Thursday, 29 January 2015

What Can We Say?

Part of the Quaker way we have inherited is a tradition of corporate testimony. Quakers are well-known for our opposition to war, but there are many other kinds of testimony that Friends in modern times have acknowledged as collective commitments. These include refusing to tell lies, participate in gambling (including financial speculation), take oaths and use or accept honours or titles (such as 'Reverend' and 'Your Majesty').

Over recent years these collective testimonies seem to have fallen increasingly into disuse. Many Friends have either never heard of them, or don't consider them relevant to their own lives. Even our national representative body Meeting for Sufferings has sometimes forgotten its centuries' old rejection of flattering titles, to the extent of delivering a 'Loyal Address to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II', for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Over the last few decades we have changed our understanding of testimony, turning it into a set of abstract 'Quaker principles' instead of specific commitments to action. I have argued in another post that this is unhelpful, because it sets us up to fail at 'living up to' impossible ideals. Another effect of this understanding of testimony is that by focussing on vague ideals rather than concrete actions, it encourages a wide range of individualistic interpretations. Instead of a collective public witness that Quakers will not take part in lotteries or tell a lie, we now expect to interpret for ourselves the very general 'shared values' of Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace, and even to select which of these separate values is more or less important to me as an individual.

A much broader cultural shift towards ethical relativism has also encouraged Friends to adopt a privatised version of discernment. It is common to hear Friends talk about 'my truth' and even 'my inner light', with the implication that what is 'true for me' cannot justifiably be questioned or challenged by anyone else. If there is no acceptance of over-arching moral or religious claims, then we cannot be accountable to each other for our faithfulness to shared standards of behaviour. At most, we can only encourage each other to decide for ourselves what is true 'for me'.

Despite this individualistic emphasis, our Advices & Queries still sometimes assume that Quakers will acknowledge some shared specific standards of behaviour, eg 'Taking oaths implies a double standard of truth; in choosing to affirm instead, be aware of the claim to integrity that you are making.' (A&Q 37), and 'Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparations for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? (A&Q 31).

The recent commitment of Britain Yearly Meeting to 'work towards becoming a low carbon community' might even be considered an attempt to revive the tradition of corporate Quaker testimony. The vision for this originated from Pam Lunn's 2011 Swarthmore Lecture, which called for a collective Quaker response to the climate crisis. In the event, despite adopting the 'Canterbury Commitment' as official policy (including Britain Yearly Meeting's disinvestment from fossil fuel companies), response at local meeting level has so far been patchy and ambivalent. While a few meetings have embraced the challenge to green their meeting houses or undertake other carbon reduction projects, there has not been a discernible Society-wide response. My sense is that the reason for this is not so much the issue itself, since most Friends are probably making some individual attempts at a 'greener lifestyle' already. It seems to be more an expression of resistance to any call to collective witness and action, which is increasingly perceived as contrary to Friends' right to decide for themselves.

A balance between collective and personal discernment has traditionally been central to Quaker spirituality. Testing our individual leadings through the discernment of our Quaker community, from our local meeting outwards to the national level of Yearly Meeting, is how we have balanced the centrifugal pressures of individual liberty of conscience, with its dangers of impulsive and misdirected enthusiasm.

At the same time, our responsibility for discerning how the Spirit is leading us to act cannot simply be surrendered to the collective, no matter how much we trust its processes and its wisdom. Early Friends such as Isaac Penington were insistent that each of us is 'not to take things for truths because others see them to be truths, but to wait till the spirit makes them manifest to me.' (The works of the long-mournful and sorely-distressed Isaac Penington, 1761) It is our own fidelity to the 'Inward Guide' rather than our conformity to the customs or mandates of any group that keeps our faith and witness authentic. What if our personal discernment is at odds with the discernment of our community, whether our local, area or yearly meeting? Should we simply copy the testimony of other Quakers, even if we have no inward leading to avoid gambling or oppose war?

My own understanding is that being a Quaker involves a respect for our collective discernment, but not necessarily a submission to it. Individual Friends have often been a source of new insight for the Society as a whole, even when they have maintained a solitary position in tension with the Society's collective discernment for many years. Specific testimonies, such as the original Quaker rejection of music, have changed in response to an altered context or new insights. This kind of change is not just a forgetting of former testimony, but deliberately testing and questioning it, to discover what, if anything, is still of value. Such 'faithful challenging' is not the same as simply ignoring our collective testimony and treating it as irrelevant if it doesn't immediately agree with me.

Simone Weil wrote in a similar way about her relationship to (Catholic) Church teachings as 'a permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention, but not an adherence.' (Letter to a Priest, 1951). In another text, she added '[f]or me, in the effort of reflection, a real or apparent disagreement with the Church's teachings is simply a reason for a considerable slowing-down of my thought, and for pushing attentive and scrupulous inquiry as far as it will go, before daring to affirm anything. But that is all.' (Last Text, 1962).

For me, one of the obligations of membership in the Religious Society of Friends is to make myself aware of its practices, including the corporate testimony that it has adopted through the collective discernment of Friends. This does not just involve learning an acronym for four abstract 'Quaker principles', but something much more like an 'attentive and scrupulous inquiry' into the discernment of the wider community, including recent decisions of Britain Yearly Meeting such as the Canterbury Commitment. It is central to the Quaker way that our consciences cannot be compelled to follow others; but it is equally central that we each carry a responsibility for an 'attitude of respectful attention' to the discernment of the community as expressed in our corporate testimony.

Is corporate Quaker testimony important in your life? How do you see the balance between individual leadings and collective discernment in your meeting, and in the wider Quaker community?


  1. Hello Craig. Penington also says in his essay "The Authority and Government which Christ exuded out of his Church" found in volume one of his compiled "Works:"

    "When the Spirit moves in any one to speak, the same Spirit moves in the other to be subject and give way: and so every one keeping to his own measure in the Spirit, here can be no disorder, but true subjection of every spirit; and where this is wanting, it cannot he supplied by any outward rule or order, set up in the church by common consent: for that is fleshly, and lets in the flesh, and destroys the true order, rule, and subjection."

    In this spirit of subjection to one's measure of the spirit, and for conscience sake, I can only respond to your query (remembering you solicited responses) by saying, there is no value or service in common consent as guide or teacher in matters of the spirit and the Spirit. The extent to which we seek to balance common consent or community testimony with direct immediate experience of Presence itself (which is not, by its very nature, individualism or individualistic) is the extent to which we destroy the true order and rule of Presence itself. Outwardly expired community testimonies do not serve to increase the measure inward Light, they, by their very expired nature, destroy it. Community testimony, to the extent it is common consent, is not a valid offset or compensation for directly experienced Presence itself. It destroys the experience by its very nature.

    To extent to which a group of people act out of directly intuited Life itself, is the extent to which inspired inknowing Presence rules rather than outwardly expired principles or rules imposed by common consent. Those ruled by inknowing Light, have no wish to impose outwardly expired forms, only to share the Life itself and nurture each other in the Light; trusting the inward working of Presence itself to illuminate the conscience and conscience of others. Presence itself is the Rule, the Guide, the Community.

  2. I think the Canterbury Testimony was important but I feel it will be political action that will change our commitment to a Green environment. That is why I put my efforts into the Green Party. I understand "the small is beautiful argument", but really the swell in Green Party numbers is coming from young socially aware working people, not retired Quakers.

    I think that Quakers have lost touch with modern society and do not reflect the issues of the culture we live in.

    It would be lovely if by non investment in speculative investments,this witnessed to the super rich and the politicians that we were against the disparity of rich and poor in this country. In fact all it does is diminish my pension. We need to find more modern testaments that will impact on our world.

  3. Part of what you are writing about, I think, is called, in some religious contexts, 'formation'. The idea behind formation is that you allow the views and practics of the tradition to transform you. You do this by adjusting and acquiescing to the tradition. If this sounds abstract, the idea of formation can be understood with analogies to more ordinary activities. For example, when learning chess you learn the game by conforming to its rules. Similarly, when a scientist learns the practices of experimental observation and replication, the scientist is being 'formed' by the traditional practices of what it means to be a scientist.

    I believe that Quakers have lost any sense of formation; of being formed and transformed by the Quaker heritage. What has replaced formation is a kind of hyper-individualism where the Quaker community becomes an occasion for one's own self-expression, particularly in the political realm.

    Chuck Fager, an American Quaker historian, last year published two books on Progressive Quakers. On page 237 of his book 'Angels of Progress' Fager writes, "The move from group to personal conscience was, in fact, a key plank in the Progressive Friends platform, and I contend that its acceptance by Hicksites (and more slowly, by the Orthodox) could be counted as the movement's first important achievement."

    This shift from a corporate witness to individual conscience has undermined any kind of distinctive Quaker presence. But it is understandable; hyper-individualism is pervasive at this time. I don't know if Quakers can recover a sense of being formed by their own tradition, though personally I think it is worth a try.

  4. Hello Jim,

    The message of a conscious anchored and a conscience informed by the direct and immediate experience of Presence itself rather than corporate or common consent traditional or ideological forms is not a message of individualism. To characterize this experience as individualism is to belie a misplaced understanding of essential nature of the experience.

    Hyper-individualism is identity or meaning in and through the manifestation of the individual's ideology, desires, and feelings. That is, the an individual's self-conscious or identity is anchored in his or her outward ideas, desires, and feelings, and seeks manifestation of them without regard to anything else. That is, conscious is anchored in and conscience is informed by the individual's set of outward thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.

    The progressive movements detachment from outward traditional corporate or common-consent forms was progressive to the extent that the message was one of faith in and experience of the immediacy of Presence itself; rather than outward traditional or corporate forms. That progressive impulse was hijacked by an impulse to replace the immediacy of inspired Presence itself with another set of outward constructs. This regression back to identity in and with outward forms merely became a replacing of outward traditional forms with other outward forms that slowly became traditions in themselves.

    Faith in and experience of the immediacy of Presence is neither corporate (common-consent) nor individual. This faith and experience is taught by, guided by, informed by, Presence itself which replaces individual or corporate outward thoughts, desires, feelings, with the light and guidance of Presence itself. In this experience, we no longer look to our own outward constructs or that of other people (teachers or professors) or a group of people to anchor conscious and inform conscience. This is Being/being gathered in Presence itself. This gathering is neither corporate or individual. Presence is the Gathering.

  5. Jim, I don't see you characterizing the experience of Presence as individualism. Instead, I see you discerning that with the loss of traditional Quaker Christianity there came a hyper-individualism to replace it; not the Presence. Further, I see you saying that it would be better to have the tradition in place as a formative structure than the hyper-individualism that has usurped it. Your ideas, if I have correctly understood your thought, are in keeping with the wisdom of our tradition, both according to Jesus (in many places but most clearly in Mt.5) and according to Fox. In his tract "The Sorcerer and the Adulterous Seed," Fox upholds the tradition, the Law and the Testimony (prophetic witness), when he writes: "Now who comes to the Law and to the Testimony, they come to the light; for thy Law is light, but the familiar Spirits peepers and mutterers leadeth from the light, the Law & Testimony, and so brings people from seeking into their God."

    I question whether the tradition will ever find its place again in the Liberal Quaker community. My hope instead is in the thoughtful, the listening, the reflecting person: the person who like Weil disciplines her mind and heart because she needs truth like a body needs health. When I see (or read) this in another human being, then I feel hope.


"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)