Tuesday, 12 May 2020

One Wall, Two Prisons

There seems to be a traditional list of excuses for why so many Quaker Meetings fail to reflect the racial and social diversity of their local communities. These include:

“Silent worship doesn’t suit everyone.”

“We shouldn’t be trying to proselytise.”

“They prefer their own churches, which have lots of singing.”

“Muslims wouldn’t want to come to a Quaker Meeting anyway.”

“We do have lots of diversity, in people’s beliefs.”

“We welcome everyone, but we can’t force people to come.”

Despite their absurd inadequacy, versions of these statements are still frequently used to shut down the conversation as soon as this issue is raised in our Meetings.

But Friends who are not satisfied with these excuses, and want to encourage real dialogue about the possibility of more inclusive Quaker communities, are often unclear about the specifically Quaker motivation for this. Are there any reasons, beyond so-called ‘political correctness’, why Quakers should have a particular concern for the diversity of our Meetings and our movement?

It may be tempting to rely on the “Testimony to Equality” as a justification for wanting Quaker Meetings to be more inclusive, but I’m not convinced this is sufficient on its own. This is partly because the concept of “equality” is too vague to serve as much of a guide to actual practice. Quakers are very unlikely to dispute that people from different social and racial groups are ‘equal’, but this evidently doesn’t translate into any great motivation to get to know them. But relying on a testimony to equality also suggests that the motivation for wanting more inclusive communities is attempting to live up to an abstract ideal. In other words, it is because we think we ‘ought to’ be more diverse, as a way of doing a favour to ‘people less fortunate than ourselves’, rather than out of any desire for relationship with people who might actually have something valuable to offer.

In her eye-opening book ‘White Fragility’, Robin DiAngelo talks about the implicit message which white people receive from our culture; that we are not missing anything if we have no close relationships with people of colour. White people in racially divided societies such as the UK are brought up to assume that being isolated in a social bubble of whiteness comes without any cost, presumably because black and brown people have nothing to offer anyway. Relying exclusively on an ideal of ‘equality’ does nothing to challenge this assumption of white (and middle-class) self-sufficiency, and the status of everyone else as objects of Quaker philanthropy.

Instead of relying on ‘equality’ as the basis of a conversation about diversity in our Meetings, I think it would be more helpful to reflect on what our core Quaker practices need in order to fully realise their potential; especially the practice of discernment in our Meetings for Worship for Business.

In a perceptive discussion of Quaker discernment, Tim Peat-Ashworth and Alex Wildwood argue that “inspiration operating through diversity is God’s way of working”. (Rooted in Christianity, Open to New Light, 2009). In other words, difference is integral to the way that Quakers seek communal guidance.

Quaker discernment relies on a range of viewpoints and experiences being made available to the community through the contributions of its members. None of us individually has the breadth of perspective to be able to see every side of a complex issue, or to fully appreciate ideas that are very far from our own experience. In a community of people with diverse life journeys, we are given the opportunity to learn from each other how to see the world from many different points of view. It is this capacity to listen and learn from our differences that enables communities sometimes to get beyond partial or self-interested motives, and to recognise the divine ‘promptings of love and truth’, wherever they are leading us.

It is sometimes claimed that ‘it doesn’t matter who is in the Meeting for Worship for Business’; because it is God’s purposes we are seeking, rather than our own agendas. But this ignores the important part that each person’s knowledge and experience brings to the practice of discernment. I don’t believe the Spirit will magically give us all the information we need without our active participation (which is why we are urged to come to Meeting “with hearts and minds prepared”). So our own knowledge and experience matters, and the wider the range of experience we have to draw on, the greater our capacity to weigh all of the considerations that are relevant to the issue at hand.

The participation of people from different racial and class backgrounds, ages, abilities and other life journeys is not a matter of ‘representation’; as if they are expected to represent the agendas of competing interest groups. We should not value Friends for their identity labels, but for the different insights and life experiences they bring to our collective discernment. Just as we would consider an all-male committee inadequate, we should be able to recognise that Quaker approaches to politics or spirituality will be sadly limited if (as is often the case) they exclude the perspectives of people who are racially marginalised, working-class or under 50.

It is certainly true that it is not easy to change the composition of Quaker Meetings and committees; why should it be? But the inevitable challenges and failures have for too long been trotted out as reasons to stay as we are and keep doing things the way we are used to. Most importantly, we need to see the lack of diversity in many of our Quaker communities as ‘our problem’ rather than ‘theirs’. If we are serious about practising Quaker discernment faithfully, we will want to prioritise the participation of Friends with diverse life journeys, and be willing to make whatever changes this requires. Instead of making excuses for carrying on as we are, we would engage in a deliberate enquiry to discover what aspects of our current practice are experienced as exclusionary. This would involve, of course, actually asking people of different ages, social and racial backgrounds, instead of simply making assumptions about their needs and preferences.

On the Israeli side of the ‘separation wall’ surrounding the West Bank there is a piece of graffiti that reads “One wall, two prisons”. The truth this expresses is that exclusion and separation impoverish everyone. Our own society, which is so starkly divided by barriers of race and class, also deprives us of relationships with people whose life experiences are very different from our own. As Quakers, whose spiritual practice relies on collective discernment, we are even more reliant on learning from people with different backgrounds and life journeys. None of us has the whole picture: we need each other.

What is your experience of diversity (or the lack of it) in Quaker communities? Have you found ways to have useful conversations about this issue in your Meeting?


  1. The loss to all, both to people in undiverse meeting for worship and to those who feel unincluded in meeting is inestimable. The experience of love, acceptance & inclusion when a community is actually whole and diverse is so healing. But the sense of ownership & being always at home in one's mtg creates fear of not being in charge. People clutch to what they have, not realizing how they'd heal by participating in larger community.

    So I ask, where is the shepherd who leads Friends? Is the shepherd the inner teacher? Is the inner teacher not teaching clearly or loudly, or are there too many distractions to guide one away from the voice of the shepherd? Or perhaps it is possible for our ego to so overwhelm the voice of the shepherd that it cannot be heard?

    There's really quite a bit of diversity among friends, speaking globally. So many Quakers around the world are not white, but among American east coast FGC type Friends, a few trends seem to prevail. First there is far greater familiarity with comfort than with discomfort. It's hard to want to change when you are comfortable. I've seen a lot of Friends who really do move outside their own comfort zone, and when one does, remarkable things can happen.
    See, I think it's the fear of being wrong, and being heir to so much that was gotten from

  2. Thank you Craig for this post and to Kathryn for your comment. As a person of colour, I was a member of the RSOF for over twenty years. I still see myself as a Quaker although I felt I had to resign after hearing about the session on White Privilege at YM2019. The decision was not taken on a whim; I discussed it with my Overseer and other members of my Meeting.

    It seemed that there were Quakers at YM acting in a defensive manner during the session, "Is it not ok to be White", for instance. In my view, they were sabotaging the session. Others were openly rejecting Inclusivity, "We're happy with things as they are."
    There seemed to be no robust challenge to those views at the time. I decided I could no longer be a member of a society that allowed those views to be aired so openly.

    I cant tell you how pleased I was to bump into Quakers in the 1990s; a religion that allowed me the freedom to engage with spiritual ideas for the first time in decades; where its forms of worship were so enriching (usually). And then to come down with a bump to realise that there are Quakers who want to belong to a Middle Class, White club.
    I know it is not all Quakers who think like this. I have many wonderful Friends in my own Meeting and the fact that White Privilege was on the agenda for YM shows this but I fear that the session also revealed that there are Quakers who want to dig their heels in and remain exclusive.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, and I'm very sorry to hear that you no longer feel able to be a member of Britain Yearly Meeting because of this behaviour.
      In Friendship, Craig

    2. The way I discerned to cope with this issue was to step out of Membership but to remain as Attender..thus my spiritual fellowship is no longer outwardly compramised by 'form'..in friendship.

  3. I don't think you have the right test, when you say "a deliberate enquiry to discover what aspects of our current practice are experienced as exclusionary". I would say it is more individual, personal habits, and these come from endemic white privilege in society. For example when a Black man referred to himself as a "Yorkshireman" I realised my concept of "Yorkshireman" included whiteness, and so was racist. This is not my response as a Quaker, but my unthinking response as a white British person. And it is personal- led by the world, rather than the Light, perhaps- not institutional.

    To be more inclusive of disabled people we might relax the convention that you have to sit still in meeting, and be prepared to recognise all sorts of reasons people can't sit still. We don't tolerate them on suffrance, we welcome all of the person and their characteristics. That expands the "Us", the "We" that is doing the welcoming. But asking Black people how our practices might be changed to include Black people- what? Silent worship? Shaking hands beforehand? The style of our outreach posters?- won't answer the problem. It can't harm, it just puts too much weight on that process to come up with The Answer.

    A Quaker told me she experienced Quakers touching her hair, in curiosity. Black people's hair is so different! "I did not think it would be so soft," said a white Quaker, wonderingly. Some Black Quakers might be excluded by that. This woman stuck with Quakers, for the moment. That shows a more pervasive problem, which needs more self-analysis and listening.

  4. Thanks for this Craig. It speaks my mind though there is more to add .....
    I attempted to comment after Kathryn but managed to lose the whole thing!
    The comments since then have reinforced how I feel about this.
    For me, one aspect that clouds the conversation and the hope of discernment around this is what I term as Quaker niceness and our desire to be seen as nice reasonable people which in itself is a specific trait of "white middle classes". Well we are nice and we are reasonable, for the most part, but this is not helpful and it is a superficial veneer that we hide behind.
    The reasons you give for why we should be more inclusive and diverse are absolutely valid and urgently necessary but sadly, for the most part knowing that these are true does not get us to where we need to be.
    The "niceness" gets in the way for two reasons.
    The first is that too often it leads to placation or appeasement around issues in an attempt not to hurt anyone's feelings. I am sure that most of us can recall examples of this.
    The second is that, particularly on the issues of inclusion, diversity and recognising / understanding privilege, it leads to defensiveness and denial. It is very upsetting to contemplate that our actions are exclusive and create barriers when we believe we are such nice and reasonable people and so when issues arise that fundamentally challenge this perception of ourselves it leads to the "traditional list of excuses" which all effectively say "let's not talk about this it is unthinkable that we could behave exclusively".
    There are two things to say here.

    Consider that you may be wrong.

    There is that of God in everyone.

    "it doesn’t matter who is in the Meeting for Worship for Business’; because it is God’s purposes we are seeking, rather than our own agendas"

    The above is true ... to the extent that I hope to witness one day a completely random person walking into a Meeting, listening, making a pertinent comment and then leaving, never to be seen again.
    That comment is as valid as anything anyone else might have to say.

  5. I have recently stopped believing that Quakerism is the way forward because it has changed so radically in the last decade as to be unbelievable.

    I was raised by my Grandparents from the age of 7 (during WWII) until I was called up into the Army for National Service at 17 yrs old. I told the padre that I was a Quaker and suddenly I was the victim of bullying, verbal and physical, from the Privates up to Senior Officers. I was called all the usual insults, conscientious objector, coward and awarded the White Feather, and they where the polite names! I survived those two years and did not waver from the Quaker path, as the saying goes "I stuck to my guns".

    Now I am 83, no family or friends left, disabled and with neighbours who don’tbother with me, one of them never even speaks to me, he is a devout “born again christian” and convinced that Quakers are like Jehovahs Witnesses. I tried to seek help from one meeting near me and they never even acknowledged my emails, so I turned to another Meeting House and appealed to them, although they did sent one person to see me with a promise of help with shopping, coming for a regular chat because I cannot get to the First Day Meetings now, my mobility scooter hasn't got the range.

    As I said, Quakerism as changed so radically now that it's nothing like is was when I was a boy. I used to go with them to the meetings in Grandads pony and trap held in "The Big House" in Fenny Drayton. Actually it was a room in the Manor House, and it used to be crowded with good people Now that has long gone, demolished to make room for a small estate of houses for the upper classes, and they had the affront to call it Quaker Close!

    Perhaps now you will now understand why I am disgusted with most Quakers nowadays. I took my Quaker enamel badge off my coat, where I had worn it with pride for many years, and threw it into the trash can because it had lost it's meaning for me.


"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)