Prophets are essential. The prophetic calling is to express vividly God's promise and challenge for their time.
As modern Quakers, we are still drawing on the deep spiritual vision of prophets such as George Fox, Lucretia Mott and John Woolman, as well as influential prophets from other traditions such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day and many others.
According to the theologian Walter Brueggemann, the prophet's message for the community of faith is a vision of hope, the invitation and challenge to participate in God's purposes for humanity. The prophet is also the instrument of the Spirit for calling the powerful to account, reminding them of their duties to the poor and vulnerable, and exposing violence and oppression.
Prophets are not necessarily great leaders and organisers. They are not always eloquent or charismatic, and they may be reluctant to speak the message that is given to them, like the Biblical prophet Jeremiah:
'I said to myself I will think of God no more, no longer will I speak in God's name. But it was as if there was a fire raging deep within me. I struggled to contain it, but could not.'
Prophets can also be hard to live with. Their message is often partial or extreme, but a genuine prophet is not a 'ranter'. They are deeply rooted in their religious tradition, even when they criticize or seek to reform it, and they are faithful to the tradition's disciplines, holding themselves accountable to its highest standards. Above all, they speak with the authority of a personal encounter with the Spirit, and with the integrity of their continual struggle to embody its message in their own lives.
As British Quakers we have been nourished by the prophetic ministry and witness of many Friends, not just in the 17th Century but throughout our history. We have our contemporary prophets too, Friends such as Rex Ambler, Pam Lunn, Jonathan Dale, John Punshon and others. But it seems a worrying sign to me that we seem content to rely on the same small group of speakers at virtually every national Quaker event.
Marion McNaughton has written a profound reflection on the vocation of Quakers to become a 'prophetic community', but every human community has a tendency to fall asleep. The prophet's often painful and thankless task is to wake us up, help us to get moving, often by pointing to the things that we would rather not be aware of. Each generation needs new prophetic voices, to speak to its condition, both to criticize and to energize their community and the wider society with a 'prophetic imagination' that opens up new possibilities.
In Britain Yearly Meeting we have a culture which seems to frown on Friends who speak with too much conviction. Perhaps it is a reflection of what the Quaker scholar Ben Pink Dandelion identifies as contemporary Quakers' defining principle, which he calls 'the absolute perhaps'- that 'we are absolutely certain of being at least a little uncertain in our believing'.
If we are genuinely called to be a prophetic community perhaps we need to ask ourselves how we can become more receptive to the prophetic voices in our Meetings. How we can nurture and support Friends who are being led to minister the message of the Spirit for our times - especially younger Friends, or those who are on the margins of our existing national organisations and structures?
At the recent Whoosh conference some participants raised the question, 'where are our prophetic voices today?' This led me to begin trying to discover whether there are any new Quaker prophets emerging in our Meetings. With excitement and surprise, I soon came across several British Friends whose writings and lives seem to me to embody an authentic prophetic ministry, but who are rarely heard from at national events. I will be featuring some of these 'new Quaker prophets' on this blog over the coming months, and would also very much welcome other suggestions from the wider Quaker community. I hope that by beginning to recognise some of the new prophetic voices in our movement, we might find ways to support them in contributing to the current stirrings of renewal among British Quakers.