Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Way of Practice

“It is not opinion, or speculation, or notions of what is true, or assent to or the subscription of articles or propositions, though never so soundly worded, that … makes a man a true believer or a true Christian. But it is a conformity of mind and practice to the will of God, in all holiness of conversation, according to the dictates of this Divine principle of Light and Life in the soul which denotes a person truly a child of God.” 
(William Penn, 1692, in Quaker faith & practice 26.78)
As William Penn makes explicit in this passage, the Quaker way is not a set of beliefs but a way of practice. To follow the Quaker way does not mean believing that there is ‘that of God in everyone’ but the practice of turning our attention towards the divine Guide within ourselves, and following in the way we are led, as individuals and communities.

In a society that was obsessed with doctrinal conformity, the first Quakers rediscovered Jesus’ emphasis on action over words:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7: 21)
The early Quakers certainly engaged in controversy and argument, but they did not stop at it, as so many other groups did. They saw that for Christianity to be real it had to be not just preached but enacted; in the streets, in courtrooms and in prisons. They ‘let their lives preach’ by demonstrating what it looked like to live from the power and direction of the Inward Christ.

This is what early Friends called their ‘testimony’- not just believing in ‘truth’ and ‘equality’ but refusing to swear an oath in court or bow to social superiors, and suffering imprisonment or beatings as a consequence. Without this stubborn witness in action they would have been just another quarrelsome sect, easily silenced by the threat of persecution.

The weakness of our current language of ‘Quaker values’ is that it can lead us to focus more on our thoughts and feelings rather than our actions - emphasising what we value and believe over what we do. We have tended to turn the Quaker way into a list of values, beliefs and principles. Perhaps this is because it serves our need to feel secure, comfortable and good about ourselves. Just as 17th Century Puritans could use the orthodoxy of their religious ideas to convince themselves of their own superiority, it is tempting for us to congratulate ourselves on the rightness of our values and principles. But the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ - allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

How do you experience ‘the surrendered life?’ How have you been led to respond to the guidance and power of the divine life within you?


  1. Thank you, Craig. "Turning our attention to the divine Guide within ourselves" can only be done once one has received the faith that comes from above. Prior to that, we have only man-made beliefs, values, and principles to turn to. We can't come to a "conformity of mind and practice of the Will of God," as Penn wrote, if we mistake (or place) our own wills for His, done since the Fall. If we make the light in our conscience our standard, however, we will be led up to receiving Christ, the author of our faith. Then do we become the sons and daughters of God, in receiving (mark! receiving) this revealed faith, not in attempting to formulate it, and we know where to turn to know the divine Guide. As Fox said, "I took you to your teacher and left you to him."

    It is neither activism nor a quiet life of prayer that we anticipate. We want no direction to one kind of life orientation or another; we only want Life! Let whatever else that will (or nothing at all) accompany Life, and our lives will be and feel fulfilled. Frankly, it's creaturely to anticipate any outcome, or that there will be an outcome.

    You've done well, I think, to dispel the old cult of activism among Friends, and likewise have displaced belief as the hallmark of authenticity. I hope that you'll examine an essay recently published by Ellis Hein, in which he distinguishes between belief and faith, as your writing deals with a similar topic. Here's a link to his essay: Thanks again for your thoughtful essay.

  2. It is interesting how we came to use the SPICE testimonies in part as a way to avoid thorny issues of belief and instead, those testimonies themselves morphed into an empty dogma.

  3. I received as a gift a couple years ago a book called The Wisdom of the Beguines, about the medieval movement of lay women religious. There are several threads in it that are reflected in our Quaker faith. One of them is this:

    "For these women, prayer was being in the presence of God, seeking to unite their minds and hearts with the One they loved (and whom they frequently referred to as their "Beloved"). A central goal in life for beguines was unity of will--that their personal will would become so united with the will of God that they essentially functioned as a unified whole. God's heart would be the seeker's heart; the seeker's heart would find a home in God and God alone. This unity of will would be evidenced by joy, mercy and compassion, and love."

    One of the 3 things Hicks said was required of a Christian was:

    "A complete passive obedience and submission to the divine will and power inwardly and spiritually manifested; which when known, brings to the Christian state, through a crucifixion of the old man, with all his ungodly deeds."

    These, along with your Penn quote, point to the doctrine of perfection, which seems unpopular among Friends today. "Is this what God wants?" is a very different question to ask yourself than "is it really so bad?"

    Thank you for this. I've been annoyed by the way liberal Friends use "testimony" to mean simply "value" instead of something much closer to "witness." I recall seeing Quaker Jane's glossary entry for testimony (check out the longer article she links too) and finding that a much more powerful use.

    Relatedly, I find it weird how the problem you describe (and the "SPICES" checklist) is so prominent in Liberal Quakerism. Elias Hicks started this branch. That man was pretty darn adamant about the importance of the Discipline. Friends spent years discerning the Will and figuring out some things they were darn sure we ought to do or ought not to do. The particular "ought"s and "ought not"s Friends found that once set us apart from everyone else ("Quaker distinctives") are just about gone among Liberal Friends. Were earlier generations of Friends actually completely wrong in their discernment, or is discipline hard and so a word we don't like?

    1. "Is this what God wants?" is a very different question to ask yourself than "is it really so bad?"

      Thank you for articulating this perfectly.

  4. When we think of practice it is easy to think of the visible things we do such as campaigning, or running foodbanks etc. But the practice is the practice of paying attention to that within us which guides, forgives etc. And when we do that(practice that) we are led to the visible actions because we can't not do them. And our visible actions will be different depending on our personal situation.

    My faith was transformed when I realised that it wasn't a case of trying to live according to our testimonies. It was that when I paid attention to the spirit, light, God within me then my life became my testimony.

  5. Craig, I find your use of the word "values" in this post somewhat odd. My understanding of the word is "something that drives behaviour". If you value something or a certain sort of behaviour, it must, by definition emerge in the way you behave.

    So with this understanding of the word "values", it would be impossible to claim to hold say the value, "equality of all races", and be a racist at the same time.

    The common use of the word "belief" has certainly been downgraded to the point where it normally means "to hold an opinion that". So its perfectly possible to "hold the opinion that Jesus was God", without that affecting your behaviour in any way at all.

    Its also my understanding that the word usually translated as "believe in" used in the Bible originally meant to "put your trust in" or "to rely on wholeheartedly", which is a very long way from the way many Christians interpret "believing in Jesus".

    I would further suggest that individual Friends would do well to find out their values truly are. In other words, what is their actual behaviour and what are the thought patterns driving that behaviour? Merely attending Meeting does not at all guarantee that your values are Quaker ones. However attending Meeting does give Spirit the opportunity to point out to you what your values really are.

    1. Thanks for this Richard. I agree that we can use the word 'values' to mean the deep source of motivation for our actions. As you rightly point out, in this case it is not straightforward to know what our values actually are, and we certainly don't get to choose them.
      In Friendship,


"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)