Part of the Quaker way we have inherited is a tradition of corporate testimony. Quakers are well-known for our opposition to war, but there are many other kinds of testimony that Friends in modern times have acknowledged as collective commitments. These include refusing to tell lies, participate in gambling (including financial speculation), take oaths and use or accept honours or titles (such as 'Reverend' and 'Your Majesty').
Over recent years these collective testimonies seem to have fallen increasingly into disuse. Many Friends have either never heard of them, or don't consider them relevant to their own lives. Even our national representative body Meeting for Sufferings has sometimes forgotten its centuries' old rejection of flattering titles, to the extent of delivering a 'Loyal Address to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II', for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
Over the last few decades we have changed our understanding of testimony, turning it into a set of abstract 'Quaker principles' instead of specific commitments to action. I have argued in another post that this is unhelpful, because it sets us up to fail at 'living up to' impossible ideals. Another effect of this understanding of testimony is that by focussing on vague ideals rather than concrete actions, it encourages a wide range of individualistic interpretations. Instead of a collective public witness that Quakers will not take part in lotteries or tell a lie, we now expect to interpret for ourselves the very general 'shared values' of Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace, and even to select which of these separate values is more or less important to me as an individual.
A much broader cultural shift towards ethical relativism has also encouraged Friends to adopt a privatised version of discernment. It is common to hear Friends talk about 'my truth' and even 'my inner light', with the implication that what is 'true for me' cannot justifiably be questioned or challenged by anyone else. If there is no acceptance of over-arching moral or religious claims, then we cannot be accountable to each other for our faithfulness to shared standards of behaviour. At most, we can only encourage each other to decide for ourselves what is true 'for me'.
Despite this individualistic emphasis, our Advices & Queries still sometimes assume that Quakers will acknowledge some shared specific standards of behaviour, eg 'Taking oaths implies a double standard of truth; in choosing to affirm instead, be aware of the claim to integrity that you are making.' (A&Q 37), and 'Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparations for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? (A&Q 31).
The recent commitment of Britain Yearly Meeting to 'work towards becoming a low carbon community' might even be considered an attempt to revive the tradition of corporate Quaker testimony. The vision for this originated from Pam Lunn's 2011 Swarthmore Lecture, which called for a collective Quaker response to the climate crisis. In the event, despite adopting the 'Canterbury Commitment' as official policy (including Britain Yearly Meeting's disinvestment from fossil fuel companies), response at local meeting level has so far been patchy and ambivalent. While a few meetings have embraced the challenge to green their meeting houses or undertake other carbon reduction projects, there has not been a discernible Society-wide response. My sense is that the reason for this is not so much the issue itself, since most Friends are probably making some individual attempts at a 'greener lifestyle' already. It seems to be more an expression of resistance to any call to collective witness and action, which is increasingly perceived as contrary to Friends' right to decide for themselves.
A balance between collective and personal discernment has traditionally been central to Quaker spirituality. Testing our individual leadings through the discernment of our Quaker community, from our local meeting outwards to the national level of Yearly Meeting, is how we have balanced the centrifugal pressures of individual liberty of conscience, with its dangers of impulsive and misdirected enthusiasm.
At the same time, our responsibility for discerning how the Spirit is leading us to act cannot simply be surrendered to the collective, no matter how much we trust its processes and its wisdom. Early Friends such as Isaac Penington were insistent that each of us is 'not to take things for truths because others see them to be truths, but to wait till the spirit makes them manifest to me.' (The works of the long-mournful and sorely-distressed Isaac Penington, 1761) It is our own fidelity to the 'Inward Guide' rather than our conformity to the customs or mandates of any group that keeps our faith and witness authentic. What if our personal discernment is at odds with the discernment of our community, whether our local, area or yearly meeting? Should we simply copy the testimony of other Quakers, even if we have no inward leading to avoid gambling or oppose war?
My own understanding is that being a Quaker involves a respect for our collective discernment, but not necessarily a submission to it. Individual Friends have often been a source of new insight for the Society as a whole, even when they have maintained a solitary position in tension with the Society's collective discernment for many years. Specific testimonies, such as the original Quaker rejection of music, have changed in response to an altered context or new insights. This kind of change is not just a forgetting of former testimony, but deliberately testing and questioning it, to discover what, if anything, is still of value. Such 'faithful challenging' is not the same as simply ignoring our collective testimony and treating it as irrelevant if it doesn't immediately agree with me.
Simone Weil wrote in a similar way about her relationship to (Catholic) Church teachings as 'a permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention, but not an adherence.' (Letter to a Priest, 1951). In another text, she added '[f]or me, in the effort of reflection, a real or apparent disagreement with the Church's teachings is simply a reason for a considerable slowing-down of my thought, and for pushing attentive and scrupulous inquiry as far as it will go, before daring to affirm anything. But that is all.' (Last Text, 1962).
For me, one of the obligations of membership in the Religious Society of Friends is to make myself aware of its practices, including the corporate testimony that it has adopted through the collective discernment of Friends. This does not just involve learning an acronym for four abstract 'Quaker principles', but something much more like an 'attentive and scrupulous inquiry' into the discernment of the wider community, including recent decisions of Britain Yearly Meeting such as the Canterbury Commitment. It is central to the Quaker way that our consciences cannot be compelled to follow others; but it is equally central that we each carry a responsibility for an 'attitude of respectful attention' to the discernment of the community as expressed in our corporate testimony.
Is corporate Quaker testimony important in your life? How do you see the balance between individual leadings and collective discernment in your meeting, and in the wider Quaker community?