Sunday, 30 December 2007

This is great

I have been reading this blog today - following some ministry this morning which mentioned it - and I am amazed at what a great resource there is here. I will come back rather more often than hitherto! We need a regular reminder about it in Sheffield Quaker newsletter, and occasionally in notices after meeting.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Just what is a prophetic voice?

I have been intrigued by this notion for months because I don't think I know what it means in this context especially as it seems to bear a close relationship with that tool 'hindsight'. The more I consider the concept the more elusive it seems though its use seems to be a way of enhancing the spiritual value of what is said or being said. Can anyone help me understand this as I feel that there is a danger that a set of assumptions about what is, and what is not prophetic, could be created against which statements/ministry etc. is/are weighed and we could end up blinkered and not open to leadings which do not fit into the appropriate box?
I can understand how we can have a Quakerly voice rooted in the past, and growing, experiences of Friends but can we claim to be prophetic? In part I know that my problem may be rooted in my university studies of history but it is also rooted in my 19/20 years in membership. I feel uneasy and the recent questionnaire has only served to increase this unease as it appears to be an initial design for potential blinkers. Years ago I encountered an yogic expression of how we should approach life: 'Everything is important but nothing matters. Nothing is important but everything matters'.
We don't know what is to come but we can develop so we be flexible enough to respond but are we in danger of losing sight of that and taking on board aspects of managerialism which have blighted so much of recent life?

Friday, 7 December 2007

The Emperor’s Nose

I’ve been puzzling over the 'Long Term Framework for the work and spiritual development of Friends' for a while. Then I came across this old story:

‘Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor, but a man wanted to know the length of the Emperor’s nose. So he went all over the country asking people how long they thought the Emperor’s nose was, and then took the average of their answers. ‘This must be accurate’, he said to himself, because I have asked so many people…’

My understanding of discernment is that it is a process of seeking the will of God in a particular situation. Can this be done with a questionnaire? This seems unlikely, for the same reason that the man in the story is not likely to find the correct answer to his question.

A questionnaire like this, even if it is called ‘a record of discernment’, inevitably becomes a record of people’s opinions about what BYM should be doing. This would be fine if we were a social club or political party, but if we are seeking to follow the guidance of the Inward Light, then our collected opinions are largely irrelevant. If you want to find out the length of the Emperor’s nose, it is of no use asking people who have never seen it. Similarly if we, as a Religious Society, want to discern God’s purposes for us then we need to look to those individuals and groups within BYM who have had something of God’s purposes revealed to them, and have been led to act on it - what we call ‘acting under concern’.

It is a distinctive and important feature of traditional Quaker spirituality that collective action arises from uniting around the leadings of individuals who have been charged by the Spirit with a particular task or message. There are many signs of such ‘prophetic movements’ within BYM at the moment; the Living Witness Project, Quaker Quest, the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network and others. These are all signs of where the Spirit is calling us at this time. There may be further questions of discernment about how to order or prioritise these different concerns, but again this cannot be done by ‘averaging out’ all our opinions about it. If the leadings are genuinely from God, there will be a right ordering that will reflect the pattern of God’s purposes for the varied gifts and capacities of our membership, and this should be discerned in the Meeting for Worship.

I don’t want to criticise or undermine the efforts of Meeting for Sufferings to become a ‘crucible for sharing and testing concerns’. I am wary, though, of discussion about ‘finding our prophetic voice’, as if we have to go around looking for something to do. The Spirit of God is always speaking to us. Our task is to be attentive to recognise the presence and activity of the Spirit in ourselves, in our Society and throughout the world.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Politics and Community

At the Meeting for Worship for Business today we considered our response to the 'Long Term Framework for the work and spiritual development of Friends', which Meeting for Sufferings will present to Yearly Meeting next year.

I have read and filled in the Questionnaire posted at, and I am very concerned about what I perceive as a 'category error' ( in the questionnaire. We are considering TWO things - 'who we are' and 'what we do'. I fear that for many westerners the two are essentially the same - 'who we are' is defined or determined by 'what we do' - so the first question you ask a stranger is 'what do you do?' and the answer defines that person for us. This is a result of the error of Individualism, which of course very much defines western civilisation.

If Quakers are just gatherings of individuals then indeed what we do is primary, and what we need to do is engage politically with the world to challenge the bad in the world with the good we perceive in our hearts, as testified by Quakers through the ages. “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness" - Alfred North Whitehead - is a very popular definition, but it encloses the individual within themselves, and eventually hollows out the individual with existential angst.

Whereas Jesus said "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20), and "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16:25). The place where I really find myself, and fulfil my individuality is not in private contemplation, but in the life of the community. Private contemplation is withdrawal from the life of community to reflect in order to better live the life of community. Contemplation is not for itself, or for myself, but for others. We discover God (or however you name the transcendent other) in our relationships in community when we give up ourselves for others.

"Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:37-40).

'Who we are' is primary, and discovered in community, and 'what we do' is secondary, and needed for the material sustenance of the community. Religion is what we do to remind ourselves that community is primary and that community must be constantly refreshed, for we needs must spend much of our time and effort in supporting ourselves materially. One of the most refreshing things about being amongst Quakers, is that they never (or rarely) ask 'what do you do', but ask about you - it makes you feel truly welcomed and valued for yourself. Of course, when it comes to sustaining the community those of us like Overseers or Nominations have to scurry around finding out what people can do so we can get a specific job done. But I would much rather suffer this inconvenience from time to time than be defined by what I do.

My experience of evangelical Christianity over twenty years before becoming a Quaker is that Evangelicalism is the ultimate individualist religion in the West - we were constantly made aware of our individual sins and need for salvation. All friendships were for the sake of 'spreading the gospel', not for themselves. Time was spent in constant study to become more effective in the task. I remember being ill at ease at the idea of forming 'friendships' with the hidden agenda of 'bringing the person to Christ'. The sayings of Jesus quoted above were entirely mysterious and invariably referred into the future 'Kingdom of Heaven' to be enjoyed in the next life, whilst I suffered the alienation of the individual in this life - put down as my 'sinful nature'.

I now know that true friendship must be for its own sake, entered into with total equality and mutuality. Our testimony of equality is primarily about this need for true friendship in order to build us up in community, and the political ramifications of equality in society is merely secondary. Little did I know back then, absorbed in my existential quest for salvation, that Quakers were practicing the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, and all I needed to do was walk through the door.

If Meeting for Sufferings can (so it seems) make this basic category error in a simple questionnaire, what does it say about the future of our Society? It is a pity that we call ourselves a 'Society', when for me 'society' is merely people co-operating to bring about material well-being. This is why, for me, 'Religious Society' is extremely important, and if we drop the word 'Religious' from our name, no matter how problematic that word might be, we will no longer have a name that separates us out from society as the exercise of political means, to be a community that exists for its own sake.

If we fail to make the distinction between community, fellowship and friendship as primary and society and politics as secondary, then whatever we call ourselves, we will allow ourselves to become subsumed into the overwhelming individualism of our age, and we will become merely another political action group, with the added curiosity of strange behaviour on Sunday mornings. The Meeting for Worship is not primary either, for coming together in Meeting is actually a symbolic act or ritual that points to community, which is primary. If we are not living and sharing together in community, the Meeting for Worship will be hollowed out until it becomes a group of autonomous individuals coming together in a vain attempt to alleviate the angst of modern existence.

But what of politics? The liberal left, in a right reaction against the paternalism of previous times is the bastion of individuality. But this means that the liberal left does not know what community is, and therefore that the challenge of those of us of religion or spirituality to the liberal left is to show them community and tell them that political action is not for its own sake but for the sake of community - to ensure that persons everywhere have the space and opportunity to enter into fellowship. This is the reason why we must challenge the ever encroaching power of the state - not because the state must not have power, but because, unchallenged, it will always use power as an end in itself. The state is there to provide and enforce justice to enable people to live together in society as free individuals, for only then is community possible.

The state cannot build community, though it thinks it can, any many people want it to, because we are actually afraid to enter into truly open and free relationships because we would need to expose our true selves and risk the rejection (or worse) of the other. This makes us feel insecure, and we turn first to the state to protect us, not realising that the only protection the state can offer is the imprisonment of ever more intrusive laws and regulations - see how the caged bird sings - not of the freedom Mary Angelou knew was true, but the fear of having freedom and having to make choices and live with the consequences.

This is why the message of Jesus is about overcoming fear with love, and definitely not primarily about sin and salvation - Jesus simply forgave sins because he knew that we could never enter into truly loving and equal mutual relationships burdened with the guilt of the inevitable hurt we have caused others.

When we come together as a community and discern the need for political action, we possess a power way beyond that of mere political activity - call it the power of God or whatever, but you must call it something, because it exists and is palpable in anyone who has witnessed it. Ask those who attempted to oppose Ghandi and King and Mandela and the women of Greenham Common, amongst others. It is this that will give us the command in the political arena, what we might call the 'prophetic voice', and Meeting for Sufferings will do no wrong if all it does is to cultivate the prophetic voice of Quakers for the 21st Century.

But Meeting for Sufferings is not the community – it is merely our representatives centrally. As such Meeting for Sufferings can make political statements and engage in political activity in the name of Quakers nationally, and do this in good conscience, but that prophetic power will not be there, for the power comes from right discernment in community, and therefore must come from local or area meetings. If we all rise up together across the land, then we will be a power to be reckoned with, despite our small numbers, but that will not be the act of Meeting for Sufferings.

Thus the really important task of Meeting for Sufferings is to create the space and provide the means for the building up the Quaker community in our land, as manifested in our local meetings. This was it’s original role that gave it it’s name when we suffered persecution in the 17th Century. Meeting for Sufferings ensured we did not go under. Now the persecution is gone, and in the 21st Century what will drive us under is complacency in the face of apparent material security, and rampant individualism blinding us to the need for community.

This then is the true role of Meeting for Sufferings now – the enabling and building up of community and the cultivation of our prophetic voice. If we do these, political action will take care of itself.