Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Religious society - or friendly society?

This title is the sub-title of an excellent little book by Alastair Heron called “Our Quaker Identity”. The book traces the quest for an answer an issue about the true nature of Quakerism, in the face of declining membership - minuted by York Monthly Meeting in 1859. Alastair has written convincingly of how the concern has never gone away – rather it has been raised as an important issue over and over again. If you resonate with the question, I recommend a re-looking at “Our Quaker Identity”. It looks at the issues as perceived by Quakers for at least 150 years. Clearly the question is still very much alive in our Meeting. Two of the September blogs address the same issues or concerns.

Craig Barnett’s piece on “Quaker Space or Quaker Way” (23rd September) addresses this issue by looking at two different ways by which a Quaker Meeting can be viewed. He asks is it primarily a ‘Quaker place’, a safe place for Quakers and visitors to meet? Or on the other hand, does this image leave something out and is a Quaker Meeting primarily about a ‘Quaker Way’. He offers very strong arguments to support the latter, while recognising that many visitors quite rightly are attracted to and find great peace in enjoying the hospitality of the ‘Quaker Space’. I will come back to Craig’s offering again later. Simon Haywood (30th September) offers reflections on what is primarily the same issue.

I would like to throw in my own ‘penny worth’ and take up in the first instance some of Simon’s questions and insights. I will start by saying how grateful I was for the ministry Simon offered at Meeting for Worship, on the Sunday after he returned from the London Arms Fair. I am even more grateful for his further reflections. I wish to offer my thanks for such an honest, daring, personal and straight-talking blog ‘ministry’. Surely life is about going out and doing something - then coming back and reflecting on the insights gained and the lessons learnt. Simon’s insights of the lessons he learned from demonstrating with such a diverse but committed group of people are invaluable. By sharing his insights with us, each one is in a better position to review our own perceptions and discover the depth of our values. I find it so easy to say ‘I believe in the Quaker Peace Testimony’, but I have now again been challenged to asking myself:- How deep are my convictions? and What am I prepared to do about them?

I move on, as Simon did, to considering the nature of our Meeting, and the kind of ministry offered. In reflecting on this I went back to read anew the account in John’s Gospel (8: 31 and following), where Jesus is speaking about true discipleship. An issue has arisen between some Jews, of the Pharisee type, and Jesus, who of course was also a Jew. The perceptions on both sides were very different. It seems to me that Jesus wanted to bring the issue away from ‘theory’ and back to the ‘deeds’ that people do - the lives they live. He said that they were children of God, and so true disciples, when they seek to do God’s will. The Pharisees were adamant that they were ‘birthright’ Jews, descended from Abraham. These credentials did not impress Jesus. He went on to say that it is the works that people do, the fruits of a life lived, that reveal who are truly from God. Surely this is the hallmark of being a loving caring people - a true community - or a genuine Quaker Meeting? It is not about how comfortable we feel within the Meeting but how our lives are shaped and lived out, in the light of the ‘stirrings’ or ‘revelations’ that come to us in the silence and through ministry. I could call these same stirrings ‘insights’, if it was that I was afraid of using God or religious language. How interesting that Simon found the use of God language so refreshing in London. It seems to have a right to be included.

This incident from John’s Gospel is also the place where we find those often quoted words:- “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. Surely Jesus was not speaking, of ‘truth’ in the abstract, something set out in dogmatic statements or a creed, but rather of the truth that is an inner knowing, derived from living and reflecting, upon what has been lived. This he said is the truth:- ‘that will set you free’. I see this as being the kernel or nub of the question about ‘our Quaker identity’ or about what makes us Quakers, and what it is that holds us together in unity?

I believe very strongly that it is not ‘uniformity of belief’ as understood in many churches but the inner freedom to explore our own personal faith and to express this unashamedly - while always being understanding, tolerant and accepting of others who may perceive ‘their truth’ in a very different way. I believe that if Quakers, as individuals or as groups are in ‘opposing camps’ as Simon suggest we might be, then it is likely that the ‘spirit of tolerance’ has been taken over by ‘our private ego positions’, and as a consequence the Spirit has been subtly brushed aside. From my way of perceiving things, in this situation we would not be doing God’s will.

In this, as in many other matters, I might of course be totally wrong, and if anyone reading this perceives things differently then I hope that that person can share with me what it is that they believe, and then I will be in a position where I can reflect on what has been shared and so I might very likely modify or change my position. I hope I will always be, open to change. For me, a problem with some Quakers may be that they seem to be afraid to express their position of ‘personal belief’, for fear of ‘upsetting the applecart’. Surely this is a much lesser value than speaking one’s truth.

Going back to what I ‘believe’ and ‘hope’ right now. Once more, let me make it very clear that I am not claiming that it is ‘the Truth’, only ‘my truth’. I believe and hope that Quakers will always be ‘a believing community’, a ‘Religious society’ – but not necessarily a community with ‘uniformity of belief’. I believe that it is this freedom to fearlessly express one’s inner truth, and to share it with one another, (and outside the Meeting too, as Simon found at the Arms Fair in London) which constitutes the real value of being a Quaker. I see our unity as being about ‘singing joyfully together of our own convictions’ not all of us ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, (often without much real conviction). Wasn’t it this word ‘conviction’ that early Quakers used about what made them Quakers? They spoke about ‘being convicted’ or ‘convinced’ in faith?’

I would like to come back again to the placard Simon carried in London that read:- “PLEASE STOP AND TALK”. I think that this might even have an application to our Quaker Worship. Simon, and also Alastair in ‘Our Quaker Identity’ mentioned the danger of us ‘dying as a worshiping community’. Then just maybe we could learn from this placard. ‘Please stop’ – go into the silence; ‘And Talk’ – share with the Meeting what you have learned in silence. What it is you are convinced about. What your convictions are. Surely this is the beginning of - ‘getting to know one another in the things that are eternal’?

I heard on the radio last week that Aristotle, in the 4th Century BCE said:- ‘the un-reflected life is not worth living’. I sure do agree with him. On Monday evening, I was privileged to attend the Quaker Quest meeting. This too was for me a wonderful experience combining the same ‘being silent’ and also ‘listening to inspirational reflected experiences of the lives of three Friends’. Here I again offer thanks to the Friends, who on this occasion had the courage to share some insights of their life experience and of their own unique ‘image of God’. As I read Simon’s reflections on the blog; and as I sat and listened on Monday evening, I was so aware that on the outside those who share are all very ordinary people, but when we have the privilege to see a little deeper, we see ‘the movement of the Spirit’, and the extraordinary gift of each one’s uniqueness. Surely ‘courage’ is the element that enables this to happen, and fear is the thing that can so easily get in the way.
If Quakers were only a community of friends, if that was all that we aspired to, then I would be truly concerned, and my search would likely take me elsewhere. However I say, ‘Long live the true Spirit of Quakerism’. Let us put aside any divisions or disagreements about the content of our faith, but let us never cease to be a ‘Faith Community’ – ‘a Religious society’. If someone comes to Meeting and their starting place one of believing that they have no faith or if it is a case of believing ‘in UFO’s’, ‘in World Peace’, in ‘a God who punishes sinners’, or in ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild’, or in ‘Jesus the Divine Son of God’, does it really matter? And does it really matter what words we use in order to express our beliefs. Political correctness kills. Let anyone of us who wishes to use any God words, do so if that helps us express ourselves – as long as we do not set out to cause offence. Let us share our deepest convictions about what we perceive as being Central to Life and about the things we feel drawn to, from our deepest Centre. Surely what is important, is that seekers can come and join the Meeting and then, when ready to do so, we can move on to deepen our perceptions, and to grow in faith and perhaps address especially the question Jesus put to his disciples (Mark 8: 27-30):- Who do you say that I am? We can if we wish take it a step further and ask – Who do you say you yourself are? Or again:- Who or what, do you say is at the centre of ‘All that is’? or What is your image of God? It is what we mean, not the words we use, that matters most. On the other hand if any amongst us has no personal answer to these questions, then maybe the time has come to give ourselves the gift of exploring the questions, and of finding out what it is we truly believe about some of the central questions of life!

I wish to come back to another important quote from Craig’s blogspot. He wrote “….. 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”. I so agree with this and as a non-English person even though I share at least the liberal, and white bits, I still found this quite a barrier to be overcome, how much more so this must be for those whose cultures or backgrounds are quite different from those listed, and those whose English is not of the educated variety. The only approach I can offer to this issue is that each person seeks to carry a real consciousness of the problems that others may be encountering, and seek to facilitate these people, in the way we offer welcome to the visitor. Then maybe we can place the focus on where it truly belongs. Once more I say that Jesus did not come just ‘to comfort the afflicted’ but also ‘to afflict the comfortable’. We know whose company Jesus seemed to enjoy, and there must always be a real danger that we might, even after many years in attendance or as members just be sitting really comfortably in Quaker Space.
I hope the Quaker Meeting will always offer Quaker Space and be friendly society to the visitor, and I hope that in that space, and among those people, the attender, the seeker, the visitor, the inquirer, the lost, whoever! will always find a place of welcome, respite, asylum and peace. But I hope too that the real power of ‘Silence’ and ‘Ministry’ will continue to inform and transform our lives from the inside, so that our homes, our places of work, our country, and our world, will also be transformed by having ever more ‘Convinced People’ who will seek to know and do what Jesus and many others choose to call the doing of 'God’s Will'.

7 comments:

Simon Heywood said...

I think Craig has nailed a really useful distinction between the Space and the Way. It occurs to me that one way to think of it is to say that it might be part of the Quaker Way to actively provide a Quaker Space for those who need it, but the Space is not the Way - it doesn't end with creating a nice, welcoming ambience.

RichardM said...

I like Craig's Quaker Way vs Quaker Space idea and a bit more came to me as I was reading your post.

I think of the Quaker Space as a sort of vesibule just outside the real Quaker Meeting. Real Quaker Meeting is certainly the Quaker Way. It is composed of people who have heard God's voice and are actively listening for it. All the others are hanging around in the Quaker Space. Why are they there? Partly to enjoy the peace and quiet. Partly to be around people who seem nice, but mostly because something deep inside them is urging them to be there. The folks inside the Meeting understand what (Who, actually) is urging them to be where they are and the folks inside are content to wait and offer gentle encouragement whenever one of the folks hanging out in the Quaker Space should want to come inside and experience the real thing.

Johan said...

This is a great discussion! I want to test just one point to see if I understand correctly.

This is the point: I believe very strongly that it is not ‘uniformity of belief’ as understood in many churches but the inner freedom to explore our own personal faith and to express this unashamedly - while always being understanding, tolerant and accepting of others who may perceive ‘their truth’ in a very different way. I believe that if Quakers, as individuals or as groups are in ‘opposing camps’ as Simon suggest we might be, then it is likely that the ‘spirit of tolerance’ has been taken over by ‘our private ego positions’, and as a consequence the Spirit has been subtly brushed aside. From my way of perceiving things, in this situation we would not be doing God’s will.

It may be a false dichotomy to suggest that "opposing camps" always correlates with "our private ego positions." In the evangelical Quaker community, some of us believe that it is precisely "private ego positions" that cause problems. We see our communities as united by some basic beliefs that have been ratified by common experience over generations. Quaker faith and practice, in our view, has been weakened by the modern glorification of individualism and the unwillingness to consider a communal truth. Neither the "Quaker space" nor the "Quaker way" provide much space for this communal truth.

I'm not arguing a rigid distinction here. Christian unity would be weak and meaningless if it were based on anxiously trying to adopt a groupthink or on religion addiction or on surrendering the right and responsibility to "explore our own personal faith." There's a dynamic place in the middle, one that can never be defined once and for all by formulas (even subtle liberal ones), one that is utterly dependent on dialogue--with the Bible and the Holy Spirit as well as each other. But I just want to say that a way or place that simply exalts the individual and treats Quakerism as a sort of vehicle is not the powerful, apostolic movement that George Fox and early Friends kindled, and is not the stream I'm in today.

As for crossing cultural barriers, individualism and dilettantism are huge barriers. In my experience, what is powerfully attractive across lines of race and culture is spiritual power, not elaborate verbal webs of sophisticated distinctions. We don't want just to talk about Jesus (much less talk about why we should or shouldn't talk about Jesus!). We want to do the works of Jesus--healing, empowering, prophesying, confronting oppression, loving and reconciling enemies. We want nothing less than to witness miracles!

(That's what we evangelical Quakers want. Not necessarily what we do.)

Being Quakers, we want all this without faking it, without theatrics and manipulation. But that's okay, because we believe that the Holy Spirit suffices; we don't need hierarchies and ceremonies to fill in the gap. I believe that when we become the publicly passionate people who laugh and cry and pray the hell out of ourselves, and see God's faithfulness in operation, we will gather an amazingly diverse community. As long as our meetings' dynamics are limited by caution and middle-class moderation, we will get the public credibility, cultural diversity, and growth we deserve.

Forgive me if you've heard me say this before: In one English city I can think of, there's a pentecostal church and a Friends meeting half a block apart. The dear Friends meeting, with which I feel thoroughly in tune, has a small attendance of people roughly similar in social background. The Pentecostal church is full of different colors, languages, and social classes. Which congregation is more Quaker?

Actually, the answer to that question is complex, because neither congregation is connecting all the dots that truly need to be connected. If there were a dialogue between the two, we might get somewhere.

Finally (forgive my longwindedness!) I liked Richard M's "vestibule" image. My desire is to be one of those who invites people in. One of the single most important things any Friends meeting can do is to identify those within the meeting who have the spiritual gift of "inviting in" and authorize and empower that gift.

Simon Heywood said...

It's really good to have an evangelical Quaker voice here. Would you say that the bit you quote is too individualistic / exalting the individual / treating Quakerism as a vehicle / subtly liberal / middle class moderate / cautious then? It doesn't strike me that way but I guess I could be missing something. I really relate to your description of the "dynamic place" - I think I mean something similar by "The Way." Following "the way" (when I've done it) has brought me closer to Friends, it hasn't driven me away from them. I posted on this previously and one of the comments to my post summed my point up well, it seemed to be arguing for a kind of very individualistic, varied verbal/conceptual ministry enlightened by the shared truth of a very communal life. Which is a complete contradiction and very difficult to live authentically, but hey, paradoxes are God's footprints in the sands of the world.

Simon Heywood said...

PS I do worry that we aren't pulling people in though. Whatever the state of the world in 100 years' time it's going to need some Quakers.

Maurice Bartley said...

I feel I should offer a word of apology to 'johan' and to anyone who may have been misled from what I wrote of 'the inner freedom to explore our own personal faith and to express this unashamedly', as being about people adopting 'a private ego position'.

On the contrary, I see this as being the dynamic faith, that wells up in a person's heart - often the fruit of a long search, and which forms the basis for the 'Unity of the Children of God'. A faith that becomes an inner dynamo, while it does not judge or belittle any other person’s or group's sincere faith position.

It is the moving into 'opposing camps' that would concern me. I don't think the Spirit of God is very interested in 'opposing camps'. I think Jesus and George Fox would ask today as in the past: Who do you say I am? or What sayest thou? Surely not, Which camp do you belong to?

I believe that those who follow in the spirit of Jesus, George Fox, and many others recognise the presence of the 'inner truth that sets one free'. Therein lies the true unity among Quakers. Again I say it may not be a ‘uniformity of belief’ but it is the unity of the fellowship of those, who from the silence heed the inner promptings of the Spirit and are prepared to share with Friends what they have discovered by ministering to the 'faith that is within'. Those people who are ready to listen, first to the inner voice and then to one another in ministry - are the ones who seek to know the will of God and seek to build up a dynamic and unified ‘Community of Believers', the ‘Religious Society of Quakers’ –

I liked what Simon said (06 Oct.) 'It is part of the Quaker Way to actively provide a Quaker Space for those who need it, but the Space is not the Way’. I too recognise the crucial importance of having Quaker Space for those who are seeking.

samantha galbraith said...

In the words of the famous song

"What if God was one of us,
just a stranger on a bus,trying to find his way home?"

How can we tell how God is at work in people?

If Home is where the heart is and Quaker Meeting House is home
cant it just be as simple and as true as this?