Wednesday, 11 May 2016

What Quakers can learn from Beekeepers

Logo: Sheffield Beekeepers Association
This year, as part of my efforts to acquire practically useful skills, I have been learning to keep bees with the Sheffield Beekeepers' Association. Unexpectedly, I have observed some striking similarities between beekeepers and Quakers, as well as aspects of their work that may have something to teach Friends about well-functioning communities.

As with Quakers, one of the immediately apparent things about beekeepers is that any five of them seem to have six opinions. There is a surprising diversity of ideas and approaches to beekeeping methods, given that people have been keeping bees for several thousand years. Within one local group there are many different views about the best methods of swarm prevention, hive design, disease control etc, and no apparent pressure to conform to a majority opinion. Many beekeepers also experiment with different methods and approaches, so that practices are in a continual state of development.

At the same time, there is a clear focus on the common goals of raising healthy and productive bee colonies. This enables an impressive amount of sharing of experience, mutual co-operation and collective action, including an ambitious project to improve the gene pool of Sheffield's bee population. The skills acquired through these practices are also put at the service of the wider community, by offering free swarm collection to Sheffield residents who unexpectedly find themselves with an attic or hedge full of honey bees.

By contrast, it seems to be much more difficult for contemporary Quakers to agree on the common goals of our Quaker practices, although this has not always been the case. The goals of the Quaker way have been expressed at various times in terms such as 'faithfulness to divine leadings', 'walking in the light', or 'following the Guide'. Expressions such as these point to a shared understanding that our task as a community of Friends is to be receptive and faithful to the Spirit that is available to illuminate, transform and guide us. In meetings which lack any such shared understanding of the aims of Quaker practice, it can be difficult to reach practical agreement on a wide range of issues, including the conduct of worship and spoken ministry, teaching of Quaker practices and the right ordering of meetings.

Another apparent advantage of a group that has a high degree of agreement about its shared goals, is that it seems to be able to cope with a broad range of social diversity. Sheffield beekeepers include a much wider range of social backgrounds than is commonly met with in a Quaker meeting, from upper-middle class landowners to traditional working class Yorkshiremen and women. By contrast with Quaker meetings, people who are brought together around a well-understood common practice seem to have much less need for class-specific cultural norms such as Guardian reading, herbal teas and Radio 4.

Sheffield's beekeeping association also demonstrates an impressive commitment to training new beekeepers, which could serve as an example to British Quakers. Their biggest regular project is an annual training programme for beginners, which takes place over several months and attracts about forty new participants each year. This reflects a keen appreciation of the necessity to continually recruit and train new beekeepers, not just for the continuation of the association, but for the future of the practice of beekeeping itself. Beekeepers are not content to be a community that focusses solely on their own needs, because their commitment to the flourishing of the practice requires an attention to the future.

By contrast, our Quaker communities have for many years been equivocal about attracting and teaching new Friends. We have often flattered ourselves on 'not proselytising', and told ourselves that 'people will find us when they are ready'. What this has often amounted to is a complacent focus on the preferences of current members, and an almost complete indifference to the spiritual needs and condition of people who are not already Quakers, as well as the future of the Quaker way as a tradition of spiritual practice.

Thankfully, in recent years Quaker Quest has stirred many meetings to make deliberate efforts at reaching out and communicating with seekers who want to explore the Quaker way. There are still, perhaps, relatively few meetings that are investing the same degree of continuing commitment to the future flourishing of our practice as are Sheffield's beekeepers.

Have you participated in any other communities that might have something to teach Quakers? How can we show a greater commitment to social diversity, inclusivity and the future flourishing of the Quaker movement.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Spiritual Eldership

“Some Friends, whether called elders or not, have been looked to for spiritual counsel from the beginning. So in 1653 William Dewsbury proposed that each meeting should appoint ‘one or two most grown in the Power and the Life, in the pure discerning of the Truth’ to take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the meeting and its members.”
Quaker faith & practice 12.05

Reading chapter 12 of Quaker faith & practice, one could gain the impression that eldership is primarily yet another administrative function within the Quaker meeting. There is a long list of responsibilities, but relatively little reflection on eldership as a spiritual gift and ministry.

Quaker eldership is just one expression of the vital ministry of nurturing the life of the soul, which is recognised in many religious traditions, and which can take place wherever the gift of spiritual eldership is accepted and exercised. Spiritual eldership may take place through formal appointment to a Quaker role, or informally through our relationships with the Friends and others who act as spiritual accompaniers, guides and nurturers throughout our lives. Reflecting on my own history, I realise how blessed I have been to receive the gift of spiritual eldership from so many people, and how essential it has been in my life. Some of these 'spiritual elders' have been Quakers, but most are people from other traditions who have supported my own confused searching over many years.

As I have served my area meeting as an elder, I have experienced the privilege of being invited to listen to Friends’ struggles and leadings, the joys of spiritual awakening as well as their disappointments, frustrations and hurts. Whenever I am invited into someone’s life in this way, I am profoundly conscious of the great responsibility and trust involved in the exercise of eldership.

The ministry of eldership is a spiritual gift, a calling and a challenge. It is this gift and calling that we aim to recognise through the appointment of elders for our area meetings, but it can be received and exercised by anyone, whether or not they are formally appointed. It is the calling to make oneself available as a midwife to the soul, a mothering and fathering of the inner life of another person, through attentive and compassionate listening.

Exercising the ministry of eldership does not mean setting oneself up as a spiritual teacher. The most crucial insight of the Quaker way is that the Teacher is within. There is a vital role for the teaching of Quaker practices within our meetings, but the aim of all of our practice is to come to the Inward Teacher and Guide. None of us can teach another person how to live, or know how the Spirit is leading them. The spiritual elder does not point the way, but simply by listening reminds their Friend that they already have a reliable source of inward guidance, and encourages them to put their trust in it.

The ministry of eldership also nourishes and re-affirms our covenant with each other as members of a Quaker community. Where eldership is faithfully practised, with tenderness and in response to a calling of the Spirit, it fosters relationships of mutual nurture and accountability within the meeting. Eldership is a reminder that we are not alone, but members of a community who participate in a shared commitment to discern and follow divine leadings. In a Quaker community, each of our individual talents and leadings are part of the Spirit’s gift to the whole meeting. We belong to each other, are responsible for each other, and also accountable to each other for the faithful discernment and exercise of our leadings in spoken ministry, Quaker service and testimony.

This relationship of mutual accountability and nurture in a Quaker meeting is profoundly countercultural. It challenges the dominant culture’s assumption that we are all isolated individuals who are not answerable to anyone else. This assumption is so widespread among Friends that it often leads to a suspicion of the eldership as a form of inequality or hierarchy.

The role of Quaker eldership has certainly been abused in some times and places. There are undoubtedly meetings in which some elders have caused great hurt by assuming the right to suppress or manipulate others. In our current Quaker culture though, these failings are readily identified and challenged. It is far more common for contemporary Friends to fail in the exercise of eldership through a timid reluctance to engage with the calling and responsibility that is laid on them by the whole area meeting. We are too often afraid to do anything for fear of being accused of elitism or authoritarianism. In this way, our commitment to mutuality and community can be undermined. Without the confident exercise of eldership to encourage mutual listening and accountability, a few especially assertive Friends can easily come to dominate the worship or decision-making of the community. The needs and insights of newcomers or less dominant Friends can be neglected, in the absence of elders who are prepared to actively include and support them.

This is the challenge of the calling to spiritual eldership. It can attract criticism and conflict, and requires the courage to be faithful to the responsibility laid on elders by the community. Exercised faithfully and with humility, eldership can also be a joyful opportunity to nurture our communities, and to be invited into our Friends’ lives, to wonder with them at the miracle of divine life that is present within each person.

How have you experienced spiritual eldership in your life, whether in a Quaker meeting or some other context? Is there someone who has acted as a 'midwife to your soul'?

This post is a response to the 'Reading Quaker faith & practice' project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Meaning of Membership

‘Our membership is of no importance whatever unless it signifies that we are committed to something of far greater and more lasting significance than can adequately be conveyed by the closest association with any movement or organisation.’
(Edgar G Dunstan, Quaker faith & practice 11.02, 5th edition)

For a religious society without a separate class of leaders, in which every Friend shares responsibility for the governance of the community and its resources, membership has played an important role in Britain Yearly Meeting. It has provided an opportunity for newcomers to make a deliberate act of commitment to the Quaker community and to assume a full share of responsibility for its governance and financial support. Membership has served to indicate acceptance of mutual accountability for upholding collective discernment, including faithfulness to corporate Quaker testimony. The membership process has also offered a way of recognising and celebrating an inner transition from seeker to ‘convinced’ Friend.

Over recent decades membership has become a contested issue for British Quakers, leading to regular calls for its abandonment or radical revision. Some object to the membership process on grounds of principle, such as the supposed conflict with our ‘testimony to equality’ created by drawing a boundary between insiders and outsiders, or the process of 'judging' who is acceptable to become a member.

It has become common for people to attend meetings for many years, and to take on roles of responsibility within them, while being clear that they do not intend to apply for membership. As fewer attenders join, the proportion of members has decreased markedly. In many meetings it has become difficult to find Friends to fulfil responsibilities which require membership (such as eldership and oversight), leading to the growing practice of appointing attenders to these roles. This further undermines the rationale for distinguishing between members and attenders at all, which increasingly appears to be a meaningless distinction.

In fact we have made membership almost meaningless by our practice of it. For several decades our membership processes have failed to reflect a shared understanding of the core commitments involved in membership. Quaker faith & practice includes some quite clear statements about the application process which may make surprising reading:

‘Membership is still seen as a discipleship, a discipline within a broadly Christian perspective and our Quaker tradition, where the way we live is as important as the beliefs we affirm...
Membership is also a way of saying to the meeting, and to the world, that you accept the fundamental elements of being a Quaker: the understanding of divine guidance, the manner of corporate worship and the ordering of the meeting’s business, the practical expression of inward convictions and the equality of all before God.’ (11.01)

I suspect that in most meetings it is rare for any explicit reference to these ‘fundamental elements of being a Quaker’ to be made at any point in the membership process. Instead, membership practices seem to have diverged quite widely between different area meetings. Some meetings might emphasise one or another particular aspect of Quaker tradition (my area meeting asks explicitly about acceptance of the peace testimony). Generally, however, the most common tendency is to have little or no accepted standard for membership at all, beyond the individual’s desire to join.

The consequence over many years has been that Quaker membership no longer means that someone shares any common understanding of, or commitment to, the Quaker way. As Patricia Loring has observed in Listening Spirituality, ‘the consequence of having no standard [for membership] is that the Meeting conforms to the vision of those it has admitted.’ Hence, most British Friends share the culture and values of the liberal middle-class background that they largely belong to, without necessarily having any common commitment to specifically Quaker traditions, testimony or practices.

Renewal of our Society’s spiritual roots in core Quaker practices needs a re-assessment of our membership process. All of the elements of a more meaningful understanding and practice of membership are in fact already contained in the current version of our Book of Discipline. They simply need digging out and deciding to take them seriously enough to practice them.

Preparation for potential new members.

Our meetings could make use of the advice given in Quaker faith & practice 11.08 to ‘nurture and support individuals of all ages so that they can develop a sense of belonging and an understanding of our shared beliefs, testimonies and spiritual discipline.’ This could be done in an intentional and explicit way to encourage attenders to become more familiar with the ‘fundamental elements of being a Quaker’ (and especially our understanding of core Quaker practices for worship, discernment and testimony). This would, of course, require all of those involved in the membership process, including overseers, elders and visitors, to work on exploring and challenging their own understanding of the Quaker way.

At Sheffield Central meeting, we have offered a regular series of talks and discussions on the ‘Quaker Basics’, particularly intended for attenders. These are quite easy to organise, running for an hour after meeting on Sunday, with each session introduced by a different experienced Friend. The topics we have included are worship, discernment, origins, testimony and community. Last year, we concluded with an additional session specifically on membership.

Mentoring or spiritual friendship

There is an important role in the membership process for personal relationship with one or more experienced Friends, to accompany and support the person considering membership. Our idea of how to help people understand Quaker practices has often been limited to giving them a book or leaflet, which is inadequate on many levels. Quaker faith & practice 11.08 makes reference to the possibility of ‘special nurturing or supporting Friends’ who could accompany potential new members, both before and after the formal membership process, to offer supportive listening and sharing of experience.

There is already a model for this mentoring process in the 'Becoming Friends' learning resource, and it could easily be extended to offer one-to-one support to any attenders who are considering membership. In some cases, this might need to draw on Friends from outside the local or area meeting. Given the very unequal distribution of Quaker numbers and resources between meetings, this could also offer a way for larger and better-resourced meetings to support others that are struggling.

Collective discernment

The practicalities of setting up a more meaningful and helpful process for potential new members are straightforward enough. More fundamentally, however, they rely on shared discernment by the existing members of an area meeting, and agreement about what the core commitments of Quaker membership are. In many meetings, this is likely to be the real stumbling block to any improvement in membership practices. The current tendency is often to try to avoid potential conflict by avoiding discussion about the requirements of membership, or immediately abandoning any attempts at change as soon as someone challenges them as ‘exclusive’. We need to have a deeper conversation than this, one that is not afraid to question current assumptions about the minimal meaning of membership, if we are to enable membership to perform a useful role in the life of our communities.

What does Quaker membership mean to you? Are there ways that your meeting has tried to improve the membership process?

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Breaking of Images

There is an enduring tendency in many of the world's religions, known as iconoclasm (literally 'the breaking of images'). Iconoclasm is the desire to eliminate all human creations that are judged to be idolatrous; including all images, organisations or rituals seen as standing in the way of the purity of religious truth.

The beginnings of the Quaker movement were strongly influenced by the Puritan culture of 17th century England, which was fiercely iconoclastic in the most literal way possible. Mary Penington (who was married to Isaac Penington) wrote approvingly of her first husband William Springett, a colonel in Cromwell's army, that:

"In every employment he expressed great zeal against superstition; encouraging and requiring his soldiers to break down all idolatrous statues and pictures, and crosses; going into steeple-houses, and taking away the priest's surplices, and distributing them to poor women. When he was upon the service of searching popish houses, whatever crucifixes, beads, and such like trumpery he found, if they were ever so rich, he destroyed them without ever reserving one of them for its beauty or costly workmanship; nor ever saved any other thing for his own use."
(On Quakers, Medicine and Property: The Autobiography of Mary Penington, 1624-1682)

She even has one startling anecdote which describes him visiting the house of a close friend and fellow Parliamentarian, where he found religious paintings hanging on the walls:

"But my dear husband thought it a very inconsistent, unequal thing, to destroy those things in popish houses, and leave them in the houses of their opponents. He therefore, with his sword, put them all out of the frames, and putting them thereon, carried them into the parlour; and the woman of the house being there, he said, "What a shame it is that your husband should be such a persecutor of the Papists and yet spare such things as these in his own house! But (said he) I have acted impartial judgment, by destroying them here." (ibid)

The religious revolution of George Fox and the early Quakers went even further than the Puritans. The first Quakers comprehensively rejected all contemporary church institutions, rituals, creeds and buildings, as well as art and music. This was all in the service of a direct, unmediated personal encounter with the 'Inward Christ'.

All religious images, structures, creeds and rituals have a tendency to become empty forms over time. The history of religion is littered with practices that began by pointing toward the mystery of spiritual encounter and ended up becoming tokens of group identity to be defended, imposed and fought over. Throughout history, the dynamic of renewal within religious traditions has involved the destruction of images that have become obstacles to spiritual insight, in order to open up the possibility of renewed contact with the spiritual reality that they have obscured. 

But we live by images. As soon as we destroy one set of images we are impelled to seek replacements. Spiritual renewal occurs when new, living images are found (or rediscovered) to replace those that have been outworn. This is what early Friends achieved, through the marvellously imagistic new religious language of 'the Seed', 'the Guide', 'the Inward Christ', 'the Inward Teacher' etc. They were also soon busy creating a new form of church organisation, and a unique Quaker culture, with its own ritualised forms of language and behaviour.

Iconoclasm privileges the word over the image. In its least constructive forms, it tends to focus on 'correct' belief; whether conceived as conformity to official orthodoxy, or as rational consistency. Some of the 'modernising' tendencies in our current Quaker culture also embody this iconoclastic principle, which represents the rationalising impulse applied to religion.

Iconoclasm aims to replace the profusion of traditional religious images, stories, local devotions and festivals, with a single, uniform and minimalist version of belief reduced to 'the fundamentals'. For fundamentalist religion this might be adherence to a literalistic creed. In liberal traditions such as British Quakerism this minimal, rational residue of religion, stripped of all its imagery, history and particularity is reduced to a list of 'values'. This exclusive emphasis on rational purity of belief can create an arid wasteland of the soul, with nothing to nourish the imagination or move the heart. 

Both secular and religious fundamentalist versions of iconoclasm share a too-exclusive emphasis on our 'head needs' for certainty, consistency and clarity, while ignoring our heart and soul needs for a measure of ambiguity and mystery; for images that touch the heart and fire the imagination. We need living, soulful images far more than rationally consistent 'beliefs'.

How can we find, or rediscover, the living images that can renew our capacity for spiritual awakening and encounter?

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Faces of God

"There is a fine old story about a student who came to a rabbi and said, 'In the olden days there were men who saw the face of God. Why don’t they any more?' The rabbi replied, 'Because nowadays no one can stoop so low.'” 

(Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1963)

For many Friends today, it is difficult to know how to make sense of Quaker worship, given the radical differences in religious understanding within Britain Yearly Meeting.

When we do not share our spiritual experience and beliefs with each other, differences are easily ignored. So long as we abide by the 'behavioural creed' of the Quaker meeting for worship (ie sitting still, and speaking without any suggestion of certainty) we all appear to be doing the same thing. But this only works if Friends are careful in their vocal ministry to avoid words or topics that they suspect may generate strong reactions from others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why spoken ministry tends towards the anodyne in many meetings. We are semi-consciously steering away from sentiments that may expose the hidden reefs of disagreement that lie just under the smooth surface of our meetings for worship.

Needless to say, this is not a recipe for spiritual vitality or prophetic ministry. So perhaps it is a hopeful sign that there seems to be a growing level of open disagreement in some of our meetings, as more Friends are finding the courage to discuss their beliefs with each other. This can be an uncomfortable process, and it may be tempting to try to suppress conflict by returning to a culture of inhibition. But conflict can signal the potential for renewal, if we can deal with our disagreements in a constructive way, with a sincere desire for the flourishing of our Friends and growing mutual understanding.

The chapter on 'approaches to God' in Quaker faith & practice includes a wide range of perspectives on the meaning of worship; from adoration of a divine Being, to simple awareness of present experience. It is not always clear that these understandings of worship are mutually compatible, and some of them may feel very alien to some readers. Perhaps one helpful way to approach an understanding of such very different perspectives is through the image of the differing ‘faces’ which spiritual reality can present to us.

The mystical traditions of many religions testify that the mystery of spiritual reality is greater than any of our concepts of it. This suggests that understandings which appear to be very different, and even incompatible, may reflect fragments of a greater whole seen from the perspectives of people with different temperaments and experiences. One of the most obvious differences is between personal and impersonal understandings of spiritual reality (or ‘God’, used as a symbol for the totality of spiritual reality beyond our limited categories).

The Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote that God has both 'personal and impersonal aspects'. Contrary to the way that this is often caricatured, a personal understanding of God does not mean believing in 'an old man on a cloud'. Instead, spiritual reality is known as an active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence. This understanding reflects an extraordinarily common experience among people from very different religious traditions. It is reflected in the writings of virtually all Friends until very recent times, expressed in diverse images including 'Guide', ‘Creator’, ‘Lord’, ‘Inward Christ’ and many others.

Another common way of experiencing God is as an impersonal energy, principle or universal interconnectedness. This perspective is particularly emphasised in religions such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It also runs through the Christian tradition from very early times, especially in mystical writings such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as modern theologians such as Paul Tillich. The language of early Quakers is also full of images that reflect the 'impersonal face of God', including 'Seed' 'Inward Light', ‘Principle of Life’ and ‘Universal Righteousness’ among others. The use of these impersonal symbols reflects a concrete experience of God as a source of energy, illumination and connection to ultimate reality.

Of course, this distinction between the personal and impersonal faces of God highlights only one dimension of the diversity of religious experience. It is also possible to experience and understand the divine in a multitude of other ways, including an agnosticism which is attached to no definite views or concepts, but is simply open to the possibility of encounter with that which one does not yet know.

All of these ways of experiencing and relating to 'God' can be brought into the practice of Quaker worship. 'Our response to an awareness of God' does not rely on any particular belief about which aspect of God we are responding to - whether personal, impersonal or otherwise. Quaker worship is not limited to those who use the same concepts and images, or who experience God in exactly the same way, since these all vary according to our particular life history, temperament and cultural background.

It is profoundly unhelpful to turn our different experiences and images into a game of identity politics; saying in effect 'I am a nontheist and I need to stand up for nontheists against theists’ (or vice versa). This kind of thinking is premised on mutual suspicion and only tends to escalate it. We would do far better to refuse to play this game, and instead practice listening to each others' experience in order to enrich our own understanding of the inexhaustible breadth of spiritual reality.

Rather than defending my images and opposing yours, we could accept the necessity of multiple images for appreciating the many-sided nature of God. This requires me to acknowledge the validity of other people’s experience of spiritual reality, even where it differs from mine. This presupposes, of course, that I do not already ‘know’ that everyone who claims to have any kind of experience of God is deluded, and that there is ‘really’ no such thing as any spiritual reality at all.

It is not coincidental that it is the small number of Friends who reject even the possibility of spiritual experience who have been most active in promoting the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’. In fact, the most significant distinction for the practice of Quaker worship is not between those who adopt personal or impersonal images of spiritual reality, but between those Friends who are open to the possibility of spiritual experience in any form, and those are not.

Anyone who is open to the possibility of encounter with some kind of reality beyond our own thoughts and opinions can enter into Quaker worship expecting to be changed, challenged and illuminated by a reality that is outside our control. Such an encounter may expand our understanding of reality, so that new words and images become meaningful to us. We don't need to confine ourselves to narrow identity categories that exclude the possibility of change and growth. We simply need to be willing to meet whatever face of God is presented to us, to welcome and respond to it, and to listen and learn from the very different experiences of others.

How do personal or impersonal images of God speak to you? Has the practice of Quaker worship changed your experience and understanding of spiritual reality?

This post is a response to the 'Reading Quaker faith & practice' project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Seeking God's Will

"It is this belief that God’s will can be recognised through the discipline of silent waiting which distinguishes our decision-making process from the secular idea of consensus. We have a common purpose in seeking God’s will through waiting and listening, believing that every activity of life should be subject to divine guidance." 
A Quaker community is not just a collection of individuals who come together for common activities, like a social club or campaigning group. What distinguishes Quaker community from a purely secular organisation is the experience of being a 'gathered people'. We have been brought together by a common call; a leading of the Spirit within each person that is drawing us together for a purpose that is not our own. 
Our Quaker communities are grounded in the practice of spiritual discernment. Quaker discernment is not consensus. It is a form of perception - of insight into a depth of reality that we can trust to guide us, and that is wider and deeper than whatever attitudes and values we bring individually or collectively to the occasion. This practice relies on a shared trust that there is a reliable source of guidance and authority to be found, that is not simply a projection of our own wishes and values. This does not assume any particular theology; it is compatible with many kinds of religious belief and even with a thorough-going agnosticism. All that is essential is our practical willingness to listen for, and to follow the leadings of the 'Inward Guide'. This is not so much a matter of 'belief' as an inner attitude of openness to the possibility of guidance, and trusting sufficiently in it to follow in the way we are led. 
One traditional Quaker formulation for this experience of inward guidance is 'God's will'. This expression may be understood in many ways; as the intentions of a divine personality, in a more impersonal sense such as the character of ultimate reality, or simply as a 'marker' for an experience that transcends rational explanation. The experience itself is common to people of many religious traditions; including those that do not have a concept of a personal God. 
Our collective experience is that access to this inward guidance is not limited to a special few, but is potentially available to the whole community that practices 'the discipline of silent waiting' together. Our non-hierarchical forms of organisation and decision-making are grounded in this historical experience, rather than any abstract principle of equality. If discernment were restricted to only a few people with special insight or advanced training, we would have been right to adopt a hierarchical form of church government, as have most Catholic and Buddhist organisations. But the Spirit can, and does, speak through even the least confident or experienced Friend, if they are willing to follow the discipline of Quaker practices.
How have you experienced the discernment of 'God's will' in your own life or in a Quaker community?
This post is a response to the Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

Saturday, 31 October 2015


"How can the people of Ordsall, where I work, become our neighbours, our sisters and our brothers, especially when we do not know them personally?... come and meet the people in Ordsall with me. You will sense inequality tangibly; you will become aware of the huge range of opportunities which you have and they do not; you will understand the struggle to make ends meet, the problems of debt, ill-health, premature ageing and death, and the hopelessness which is the experience of many."
(Jonathan Dale, Quaker faith & practice 23.50)

One of the striking features of the Quaker faith & practice chapter on 'Social Responsibility', is that this passage by Jonathan Dale is one of very few that emphasise the importance of personal relationship with people experiencing poverty and exclusion.

By contrast, most of the chapter reflects a set of assumptions about Quakers' distance from the people who are represented as the objects of our concern and solicitude. This 'top-down' perspective assumes that we are the ones with the capacity to provide solutions to the problems faced by those who are less fortunate and less able to help themselves. This is, of course, a common attitude among socially privileged groups, and it represents a long-standing pattern in Quaker thought and practice since the 18th Century, when Friends first became a predominantly bourgeois movement.

Many of these sentiments are expressed in terms of 'principles' that should be applied to the reform of society, such as the section on 'Foundations of a true social order' (23.16) which includes aspirational statements such as:

“Mutual service should be the principle upon which life is organised. Service, not private gain, should be the motive of all work.”

Britain Yearly Meeting is currently working towards an updated version of these principles, in order to produce a new 'Foundations of a true social order' document for our times. This seems to me not the most helpful way of reflecting on our role in fulfilling the Spirit's leadings in the world.

One of the problems with this approach is that no society is, or can be, founded on abstract 'principles'. Actual human societies are built of relationships. These are principally the power relationships that determine who has access to resources and opportunities, as well as who determines the limits of acceptable public discourse. But there are also relationships of solidarity and co-operation both within and between different social groups. Rather than continuing to base our thinking about social testimony on inventing principles for what society should be like, it might be more constructive to focus on relationships, and specifically the possibilities for solidarity between groups with unequal access to power and resources.

Much of our current thinking about Quaker social testimony is modelled on the movement for the abolition of slavery. In some ways this is perhaps an unfortunate starting point, because abolitionism (at least in the UK) is largely an example of a movement that was carried out for and to African slaves, by campaigners who in most cases had no personal contact or relationship with them at all.

By contrast, the various 'theologies of liberation' that have emerged since the 1970s in the Catholic and Protestant churches have demonstrated that the most creative insights are not derived from detached academic analysis and philanthropy. Instead, they arise from the first-hand experience of people who are victimised by power and those who live in relationship with them. They have taught us that relationship with people who are excluded is sacramental. It leads us into conflict because it gives a view of the world from the perspective of those who do not count. The gift of personal relationship is the recovery of this prophetic perspective. It is a challenge to our own identity, as well as to the common Quaker attachment to a non-conflictual world-view.

An alternative 'liberationist' model for Quaker thought and practice might focus more deliberately on the example of Friends who have intimate personal experience of social inequality and injustice; whether as members of excluded groups themselves, or through living and working closely with them, in relationships of shared risk and mutual aid. These are relationships of solidarity rather than charity, learning from and struggling alongside each other instead of 'helping'. There is a rich tradition of Friends who have lived solidarity in this way, only a very few of whom are represented in Quaker faith & practice, such as Dorothy Case (23.34), Stephen Henry Hobhouse (23.51), Joan Frances Layton (23.60) and Jonathan Dale.

There are many other contemporary Friends and meetings engaged in this faithful, long-term 'being with' excluded and victimised people. In our own area meeting there are Friends who have long-lasting friendships with refugees, prisoners and homeless people. There are also Friends who have lived through exile, poverty, homelessness and imprisonment themselves. We need to hear these voices, and the insights that they can bring us, in order to discern our calling as a community of faith to participate in the healing of the world.

Have you experienced relationships that have given you new understanding of God's purposes?  Has your own experience of exclusion or injustice given you insights to share with the wider Quaker community?

This post is a response to the Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. Next month's post will be a response to Chapter 3: General counsel on church affairs. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.