Sunday, 25 September 2016

Spiritual Generosity

For many years Quakers in Britain have been deeply reluctant to share the riches of the Quaker way with others. We have labelled any attempt to welcome potential new Friends as 'proselytising', but as Paul Parker has pointed out, "there is a big difference between proselytising and not hiding." Our long-standing refusal to actively invite newcomers is not just liberal reticence. It is a failure of generosity and of imagination; an inability to imagine that people who are not 'just like us' might also find something of value in Quaker practices.

By refusing to reach out to people beyond our existing social circles, expecting them instead to 'find us when they are ready' without any assistance from us, we have become narrowly self-selecting in our social make-up. The culture of British Quakers is now dominated by the views and experiences of a very restricted social group; largely white, retired and overwhelmingly from the education and health professions. There are many good and valuable things about this subculture, but it is inevitably very limited in its range of experience and perspective on the world.

We have unintentionally backed ourselves into a subcultural ghetto, which both restricts the range of insights available to our ministry and discernment, and also makes it extremely difficult for the vast majority of people in our society not to feel uncomfortably out of place in any of our Meetings. 

In recent years, initiatives such as Quaker Quest and national Quaker Week have challenged Friends to overcome this exclusive 'culture of hiddenness'Meetings which have done this have often encountered unexpected benefits as Friends have learned much more about each otherquite apart from the energy and enthusiasm brought by new attendersEven those Meetings which have experimented with some form of outreach, however, are not always clear about the reason for doing it. Is it in order to grow as a Meeting, to prevent Quakers in Britain from dying out, or for some other reason? 

The Religious Society of Friends is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for nurturing the spiritual practices that can sustain a more fully human life – one that is guided by and surrendered to the Principle of Life within.  What Quakers in Britain have to share with others is a tradition of spiritual practice that enables us to encounter a source of healing, guidance, meaning and purpose within ourselves, and the quality of the community life that emerges from sharing these practices together. The motivation for our outreach is spiritual generosity towards all of those people who are experiencing the confusion, meaninglessness and disconnection that are so characteristic of our times. 

Authentic spiritual practices are remedies for the soul-sickness of a culture that suppresses and distorts our inner lives in order to keep selling us distraction. The Quaker way offers a path through the modern condition of meaninglessness and isolation by drawing us into the purposes of God, by which our own healing and growth into maturity are brought to participate in the healing of the world. 

Spiritual generosity challenges all of us to move outside our comfortable social ghettos and to share the life-giving riches of the Quaker way with people of different cultures, experiences and life-journeys. We need to be willing to enlarge our image of what a Quaker community might look, sound and act like. We need the generosity to reach out to welcome those whose differences can enlarge and enrich our experience of Quaker community, and our insights into the leadings of the Spirit for our times. 

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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)