Sunday, 30 September 2007

"PLEASE STOP AND TALK:" some words and ideas about words and ideas

Some weeks ago I got involved in a pilgrimage/fact-finding mission for the Anglican Bishop of Sheffield, looking into the arms industry and specifically the biennial DSEI arms fair in London.

I learned a lot. I learned that in the eyes of the law, holding up a handwritten placard reading PLEASE STOP AND TALK is illegal because it might give offence, whereas parking six full-size battleships in full view of homes, shops and public spaces isn't. I learned that getting stopped and searched by the police is surprisingly unpleasant, and I don't behave much like Gandhi when it happens, but that the police really do seem to be very scared on such occasions - they visibly winced and went pale whenever I put my hand in my pocket to take out my cigarette lighter. How they must have felt about the six gigantic battleships parked on their beat, I can't begin to imagine. Given that they were policing the annual beano for the manufacturers and retailers of the guns used in the dozens of street shootings that occupy their professional attention for the rest of the year, it must have felt a bit like being co-opted as bouncers for the annual conference of the Amalgamated Union of Drug Barons, People Traffickers and Allied Trades in Human Misery and Exploitation. A policeman's lot is not a happy one.

But to step off my soap-box for a moment, mainly what I learned was from the example of the people I was with, all of whom were card-carrying Christians and none of whom had any embarrassment or inhibitions at all about prayer, God language and all the other kinds of words and thinking that Quakers often seem to have such anxieties about. It was a real, salutary relief to be rid of this anxiety, and to be able to call a prayer a prayer. I know I'm the kind of Quaker who doesn't have a definite problem with God language as such anyway, so I was always unlikely to feel too uncomfortable around those who use it openly, but it was an amazing experience to be in among this kind of language and thinking, because it lent a palpable spirit and energy to the whole enterprise. When you're dealing with the Spirit you're dealing with things that are beyond definition in words, and under those circumstances, what begins to matter is not what words say - nothing they say can ever capture the reality - but what they do. What they do is release a power and strength and focus and integrity which shapes and informs the work done in the world. That's how George Fox preached: because that's how our minds work. They latch onto words and ideas - hopefully they then use them as a springboard up into the direct experience of spiritual truth, but without words and ideas you have no springboard and less chance of getting to the reality. Returning to my Quaker meeting with all its fears and anxieties about what we can and can't say, and how we can and can't describe what we experience, I couldn't help wondering if our anxieties inhibit us and stop us from using the words which could give us strength. Not that words or ideas or creeds are ever to be mistaken for truth, but they can be a way of making that truth manifest - not through what they say, but through what they do, to our inner selves, when we speak and hear them. So we are missing an opportunity if we do not speak out, however provisional the terms in which we must necessarily do it. I got back from London and gave my whole inner life a much-needed spring clean, and now I'm plugged back into my Quakerness in a living way that I'd lost. And it was the words that started that process off: words which Quakers themselves often use with anxiety, if at all. The words were only a start, but they were a necessary start.

Memory plays tricks, but to my memory there used to be less of this anxiety in the air. When I started coming to Meeting a few years ago, there was a lot of ministry which was very specific to particular ideas and words and trains of thought, Christian and otherwise. A bewildering variety of it, with no attempt made to achieve a shallow or formal consensus or agreement or orthodoxy between the various voices in the conversation. The simple act of open sharing seemed to create a deeper and more living unity than formal consensus ever could. It was a mysterious process, but it seemed to me that it was the very incoherence or absence of any collective reasoning on matters of the Spirit that left room for the real Spirit to work directly. There was never going to be a formal doctrinal orthodoxy to hide behind. I mean to say: the first ministry I heard was a Beatles song, which really rang the changes for me after three decades of the Nicene Creed! Around that time there was also open prayer to God, even to Jesus, there was sometimes singing and there was something like preaching, there was something about Islam with which I definitely did NOT agree simply as a statement, and there was even open-ended speculation about the possibility of alien abductions by UFOs! I mention all this specifically to make the point that it was all grist to the mill, because what I remember most vividly from this fragmentary fruit-salad of ideas was not its simple weirdness (which was stark enough from my point of view, having spent my Sunday mornings up to date chanting the clauses of a rote-learned creed in unison with my fellow-worshippers - if I wasn't sleeping off the Saturday night, that is) but the raw, fallible, human passion with which people spoke, the honesty and the acceptance and love with which they were received, and the living authenticity of the dialogue. The result for me was a very strong but paradoxical sense of calling: I felt that I was a Christian Quaker and I was being nudged towards throwing my lot in with a worshipping community with lots of non-Christian Quakers and non-believer-in-God Quakers, not in spite of what I understood as the spirit of Christ, but precisely because of it. And I wasn't getting involved to change anyone's mind either, not even my own: rather, I was there to learn from sharing my life with those of a different belief. So I love the fact that I'm a Christian Quaker surrounded by non-Christian Quakers. It keeps it real. It reminds me that I worship a God who doesn't seem to care whether God exists or not. With so many open non-Christians around, I'm unlikely to yield to any natural tendency to start yacking on like a bargain-basement Vicar of Dibley tribute act. I can't rely on parroting a few well-received phrases when there's no consensus on what the right phrases are. To follow it to its logical conclusion, if I'm anything to go by - I think if the Quaker movement was clearly a more Christian one in terms of a simple head-count, it might well be less Christian in the sense of less instinctively attuned to, and challenged by, the spiritual reality of which Christianity is one attempted description. I'm aware that there's the potential for actual conflict between (in quotes) "opposing camps" who might suspect themselves of being in competition for the soul and future of the Society of Friends, and I think it's partly fear of being seen or mis-heard as indulging this kind of adversarial thinking that makes people feel too inhibited to speak up at all. But I think all these fears and suppressed hostilities miss the point, because they see our differences and variety and division in a human and rational way, rather than a spiritual way. It's not as if we're ever likely to take a vote on which Quaker "-ism" wins the reins of power and gets to write the Quaker Creed for the Twenty-First Century. There's a reason why we don't vote or draft creeds: it's not because we simply happen to have other ways to work with our differences and express our common ground: it's because we have been entrusted with a deeper and more spiritual understanding of what unity is, and what difference is, and what these things mean. In spiritual terms I think it is a terrific gift of the Spirit and a terrific opportunity that we have such a formal variety of belief and apparent incoherence. It leaves us with nothing to fall back on for our unity, beyond the naked truth which our lives were made to speak. And it's in that truth, and in that truth alone, that we can find the unity we're longing for. We've dispensed with everything else as a means to unity, because we rightly perceive it as too shallow.

But this road to unity is not an easy or rational one. I think we waste that opportunity for real unity if we shy away from throwing our own words and ideas unapologetically into the mix. The danger does not lie in saying what we, as individuals, believe; we'll die as a worshipping community if we don't. The danger lies in taking our own ideas as gospel truth. Words and ideas are only a half-way house on the road to truth, but they are a stage our minds have to pass through. Bypassing them altogether won't work any more than fixating on them excessively. But once we've accepted that our own ideas are not gospel truth, then in my view we are under a kind of duty to say what our ideas actually are, simply for whatever that's worth, and to accept and respect our own beliefs just as we would accept and respect the beliefs of other Friends. If we don't do this, and if nobody dares say anything for fear of giving offence to an imaginary Quaker who's paranoid that the God squad or the no-God squad or some other squad are going to take the whole show over, then we end up with this rather shallow and dishonest silence which itself becomes just another deadening orthodoxy, and we're back in a place which is not unlike the absurd position forced on my uniformed friends in London, who daren't let anyone hold up a placard saying PLEASE STOP AND TALK in case it gives offence to a multi-million dollar arms dealer trying to sell a fully-armed battleship to a ruthless dictator.

In my dreams, I'd like to belong to a Quaker meeting where I could go along to Meeting for Worship and be excited and moved and challenged, but not offended, to hear prayer, and God language, and non-God language, and Beatles songs, and alien abductions, and everything else besides: not as adversarial positions in an argument or debate, but as shared testimonies to a shared truth that can never be understood or defined but which can, and should, be described and evoked and expressed and wondered at and stumbled over, as honestly and openly as possible. We should not give ourselves permission to speak without honesty and love, but we should give ourselves permission to get some things wrong in the attempt to speak in truth and love. It's hard for me to think of any ministry which could give offence, to me at least, if offered in this spirit, even if it's something I don't agree with. I wouldn't be listening to the words for their dictionary definitions as sentences, but for the spirit in which they are spoken, the way any deep ministry has of being the individual's gift of their own innermost self to the Meeting. I love that exposed quality that real ministry has: it scares me, because I'm English and we don't do that stuff, do we? But at the end of the day I'm not English, I'm a Quaker, and real ministry is the lifeblood of Quaker worship, so I say, bring it on!


Tim Neal said...

A round of applause for the man :-)

Maurice Bartley said...

Hi Simon, an incredibly thought provoking blog, taking the reflections you shared in Ministry another stage further. It inspires me to respond with another blog entry which will follow soon.

Chris M. said...

I thought this was really brilliant. I printed out a copy and underlined whole bundles of phrases. It's particularly helpful to consider our ideas and thoughts are not gospel truth, they're just our ideas, AND we need to be able to express them. That's the only way to find the Gospel Truth, isn't it?

-- Chris M.

Anonymous said...

Intrigued by your entry Simon. Agree that the mix of ministry in a well-functioning Meeting builds our Spiritual depth. I don't think it threatens it. Attempts to create a creed, to define what is okay to say and what isn't, to define by some profession of faith who is and who ain't a Quaker will dampen the Spirit - profondly.

'But wait!' say the Quaker absolutists. This sounds like anything goes Quakerism! Watered down Quakerism. Worthless Quakerism. Darn it, it sounds like liberal Quakerism or even non-convergent Quakerism (the newest category of Quaker :))

My answer. No actually, this is just anything goes ministry.

Quakerism is a whole bunch more than just ministry (vocal or blogal or otherwise). It's membership in a community. It's study. It's lives rightly lived. It's well functioning membership committees. It's testimonies and spiritual truths tested over time, over centuries. It's continuning revelation. It's not only spoken or conceptualized -- it's lived and experimented with and tested.

We need to take in the whole gestalt of Quakerism, actually practiced and not just spoken or written of, to understand what it is and isn't and what is Spirit-led and what isn't.

As such, I agree with you. BRING ON THE MINISTRY! We are big enough, strong enough, and covered enough by Spirit to handle it.

forrest said...

I worship God, who doesn't, so far as I know, consider atheism a crime.

That is not the same as "doesn't care if God exists." It isn't even the same as "doesn't care whether we know that God exists."

I will, however, vote for: "doesn't much care whether we believe the words: 'God exists.' "

That's because such words can be "merely" theoretical, as illustrated by a woman who once sat by Bertrand Russell at a dinner. He asked her--What would happen when she died? "I suppose that I shall inherit Eternal Bliss, but I wish you wouldn't bring up such unpleasant subjects!"

Because God does care for us as if God were us--as he is... God cares very much to heal the widespread human of alienation from God--who is the very Soul and Spirit of us. (God is simply not in a human-style rush to patch things up superficially.)

The contemporary Quaker 'labeling- problem' comes from the fact that we are, overall, way out of agreement with the beliefs of early Friends. In itself, that's fine.

What is not fine is that we've forgotten, overall, that God matters. We can talk about reaching unity beyond words--but if that merely means our delusion that we're getting "continuing revelation" without a revealer it's a pretty worthless possession.

It's also pretty useless to define Quakerism as 'whatever Quakers do'--or in terms of anything that Quakers do, for that matter. If "Quaker Practice"--any amount of it--suffices to make us "Quakers", then the word "Quaker" isn't worth a damn.

My _Faith and Practice_ asks whether we live a life "so centered in God that all things take their rightful place." That isn't just some ideal called "Simplicity." So far as "Quakerism" means anything else, it can only mean "futility." God gives meaning to what we think and do, as Quakers or as anything whatsoever. We (as any number of merely human selves) can't.