Monday, 21 January 2013

Holy Fire

One of the defining marks of the prophet is passion. Early Quaker prophets such as George Fox, James Nayler, Elizabeth Hooton and Mary Fisher were aflame with their experience of God's transforming power, and passionate to communicate it to others.

I think it's fair to say that Quaker culture in Britain today is uncomfortable with this aspect of religious experience. Even a moderate degree of passion is frequently regarded as 'unquakerly' in its too-emphatic conviction. This is perhaps the aspect of the prophetic vocation that has contributed most to the general undervaluing of prophetic ministry amongst modern Quakers.

Of course we are understandably wary of people who are passionately convinced of the exclusive truth of their own beliefs, and intent on pressuring us to agree with them. But this is very different to the passion of the genuine prophet, which grows from their own transforming encounter with a loving and merciful spiritual reality. The prophet's calling is not to trumpet their own message, but to point others towards the source of life and truth within themselves.

This theme of passionate spiritual perception is reflected in the writings of a young Friend whom I see as one of the new Quaker prophets emerging in Britain Yearly Meeting. Mark Russ is 29 and came to Quakers as a teenager. He lives in London where he teaches music to primary school children. Mark writes a blog called Quaker Intentional Community, which includes these striking passages in a reflection on the Quaker commitment to celebrating same-sex marriage:
Fire, in the Orthodox church, is always representative of God’s love in all its intense, passionate and purifying power. There is also a saying that the whole of creation is like this all the time, aflame with Divine compassion. We only need learn to see it...

Marriage is a sacrament, an embodying of a spiritual reality. The unseen is made visible, the Divine is incarnated. There are many reasons for marriage, but central to marriage is its revelation of God’s love. The couple, in their fidelity, intimacy and perseverance embody God’s love for God’s people. Rather than the baseless claims of many church leaders that family will be undermined and children damaged, by celebrating same-sex marriage we are giving ourselves more opportunities to see God’s love at work in the world. Same-sex marriage allows the world to burn even brighter with holy fire.
According to theologian Walter Brueggemann, the prophet is a 'child of the tradition' – rooted in a particular tradition of spiritual practice, and accountable to its ideals and disciplines, even when they are misunderstood or marginalised by their own community. The experience of difference or marginalisation can be one of the ways that the prophet's spiritual perception is deepened. It is often the person who is 'on the edge' of their society or community who sees it from a different angle, sometimes with particular clarity. Those who are called to a prophetic ministry are often in a marginal situation, which sharpens their perception of injustices or assumptions that are easily overlooked by the majority.

Mark writes about the experience of having to repeatedly 'come out' as a gay man, as a parallel to the experience of being on the margins of modern Quaker culture because of his Christian faith. His experience challenges us to reflect on whether our treasured liberal Quakerism has become prescriptive and exclusive, and points toward a more uncomfortable possibility, of learning to live with 'contradiction, mystery, mutually exclusive truths and incompatible beliefs':
Occasionally two aspects of my life mirror each other very closely. In conversation with someone I may mention my partner, the next question perhaps being ‘what’s her name?’. I reply ‘his name is Adrian’ after which they may get a little flustered and apologise. In conversation with other Quakers, someone may talk about the Bible as pure myth, Jesus as just a good man, and may even gently ridicule those ‘Evangelicals’ and others who believe in all those ‘supernatural’ bits, perhaps because their intellect is clouded by fear of divine punishment or they are spiritually immature. I reply ‘Well I’m convinced that Jesus actually rose from the dead’. There may be an awkward pause and an incredulous look. Both these repeated instances of ‘coming out’ are necessary we live in a world of assumptions. As a gay person I live in a ‘hetero-normative’ society, where opposite sex pairings are assumed to be the normal (as opposed to abnormal) state of affairs. I’d like to suggest that as a British Quaker, I live in a Society of Friends that is theologically normative, where assumptions are made about my beliefs...

I have come to hold specific beliefs about Jesus and God. Many Quakers I meet think I’m quite strange to believe in these things. ‘Am I still a Quaker?’ is a question I keep coming back to, and on different days you might get different answers. I would also suggest that British Quakerism itself is in the midst of an identity crisis. What does it mean to be a Quaker? What are we doing when we come together to worship? Why be a Quaker and not something else? At the moment we are unable to provide an answer to these questions.

Perhaps the best we can do is to be honest about our differences, the philosophical problems they pose and the conflict they create, without trying to smooth things over. Being truly inclusive means living with tension, contradiction, mystery, mutually exclusive truths and incompatible beliefs.
One of the gifts of the prophet for the community is the particularity of their experience of spiritual reality. The prophet has glimpsed something of the mystery of God, and is called to try to translate that experience into words or actions that can point others towards that mystery in their own lives. The prophet doesn't make balanced judgements or strive for philosophical generality, their view is personal and partial, and may even be one-sided or extreme. As Brueggemann puts it:
'No prophet ever sees things under the aspect of eternity. It is always partisan theology, always for the concrete community, satisfied to see only a piece of it all and to speak out of that at the risk of contradicting the rest of it.'
But it is this very partiality that makes it possible for the prophet to express their experience concretely and vividly. Rather than philosophical abstractions, the prophet speaks in poetic images and concrete symbols, striving to 're-activate out of our historical past symbols that always have been vehicles for redemptive honesty' (ibid).

So where contemporary liberal Quakerism has great difficulty in expressing what the core of the Quaker Way might be, the particularity of Mark's experience enables him to articulate a clear statement of his Quaker faith:
Quakerism only makes sense to me if it is Christ-centred, meaning both the life and teachings of Jesus and the searching, convicting, transformative power of what early Friends named ‘the inner Christ’, a spiritual renewal that is mysteriously linked to the person of Jesus.
This will not be the way that spiritual reality will be experienced and described by everyone, as Mark acknowledges, but it expresses a reality that he knows by his own inward experience. As such, it creates a challenge to us, including to those of us who would not use the same words to describe our experience, to turn towards the source of life where words come from:
Why do I go to Quaker Meeting? I go to be transformed by God. Whether this language chimes with other Quakers or not, I hope no one expects to leave Meeting for Worship the same as when they arrive.
Mark's writings are on his blog at Quaker Intentional Community, and he will also be teaching on a Friendly Introduction to the Bible course at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in June 2013, details here.

In my next post I will be introducing another 'new Quaker prophet'. Your comments and suggestions of other Friends with a prophetic ministry would be very welcome.

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"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)