Saturday, 30 May 2015

A Gathered People

When I joined the Religious Society of Friends eleven years ago, what I found most moving was the sense of becoming part of an extended family of Quakers past and present. It is a family which contains some wonderful ancestors and fascinating far-flung cousins, as well as a full share of rather peculiar aunts and uncles. By becoming a Quaker, I felt that I was being accepted into the shared history and inner life of this world-wide, centuries-old Quaker family. I was no longer just an individual seeker on a solitary spiritual journey, but part of a 'people', with its own shared stories and culture; sometimes baffling or infuriating, but now also part of my story too.

Most of us in modern, western societies have been taught to value above all else the virtues of freedom, privacy, independence, self-reliance and individuality. In fact, our culture has formed us in the image of the restless, dynamic capitalism memorably described by Karl Marx:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
(Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848)

The prospect of complete freedom from all 'fixed, fast-frozen relations' can be exhilarating, and it has exercised a powerful attraction for the modern imagination; but for many of us there comes a time when the absence of social rootedness leaves us feeling isolated, anxious and depressed. In severe cases this condition contributes to the current epidemic of anxiety and depression in western societies, but it is even more commonly experienced as a pervasive sense of emptiness and meaninglessness. These appear to be symptomatic of our collective uprootedness and isolation; the starvation of our soul-needs for connection, identity, meaning, value and purpose.

In more traditional societies, that have been less uprooted by the forces of modernity, this condition of drastic solitude is virtually unknown. In rural Africa or Asia, you know who you are through your kinship relations and the shared stories, ancestors and religion of your people; as expressed in the African proverb 'a person is a person through other people.' People are born into a pre-existing sea of meaning, a vast network of relationships and mutual obligations within a specific culture and social identity. This is not a romanticised portrait of imaginary 'unspoilt' cultures. I have lived in a South African shanty town and a semi-rural community in Zimbabwe, where I saw at first hand the stark age, gender and tribal discrimination of traditional African culture. Traditional societies are often oppressive and violent, but they are not haunted by meaninglessness and isolation. People know who they are, and what the the purpose and meaning of their life is, because they are part of a people, which gives them a place in a wider story, embedded in relationships with a multitude of others in the past, present and future. This is the way that all people throughout human history have lived until very recently. The very evident advantages of industrial societies that have attracted people throughout the world into cities and away from the limitations of traditional rural life, like most modern remedies, also have their inevitable side-effects.

Wherever traditional people have been dispossessed of their land, culture and social bonds they have been devastated by suicide, crime, mental illness and addiction. As modern Europeans this is our story too; it happened in England first, at the start of the industrial era, before encompassing almost every nation on earth. It is the traumatic experience of industrialisation and urbanisation, and the continuing neoliberal assault on all social bonds, that has created the lonely, anxious, rootless and insecure modern psyche.

The unmet human soul needs for meaning, belonging and purpose have never gone away. Instead they provide a powerful source of motivation within a consumer economy. These needs are targeted by the entertainment and marketing industries, which offer to fulfil deep human needs for connection, status, identity, transcendence and security through the purchase of clothes, technology, holidays and insurance. These commodified experiences and products hook into soul needs that they can never satisfy, creating a cycle of addiction that is the perfect mechanism to drive the endless growth required by a capitalist economy. Consumerism is the hollow, ersatz spirituality of the industrial growth society.

We cannot overcome the hollow meaninglessness of modern society on our own. The solitary existential heroes of Sartre or Ayn Rand prove to be immature fantasies when tested by the reality of our vulnerable human lives. Our deeply rooted needs for meaning and belonging can only be satisfied by the same means that every other human culture has provided; through becoming part of a people. Modern westerners and other deracinated people throughout the world can do this in several ways, but it often involves identification with a religious or ethnic group. It is this impulse to overcome the rootless isolation of modern life that seems to be contributing to the resurgence of religious identity across the world, what John Michael Greer calls 'the second religiosity'. This new religiosity often takes fundamentalist forms, but it is not necessary for religious belonging to be authoritarian or dogmatic. In the Quaker tradition, it takes the form of what early Friends called 'a gathered people'.

A gathered people is not just an association of individuals who happen to share overlapping values or interests. It is formed by the raising and quickening of a new spiritual life and power within each person. Recognising this same Spirit at work in each other draws us into a bond of mutual belonging and commitment – a 'covenant', as described by the early Quaker Francis Howgill in this famous passage:

“And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit, and of the bond of peace, treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion. And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire which the Life kindled in us to serve the Lord while we had a being, and mightily did the Word of God grow amongst us, and the desires of many were after the Name of the Lord. O happy day! O blessed day! the memorial of which can never pass out of my mind. And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation.”
(Quaker faith & practice, 19.08)

When we recognise the life of the Spirit being kindled in another person, it calls forth an answering response in us; this is what early Friends meant by 'answering that of God' in others. A gathered people does not necessarily take the shape of a church, or any kind of formal organisation. It is a belonging to one another through shared hardship, commitment, mutual support, affection, obligation and forgiveness. My family experienced this most powerfully when we were living in Zimbabwe, through the faithful support of many members of our meeting in Sheffield through some very difficult times. Even Friends from our large Meeting who knew us very slightly wrote letters and sent parcels of gifts and books, and gave money to support us when we had to turn to them for help.

As modern Quakers, how can we recover this experience of being a gathered people? It means recognising that we are not isolated individuals on our own spiritual journeys, or just members of a particular local Quaker community, but also part of a living current of spiritual awakening that links us to Friends in the past and future throughout the world.

Do you have a sense of being part of a gathered people? How have you experienced this in your journey with Quakers?


  1. This essay offers much to think about. My impression is that many Friends meetings with a transitory membership provide a rather superficial experience of community. An unprogrammed meeting for worship can be a way of avoiding a deep encounter with God and with one another.

    In order for "community" to be genuine in a typical unprogrammed meeting, ways must be found, and worked at, to get beyond a one hour a week formal worship experience.

    Have the participants visited each other's homes? Have they broken bread together? Have they found opportunities to work together? Have they shared their spiritual journeys with each other on a level not easily done in a regular meeting for worship? Have they found ways to "bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ?" Galatians 2:6

  2. I am in the living activity of gathering itself. I am not gathered. In being that is gathered, the activity of gathering becomes wood and stone. In the living activity of gathering is meaning and identity without regard to community and concepts like " shared hardship, commitment, mutual support, affection, obligation and forgiveness," In the experience of gathering itself these concepts may of have value in one moment but not in another. The flow of living gathering determines value and resulting action or inaction. The flow of life in the activity of gathering guides that which is valued from moment to moment. This Life and flow is intuitive and is the essence of freedom from algorithm. A life or consciousness anchored in the activity of gathering itself breaks and undermines the gathered code ... the Spirit transcends and bypasses the program.

    I do share a life in the activity of gathering with other Quakers.

  3. Thanks for this Craig. I used part of this post with a group of Mid-Essex Quakers. They found it refreshingly challenging!


"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)