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?

Sunday, 31 August 2014

What does it mean to be a Quaker?

James Turrell 'Skyspace' at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
At our Yearly Meeting Gathering recently, British Quakers have been exploring the question 'what does it mean to be a Quaker today?' As Ben Pink Dandelion pointed out in his Swarthmore Lecture, in some ways this is a curious question. It is a reflection, perhaps, of a widespread and long-standing confusion about just what the Quaker Way consists of, or even if there is such a thing at all.

Some Friends would identify certain core Quaker beliefs, such as in 'that of God in everyone', or 'all of life is sacramental'. Others point to a set of values such as equality, peace, simplicity or social justice, although there is no definitive statement of these values or where they are derived from. There are also some Friends who claim that the distinctive thing about Quakers is that there is no specific teaching or content to it at all. A Quaker Meeting is simply an accepting 'space' for people to explore their own values and pursue their own private spiritual journeys.

One result of this radical lack of shared understanding is the emergence of a lowest common denominator of 'Quakerliness', based on conforming to a fairly narrow set of prescriptive behaviours. These principally consist of sitting quietly for an hour on a Sunday morning and speaking without any suggestion of spiritual certainty. This is what Ben Pink Dandelion has identified as the 'behavioural creed' of modern liberal Quakers. This behavioural creed can easily blend into a narrow social and cultural creed, which identifies Quakerliness with 'people like us', who read The Guardian and drink herbal tea.

I want to suggest that there is a living tradition of spiritual teaching and practice that makes up the Quaker Way, which is not defined by a particular social group, behavioural norms, or even values and beliefs. Central to this tradition is a small number of distinctive Quaker practices, principally the Meeting for Worship and the Meeting for Worship for Business. These practices have never been static; Meetings for Worship have changed a great deal since the 17th Century when they could last three hours and contain lengthy Biblical sermons. New Quaker practices also emerge over time, including Meetings for Clearness and Experiment with Light, and they are always subject to adaptation and reinterpretation. But it is through participation in these practices, including in discussions about their meaning, that we take part in the Quaker Way.

Practices such as these are not just a set of 'behaviours' like sitting quietly in a circle, which might equally describe a dentist's waiting room. Quaker practices are inherently social and collective. They involve some degree of shared understanding of the meaning of the activity, which makes it something that we do together, rather than just what I am choosing to do in the privacy of my own consciousness. These practices involve self-discipline; they require us to develop our capacity for discernment, and to restrain our natural impulses towards self-assertion and defensiveness. A shared understanding of these practices doesn't mean that we all have identical beliefs. It does require enough of a common language and shared assumptions about the meaning of the practice that we know how to engage in it together in mutually intelligible ways.

The Quaker Way involves a continuing, open-ended discussion about the meaning of these Quaker practices. It cannot thrive in a prolonged period of silent détente between individuals or factions who are unwilling to talk and listen to each other. The collective nature of Quaker practices is also undermined by the bland acceptance of any individual interpretation, which bypasses the mutual challenge and discovery involved in taking the Quaker tradition seriously enough to test our own ideas and preferences against it.

During the last few decades, we have failed to maintain this shared discussion about the meaning and nature of our Quaker practices. In the absence of this continual conversation, we have created a climate of mutual incomprehension, which easily leads to fear, blame and resentment of those who don't share our assumptions. So there are Friends who assume that a Quaker who uses the word 'God' believes in an 'old man in the sky'. Since no-one has explained to them that the word 'God' is almost always used by Quakers to refer to an ultimately mysterious spiritual reality rather than a mythological being, we now have Friends adopting oppositional postures against a belief system that no-one around them actually holds.

Similarly, many Friends have been admitted to membership under the impression that they were joining a group with no spiritual teaching of its own to agree or disagree with. Some of them may be alarmed and resentful to suddenly be told that the Quaker Way has its own distinctive tradition of spiritual practice and understanding, which may be in conflict with some of the beliefs they have brought with them from other contexts.

Misunderstandings, confusion and hurts such as this are an inevitable consequence of having avoided discussing the nature and meaning of our Quaker practices for far too long. It is my impression that these discussions have been evaded largely because of the fear of conflict. For some Friends in our Meetings these conversations are unwelcome, because to talk about the Quaker Way as something in particular is also to state that it is not just whatever they would like it to be. They may also be worried about becoming exclusive or unwelcoming if we start insisting on a particular interpretation of the Quaker Way.

British Friends almost without exception recognise the value of spiritual questioning, seeking and diversity, and there is little danger of our becoming an intolerant, fundamentalist sect. What some Friends are proposing is a 'rebalancing' of our approach to the Quaker Way, which embraces both the corporate and individual aspects of our faith. This is what Simon Best and Stuart Masters have called a 'creative tension... between being “a gathered people” with a common identity, practice and message, and the value of individuals who bring a diversity of gifts and insights to that community.'
('What can we say today? Questions for the revision of the Book of Discipline', the Friends Quarterly, Issue 3, 2014)

A Quaker community with a shared understanding of its core practices is not exclusive. The Quaker Meeting for Worship is open to everyone, whether or not they share the community's understanding of its worship, discernment and testimony. But we only have this experience to offer if we know enough about our own tradition to be able to practice it authentically together. If an enquirer comes into a Meeting for Worship in which half of the Friends are reading newsletters, and others are continually standing up to debate political points, they have been deprived of the opportunity to find out what Quaker worship can be. This is not inclusivity or openness, it is a failure to inhabit our Quaker tradition, to learn from it, to contribute to it and to share it with others.

For me, it is a hopeful sign that in so many different places across the Quaker community these conversations are at last starting to surface – in the recent Swarthmore Lecture at Yearly Meeting Gathering, at conferences and Woodbrooke courses, in travelling workshops and in Quaker publications and social media. What this highlights to me is that the renewal and rediscovery of our Quaker tradition as a living way of spiritual practice is in our own hands. If we want a deeper experience of community, and a renewed spiritual depth of worship and testimony, we need to take courage. We mustn't allow the fear of 'Quaker squashing' to silence a serious dialogue about what the Quaker Way is. We all have opportunities to begin conversations about the meaning of our Quaker practices within our Meetings and throughout the Society. We can encourage each other to take the Quaker Way seriously as a path of spiritual practice to learn about, to discuss with each other, and above all to work at, allowing it to transform us and the world around us.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Some thoughts on the Swarthmore Lecture

'Quaker problems' meme from:
This year's Swarthmore Lecture was presented at Yearly Meeting Gathering by the well-known Quaker scholar Ben Pink Dandelion. You can listen to a recording of the talk by clicking on the orange button below, and the book is available from the Quaker Centre bookshop.

This is a very challenging lecture, and must have taken considerable courage to write. Ben's previous books for (rather than about) Quakers, including Celebrating the Quaker Way and Living the Quaker Way, are very much affirmations of liberal Quaker spirituality. So it was a surprise to me that his Swarthmore Lecture offers such a sharp critique of contemporary Quaker culture. It includes an explicit call to resist secularism and individualism, and to recover a clearer sense of our identity as a religious community with a specific understanding of our shared faith; 'Maybe we've too much said “we love you and who would you like us to be?” rather than, “we love you and this is who we are – you're welcome to join if that works for you.”'

Ben's lecture identifies individualism and secularism as the critical challenges for British Quakers. Both contribute to pervasive confusion about core Quaker practices such as Meeting for Worship, discernment and testimony. Ben asks us to recover the 'core insights' of the Quaker Way, which he identifies as 'Encounter' (direct experience of God), Worship, Discernment and Testimony (which is not a list of 'Quaker values', but 'the life we are called to lead').

The lecture argues that far from being a 'DIY religion', the Quaker Way is inherently collective. Instead of inventing our own individual interpretations of every aspect of Quaker life, we need to 'inhabit our tradition' – to take it seriously as something that makes a claim on our lives. Ben also argues that we cannot re-interpret the Quaker Way in purely secular terms, as a code of ethics or human values. Without getting into the 'head exercise of arguing about the detail of the Divine', we need to 'reclaim the spiritual and the spiritual basis of our life together', and to recognise that 'there is spiritual experience at the heart of what we do'. He directly challenges those Friends who would like to expunge the term 'God' from contemporary Quaker life, asking 'can't we hear the word God, even if it's not the language we use? Maybe we're in the wrong place if we can't do that.'

Ben's analysis makes an appeal to Quaker tradition, as a source of critique and as a resource for renewing the vitality of the the contemporary Quaker Way. Tradition is a problematical concept for many Friends. The argument of Ben's lecture could be misunderstood as 'harking back' to some outdated version of Quakerism, refusing to engage with current thinking and experience. This is not the way that Ben is using the concept of tradition. He is explicitly encouraging us to examine our habitual ways of doing things, and to change them wherever we need to. But perhaps we do need to reclaim the idea of Quaker tradition as a resource that offers us an alternative to the modes of thought and action of the dominant (secular, individualist) culture.

The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre has described a tradition as 'an argument extended through time' (in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? 1988). In other words, a tradition is not something static. It is a continuing conversation that involves us in a shared enterprise with each other and with our predecessors, as well as with generations to come. A tradition changes over time, in response to new insights and challenges, but it is not just whatever individuals choose to think or believe. Being rooted in a tradition means being in dialogue with others, including people of former times and different cultures. It involves making the effort to take seriously their claims and insights, and to consider how they bear upon our own situation. A commitment to a particular community, with its own living tradition, means that I don't just claim the 'right' to think and do whatever I like, without reference to the experience and continuing discernment of the community.

This doesn't imply that by joining a community such as Quakers we should surrender our autonomy and adopt an unthinking conformity to the group. On the contrary, it entails accepting a responsibility to participate in the community's unfolding dialogues. We need to offer our criticisms and challenges as well as our loyalty, and to further enrich the tradition for the benefit of future generations.

For British Quakers, the continuing evolution of our tradition is summarised in Quaker Faith & Practice, and in his lecture Ben makes a strong appeal to modern Quakers to take 'The Red Book' much more seriously. He points out that instead of embracing Quaker Faith and Practice as the principal resource for our shared understanding of the Quaker Way, we have 'left the book on the shelf'; resorting to individual interpretations of every aspect of 'our own' spiritual journey.

Whether or not we decide this week to start the process of revising our book of discipline, Ben encourages us to at last fully adopt it. He wants us to take it seriously as the current, always provisional and improvable, but authoritative statement of our shared enterprise of discerning God's purposes for us as a religious community.

While I am sympathetic to this argument, I am not wholly convinced that the current Quaker Faith & Practice can do quite as much work as Ben's argument requires. Clearly, our book of discipline is the outcome of a process of collective discernment within Britain Yearly Meeting which aims to represent the current spiritual experience of this generation. It should therefore reflect the current state of our Quaker tradition. The problem is that the diversity of viewpoints represented in our current book sometimes makes it impossible to come to any coherent interpretation. The section on Meeting for Worship, for instance, includes passages such as 2.51, which describes worship as looking around at people in Meeting, seeing someone unemployed, and going on to 'think of some of our social problems' etc. This passage seems very much at odds with others that describe worship in terms of 'a pure still waiting upon God in the spirit' (2.41), or 'our response to an awareness of God' (1.02.8). In some sections it is as if we are being positively encouraged to take a 'pick and mix' approach to the Quaker tradition, since there is almost sure to be some passage that will appear to support our own individual preferences.

Perhaps our current book of discipline simply reflects some of our contemporary incoherence about the meaning of the Quaker Way, and if we do manage to reach a more fully shared understanding of our tradition at some point in the future, an updated version would be able to present this more unified perspective.

I would very much like to hear your responses to the Swarthmore Lecture. There will also be a weekend course at Woodbrooke in 2015 (3rd to 5th July) for those who would like to explore the implications of the lecture for the renewal of contemporary Quaker spirituality. I will be helping Ben to facilitate the course, alongside Rosie Carnall and Simon Best, and I hope to see some of you there.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Bad Quakers

Quakers often congratulate ourselves on being more ethical, tolerant, progressive and all-round better people than others. We seem to expect our families to be models of healthy liberal values, producing well-adjusted, high-achieving children. Quaker history is often presented as if it were uniquely pure and uncontaminated by compromise; a consistent story of selflessness and high ideals.

There is something that strikes me as false about all this. The effort to project a collective self-image as especially good people always requires the denial of our shadow side - the messy and imperfect reality of our lives, families and communities. When we deny our own darkness we invariably end up projecting it onto others. For Quakers in Britain those 'others' are usually evangelical Christians, or other groups stereotyped as conservative or illiberal. This frequently leads Friends into attitudes that amount to 'We are so accepting, tolerant and open-minded – not like those people...'

Of course the disciplines of ethical behaviour have a value. They can help us to avoid destructive behaviours and to become more aware of the consequences of our actions. But ethical positions and principles also carry a danger; that our fragile ego's need to be 'good enough' can over-ride our willingness to acknowledge the reality of who we actually are.

Could we accept a more realistic view of our history as Quakers, and of our own lives? If so, we might be able to become more accepting both of ourselves and of others who differ from us, without the anxious need to prove our superiority, or guilt over our failure to live up to ideal images.

The 'official' history of Quakers emphasises philanthropy, campaigning and humanitarian work. Without belittling the Friends who were faithful to these tasks, are we able to acknowledge the other side of our history; to see and accept our collective flaws, failings and compromises as well as our achievements?

Quakers' role in the abolition of slavery is very well-publicised. It is not so well known that Quakers were heavily involved in the creation of the African slave trade, including as founder members of the Royal African Company in the 17th Century. 

During the 18th Century many Friends enthusiastically embraced prosperity as merchants and speculators. John Woolman frequently wrote of his distress at the 'love of ease and gain' that had become entrenched among Quakers in the American colonies, often on the back of slave labour.

In common with other prosperous groups of the time, 19th Century Quakers opted for fashionable evangelical religion and philanthropy instead of lending support to working people's co-operative, trade union or socialist movements. Radical journalist William Cobbett complained of the 'money-getting tribe of Quakers', 'none of whom ever work', while they enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. ('Weekly Register' 1826, 'Rural Rides' 1830)

In the 20th Century, Friends are celebrated for conscientious objection, humanitarian relief and peace campaigning. During this period, we often assume that we were ahead of other churches in responding to the challenges of the times. The reality is that many religious groups were engaged in social and political action, sometimes in more radical and far-sighted ways than Quakers. In many countries the Catholic church has been far closer to the lives and struggles of the poor, and large numbers of Catholic priests, nuns and lay people have been persecuted or killed for their opposition to dictatorship and militarism in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa. During the second world war, 2000 Jehovah's Witnesses were sent to concentration camps and 1200 were killed by the Nazi regime for their uncompromising refusal of conscription. 

Over recent decades, Britain Yearly Meeting has largely followed the surrounding culture; ditching Christianity as it became unfashionable among liberal middle-class people and increasingly becoming a secular, bureaucratic campaigning organisation in the image of our times.

This is not to belittle the courage and sacrifice of those Friends who have remained faithful to the Inward Guide throughout our history. Our Quaker heroes have largely been those exceptional Friends who have tried to oppose the status quo in the Religious Society of Friends of the time rather than 'typical Quakers'. Arguably, the majority of Quakers in the past and present have reliably followed their personal and class interests rather than the leadings of God; just like virtually every other religious group. This perhaps calls for a little more humility when comparing ourselves to evangelical Christians, Catholics or Muslims. With a greater dose of humility, we might find ourselves more able to enter into relationships with people from different faith backgrounds, and even to learn something from them.

Quaker spirituality is grounded in the experience that the Inward Light will, if we allow it to, 'show us our darkness and lead us to new life'. In the words of George Fox,
'After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and there doth strength immediately come.' (Epistle 10).

This is the Quaker Way of inner transformation; not an earnest striving to be good, but an experiential awareness of our real motivations. As the Light reveals to us what is really going on, we begin to see through some of our habitual self-deceptions and to make choices which are less driven by the compulsion to prove ourselves right.

There is no short cut to becoming good – it cannot be achieved by effortful striving to 'live up to' worthy principles. Any growth in maturity, selflessness and compassion is simply a side-effect of becoming more aware of reality as it is, including the reality of our own darkness, selfishness and prejudice. However much we want to become 'good' people, goodness cannot simply be turned on like a tap. According to a Zen image of the spiritual life 'When the fruit is ripe it drops by itself'. Our task is to choose the conditions that help ourselves and others to ripen into maturity.

According to the Sufi poet Rumi, 'Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.' That field is reality, as it is, including ourselves as we really are. When we can meet each other in this field, without self-deception, pretending or judgement, we are open to the possibility of relationship and transformation, 'and there doth strength immediately come.'

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Agricultural Mind

Moya learning to scythe
'We grow down, and we need a long life to get on our feet... To plant a foot firmly on earth - that is the ultimate achievement, and a far later stage of growth than anything begun in your head.'

(James Hillman - 'The Soul's Code')

Many British Quakers seem to be suffering from over-exposure to an academic education that has undermined our capacity to engage usefully with the world. Modern educational institutions tend to reduce learning to a pre-packaged curriculum of information, theories and arguments, instead of an active process of reflection on experience. Too much of this ‘processed’ learning, just like too much processed food, can be bad for us.

Prolonged exposure to academic education leads to mental habits of abstraction that prioritise abstract concepts over lived reality. Any experience of reality that cannot be squeezed through the sieve of rational argument tends to be discarded as unacceptable to the over-educated mind. This leads many Friends to interpret the Quaker Way as a set of ethical principles rather than a religious path; editing out any religious experience and language that doesn't conform to narrow conceptions of rational discourse. Quakers are not alone in this condition of course. The habits of abstraction and rationalism are a common affliction of our whole culture. This idealist tendency has ancient roots in Greek philosophy, but it has been amplified by recent social and economic changes in British society.

Until recently, only a privileged minority of the British population received a prolonged academic education, while most people had to acquire the practical skills needed for agriculture and manufacturing. Over recent decades the UK economy has turned away from productive activity, to concentrate on the financial, service and retail sectors - what David Mitchell has called 'an economy based on lattes and ringtones'. Most of us are now educated according to an almost entirely academic curriculum. What we have lost in this process is not just a resilient national economy, but the physical, mental and spiritual capacities that are integral to skilled practical work.

Skilled trades such as farming or building require the exercise of a form of practical reasoning which is quite different to that taught by the academic curriculum. It is not just that skills such as growing, building and fixing are practically useful. They are also intellectually demanding in a very different way to abstract argument. Practical skills resist abstraction because they demand full engagement with the concrete realities of a particular place, materials and inhabitants. They require the kind of intellectual activity that Wendell Berry has called 'the agricultural mind':

'The agricultural mind is not at all impressed by the industrial legendary of gross national products, or of the numbers sold and dollars earned. It is interested – and forever fascinated – by questions leading toward the accomplishment of good work: What is the best location for a particular building or fence? What is the best way to plow this field? Should this tree be cut or spared? Questions which cannot be answered in the abstract and which yearn not towards quantity but towards elegance. And though this mind is local, it is not provincial; it is too taken up by its work to feel inferior to any other mind in any other place.'

(Wendell Berry, ‘The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind’)

I grew up as a fairly typical member of what Rob Hopkins has called 'the most useless generation to ever walk the planet'. I managed to complete 18 years of full-time education without knowing how to fix a machine, maintain a house, build a bookshelf, grow food, or do anything much apart from read books and write essays. Learning to become an organic grower over the last two years has given me an entirely new appreciation of the value and importance of practical skills ('know-how') compared to abstract knowledge ('know-about'). When I decided to change my occupation I followed the standard middle-class route to learning by doing a course of academic study in Organic Farming. Although I learned much interesting information through this curriculum, it did little to help me acquire the skills needed for actual work, or for a full understanding of what I was seeing and doing on the land.

The essential aspect of education that was missing from academic study was observing and imitating the skilled practice of more experienced growers. I quickly discovered that the know-how required to make a good judgement about pruning a tree or ploughing a field cannot be acquired simply by following rules or applying principles. These judgements do require knowledge about processes such as tree growth habits and soil structure, but this knowledge cannot simply be 'applied' by translating it from a textbook. We first have to learn how to 'see' what is in front of us, how to interpret it, and how to judge what is most relevant. The only effective way to do this is by working alongside a skilled colleague until we begin to see through their eyes, and then to practice learning from our own mistakes.

This contextual learning has parallels with the way that we practice ethical judgements and spiritual discernment. Abstract principles cannot offer us a guide to how to live and respond to real-life challenges. For this we need practical judgement of a similar kind to that required by skilled work. We need to be able to 'see' our situation in all the complexity of its specific context; to recognise its most important features and tendencies. This kind of judgement cannot be learned in the abstract from a book. There is no substitute to learning from each other, ideally in a community which constantly tries to practice discernment and in which we share our experiences and mistakes. This is also why mentors and spiritual friends have played such an important role for many of us. A spiritual accompanier or mentor does not tell us what to do, but helps us to see the reality of our situation with the eyes of experience, enabling us to discern for ourselves how we are being led to respond to this concrete situation. Books, discussion and academic study can all enrich our thinking and broaden our perspectives, but the business of living is finally a practical occupation. It requires skills of judgement that are far closer to the work of making, growing and fixing than the abstract theorising for which our academic education has largely equipped us.

I am interested to hear from others about your experience of education and work. How have you acquired the skills needed for life and work? Have you been 'mentored' by someone who has helped you to see with the eyes of experience?