on censoring ourselves and each other, to avoid using controversial words because some Friends have strong reactions to them. Instead, we might adopt a more questioning approach. If there is a word or symbol or religious tradition that I find distasteful I can choose to ask myself, ‘what is going on here? What is this reaction telling me about my own history with this word? Is there something in this tradition that I am missing because of my partial experience?'

This approach is certainly not easy. It is much easier for us to carry on as we are, avoiding the risk of giving offence by self-censorship and never really getting to know each other in ‘that which is eternal’. The risk with continuing in this way is that we will steadily lose any shared tradition of religious practice. Without shared stories that describe the significance of core Quaker practices such as worship, discernment and testimony, the Quaker way cannot survive. The dominant culture has a powerful story about the way the world is. It is a meaningless, indifferent universe, in which we can arbitrarily choose our own values but never find any inherent purpose or value. There is no truth to be discovered, only ‘personal truths’ to be asserted and projected onto the blank screen of the world. No purpose to our life beyond our own preferences, no guidance to be found, and nothing to heal or transform the world through us.

In the absence of any alternative shared stories of our own, British Quakers are inevitably being shaped in the image of this story; the modern myth of a meaningless universe. The result is our steady drift towards becoming a neutral space for private journeys of self-discovery; a well-meaning, left-leaning ethical society, instead of a religious community with a spirituality and a practice that is powerful enough to change the world.

What are the stories that have shaped your understanding of your life as a Quaker? Do some apparently conflicting stories offer complementary perspectives on Quaker practice, and can we distinguish them from stories that are incompatible with Quaker experience and testimony?

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Sacred Stories

When we think about religious traditions, including the Quaker way, it is usual to focus on people’s beliefs. People who belong to a particular religious community are usually thought to believe the same things. In my children’s Religious Education lessons for example, they have been taught things like “Hindus believe in reincarnation”, “Jews believe they are God’s chosen people”, “Christians believe that God created the world in six days” etc.

The broad differences in belief among modern Quakers do not seem to conform to this pattern. For some, this is a welcome distinction between the Quaker way, which values individual freedom and diversity, and traditional religious traditions, which require conformity of belief. For others, the loss of shared Quaker beliefs is a source of disquiet, held responsible for growing incoherence and loss of spiritual depth.

But this understanding of religion as a set of shared beliefs is based on a mistake. There is no religious community in which everyone has identical beliefs. Every religious believer has their own ideas, opinions, values and interpretations, which will be different in some respects from everyone else’s. Even in fundamentalist sects that require strict conformity there are always some members who harbour secret reservations and alternative personal interpretations. For each individual, the meaning of any statement of belief, such as the existence of God or the possibility of enlightenment, will inevitably be different, according to their differing life experiences, temperament, education or cultural background. So what members of religious communities have in common is not whatever is going on inside their heads.

What religious communities do share is their collections of sacred stories. It is these stories that give a collective meaning to statements of religious belief. If someone tells us that they believe in God, we cannot know what they mean unless we know the stories that they are using to describe who and what God is. Are they referring to the God of the Bible, who spoke to Abraham and Moses, or the philosophers’ abstract God of pure Being, or of some other tradition altogether?

Religions don’t typically start from a set of beliefs. They grow from stories; about the creation of the world, the actions of ancestors and legendary heroes, the lives and sayings of prophets and teachers. Over time, these stories are passed on, elaborated, re-enacted in ritual, sometimes written down, institutionalised and fought over. As part of this process, statements of belief are sometimes codified as official doctrines or creeds, as Christianity in particular has tended to do. But this process of defining official statements of belief is far from universal, and is absent from many major traditions such as Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto etc.

Religious beliefs, which are usually considered the primary features of all religions, might be better understood as entirely secondary - derived from the original stories told in folklore, plays, pictures, poems and scriptures. Most of the belief statements in the Apostle’s Creed for instance, are simply a summary of the key ‘plot points’ of the Christian stories:

"I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead."

Sacred stories such as the life and sayings of Jesus, Muhammad or Buddha, can be understood and interpreted in many different ways by each individual, but they provide a community with a common vocabulary and a shared repertoire of images, symbols and characters. Every religious tradition has its own shared collection of sacred stories, which enables members with very different understandings and experiences to practise their faith together, communicate their experiences, and engage in dialogue, by referring to familiar ideas and images.

In a Catholic Mass, worshippers with very different theological ideas can take part together, say the same words and share the bread and wine as one community, because the Eucharist receives its meaning, not from their diverse opinions, but from the symbolism of the Biblical stories of the Last Supper, the Passover, and the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Stories such as this give meaning to the community’s practices of worship and service, they justify and explain how and why the community functions as it does. They teach and remind community members of the disciplines and values that are important to the community, and they also provide resources for challenging established ways of doing things.

As well as the ‘official’ versions of stories recorded in sacred scriptures, most religious traditions also develop diverse collections of apocryphal stories. Local communities continually adapt, embellish and re-interpret their sacred stories, creating multiple alternative versions and diverse local traditions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have vast popular literatures and oral traditions about popular saints, mystics and miracle-workers. Poets and prophets frequently re-work and invent new stories, adapting familiar characters and situations to express their own insights, such as this story by the Sufi poet Rumi:

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
"So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?"
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
"Why did you stop praising?"
"Because I've never heard anything back."
"This longing
you express is the return message.
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.”

Sacred stories in every culture are distinguished from ‘ordinary’ narratives by their claim to reveal the meaning of the world. What is most important about a sacred story is not how literally it records actual events, but how truthfully it discloses the meaning of reality. It may be regarded as a record of historical events, a parable or a poetic fiction, but its factual status is secondary to the meaning it reveals. A sacred story such as the creation of the world might be interpreted as a literal description, a poetic rendering of psychological processes, a metaphysical analysis of the human condition, an instructive children’s story, or in many other ways, which may all reveal something about the meaning of human life in the world. The truth of a sacred story is not ‘did it literally happen like that?’ but ‘does it tell us something true about the world?’

Believing in a sacred story is very different to belief in the truths of logic or evidence. Religious belief does not depend on logical argument or the collection of evidence. It means understanding our own experience in terms of particular sacred stories, ordering our lives according to them, allowing them to orient our priorities and values, following practices that embody them, sharing them with others and trusting in their consequences in our own lives.

A sacred story is not necessarily explicitly religious. It might be the story of a personal experience, a historical event, a parable or myth. What makes it ‘sacred’ is that it is taken to disclose, to make visible, some aspect of the meaning of the world that exists independently of our own wishes, opinions and choices. This points to a fundamental distinction in possible attitudes towards the world - do we receive meaning from the world, or impose our own meaning on it?

Modern western thought claims that there is no pre-existing meaning to the world. Both scientific thinking and the main schools of western philosophy are united in insisting that facts are utterly separate from values, that the world is value-neutral, without inherent meaningfulness. Ideas of meaning, purpose or value are purely human creations that we project onto the objective universe according to our subjective motives or superstitions. According to this world-view, it is up to us to create our own values through our choices. This might involve a rational project of following ethical arguments to their conclusions, or an existential choice among arbitrary life-goals. In either case, the only meaning we will ever find in the world is what we bring to it. Human stories about the world can invent meanings and values, but they can never reveal them, because there are no meanings inherent in the world to be revealed. Stories can be entertaining or superstitious, useful or harmful, but they cannot be sacred.

This world-view is in striking contrast to that of all religious traditions, and so far as we can tell, all human cultures in the history of the world apart from a handful of modern societies. For most human beings who have ever lived, the world is not a blank screen for the reception of our arbitrary wishes and fantasies. The universe is inherently meaningful. There is a purpose to human life, and perhaps even a unique purpose for each human being. We are not free to invent our own values, because there is a moral universe to which we have to learn to conform, or face the consequences. This does not necessarily imply a supernatural mechanism of rewards and punishments, as illustrated by this Buddhist sacred story about a Zen master:

A big, tough samurai once went to see a little monk. “Monk,” he said, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience, “teach me about heaven and hell!”
The monk looked up at this mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain, “Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn’t teach you anything. You’re dirty. You smell. Your blade is rusty. You’re a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight, I can’t stand you.”
The samurai was furious. He shook, got all red in the face, was speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword and raised it above him, preparing to slay the monk.
“That’s hell,” said the monk softly.
The samurai was overwhelmed. The compassion and surrender of this little man who had offered his life to give this teaching to show him hell! He slowly put down his sword, filled with gratitude, and suddenly peaceful.
“And that’s heaven,” said the monk softly.

If there is anything to this understanding of the central importance of sacred stories for religious traditions, what does this mean for Quakers? This question will be the subject of next month’s post.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Silence and Presence

This is an edited transcript of a recent interview I did for BBC Radio Sheffield on the Rony Robinson show, for a day of programming on the theme of "silence":

RR: Silence is something that Quakers practice - their worship involves silence. Have you already been silent today?

Yes, I try to make a practice every day of having a time of silent prayer or meditation at home. I just find it’s really important for me to keep my balance through the day.

When you’re in silence as a Quaker what are you listening for? or are you thinking about God or what’s going on?

I think the main thing is to be getting away from thinking. So much of the day we’re up in our heads. It’s a very refreshing, restful experience to be just breathing, sitting, feeling the air on your skin instead.

When you go to Quaker meeting is it just silence all the time? 

No, we sit and we are still, but the silence in Quaker worship, it’s not silence for its own sake. The idea of it is that we’re all seeking God, meaning, purpose, and where are we going to find that? We’re only going to find it if we listen for it, because it’s within. We’re not going to find that outside, by looking for teachers or writings or something that’s out there. We have to find it in our own experience. So the idea of silent worship is that we sit, we become still, we listen for what’s there, and that can mean very extended times of silence as we’re sitting and becoming aware, becoming present. But in Quaker worship it could also be that anyone who feels moved to, who feels that they’ve encountered something in the silence which is to be shared with other people, they can stand and speak. And then you’re listening to what’s come from that other person’s experience of the silence as well. And it’s completely open, anyone can speak on the same basis, we don’t have it restricted just to certain groups of people.

Are you allowed to know you’re going to speak before you speak?

We’re supposed to come prepared to be silent, or prepared to speak if we’re led to speak. The idea of Quaker worship is aiming to make a connection with the Spirit that’s within us, in our own experience. So if that Spirit leads us to speak then we have to be faithful to it and if it leads us to be silent then we’re silent.

So what actually happens? Isn't that hour intolerably long?

Well, we sit in a circle and it emphasises the equality of the meeting. The thing about meeting together is there’s something very supportive about it. If I was going to sit for an hour on my own at home, even though I’ve had a practice of silent prayer for many years, I would find that too much. But with a group, somehow it’s extremely different. There’s a sense in which the fact that others are there and they’re all seeking the same thing supports you. When your mind wanders, as of course your mind wanders all the time, it just comes back, and then you become still again, and then it wanders again, and then it comes back, but you don’t have that kind of anxious, frustrated feeling that you imagine you might do. And sometimes, you can have a whole hour go by in complete silence, it’s quite rare in a large meeting, and sometimes that’s absolutely wonderful.
It can be quite an extraordinary experience to sit with people, and sometimes there’s a sense that the silence just sort of deepens, and it becomes almost like a palpable presence, a very, very powerful experience.

The silence itself becomes a presence?

Yes, it has a very different quality.

Quakers don’t even have to believe in God these days do they?

For Quakers, religion is not about belief. I think this is the thing that’s often most confusing to people. They say ‘Well, what do Quakers believe?’ and I always say ‘Quakers believe that religion is not about belief.’ Religion is about what we experience and what we do. And we’re not going to find God or find meaning or purpose for our lives through beliefs or ideas, we’re going to find it through what we discover in our own experience.

Is God there, going to speak to you in that silence? Do you hear him in your silence?

Well, I don’t hear a kind of physical voice, but I definitely have experience of a presence, and that’s the presence I call God. And I understand that’s what people in different religions and in different times have also encountered and they’ve called that God, and that’s where that idea comes from. It comes from the experience and it’s only meaningful if it can speak to our experience.

What’s the quietest place you’ve ever been?

The deepest silence I’ve ever known is in a Quaker meeting which becomes, we call it gathered, ‘a gathered meeting’, that becomes really still and centred in that way. And where everyone is experiencing it together, and it’s something very, very special.

(With thanks to Rosie Carnall for transcription and editing.)

Friday, 18 May 2018

Grief and Beauty

“Beauty will save the world”
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot)

In the practice of Meeting for Worship, we are challenged to ‘stand still in the Light’. In place of our habitual strategies of preoccupied busyness, we are confronted with what is. For many of us, that eventually means having to sit with our grief.

If we ‘stand still’ and allow this grief to reveal itself, we will feel the pain of our own losses and regrets, but also, perhaps, a deep grieving for the destruction of the beauty and diversity of life in the world. This grief, which is the natural response to our awareness of violence and ecological destruction, is usually unacknowledged and unspoken. When grief is denied it is driven underground, to become part of our society’s spiritual malaise; a widespread, uneasy sense of meaninglessness, sickness and despair.

Only those who are willing to acknowledge the reality of loss have the opportunity to grieve. It is common for people who awaken to the destructive frenzy of industrial civilisation to get stuck in one of the familiar moments of the grieving process; anger, depression or frantic bargaining - ‘if I just go to one more demonstration or meeting, somehow I can still avoid climate change, species extinction or war’. By contrast, the phase of grief that is often called 'acceptance' is not indifference or complacency, but finally allowing ourselves to feel the pain of loss. As anyone who has lost a close relative, friend or partner knows, loss is irreparable. The process of grieving means coming to accept our feelings of pain and loss, so that we can go on living with them.

Destruction is quick and easy compared to the laborious and fragile processes of growth and creation. In just a few decades industrial economies have devastated flourishing ecosystems that evolved through thousands of years. And yet, despite our civilisation’s unprecedented destructiveness, it cannot eliminate new life. When all that is left as evidence of our current society is a thin geological layer of compacted plastic and radioactive waste, the inexorable power of natural selection will have abundantly repopulated every possible ecological niche with an exuberant diversity of flourishing new species.

Compared to the brutal rapidity of bombing, fracking and pollution, the rebirth of beauty seems impossibly precarious and gradual. Every act of cruelty, violence and destruction is an irreparable loss, but nature is patient; the pressure of life is continuous and insistent. However much ugliness, waste and poison our self-destructive industrial growth produces, it can never outlive the enduring natural powers of regeneration and evolution. Industrial growth is inherently self-limiting, because it relies on accelerating exploitation of limited resources. But the power of creation is drawn from the endlessly renewed cycles of photosynthesis, birth and growth, the continual and irresistible cycling of carbon, water and energy. In our culture’s futile matricidal struggle to conquer nature, there can only ever be one winner.

This knowledge does nothing to diminish the pain of loss of the beauty and richness of the world as it is now, but it should remind us to stay open to the world's inherent capacities for rebirth. When we are tempted to despair, we can remain open to the continual possibility, the inevitability of new life. Hope acknowledges the reality and pain of loss, and is ready to welcome and celebrate new life wherever it appears. The creative powers of art, community, inquiry and spirituality are continual sources of potential for bringing new forms of beauty, caring, understanding and flourishing into the world. Let us sit with our grief and our hope. On the other side of every act of destruction is beauty.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Experiment with Light

This is a short video of an interview with Rex Ambler that was recorded for the Experiment with Light network. Rex talks about how he developed the practice of Experiment with Light, what he has learned from it in his own life, and how it has influenced the Meetings that have used it, and the Quaker movement more widely.

Experiment with Light from Charlie Blackfield on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Evolutionary Quakers

The Quaker way has changed profoundly over the last five decades. The liberal Quakerism that was developed by figures such as John Wilhelm Rowntree and Rufus Jones at the turn of the 20th Century was an explicitly Christian church, sharing much in common with other liberal Protestant denominations. By the beginning of the 21st Century, it had become something quite different - pluralist and hyper-diverse in belief, with explicit Christian language relegated to heavily-edited and frequently bowdlerised quotations from a small number of historic Quaker texts.

The large-scale movement of liberal Quakers away from an exclusively Christian worldview to embrace a wide diversity of spiritual and secular approaches is an accomplished fact, which has unfolded steadily over the last half century. It is easy to overlook the extent of this change by pointing to continuities in practice and organisation. But the meaning and lived experience of Quaker practices is hugely different according to the stories and images through which they are understood and interpreted. Quaker worship that is conceived as a space to recharge our spiritual batteries, to reflect on our values and to look for something good in everyone (as just one possible interpretation) is a very different practice to the outwardly identical behaviour that is understood as an act of surrender and devotion to a personal God, who is known through the judgements and leadings of the inward voice of Christ.

The steady migration of liberal Quakers away from the Christian story is usually interpreted in one of two ways. It is most often portrayed as a kind of progress - the outgrowing of a restrictive or limiting inheritance, and a development into a larger, freer and more inclusive outlook. Alternatively, some Quakers have criticised the growing secularisation and pluralism of liberal Quakers as leading to a more superficial, individualised ‘supermarket of ideas’ rather than a shared and transformative religious faith.

Is it possible to understand the transformation of the Quaker tradition other than through the concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘decline’?

All change involves loss. In this case, the loss of a shared culture; a common set of stories, images and a language for sharing our spiritual experiences. This has large consequences, because the stories and images that we use to interpret the world have a profound influence on the way that we experience and act in it. As our individual stories and images diverge, inevitably our experiences tend to have less in common as well, which contributes to a lack of mutual comprehension and erosion of the community’s ability to nourish and challenge its members through shared understandings of core Quaker practices.

At the same time, the expansion of the stories and symbolism in use by the Quaker community has been a significant benefit to many people, perhaps especially those for whom the Christian story, language and symbolism is impossible to accept, but who have found life-giving images and ideas in other traditions. Over recent decades our culture has experienced the explosion of monolithic narratives and the erosion of institutional claims to exclusive truth or virtue, helped along by continuing exposure of abuses of power by Church institutions of all kinds. As a result, the language and imagery of the Christian story has become toxic for large numbers of people. Many of those for whom Christian language has no resonance or positive associations at all have found the Quaker way to offer a path of spiritual nourishment, challenge and transformation, which would have been closed to them if it were still an exclusively Christian movement. In this context, it is futile to argue that the language of the Bible has an exclusive claim to validity and should be the sole authoritative resource for all Quakers.

Perhaps an alternative understanding of this transformation of the Quaker way, which avoids interpreting it as simply ‘progress’ or ‘decline’ might see it as an example of cultural evolution. In exactly the same way that other cultural forms, such as language or music, change and diversify over time, religious traditions are constantly being transformed, generating new meanings and frequently branching into different sects or denominations.

It is unfortunately common to misunderstand the concept of evolution as a kind of progress. In biology, evolution does not progress towards any goal, and does not aim at any overall improvement or superiority of one species over another. Natural selection simply works towards the best possible adaptation of organisms to their current environment (which includes the other organisms that inhabit it). It does not inevitably tend towards producing anything higher or better; instead, there is a constant and aimless drifting of genetic information, as species are gradually transformed in response to the random pressures of their environment.

By a very similar process, cultural forms are also subject to evolutionary pressures and are transformed in similar ways. All contemporary languages have evolved from a much smaller number of historical ancestors. They are all being transformed through random processes, such as drifts in the meanings and pronunciation of words, as well as the creation of new languages among isolated groups of language users (by the same process that creates new species of organisms).

Just as it would be ridiculous to claim that English is ‘superior’ to German, or that Afrikaans is ‘more advanced’ than Dutch, just because they have evolved from common ancestor-languages, it is equally false to see any kind of evolutionary change as evidence of progress. The misleading expression ‘more evolved’, which is often used to suggest superiority, is actually quite meaningless.

With this caveat, it might be possible to see the changes in the Quaker way as a normal example of cultural evolution, by which a religious tradition is continuously adapting to the evolutionary pressures of its social environment, including the needs and motivations of the people who make up the Quaker community at a given time. Contemporary liberal Quakerism has changed and diversified in modern times, in response to the growing secularism and pluralism of its cultural environment. At the same time, it has diverged from other branches of the Quaker family, with which it shares a fairly recent common ancestry, as well other branches of the Christian church, from which it started to diverge in the mid-17th Century.

This evolutionary change towards a pluralist and post-Christian movement is not straightforwardly better or worse. It has certainly been a useful adaptation for enabling many people to find a home in a spiritually welcoming community, while at the same time producing a loss of shared religious experience and language. But the only real test for any cultural form or species subject to natural selection is how well it fits its environment, which determines its ability to survive and reproduce itself.

In the biological world, the preferences and satisfaction of individual organisms are irrelevant to the survival of the species. In cultural evolution, the needs of human beings are part of the environment that shapes the survival and transmission of cultural forms such as religious traditions. In this sense, the environment of the Quaker way includes all of the current social, cultural and economic factors that affect it, and the preferences and assumptions that the culture tends to produce in current and potential Friends. But the ‘environment’ also includes the enduring and deep-seated needs of the human beings that the tradition needs to retain and attract in order to reproduce itself.

If, as seems undeniable, the current form of the Quaker way is on a gradual but steady path towards extinction through failure to renew its numbers, perhaps this is evidence of a lack of ‘fit’ with the underlying reality of human beings’ need and desire for profound experiences of spiritual reality. In this case, perhaps the path towards renewal is not by returning to the cultural forms that were well-adapted to the society and culture of a previous Christian culture. Neither is it necessarily to be even more conformed to contemporary culture, if that means failing to meet the deep and compelling spiritual needs that are ignored or denied by a purely secular society. Instead, the renewal of the Quaker way may depend on a new ‘mutation’ in its language, imagery and concepts, that enables it to answer the deepest human needs in a way that fits their experience and the reality of our society, now and in the future.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Wrestling with the Angel

“Isn’t it the greatest possible disaster, when you are wrestling with God, not to be beaten?”
(Simone Weil)

In the mysterious Biblical story, Jacob is alone one night during a journey, when ‘a man’ appears and wrestles with him until dawn. When Jacob refuses to let him go, the stranger dislocates Jacob’s hip, but also gives him a blessing and a new name; ‘Israel’, which means ‘struggles with God’ (Genesis 32:22-32).

This story is an image of the struggle with God that is central to the Quaker way, although it is often absent from modern descriptions of Quaker experience. Early Quakers recorded that their initial encounter with the Inward Guide was often conflictual - the Light revealed aspects of themselves that they would rather not see, and urged them in directions they would rather avoid. As the leadings of the Inward Guide were resisted, the struggle would intensify, sometimes leading to severe physical illness or emotional crisis. Perhaps this kind of experience is so often glossed over today because modern Friends are understandably suspicious of anything that suggests coercion or threat in religion. The Biblical stories that portray God as threatening and punishing are usually rejected as outdated and unhelpful. But there is nevertheless an important reality of ‘struggling with God’ that takes place in our own experience, for many of us who have encountered the reality of the Inward Guide, but who have resisted what it has tried to show us and how it has tried to lead us.

This resistance can take many forms. We usually want to defend a favourable view of ourselves, and to ignore any inklings of our self-interested motives, resentments or narcissism. We are often reluctant to embrace nudges of the Spirit that suggest we might be led to disturb our habitual comforts in some way, by reaching out to unfamiliar people, or making some change in our daily life that involves risk or inconvenience. This kind of spiritual sluggishness or inertia is common to almost all of us, and perhaps acts as a necessary ballast to avoid being swept away by temporary enthusiasms. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to stay stuck in the defensive posture that insists on digging in, refusing to hear what the Spirit has to say to us, or to follow where it leads. All too often, the result is a life that goes nowhere, that continually circles around its collection of small concerns, and never breaks out of the track of narrow, habitual self-interest. It is perfectly possible to pass a whole lifetime in this way, in which the call of the Inward Guide is smothered so insistently that life withers away, and one becomes haunted by vague regrets and anxieties, crowded around by the insistent threat of meaninglessness.

For some of us, the rejection of the Light is more deliberate. The dark impulses of addiction and compulsion, even when we recognise them and know them to be destructive, can draw us towards choices that are deliberately damaging - self harming through over-eating, alcohol, drugs or dangerous behaviour. The deliberate impulse to self-destruction will be familiar to everyone who has struggled with addiction or despair. It is the urge to escape the agonising tensions, regrets, humiliations of life, by extinguishing feeling and responsibility. We can choose to fight against the Light, tearing at ourselves and wounding those around us in our furious rejection of inward life.

The experiences of early Quakers, like the story of Jacob, suggest that the struggle with God does not have to end like this. For some of us, the greatest blessing we ever receive might be a painful dislocation, when our life is interrupted by a suffering, failure or humiliation that knocks us out of our habitual self-justification and distractions. We might find that none of our goals are any longer worthwhile, that our cherished opinions or attitudes were meaningless posturing, and that we no longer know what to do or who to be. We have been brought to the point of surrender to the inward springs of life that were struggling to be born within us. Now we can receive a new name, a new identity and purpose for our life, because we have ‘struggled with God’ and thankfully, blessedly, we have been defeated.

How have you 'struggled with God'? and have you received a gift or blessing?

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Way of a Ship in the Sea

The Quaker movement grew out of the chaos and confusion of the English civil war. During the 1640s, a rigidly ordered and tightly controlled society broke down under the pressure of war. The strict system of censorship and religious conformity collapsed and society splintered into a multitude of competing sects and opinions on political and religious questions.

Some of these dissidents from the established Church broke away to form groups of ‘Seekers’ who met in each others’ homes in expectant, silent gatherings, waiting for a new revelation of God’s purposes for them and their society. These were people living in a ‘world turned upside down’ by war, social and religious confusion, and political revolution. All stable and unquestioned beliefs and assumptions, from the authority of the King and Church to the roles of women and common people, had been thrown up in the air, and were landing in every possible direction.

Early Quaker leaders such as George Fox had been deeply shaken by this experience of moral and spiritual chaos. What they discovered, and what transformed the scattered groups of Seekers into the first Quaker communities, was that there was no set of beliefs, adopted on the basis of external authority, that could provide authentic meaning, purpose and direction. They discovered for themselves a source of inward guidance that they identified as the same inner Spirit of Truth that had been in Christ and the Biblical prophets. These original Quakers found that their Teacher was within, and could be encountered directly through the practice of gathered, attentive stillness that became the basis of Quaker worship.

While the western religious tradition for over a thousand years had focused on correct belief as the path to right relationship with God, these early Quaker communities discovered that beliefs were not the answer - not even a belief in the ‘Inward Teacher’. Instead, it was only the direct experience of this Inward Guide that could help them, and the way to this experience of divine encounter was not by new beliefs or opinions but a new practice, a way of worship they called ‘waiting in the Light’.

In our own times, many people are responding to the disorientating experience of radical insecurity and the absence of shared cultural stories by looking to external sources of authority. The renewed appeal of authoritarian political leaders, fundamentalist religion and dogmatic ideology grows out of legitimate unmet needs for belonging, meaning and purpose.

The Quaker way offers an alternative path of collective practices for encountering an inward source of guidance and meaning. This way of Quaker practice does not provide ‘answers’ to life’s problems and dilemmas in the form of statements of belief or reliance on authority. Sustained participation in Quaker practices of worship, discernment and testimony gradually shapes our experience so that we become able to perceive aspects of ourselves and the world that were formerly hidden from us. Instead of spurious formulas for evading the human condition of insecurity and uncertainty, the Quaker way offers a gradual process of letting go of masks, a growing recognition of of the reality of oneself and others.

Some Friends, through the maturity of long experience, have been able to let go of any need to defend an illusory identity, to pretend, to please or impress anyone. Through their years of practice, they have become familiar with their own darkness and with the seeds of life and human sympathy within themselves, and deeply perceptive of the presence and activity of those seeds in others.

This is not a learned conformity to a pattern of predictable ‘Quakerliness’. It is the cultivation of habits, choices and capacities that enables each of us to grow into an inner maturity, and to realise our own path in life, as a unique personality that does not need to model itself according to any outward convention.

From the earliest days of the Quaker movement, Friends aimed to avoid setting up outward standards of conformity. They wanted to encourage the freedom of future generations to discover the reality of the Inward Guide for themselves, through their own experience of Quaker practice. They wrote of their intention “that no footsteps may be left for those that shall come after, or to walk by example, but that all may be directed and left to the truth, in it to live and walk, and by it to be guided… that our path may be as the way of a ship in the sea, which no deceit can follow or imitate.” (Friends met together at Durham, 1659)

Have you experienced the presence of the 'Inward Guide' in your life? What practices help you to become more perceptive and response to the inward 'promptings of love and truth'?

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Faith in Politics?

This year's Swarthmore Lecturer was Catherine West - a Labour MP and a former leader of Islington Council. With Islington councillor Andy Hull, she has written ‘Faith in Politics?’ as “a call to action, to encourage us as Quakers to own the challenge of inequality, offering civic leadership in all our communities.”

The book is largely a description of the policies she introduced to reduce social and economic inequality in Islington. It also includes examples of some community-led initiatives to address economic inequality, such as the Quaker project ‘Abolish Empty Office Buildings’ in Bristol and the Quaker Living Wage Campaign. Catherine also gives some recommendations for national government policies to reduce inequality in the areas of work, housing, debt, child services and public safety. Many of these recommendations involve returning more powers to local authorities, such as enabling Councils to borrow money for housebuilding.

One of the key initiatives adopted by Islington Council under Catherine’s leadership was the appointment of the UK’s first Fairness Commission, which consulted widely with the local community to shape Islington’s strategy for reducing inequality. This approach has since inspired many other fairness commissions across the UK. The commission’s first recommendation was to tackle income inequality by encouraging local employers to pay the ‘real’ Living Wage. This is a minimum rate of pay calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, based on the actual cost of living (currently £8.75 per hour or £10.20 in London), which is significantly higher than the statutory so-called ‘National Living Wage’. Islington Council was able to use its considerable financial and political influence to make striking advances towards this goal, including requiring Council contractors and grant recipients to pay all of their staff the Living Wage.

Catherine describes her controversial decision to fund a pay increase for Council cleaners by cutting the salary of the Council chief executive role by £50,000 (to a mere £160,000), as an example of the need to “level down” top rates of pay as well as “levelling up” the lowest. She also cites several Quaker organisations as particularly good examples of more equal pay differentials (the ratio of lowest to highest paid employees within an organisation). Friends House has a pay differential of 1:4 and Woodbrooke’s is 1:3, compared to the Co-operative Group at 1:47.

Catherine’s commitment and dedication to improving the lives of people in disadvantaged communities is very evident throughout this book. For anyone who is tempted to dismiss all politicians as self-interested or indifferent to ordinary people, this is a welcome reminder that all MPs are very far from the same.

While the book is rich in the concrete detail of practical initiatives for reducing inequality, it has much less to offer readers who are looking for reflection on alternative economic models or the spiritual roots of Quaker testimony. Given that many Friends are exploring more radical economic ideas such as a Citizen’s Income, land taxation or a steady-state economy, some may be disappointed by Catherine’s relatively mainstream economic thinking.

In fairness, it is not Catherine’s intention to offer a radical critique of capitalism or economic growth. She is an unashamedly pragmatic politician, who aims at achievable goals through gradual improvements and the art of compromise. She offers a tongue-in-cheek illustration of her approach in the form of a chant, “What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course!”

For me, a more significant absence is the relative lack of reflection on the nature of our testimony to equality, especially given the book’s subtitle ("A testimony to equality"). Catherine describes her motivation to advance the cause of equality as “both a political imperative and a spiritual vocation” and cites the “Quaker belief” in “that of God in everyone” as meaning that “every life is equal and holy”. Beyond this, there is very little discussion of the spiritual significance of economic inequality for Quakers, and how we might be led as a community to respond to it.

It may seem self-evident that Quakers will consider economic inequality a bad thing, and be motivated to oppose it based on our testimony to equality. Throughout most of our history, however, it has been far from obvious to most Quakers that economic inequality is a problem in itself. Most of the Quaker practices that are usually lumped together under the “testimony of equality”, such as the rejection of flattering forms of speech, refusal to doff hats to social “superiors”, opposition to slavery, prison reform and support for refugees, have had little to do with economic inequality. They were primarily challenges to laws and conventions that gave some social groups greater status and significance than others.

Recognition of the harmful consequences of economic inequality is a relatively recent development among Quakers, who have in the past concentrated far more on the philanthropic relief of poverty than challenging excessive concentrations of wealth. The “testimony of equality” does not provide a reason for this new sensitivity, because all of the testimonies are just handy labels for a collection of diverse Quakers practices, rather than fundamental grounds for action. Instead, the basis of all Quaker testimony is the practice of discernment within Quaker communities. It is practices such as Quaker worship, Meetings for Worship for Business, Meetings for Clearness or Experiment with Light that enable us to discern the inward “promptings of love and truth” that provide the springs of motivation for action in the world. These leadings to action are specific to our particular gifts and contexts rather than generalised principles. It is through individual Friends and Meetings becoming sensitised to the leadings of the Inward Guide in our own particular circumstances that Quaker testimony develops into new areas of concern and action.

There seems to be a growing awareness among Friends today of a leading to work for greater equality of economic conditions in our society. These attempts at social change will only be effective if we become able to tell a different story about the purpose and possibility of human community. Even among progressive politicians, discussions of society and the economy too often accept the dominant culture’s story of human beings as isolated individuals competing for scarce resources. A transformative politics needs to speak to the heart and imagination, to hold out the possibility of human community based on encounter and relationship, which enriches the whole of society by enabling every person’s gifts and leadings to flourish. Economic equality is crucial to the realisation of this kind of society, as Catherine suggests, when she argues persuasively that “more equal societies are not just more productive; they are happier, have lower levels of depression and suicide, show fewer signs of status competition, and exhibit more peaceful psychology. A world that is more equal economically would be a world that is spiritually better balanced as well.”

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Beliefs and Action

Many of us take for granted a picture of the relationship between our ideas and our behaviour, which looks something like this:


According to this image, beliefs are primary. We first have to decide ‘what we believe’, often in the form of statements, perhaps such as ‘There is that of God in everyone’. Our task is then to ‘put these beliefs into practice’, and our integrity is to be judged by the degree to which our actions conform to our stated beliefs.

This image is so familiar that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is just one way of making sense of our experience. It is useful for some purposes, but is not the only way to understand what is going on. It foregrounds the role of explicit belief statements, but it also obscures some things that are especially important for the Quaker way.

The early Quakers insisted that they were not offering just another set of beliefs, like all the other competing religious sects of their day. Instead, they were pointing to the possibility of a new experience of divine guidance and transformation. The way to that experience was not a different belief but a different practice, of ‘waiting in the Light’ or ‘returning within’. This was a deliberate process of silent, attentive waiting on the divine voice within; becoming sensitive to the leadings of the Inward Guide and acting on them, as individuals and as a Quaker community.

Our usual picture above of ‘putting beliefs into action’ does not serve us very well for making sense of Quaker practice. This is one reason why Friends struggle with the question ‘what do Quakers believe?’ which starts from the assumption that the Quaker way is defined by a set of beliefs rather than shared practices. In response, Friends often substitute ‘Quaker values’ for beliefs, but this usually involves keeping the same basic picture, according to which we first choose our values and then have to find ways to ‘live them out’.


Without an alternative to this simple, binary picture, we keep turning the Quaker way into just another set of arbitrary beliefs or values, words or ideas in our heads that we have to try somehow to live up to by acting them out in the world. But there are many other possibilities for picturing how our ideas relate to our actions. Just one example might be to imagine a circular process something like this:

Quaker practices include Meeting for Worship, Business Meetings, Experiment with Light, Meetings for Clearness, Worship sharing etc. These are not just forms of behaviour. Practices are an intimate combination of actions, ideas, stories and values. They embody shared expectations: for example that spoken ministry will be short, reflective, and generally avoid violent expressions of feeling. Quaker practices also refer to particular stories and traditions. Spoken ministry in a Meeting for Worship or Business will often refer to incidents from Quaker history or a particular Meeting community. These shared stories are part of the texture of Quaker practices, which contribute to their distinctive character.

Quaker practices give rise to very specific kinds of experience, including distinctive ones such as ‘quaking’ or the feeling of being ‘led’ to speak or act in a certain way. These experiences are significantly different from what happens in apparently similar practices such as Buddhist meditation. Quaker practices also shape our experience of being a particular kind of person. They help to form the things we value, what we enjoy or avoid, the kind of speech and behaviour that we cultivate. Practices such as Meeting for Worship for Business involve the regular self-discipline of letting go of fixed intentions and listening for the insights of those who differ from us. Through regular experience of disciplines such as this we are formed as people with distinctive capacities. This is one of the principal goals of Quaker practices, to help us to become changed men and women, to ‘feel the evil weakening in us and the good raised up’.

These kinds of experience, and the kind of people we become, inevitably shape the quality of our Quaker community. Quaker practices are not just individual exercises: it is central to the Quaker way that it is practised in, and builds up, a faithful community. The quality of our community relationships is crucial for the vitality of our collective Quaker practices. Where a Quaker meeting does not have strong relationships of trust and affection between its members, or where there is little practical agreement about how to worship or discern together, the quality of Quaker practice will be significantly weakened. A community in which people share their lives and experience, and where there is a high level of agreement about how to practise the Quaker way together, will enjoy a virtuous circle of deepening experience, community and practice.

This picture of practice, experience and community might also be helpful for understanding Quaker testimony as a practice rather than a list of values or principles ‘in our heads’. Quaker testimonies such as opposing war, solidarity with refugees or simplifying lifestyle are forms of purposeful, meaningful action, that form us as individuals and as a community. They are continually re-shaped by new discernment and understood in a range of different ways. Testimonies are not just acts of individual conscience, but practised as part of a community tradition, in conversation with its collective discernment.

I have presented this circular model of Quaker practice, experience and community not as ‘the truth’, but simply to illustrate one alternative to the prevailing model of ‘belief and action’, which too often tends to push people into opposing identities on the basis of differing statements of belief. All three parts of this alternative model include values, expectations, goals, ideas and stories, but it does not require us to decide or agree on theological positions. Perhaps I am drawn to this approach because explicit statements of belief play a very small role in my own life. I have always struggled to understand the meaning or purpose of abstract convictions about the nature of God or the precise mechanisms of salvation. For me, religion is not a matter of ‘beliefs’; it is concerned with what I trust in and what I do.

How do you understand Quaker practice, experience and belief?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Kingdom

If, like me, you happened to read the New Testament for the first time as an adult, without having any church background through which to interpret it, you might also have been struck by a surprising observation. In the four accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching collectively called the Gospels, he is described as preaching a very specific message to the people of Judea. This message is not a promise of life after death and a threat of eternal punishment. Instead, Jesus is constantly repeating the ‘good news’ that ‘the kingdom of God is near’.

The sayings, stories and miraculous healings attributed to Jesus were all ways of describing what this ‘kingdom of God’ (or in John’s Gospel ‘kingdom of heaven’) means. The kingdom is the place where those who are poor and the excluded are welcomed and respected, where there is no more exploitation or violence, where justice reigns and forgiveness flourishes. Those who are able to welcome the kingdom are not the rich and powerful, who are deeply invested in the status quo, but those who are dispossessed and excluded. It is ‘good news to the poor’ and bad news for those who want the world to stay just as it is:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort"
(Luke 6: 20, 24)
Jesus did not invent this vision; it is a powerful current in his own religious heritage. The Hebrew Torah is full of magnificent images of God’s reign of peace and justice. But what the Jewish prophet Jesus taught, and what got him executed, is that God’s kingdom is not far off - in an unworldly afterlife, or in the distant future. It is close - ‘the kingdom of God is near’. The stories and images he used to describe this kingdom constantly emphasise that it is not brought about by armies or dictated from the centres of power. The kingdom grows up among ordinary, disregarded people, in hidden ways in the midst of ordinary life, like yeast in bread, a woman sweeping the house for a lost coin, or seeds growing in a field.

The vision of God’s kingdom of peace and justice on earth has had a profound impact on religious history. It has inspired passionate Christian movements as diverse as the Franciscans,  Anabaptists and Dukhoubors. But, paradoxically, its most world-changing impact has been in secularised form, as the emotional centre of the political ideologies that have aimed to bring about a perfect society, by force if necessary.

From the French Revolution to Soviet and Chinese Communism, this dream of a world of peace, freedom, equality and justice has continually resurfaced in the modern imagination. Crucially, though, for all of these ideologies the goal of peace and justice was always somewhere off in the future. To reach such a perfect destination, so far removed from the present squalid reality of inequality and oppression, it seemed legitimate to use any means for bringing it about. Since the promised goal was always somewhere over the horizon, the revolutionaries and dictators could not be expected to act as if it had already arrived. Instead, they had to be prepared to sacrifice their scruples, and to commit whatever violence or deception was necessary to realise their historical destiny. In this, they unwittingly repeated the logic of State-allied churches throughout history that still find it necessary to commit and condone violence and persecution, compelled by the unfortunate distance between the promise of the kingdom and the realities of power in the imperfect present.

Unlike the communist revolutionaries and patriotic bishops, Jesus taught that the reign of peace was not far off, on the far side of the messy crimes of history. It is present now, wherever people who have been humiliated recover their dignity, where walls are dismantled and resources shared, where people who have been enemies learn to listen to each other. This kingdom is here every day, signs of it are all around us. Even in this society, with its inequality, racism, and callous indifference to migrants and the distant poor, there are people who welcome strangers into their homes, who defend the neighbours they are told to hate, and who choose forgiveness over revenge. The good news is that this is happening all around us: