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'.