Saturday, 19 January 2019

What is Renewal?

A number of Friends have been writing and talking about Quaker renewal for several years, sometimes with very different ideas of what it means. Is ‘renewal’ primarily about reversing the decline in membership, or becoming more socially diverse, or more experimental in our approaches to worship and community?

For me, the essential starting point for the renewal of our Quaker communities is to rediscover the promise of the Quaker way. This is the promise that the source of our purpose, healing and transformation is within, and it can be encountered and followed through collective Quaker practices of worship, discernment and testimony.

The point of this message is not to make abstract claims about what we should believe, or values we should try to live up to. It is practical advice about the direction in which we need to look for guidance and transformation in our lives and communities. The source of our life, of direction, purpose and healing is not somewhere outside, in external authorities, teachers or doctrines; it is within:

"Return home to within, sweep your houses all, the groat is there, the little leaven is there, the grain of mustard-seed you will see, which the Kingdom of God is like; … and here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him."
(Francis Howgill, 1656, Quaker faith & practice, 26.71)
Most of us have a tendency to search for answers, meaning and purpose from external authorities, groups and leaders. It is tempting to look to others to tell us how to live, what to think, and who we should be. In every sphere of life, we seem to want to find someone or something to give us the security of authoritative answers to the dilemmas and uncertainty of our own experience. In politics this results in the dangerous appeal of populist demagogues; in popular culture, the worship of celebrities; and in religion, a dogmatic reliance on the authority of scriptures, doctrines, leaders or institutions.

Instead, the Quaker way offers a path to encountering the source and guiding power of our life within our own experience; “to know the Spirit of Truth in the inward parts, and to be led thereby.” (George Fox, Journal, 1648)

It is possible to understand this source of inward guidance in many different ways. The first generations of Quakers deliberately used very diverse language to describe it, including both personal and impersonal metaphors such as the Seed, the Light, the Guide, the Inward Christ, the Principle of Life and the Inward Teacher.

This original Quaker message can be difficult for many modern Friends to hear because of its Christian imagery. References to God and Christ lead many to dismiss it as outdated or irrelevant to those who don’t consider themselves Christians. But what early Friends were doing involved a radical reinterpretation of Christian stories and symbolism, which can offer us a way to reclaim valuable elements of Christian and other religious traditions.

Many of those today who reject the idea of God are rightly objecting to the concept of a God ‘out there’, above and outside us in some heavenly realm. In fact, this is exactly the misleading idea of God that the original Quakers turned away from, recognising that the true God was not above the sky but within their own experience:

“They said [God] was above the skies, calling it Heaven, but I felt the hand of the Lord within me…”
(William Dewsbury, The discovery of the great enmity of the serpent, 1655)
Increasingly, Christian stories and images are also being supplemented by insights from other religious cultures. What is valuable and important about Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, Sufi and other stories and traditions is not labels of identity, but the ways that they testify to the presence and activity of the same illuminating and guiding Spirit within the lives of people in every culture throughout history.

The Quaker way offers us a key to recognising what is authentic within any religious tradition, including Christianity, and distinguishing it from the distortions of power, privilege, literalism and dogmatism that tend to corrupt every human enterprise. Whatever stories and images display the guiding power of the Inward Light, in any tradition, can help to reveal the life of the Spirit and encourage us to encounter it for ourselves.

Partly as a result of growing tensions over religious language and identity in recent years, we have tended to confuse the Quaker way with yet another system of beliefs and values. The Quaker way is often presented as the belief that there is that of God (or Good) in everyone, or as a set of ‘values’ such as simplicity, truth, equality, peace and sustainability. But this obscures the revolutionary insight of the original Quaker movement: the Quaker way is not a set of beliefs or values to adopt. It is a way of spiritual practice that enables us to become more sensitive and responsive to the presence and activity of the seed of Life within.

The renewal of our own lives and our Quaker communities depends on rediscovering a shared sense of the purpose of Quaker practices; to enable us to continually deepen and renew our experience of the inward life of the Spirit. A deeper and more transformative experience of Quaker worship will lead to more vibrant communities that are attractive to more diverse kinds of people. A renewed practice of discernment will make our leadings clearer and more compelling, enabling us to take risks with confidence in the empowerment and accompaniment of the Inward Guide. This will result in a renewed commitment to Quaker testimony, and a more powerful impact and visibility in the wider world.

This renewal depends on each of us. It is easy to blame our feelings of frustration or lack of spiritual vitality on our Meetings, or on other Friends with whom we disagree. But everything that we need for spiritual renewal is already here. It doesn’t depend on organisational reforms or waiting for others to change. As Ursula O'Shea pointed out over 25 years ago, "r
enewal of the Society waits for the choice of each Friend":
"Transformation of a group can begin nowhere else but within each person… The spiritual vitality of our meetings depends on each of us being faithful to the inward guide.”
(Living the Way: Quaker Spirituality and Community, 1993)
 We are all in need of renewal. We are continually shrouding ourselves in habits of dullness and self-defeating compulsions, resigning ourselves to situations that need to be challenged and neglecting the subtle voice of the Spirit within. Institutions and communities also need regular renewal, as they become caught up in the demands of their own administration and accommodations with the status quo. Spiritual renewal cannot be engineered by organisational changes, but if we practise seeking and following the guidance of the Spirit in our communities, we will be enabled to simplify our organisations to reflect our new priorities and purposes. Instead of sacrificing so much of our time and energy to the maintenance of Quaker structures, we would recognise that all of our organisations exist only to support our Quaker practice, and anything that distracts or interferes with the purpose of finding and following the Inward Guide can be replaced or abandoned.

Renewal is not repetition. The Quaker way of the 21st Century will not use the same words or adopt all the same attitudes as those of the 17th. To be renewed is to become ‘new again’; to encounter the original source of inspiration and vitality that is still continually available within our own experience. It is the discovery of "new thoughts, new desires, new affections, new love, new friendship, new society, new kindred, new faith; and new hope, even that living hope that is founded upon true experience..."
(William Penn, 1677, Christian faith & practice 37).

What does renewal mean to you? Have you experienced the promise of the Quaker way?

1 comment:

  1. Your message is a balm to my heart and spirit. I have grown increasingly disturbed by the current discourse among Liberal Friends. I call them talkers, thinkers and doers...they have forgotten the source of Spirit and joy that comes from seeking the Truth in the silence. Thank you for inspiring me to keep trying to relate to my Friends. I am a very solitary Christian in my meeting and yet they listen when I bring the Gospels to them. Perhaps it is still true that "blessed are the feet on the mountain who bring the good news.:


"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)