Looking around at the condition of the Quaker movement in Britain, it is tempting to grow nostalgic about the profounder spirituality of a previous age. I want to encourage us to resist this temptation. We should not aim at a return to the Quaker forms of the past. Instead, we need a more disciplined attention to the practices that can help us to be faithful to the Spirit in our contemporary world.
By concentrating on the lives of 'great Quakers' of the past, we can easily overlook the fact that Friends such as John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry or Rufus Jones were not at all typical of the wider Quaker movement of their time. For most of our history, Friends have been largely what we are today – spiritually tepid and deeply compromised by our accommodation to the surrounding culture.
The life-cycle of every religious movement begins in a blaze of inspiration, which is quickly smothered by a growth of authoritarianism and bureaucracy. Most of these groups rapidly burn themselves out in a puff of disillusionment, but a few manage to renew themselves, sometimes in very different forms and contexts. Those religious movements that do survive tend to go through cycles of short-lived spiritual vitality followed by much longer periods of decline. The longest-lived religious traditions, such as Catholicism, Judaism and Zen Buddhism, have been through this cycle of decline and renewal several times over many centuries.
There are good reasons why long-lived religious movements need to be continually renewed. Once the first generation of charismatic leadership is lost, their original followers often fall out with each other, and turn to legalism and hierarchy to enforce their authority. This happened very early in the history of the Christian church (see Galatians 2: 11-14). It was also a feature of the growing authoritarianism of 18th century Quaker culture, which soon began to insist on rigid rules of dress, speech and behaviour. Margaret Fox (née Fell) was already protesting this trend in 1700, just nine years after George Fox's death.
'We are now coming into that which Christ cried woe against, minding altogether outward things, neglecting the inward work of Almighty God in our hearts, if we can but frame according to outward prescriptions and orders, and deny eating and drinking with our neighbours, in so much that poor Friends is mangled in their minds, that they know not what to do, for one Friend says one way, and another another, but Christ Jesus saith, that we must take no thought what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on, but bids us consider the lilies how they grow, in more royalty than Solomon. But contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour: this is a silly poor Gospel.'
Processes such as this quickly tend to extinguish the enthusiasm of a religious community. As formal structures and bureaucracies develop, members' energy is increasingly drawn into perpetuating the organisation, rather than serving the original spiritual mission of the community. The organisation's culture and structures soon become closely geared to the interests of its most influential members. These structures eventually push increasing numbers of spiritually seeking members to the edges of the community, or even out of it altogether.
Once a religious organisation is in this condition, it is usually very difficult to get out of it. The existing way of doing things approximates to the preferences of a core of regular members, and any newcomers who are looking for something very different are quickly selected out. Bureaucratic structures constantly acquire new committees and functions, which hoover up an increasing share of members' time and energy, sapping the potential for disciplined spiritual practice and courageous testimony.
This is very much the situation I see in large parts of Britain Yearly Meeting. As a Friend in one struggling meeting asked Paul Parker after his talk on 'vibrant meetings', 'We already have too much to do. Are we supposed to be vibrant now as well?' We currently have an organisational culture and structures that suit a dwindling group of members in many scattered, mostly very tiny meetings. A wider group of attenders come to meeting semi-regularly to re-charge their batteries on a Sunday morning, but are deterred from getting more involved by the onerous demands of administration or the absence of real spiritual vitality. Most of the newcomers who occasionally turn up to try a Quaker meeting on Sunday never come back, or attend for only a short time before drifting off to look for something more spiritually nourishing. Yet we rarely ask ourselves what it is that might be missing from our worship and our community.
In large part, British Quakers are asleep; but we are stirring. A growing number of voices are asking whether the way we have come to 'do Quakerism' over the last few decades really serves the needs of our communities or the leadings of the Spirit. Many meetings have confronted their settled opposition to 'proselytising', and started to actively encourage new attenders to our meetings. Some Friends are even starting to question the hardened liberal dogmas that have outlawed the teaching of Quaker spirituality and the ministry of leadership in our communities.
These fitful stirrings have not yet reached a critical threshold of awakening. We may be at a crucial point in our story as British Quakers. Will we toss and turn, only to roll over and go back to sleep? or will we come awake at last, while we still have enough energy and hope to renew our Society and ourselves, to realise the unique possibilities of a renewed Quaker Way for our times?
We have been here before. In the 1860s, when Quakers were in danger of dying out from the loss of members due to rigid enforcement of prohibitions against 'marrying out', we threw away the rule book and embraced engagement with a wider religious and social world. At the very end of the 19th century the 'Quaker Renaissance' movement of John Wilhelm Rowntree, Rufus Jones and Edward Grubb introduced the era of liberal Quakerism. This renewed form of the Quaker Way unleashed a new wave of spiritual vigour and social engagement. It also contributed to the heroic achievements of Friends during the 20th century; from conscientous objection, to the Kinderstransport, famine relief and anti-war movements. We need a new kind of 'Quaker Renaissance' today.
Many other religious communities have been in the same place before us. Most have slid gradually but inevitably into irrelevance and historical obscurity – such as the Muggletonians (yes really), Familists and many others. A few have managed to wake up and renew themselves before it was too late, leading to a new flowering of creative spirituality and social transformation. In her 1993 James Backhouse lecture for Australia Yearly Meeting, Ursula Jane O'Shea drew on the analysis of Catholic religious orders which had successfully renewed themselves (sometimes several times over), to identify the characteristics of successful spiritual renewal. She argues that the renewal of a religious community cannot be achieved purely by reforming structures (although new, more well-adapted structures will result from a renewed community). Neither can renewal be achieved solely by a small group of leaders. Instead, a profound change of community direction depends upon the re-awakening of a willingness and desire for relationship with the divine. For us as Quakers, she argues that:
'Healing spiritual malaise within a group and initiating revival cannot be accomplished by office-holders or weighty Friends. It must be the committed task of a large section of the community, if not all of it. Transformation of a group can begin nowhere else but within each person. Willingness in many members to begin the hard work of inward transformation, without waiting for others to go first, may be the test of a community's desire and capacity to be revitalised...
Renewal of the Society waits for the choice of each Friend: Am I willing to risk the disturbing, transfiguring presence of the Spirit in my life? To obey it? To expect 'the Cross' and dark days as I discover and nurture who I am before God? When we choose to live the spiritual life the Quaker Way, these are the experiences we are committing ourselves to, whatever words we put upon them. If significant numbers of us are not interested in, or willing to live by these experiences, the hoped-for renewal of our meetings cannot occur. But if our collective spiritual power gathers strength it will infect other Friends and newcomers. Ministry will become more grounded in the Spirit and individuals will be inspired by the Spirit to serve our meetings as nurturers, prophets and conservers.'
I welcome your insights into the possibilities of Quaker renewal in Britain. For those who use Facebook, there is also a new group to explore these questions and share suggestions and resources for 'waking up' at Quaker Renewal UK - please join and invite your Friends.
There will also be a weekend on Quaker renewal at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in July 2015, following on from Ben Pink Dandelion's Swarthmore Lecture. More information and bookings here.