Sunday, 31 August 2014

What does it mean to be a Quaker?

James Turrell 'Skyspace' at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
At our Yearly Meeting Gathering recently, British Quakers have been exploring the question 'what does it mean to be a Quaker today?' As Ben Pink Dandelion pointed out in his Swarthmore Lecture, in some ways this is a curious question. It is a reflection, perhaps, of a widespread and long-standing confusion about just what the Quaker Way consists of, or even if there is such a thing at all.

Some Friends would identify certain core Quaker beliefs, such as in 'that of God in everyone', or 'all of life is sacramental'. Others point to a set of values such as equality, peace, simplicity or social justice, although there is no definitive statement of these values or where they are derived from. There are also some Friends who claim that the distinctive thing about Quakers is that there is no specific teaching or content to it at all. A Quaker Meeting is simply an accepting 'space' for people to explore their own values and pursue their own private spiritual journeys.

One result of this radical lack of shared understanding is the emergence of a lowest common denominator of 'Quakerliness', based on conforming to a fairly narrow set of prescriptive behaviours. These principally consist of sitting quietly for an hour on a Sunday morning and speaking without any suggestion of spiritual certainty. This is what Ben Pink Dandelion has identified as the 'behavioural creed' of modern liberal Quakers. This behavioural creed can easily blend into a narrow social and cultural creed, which identifies Quakerliness with 'people like us', who read The Guardian and drink herbal tea.

I want to suggest that there is a living tradition of spiritual teaching and practice that makes up the Quaker Way, which is not defined by a particular social group, behavioural norms, or even values and beliefs. Central to this tradition is a small number of distinctive Quaker practices, principally the Meeting for Worship and the Meeting for Worship for Business. These practices have never been static; Meetings for Worship have changed a great deal since the 17th Century when they could last three hours and contain lengthy Biblical sermons. New Quaker practices also emerge over time, including Meetings for Clearness and Experiment with Light, and they are always subject to adaptation and reinterpretation. But it is through participation in these practices, including in discussions about their meaning, that we take part in the Quaker Way.

Practices such as these are not just a set of 'behaviours' like sitting quietly in a circle, which might equally describe a dentist's waiting room. Quaker practices are inherently social and collective. They involve some degree of shared understanding of the meaning of the activity, which makes it something that we do together, rather than just what I am choosing to do in the privacy of my own consciousness. These practices involve self-discipline; they require us to develop our capacity for discernment, and to restrain our natural impulses towards self-assertion and defensiveness. A shared understanding of these practices doesn't mean that we all have identical beliefs. It does require enough of a common language and shared assumptions about the meaning of the practice that we know how to engage in it together in mutually intelligible ways.

The Quaker Way involves a continuing, open-ended discussion about the meaning of these Quaker practices. It cannot thrive in a prolonged period of silent d├ętente between individuals or factions who are unwilling to talk and listen to each other. The collective nature of Quaker practices is also undermined by the bland acceptance of any individual interpretation, which bypasses the mutual challenge and discovery involved in taking the Quaker tradition seriously enough to test our own ideas and preferences against it.

During the last few decades, we have failed to maintain this shared discussion about the meaning and nature of our Quaker practices. In the absence of this continual conversation, we have created a climate of mutual incomprehension, which easily leads to fear, blame and resentment of those who don't share our assumptions. So there are Friends who assume that a Quaker who uses the word 'God' believes in an 'old man in the sky'. Since no-one has explained to them that the word 'God' is almost always used by Quakers to refer to an ultimately mysterious spiritual reality rather than a mythological being, we now have Friends adopting oppositional postures against a belief system that no-one around them actually holds.

Similarly, many Friends have been admitted to membership under the impression that they were joining a group with no spiritual teaching of its own to agree or disagree with. Some of them may be alarmed and resentful to suddenly be told that the Quaker Way has its own distinctive tradition of spiritual practice and understanding, which may be in conflict with some of the beliefs they have brought with them from other contexts.

Misunderstandings, confusion and hurts such as this are an inevitable consequence of having avoided discussing the nature and meaning of our Quaker practices for far too long. It is my impression that these discussions have been evaded largely because of the fear of conflict. For some Friends in our Meetings these conversations are unwelcome, because to talk about the Quaker Way as something in particular is also to state that it is not just whatever they would like it to be. They may also be worried about becoming exclusive or unwelcoming if we start insisting on a particular interpretation of the Quaker Way.

British Friends almost without exception recognise the value of spiritual questioning, seeking and diversity, and there is little danger of our becoming an intolerant, fundamentalist sect. What some Friends are proposing is a 'rebalancing' of our approach to the Quaker Way, which embraces both the corporate and individual aspects of our faith. This is what Simon Best and Stuart Masters have called a 'creative tension... between being “a gathered people” with a common identity, practice and message, and the value of individuals who bring a diversity of gifts and insights to that community.'
('What can we say today? Questions for the revision of the Book of Discipline', the Friends Quarterly, Issue 3, 2014)

A Quaker community with a shared understanding of its core practices is not exclusive. The Quaker Meeting for Worship is open to everyone, whether or not they share the community's understanding of its worship, discernment and testimony. But we only have this experience to offer if we know enough about our own tradition to be able to practice it authentically together. If an enquirer comes into a Meeting for Worship in which half of the Friends are reading newsletters, and others are continually standing up to debate political points, they have been deprived of the opportunity to find out what Quaker worship can be. This is not inclusivity or openness, it is a failure to inhabit our Quaker tradition, to learn from it, to contribute to it and to share it with others.

For me, it is a hopeful sign that in so many different places across the Quaker community these conversations are at last starting to surface – in the recent Swarthmore Lecture at Yearly Meeting Gathering, at conferences and Woodbrooke courses, in travelling workshops and in Quaker publications and social media. What this highlights to me is that the renewal and rediscovery of our Quaker tradition as a living way of spiritual practice is in our own hands. If we want a deeper experience of community, and a renewed spiritual depth of worship and testimony, we need to take courage. We mustn't allow the fear of 'Quaker squashing' to silence a serious dialogue about what the Quaker Way is. We all have opportunities to begin conversations about the meaning of our Quaker practices within our Meetings and throughout the Society. We can encourage each other to take the Quaker Way seriously as a path of spiritual practice to learn about, to discuss with each other, and above all to work at, allowing it to transform us and the world around us.


  1. I came across this quotation this morning on FB
    'Listen to the wind, it talks
    Listen to the silence, it speaks
    Listen to your heart, it knows.
    (Native American Proverb)
    I would suggest that Quakerism is and should be about deep listening, to one another,to the still small voice within. That each meeting might be approached as a listening adventure - anything could be heard and might happen. Exploring the mystery that is there amongst us when we gather to really listen is so much more important than trying to tame the creativity that will bubble up from within. We have a power amongst us but it appears that we cannot resist trying to define and order the power. A cursory reading of early Friends shows a swelling of creativity and yes dangerous ideas - that is before it was seen to have to be controlled and ordered. The view that early Friends were orderly or that they passed everything through a discernment process simply doesn't stack up. 'Quaker' verb or noun?

    1. Hi Chris,
      Yes, listening is very much the heart of Quaker spirituality, and the basis of all our Quaker practices. Particia Loring has a couple of wonderful books on the Quaker Way, called 'Listening Spirituality' (vols 1 and 2).
      I see all our practices, as tools to help us to find the place of listening and response to spiritual reality. They are certainly not the only valid tools for this purpose, but generations of Friends have found them to be powerful and effective at helping us to go beyond self-interest and self-protectiveness.

  2. It’s interesting that this excellent essay is entitled “What does it mean to be a Quaker?” but mostly it does not address that question. Instead it addresses the content of the “Quaker Way.” I suspect the world would be better off if we abandoned the sectarian label of “being a Quaker” and just focused on living the Quaker way in community. Sectarianism is divisive. The Quaker Way is not.

    1. Hi Joe,
      For me, 'being a Quaker' involves recognising a sense of belonging to the wider Quaker community. I don't see this as sectarian, any more than being part of a family, or any other forms of belonging. Of course, if our Quaker identity is used as an excuse for asserting superiority over others then it has become something harmful.


"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)