Sunday, 10 March 2013

What is Quakerism For?

Children at Hlekweni Friends Training Centre
One of the ways that Early Friends differed most from modern Quakers is that they were able to say with great clarity and conviction just what the purpose of the Quaker Way is:
"The main thing in religion is to keep the conscience pure to the Lord, to know the guide, to follow the guide, to receive from him the light whereby I am to walk; and not to take things for truths because others see them to be truths, but to wait till the spirit makes them manifest to me."
(Isaac Penington)
In other words, the Quaker Way is a vehicle, a means to direct us towards the Inward Guide, so that we can be taught and guided by the Light in our own consciences. Early Quakers recognised that there is one Inward Teacher, Guide or Spirit, that speaks to all people in all times and places, no matter what their culture or religion. The purpose of Quaker worship, testimony, culture and organisation is nothing else than this – to help us to attend to that Inward Guide and follow it. It is that simple; simple but not easy.

The difficulty that all of us experience in staying close to the guide is the main reason we need to be part of a community. A Quaker community should practice the communal discernment that helps us to distinguish the voice of the Spirit from our own wishes or obsessions. It also preserves the memory of ways that Friends have been led by the Spirit in other times and situations, which can help to sensitise us to how the same Spirit is speaking to us now.

Quaker texts such as Advices & Queries are a practical guide to areas of our lives we may need to pay attention to in order to 'get our lives in order', so that we can become more sensitive to the guidance of the Spirit. Instead of commandments (eg 'Do not lie'), they contain searching queries, such as 'Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do?' (Advices & Queries 37). There are no rules or commandments because the aim is not to tell us what to do - 'to take things for truths because others see them to be truths', but to help us to pay attention to the ways that the Spirit may be nudging us to get free of the entanglements of our compulsions or self-deception, so that we can be become more attentive listeners and followers.

This is also the function of Quaker testimonies. As records of the faithful discernment and action of Friends throughout history, they serve to remind us of the directions in which the Spirit has led Friends in the past, so that we can become more attentive to the 'promptings of love and truth' in our own hearts.

The early Quaker testimonies included a fairly diverse range of specific behaviour including 'plain speech', refusing to fight or swear oaths, and abstaining from gambling and 'frivolous amusements'. These actions arose from specific challenges facing Quaker communities, and their discernment of the ways that the Inward Light was calling them to respond. The testimonies have changed over time, reflecting changes in society and in Friends' discernment, so that some testimonies have been abandoned or modified (such as plain speech and rejection of music and the arts), while others have emerged or gained in importance, such as testimonies against slave-holding, conscription and war, and the recent recognition of same-sex marriage.

In recent decades these testimonies have increasingly been translated into a set of abstract principles, usually summarised as 'Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace'. This has had the effect of turning concrete commitments to action into a set of abstract 'Quaker principles', removed from real-life contexts, that we try (and usually fail) to 'live up to'. The attempt to live perfectly ethical lifestyles by 'applying' Quaker values and principles to our decisions mistakes the signposts for the destination. It frequently leads to a stifling sense of guilt or, worse, self-righteousness as we compare ourselves with others, instead of focussing on the guidance of the Spirit that is particularly for us, at this moment.

Each one of us has a unique calling, we have been given a life that contains unique gifts and a unique opportunity to bring more of God's love, justice and beauty into the world. Our task is to find that calling and to follow it. We won't find our calling by choosing a set of abstract principles of moral perfection and trying to live up to them. The only way is by paying attention to the inward guide, and allowing it to lead us into the life that is waiting for us, on a path that nourishes our souls.


  1. This friend speaks my mind.

    Idealism, the placing of 'abstract principles' as more important than direct experience, is pernicious and dangerous because it makes ends more important than means. In the twentieth century this resulted in death and misery for millions as tyrants sought to impose the abstract principles of communism, socialism and fascism on entire populations. It continues with the imposition of neo-liberal economics, one of the most idealistic of all.

    The early Quakers called 'abstract principles' 'notions', and we would do well to realise that our high sounding ideals are but mere notions if they do not arise directly from our felt experience. They become idols which we worship instead of the true spirit of grace.

    The way to dispel such tendency towards ideals and notions is indeed to be in a 'community', except that such thinking turns 'community' itself into a notion or ideal. This is especially important to realise when talking about a 'sustainable' community, since, more often or not, when talking about 'sustainability' we have in our heads notions of some perfect idealised future where everyone lives in harmony with 'nature' - whatever that is. We then seek to impose such ideals on our own community, causing misery and guilt on the one hand and self-righteousness on the other.

    You cannot 'create' a community'. You cannot 'build' a community. Communities do not 'grow'. There is no end to build for or grow towards. A community emerges, fully formed, by grace, and by grace alone, and simply deepens with time as the spirit revels truth to us.

  2. This is a fine posting Craig. I thank thee for thy ministry.

  3. A fascinating post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. I've just re-read this and it (still) feels like a very important message to me. Thank you for writing it.

  5. Dear Friends,
    Thanks for reading, and for your kind comments.
    Great to hear from you Sharon, hope you are well.
    In Friendship,


"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)