There is a lot of concern at the moment about differences of belief among Quakers. Some Friends are afraid that their beliefs may not be acceptable to others in their Meeting. Many are uncertain about what kind of language it is acceptable to use in ministry, or in collective statements such as minutes and outreach materials. Since Quakers now seem to have very few beliefs in common, what can we say collectively that truthfully reflects our views and that doesn’t make some feel excluded?
It is often claimed that even if we have different beliefs we all have the same underlying experiences in common. Listening to Friends who are willing to talk about their spiritual experience, though, it doesn’t take long to discover that this isn’t the case. Some Quakers have had profound experiences of oneness with the natural world, others encounter the sacred in other people, some experience the presence and guidance of a personal God, others have described visions and encounters with personal spiritual beings of other kinds, some find their deepest source of meaning in ethical principles or values, and so on.
Both beliefs and experience differ widely among Quakers, but this is not, in itself, either unusual or problematic. There is no religious community in which everyone has identical beliefs. Every person's own understanding of faith will depend on their differing experiences, temperament and education. In the Quaker movement, diversity of religious understanding, opinion and experience has been a particularly marked feature throughout most of our history.
What has changed in recent decades is that until the late 1960s the Quaker community as a whole shared a collection of sacred stories. They knew and used the stories of the Bible, including the life and sayings of Jesus, the creation story, the history of Israel, and the writings of the prophets and apostles, to explain the meaning and purpose of their community and its practices.
The first generation of Quakers called their movement ‘Primitive Christianity revived’; identifying themselves with the story of the early Church. George Fox drew on the Gospel stories in which Jesus promised to return at the end of history to claim that ‘Christ has come to teach his people himself’, in the form of the ‘Inward Christ’, within the lives and bodies of the ‘Children of the Light’. This made sense of Quaker worship as the way that the gathered community encounters the presence of Christ and expects to receive inspired ministry and guidance. The distinctively Quaker versions of the Christian stories explained their Meetings for Church Affairs as discerning God’s purposes for the community. Quaker testimony was shaped by the Sermon on the Mount, which prohibits oaths, violence, empty ritual and religious hierarchy. Early Friends understood their testimony as the way that God was revealing the Divine intentions for the world through the Quaker community.
Because Quakers had these stories in common, they shared a language for describing their experience. Quaker writings until about 50 years ago are filled with references to Biblical characters, parables, myths and symbols, which all carried shared meaning because of their resonance with familiar stories. Quakers used these stories and symbols in distinctive ways, which were often sharply at odds with official versions of Christianity. They were also given creative new interpretations, according to individual Friends’ differing perspectives and spiritual experiences. The use of these shared stories was not a sign that Quakers all had the same beliefs, but that they had a common vocabulary for expressing and interpreting their differences.
Since the late 1960s, as British society has become more plural and more secular, British Quakers have also become much more diverse in the stories we use to make sense of the world. We do not now share a common vocabulary of Biblical stories. Some Quakers are very familiar with the Bible, many others are more familiar with Buddhist, pagan, humanist or other traditions of thought. Many of us use stories and ideas from many different sources to try to make sense of what we do, and to understand and describe our experiences. Because we don’t share a common language that we can expect to be accessible to all, we rely on others trying to ‘translate’ whatever language we use into their own terms to understand what we are saying. But since we don’t know what concepts or stories others are using to ‘translate’ our words, it is difficult to know what, if anything, we have managed to communicate.
In the absence of shared stories about what we are doing in worship, in discernment and in our testimony, we don’t have a collective way to explain or justify how we practise them. Without any shared explanation for spoken ministry in Meeting for Worship, or why we agree minutes in a Business Meeting, these practices become increasingly difficult to learn and to pass on to others. Simply saying ‘that’s how Quakers do things’ is not enough to convince people who are new to Quakers or who have got used to doing things another way. As a result, many Quaker committees and even some Local Meetings have abandoned the Quaker business method, as it seems to be more convenient to have meetings that follow the conventions of modern workplaces. For a long time we have been able to rely on a collective tradition of ‘how we do things’, without being able to justify or explain them to newcomers or each other, but this tradition is being steadily eroded as we increasingly tend to conform to the norms of the wider culture, in the absence of any convincing reasons for maintaining distinctive Quaker practices.
This is not, at root, a problem of individual differences of belief; it is the loss of a shared communal resource. Just as a group can’t sing together unless they all know the same songs, we cannot practise the Quaker way together unless we are familiar with the same stories. Knowing the same stories does not mean having the same beliefs. Religious stories can be approached in many different ways - as historical accounts, mythological allegories, poetry, psychological truths, philosophical statements, moral teachings etc. Our way of interpreting sacred stories will usually change over time. As adults we are unlikely to understand a parable such as ‘the Good Samaritan’ in just the same way we did as a child. Stories are, by their nature, open-ended and flexible; open to endless possibilities of personal reflection, re-working and creative imagination. Sacred stories work by engaging the imagination and emotions as well as our rationality. At the same time, they provide the shared resources of symbols, characters and narratives that enable a community to have a collective conversation, instead of each person being isolated within their own personal language.
When Britain Yearly Meeting made the decision recently to rewrite our Book of Discipline (currently Quaker Faith & Practice), we set ourselves the challenging task of explaining why we carry out our practices for church government as we do. Having an explanation for the Quaker business method or Quaker forms of organisation relies on having shared stories to tell about the meaning and purpose of these practices. At the moment we don’t have these shared stories, but perhaps it is possible for us to find them.
I do not think it is possible for us to go back to relying on Christian stories alone for our shared language. We live in a culturally and spiritually diverse society, and our community includes people from many different backgrounds, with all sort of religious influences. Like many others, I first started to explore spirituality through practising Buddhism. There are many different stories and traditions that are important sources of insight for Friends, including some that are not explicitly religious, such as the psychological approaches of Jung and Carl Rogers for instance.
For these different influences to become part of a shared Quaker story, rather than just private preferences, we would need to do something that we have tended to avoid. We would have to share them. This means talking to each other about the stories that give us insight into the meaning of our experience, and that help us to interpret our Quaker practice. If we have learned something important from Buddhism, or from Jung or Starhawk or Rumi, that helps us to understand what happens in Quaker worship or business meeting, or that informs how we live as Quakers, we could share with each other the stories that have helped us, so that other Friends can also find out what we have learned from them.
There’s a reason we don’t usually do this. It makes us vulnerable to open ourselves up to others. We might feel anxious that our experiences will be dismissed, that our stories will be judged and rejected. We risk exposing ourselves to challenge; perhaps having to think about the stories we are using and how we interpret them. How do they fit with other people’s stories? Are they complementary or incompatible? If I find another Friend’s stories strange or disturbing, where does my reaction come from? We have too often tended to rely on censoring ourselves and each other, to avoid using controversial words because some Friends have strong reactions to them. Instead, we might adopt a more questioning approach. If there is a word or symbol or religious tradition that I find distasteful I can choose to ask myself, ‘what is going on here? What is this reaction telling me about my own history with this word? Is there something in this tradition that I am missing because of my partial experience?'
This approach is certainly not easy. It is much easier for us to carry on as we are, avoiding the risk of giving offence by self-censorship and never really getting to know each other in ‘that which is eternal’. The risk with continuing in this way is that we will steadily lose any shared tradition of religious practice. Without shared stories that describe the significance of core Quaker practices such as worship, discernment and testimony, the Quaker way cannot survive. The dominant culture has a powerful story about the way the world is. It is a meaningless, indifferent universe, in which we can arbitrarily choose our own values but never find any inherent purpose or value. There is no truth to be discovered, only ‘personal truths’ to be asserted and projected onto the blank screen of the world. No purpose to our life beyond our own preferences, no guidance to be found, and nothing to heal or transform the world through us.
In the absence of any alternative shared stories of our own, British Quakers are inevitably being shaped in the image of this story; the modern myth of a meaningless universe. The result is our steady drift towards becoming a neutral space for private journeys of self-discovery; a well-meaning, left-leaning ethical society, instead of a religious community with a spirituality and a practice that is powerful enough to change the world.
What are the stories that have shaped your understanding of your life as a Quaker? Do some apparently conflicting stories offer complementary perspectives on Quaker practice, and can we distinguish them from stories that are incompatible with Quaker experience and testimony?