Friday, 28 March 2014

The Trouble with Men

Most men don’t have a life. What they have is an act. What we call our self is a mask we clamp on our faces every morning and don’t drop until we fall asleep at night.
(Steve Biddulph, ‘Manhood’)

Men seem to be in trouble. British men are now more than three times more likely than women to commit suicide - the main cause of death for men under the age of 35. 

The journalistic explanations produced to explain this gender gap are usually based on the idea of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ – that men are suffering from the loss of their traditional roles as head of the household and main breadwinner. In other words, women’s liberation is the cause of men’s problems.

I don’t find this reasoning very convincing. It doesn't account for the fact that the gender gap is largely caused by women's suicide rate having halved over the last three decades, while men's has risen slightly. It also appears to be a form of 'victim narrative' - with men cast as the victims of feminism, which strikes me as neither true nor helpful.

I should make a disclosure of interest here – I am a man. I am also married to a woman and have a 12 year-old daughter. I want to be in an equal, mutually supportive marriage, and I want my daughter to grow into adulthood without being harassed or having her aspirations crushed. I have benefited from the greater flexibility of gender roles through being able to stay at home to care for both my children when they were very young. I also want to acknowledge that there are many ways of being a man, and these observations almost certainly don’t apply to all of them. As a straight, White man I am reflecting on those aspects of manhood that I know from experience, which may be very different for gay or Black men.

I don’t believe that we need to blame women for men’s distress. Although changing gender roles and employment patterns are undoubtedly stressful for some men, those changes can also have very positive outcomes for men as well as women. What is it that makes the difference?

For men, just as for women, it is the quality of our relationships with others that largely determines how resilient we are to stress, how well we adapt to major life changes, and how happy and healthy we are. The main difference between men and women is that men are far less likely to have close and supportive relationships with friends or relatives.

Men grow up with a pattern of communicating with others that is largely about competition for status and emotional defensiveness. As boys, and as adults, we rarely develop friendships based on openness and acceptance. Women often have female friends or close relatives who will encourage them to talk about what is going on in their lives. Men are very often entirely dependent on their partner for emotional intimacy, and many women complain that their male partners ‘won’t talk’ even to them. When a man’s relationship with his partner breaks down, he discovers too late that there is no one else he can talk to. It is this social and emotional isolation that is killing men.

When the poverty of men’s relationships is acknowledged (usually by women), there often seems to be an assumption that it is somehow inherent in men’s make-up, that there is something intrinsically lacking in men’s emotional capacities. I have frequently heard comments from women, including Quakers, to the effect that men are somehow emotionally disabled, immature and unreliable. These prejudiced statements are evidently regarded as acceptable among Friends, in a way that similar comments about ethnic minorities, or women, are not.

I don’t believe that men’s emotional isolation is inherent in our nature. It is a result of particular experiences in a particular kind of society, which limit our opportunities to develop open and mutually supportive friendships. Men, just as much as women, have an inherent capacity for friendship, openness and mutual support with friends and relatives of both sexes.

Women are often assumed to be naturally ‘good at relationships’, but the modern women’s movement also had to confront the ways that a deeply unequal society isolated women from each other, making them compete with each other for male approval. Changing this required efforts to create a new culture of mutual solidarity, enabling women to make more life-giving choices and to resist attempts to suppress their independence and dignity. Groups of women had to begin to talk openly and non-judgementally about their experiences, supporting each other to make changes in their lives and relationships. 

Men in our society have not done this. Many men have no male friendships that go any deeper than superficial work conversations or competitive banter, so they remain stuck in patterns of relationship that trap them in emotional isolation.

Membership of a religious community such as a Quaker Meeting can offer an opportunity for men to relearn habits of friendship in a context that supports openness, trust and integrity. Through Sheffield Meeting, for the first time in my life I have a group of male friends, aged from 20s to 70s, who can be open with each other about our real lives, real experiences and difficulties. These are friendships based on honest communication about the things that actually matter to us, rather than the tiresome point-scoring that often passes for social conversation between men.

This experience is sufficient evidence for me to disprove any idea of the inherent emotional inadequacy or abusiveness of men. Yet it seems to be difficult for many people to acknowledge the reality of sexism and the oppression of women without demonising men as ‘the problem’. The assumption that men are inherently violent, neglectful, irresponsible and immature has become widespread in our culture. This undermines trust in young men’s capacity for growing into mature adulthood. It is also reflected in a confrontational family court system that tends to exclude divorced men from their children’s lives.

A Quaker perspective on movements for social justice offers the insight that situations of inequality are harmful to everyone, including those who appear to be privileged by the system. The liberation of women, of gay and Black people is also liberating for those in positions of power, helping to free us all from the false and dehumanising relationships created by social inequality.

The harm done to women by sexism, violence and inequality needs to be recognised and remedied. The harm done to men by our false position in relation to women and each other, including limited male stereotypes and chronic loneliness, also needs to be recognised for change to happen, and we have to do this ourselves, rather than relying on our wives or girlfriends to do all the emotional work for us. We need to engage in a mutual liberation from an age-old system of gender inequality that is damaging to the humanity and spiritual maturity of everyone. We can recognise the ‘powers’ of sexual inequality that need to be challenged and overturned, without turning either men or women into enemy images.

The liberation of women is an opportunity for men to abandon our compulsive competitiveness and remake our relationships with women and with each other. For many men this is literally a matter of life or death, because the loneliness and emptiness of a life without real friendship is killing them. I believe that men can change, with each other’s help, and that we can raise our sons to be unafraid of giving and receiving real friendship. My ten year-old son gives me hope for this. He told us recently that there are boys he plays with school, but he has only one real friend - 'because I can tell him about my feelings’. This is the kind of friendship that all boys and men need, and that might even save our lives.

I would very much like to hear from other men about your experiences of friendship, or of isolation. Do you have real friendships in your Meeting or elsewhere? Is your experience similar to, or very different from what I have described here?

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Authority and Leadership

It is probably fair to say that authority is not a popular concept among Quakers. If it is mentioned at all in a Quaker setting, at least one Friend can be relied upon to stand up and announce 'I am not comfortable with the word authority'. This is sometimes followed by a wave of Friends offering to substitute more palatable words in place of the offending one.

Many of us have experienced groups where authority has been abused or monopolised. Some who have been hurt or excluded by the abuse of authority in other contexts come to a Quaker Meeting expecting it to be a 'leaderless group' where 'everyone is equal'. They are sometimes shocked or resentful to discover that the Meeting has appointed elders, or that there are people regarded as 'weighty Friends' who seem to exercise more influence than others.

It is often claimed that Quakers don't have leaders, and it is true that if a newcomer wants to find out 'who is in charge', they may be bewildered to learn that decisions are made by a voteless process of collective discernment by the whole community of Friends. This is not quite the same thing as having no leaders, however. The Religious Society of Friends is one of history's most successful examples of an organisation with widely distributed leadership. In a Quaker Meeting, leadership is shared between numerous individuals and groups, including clerks, elders, overseers, nominations, outreach and finance committees and many others, as well as more informally by Friends who exercise ministries of many different kinds, including spoken ministry, work with children, organising social events or meetings for learning etc.

All of these Friends need to exercise leadership. Leadership is a form of service to the community; it enables things to happen, by taking responsibility for supporting, enabling and encouraging others, and it is essential for any group to function. The tasks of leadership are not usually highly visible or dramatic. They include motivating, encouraging, thanking and welcoming, making sure that information is shared and clear arrangements are made, helping the group to stay on-topic and summing up the outcomes of discussions. It is also a function of leadership to remind the group of 'right ordering' (the Quaker community's agreed processes) and to prevent the most vocal individuals from dominating the group. Good leaders support and enable others' gifts and leadings (including others' potential for leadership) instead of suppressing everyone else's initiative, as often happens in organisations where all authority is monopolised by a few individuals.

It is when leadership is not explicitly recognised that groups become vulnerable to the 'tyranny of structurelessness'. So-called 'leaderless groups' quickly develop informal hierarchies that cannot be challenged or scrutinised, and that sometimes resort to maintaining their authority by scapegoating, bullying and manipulation. The disappointing performance of groups that rely purely on 'consensus decision-making' has been critiqued by John Michael Greer in relation to the Occupy movement. I have also experienced it first-hand in peace activist circles, where the processes that are intended to ensure equal participation were easily manipulated to secure the control of dominant individuals.

For Quakers, authority means being 'authorised' by the community to exercise accountable leadership. The Quaker approach to church government, which early Friends called 'Gospel Order', is a way of recognising and distributing leadership, while keeping it accountable to the whole community. In a Quaker Meeting, the community as a whole has the responsibility for discerning God's will through the Meeting for Worship for Business. The Meeting usually delegates authority for specific areas of work to committees and nominated individuals for fixed terms, but they remain accountable to the community as a whole. Friends who have been appointed to fulfil responsibilities by the community are generally trusted to get on with it, but major decisions are almost always taken by the whole Meeting, often approving or modifying a proposal from the relevant committee. Remarkably, this approach has been successful in maintaining the unity of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain for over 350 years, through intense religious persecution, the industrial revolution, two world wars and profound social and theological transformations, without resorting to voting or hierarchical government.

Since I began serving my Meeting as an elder, I have noticed how being in a position of leadership tends to make us vulnerable to other Friends' hostility to authority. Some Friends are very unwilling to accept the authority of elders or other appointed roles in Meeting, seeing every suggestion of leadership as authoritarianism. The Quaker testimony to equality is sometimes mistaken for a belief that 'everyone is the same', instead of the recognition of the equal value of our very different gifts and experiences. Those in leadership roles may be accused of being 'hierarchical' or elitist when they try to fulfil the responsibilities laid on them by the Meeting.

This creates a strong temptation for those in leadership roles to be timid about exercising their responsibility, for fear of upsetting or provoking Friends who don't accept their authority. Part of the challenge for those who hold leadership responsibilities is to be faithful to the authority entrusted to us by the Meeting, even at the risk of being criticised or resented. Sometimes this may mean challenging Friends who insist on getting their own way in opposition to the discernment of the whole community. This too, as difficult and painful as it sometimes is, is an essential form of service - helping to prevent the community from being bullied by its most aggressive members.

My own experience of many different community groups is that the availability of leadership is one of the main limiting factors for their success. I have repeatedly seen projects fail or dwindle away simply because there were not enough people willing to take responsibility for supporting and encouraging others' efforts. Quaker communities, as with all other human groups, need people who are willing to take a share of leadership responsibilities, including the difficult and challenging ones, in order to thrive. Leaders are not a special kind of people with extraordinary abilities. The principal quality needed for leadership is simply the willingness to embrace some responsibility for the welfare of the group as a whole.

I would like to learn more about others' experience of leadership and authority. How have you experienced the exercise of leadership in Quaker or other contexts? Have you encountered (or offered) resistance to authority within Quaker Meetings?

Friday, 17 January 2014

Christian 'Roots'

British Quakers often describe our relationship to Christianity with the expression ‘Christian roots’. The meaning of this expression is equivocal, because it is an attempt to reconcile Quakerism's origin as a radical Christian movement with modern Friends’ widespread rejection of Christianity. Are our Christian 'roots' what we are anchored in, and continue to draw nourishment from, or what we historically grew from, but have now left behind?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these conflicting attitudes is that both those Friends who reject Christianity and those who defend it often share an understanding of Christianity that was explicitly rejected by the first Quakers.

Early Friends described the Quaker movement as 'primitive Christianity revived', but they had a distinctive interpretation of Christianity that was passionately opposed to the orthodox Protestant theology of their day. The first Quakers rejected religious dogmatism, authoritarianism and collusion with powerful elites, quite as vehemently as any modern-day nontheist. Early Quakers believed that they had rediscovered the core insights of Jesus and the first Christians, which official Church teachings had systematically evaded, ignored or misrepresented since the 1st Century.

The Quaker understanding of Christianity emphasises the primacy of inward experience of spiritual reality – the 'Inward Christ'. Early Friends understood 'Christ' as an inward reality, accessible to every person by experience, to guide and empower them to live the kind of life that Jesus lived. Faith in Christ means trusting in this Inward Guide, which enlightens everyone who is willing to open their lives to it. The Inward Christ is luminously present in the life and words of Jesus of Nazareth that are recorded in the Bible, but in a more obscure degree it is present, if only as a potential, in every person – this is what George Fox meant by 'that of God in every one'.

This understanding of Christian faith is not an intellectual commitment to a set of abstract propositions about the nature of the Trinity and the atonement, or beliefs about the creation of the world or the afterlife. It is a practical commitment to living in a way that is illuminated and guided by the inward spirit of Christ in daily life – ‘here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him.' (Francis Howgill, 'Lamentation for the Scattered Tribes', 1656)

Robert Barclay distinguished between these two ways of knowing as ‘the saving heart-knowledge, and the soaring, airy head-knowledge. The last, we confess, may be diverse ways obtained; but the first, by no other way than the inward immediate manifestation and revelation of God's Spirit, shining in and upon the heart, enlightening and opening the understanding.' ('Apology for the True Christian Divinity', 1678)

For George Fox and other early Quakers, there was no value in simply holding an opinion about Christ, or in any religious 'notions' whatsoever. All the traditional Christian 'beliefs' – in the incarnation, resurrection, atonement, redemption etc, are primarily symbolic expressions of experience. They have no meaning as verbal doctrines or intellectual commitments; their only value is as descriptions of real states of awareness and relationship. The ‘soaring, airy head-knowledge’ cannot help us. Real Christian faith is knowing the power of the inward presence of Christ, experiencing its struggle with the darkness of addiction and temptation within us, and coming to live a transformed life of selflessness and integrity.

This was the transformative experience Friends called 'convincement', and in it they recognised all the symbolic imagery of the Bible, come alive as vivid depictions of their own reality. For Quakers, the Bible was never the primary source of religious revelation and authority, but as a record of the discernment and actions of others who have been led by the Spirit, it is useful for testing our own often uncertain discernment. George Fox claimed that everything he had discovered 'experimentally' through the direct openings of the Spirit he later found confirmed in the Bible, but also that even 'if there was no scripture... Christ [ie the inward spirit of Christ] is sufficient.' (Epistle 320, 1676)

Early Friends believed that as people come to follow the leadings of the Spirit of Christ, we begin to share in the life of communion with God and with each other that Jesus called 'the Kingdom of God'. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is a new social reality which favours the poor and excluded. The core of Jesus' teaching was this 'good news to the poor', that the reign of God is on its way, growing invisibly throughout humanity like yeast through dough – 'the Kingdom of God is among you' (Luke 17:21). This Kingdom of God will be fulfilled through the lives of ordinary and disregarded people, as they are transformed by the Spirit of Christ within; turning away from the seductions of power, wealth and status, to embrace a life based on sharing and reconciliation.
"Children who are properly fed, who have adequate clothing and shoes, good water to drink, and who are learning skills for a constructive adult part in a working human ecology - that's what I think the gospel looks like."
The distorted version of Christianity often taught by mainstream church institutions has usually ignored or tried to interpret away the challenging 'good news' of Jesus' vision of a new society based on renewed people. Instead, church institutions have often concentrated on inventing and squabbling over metaphysical doctrines and outward ceremonies, combined with an obsessive attention to sexual behaviour. Some churches insist on the necessity of taking part in outward ceremonies such as baptism and the eucharist, others on literal belief in the highly symbolic narratives of the Bible, or intellectual adherence to abstract theological concepts. Very few mainstream churches have recognised the necessity of being guided by the same Spirit that was in Jesus, and allowing it to lead us into a transformed life and a renewed society.

Many contemporary Christian Friends have come to Quakerism from mainstream churches, and their understanding of Christianity is often recognisably Anglican, Methodist or Catholic rather than Quaker. Similarly, Friends who are hostile to Christianity are often reacting against their experience of Protestant or Catholic teachings and institutions, rather than the Quaker understanding of what it means to be a Christian – a follower of the inward spirit of Christ that is continually speaking within every person. “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles saith this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?” (George Fox, reported by Margaret Fell in 1694)

Monday, 16 December 2013

Being a Quaker Parent

"The best thing about not having children must be that you can carry on thinking of yourself as a nice person."
Fay Weldon

Over the last few years as a Woodbrooke Associate Tutor, I have helped to lead a couple of courses on 'Being a Quaker Parent'. I don't consider myself any kind of expert on parenting, but these were opportunities to share deeply with other Quaker parents from around the country about our struggles, joys and dilemmas. For me this was a challenging and helpful experience, and I hope that some reflections on the issues raised by the course may be useful to other Quaker parents.

Talking to many Quaker parents, I have been surprised by how many feel isolated or marginalised in their local Meetings, especially those in which there are relatively few Friends of working age. Sometimes parents feel that children are tolerated rather than fully included in the life of the Meeting, or that young people are seen as the responsibility of parents only, rather than an integral part of the whole Meeting community.

Many Friends also suffer from the self-imposed pressure to be the 'perfect parent'. Quaker parents often have very high expectations of themselves, which can be a source of guilt and anguish when they feel they are failing to live up to their ideals. Most Quaker parents nowadays are the only Quaker in their family. They often have partners, ex-partners or other family members who are not Quakers, and who may have significantly different views on child-raising, so parenting involves a process of negotiation and compromise.

Conflict, confusion and compromise are all inherent and essential aspects of parenting, as of all human relationships. The recent modern interpretation of Quaker testimonies as abstract principles of 'Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace' sets up an unrealistic expectation that our families should embody these impossible goals of ethical perfection. Real-life families are not, and cannot be perfect expressions of abstract moral principles. What we can do as Quaker parents is to practise constructive ways of working with conflict and disagreement. We can work at making conscious choices about food, technology, media, fashion, how we spend time together and listen to each other, what boundaries and limits we set - and how we decide on them, explain them and re-evaluate them as our children grow.

These are exactly the same issues that face all parents. As Quakers, our 'testimony' is not a matter of superimposing an extra layer of ethical perfectionism on top of normal family life. It is simply bringing the practise of discernment to our practical daily decisions, which will inevitably result in different choices for each person and every family situation. As Quakers, the parenting choices we make are informed by the reality that we discern through being attentive to the Inward Guide, rather than struggling to conform to an external set of abstract principles. This does not lead us into an outward uniformity, but towards an inner integrity – a growing coherence between the truth of life as we experience it, and the practical choices that we make in our homes and relationships. It is the decisions we make as parents about practical issues, such as what area we live in and how we use the TV and internet, that will have the most decisive influence on our family culture.

The practise of discernment helps us to realise that we do have choices about the kind of family life we cultivate. We do not simply have to accept whatever the consumer culture dictates, including the deliberate targeting of children by the advertising industry. Neither do we have to reject modern culture wholesale in the attempt to protect our children from everything potentially harmful. We can make our own choices about how we celebrate Christmas or birthdays or the changing seasons, without accepting any pre-packaged consumerist forms that contradict our own discernment of what is life-giving and sustaining. We need a practise of continual discernment to ask of every kind of technology, activity, food or entertainment 'is this good for me, for my children, for us as a family?' This is close to the Amish attitude to technology, which is not a blanket rejection, but judges any proposed technological innovation by the impact it will have on the family and community. This is an excellent starting point for us as Quakers too, even if the conclusions we come to may often look quite different.

Quaker parents are often confused about how to nurture their children's spirituality while encouraging young people to explore their own beliefs and make up their own minds. Our Children's Meetings sometimes reflect this tension between the wish to teach children about Quaker beliefs and practices, and the concern to avoid any kind of religious indoctrination.

Children have an inherent capacity for spiritual insight and experience, which is sometimes extraordinarily vivid and powerful. Many adults can recall powerful experiences of deep spiritual perception in early childhood, which sometimes leave a life-long impression. This is not primarily a matter of children's 'beliefs', but of their capacity for spiritual experience that can be either nourished or neglected. If we recognise children's capacity and need for spirituality, it is part of our responsibility as parents and as Quaker communities to nourish our children's spiritual lives, just as much as we are responsible for feeding, clothing and educating them. Just as children need healthy food, they also need opportunities to experience the inward place of gathered, prayerful stillness, and to encounter people whose lives express forgiveness, integrity and compassion. Young people should also be able to expect that by growing up with a Quaker parent, or attending a Quaker Children's Meeting, they will have opportunities to discover and explore what the Quaker Way is about. Whether or not they choose to become Quakers as adults, a confident grounding in Quaker practice will enable young people to make an informed choice about whether it is the right path for them, as well as providing a basis for discerning the more or less helpful aspects of other spiritual or secular traditions. Parents often struggle with finding ways to share the Quaker Way with their children, and the involvement of other adults from the Meeting can be crucial in enabling young people to encounter the possibilities of Quaker spirituality.

I would be interested to hear from other Quaker parents about your experience of bringing up children. Has your Meeting been a support for you as a parent? What challenges have you faced in raising children as a Quaker? Are there any choices or practices that have been particularly helpful for you or your children?

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The name of God

The name of God can be used to freeze our wonder, to make a comforting and useful idol, or it can be the opposite: a name that opens into continuing mystery.

(Thomas Moore, The Soul of Religion)

We all know God the idol; all-seeing, omnipotent, angry and male. For some, wounded by authoritarian religious upbringings or in flight from evangelical burnout, perhaps this is the only meaning the word ‘God’ can have for them, and in that case they may do well to leave it behind.

Some of us, fortunate enough to have avoided the crushing of our religious imagination by fundamentalism, have come to understand God as a 'name that opens into continuing mystery'.

The Quaker Way is part of a current of religious mysticism that has always acknowledged the limits of language to describe reality. Throughout history, people of all religions and cultures have experienced God not as a supernatural being 'out there', but as an indwelling presence, an inward guide, or a source of inner healing and transformation. This mystical understanding is not marginal to traditional religion. It is shared by influential figures such as Rumi in Islam, Gandhi in Hinduism, and Christians such as Julian of Norwich, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton and countless others.

For many Quakers today, this mystical understanding of God has been forgotten, and 'God language' is identified with the most conservative and simplistic Christian teaching. Even the idea of 'believing in' the existence of God makes the concept of God into an intellectual proposition rather than an experiential reality. Once we start discussing whether we believe in some 'thing' out there called God, we have lost sight of the point of the word, which is not to name some hypothetical being, but to point towards an experience of reality that cannot be fully captured in words.

It is difficult to speak about God these days, because people immediately ask you if a God exists. This means that the symbol of God is no longer working. Instead of pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality, the humanly conceived construct that we call 'God' has become the end of the story.

(Karen Armstrong, The Case for God)

The concepts of spiritual reality that people find helpful or intellectually convincing will vary from person to person, depending on our differing experiences and tendencies of thought. These differences reflect alternative perspectives on the same ultimately nameless reality. Framing these differences in terms of 'theism' versus 'nontheism' is irrelevant and unhelpful. It is unimportant whether someone describes themselves as a 'theist' or 'nontheist', because these are matters of intellectual belief, or 'notions'. The Quaker Way is not grounded in beliefs, which have no power to help or to change us. It is a matter of practice; looking deeply and attentively at the reality of our experience and allowing ourselves to be guided and transformed by what we discover there. The only genuinely important question from the point of view of this practice is whether we can experience a spiritual reality that is independent of our own desires and decisions.

There are many Friends who find the concept of an omnipotent personal God intellectually impossible or unhelpful, but who know themselves to be profoundly held by a deeper reality, or part of a greater interconnected Universe, which they might call by a range of names or have no words for at all. There are other Friends who argue that there is no such thing as any spiritual dimension of reality; only human values and concepts. For them, religious language can have at most only a metaphorical meaning as a way of talking about our own personal values. The principal spokesperson for this view is David Boulton, who writes of his own experience:

I have never, since I ceased to be a child in the mid 1950s, been persuaded of the reality of supernatural forces or dimensions, even when they are smuggled in under such euphemisms as “transcendence”, “the numinous”, “the divine”, or “the mystical”. I can no more entertain the notion of gods and devils, angels and demons, disembodied ghoulies and ghosties, or holy and unholy spirits, than I can believe in the magic of Harry Potter or the mystic powers of Gandalf the Grey…

I fully understand that belief in a transcendent realm and a transcendent god as the guarantors of meaning and purpose have inspired millions. They do not inspire me. Instead, they seem to me illusions we can well do without, and I find myself raging at the toxic effects of literal, uncritical belief in divine guidance, divine purpose, divine reward and punishment.

Friends who describe themselves as ‘nontheist’ in this thorough-going materialist sense, reject the possibility of experiencing a spiritual reality that is independent of human choices and values. Instead, according to David Boulton, 'God becomes for us the imagined symbol of the human values that we recognise as making an ultimate claim upon us.' For them, the Religious Society of Friends is a diverse community based on shared values which is (or should be) equally accepting of every form of belief or theological opinion. This is the point of view expressed by a reader of this blog in a comment on last month’s post:

Nontheist Friends have difficulties talking about discernment as "finding the will of God". Can we phrase it in a way which is acceptable to Christians, Nontheists, and all the other theological positions to be found within our Yearly Meeting?

This request, and the similar ones being heard on all sides within Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, has a straightforward appeal as a claim to fairness. Given that there are now many Friends who don't believe in God, surely it is time to drop the use of 'God language' that is only meaningful to 'theists', and substitute some other word that is more universally acceptable?

Those nontheist Friends who argue in this way are like people who have joined a mountaineering club from a love of the history of mountaineering, the social gatherings and interesting equipment, but who are not willing to go climbing themselves. While accepting that some 'mountainists' still claim to enjoy climbing, these 'non-mountainist' members politely request that the club cease to describe its principal activity as mountaineering, and instead adopt more universally acceptable language.

The purpose of a mountaineering club is to climb mountains. The purpose of the Religious Society of Friends is to follow the guidance of the Spirit. All of us have inherited Quakerism as a living tradition of religious practice. Whatever good it has achieved in the past is a result of Friends' willingness to be led and shaped by the Inward Light. In becoming members we have accepted a responsibility to be faithful to the guidance of the Spirit, and so to preserve Quakerism as a living Way for others. This is not a matter of words. It doesn't matter whether we call that source of inward guidance God, the Light or anything else. What does matter is that we are willing to be guided by a spiritual reality that is not dependent on our own choices and values.

The existence of this spiritual reality is not primarily a matter of belief, but of experience; either we know it by our own experience or we don't. Clearly many contemporary Quakers do not know it by experience and therefore have no adequate reason to believe in it. In response to this, rather than changing the purpose of the Religious Society of Friends, we might do better to encourage each other to make use of the spiritual disciplines that Quakers have practised to experience spiritual reality for ourselves. Once we encounter it we will know for ourselves that it doesn’t matter what words we use, because any concepts can only point towards the experience of this reality, without defining or describing it:

Reality is finally mysterious. Our little word 'God' tries to name that mystery... It points but it does not describe. It offers no concepts or images that enable us to grasp the reality in our minds. It can only invite us to look and to see for ourselves.

(Rex Ambler, The Quaker Way – a rediscovery)

I am keen to hear readers' views on the points made in this post. Is it a fair reflection of the views of those who describe themselves as ‘nontheists’ (in any sense)? Is it possible to reclaim the word 'God' from fundamentalism, or do we need to substitute a less misunderstood word, such as 'Light', 'Spirit' or something else?

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The death of Liberal Quakerism (and the birth of something new?)

I returned from the recent Kindlers conference at Woodbrooke with the sense that Liberal Quakerism has run out of steam, but we may be in a period of transition to a new era of Quaker history, that as yet we don't have a name for.

The Quaker movement in Britain has famously been through several distinct historical eras, from the prophetic period of Early Friends, to its 'Quietist' phase in the 18th Century, followed by 19th Century Evangelical Quakerism. The era of Liberal Quakerism is usually dated from the Manchester Conference of 1895, and has remained the dominant paradigm throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. The principles of Liberal Quakerism were formulated by writers such as John Wilhelm Rowntree and Rufus Jones, offering a powerful reinterpretation of traditional Quaker spirituality that spoke to the contemporary condition. These included the primacy of experience over religious belief, an openness to 'new light' from other faiths and traditions, the acceptance of 'continuing revelation' and an engagement with contemporary science and society.

Since the early 20th Century, Liberal Quakerism has had a dramatic impact in many fields of social action, including war resistance, famine relief, social housing, the peace and environmental movements, feminism and LGBT equality (including our recent commitment to equal marriage). The continuing appeal of Liberal Quakerism is eloquently expressed by the Quaker Meeting House sign, which is quoted by Gerald Hewitson in his Swarthmore Lecture:

'Quakers are people of different beliefs, lifestyles and social backgrounds. What we have in common is an acceptance that all people are on a spiritual journey. We hope that we are indeed a real society of Friends, open to the world and welcoming everyone.'

For many Friends today, especially those who have been hurt or excluded by traditional churches, this is the version of Quakerism that they were attracted to and the only one they are comfortable with. For them, the Quaker Meeting is primarily a 'safe space' - a place to be themselves, where they will be accepted for who they are, without expectations or demands. There is a liberating acceptance of differences in lifestyle and sexuality, and no oppressive or patronising 'leaders' imposing their own rulings on acceptable belief and behaviour.

However, over recent decades Liberal Quakerism has unmistakeably declined in numbers, and in spiritual coherence and vitality. Although many Friends are very active in a huge range of social action, we no longer have a shared language with which to communicate our spiritual experience, or a shared understanding of core Quaker practices such as Meeting for Worship, testimony or discernment. We have retreated from sharing our spiritual experience with each other or with the wider society. Consequently we have shrunk to a group of predominantly White, middle class retired people, while complacently assuring ourselves that 'people will find us when they are ready', without the need for any action on our part.

We have cultivated a marked hostility to spiritual teaching, insisting that 'Quakerism is caught not taught', and as a result many Friends who have been members for decades remain ignorant about traditional Quaker practices and spirituality. We have developed a hostility towards any suggestion of leadership or authority, and by failing to encourage and support each others' gifts and leadings we have deprived ourselves of direction. We have become collections of like-minded (because socially similar) individuals, rather than true communities of people who are both accountable to and responsible for each other.

We have rejected the Quaker tradition, with its embarrassingly fervent early Friends and old-fashioned religious language, and ended up with a Quakerism that is almost evacuated of religious content, in which our spiritual experience is something 'private' that we cannot share with each other. Consequently we have little to offer to people who are seeking a deeper spiritual reality beyond an accepting 'space' for their own solitary spiritual searchings.

There is considerable momentum within Britain Yearly Meeting towards an increasingly attenuated version of Liberal Quakerism, as first Christian and now 'theist' language is steadily rejected as too exclusive and old-fashioned. The current trajectory of Liberal Quakerism is towards a secular friendly society, which has replaced any spiritual content with a vague concept of Quaker 'values' that are almost indistinguishable from the background liberal middle-class culture. With nothing deeper to offer people who are genuinely seeking a path of spiritual transformation, Quakerism would no longer have any distinctive identity or any reason to exist.

Throughout our history as Quakers we have been able to transform our Society, when old forms no longer served as vehicles for the Spirit. Each period of Quakerism has seen a renewal of spiritual practice, conviction and witness; drawing from, transforming and enriching the tradition to meet contemporary needs.

Are we at such a transition moment today? There are significant signs of a counter-movement to the continued dilution and diminution of Quakerism in Britain, although there is as yet no name for it, beyond aspirational words such as 'renewal' and 'Whoosh'. We cannot legislate for what this new form of Quakerism might eventually look like, but some hints seem to be emerging from the conversations that are bubbling up across Britain Yearly Meeting, and that were evident at both the Kindlers conference and the Whoosh event last year. These characteristics are striking because of some radical departures from Liberal Quaker orthodoxy. They include:

A desire for deeper, more disciplined worship and spiritual practice. In the words of one Friend, 'how many of us really, really understand the profound depths of this experience, how many of us spend years not ever understanding... yet not daring to say. Is my Friend who reads all through Meeting gaining and contributing to the essential heart of our Tradition?.. does it matter? Yes.'
Many Friends have adopted the Quaker meditation practice of 'Experiment with Light'. Some Meetings are experimenting with forms of semi-programmed and extended Meetings for Worship, or with spiritual friendships, silent retreats, journalling, or other spiritual disciplines beyond an hour on Sunday mornings.

Recognition of the need for leadership that empowers others, and that supports and encourages the development of everyone's ministry. This understanding of leadership includes a renewed attention to the value of eldership, spiritual accompaniment, travelling ministry and spiritual teaching. As one Friend put it, 'there is nothing to be gained by stepping back and giving people space when they are in reality desperate to know more, to experience and understand more. What are we afraid of?'

A willingness to work towards a shared understanding of the Quaker Way, and a new clarity of language to communicate the experience of spiritual reality, God, worship and prayer. As one Friend at the Kindlers conference said, 'at each stage in the Quaker past Friends have been clear about these things; we need to become clear about them too, knowing that our clarity may not be their clarity'. As another put it, 'it is not enough to flippantly talk of discernment, of 'gathered' meeting... what does it all really mean? How can we start to arrive together through our own understanding to the real true authentic meaning of these things?'
This shared language will not be imposed by any group, but may emerge through a process of 'threshing' throughout Britain Yearly Meeting. A pointer to one direction that such a language might take is Rex Ambler's approach in his new book The Quaker Way – a rediscovery.

Deliberately reaching out to the wider society with a confident Quaker message and invitation. Since the spread of Quaker Quest around the country, initially resisted by many Friends as 'proselytising', there has been a growing enthusiasm for Quaker outreach, including other initiatives such as Quaker Week. This is often accompanied by a conscious intention to create more diverse Quaker communities – socially, ethnically and generationally.

A re-engagement with Quaker tradition. There is a growing enthusiasm for the spirituality of early Friends, reflected in recent Swarthmore Lectures and the popularity of Experiment with Light. In the foundational insights of the first period of Quakerism, many Friends are rediscovering the passion and authenticity of Quaker spirituality. Far from being embarrassed or put-off by the uncompromising vision and message of 17th Century Friends, many of us are being drawn to find ways of experiencing it for ourselves.

A willingness to overhaul Quaker structures and bureaucracy to serve the spiritual practice of the community. Some Meetings, overburdened and exhausted by the pressure to fill nominations for Local, Area and national committees, have laid down all of their roles while they re-examine their real priorities from scratch. Longer term, a renewed focus on the spiritual priorities of the community seems likely to require a drastic slimming down of Quaker structures, and a reduction and decentralisation of our centrally managed work.

These possible characteristics of an emerging new form of Quakerism are of course speculative, based on conversations with an unrepresentative minority of Friends. I have also spoken to experienced Friends, who are sympathetic to the critique of Liberal Quakerism above, but sceptical about the prospects for a resurgence of British Quakerism. No doubt I will also have offended some readers by my rather harsh assessment of Liberal Quakerism. What is your judgement of the state of Quakers in Britain, and of our prospects for the future? Do you recognise any of the characteristics of an emerging 'new' Quakerism in your Meeting? And what have I missed?

Saturday, 14 September 2013

See, I am doing a new thing

Children at Hlekweni Friends Training Centre, Zimbabwe
One of the deepest consequences of the gradual unravelling of industrial civilisation in our times is the steady withering away of the modern faith in progress. For growing numbers of people, who can no longer sustain a belief that the future will always be an improvement on the present, the only alternative seems to be a despairing fatalism. Others, menaced by the pressing threat of ecological devastation, cling to an increasingly desperate insistence that 'They will think of something' to save us from the consequences of our own actions, without any need for us to change our own lives.

Perhaps one of the most important gifts that religious traditions, including Quakerism, have to offer in our time is the possibility of an orientation towards the future that does not lead to irresponsible optimism or despair. In the Christian tradition this orientation is called hope.

When our first child was born, we held a 'welcoming' celebration for her with friends at our home, during which I read out this passage from the prophet Isaiah:

"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland."
(Isaiah 43:19)
For us, the birth of our daughter, as of every child, was a sign of hope for the future, not because of any expectation that the next generation will be any wiser or better than the last, but simply because her life was 'a new thing' – filled with utterly unpredictable potential for bringing beauty and joy and healing into the world.

Hope is not the same as optimism. It does not mean believing that things will inevitably improve or anticipating the sudden disappearance of all our problems. Hope is also possible, and necessary, alongside a clear perception of the consequences of our own destructiveness and the persistence of violence and injustice. But an attitude of hope means an openness to the future, recognising that the future is not fixed in a mechanical, unrelenting pattern, because it will result from the actions of innumerable people, all of whom are capable of unpredictable acts of creativity and generosity.

The Quaker movement was formed in a period when many people's expectations of the future had been crushed by political events. Many early Friends had been deeply committed to the parliamentary cause during the English Civil War. They lived through the failure of the Commonwealth government, Cromwell's dictatorship and finally the restoration of the monarchy. Friends did not respond to the failure of their hopes and the re-imposition of political and religious absolutism by armed resistance, nor did they simply submit to the new restrictions on religious freedom. Instead, almost uniquely among the nonconformist sects of the time, they sustained a persistent, public commitment to living the Truth they had encountered, despite systematic and intense state persecution.

Quakers at this time emphasised the power of 'testimony' – a life of utter integrity and faithfulness to God's purposes, to challenge and transform situations of untruth and injustice. They experienced the reality that living an authentic human life, and maintaining a genuine human community, is a political act.

The public and political role of early Quaker testimony – including actions that attracted intense persecution such as such as refusing to swear oaths or to accept social hierarchies, was to resist a culture of lies and oppression by truthfully naming social reality. As Rex Ambler describes it:

"Early Friends testified to the truth that had changed them by living their lives on the basis of that truth. The reality of their life (and of human life) shone through in their lives because they were open to that reality and lived in harmony with it. Lives lived in the truth would then resonate with how other people lived their lives, and more specifically with the deep sense within them that they were not living well, not living rightly. When Friends spoke honestly and truthfully to people, when they dealt with them as they really were, without pretence or projection, when they met violence with nonviolence and hatred with love, people knew at some level they were being confronted with the truth, whether they liked it or not."  
Rex Ambler, 'The Prophetic Message of Early Friends (and how it can be interpreted today)'

This kind of influence may seem inadequate to the huge and urgent political challenges of our time. The influence of individuals and small groups on those around them is unlikely to save us from the long-term economic and ecological crises that we are preparing for ourselves and future generations. But however difficult the times our children will live through, there will be some people who practice sharing and reconciliation; some places where a more fully human life and community can flourish, because of the actions of people living now. This means that how we choose to live matters, it will shape the future for good or ill, and affect the lives of people we may never meet or know about. It means trusting in our own capacity for new beginnings, that we are not trapped by our past or confined by our habits and compulsions, that something new can happen in our own lives. Rather than despairing or giving way to fatalism, can we be ready to recognise and encourage these signs of hope within and around us, to perceive the times and places where the Spirit is acting to 'do a new thing'?