Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Quakerism as a Second Language

Religions are often caricatured as a set of competing 'belief systems', whose incompatible claims to knowledge about the universe are based on irrational faith rather than reason and evidence.

In a recent post on Brigid, Fox, and Buddha, Rhiannon Grant has explored an alternative way of understanding religions, as being similar in many ways to languages. She writes that “knowing your religion really well, or being really competent in it, is like being fluent in a language.” She also points to the possibility that “without enough fluent users, religion might change beyond recognition, just as a language dies without speakers.”

This is a very fruitful way of understanding a religious tradition such as the Quaker way. It is obvious that a shared language doesn't require identical beliefs, (although different languages may inflect our perceptions in various ways), but it does provide a shared vocabulary for communication. Less obviously, this is also true of many religious traditions, including Quakerism. Religious traditions offer shared words, images, stories and practices that enable a community to communicate their experiences and engage in common projects. Any religion that is broader than a fundamentalist sect provides space for a wide range of beliefs and interpretations to be expressed through a shared vocabulary, just as different language communities do. The point of a religious tradition such as the Quaker way is not to provide a pre-packaged set of beliefs about the universe. Instead, it embodies a set of teachings and practices whose purpose is to enable us to become changed men and women, growing into our calling to contribute to the healing of the world.

For most of us in Britain, even those who have grown up in Quaker families, our first language is much more likely to be some form of secular liberalism than anything else. In addition, many of us have come to Quakers after, or alongside, exploring one or more other religious traditions, which we may have learned with varying degrees of fluency. So Quakerism is most often a second, third or fourth language rather than our 'mother tongue'.

Given that most of us are not 'native speakers' of the Quaker way, just as with any new language it takes some effort to become fluent in it. We will certainly not acquire fluency simply 'by immersion', as has often been assumed in the past, as we are most likely to be in meetings with Friends whose grasp of the Quaker way is at least as patchy and broken as our own.

For many decades Quaker communities have neglected to actively teach the 'language' of the Quaker way to newcomers. The assumption has often been that people will 'pick it up as they go along'. Instead,what has increasingly happened is that the Quaker way has been largely replaced by the secular and individualist language of the dominant culture, leaving only an impoverished remnant of the original rich grammar and vocabulary of Quaker thought and practice. We have retained just a few token phrases, often misinterpreted and out of context – 'that of God in everyone', 'walk cheerfully over the world', 'the inner Light', divorced from the richness of imagery, stories and concepts that makes up the full 'language' of the Quaker way. The Book of Discipline that we have discerned together as a Religious Society - our 'Quaker grammar', is widely ignored or dismissed as 'just for guidance', rather than the foundation of 'Gospel Order'.

Fluency in a language is required to practice it fully. Even a few words and phrases of a foreign language can be useful or thought-provoking, but without at least one language in which we are reasonably fluent our options for expression and relationship will be severely limited. Similarly, a degree of practised knowledge of the Quaker way is essential if we are to allow ourselves to be formed and changed by it. Without this fluency, we will miss its full potential to change us, to build us up into authentic communities, and to be agents of healing and transformation for the world.

It is one of the ironies of contemporary Quaker culture that many Friends are more familiar with the spiritual teachings and practices of Buddhism, Sufism or Paganism than those of the Quaker way itself. For many of these Friends, Quakerism is simply the absence of any distinctive spiritual teaching, a place where everyone is free to bring their own beliefs and preferences into the accepting 'Quaker Space', rather than a religious tradition with its own wisdom and insights that are at least as valuable as those of other traditions.

Those of us with a concern to revive the practice of a distinctive Quaker spirituality have similarities with movements to preserve minority languages threatened by over-dominant neighbours, such as Gaelic and Welsh. Just as modern speakers of these minority languages are engaged in creatively developing their vocabulary to keep it useful for contemporary life, our aim is not to freeze the Quaker tradition at some point in history, but to keep it alive and engaged with current concerns.

Fortunately, one of the hopeful signs of renewal among contemporary Quakers is the flourishing of opportunities for learning the riches of the Quaker way. These include accessible and contemporary books such as Patricia Loring's 'Listening Spirituality' and Rex Ambler's 'The Quaker Way', recent Swarthmore Lectures and Pendle Hill pamphlets, Quaker blogs and videos, Woodbrooke courses, and the new online collection of learning resources from Woodbrooke and Quaker Life called 'Being Friends Together'.

How are you learning to 'speak the language' of the Quaker way? What resources or teachers have helped you to appreciate the richness of our unique spiritual tradition?

Monday, 9 March 2015

Quaker Social Media

Considering how much of our lives is now spent online, there seems to be remarkably little reflection by British Friends about how this might affect or be influenced by our Quaker practice. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of the internet in Quaker faith & practice, which was produced in 1994, shortly before internet use became widespread in the UK.

Over the last twenty years, online tools such as email, blogs and social networking have already begun to affect aspects of Quaker culture and practice. They also exercise more subtle influences on our modes of consciousness, identity, relationships and spirituality. Some of these have been considered by Young Friends General Meeting, which has produced several 'Advices & Queries' on the use of communications technology, including this thought-provoking passage:

'Consider the value of communications technology in nurturing or re-establishing relationships and communities where physical distance or time may be barriers. Which form of technology is most appropriate? The written word or electronic images may be interpreted differently when viewed without interaction in person. Be careful of over dependence on this sense of constant connectivity and consider 'switching off' from time to time. Time alone can provide its own source of spiritual nourishment.'

Social media and other online media offer powerful tools for enabling, nurturing and re-establishing relationships. They have obvious benefits for overcoming barriers of distance, particularly for people who are geographically isolated or who have difficulties with mobility. Social media have also created new possibilities for Quaker ministry. In the USA, Quaker bloggers have had a significant influence on the wider Quaker culture through the 'Convergent Friends' movement and the blogging network at QuakerQuaker. Quaker bloggers also respond to and share each other's writings, and readers comment on posts and discuss them with each other, creating a lively shared dialogue. In some ways this echoes the vigorous pamphleteering of early Friends, which made use of the new communications technology of the printing press to create a new participatory culture of religious publishing.

As with all forms of religious ministry, blog writing requires a degree of maturity and self-discipline. Bloggers can easily be tempted by the absence of editorial oversight to fall into self-righteous or aggressive posturing. At their best, Quaker blogs offer an extraordinary range of insightful, informed and spiritually profound written ministry. Steven Davison has written about our times as a 'third golden age of Quaker theology', partly due to the extraordinary range and depth of Quaker writing online, which is becoming an increasingly important vehicle for prophetic and teaching ministry.

Many Friends are also using online technologies for conducting Quaker practices, including committee business and 'online Meetings for Worship'. These applications raise the question of how the relationships we have with others at a distance differ from those that are face-to-face. There seems to have been remarkably little collective discernment about the role of these innovations in our shared Quaker practice. There is some guidance from Quaker Life on teleconferencing for business meetings, which recommends restricting telephone conferences to matters that do not require significant discernment. This implicitly acknowledges that there may be significant limits to long-distance communication.

Meeting together in virtual space, we can scarcely avoid presenting a persona that is only a fragment of who we are as whole people. This is certainly not a new phenomenon; it has been a part of human experience since people started communicating regularly by letter (the pen is also a 'communication technology'). In modern times, however, there is a widespread assumption that any differences between long-distance and face-to-face relationships are relatively trivial, and that text-based communication or Skype conversations are effectively equivalent to meeting in person. This seems to neglect the extent to which who we are is not fully reflected by our written words. It is intimately bound up with our embodied presence.

A disregard for the significance of the body is one of the pathologies of the current technological era. There is a widespread fantasy that we are essentially disembodied brains that unfortunately just happen to be imprisoned in fleshy bodies. In reality our bodies are integral to our identity and relationships. My language-based persona can communicate with others in virtual space, and these conversations can, of course, be satisfying and helpful, and may also lead to or complement face-to-face relationships. But full human relationships, which are what we aim at in Quaker community, depend on physical presence. In a recent discussion on Quaker Renewal UK, Gordon Ferguson wrote: 

For me being a 'whole person' includes physical embodiment, emotional engagement and intimate relationships in family and friends, and in the physical place where I am. I therefore by definition cannot be a 'whole person' in social media. You only see a small (and to me relatively unimportant) part of the wholeness of body, place and relationships that is me. And in particular you only see the intellectual, rational, language-limited part of me... If you want to get to know me, you need to come to our (to know me is to know my wife, Chriss) home and share food and drink, and join us in worship, and walk with us in our neighbourhood and meet our friends.

Quaker worship is not exclusively an activity of the rational, disembodied mind (albeit it is easy to receive this impression in some meetings). Our physical presence is not irrelevant to our participation in communal worship. Worship is the response of our whole being to the presence of God – a response which involves our bodies and the physical presence of our fellow worshippers at least as much as our words and thoughts.

It seems unavoidable that the experience of participation in an 'online Meeting for Worship' will be significantly different from worshipping together in the same place. Clearly this practice is helpful to the people who take part in it, but it is not clear to me that we should consider it 'the same thing' as Quaker worship. The growing use of online communications for Quaker business and worship calls for collective discernment about the role of these practices, rather than taking for granted that what we do online is the same as what happens in person, simply because we are using the same word for it.

Online networks are often referred to as 'communities', but this is community in a significantly different sense to the embodied relationships of our Meetings and neighbourhoods. An essential element of local community is that we cannot evade accountability for our words and actions. In our Quaker meetings we know that what we do and say will have potentially long-lasting consequences for our relationships with each other, which may affect our lives beyond the Meeting House. Purely online relationships do not necessarily have this characteristic. Participants in an online group or discussion can instantly disappear, and may choose to be anonymous or adopt an alternative identity. It is this capacity for anonymity, combined with the increased potential for misunderstandings and lack of contextual information, that encourages such widespread hostility and argumentativeness in online discussions, including in Quaker forums.

Online discussion forums seems to work best when they are related to physical communities and maintain some connection with face-to-face relationships. Local or area meeting blogs can function extremely well as forums for sharing ideas and discussion for this reason. The Sheffield Quakers blog, for example, has been running continuously for ten years, with a consistently high level of considerate and thoughtful contributions, even when discussing the sort of controversial issues that invariably give rise to hostile exchanges in more anonymous contexts. When writing for this blog, or posting on the Quaker Renewal UK group, I am conscious of the Friends from my own and other meetings who might read it, and the potential effect on our relationships in other contexts. This awareness has been a helpful restraint when I have sometimes been tempted to express myself in an overheated or ungenerous manner.

The effect of ubiquitous communications technology on the quality of our consciousness is controversial. Claims of 'internet addiction' and reduced attention span are controversial, but there does seem to be a strong tendency toward compulsiveness in our relationship with tools such as email and Facebook, including excessive checking of emails and feeling anxious when deprived of internet access. Whether or not we call this kind of behaviour 'addiction', it is something that anyone who is trying to follow a spiritual practice should be concerned about. We are all aware of the way that email and social media can easily invade our mental worlds; creating a sense of information overload, a pressure to read and respond to ever-growing volumes of communication, and social anxiety about how we are regarded by others. It is easy for us to dismiss such concerns as trivial, or shuffle them off into a mental compartment that is separated from our spiritual life. But our spiritual practice is the whole of our life, and anything that affects our consciousness, behaviour and relationships is a part of our spiritual life, for good or ill.

The condition of our consciousness, and our capacity for sustained, concentrated attention, is of particular importance for Quakers, whose spiritual practice is grounded in a continuous awareness of the Inward Guide and sensitivity to the 'promptings of love and truth' in our hearts. Where we find that our relationship with any technology has a tendency to disrupt this balanced awareness, we need to take it seriously. As with other practices, we are free make conscious decisions about the way that we use technology, rather than accepting the typical patterns of our culture as inevitable. Having recognised this in my own life, I have established the discipline of a 'Sabbath rest' from online communication each Sunday. I find that having at least one day each week without checking emails or social media helps me to regularly detach from the impulse to become dependent on constant connectivity. This helps to re-establish a quality of consciousness that is not restlessly seeking stimulation and distraction. Some Friends find other ways to avoid getting lost in distraction, such as choosing internet passwords that remind them to be mindful or take a break from the screen, or even restricting their computer's internet access at certain times.

What is your relationship with online media? Do you have practices that help to keep it in balance? Are there ways that social media supports your spiritual practice or ministry?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

What Can We Say?

Part of the Quaker way we have inherited is a tradition of corporate testimony. Quakers are well-known for our opposition to war, but there are many other kinds of testimony that Friends in modern times have acknowledged as collective commitments. These include refusing to tell lies, participate in gambling (including financial speculation), take oaths and use or accept honours or titles (such as 'Reverend' and 'Your Majesty').

Over recent years these collective testimonies seem to have fallen increasingly into disuse. Many Friends have either never heard of them, or don't consider them relevant to their own lives. Even our national representative body Meeting for Sufferings has sometimes forgotten its centuries' old rejection of flattering titles, to the extent of delivering a 'Loyal Address to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II', for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Over the last few decades we have changed our understanding of testimony, turning it into a set of abstract 'Quaker principles' instead of specific commitments to action. I have argued in another post that this is unhelpful, because it sets us up to fail at 'living up to' impossible ideals. Another effect of this understanding of testimony is that by focussing on vague ideals rather than concrete actions, it encourages a wide range of individualistic interpretations. Instead of a collective public witness that Quakers will not take part in lotteries or tell a lie, we now expect to interpret for ourselves the very general 'shared values' of Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace, and even to select which of these separate values is more or less important to me as an individual.

A much broader cultural shift towards ethical relativism has also encouraged Friends to adopt a privatised version of discernment. It is common to hear Friends talk about 'my truth' and even 'my inner light', with the implication that what is 'true for me' cannot justifiably be questioned or challenged by anyone else. If there is no acceptance of over-arching moral or religious claims, then we cannot be accountable to each other for our faithfulness to shared standards of behaviour. At most, we can only encourage each other to decide for ourselves what is true 'for me'.

Despite this individualistic emphasis, our Advices & Queries still sometimes assume that Quakers will acknowledge some shared specific standards of behaviour, eg 'Taking oaths implies a double standard of truth; in choosing to affirm instead, be aware of the claim to integrity that you are making.' (A&Q 37), and 'Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparations for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? (A&Q 31).

The recent commitment of Britain Yearly Meeting to 'work towards becoming a low carbon community' might even be considered an attempt to revive the tradition of corporate Quaker testimony. The vision for this originated from Pam Lunn's 2011 Swarthmore Lecture, which called for a collective Quaker response to the climate crisis. In the event, despite adopting the 'Canterbury Commitment' as official policy (including Britain Yearly Meeting's disinvestment from fossil fuel companies), response at local meeting level has so far been patchy and ambivalent. While a few meetings have embraced the challenge to green their meeting houses or undertake other carbon reduction projects, there has not been a discernible Society-wide response. My sense is that the reason for this is not so much the issue itself, since most Friends are probably making some individual attempts at a 'greener lifestyle' already. It seems to be more an expression of resistance to any call to collective witness and action, which is increasingly perceived as contrary to Friends' right to decide for themselves.

A balance between collective and personal discernment has traditionally been central to Quaker spirituality. Testing our individual leadings through the discernment of our Quaker community, from our local meeting outwards to the national level of Yearly Meeting, is how we have balanced the centrifugal pressures of individual liberty of conscience, with its dangers of impulsive and misdirected enthusiasm.

At the same time, our responsibility for discerning how the Spirit is leading us to act cannot simply be surrendered to the collective, no matter how much we trust its processes and its wisdom. Early Friends such as Isaac Penington were insistent that each of us is 'not to take things for truths because others see them to be truths, but to wait till the spirit makes them manifest to me.' (The works of the long-mournful and sorely-distressed Isaac Penington, 1761) It is our own fidelity to the 'Inward Guide' rather than our conformity to the customs or mandates of any group that keeps our faith and witness authentic. What if our personal discernment is at odds with the discernment of our community, whether our local, area or yearly meeting? Should we simply copy the testimony of other Quakers, even if we have no inward leading to avoid gambling or oppose war?

My own understanding is that being a Quaker involves a respect for our collective discernment, but not necessarily a submission to it. Individual Friends have often been a source of new insight for the Society as a whole, even when they have maintained a solitary position in tension with the Society's collective discernment for many years. Specific testimonies, such as the original Quaker rejection of music, have changed in response to an altered context or new insights. This kind of change is not just a forgetting of former testimony, but deliberately testing and questioning it, to discover what, if anything, is still of value. Such 'faithful challenging' is not the same as simply ignoring our collective testimony and treating it as irrelevant if it doesn't immediately agree with me.

Simone Weil wrote in a similar way about her relationship to (Catholic) Church teachings as 'a permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention, but not an adherence.' (Letter to a Priest, 1951). In another text, she added '[f]or me, in the effort of reflection, a real or apparent disagreement with the Church's teachings is simply a reason for a considerable slowing-down of my thought, and for pushing attentive and scrupulous inquiry as far as it will go, before daring to affirm anything. But that is all.' (Last Text, 1962).

For me, one of the obligations of membership in the Religious Society of Friends is to make myself aware of its practices, including the corporate testimony that it has adopted through the collective discernment of Friends. This does not just involve learning an acronym for four abstract 'Quaker principles', but something much more like an 'attentive and scrupulous inquiry' into the discernment of the wider community, including recent decisions of Britain Yearly Meeting such as the Canterbury Commitment. It is central to the Quaker way that our consciences cannot be compelled to follow others; but it is equally central that we each carry a responsibility for an 'attitude of respectful attention' to the discernment of the community as expressed in our corporate testimony.

Is corporate Quaker testimony important in your life? How do you see the balance between individual leadings and collective discernment in your meeting, and in the wider Quaker community?

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Imaginary Theist

In a Quaker committee meeting recently, a group of us were asked to place ourselves in a line, with one end marked ‘theist’ and the other ‘non-theist’. Along with one other Friend, I felt unable to participate in this exercise, because of my discomfort with both of those terms.

My sense is that the way in which our discussion about Quaker religious language has been framed in recent years is extremely unhelpful. If we genuinely want to understand each other’s experience, and to discern and worship together, we will not be served by thinking of our differences in terms of a debate between theists and non-theists. 

I am convinced that this is, in fact, a completely false distinction. It seems to be based on the assumption that anyone who uses the word ‘God’ is something called a ‘theist’, who holds a specific set of theological beliefs. Once this is assumed, it seems to follow that anyone who doesn’t hold those beliefs must be a ‘non-theist’. This leads directly into attempts to classify ourselves and others, and even to a competitive spirit, in which we line up on opposing sides. At the moment any use of the word ‘God’ in Quaker minutes and publications has become controversial, because it seems to privilege ‘theists’ and exclude ‘non-theists’. In the very worst tradition of religious factionalism, we have fallen into mutual suspicion over a word. 

Theism is an academic concept used in the comparative study of religion. According to the Oxford dictionary, it means ‘belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.’ Crucially, theism is a label used to classify certain beliefs and teachings; it is not a word that people usually apply to themselves. In other words, the idea of 'theist Quakers' is a myth. It is a label applied to others, which almost always misrepresents their own experience and self-understanding.

Most Quakers who use the word God are not speaking of an ‘old man in the clouds’, or the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of pre-modern theology. Liberal Quakerism has inherited from the wider mystical religious tradition an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable. This tradition typically uses the word ‘God’, not as the name of an external ‘being’, but as a signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality. 

Religious language in this tradition is not used to make dogmatic intellectual propositions; it is much more like poetry. The poetic, allusive language of faith has plenty of room for flexible and diverse interpretations. Some Friends use the word ‘God’ to describe their personal experience of spiritual encounter, or being guided or accompanied. For others it points to their sense of awe at the mysteriousness of existence, of the interconnection of all of life, or the depth and holiness of personal relationships. Other Friends might have similar kinds of experience while using very different language to describe it.

For many people the word God has so many unpleasant associations with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths. There is no right answer here; it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences.

My own thinking about spiritual reality has been influenced by people from many different traditions who have lived with compassion, selflessness and courage. Many of them have called the source of life within them ‘God’, and I am happy to use the same word for the inward dimension of reality that I recognise in my own experience. Does this make me something called a ‘theist’, as if I subscribed to a list of abstract intellectual propositions that are in reality completely meaningless to me?

The (extremely unorthodox) Christian mystic Simone Weil wrote that God has both 'personal and impersonal aspects', and 'an atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.' (Letter to a Priest, 1951). This suggests that there may be different ‘faces’ of spiritual reality, which are more apparent to different people, at different times, and emphasised by different traditions. This understanding does not require us to divide ourselves into camps, according to whether we believe in the existence of a personal God or not. Just as physicists have learned to accept that light is neither a wave nor a particle, but exhibits wave-like or particle-like behaviour depending on how it is observed; there is no reason to expect that spiritual reality should be more straightforward than matter and energy.

Surely we can use a range of religious language to communicate with each other and the wider world, without trying to eliminate or insist on the use of any particular word. Instead of labelling others, or ourselves, as ‘theists’ or ’nontheists’, couldn’t we listen to each other’s actual experience? Instead of assuming that any use of the word 'God' in Quaker literature presupposes a particular set of theological beliefs, could we accept it as simply one word, among others, that is used by Friends in a range of ways and with diverse interpretations?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

A common tongue

Madonna and child mural at Cyrene Mission, Zimbabwe
Some years ago, I used to attend a Catholic church in a run-down area of inner-city Liverpool. The congregation was a mix of White working-class locals, African and Eastern European asylum-seekers, people with learning disabilities from the L'Arche community, young L'Arche volunteers from numerous countries, and a sprinkling of elderly nuns, political activists and left-wing intellectuals.

All of these people, with their vastly different backgrounds and educational experience, could not be said to have identical beliefs. Religious traditions such as Catholicism offer a broad umbrella for very different social groups and types of personality, with a correspondingly wide range of theologies and interpretations of their faith. What united this congregation, though, was more than just an agreement to kneel down at the altar rail together. They shared a common religious language, including the imagery and narrative of the Eucharist that enabled them to practise it together as one faith community. As they took part in the sacrament, they were united by their participation in a story that included, but was greater than, all of their personal interpretations.

Every religious tradition includes such a shared fund of stories and images. A shared language doesn't imply uniformity of thought or belief. A common language offers a set of stories, images and concepts, without necessarily imposing a single perspective or interpretation. It gives us common ground to communicate with each other, even across great divides of experience and temperament. A shared spiritual vocabulary allows us to share our experiences, to support, encourage and challenge each other, and to engage in common practices and dialogues within a diverse community.

It is this shared language that the Quaker community in Britain struggles with so much today. Instead of a common vocabulary we have a multitude of incompatible personal languages, often drawn from other spiritual or ideological traditions. In the absence of a shared repertoire of stories and images, we have no option but to resort to a continuous, and often unsuccessful, attempt to translate each others' words into something else that has meaning for us.

Each of us has our own personal story, our own distillation of narrative and belief worked out through the unique circumstances of our lives. Have we given up on the possibility of also having shared stories, that enable us to talk together in a common tongue, instead of continually having to translate between a host of private languages?

Buddhists throughout the world also share a collection of stories, images and teachings. Different schools of Buddhism have their own distinctive texts and traditions, and in different countries and cultures these are taught, expressed and interpreted very differently. Individual Buddhist practitioners also bring their own unique histories and personalities, which often include elements of other religious traditions. It is very common for western Buddhists to have a background in other spiritual traditions, and to continue to draw upon a wide range of spiritual resources. In that sense, there are plenty of Christian-Buddhists, Pagan-Buddhists, and possibly even Quaker-Buddhists.

Like Quaker meetings, Western Buddhist meditation classes are usually open to anyone who wants to attend them, without any requirement to adopt particular beliefs. A significant difference is that Buddhist groups are clear and explicit about the content of their teaching. If an attender at a Buddhist group were to state that they didn't like the word 'meditation' and preferred to spend the time thinking instead of watching their breath, they would be perfectly free to act in this way. The Buddhist community would be unlikely to recognise this attender as a practising Buddhist, however, and certainly wouldn't alter the teaching to accommodate these objections.

By contrast, many Quakers see it as the duty of the meeting to accommodate everyone's preferences, and to encourage everyone to interpret Quaker faith and practice in the way that is most congenial to them. Some Friends object to the language of 'worship', 'discernment' and 'divine guidance' because it does not fit with their rationalist intellectual conceptions. In many cases this leads to the shared language of the Quaker way being quietly dropped, and replaced with anodyne terms such as 'a time of quiet'. Without this shared language, what we can say to each other and to the world is reduced to a minimal vocabulary, largely drawn from the political and bureaucratic language of the dominant culture. This impoverished language leaves us few resources for expressing the distinctive teachings of the Quaker way and communicating the insights of Quaker experience.

The loss of a common language may also prevent us from engaging in core Quaker practices in mutually intelligible ways. Quaker practices such as meeting for worship and business meetings do not just rely on conformity to rules of behaviour. They rest on a level of shared understanding of what the activity is for. Without a shared language for meeting for worship it becomes simply a 'format' rather than a collective spiritual practice. The meeting can become a group of isolated individuals each on our own solitary spiritual journey, rather than a gathered people on a shared spiritual path.

A shared language need not be static or immune to development. Early Quakers developed a rich spiritual language, full of creative imagery. Much of it was drawn from the poetic language of the Bible, but used in creative ways to draw the imagination away from rigid, institutionalised and dogmatic interpretations. They described their spiritual experience in novel and unexpected ways, through expressions such as 'Inward Guide', 'Teacher' or 'Light', 'the Seed', 'the Principle of Life', 'openings', 'clearness' and 'testimony'.

Our Quaker language today has little of this exuberant creativity, although it proliferates in the bureaucratic language of committees, risk assessments, consultations and project management. Perhaps it is one of the tasks of contemporary Quakers to discover fresh possibilities for our religious language today. Instead of whittling it away to conform to the dominant culture, could we keep our language fluid and alive, responsive to the currents of the Spirit in our time and place? Might we come to extend our vocabulary of spiritual practice and experience, to echo all the struggles and joys of contemporary life, while staying rooted in the collective wisdom of Quaker practice over many generations? What might such a revived common tongue sound like?

Friday, 31 October 2014

Cycles of Renewal

Looking around at the condition of the Quaker movement in Britain, it is tempting to grow nostalgic about the profounder spirituality of a previous age. I want to encourage us to resist this temptation. We should not aim at a return to the Quaker forms of the past. Instead, we need a more disciplined attention to the practices that can help us to be faithful to the Spirit in our contemporary world.

By concentrating on the lives of 'great Quakers' of the past, we can easily overlook the fact that Friends such as John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry or Rufus Jones were not at all typical of the wider Quaker movement of their time. For most of our history, Friends have been largely what we are today – spiritually tepid and deeply compromised by our accommodation to the surrounding culture.

The life-cycle of every religious movement begins in a blaze of inspiration, which is quickly smothered by a growth of authoritarianism and bureaucracy. Most of these groups rapidly burn themselves out in a puff of disillusionment, but a few manage to renew themselves, sometimes in very different forms and contexts. Those religious movements that do survive tend to go through cycles of short-lived spiritual vitality followed by much longer periods of decline. The longest-lived religious traditions, such as Catholicism, Judaism and Zen Buddhism, have been through this cycle of decline and renewal several times over many centuries.

There are good reasons why long-lived religious movements need to be continually renewed. Once the first generation of charismatic leadership is lost, their original followers often fall out with each other, and turn to legalism and hierarchy to enforce their authority. This happened very early in the history of the Christian church (see Galatians 2: 11-14). It was also a feature of the growing authoritarianism of 18th century Quaker culture, which soon began to insist on rigid rules of dress, speech and behaviour. Margaret Fox (née Fell) was already protesting this trend in 1700, just nine years after George Fox's death.

'We are now coming into that which Christ cried woe against, minding altogether outward things, neglecting the inward work of Almighty God in our hearts, if we can but frame according to outward prescriptions and orders, and deny eating and drinking with our neighbours, in so much that poor Friends is mangled in their minds, that they know not what to do, for one Friend says one way, and another another, but Christ Jesus saith, that we must take no thought what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on, but bids us consider the lilies how they grow, in more royalty than Solomon. But contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour: this is a silly poor Gospel.'

Processes such as this quickly tend to extinguish the enthusiasm of a religious community. As formal structures and bureaucracies develop, members' energy is increasingly drawn into perpetuating the organisation, rather than serving the original spiritual mission of the community. The organisation's culture and structures soon become closely geared to the interests of its most influential members. These structures eventually push increasing numbers of spiritually seeking members to the edges of the community, or even out of it altogether.

Once a religious organisation is in this condition, it is usually very difficult to get out of it. The existing way of doing things approximates to the preferences of a core of regular members, and any newcomers who are looking for something very different are quickly selected out. Bureaucratic structures constantly acquire new committees and functions, which hoover up an increasing share of members' time and energy, sapping the potential for disciplined spiritual practice and courageous testimony.

This is very much the situation I see in large parts of Britain Yearly Meeting. As a Friend in one struggling meeting asked Paul Parker after his talk on 'vibrant meetings', 'We already have too much to do. Are we supposed to be vibrant now as well?' We currently have an organisational culture and structures that suit a dwindling group of members in many scattered, mostly very tiny meetings. A wider group of attenders come to meeting semi-regularly to re-charge their batteries on a Sunday morning, but are deterred from getting more involved by the onerous demands of administration or the absence of real spiritual vitality. Most of the newcomers who occasionally turn up to try a Quaker meeting on Sunday never come back, or attend for only a short time before drifting off to look for something more spiritually nourishing. Yet we rarely ask ourselves what it is that might be missing from our worship and our community.

In large part, British Quakers are asleep; but we are stirring. A growing number of voices are asking whether the way we have come to 'do Quakerism' over the last few decades really serves the needs of our communities or the leadings of the Spirit. Many meetings have confronted their settled opposition to 'proselytising', and started to actively encourage new attenders to our meetings. Some Friends are even starting to question the hardened liberal dogmas that have outlawed the teaching of Quaker spirituality and the ministry of leadership in our communities.

These fitful stirrings have not yet reached a critical threshold of awakening. We may be at a crucial point in our story as British Quakers. Will we toss and turn, only to roll over and go back to sleep? or will we come awake at last, while we still have enough energy and hope to renew our Society and ourselves, to realise the unique possibilities of a renewed Quaker Way for our times?

We have been here before. In the 1860s, when Quakers were in danger of dying out from the loss of members due to rigid enforcement of prohibitions against 'marrying out', we threw away the rule book and embraced engagement with a wider religious and social world. At the very end of the 19th century the 'Quaker Renaissance' movement of John Wilhelm Rowntree, Rufus Jones and Edward Grubb introduced the era of liberal Quakerism. This renewed form of the Quaker Way unleashed a new wave of spiritual vigour and social engagement. It also contributed to the heroic achievements of Friends during the 20th century; from conscientous objection, to the Kinderstransport, famine relief and anti-war movements. We need a new kind of 'Quaker Renaissance' today.

Many other religious communities have been in the same place before us. Most have slid gradually but inevitably into irrelevance and historical obscurity – such as the Muggletonians (yes really), Familists and many others. A few have managed to wake up and renew themselves before it was too late, leading to a new flowering of creative spirituality and social transformation. In her 1993 James Backhouse lecture for Australia Yearly Meeting, Ursula Jane O'Shea drew on the analysis of Catholic religious orders which had successfully renewed themselves (sometimes several times over), to identify the characteristics of successful spiritual renewal. She argues that the renewal of a religious community cannot be achieved purely by reforming structures (although new, more well-adapted structures will result from a renewed community). Neither can renewal be achieved solely by a small group of leaders. Instead, a profound change of community direction depends upon the re-awakening of a willingness and desire for relationship with the divine. For us as Quakers, she argues that:

'Healing spiritual malaise within a group and initiating revival cannot be accomplished by office-holders or weighty Friends. It must be the committed task of a large section of the community, if not all of it. Transformation of a group can begin nowhere else but within each person. Willingness in many members to begin the hard work of inward transformation, without waiting for others to go first, may be the test of a community's desire and capacity to be revitalised...

Renewal of the Society waits for the choice of each Friend: Am I willing to risk the disturbing, transfiguring presence of the Spirit in my life? To obey it? To expect 'the Cross' and dark days as I discover and nurture who I am before God? When we choose to live the spiritual life the Quaker Way, these are the experiences we are committing ourselves to, whatever words we put upon them. If significant numbers of us are not interested in, or willing to live by these experiences, the hoped-for renewal of our meetings cannot occur. But if our collective spiritual power gathers strength it will infect other Friends and newcomers. Ministry will become more grounded in the Spirit and individuals will be inspired by the Spirit to serve our meetings as nurturers, prophets and conservers.'


I welcome your insights into the possibilities of Quaker renewal in Britain. For those who use Facebook, there is also a new group to explore these questions and share suggestions and resources for 'waking up' at Quaker Renewal UK - please join and invite your Friends.

There will also be a weekend on Quaker renewal at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in July 2015, following on from Ben Pink Dandelion's Swarthmore Lecture. More information and bookings here

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Amazing Absence of Quaker Worship

If the Quaker Way has something unique to offer the world, perhaps it is the experience of a gathered meeting for worship. This was described in memorable words in last year's Swarthmore Lecture:

'Unless we are extremely unfortunate in our journey through the Society of Friends we all know when we have experienced a gathered meeting: a meeting where the silence is as soft as velvet, as deep as a still pool; a silence where words emerge, only to deepen and enrich that rich silence, and where Presence is as palpable and soft as the skin of a peach; where the membrane separating this moment in time and eternity is filament-fine.'
(Gerald Hewitson, Journey into Life )

This experience of gathered worship is the living power of the Quaker Way, with an amazing capacity to heal, renew and transform our lives. This is what will make our communities alive; awakening our children to the possibilities of spiritual experience and demonstrating to new attenders that there is something real to discover in our meetings

Given the wonderful possibilities of Quaker worship, I often wonder why we have such low expectations of some of our meetings. In some meetings gathered worship is a rare occurrence, because the disciplines that enable and sustain it are not being practised.

It is easy to have the form of a Quaker meeting without the reality. On the surface, a group of people sitting in a circle, perhaps with someone occasionally standing up to speak, looks like Quaker worship. But an authentic meeting for worship is much more demanding than it appears; it requires the whole group of worshippers to faithfully practise the disciplines of listening and speaking.

The discipline of listening in worship is a wholehearted attention to our experience. This often begins with the thoughts, feelings and images that surface in our consciousness. Beneath these we gradually become aware of subtler movements of the soul; perhaps a sense of longing, anxiety or sadness that we usually manage to ignore. Deeper still, we may come to the place of renewing, peaceful silence described by Gerald Hewitson as the 'still pool' of gathered worship. In that place, we become receptive to the 'promptings of love and truth' that may arise to teach us, and that might require us to offer spoken ministry. In this place of gathered worship we become open to a wordless encounter with a source of life and power, healing or illumination – a sense of 'Presence' beyond thoughts and concepts.

Some fortunate people find this process of becoming still and receptive relatively easy on their own. For the rest of us, whose minds struggle against the stillness and continually wander into thoughts and daydreams, the disciplined attentiveness of our fellow worshippers is invaluable. The 18th century Quaker Isaac Penington described this process of mutual strengthening in worship as 'like an heap of fresh and living coals, warming one another, insomuch as a great strength, freshness, and vigour of life flows into all.' (A brief account concerning silent meetings, 1761)

The discipline of speaking in meeting for worship means discerning whether our intention to offer spoken ministry is a response to a specific leading of the Spirit. It asks us to relinquish the natural urge to speak from the needs of the ego – to claim attention, to rebut or to persuade. We have to learn to speak only when our message arises from the deeper place of responsiveness to spiritual reality. When we minister from this place, our simplest words have a special power to draw others into awareness, to encourage, to console or to challenge.

Worship is a movement of the whole being towards a spiritual reality that is ultimately mysterious. It requires the commitment of our whole selves - mind, heart, body and will, to something beyond our rational categories, greater than our own values, thoughts and preferences. It is easy to keep ourselves at the centre, making worship into another activity of the conscious mind. The disciplines of worship require us to let go of our thinking, analysing and need to be in control.

Where the disciplines of listening and speaking are not practised, the meeting for worship can no longer function. Although the outward form may appear similar, such a meeting has become something else. It may turn into a debating or co-counselling group, or a quiet time to think our own thoughts. In these meetings, spoken ministry tends toward political discussion, reciting uplifting quotes or summaries of radio and TV programmes. Such ministry is rarely experienced as contributing to the depth of worship. Instead, Friends tend to tolerate each others' messages in a spirit of generous non-judgement, rather than embracing them as words with the power to speak to our hearts.

The fact that it is difficult even to name this departure from our Quaker disciplines without seeming judgemental is a symptom of our struggle to engage in honest conversation about our most central practices. It seems that the authenticity of spoken ministry can never be mentioned without a well-meaning Friend quoting from Advices & Queries 12, 'Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it is not God's word for you, it may be so for others.' This is essential guidance, and I try to follow it in meeting, but it is only a part of the discipline of Quaker worship. It should not be an excuse to ignore the many other passages that emphasise the self-discipline required for genuine ministry, (especially Quaker faith &practice 2.55 to 2.70).

Elders have a particular responsibility for reminding Friends of the disciplines involved in Quaker worship. In practice, elders' willingness to do this is severely undermined by many Friends' insistence that worship and ministry are purely subjective and not subject to community standards. For many years we have tried to avoid conflict within our meetings by evading mutual accountability for the quality of our worship. We have not expected new Friends and attenders to learn the disciplines of Quaker worship. Instead we have encouraged each other to re-interpret the practice of worship wherever it conflicts with our own preferences and assumptions.

The disciplines of the Quaker Way have often been downplayed in the name of inclusivity - justified by the supposed preferences of potential enquirers. There is a widespread assumption that new attenders are looking for a content-free 'space' which will not demand anything from them. But there are very many people who are seeking a greater depth of spiritual encounter to guide and ground their lives. These are the potential Quakers who may not return after their first experience of an undisciplined and lifeless meeting for worship.

A gathered meeting need not be a rare and memorable 'one-off'. Practised with self-discipline and self-surrender Quaker worship can be a reliable vehicle for encounter with spiritual reality, for enlarging our awareness of our grounding, interconnectedness and calling. There are some meetings, where the disciplines of worship are being practised faithfully, where gathered worship is their 'normal' experience each week. If we are not in one of these meetings, perhaps it is up to us to improve the quality of our meeting for worship. We can put more effort into teaching and threshing our understandings of worship. We can support more active and courageous eldering, and we can encourage in each other a commitment to personal spiritual practice beyond an hour on a Sunday morning.

Weekly meeting for worship cannot support the whole weight of our spiritual lives on its own. If our daily life is so hectic and overstretched that we come to meeting with minds filled with jangling thoughts all clamouring for attention, we will miss the possibility of gathered worship. This is a struggle for many in a society that constantly pushes us into overwork, over-stimulation and over-consumption. If we truly want to open ourselves to the possibilities of worship, we also need to make regular space in our daily lives for stillness and reflection, “to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit … to find the inward source of our strength”. (Advices & Queries 3)

If a Quaker community is to exist as something beyond a social club for like-minded people, it needs to be rooted in an authentic experience of worship. A gathered Quaker meeting has the power to heal, transform, embolden, to make us more sensitive and more aware. It is the life-giving sap that is needed for vital, outward-looking communities. One of the greatest qualities of the Quaker way of worship is its utter simplicity. It needs no special building, no specially qualified clergy or guru, no holy objects or texts. It is open to everyone on a basis of complete equality, without distinction of gender, sexuality, or background. Quaker worship does not require special techniques or great natural ability, but it does demand our self-discipline and self-surrender:

'Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.'
(Isaac Penington, 1661)

I would be grateful to hear about your experience of meeting for worship. Do you recognise this description of a 'gathered meeting'? and how does your meeting community teach and practise the disciplines of Quaker worship?