Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Some thoughts on the Swarthmore Lecture

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Bad Quakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Agricultural Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 2 May 2014

Good Work

One of the peculiarities of British Quakers is that most of us are employed in a very narrow range of occupations – mainly professional roles in health, education or social care.

Quaker livelihoods have changed dramatically over the last three and a half centuries. The first Quakers were largely small farmers and artisans. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries many went into business and became increasingly affluent, creating famous Quaker dynasties of merchants, manufacturers and bankers. It is only since the 20th Century that most British Quakers have been in professional public-sector occupations. Professions such as teaching, social work and medicine have offered many Friends a way to put their commitment to social improvement into practice in their working lives. In the best cases this work has enabled them to fulfil a sense of vocation while also enjoying a comfortable standard of living and lifetime job security.

These accustomed ways of earning a living and contributing usefully to society are no longer working for many Friends today, as a result of broad changes in British work culture. Over recent years, professional work of all kinds has been steadily degraded by the pressures of increasing bureaucracy, repeated re-structuring and constant pressure to meet ever higher performance targets with reduced resources. These pressures have undermined traditional values of professional responsibility and autonomy. Instead of being trusted to exercise their judgement in the best interests of the public, teachers, academics, doctors and social workers are subject to arbitrary targets, box-ticking, performance management, and all the other techniques from the arsenal of modern management. This trend is not limited to the public sector. A uniform bureaucratic work culture has been steadily imposed on most public, private and charitable organisations, including churches (and even, alas, the Religious Society of Friends).

The question of how to find a good, worthwhile, fulfilling occupation is becoming increasingly problematical for many people. For those of us with children, it can also be difficult to know what kind of support we should be giving to them to choose their own future careers.

The most popular advice for people seeking satisfying work is probably 'Do what you love'. While this has a clear appeal, it faces the obvious objection that not everyone can do the kind of jobs that are usually considered loveable; or as Mad Men's Marie Calvet pithily expresses it: 'Not every little girl gets to do what they want – the world could not support that many ballerinas'.

From a Quaker perspective, it might be more helpful to consider work as a part of our response to the leadings of the Spirit in our lives. Work is not always enjoyable. Many essential occupations are unglamorous, arduous or routine. But even the least glamorous job can still be satisfying, if it is undertaken not just from reluctant necessity, but in response to a sense of being 'led' to a particular kind of work. These leadings can be experienced in many ways; through our gifts and passions, unexpected desires, 'chance' events, friendships, intuitions and failures. A leading is often experienced as a 'soul need' to be in a particular place, with these people, or doing this kind of work rather than anything else.

At various times in my life I have done several kinds of work that are usually regarded as drudgery, including cleaning and caring for people with disabilities. More recently, I made a complete change of occupation in my mid-40s; giving up a professional career as an NGO manager to become an organic grower for a local city farm.

From a purely rational point of view, this was certainly not a good move. It has meant a considerable drop in status and income, as well as a great deal of punishing physical effort in all weathers. The job has also taken me completely outside of my natural area of competence (ie speaking and writing), and into the very much more challenging sphere of wrestling with physical reality in its many obdurate forms.

Despite the obvious disadvantages, this work answers a strong inward need to do physical work in the open air, to learn practical skills, and to produce something tangible; in the form of fruit and vegetables for local people. Even when the work is exhausting and uncomfortable (like today when I have spent several hours shovelling compost in the rain) it satisfies 'soul needs' that days spent in meeting rooms or facing a computer screen cannot touch.

Work like this is clearly not for everyone. Our leadings towards different occupations are unique to our own histories, personalities and inmost desires. For some people, taking their leadings seriously may require a willingness to make drastic changes and take risks. Others may be led to a long-term commitment to a particular workplace or local community.

Allowing our working lives to be shaped by our inner leadings might also mean becoming more open to a far wider range of possibilities than we are usually prepared to consider. In particular, we might be more willing to encourage young people to take seriously any inclinations towards practical work, rather than automatically expecting them to go to University, accumulate decades of debt, and end up in professional careers that may not use their deepest capacities or satisfy their authentic soul needs.

Skilled manual occupations such as agriculture, building or joinery, offer unique opportunities for good work that usually go unrecognised by middle-class Quakers. In next month's post, I will be exploring further these occupations' potential for fulfilling work, meaningful friendships and ethical reflection. In the meantime, I would be very interested to learn about your experiences of work. How does bureaucracy affect your working life? Have you experienced a sense of leading towards a particular occupation? What soul needs does your work satisfy, or fail to meet?

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)