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.


Craig Barnett said...

Hi Simon,
I remember hearing you give this talk for the first time at our Quaker Quest session and being blown away by it. It really challenges me because you point out the strengths of something that I struggle with a lot, namely contemporary British Friend's lack of a shared language and belief system.
The crucial question is:
"So how do I know my everyday life is being lived in accordance with Quaker principles?"
Very often it seems that we tend to talk about 'Quaker values and principles' as if these are a set of abstract ethical guidelines which we are supposed to all try to live up to.
I find this tiresome and very far from the direct personal guidance of the Spirit that you describe, and that seems to me to be the essential aspect of the Quaker experience described by early Friends.
I'm not interested in living up to some abstract ideal of 'being ethical' or 'Quakerly'. I want to know the power of God in my life, and to know by experience what God calls me to do and to be, which may well be very different from what the person next to me is called to.

John (@bookdreamer) said...

Thanks to Craig Barnett to alerting me to your British Blog network. Given that I only started this a few weeks ago ,its amazing how suddenly I am part of a World Wide Quaker community.

Excellent piece by the way and goes to the heart of Quakerism. It gets away from the surface of our expressed diversity to are we making a difference. Another way of expressing this was raised when I read the BYM blog this morning before Meeting. I was struck by the Francis of Assi prayer

God, who are you?
God, who am I

Its a life long question answered by our concerns in the world.

samantha galbraith said...

Hello Simon and other Quakers.
I am relatively new to the scene but think quakers are pretty groovy.They have never tried to shove their beliefs down my throat in any way and what people feel compelled to stand up and say at meeting always, (and i mean always,) sounds like it was meant for me.I have to look under the piano to see if anybody is watching me, or reading my thoughts in some strange and uncanny way!
Its good to be able to walk through the door of a place and not get lots of labels stuck on me.£4.99 for one, or buy one get one free is certainly not me.its also fab to discover that such peacefull and loving people are so strong in spirit and beavering,(or chipping away as someone said at meeting the other day)at the dense log of the psychic pollution we suffer today.
But now I am waxing lyrical, so i shall get my coat before I stop making sense, and leave you with a flurry of my coat tales.As a seasoned Playworker(mostly serendipity spice)i can honestly say that Quakers is a place i can be myself, right here, right NOW.Life is a playground and quakers ceratainly do it with authenticity.At last i have found a spiritual family.Thanks everybody.

Simon Heywood said...

Many thanks for all your comments.

I think the question all this begs is the issue of making mistakes. I've made a number of wrong steps since I got involved with Quakers which seem to sit ill with the early Quaker assumption that it was possible to live perfectly. But if you live life "experimentally" - that is, developing your understanding by experience rather than a series of set rules - then either you are living 100% under total concern and never get anything wrong (like George Fox did - in his own estimation, presumably), or you have trial and error to guide you.
And error is an intrinsic part of trial and error. Isn't it?

samantha galbraith said...

Hello everybody,
I havnt looked at the site for a bit, but in the light of recent discussions about how to get newcomers involved appropriately and whether or not we discuss spiritual issues and experiences openly enough i think its great that we have this forum for discussion and i shall attend it more regularly.Having analyzed my experiences at Quakers more closely i realise that i sometimes feel as if there is an "unspoken protocol" about how things should be done, for example how notices should be made.I'm not clear how this "process" is made clear to new quakers.The recent meeting about what changes we could make to make ourselves more open in this way discussed a handbook that newcomers could look at to help their discernment in this way.I feel it should be ok to take risks and go with the spontaneity of an urge to initiate a new activity or suggestion because it feels like the right time to do it.But i also want to know how to do this sensitively.Cant fit any more words on so will stop now and put it forward as a morsel of food for thought.

samantha galbraith said...

And to respond to Simons point,and to open out the discussion to people hopefully,yes i think error is definitiley an intrinsic part of
living in an experiental way and living in the Now which means seizing opportunity, exploring new territory and boldly going where no man(or woman)(or child)has gone before.......have got to go now.

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Samantha,
I think that meeting voiced a lot of people's experience that there are ways of doing things within our Meeting which we only find out by accident if at all. I think a handbook which explained it all clearly would be a great idea, and hopefully we will be taking this forward (probably over quite along time - the wheels of Quakerism grind slowly).
It would be good to discuss these issues further in a separate post - I will try to get hold of the Minute from the Meeting and put it up for people to comment on.