Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Understandings of God

The current Quaker Book of Discipline was compiled in the early 90s, when the loudest theological disputes were between so-called 'Universalists' and 'Christocentric' Friends. Section 27.04 of Quaker faith & practice addresses this apparent opposition, by recognising that these theological positions are not mutually exclusive, and may even be complementary:
"It has become quite customary to distinguish between ‘Christians’ and ‘universalists’ as if one category excluded the other. 
This situation has led many Friends to suppose that universalist Friends are in some way set over against Christocentric Friends. This is certainly not the case. Universalism is by definition inclusivist, and its adherents accept the right to free expression of all points of view, Christocentric or any other. Indeed, in London Yearly Meeting there are many universalists whose spiritual imagery and belief are thoroughly Christocentric. 
From the beginning the Quaker Christian faith has had a universal dimension. George Fox saw the Light ‘shine through all’ and he identified it with the divine Light of Christ that ‘enlightens every man that comes into the world’ (John 1:9). He pointed out, as did William Penn in greater detail, that individuals who had lived before the Christian era or outside Christendom and had no knowledge of the Bible story, had responded to a divine principle within them. In these terms, all Quaker Christians are universalists." 
(Alastair Heron, Ralph Hetherington and Joseph Pickvance, 1994)
Since then, the theological conversation, such as it is, has largely moved to the apparent contradiction between Friends who describe themselves as nontheists, and those who are sometimes described as 'theists', although it is rare for them to adopt this label themselves (unless it is to distance themselves from nontheists).

It would appear that Quakers in Britain have an enduring attraction to dividing ourselves into two, and only two, opposing camps.

In fact there are many ways that Quakers currently understand God. Rhiannon Grant has helpfully highlighted seven of them in her recent post 'Seven Gods Quakers Might Believe In'. In the interests of decimalisation, I'd like to explore a further three possibilities that may be relevant to the current Quaker conversation: 

1, Fictional

God, and all other religious concepts, are understood as human creations. They can be projections of our fears and needs, and also of our highest aspirations and deepest values. Religious concepts are understood as culturally specific and historically evolving, rather than objective, timeless truths. 

2, Personal

God/Spirit is understood as a spiritual reality with personal qualities, such as love and wisdom. This reality may be experienced as a loving and guiding presence, and may be described using images such as mother, father, friend, lover, guide or teacher. 

3, Impersonal

God/Spirit is understood as an impersonal source of energy, illumination or connection. It may be experienced as a sense of unity or mystery, and may be expressed through images such as Light, the divine, the ground of being etc.

Each of these ways of understanding God may speak to some Friends more than others, but they are not mutually exclusive. It is possible, for example, to have a personal understanding of God, while at the same time recognising that all of our religious ideas are culturally-relative human creations; what I have described above as a 'fictional' understanding.

It is also possible for someone to understand God as having both personal and impersonal aspects, and to express these using a range of images; just as early Friends used both personal and impersonal imagery, including Light, Seed, Guide, Inward Christ, Teacher, Principle of Life, etc. Some Friends who currently describe themselves as nontheists might have an impersonal understanding of God, or a fictional one, or both.

Each of these perspectives has something to contribute to enlarging our perception of spiritual reality. A 'fictional' understanding offers the important insight that all of our concepts of God are shaped by our cultural perspectives and personal agendas. It helps us to avoid mistaking our own religious ideas for objective ultimate reality. Both 'personal' and 'impersonal' concepts of God offer contrasting perspectives on a spiritual reality that is greater than any of our theories about it, pointing towards important and widespread experiences that are deeply rooted in Quaker spirituality, as well as many other religious traditions.

Perhaps the problems arise in those situations where we are tempted to insist that only one way of understanding God is correct; that God can only be fictional, or personal, or impersonal, and that any other way of understanding and experiencing God must be false or dangerous. Liberal Quakers are theoretically committed to inclusivity and diversity, yet when it comes to ideas about God, we sometimes succumb to the appeal of partisan thinking. We too often line up on opposing sides, based on theological labels that offer a reassuring sense of being 'right', while blinding us to the insights of others with different experiences and perspectives.

I hope that our commitment to diversity of religious belief and language might lead us to recognise that all of our views about God are limited, and need complementing by the differing insights and experiences of others. Instead of disputing whether God is personal or impersonal, Friends can learn from the variety of human religious experience about both the personal and impersonal faces of God. And while recognising the 'fictional' nature of all of our religious concepts, perhaps we might remain open to learning from the diverse experiences of Friends and others about the more than human, mysterious reality of God.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The End of Progress

A key part of the liberal Quaker tradition is the idea of 'continuing revelation'. The important insight behind this phrase is that God’s revelation to humanity did not stop with the New Testament. Instead the divine Spirit continues to guide and inform everyone who is attentive to it. This means that authentic religion is not simply a matter of interpreting and following historical texts, but more importantly, of reading and responding to the word of God as it is written on our hearts now. It suggests that we should expect to receive new insights, and that we should be continually open to changing our attitudes and actions in response to them.

But it is common for Quakers to assume that the revelation of the Spirit is not just continuing, but also progressive; that newer insights are always better than older ones, and that our spiritual understandings today are necessarily superior to those of former generations.

This is another version of faith in progress – the idea that human history has a built-in direction towards continual improvement. Belief in progress is a secular faith that has powered most of the ideologies of the last couple of centuries across much of the world. Faith in the inevitability of humanity’s social, moral, intellectual and technological advancement has been central to the worldviews of humanism, socialism, liberalism, colonialism and anti-colonialism, among many others. It has provided a powerful secular motivation for self-sacrifice, appearing to replace religious motives for virtuous behaviour with a rational faith in human destiny.

But the idea of progress is far from strictly rational. It is actually a lightly secularised version of mainstream Christian ‘salvation history’ – the religious narrative that presents all of human history as leading up to the second coming of Christ. According to this belief, Christ is due to return to earth at some point in the future to judge humanity and to abolish war, poverty and every other social and moral evil. In just the same way, many modern liberals, socialists and humanists have believed in a coming utopia, ruled by universal reason, where prejudice, war, poverty and inequality will be abolished. Over recent decades this faith has taken an increasingly technological direction, so that fantasies about colonising other planets, eliminating disease and mortality, and uploading human consciousness into omnipotent computers are treated as rational aims rather than unconscious retreads of traditional religious apocalyptic.

But this centuries’ old faith in human progress has worn increasingly thin as industrial civilisation has entered its long descent. The perennial appeal of fanaticism and xenophobia, the ever-more visible side-effects of unrestrained technology and unravelling ecosystems, have highlighted for growing numbers of people the absurdity of claims for the inevitability of progress.

I am not convinced that there is any progress in morality or religion. Societies do not inevitably become wiser or better, they do not evolve towards any particular state. Human cultures are always changing, sometimes drastically, but not necessarily or reliably in any particular direction. Any reduction in violence or gains in status by excluded groups are always contingent and vulnerable to reversals.

It may be that modern Quakers see some things more clearly than previous eras, for example our contemporary recognition of sexual and gender equality. But there are other moral issues where we seem to be far less perceptive than former generations, such as our relative indifference to lying compared to the scrupulous truthfulness of earlier Friends. It seems that sensitivity to particular ethical issues may be more a consequence of current social and political relationships, rather than any overall expansion of spiritual insight.

This suggests that greater humility is called for in relation to the religious teachings and traditions of the past, instead of simply dismissing them as 'out-dated'. Continuing revelation means that past insights are just as valid as our own. They have not been superseded; they simply offer alternative perspectives on the same reality. The question for us is not how ‘up to date’ we are, but how attentive and faithful to the Light that is, and always has been, continually available to all people.

Many of the first Quakers had a radically different vision of salvation history to the teaching of the official Church. They put their faith in a new revelation of the power and illumination of the ‘Inward Christ’, which they understood as the fulfilment of Christ’s promised return, expressed in the startling claim that ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself’.

In other words, there is nothing to expect or wait for; this is it. If Christ has already come again in our bodies and spirits then there is no future utopia of peace and harmony waiting for us at the end of history. Instead, the Inward Spirit of Christ is working through us (and through all people who are receptive to their Inward Teacher) as a healing and reconciling presence within the world’s ever-continuing conflict, injustice and irrationality. There is no reason to expect that humanity will ever finally abolish war and inequality, or grow out of prejudice and bigotry. Perhaps our task as a People of God is not to build a perfect world, but to perfect our love for the world and humanity as it is. As we are led by the Spirit of peace, we aim to overcome violence and division wherever we find them, but we should not count on a future that is better or wiser than the past. God's reign of peace is not somewhere else at the end of history. It is present here and now, wherever enemies are reconciled and the poor and excluded regain their dignity. In Jesus' words, 'The kingdom of God is among you' (Luke 17:21)

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Simplified Meeting

In too many Quaker Meetings, spiritual vitality is being stifled by the excessive demands of church government. Struggling to meet the ever-growing requirements of administration can take up so much of Friends’ time and energy that there is little left over to devote to the practice of the Quaker way itself.

Bureaucratic overload subverts the ministry of nominations to discern Friends’ gifts and leadings, turning it into a weary necessity of ‘filling jobs’. Committees and roles are readily set up but very rarely laid down, even where they are clearly no longer serving the life of the Spirit. But as long as we keep on devoting most of our energies to simply keeping the structures going, we only postpone the profound changes that are actually needed.

Instead of continually working harder just to keep going, the renewal of our Quaker practice asks us to refocus on what is essential – serving the leadings of the Spirit rather than the demands of property and administration. Quaker organisation is not an end in itself. All of our structures, committees, roles and property exist for just one purpose – to help us to attend to the Inward Guide and to follow it. All other functions are secondary to these, and wherever administrative tasks interfere with Friends’ capacity to practise the Quaker way, they need to be reduced, shared with other Meetings or eliminated altogether. Instead of allowing ourselves to become societies for the preservation of historic buildings, we need to recall our vocation as communities of faithful discernment and testimony to divine leadings.

The essential responsibilities of a Quaker Meeting are those that enable our core practices of worship, discernment and testimony. Our Meetings for Worship and for Business are essential for our formation as a community that is responsive to divine guidance. Friends’ leadings need the discernment of the Meeting, so that they can be recognised and supported by the community and lived out as our testimony to the world. For these spiritual practices, we need the service of Friends who, between them, can offer the ministries of clerking and pastoral care that enable our Meetings to be rightly ordered. All other roles and responsibilities, including for legal and financial matters, are entirely secondary.

Perhaps we should support our nominations committees in resisting the pressure to treat Quaker roles as jobs that must be filled. Instead we could encourage them to concentrate on recognising Friends’ gifts and providing opportunities to exercise them. We might consider adopting a new discipline of no longer expect anyone to fulfil more than one significant Quaker responsibility at a time, reducing the number of roles to suit the Friends available. In this way each of us might be able to concentrate on undertaking one Quaker ministry wholeheartedly, instead of continuing to spread ourselves ever more thinly across too many tasks.

Perhaps we also need to discern the particular ministry of our Local or Area Meeting - what are we called to as a local community of Friends? Is it to build an inclusive and caring local community, to offer our testimony by challenging social injustices, to engage in interfaith learning and dialogue, or something else? By focussing on the particular ministry that our Meeting has to offer at this time, and letting go of other responsibilities that have become burdens, we might rediscover the vitality of the 'concern-orientated life' described by Thomas Kelly, as our lives and our Meetings become simplified by 'faithfulness to a few concerns’:
"I wish I might emphasise how a life becomes simplified when dominated by faithfulness to a few concerns. Too many of us have too many irons in the fire. We get distracted by the intellectual claim to our interest in a thousand and one good things, and before we know it we are pulled and hauled breathlessly along by an over-burdened programme of good committees and good undertakings. I am persuaded that this fevered life of church workers is not wholesome. Undertakings get plastered on from the outside because we can’t turn down a friend. Acceptance of service on a weighty committee should really depend upon an answering imperative within us, not merely upon a rational calculation of the factors involved. The concern-orientated life is ordered and organised from within. And we learn to say No as well as Yes by attending to the guidance of inner responsibility. Quaker simplicity needs to be expressed not merely in dress and architecture and height of tombstones but also in the structure of a relatively simplified and co-ordinated life-programme of social responsibilities." 
(Thomas R Kelly, 1941, Quaker faith & practice 20.36)
Has your Meeting found ways to simplify its structures or processes? How can we restore attention to our spiritual practices rather than the demands of administration?

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Two taboos? - leadership and followership

This is a guest post by John Gray.

I am wondering if we can become more conscious and celebratory of the many expressions of leadership we see around us – and can find within each of us. I like to think about Quakers being good followers (where appropriate) as well as being open to offering good leadership. Those in leadership roles, and those who are not in formal roles but who are otherwise taking initiative amongst local Friends, certainly need support for themselves and in how we respond to them.

For some, the phrase ‘leaderful behaviour’ might sit more comfortably than any claim to leadership; and who would not welcome a resurgence of leaderful behaviour amongst Friends. I hope that contemporary Friends are open to seeing the need for celebrating and nurturing leadership amongst us; leadership grounded in our tradition, our service and in our contemporary witness, and imbued with a strong dash of 21st century savviness and realism.

A historical note of how early Quakers understood leadership

Stuart Masters at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre has commented that church leadership as understood by early Friends was at the same time both charismatic and provisional. Charismatic in the sense that any call to leadership should be understood as coming from God and not via human agency or organisation. And provisional in the sense that the calling might be revoked, or ‘be time-limited and/or focused very specifically on a particular issue or task’. Hence, as Stuart Masters identifies, Friends’ emphasis on discernment of rightful calling and authentic authority; and that acting faithfully was held as more important than achieving specific outcomes.

We can see the enduring success of these early leadership initiatives in the fact of the survival of Quakers through the centuries, with some organisational structures and processes created 350 years ago still serving useful purposes; and that a reliance on waiting in - and acting from - the light within remains a central description of current Quaker practice.

Leadership in contemporary British Quaker experience
"I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people."
(Mahatma Gandhi)
Quaker leadership in modern times is under implicit and sometimes even explicit criticism. The reasons for this may be debated, but may in part have to do with the rise of individualism in society at large, or an imbalanced reliance by contemporary British Quakers on the primacy of individual discernment above the submission to discipline and testing by the worshipping group (for more on this, see Craig’s post in 2014). Sometimes Friends seem driven automatically to kick against even authentic expressions of leadership or leaderful behaviour – the so-called ‘tall poppy’ syndrome.

We are called to speak truth to power, but I may erroneously assume that I have all the truth and ‘the other’ has all the power. If the other is another local Friend, that criticism can be a devastating experience. Our over-busy lives do not help; and there are many roles which need to be filled. At local and area meeting level in Britain Yearly Meeting, is it going too far to describe contemporary Quaker leadership at times as being leadership by the available – or, by the least unwilling?

But we have many resources to draw on for leadership, even if we do not remember them. Amongst other characteristics for leadership, George Lakey identifies the non-distinction between holy and secular ground; that as a priesthood of all believers we are all expected to make a contribution; we have a history of inspiring action; and that mentoring and community lie at the heart of supporting each other (Powerful beyond measure: Trusting the call to leadership. 2011 William Penn Lecture., at 13:35 – 33:35 minutes).

In a beautiful phrase, Lakey describes leadership as ‘taking initiative in relationship’, implying both the quality of relationships we need to foster; and that we are called to initiate, not just coast along. And enthusiasm for servant leadership by some Friends is welcome – so long as the actual practice of servant leadership is not passive-aggressive manipulation, nor a mock-humble and unassertive denial of the responsibility to initiate and guide! If modern Quakers are ambivalent about the exercise of leadership within our worshipping communities, how much more unpalatable might be the proposition that at times we need to be good followers!

Yet the theories of followership have much to offer us. We can be usefully interested in the characteristics and behaviours of individuals acting in relation to leaders, recognising that the terms ‘follower’ and ‘leader’ refer to roles not people (and note here the echo of early Quakers’ understanding of leadership). Followers and leaders can switch between roles when tackling different issues or over time. They can share a common purpose. Their roles are relational and dynamic in nature. Leaders and followers interact to co-construct leadership, followership and outcomes.

How different the experience of leadership if followers are active not passive, and if they bring independent, critical and yet supportive thinking. Well might Ira Chaleff praise the leader’s courage to be less dominant and a follower’s courage to be more dominant (though we might prefer the term ‘influential’ rather than dominant; Chaleff, The courageous follower: standing up to & for our leaders. 2009). The courageous follower needs to be willing to assume responsibility, to serve, to participate in transformation and change processes when needed, to challenge the leader, and even to take a different stand in answer to their own moral values.

Supporting those in leadership roles

Effective leadership is not easy, and demands – at the very least – courage, strength and persistence.

Pitfalls await those who seek to bring about change. Burn-out and disillusionment are early shoals upon which to run. Ineffective approaches (too much command and control, for example, or trying to bludgeon or guilt-trip folk into action) will hardly yield enthusiastic support and perhaps instead outright hostility. Or there may instead be ego-driven leadership, and assumptions of power or authority which are not grounded in a spirit-led, tested leading. How can we encourage a development of leadership skills and the arts of insight and self-awareness? What is the work we can do to support those who have taken the first courageous step? What can I do for myself, so that my leaderful behaviour does not at the same time bring burdens or harm to others?

If we regard Friends in leadership roles, or demonstrating leaderful behaviour, as acting in the ministry, then at the very least we have our Quaker processes of upholding each other in worship and in practical ways. Threshing meetings, meetings for clearness, and nominated support groups, may prove useful mechanisms for some of those in leadership roles. Oversight, coaching and mentoring are available too; as are peer processes such as collaborative inquiry approaches, action learning sets, and self-and-peer review.

So where is all this leading?

Firstly, for sure, I yearn for a reclaiming and celebration of leadership as an essential element of Quakerism practice today. Leadership is not a dirty word, and need not be automatically equated with abuse of power or a trammelling of others’ freedoms.

Secondly, we should embrace the concept of good followership, as a gift that Friends can offer each other and their worshipping groups.

And thirdly, we need those who are willing to offer leadership or to learn its ways, and to prayerfully discern the opportunities for leadership to which we are called. I am particularly interested in the engagement of young Friends: in these uncertain times, passion and fervour are as much our allies as grey hairs and wise souls. In reality, of course, our ageing demographic means much is also required of those who are no longer young. Equipping for Ministry, and the Young Adult Leadership Programme, are exciting initiatives which over time will help change the Society’s attitudes to leadership; similar programmes are also running elsewhere in the Quaker world. In essence, we will do well to create routes into leadership roles for members of our community, and educate them in the soft and harder skills of leadership, collaboration, conflict resolution, globally responsible practice and values-in-action.

John D Gray

If this blog piece has caught your attention, you may be interested in some reflective questions:

Some reflection questions

· What if any of all of this resonates with you and your experience?

· What was useful for you? Challenging? Unclear?

· Where do you prefer to place yourself on the spectrum of leader – follower?

· Does the phrase ‘leaderful behaviour’ carry meaning for you (in comparison to ‘leader’)?

· What further thoughts or actions might this piece encourage for you?

John is an attender at Friargate meeting, York, UK. He is a part-time lecturer in leadership and management at the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights, and is a freelance organisational development consultant and executive coach.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Spiritual Generosity

For many years Quakers in Britain have been deeply reluctant to share the riches of the Quaker way with others. We have labelled any attempt to welcome potential new Friends as 'proselytising', but as Paul Parker has pointed out, "there is a big difference between proselytising and not hiding." Our long-standing refusal to actively invite newcomers is not just liberal reticence. It is a failure of generosity and of imagination; an inability to imagine that people who are not 'just like us' might also find something of value in Quaker practices.

By refusing to reach out to people beyond our existing social circles, expecting them instead to 'find us when they are ready' without any assistance from us, we have become narrowly self-selecting in our social make-up. The culture of British Quakers is now dominated by the views and experiences of a very restricted social group; largely white, retired and overwhelmingly from the education and health professions. There are many good and valuable things about this subculture, but it is inevitably very limited in its range of experience and perspective on the world.

We have unintentionally backed ourselves into a subcultural ghetto, which both restricts the range of insights available to our ministry and discernment, and also makes it extremely difficult for the vast majority of people in our society not to feel uncomfortably out of place in any of our Meetings. 

In recent years, initiatives such as Quaker Quest and national Quaker Week have challenged Friends to overcome this exclusive 'culture of hiddenness'Meetings which have done this have often encountered unexpected benefits as Friends have learned much more about each otherquite apart from the energy and enthusiasm brought by new attendersEven those Meetings which have experimented with some form of outreach, however, are not always clear about the reason for doing it. Is it in order to grow as a Meeting, to prevent Quakers in Britain from dying out, or for some other reason? 

The Religious Society of Friends is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for nurturing the spiritual practices that can sustain a more fully human life – one that is guided by and surrendered to the Principle of Life within.  What Quakers in Britain have to share with others is a tradition of spiritual practice that enables us to encounter a source of healing, guidance, meaning and purpose within ourselves, and the quality of the community life that emerges from sharing these practices together. The motivation for our outreach is spiritual generosity towards all of those people who are experiencing the confusion, meaninglessness and disconnection that are so characteristic of our times. 

Authentic spiritual practices are remedies for the soul-sickness of a culture that suppresses and distorts our inner lives in order to keep selling us distraction. The Quaker way offers a path through the modern condition of meaninglessness and isolation by drawing us into the purposes of God, by which our own healing and growth into maturity are brought to participate in the healing of the world. 

Spiritual generosity challenges all of us to move outside our comfortable social ghettos and to share the life-giving riches of the Quaker way with people of different cultures, experiences and life-journeys. We need to be willing to enlarge our image of what a Quaker community might look, sound and act like. We need the generosity to reach out to welcome those whose differences can enlarge and enrich our experience of Quaker community, and our insights into the leadings of the Spirit for our times. 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

In Praise of Conflict

It is a Quaker cliché to claim that ‘co-operation is better than conflict’. In reality neither co-operation nor conflict is inherently ‘better’. Powerful elites are effective co-operators in the service of their own interests, often at others' expense. Scapegoating and bullying at work and in communities often depend on the co-operation of bystanders who fail to challenge wrongful behavior. As Gandhi famously stated, “non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.”

On the other hand, when conflict is handled skillfully and nonviolently it has great potential to enable constructive change. In our personal relationships we often rely on conflict to reveal unmet needs and to deepen our understanding and care for each other. It is only when a lover or a friend objects to some of my thoughtless behavior, and requires me to change, that our relationship can improve. Without the capacity to work constructively with conflict, marriages or friendships quickly become stuck in patterns of behavior that frustrate intimacy and growth.

Similarly, significant social change usually requires challenging existing power structures, which means intensifying conflict rather than avoiding it. The US civil rights movement of the 1960s adopted a strategy of deliberately provoking conflict with enormous success. Black Americans made the racist structures of their society visible through marches, Freedom Rides and sit-ins. By transgressing the limits of what they were permitted to do, they provoked a response, which was often violent and sometimes murderous.

This strategy attracted plenty of criticism at the time, including from many liberals who were dismayed at the level of conflict, and who argued that Black Americans should avoid confrontation and simply be more patient. Martin Luther King’s response has become a classic statement of active nonviolence:

"Structures of evil do not crumble by passive waiting. If history teaches anything, it is that evil is recalcitrant and determined, and never voluntarily relinquishes its hold short of an almost fanatical resistance. Evil must be attacked by a counteracting persistence, by the day-to-day assault of the battering rams of justice.
We must get rid of the false notion that there is some miraculous quality in the flow of time that inevitably heals all evils. There is only one thing certain about time, and that is that it waits for no one. If it is not used constructively, it passes you by.”
(Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1968)
Three hundred years earlier, the first Quakers were already discovering the power of active nonviolence by publicly challenging authority and deliberately provoking conflict in the cause of Truth. Travelling ministers preached their radical message of the 'Inward Light' in market squares filled with hostile mobs, and Quakers were seen as a revolutionary force in Restoration England because of their resistance to State repression. Early Quakers such as James Nayler described their nonviolent but highly conflictual mission with the provocative phrase 'the Lamb's War'. This kind of language tends to be considered 'unQuakerly' by modern Friends, but it expresses an important aspect of active Quaker spirituality, which is usually neglected in favour of the non-conflictual imagery of ‘quiet processes and small circles’. (Quaker faith & practice 24.56)

Our practice of corporate discernment too, depends on enabling conflict to come to the surface, revealing and weighing sometimes deeply felt disagreements. If we cannot accept conflict within our Meetings for Worship for Business, our discernment and decision-making will suffer, because we will miss out on some of the views and experiences that we need to hear. As Margaret Heathfield wrote in her 1994 Swarthmore Lecture:

“If we make it all too smooth and slick, if we do not allow conflict to emerge, we are not really practicing our Quaker business method. To maintain a worshipping stance and yet to tolerate conflict is quite a challenge, but the search for Truth may require both. Two equally valid aspects of the Truth may be being put forward, and it may require some conflict, effort and time to reach towards the over-riding Truth which contains them both.”
(Being Together: Our Corporate Life in the Religious Society of Friends)
Perhaps modern Quakers’ preference for co-operation over conflict reflects a widespread lack of confidence in dealing with conflict, which often leads us to try to avoid conflict at all costs, instead of engaging skillfully with it, and realising its great potential.

But conflict avoidance has its own dangers. It can lead to unresolved resentments and erosion of trust. The fear of confrontation may also prevent Friends from challenging disruptive or domineering behavior, allowing the most opinionated or aggressive individuals to dominate a community. As Quakers, perhaps we need to rediscover the insight that peace is not the absence of conflict, but a continual process of nonviolent and creative conflict resolution.

Conflict is difficult to deal with. For most of us it is deeply uncomfortable and disturbing. But it is both inevitable and necessary in any relationship and any genuine community. The successful resolution of conflict depends on a refusal to resort to violence or dehumanising language, and a willingness to listen carefully to the real needs of the other. It also requires the courage to speak up when something is wrong, to express our own needs clearly and honestly, and to refuse co-operation with unjust situations. These are skills that can be learned. I have been part of a Quaker-inspired programme which teaches mediation skills to school pupils, and I have seen children as young as ten become remarkably skilled and effective at resolving conflict. In a culture that valued peace, we would be teaching and practicing these conflict resolution skills at all ages, including in our Quaker communities.

Have you experienced any positive outcomes from conflict? What enabled the conflict to be resolved in a constructive way?

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Way of Practice

“It is not opinion, or speculation, or notions of what is true, or assent to or the subscription of articles or propositions, though never so soundly worded, that … makes a man a true believer or a true Christian. But it is a conformity of mind and practice to the will of God, in all holiness of conversation, according to the dictates of this Divine principle of Light and Life in the soul which denotes a person truly a child of God.” 
(William Penn, 1692, in Quaker faith & practice 26.78)
As William Penn makes explicit in this passage, the Quaker way is not a set of beliefs but a way of practice. To follow the Quaker way does not mean believing that there is ‘that of God in everyone’ but the practice of turning our attention towards the divine Guide within ourselves, and following in the way we are led, as individuals and communities.

In a society that was obsessed with doctrinal conformity, the first Quakers rediscovered Jesus’ emphasis on action over words:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7: 21)
The early Quakers certainly engaged in controversy and argument, but they did not stop at it, as so many other groups did. They saw that for Christianity to be real it had to be not just preached but enacted; in the streets, in courtrooms and in prisons. They ‘let their lives preach’ by demonstrating what it looked like to live from the power and direction of the Inward Christ.

This is what early Friends called their ‘testimony’- not just believing in ‘truth’ and ‘equality’ but refusing to swear an oath in court or bow to social superiors, and suffering imprisonment or beatings as a consequence. Without this stubborn witness in action they would have been just another quarrelsome sect, easily silenced by the threat of persecution.

The weakness of our current language of ‘Quaker values’ is that it can lead us to focus more on our thoughts and feelings rather than our actions - emphasising what we value and believe over what we do. We have tended to turn the Quaker way into a list of values, beliefs and principles. Perhaps this is because it serves our need to feel secure, comfortable and good about ourselves. Just as 17th Century Puritans could use the orthodoxy of their religious ideas to convince themselves of their own superiority, it is tempting for us to congratulate ourselves on the rightness of our values and principles. But the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ - allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

How do you experience ‘the surrendered life?’ How have you been led to respond to the guidance and power of the divine life within you?