|Ploughing at Hlekweni in Zimbabwe|
'Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground. Thresh and get out the corn; that the seed, the wheat, may be gathered into the barn... None are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, that he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then is the planting, watering, and increase from God.'
One of Lu's questions for reflection is, 'What can I say of how Spirit has worked within me and my meeting? Is the fallow ground plowed up?'
I have been busy with coursework for a Masters in Organic Farming over the last couple of months, so the details of ploughing, planting, and harvesting have been very much occupying my mind. Thinking about Lu's question, it occurred to me that British Quakers as a whole seem to be going through this process of 'ploughing up the fallow ground' right now.
Fallow ground is land that has been left uncultivated for a year or more. Letting land lie fallow is a traditional farming practice - allowing the soil to regain fertility between years of cropping and harvesting that would otherwise leave it depleted of nutrients. The point of Fox's metaphor, though, is that fallow ground has been left uncultivated so long that it has become unproductive. As every gardener knows, neglected land quickly becomes colonized by weeds. In a process known as 'ecological succession', pioneer species such as grass and other invasive weeds quickly establish themselves, and if allowed to flower and set seed, will fill the soil with persistent weed seeds that can remain viable in the soil for decades.
It is my impression that Britain Yearly Meeting has been left fallow for far too long, drifting in the organizational equivalent of ecological succession, by which a vital and living movement becomes increasingly inward-looking, focussing on its own institutional structures and routines, and the needs of its own members. British Quakerism has allowed itself to be colonized by invasive weeds from the surrounding culture - a shallow secular liberalism, the smothering growth of bureaucracy, and the creeping couch grass of complacency.
Cultivation interrupts ecological succession by ploughing up the fallow ground. Among British Friends, Quaker Quest, Experiment with Light, The Kindlers, and the recent 'Whoosh' conference are some of the renewal initiatives that are starting to break up the settled Quaker culture of 'hidden-ness'. Quakers all over the country are starting to speak openly and confidently about their faith and to seek out deeper and more disciplined expressions of spiritual practice. Participants at the 'Whoosh' conference this year called for a new emphasis on spiritual leadership, preparation for membership, and a confident teaching ministry. Our Recording Clerk, Paul Parker, is challenging Meetings around the country to respond to the vision of a vibrant, growing movement that can speak to the needs of modern society in turbulent times. The Kindlers project is working with Meetings around the country 'to rekindle the power of Quaker worship by renewing and deepening our spiritual practices'.
Even the rather sterile arguments about the place of 'non-theism' in the Religious Society of Friends may be contributing to this ploughing up, by highlighting the consequences of many years of presenting Quakerism as an anything-goes 'Quaker Space' rather than a distinctive Quaker Way, with its own challenging spiritual teachings and practices.
In farming, ploughing incorporates the stored fertility in the leaves and roots of vegetation into the soil, where it is broken down by a complex community of bacteria, fungi, insects and worms, to make the stored nutrients available for the following productive crops. British Quakers too have a huge amount of fertility stored up in our experiences and traditions. The quietly committed lives of Friends throughout many generations have created a rich store of wisdom, discernment and example to nourish the new growth of our movement. We now need a vigorous, nutrient-demanding crop of new Quaker prophets, teachers, accompaniers and ministers capable of drawing on this fertility before it drains away below the topsoil. If we genuinely want and intend to know the 'planting, watering, and increase from God' we need this generation of British Friends, of all ages, to put their hands to the plough.