Sunday 23 September 2007

Quaker Space or Quaker Way?

For some time now I've been trying to work out why my own approach to Quakers seems to be rather different to that of most people in our Meeting.

I think for many people the Quaker Meeting is primarily a 'safe space' - a place to be themselves, where they will be accepted for who they are, without expectations or demands. Members of a Quaker Meeting can bring to this space whatever spiritual traditions, images and experiences are helpful for them. There is no one version of 'Truth', so people are free to borrow from many different traditions and to change and grow in their thinking and believing without being criticised or excluded. There is a liberating acceptance of differences in lifestyle and sexuality, and no oppressive or patronising 'leaders' imposing their own rulings on acceptable belief and behaviour.

All of these aspects of the Quaker Meeting are important to me too, and they can be especially precious to people who have been hurt or excluded by traditional churches, or who have felt oppressed by rigid social expectations.

But for me there is something missing from this image. The Quaker Space is accepting because it is largely content-free - you can bring anything you like to it, but it has little to offer in itself. I didn't come to Quakers primarily because of what it isn't. I was attracted by the very definite character of the Quaker 'Way', as I encountered it in the lives and writings of early Friends such as George Fox, William Penn, Margaret Fell and John Woolman. Quakers of earlier generations were very clear about the content of their message - and could be very forthright in expressing it:
"For the people called Quakers, the foundation of all religious belief is this: God, through Christ, has placed a guide in each person to show them their duty and provided each with the ability to follow that guide. In every nation, race, and religion, there are those who follow this guide - these are the people of God - and those who live in disobedience to it and are not God's people regardless of what they say. This is the Friends' ancient, first, and unchanging principle. This is the testimony they have made and will continue to make to the whole world."
William Penn, 'Primitive Christianity Revived' (1696) in '21st Century Penn', trans. Paul Buckley
This 'Quaker Gospel' is not just another exclusive religious dogma. It makes the revolutionary claim that there are people of every religion who follow the inward guidance of God's Spirit, and others who do not. Becoming one of 'God's people' does not depend on having the 'correct' beliefs or belonging to the 'one true Church'. All that matters is listening to the guidance of God in the heart and being obedient to it. This is the essence of the original Quaker 'Way'.

A 'Way' is very different to a 'Space'. A Way is a path - it goes in a particular direction. Anyone may join it at any point in their journey, but it doesn't just go wherever you like. The Quaker Way makes some definite claims - that we can all experience the presence and guidance of God in our daily lives, and that this guidance will lead us to witness to the character of God in lives of integrity, simplicity, and peace-making.

A Way can also be challenging - it leads us out of our comfort zone into new territory. The Quaker Way claims that God has definite purposes for each of us, that they are often in conflict with our own superficial desires and anxieties, and that we may be called to live and act in ways that bring conflict, difficulty, struggle and even persecution.

The Quaker Way is perhaps less attractive to many than the Quaker Space because by making definite claims it seems to exclude those who can't or don't wish to accept them - people who find it impossible to believe in the kind of personal God who can have 'purposes' for us, or those whose primary way of understanding their spirituality is drawn from other religions or philosophies.

But paradoxically it may be that by losing sight of the content of the Quaker Way we actually become less inclusive in some important ways - particularly in our social and ethnic makeup. On a weekend for Elders & Overseers earlier this year, one Friend from our Meeting suggested that it is those faith groups that focus most clearly on their message that are able to attract people from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds. In contrast, because British Quakers tend not to highlight their message, what newcomers respond to is primarily the culture of the local Meeting, which is predominantly the culture of liberal, White, middle-class Englishness, rather than any distinctive Quaker message.

The danger of this is that it is self-perpetuating, as it is only the people who feel 'at home' with this narrow social group who stay long enough to discover what the Quaker Way is actually about. And in fact the Quaker Way does not appeal only to White, middle-class people. The majority of Quakers worldwide are African and South American, with very different cultural expressions of the Quaker way relevant to their social context and experience.

The Quaker Way of attentiveness to the guidance of the 'Inward Teacher' in the midst of daily life, and the communal discernment of God's purposes for our lives, has an appeal and a relevance far beyond the subculture of White, middle-class liberalism. Perhaps if we made our message and our practice more explicit we could benefit from the far wider experiences of those with other histories and cultures.

Is there a way that we can keep the benefits of the inclusive Quaker Space while becoming more explicit about the content of the Quaker Way?

Perhaps those of us who share a commitment to the Quaker Way could be more ready to explain, and above all to demonstrate, how attentiveness to the inward leading of God's Spirit leads us to reshape our lives and re-examine our priorities. At the same time we can accept that this understanding of the Quaker Way is now a minority view within British Quakers - just one strand among the great diversity of belief and practice in our Meetings. We can be willing to welcome all people, whatever their beliefs, to share with us in the accepting Quaker Space of the meeting for worship. We may no longer have a united Quaker 'testimony to the whole world', but we can offer a space for anyone to come and discover for themselves the Inward Guide that can lead them into a greater faithfulness to God's purposes. And we can perhaps make sure that those who join with us in worship still have the opportunity to hear the message of the Quaker Way.


Tim Neal said...

What a re-affirming message Craig. Thank you. The Quaker Way does challenge which is why I keep coming back. I think you underestimate the strength of this path and how clearly it is way marked. What is powerful at the Quakers, as I know it, is showing the way through example. The Space that you clearly recognise as rich yet regret perhaps for its lack of urgency is vital to this, it is a breathing space. The middle class liberal white Englishness of it all is a happenstance feature of birth. We all have crosses to bear so to speak. There is much suffering in the world and if this Quaker waiting room is a luxury of birth at least people are seeing positive action from their chairs. From little acorns.

I was speaking to a new friend here in France, an evangelical Catholic. I explained my association with the Quakers and he said, “Oh yes, I have heard of them”. Please go on I said, I’d love to hear how you describe them. “They are a puritan protestant sect aren’t they?” Yes, I answered laughing, that’s right.

It is a long road from these origins. Christianity has a difficult history and for better or for worse the Quaker space is one where it has evolved to admit its own fundamental fallibility. This is something hugely precious and enormously fragile. It takes very special work to keep it alive and growing. Enormous care and most of all, as you say, testimony through example. Testimony to the inward leading of God’s spirit? Testimony to the value of a virtuous and moral life? I hope that the time doesn’t come when Quakers are tested to see who will be martyrs. God tends to win that one. God might also ask for them. It depends who is listening to him.

In love and with great respect

Anonymous said...

I think both the space and the way are important. The Quaker Way permits the Quaker Space to exist, and the Quaker Space shows that the Quaker Way works. I learned of the Quaker Way before I attended my first Meeting. But it was the love and acceptance of the Quaker Space that keeps me coming back.

Fran / Blue Gal said...

This is a wonderful post. When you wrote that the Quaker space is largely content-free I balked. The Quaker space, if in concord with the Quaker way, is filled with God and with the expectation of hearing God in the silence. Listening requires commitment and trust. You brought that out so clearly here. Many thanks.

Peter Lawless said...

Craig in the main I find this a splendid piece but while I echo the comments of blue gal I would consider that there is an issue relating to the Truth. I feel that the issue is that are not many versions of the Truth rather that there are varying interpretations of it. It is in sharing those interpretations that we gain insight and refinement of, and into, our experience of it.
Each life is unique and is shaped, like clay and the potter, by our encounters. Those encounters emotional, physical and intellectual affect our individual experience/intepretation of the shared encounter with the silence and the Spirit within. Out of that grows richness if we share, listen and reflect we can use this to grow, change and accept. It is not easy. Yes Meeting can be seen as a safe place but to be truly open to it one must take the risk and be open. One must give up the I as in ego to find the I in 'Be still and know that I am God'.
Hope this makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Craig, I think your Space vs. Way distinction is incredibly helpful, and one that seems to inform my own life as a Friend. What is good about it is that it honors both, and acknowledges the importance of both, rather than positing an either/or scenario.

I am troubled that many seem to seek nothing more than the safe Space you mention. This Space is a good and necessary thing, but it is only part of what it means to be Quaker.

But I must keep in mind that, when I first came to Friends, I too came for the Space -- because that's all I thought was possible at the time. I had longed for a Way, but did not think that such a thing was possible within that safe Space. Then I discovered over 300 years of Quaker practice doing just that!


Liz Opp said...

Your post reminds me of some of the blog writing I've done on what I call "Quaker fundamentals," but it also reminds me very much of topics covered in Tom Gates' pamphlet, Members One of Another."

Tom lifts up four elements of a meeting's role, moving from welcome and acceptance--Quaker space, in your terms--to shared values, obedience to the Spirit, and transformation. I highly recommend this pamphlet if for no other reason than it helps Friends put words to some of what they are feeling/sensing might be lacking. At least, that's how it helped me.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Simon Heywood said...

I think it's very scary to step out of the comfortable Space into the Way but I also think that there is this mysterious Quaker alchemy which means that you're never doing it alone and that makes all the difference. For one thing there is the normal community support and love we can give each other. But mainly there is the Big Shiny Invisible at the centre of Quaker life (how's that for inclusive language) and I know, or believe, that whatever good I've derived from being around Quakers, none of it was my idea, and I wouldn't have it any other way (he said through gritted teeth - it's a bit much for me to speak up too fervently in favour of the Way when I'm forever losing mine!)

Simon Heywood said...

Hear hear.

I heard a really interesting comment at the Awareness Weekend, to the effect that (if I'm following) it's not a case of saying, "I'm all right and you're all right," it's more a case of saying "I'm not all right and you're not all right ... and that's all right." I think there is always the wish to hunker down in a nice comfortable Space and of course we ought to, but if that's all we do, then we're missing out. Easier said than done though ...

Alan Paxton said...

This is a very timely reflection during national Quaker week in Britain.

I too, as an attender at Meeting for Worship, have valued the openness, acceptance and lack of oppression that characterise the Quaker Space, and the friendship and support of my local Meeting in particular. But precisely because of its lack of content and direction, the Quaker Space does not inspire me to apply for membership of the Society of Friends, nor even to get out of bed conscientiously every First Day morning. Maybe I'm just slothful, but I think need something more.

It troubles me, too, when Quakers present the Quaker Space as if it
were the Quaker Way, as is evident from some of the publicity for the week put out by Meetings in my area, under the banner of discovering 'the Quaker way'.
One invites us to a gathering in which 'individuals will speak briefly about their particular spiritual journeys', while another offers an evening comparing Quaker worship with Sufi meditation and 'contemporary meditation techniques'. More than one Meeting describes the Quaker path as 'probably' or as 'one of' 'the world's best kept spiritual secrets.'

Why is the Light being hidden under a bushel? There are some very good
materials available within Britain Yearly Meeting. I'm thinking particularly of the 'Hearts and Minds Prepared' course, which I followed at my local Meeting and found very nourishing. But all too often, Quakers seem to present the Quaker Space as if that is all there is to know, with the Quaker Way (in Craig's sense) at best one of many add-on options for the seeker to choose between.

Simon Heywood said...

Let's face it, many of us seem scared of the Way. I know I am at least.

Simon Heywood said...

Thinking about it, this is probably why it gets downplayed in the publicity. "Join the Quakers - a spiritual path for our time ... we'll take your money, eat up your spare time, bog you down with cumbersome procedure, make you feel like you're radically out of step with most of the people you know, put the cares of the world on your shoulders, and mess with your head until you feel compelled to do a lot of crazy things in public. We have no real idea if any of this will get you into heaven, because who knows if there is such a place, but at least you'll meet some amazing people, including some spookily well-adjusted children. Overall, you're going to love it."

Funny thing is, you do love it ... with hindsight.

Ray K said...


that would look good on a T-shirt!

Anonymous said...

Having been a Quaker for a number of years, I do not see there is a distinct difference between the Quaker 'space' and the Quaker 'way' for myself. The 'space' is not just a meeting of peaceable middle class people! It would not survive if people were not living out their spiritual lives within it. As far as I understand, what our modern Quaker 'space' has in common with the early Quakers is a huge amount:

working for pacifism and religious tolerence (as well as, now, many many other causes to help the world be a fairer place), silent meeting where all offerings are valid, equality for women (and now all) in meeting and at home, committee decisions rather than appointed ministers; ie, government by popular will, and the acceptance that everyone can interpret the spirit in their life individually, not least to ensure genuine change and understanding.

One of the things I love about quakers is that we make our judgements about our own lives and decisions rather those of other people and I think if a form of worship or belief was imposed upon the group, this would be lost.

I feel grateful that in this mature tradition, your voice (an elder) and that of my own (a member) are entirely equal, valid and likely to be respected and taken into account if decisions are made. Also, that we are both drops in the ocean of a world of experience and ideas.

There is spiritualty in the Quaker 'space' - it has taken much from its previous generations and is not in my experience 'content-free' at all, it comes from the Quaker 'way' and leads to it constantly. They could not exist without each other.

I have found that when something is not quatifyable, people want to define it, but this process can destroy the very thing itself, as in some areas of school learning, for example. I hope with all my heart that this will not be the case here.

Yours in earnest, redlady

Craig Barnett said...

Hi redlady,

Thanks for commenting on this post. I would like to assure you that it is not an attempt to impose any form of belief on other people. I fully accept that my perspective on Quaker spirituality is a minority one among British Friends.

My main intention in writing it was just as a reminder that the Quaker message has not always been indefinable, and that we could lose something of great value if we forget what the original insight of the early Quaker movement was. But I certainly don't want to use this to exclude or belittle anyone else's belief or practice.

Yours in Friendship,