Wednesday, 11 May 2016

What Quakers can learn from Beekeepers

Logo: Sheffield Beekeepers Association
This year, as part of my efforts to acquire practically useful skills, I have been learning to keep bees with the Sheffield Beekeepers' Association. Unexpectedly, I have observed some striking similarities between beekeepers and Quakers, as well as aspects of their work that may have something to teach Friends about well-functioning communities.

As with Quakers, one of the immediately apparent things about beekeepers is that any five of them seem to have six opinions. There is a surprising diversity of ideas and approaches to beekeeping methods, given that people have been keeping bees for several thousand years. Within one local group there are many different views about the best methods of swarm prevention, hive design, disease control etc, and no apparent pressure to conform to a majority opinion. Many beekeepers also experiment with different methods and approaches, so that practices are in a continual state of development.

At the same time, there is a clear focus on the common goals of raising healthy and productive bee colonies. This enables an impressive amount of sharing of experience, mutual co-operation and collective action, including an ambitious project to improve the gene pool of Sheffield's bee population. The skills acquired through these practices are also put at the service of the wider community, by offering free swarm collection to Sheffield residents who unexpectedly find themselves with an attic or hedge full of honey bees.

By contrast, it seems to be much more difficult for contemporary Quakers to agree on the common goals of our Quaker practices, although this has not always been the case. The goals of the Quaker way have been expressed at various times in terms such as 'faithfulness to divine leadings', 'walking in the light', or 'following the Guide'. Expressions such as these point to a shared understanding that our task as a community of Friends is to be receptive and faithful to the Spirit that is available to illuminate, transform and guide us. In meetings which lack any such shared understanding of the aims of Quaker practice, it can be difficult to reach practical agreement on a wide range of issues, including the conduct of worship and spoken ministry, teaching of Quaker practices and the right ordering of meetings.

Another apparent advantage of a group that has a high degree of agreement about its shared goals, is that it seems to be able to cope with a broad range of social diversity. Sheffield beekeepers include a much wider range of social backgrounds than is commonly met with in a Quaker meeting, from upper-middle class landowners to traditional working class Yorkshiremen and women. By contrast with Quaker meetings, people who are brought together around a well-understood common practice seem to have much less need for class-specific cultural norms such as Guardian reading, herbal teas and Radio 4.

Sheffield's beekeeping association also demonstrates an impressive commitment to training new beekeepers, which could serve as an example to British Quakers. Their biggest regular project is an annual training programme for beginners, which takes place over several months and attracts about forty new participants each year. This reflects a keen appreciation of the necessity to continually recruit and train new beekeepers, not just for the continuation of the association, but for the future of the practice of beekeeping itself. Beekeepers are not content to be a community that focusses solely on their own needs, because their commitment to the flourishing of the practice requires an attention to the future.

By contrast, our Quaker communities have for many years been equivocal about attracting and teaching new Friends. We have often flattered ourselves on 'not proselytising', and told ourselves that 'people will find us when they are ready'. What this has often amounted to is a complacent focus on the preferences of current members, and an almost complete indifference to the spiritual needs and condition of people who are not already Quakers, as well as the future of the Quaker way as a tradition of spiritual practice.

Thankfully, in recent years Quaker Quest has stirred many meetings to make deliberate efforts at reaching out and communicating with seekers who want to explore the Quaker way. There are still, perhaps, relatively few meetings that are investing the same degree of continuing commitment to the future flourishing of our practice as are Sheffield's beekeepers.

Have you participated in any other communities that might have something to teach Quakers? How can we show a greater commitment to social diversity, inclusivity and the future flourishing of the Quaker movement.

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"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)