|Madonna and child mural at Cyrene Mission, Zimbabwe|
Some years ago, I used to attend a Catholic church in a run-down area of inner-city Liverpool. The congregation was a mix of White working-class locals, African and Eastern European asylum-seekers, people with learning disabilities from the L'Arche community, young L'Arche volunteers from numerous countries, and a sprinkling of elderly nuns, political activists and left-wing intellectuals.
All of these people, with their vastly different backgrounds and educational experience, could not be said to have identical beliefs. Religious traditions such as Catholicism offer a broad umbrella for very different social groups and types of personality, with a correspondingly wide range of theologies and interpretations of their faith. What united this congregation, though, was more than just an agreement to kneel down at the altar rail together. They shared a common religious language, including the imagery and narrative of the Eucharist that enabled them to practise it together as one faith community. As they took part in the sacrament, they were united by their participation in a story that included, but was greater than, all of their personal interpretations.
Every religious tradition includes such a shared fund of stories and images. A shared language doesn't imply uniformity of thought or belief. A common language offers a set of stories, images and concepts, without necessarily imposing a single perspective or interpretation. It gives us common ground to communicate with each other, even across great divides of experience and temperament. A shared spiritual vocabulary allows us to share our experiences, to support, encourage and challenge each other, and to engage in common practices and dialogues within a diverse community.
It is this shared language that the Quaker community in Britain struggles with so much today. Instead of a common vocabulary we have a multitude of incompatible personal languages, often drawn from other spiritual or ideological traditions. In the absence of a shared repertoire of stories and images, we have no option but to resort to a continuous, and often unsuccessful, attempt to translate each others' words into something else that has meaning for us.
Each of us has our own personal story, our own distillation of narrative and belief worked out through the unique circumstances of our lives. Have we given up on the possibility of also having shared stories, that enable us to talk together in a common tongue, instead of continually having to translate between a host of private languages?
Buddhists throughout the world also share a collection of stories, images and teachings. Different schools of Buddhism have their own distinctive texts and traditions, and in different countries and cultures these are taught, expressed and interpreted very differently. Individual Buddhist practitioners also bring their own unique histories and personalities, which often include elements of other religious traditions. It is very common for western Buddhists to have a background in other spiritual traditions, and to continue to draw upon a wide range of spiritual resources. In that sense, there are plenty of Christian-Buddhists, Pagan-Buddhists, and possibly even Quaker-Buddhists.
Like Quaker meetings, Western Buddhist meditation classes are usually open to anyone who wants to attend them, without any requirement to adopt particular beliefs. A significant difference is that Buddhist groups are clear and explicit about the content of their teaching. If an attender at a Buddhist group were to state that they didn't like the word 'meditation' and preferred to spend the time thinking instead of watching their breath, they would be perfectly free to act in this way. The Buddhist community would be unlikely to recognise this attender as a practising Buddhist, however, and certainly wouldn't alter the teaching to accommodate these objections.
By contrast, many Quakers see it as the duty of the meeting to accommodate everyone's preferences, and to encourage everyone to interpret Quaker faith and practice in the way that is most congenial to them. Some Friends object to the language of 'worship', 'discernment' and 'divine guidance' because it does not fit with their rationalist intellectual conceptions. In many cases this leads to the shared language of the Quaker way being quietly dropped, and replaced with anodyne terms such as 'a time of quiet'. Without this shared language, what we can say to each other and to the world is reduced to a minimal vocabulary, largely drawn from the political and bureaucratic language of the dominant culture. This impoverished language leaves us few resources for expressing the distinctive teachings of the Quaker way and communicating the insights of Quaker experience.
The loss of a common language may also prevent us from engaging in core Quaker practices in mutually intelligible ways. Quaker practices such as meeting for worship and business meetings do not just rely on conformity to rules of behaviour. They rest on a level of shared understanding of what the activity is for. Without a shared language for meeting for worship it becomes simply a 'format' rather than a collective spiritual practice. The meeting can become a group of isolated individuals each on our own solitary spiritual journey, rather than a gathered people on a shared spiritual path.
A shared language need not be static or immune to development. Early Quakers developed a rich spiritual language, full of creative imagery. Much of it was drawn from the poetic language of the Bible, but used in creative ways to draw the imagination away from rigid, institutionalised and dogmatic interpretations. They described their spiritual experience in novel and unexpected ways, through expressions such as 'Inward Guide', 'Teacher' or 'Light', 'the Seed', 'the Principle of Life', 'openings', 'clearness' and 'testimony'.
Our Quaker language today has little of this exuberant creativity, although it proliferates in the bureaucratic language of committees, risk assessments, consultations and project management. Perhaps it is one of the tasks of contemporary Quakers to discover fresh possibilities for our religious language today. Instead of whittling it away to conform to the dominant culture, could we keep our language fluid and alive, responsive to the currents of the Spirit in our time and place? Might we come to extend our vocabulary of spiritual practice and experience, to echo all the struggles and joys of contemporary life, while staying rooted in the collective wisdom of Quaker practice over many generations? What might such a revived common tongue sound like?