Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Life in Community

As part of the work of the new Book of Discipline Revision Committee, we have been exploring the nature of a Quaker community, and what distinguishes it from a social club, political movement or meditation group.

The crucial insight for me is that a purely secular association is based on members' preferences. People may come together on the basis of shared purposes or interests, but it is their individual choices that are primary, and that define the basis of their membership.

There are many organisations, such as sports clubs, charities, political parties and trades unions, where members make generous commitments, and sometimes substantial sacrifices, for the causes that motivate them. The implicit understanding though, is that individuals opt in to these organisations on the basis of their pre-existing interests or values, and remain involved only to the extent that the group continues to serve or promote these preferences. In practice, of course, long-term involvement in any group also tends to form ties of loyalty and belonging which may go beyond the original motivations of their members. According to a purely secular understanding, however, these bonds are quite incidental to the explicit aims of the organisation.

By contrast, a Quaker community is (at least potentially) not just a collection of individuals with overlapping interests, but a 'people'. It is not grounded solely in the preferences of its members, just as the minute of a Quaker business meeting is not just the sum of individual opinions. Instead, people are led to participate in a Quaker community by the action of the Spirit, which may guide them in ways that remain quite obscure to their conscious intentions. A Friend in our Meeting once described to me how she had felt drawn to start attending a Quaker Meeting despite knowing very little about the Quaker way. This was not a matter of looking for a group through which she could pursue her existing interests, but being led by an inner dynamic that was drawing her towards new motives and a deeper encounter with life.

In reality, this Seed of Life is at work in many places in the world where it is not explicitly acknowledged. The Inward Guide is present to everyone, gently nudging them in directions that will enable their flourishing, or wrestling with their resistances and refusal of the Light. Many people are drawn into secular social movements, charities, political action or community groups by the action of this Spirit, drawing them towards opportunities for a more abundant and generous life.

The difference for a community that recognises the activity and guidance of God within each person, is that we can acknowledge this as the basis of our life together. Members of a Quaker community are not just individuals with similar social backgrounds, interests or values. A meeting community is formed by our common response to the same Spirit and Guide that is at work within each of us, however variously it is understood and described. It is our mutual recognition of this shared response that draws us together into community, even with people we might not otherwise choose and with whom we may have little else in common.

It is because we are responding to the same Inward Guide that we come to belong to each other, and to recognise our mutual responsibility and interdependence. We need each other to help us to be faithful to the Seed of Life within, and to practise the disciplines of worship, discernment and testimony that enable that Life to flourish in us and through us.

A community that is grounded in this mutual recognition and shared practice does not have to rely on being socially similar, or having the same opinions or attitudes. Becoming a Quaker does not depend on having the 'right' views or fitting in with a socially homogeneous group. We can find ourselves drawn to a Quaker meeting despite broad differences of background, experience and perspective, and expect both to enrich the discernment of the community through our differences, and also to be continually challenged and transformed ourselves.

Instead of expecting a Quaker community simply to serve or reflect whatever intentions we bring to it, we come in response to an inward call to go beyond our current motivations. Through the practice of the Quaker way together, we can expect our views to be enlarged, our resistances dissolved, our inward wounds healed, and even our desires transformed, so that we grow into "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 is your experience of Quaker community?


  1. Excellent post. This is why it’s important not to turn the Quaker testimonies into a checklist of “Quaker values”. When we start going to Quaker meetings - and quite possibly for a long time after that - we may well not really know why we are doing it or what’s going on.

    1. I respond positively to every word in this article. But first a few words about words. I use myself many of the words you use to express the mystery of connection…. the Inward Guide, the activity and guidance of God within each person, the Spirit, an inner dynamic… Other expressions which I usee are the flow of love, my calm place, even supramental consciousness. I accept that other expressions like the Eternal, the Absolute, our heavenly Father , our loving universal Mother can be efforts to describe the deep connection which others have experienced. We are so often imprisoned by words and this can be seen in « The Friend » in some of the disagreements between theists and non-theists.

      It is the experience which matters and I would like to mention two in my life.
      The first is about attending a simple Meeting for Worship. We live in the Cevennes, 88 kilometers from the only purpose-built Quaker Meeting House in France. Our neighbours think it odd that we drive for three and a half hours there and back to meet for one hour mostly in silence. But in the depth of our silence together I feel a reality, a nourishment which makes the time driving well worth it. I feel the infinite in the finite and the timeless in the temporal. If I am not careful large parts of my life are automatic, a sort of sleep, with a very low level of attention. Martin Buber wrote ; « Real life is in meeting. » Unfortunately, this experience is not recognised by our culture of individualism and materialism. In her recent book « The Business Plan for Peace », Scilla Elworthy writes : « We have the opportunity now, as never before, to develop our consciousness – and therefore our way of treating one another – to a new level. » So we are sitting on a treasure which could save our planet.

      The first experience was in a small Quaker meeting ;The second experience involved a good number of non-Quakers and it worked ! It was in August this year in Congenies Meeting House. Each Sunday we have a Meeting for Worship with from 4 to 20 people. On the 18th August, we held a memorial meeting for Dennis Tomlin who , with his wife, Francoise had the vision of the building, then a private house, becoming La Maison Quaker again. There were almost one hundred participating, some had never experienced a Quaker Meeting. As clerk of the Languedoc Group I gave a simple introduction to the Quaker way of holding meetings ;

      “Just a few introductory words for those of you who have not yet taken part in a Quaker meeting. Know that anyone who wants it can participate.
      Your contributions can be in the form of words to express a memory or a thought for his family ... in the form of singing if you prefer ... or even music if you brought an instrument. You can speak French or English or both if you can or wish to translate.
      We only ask you to take a short break between each contribution. To stand up and talk loud enough to be heard by everyone. At the end of the meeting we will shake hands.”

      We heard contributions in the form of words of personal memories, poems, songs and music on guitar and piano. One was a poem by an eleven year old girl. We did not try to translate everything into the two languages ​​we used, because in the end it was not the words that were important but the presence and the spirit of the participants and we shared moments of deep emotion.

      Remembering Scilla’s words, I pondered on how our way of holding a meeting could change the future of the planet if it were adopted. Silence together and the respect implied in waiting a few moments after a contribution would make meetings of international politicians longer but more open to the “push” or “promptings” of evolutionary energy.

  2. Craig, a really interesting post and it strikes a chord with me. I went to my one and only meeting some 8 years ago. The reason for attending was due to having to wait for my daughter for a couple of hours and since Euston Road was close by and I had been interested for in finding about Quakers for some while.
    I have never been a 'joiner' and while I have a strong faith do not attend any church. However, since that first visit i have not only drawn bit compelled to go but for a variety of reasons have not done so.
    As I am 72, I really should stop pushing back as I need to gain inner peace.

  3. Bob. I do hope you will. We all need inner peace , few are lucky enough to truly find it. But being part of a Quaker community could take you some way there. Sending love.

  4. I empathise with Bob, not just because I too am 72 but because I am also seeking inner peace. And that, Craig, is where this post disappoints. I used to be on the inside of Quakerism looking out but then I came down to earth (with a bump)and am now on the outside looking in. The view is healthier from here and more challenging.I could string together a long list of adjectives to explain what is wrong with Liberal Quakerism, but there's no point. If you are all happy on your little fluffy cloud, keep it that way. But my disappointment with your post is that you never broaden your subject to other believers, not once. Christians yes, but also other people of faith. God knows they have a hard enough time of it without you and others coming along and telling them they should be Quakers.


"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)