Friday, 26 July 2013

A broken tradition?

For many years, Quakers in Britain have had a culture that expects newcomers to learn what is going on 'by osmosis', usually without any teaching or guidance about the Quaker spiritual path. Those of us who have stuck with Quakers are by and large the ones for whom this approach has worked, or who have at least managed to persevere for long enough to find something of value in our Meeting. This is far from saying that it is a particularly helpful approach for everyone, or that it is the best way to support and encourage people who are encountering the Quaker Way for the first time.

One of the most encouraging signs of renewed vitality in the Religious Society of Friends is that we are finally starting to grow out of our 'culture of hiddeness'. We are beginning to recognise that the Quaker path which is so life-giving for us contains something precious that many people are looking for, and we are starting to be generous about sharing it.

 This creates a challenge for current generations of Friends who have usually come into membership with little or no teaching about the Quaker Way ourselves. Many Friends, including some who have been in membership for decades or who were brought up in Quaker families, find it hard to explain basic aspects of our practice to newcomers. New attenders are frequently directed to a book or leaflet in response to their questions, because Friends find it so difficult to offer their own answers. There are even plenty of Friends who reject the idea of a particular Quaker path at all; who have in fact been attracted to Quaker Meeting precisely because of their impression that it is simply an accepting 'space' for everyone to do whatever feels right for them.

To me, this suggests a spiritual tradition that has suffered a break in continuity. The transmission of the community's experience between generations seems to have been interrupted at some point in our history, so that we now have to rediscover the content of the Quaker path before we can explain it to others. Quakerism was clearly a functioning tradition throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a religious culture which could pass on a coherent understanding of Quaker practices and concepts between generations even through radical transformations - from a fiery prophetic sect to a conservative quietist community, and then an evangelical social reform movement. It also retained the explicit recognition that inherited ways need to be tested and proved in the experience of each person. Some time in the 20th Century this passing on of Quaker culture seems to have been interrupted, perhaps as most Friends began coming into membership as adults, without adequate instruction in the tradition they were joining.

When I first came to Quakers as an enthusiastic new member about 10 years ago, I was very clear about what the Quaker tradition was, and what it required of Friends. I studied the writings of early Friends, as well as prophetic modern Quakers such as John Punshon, Janey O'Shea and Christine Trevett, and quickly became irritated by the general vagueness among most Friends about basic matters of Quaker belief and practice. It seemed to me that here was a religious tradition of great spiritual depth, with a demanding and potentially revolutionary programme for personal and social transformation; but many of the people who were supposed to be practising it had little knowledge of, interest in or respect for what it had to teach. I saw a well-grounded and tested set of principles for personal integrity and the right ordering of a religious community that was often slighted or ignored in practice. I was in fact what one more experienced Friend I met at the time described as 'one of those irritating identity-seeking people who are always trying to define what Quakerism is.'

Since then, largely thanks to the patience and friendship of Friends in my Meeting, my relationship to the Quaker tradition has changed. I still value the insights and experience of Quakers throughout our history as a precious resource which continually helps me towards a greater openness to the Spirit, but I am no longer so concerned with a strict adherence to specific Quaker behaviours, attitudes or beliefs. In particular I now think it is a mistake to try to live up to an abstract ideal of ethical conduct. I have found through following the Quaker path that the Inward Light is much more concerned with revealing and healing what we are, rather than hitting us over the head with what we ought to be. The more I am able to open myself to the awareness of what is, the more real and whole my life can become, perhaps in ways that will look very different from other Quakers in the past or present. I believe the same is true for our Meetings and for the Religious Society of Friends as a whole. None of us know what we are meant to become, but if we are faithful to the insight that arises through patient attentiveness to the Inward Guide, we will grow into the authentic shape that brings us joy as well as answering the needs of our time.

I now think of the Quaker tradition as something like compost – the lasting residue of centuries of Friends' discernment, full of life-giving nutrients that still feeds and sustains us today. I want to be rooted firmly enough in this Quaker compost that I can be free to grow into whatever shape the Seed of life is calling me to. This compost is important enough to me that I would like to share it with others who are seeking a more nourishing basis for their lives, without wanting anyone to grow into any particular shape but that which is formed by the Inward Light working in their lives.

At Sheffield Central Meeting we are starting to plan a series of sessions for newcomers to learn about the 'Quaker basics', such as Quaker worship, decision-making and testimonies. It is a chance for us to share the riches of our tradition with the people who are coming to us to explore what nourishes their lives. I hope that this will also be part of a wider process of repairing the broken continuity of the Quaker tradition, so that future generations may find it a little easier than we did to discover and share the riches of the Quaker Way.


  1. This commentary is very insightful! Modern Friends need to get in touch with the heritage of the Quaker faith. There are lots of written resources for learning about the Quaker tradition, many of which precede the modern era. Becoming familiar with the corpus of ministers' journals is one way to "tap into" the spiritual resources of the Quaker tradition. Many of these journals are now available in reprint form, and are relatively accessible.

    I think it would be easy to overestimate how well Friends in the past kept in touch with their own tradition. For instance, 18th Century Friends in Great Britain typically did not have Bibles in their homes, and were not familiar with the Scriptures. When Bibles were made available at Ackworth School in the 19th Century, the students devoured them as if they were "comic books" or modern-day bestsellers. The truth is that keeping rooted in one's spiritual tradition has always been a challenge!

    In any case, thanks for a very penetrating essay.

    1. Thanks for this Bill, an interesting point about 18th Century Friends and the Bible. I have read that teaching the Bible was frowned upon in that period, because it was seen as promoting the Truth at second-hand, ie in the words and experiences of the Biblical authors rather than one's own personal experience. I don't know how accurate that interpretation is. There does seem to have been a strong and distinctive Quaker culture in the 18th Century, at least in certain regions (eg New England), even without a thorough Biblical knowledge.
      In terms of resources for learning about the Quaker tradition, I'd add that there are also some excellent, and very accessible, ones by contemmporary authors, such as Patricia Loring's 'Listening Spirituality', Rex Ambler's books (including his new 'The Quaker Way - a rediscovery') and John Punshon's 'Testimony and Tradition'. I'd be glad to hear of any others that Friends would particularly recommend too.

  2. Craig, thanks for this post. I share your concern about our disappearing "content". I think it's really important that we be able to answer the questions of seekers and our children with clarity, confidence, and integrity. I also think every meeting needs at least two people who know the tradition well enough to teach it; it is a great blessing when they possess the gift of teaching, as well.

    Do you have the knowledge and are you called to teach?

    1. Hi Steven, I am very lucky to be in a large and active Meeting where we have quite a few Friends with the knowledge and gifts to teach different aspects of the Quaker Way, we just need to create more opportunities for that teaching to happen. I am certainly keen to offer what I can. I am also an elder of our Meeting, so am engaged in discussions about how best to support newcomers, and nurture the spiritual life of the Meeting as a whole.

  3. Thanks for this Craig. The compost metaphor is very helpful. All the best with the study sessions for newcomers.

  4. This is so well put, with wit and lack of pretension - thank you. Having been a Friend for most of 50 years, I think the break had partly to do, funnily enough, with the great explosion of pacifism and social activism in the 60's,when people new to Friends - including me - came flooding into Meetings. Good idea that the debris left behind by all this become part of the compost.

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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)