Friday, 9 November 2012

Ploughing up the Fallow Ground

Ploughing at Hlekweni in Zimbabwe
I've been reading a Pendle Hill pamphlet called 'Plow up the Fallow Ground – a meditation in the company of early Friends', by American Friend Lu Harper. It is a series of reflections on farming imagery in the teachings of early Quakers, taking its title from this passage from the Journal of George Fox:

'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.


  1. Good stuff Craig. Reading has reminded me to look up where "What a huge harvest! And how few the harvest hands." comes from. It's in the advice to the seventy in Luke 10, of course - and what follows it is the instruction to pray that the One who makes the harvest will send the labourers to do the work. I have that sense of a harvest standing in the field - such a mountain of work to be done; but where are the labourers? It's good to be reminded that we have to ask God to send them, as well as being willing to receive them.

  2. I have been asking myself the same question, 'where are the labourers?' for some time, but I am starting to get a sense that there are some around, who we have perhaps overlooked, because their message doesn't fit with the prevailing Quaker culture of extreme reticence and tentativeness. 'A prophet is not without honour, except in their own Meeting'...

  3. I agree with most of the logic of this post but am disappointed to see terms like "a shallow secular liberalism" described as an 'invasive weed'. My experience has been that liberalism, as practised by Friends in Britain and elsewhere, is rarely shallow and far from secular. Let us not forget that while we plough the fields earthworms work around the clock helping the soil to mix, drain and assisting aeration. Perhaps some of these worms come from the field next door or even from the compost heap, but they do the job. Liberalism is part of Quakerism in Britain and has been for a very long time it is not an 'Invasive weed', but an earthworm that helps keep Quakerism fresh and involved with the world around it. PS~ I hope the coursework went well!

  4. Hi Ray, Thank you for this. I think the expression 'shallow secular liberalism' probably needs some unpacking to be meaningful. To be clearer, I don't mean the classic Liberal Quakerism of Rufus Jones etc, more recently championed in Felicity Kaal's essay for the Friends Quarterly essay competition (
    Instead I am talking about the very commonly expressed views such as 'you can believe what you like, everyone's perspectives are equally valid, no-one can tell anyone else what to think, there are no shoulds or oughts, that old religious language is out of date and off-putting to newcomers, we all have our own truth' etc, etc. This sort of 'Quakerism Lite' is, I believe, simply imported from the background assumptions of the dominant culture, and has nothing to do with the Quaker Way at all.
    Thanks for your good wishes. In Friendship, Craig

  5. Hi Craig,

    Thanks for your reply. I guess I get touchy whenever anybody identifies one branch of Quakerism as 'the true Quakerism' and dismisses the honestly held views of others. I might describe myself as a Liberal Quaker, but I am also a Christian Quaker and (in as much as I prefer unstructured and un-led 'silent' meetings) I might also, perhaps paradoxically, be described as a Conservative Quaker. I came to Quakerism many years ago as a fourteen year old who happened to walk into Croydon Friends Meeting House, and I fully admit that the fact I did not have to sign up to any set of beliefs was an enormous attraction to me. To sit in meeting with a traditional Christian Quaker on my left and a Universalist Quaker on my right is no problem to me, nor I hope to them. We are all Friends sharing in meeting and sharing in the peace and simplicity of worship and our lives in general.

    I agree that we need to get 'ploughing', but by suggesting that this Quaker is of the 'Quaker Way' and this other Quaker is 'Quaker Lite' does not, to my mind, help in this process. To sharpen our ploughshares and harness our horses ~ I believe we need to do is exactly what you did in the post ~ go back to what those early Quakers had to say and take heed of it. Fox saw that what he had started had to be distinctively different from the forms of Christianity that then existed. Quakers still have to be different, that's an important point ~ and if being different means that each Quaker comes up with a personal set of beliefs that may not exactly match those of other Quakers then so be it.

    I'm certain Friend that we have no major disagreement other than terminology and I look forward to following your blog and wish you well. Let us engage in a 'cyber handshake' of Friendship. Ray


    1. Thanks for this gracious response Ray, and for your beautiful blog, which I have just discovered at
      In Friendship,

  6. Very welcome sense of urgency and joy in your post, Craig. I'm on the Experiment with Light steering group and we are being inundated with requests from Area Meetings from teams to lead workshops on the Experiment. There's a hunger and readiness among Quakers - and one that can side-step all this divisiveness, because people want more depth, and know it when they experience it - although they may still use differing terminology to express it.
    I do lament the social narrowness of the meetings that I know.

  7. Hi Susie,
    This sounds very encouraging. I completely agree that it is the hunger for and the experience of depth that is important, not the language that is used to describe or explain it. Thanks for all you are doing with Experiment with Light.
    In Friendship,

  8. Very good! And heartening to read. I agree with most of what you write, Craig, and won't quibble about the rest. I was at the Whoosh! conference last year and it was a mix of wonderful and depressing, but mostly wonderful.

  9. Hi Imran,
    Thanks for this, it is good to hear from you.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)