Wednesday, 11 April 2007

A Bad Place to Pretend

A write-up of a talk for Quaker Quest in Sheffield

When contemplating the quality of Quaker faith in action, the best place I can think of to begin is with the instinct for silence which belongs at the heart of Quaker life. This instinct manifests itself in several ways. One is the physical silence which forms the basis of Quaker worship, where worshippers speak only under a strong compulsion. Another is the doctrinal silence (so to speak), the famous Quaker taboo on set prayers, creeds, liturgies and other verbal formulas, sustained on the understanding that living truth cannot be boiled down to words or ideas. Quakers have always had this understanding. Although Quakers have generally understood living truth as Christianity, this is no longer the case in certain places (Britain included) and some Quakers would definitely not describe themselves in these terms and it all goes into the mix.

Also, Quakers don't add much extra religious paraphernalia to the ordinary business of everyday life. They have certain core values or testimonies, but they don't have fixed rules or regulations about what you can or can't eat or drink or wear or do at certain times of the year. The basic statement of Quaker values has the strikingly tentative title of Advices and Queries and it consists mostly not of dogmatic statements, but of questions - rather leading questions, admittedly, but questions nonetheless. Quakers have certain basic ways of doing things together, but they avoid rituals as such. They have a membership, but formal membership isn't rigorously enforced on those taking part in the life of a Quaker community. Some Quakers continue to participate in other faith communities and some think Quaker membership ought to be done away with altogether. So there are no beliefs to sign up to, no rules to follow, no rituals to participate in, and no rites of passage to undergo.

All this poses a practical problem: how do I know I'm really a Quaker? How do I know I'm not just pretending?

Given that "being a Quaker" adds so little in the way of extra paraphernalia to everyday life, the only way I can know whether or not I'm really a Quaker is by looking at my everyday life to see if it's really being lived in accordance with Quaker principles. There's no other way it can break out into the open. This is how Quakers have always intended it and it's the reason why they keep shtum on so many seemingly important topics.

So how do I know my everyday life is being lived in accordance with Quaker principles?

I find the answer to this question in the quality of the action undertaken and the nature of the experience which motivates it. Quakers have always had a very specific understanding of these things and they have evolved an in-house jargon to express this understanding precisely.

The jargon term is "concern." Concern in the Quaker sense does not mean the same thing as concern in the normal sense. You can be concerned with a matter or issue without necessarily being "under concern" about it. Concern refers to something extra: work undertaken specifically by the promptings of the central impulse of Quaker life, the mysterious central extra factor X which Quakers refer to as the Light or the Inner Light and ascribe variously to the Spirit and/or to God. When Quakers act under concern, they do not necessarily understand or like or even consciously approve of the course of action they are taking. Rather, they recognise an imperative to act which comes from outside the self, or at least the normal everyday conscious self which guides most human action most of the time.

Concern has led Quakers into some strange and adventurous territory. The first Quakers were known for carrying out acts which made no rational sense at all even to themselves. There is the famous story of George Fox, the prominent early Quaker, who, the first time he saw the spires of Lichfield, felt compelled to make straight for the town and run up and down the streets crying "Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield," without apparently knowing why. Other early Quakers risked and sometimes lost their lives travelling the world to preach to such unpromising audiences as the Turkish sultan or the New England puritans. Elizabeth Fry, the famous prison reformer, was acting under concern; so were those who worked for the abolition of slavery. Modern Quakers, acting under concern, helped to found university departments of Peace Studies. And so forth. Finally, spoken ministry in meeting for worship always is, or always ought to be, given under concern. Those giving ministry do not always know why they have to say what they have to say (although they may find out afterwards) and they are not understood to be speaking or themselves. The same applies to Quaker business decisions - when ordering their life as a community, Quakers seek to be guided, not by consensus or majority opinion, but by a shared sense of concern in the Quaker sense.

So if I want to know if I'm a real Quaker, I measure it by the extent to which I live my life under concern - that is, under the guidance the mysterious central extra factor X which is the well-spring of Quaker creativity and the glue that holds Quakers together as a distinct, living, active, worshipping community. The first thing to note about trying to live as a Quaker - that is, trying to live under concern - is that it is uncomfortable. To early Quakers, the hallmark of the real concern was that the person involved was acting reluctantly.

When I first got involved, I stumbled into a number of moments of acting under concern. To risk self-indulgence by giving a couple of personal examples: a number of years before I got involved with the Quakers, I was in a relationship with a woman from Nottingham and I ended it fairly abruptly and callously - something I was making rather too much of a habit of, at the time and subsequently. We would follow the Nottingham custom of meeting "by the lions" - that is, by the statues outside the city hall, the joke being that if you waited by the lions till eight o'clock you could tell who'd been stood up.

Years later, when I got involved with the Quakers, I was sitting on Derby station waiting for the train home to Sheffield when I suddenly experienced the compulsion to get on the next train that came in. Half an hour later I was wandering towards Nottingham city centre without the slightest clue what I was doing and why. I ended up by the lions, still without any sense of purpose or reason. It was only when the clock struck eight that I felt free to move and get the train back to Sheffield.

I still can't say I know why I did it. It could certainly have been my subconscious mind or conscience belatedly playing the drama queen a bit in order to make a point. At the same time, it took me out of my comfort zone and gave me a salutary lession in what it felt like to be stood up. It was worth doing in some way, and it has never, at the time or since, felt like it was my decision to do it. Left to what I understand as my own devices, I wouldn't have thought of it, or bothered.

It's not a particularly good example, but it's one of the better examples from my own experience of being compelled to step outside your comfort zone in order to do something weird but well worth while. Quaker life and history is full of much more serious and substantial examples of a similar thing. This enduring tendency to live at or beyond the boundaries of the comfort zone has the effect of making Quaker life generally feel very real - at times, unremittingly real. Quakers are in earnest. Something about the manner of experienced Quakers tells the world, "I am a very nice, charitable and reasonable person, but on no account am I to be trifled with."

But perhaps the most striking illustration of this real quality of Quaker life and faith came, characteristically, from a very different source, in the course of one of my early meetings for worship. In Sheffield meeting, the children usually join the main meeting about ten minutes before the end and there is usually a few minutes more or less subdued shuffling, noisemaking, parent-finding, and earnest whispering while they settle down. If they settle down.

The noises made by young children are often received by the meeting as a form of ministry, and so it was with me on this occasion. I was sitting in my usual place at the back by the grand piano, and ten minutes before the end, in came the children as usual. I gradually became aware that two young Friends had crawled off and fetched up underneath the piano. They were holding a conversation in deafening stage whispers. I never found out who they were. They were hidden by the piano and at that point I wouldn't have known them by sight anyway. But I distinctly heard one of them suggesting something like a game of Let's Pretend. The conversation then went as follows:

"Let's pretend - "
"We can't!"
"Why not?"
"Because this is a bad place to pretend."

I don't think there's ever been a better definition of a Quaker meeting than a bad place to pretend. The stubborn Quaker silence on what seems like essentials of doctrine and identity, the focus on everyday life, is, I think, an attempt to avoid pretence. The cultivated habit of seeking to act under concern involves seeking to act from outside your own self, or at least from outside your own habitual everyday self. In my understanding this paradoxically involves taking a mask off, abandoning a pretence, much more than it involves putting a new mask on. All these things are potentially frightening and uncomfortable because they are the expression of an essential Quaker striving towards truth, a striving which works against a pervasive tendency to retreat into fantasy, habit, wishful thinking, and dogma in the negative sense of received wisdom. Quaker action undertaken as part of that striving towards Truth, whatever form that action may take, is Quaker faith in action.