Tuesday, 29 April 2008


Having just been to Rob ert Kirchner's screening of "What A Way to Go," I thought I'd post a few thoughts before turning in.

Basically the film expressed a sense of coming crisis - a toxic mix of peak oil, overpopulation, consumerism in spiritual crisis, and greenhouse effect.

Not to comment in detail on the film itself, but it made me wonder if Peace was the testimony of the 20th century, and if we were moving into a century where Simplicity will be what we're best known for.

If so, there's a reading of the Bible which will back us up. You can see the Garden of Eden story as a myth (one among many early myths) of a hunter-gatherer Golden Age, where farming wasn't necessary (food just grew on trees). Agriculture is a consequence of the Fall (Gen. 3:19) and so are the basic trammells of civilisation, like clothes (Gen 3:11). In the early days of the old Covenant, the Israelites are nomadic pastoralists, and after they arrive in Palestine, the effects of a settled life aren't seen as being all that great: kingship (Sam. 8:7 - 21), idolatry and what have you. The best of the bunch appear to be the Rechabites, a group who kept up the old nomadic pastoralist ways (Jer. 35:7 - 19). And arguably the climax of the Old Testament narrative is the supremely disillusioned prophetic book of Daniel, the plot of which can be summarised more or less as "Just one empire after another, and another, and none of them are any good; world ends and Eden is restored." Revelations takes a similarly jaundiced view of the Roman empire which confronted the early Christians.

This gives a context to the frankly caveman-like (or maybe Rechabite-like) John the Baptist (Mark 1:6). In this context, Jesus often sounds quite similar: someone looking in on civilisation from the outside, and not much liking what he sees: he is homeless and nomadic, has few or no possessions, rejects the idea of hoarding wealth or owning private property or planning or providing for the future, prizes community and sharing above most things, and harshly rejects the current settled elites, such as the Jerusalem priesthood, the use of money, and the rule of the Romans (and worship of their emperors as gods). To this extent, despite his involvement in the farming economy of his day, and his attachment to the very settled city of Jerusalem, Jesus reminds me of what little I know about actual hunter-gatherer societies, which tend to live at a subsistence level, have fairly flat hierarchies, and often a strongly developed sense of collective ownership and community. Interestingly, during the same centuries, the religious historian Karen Armstrong points to broadly similar moves across the tropical belt of global civilisation. There are the forest sages of Chinese Taoism and the India of the Buddha and Upanishads to Greek philosophers like Socrates and Diogenes who achieved notoriety by living in barrels, dressing in rags, and ignoring or challenging the norms of the hierarchical civilisations surrounding them. The Upanishads are the closest thing I've read to a Gospel in terms of form and content (like the Gospels, they're basically instructive stories and dialogues featuring wise teachers), and the Greek philosophers' dialogues also aren't a million miles off either. They all date from the same few centuries. There appears to have been no such widespread "reform" movements in the previous stage of world civilisation, from (say) Egypt to Biblical Assyria.

Early Quakers took up some of these ideas, such as flat hierarchies, simplicity of material and cultural life, spontaneity of conduct, and a community ethos, particularly in the arena of church government. They were (admittedly) happy with private property and wealth accumulation, but they were definitely against excessive and wasteful consumption (vanity as they'd probably have called it) on the specific grounds that there were better, more equitable and more responsible uses for accumulated wealth. Penn's "No Cross, No Crown" (Ch. 18) makes this clear in a very modern-sounding way. Early Quaker preachers like George Fox were as notorious as Jesus for dressing very simply, living nomadically, and refusing to plan for the morrow (QF&P 19.19). Fox, with his long hair and leather suit, must have appeared almost as much of a caveman as John the Baptist, and Fox's Journal is another example of "instructive stories and dialogues featuring wise teachers"-type literature (quite a lot different from later Quaker writings, such as those of Penn and Barclay, which were basically essays by educated men from the elite).

In some sense these are arguably the values which underpin the drive towards sustainable development and the avoidance of ecological catastrophe. We need to cut back on our consumption, revise our understanding of economic growth and quality of life, and rediscover immaterial wealth. If capitalism doesn't need to be entirely abolished, it definitely needs to be thoroughly reshaped on the basis of better and saner values.

Maybe therefore there are lessons for us in the spiritualities of the remaining indigenous peoples, as well as in our own Quaker heritage and the Christian and other traditions which underpin it.

Doubtless I'm idealising everything I've been talking about up to a point, but I think there is a cluster of ideas here worth exploring as we discern our future. Maybe Quakers need to be at the forefront of moves toward a sustainable life, as they were in the move towards peace in the last violent century. And just as the Peace testimony was there for us then, ripe for revival as the world was engulfed in war, so in the immediate future we have a heritage of Simplicity as the world chokes on superfluous overconsumption by a privileged minority (which currently includes a lot of us!)

Monday, 28 April 2008

At a Meeting for Worship is a person ‘compelled’ to one’s feet, by a power greater than oneself, or is ministering an ‘ego’ activity?

Maybe the answer is:- 'both' or ‘neither’ !

However if I had to come down on one side or the other, I would go with the latter. It seems to me that if someone is waiting for a more mystical or ecstatic ‘compulsion’ from outside of oneself, then it is likely that he/she will wait for a very long time. I would argue that the notion that vocal ministry arises from ‘an action of God, over and beyond inner promptings’, adds further confusion to the action. As I see it verbal ministry in the first instance, arises from a human experience, guided by 'that of God' within.

Many people believe in a 'God out there', who directly intervenes in the affairs of people. I believe that it is neither productive nor wise to sit and wait for a ‘God out there’ to intervene directly in the affairs of people. I also believe that the important thing for Quakers is to trust that when a group of people, trusting in the reality of God, choose to meet in silent worship, they can in truth, discern God’s will. By remaining faithful to the process of silent worship and by remaining open to being guided from within. In this way the community remains open to discerning God’s will and to receiving guidance regarding the lives we live.

If some people are waiting for God to intervene, ‘at a future time’, then it is little wonder that they do not trust what is going on within them ‘currently’. Perhaps some people are waiting to get an ‘all clear’ signal or the proverbial ‘kick in the backside’. Other people, however may be focused on the present rather than on the future, and so are more likely to experience inner promptings of love and truth, and such people are surely more likely to take heed of their inner promptings as the leadings of God, and as a consequence more likely to have the courage to stand to offer verbal ministry.

Meanwhile a person waiting for ‘a mystical or ecstatic experience’ may well, from the very absence of trusting ‘inner promptings’, judge any ‘current inner promptings’ as coming from a lesser place, sometimes called the ego, and so be fearful of sharing any inner promptings in verbal ministry. A big problem arises wherever there is an emphasis on the 'ego' as a negative element of the personality. In such situations their arises a fear of being judged as an ‘egocentric’. In my understanding the ego is more properly understood as the positive 'choice-maker' which each of us, needs to respect and come to terms with, if we are to engage in anything really challenging.

The healthy making of ‘an ego choice’ is of course to be distinguished from 'egocentricity' which is what happens when someone ‘acts’ as if they were 'the Centre', or alternatively ‘refrains from acting’ because of a fear of ‘appearing foolish’ or ‘out of step’ with the group. People who perceive much ministry as 'egocentric' will, as a consequence, more likely 'fear' the trusting their own inner promptings. Paradoxically the consequence,of not trusting inner promptings, and of consequently refraining from ever ministering is more likely to be 'egocentric'.

The situation where a person accepts the challenge of ministering, even when aware that the content might be perceived by some as being 'less than brilliant’; and when the ministry may even be criticized is something different again, – such a person is brave, and I certainly would not call the person 'egocentric'. I’m reminded of St. Paul’s words:- ‘God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity but the Spirit of power, and love, and self-control.’ (2 Tim. 1:7).

Can I add here, that I fully accept the validity of the fact that many people who come to a Quaker MfW do not, for a variety of reasons, wish to offer verbal ministry, and I am not suggesting for a moment, that everyone who attends, even regularly, should offer verbal ministry. I fully accept the wisdom and the practice of offering Quaker Space to the newcomer, the troubled and in fact to anyone who desires just such space, but this is slightly beside the point. The question I'm addressing concerns the place verbal ministry plays in a Quaker understanding of MfW.

I believe that verbal ministry that genuinely comes from one’s inner promptings, is likely to be desirable, especially when the one ministering has the sense of the content being relevant to more than just one’s own personal living, and when one has the common-sense, to be aware of and sensitive to, the overall ministry offered within a particular meeting.

I believe that ‘shared worship’ should have a real element of the sharing that which comes from 'that of God’ in the lives of those gathered. I feel strongly that worship is about more than just ‘drinking in' and ‘privately valuing’ what comes to each person individually. It surprises me when I hear people describe verbal ministry as being something exceptional; and it also surprises me that some people do not seem to have a sense that sometimes ‘God’ may be calling them to share something of their insights ‘with the gathered community’. Please do not hear me suggesting, for a moment, that silence is not important, that it should be ignored, or that the hour should be filled with verbal ministry. Hear rather my belief that what comes out of the silence is also important, and that verbal ministry from a wider range of people should be truly welcomed.

I know that it is challenging for some people to stand up and offer verbal minister. However this is quite a different thing from reacting to the fear, or of being silenced by the fears which may be about the inadequacy of one’s efforts. I believe it is incumbent upon all of us to be ‘people of encouragement'. Expressions life 'daffodil ministry', with negative overtones, should be carefully avoided. I would argue that a single verbal ministry arising from the leadings of God might well be ‘the word’ to help another. We might all leave the Meeting House more refreshed and more determined ‘to do God’s will’ not only during MfW but also ‘out there’ in Sheffield and beyond.

Let’s not sit waiting for the ‘mystical or ecstatic experience’; but let each one of us trust the more ordinary inner promptings of love and truth. This applies not only in Worship but also in the rest of our lives. At MfW:- ‘Let us trust such promptings as the leadings of God, who’s Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’. (A&Q 1). I agree with Simon, as mentioned in “The Nature of the ‘Inner Light’”, (24th April), that it has been the Quaker Experience that the trusting of the ordinary everyday experiences, may lead to the more ‘mystical or ecstatic’ experience following on in its trail. But the extraordinary experiences are not the important thing. I believe that this has been my own experience of Quaker worship, as I believe it has been Simon’s experience, especially in the area of the ‘peace-tax’ in its relationship to ‘conscience’. Deo Gratias.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

The nature of the "Inner Light"

Looking over the writings of early Quakers, I'm struck by the sense in which they associated the Inner Light with the boring old personal conscience. It's not a link which seems to be made explicitly much these days.

We have inherited a number of strands from early Quaker thinking. One was definitely mystical or ecstatic and associated with heightened religious experience. Another was rational and reflective and associated with the ordinary everyday consciousness and the sense of right and wrong. This blend created the enduring quality of Quaker action, which seems motivated at once by plain common sense, and at the same time by some wild and primitive irrational impulse which not even the Quakers fully understood.

The blend is clear in Quaker thinking on conscience. It's reasonable that Quakers might have objected in conscience to tithes and hat honour and so forth, but the punishing lengths to which they went in bearing their testimony suggests something beyond the strictly rational, as they themselves were aware (hence William Penn in "No Cross, No Crown"). The early Quakers assumed that the one drive could never contradict the other, because they had the same source and drew people towards the same objective. What united the rational and irrational conscience (so to speak) was the sense that the individual was acting in response to the sacred, that is, in response to an external drive, which may have manifested deep within the individual consciousness but did not originate there.

This puts classical Quaker thinking somewhat at odds with the modern liberal consensus which most British Quakers probably otherwise inhabit. In secular, liberal terms, "conscience" seems to involve a personal decision or preference (with the secular, liberal freedom to follow it as of right). Hence, those acting under conscience, on things like peace tax, are often accused of acting self-indulgently, irresponsibly, etc. - as if, in fact, they were causing trouble by doing whatever they liked in the secular, liberal sense. Rightly or wrongly, this is not the Quaker understanding of conscience, according to which, those bearing their testimonies are doing what reality compels them directly to do.

But one internal problem for present-day Quakers may be that we have lost some sense of the identity of the boring old conscience with the ecstatic Inner Light. I speak from experience. I often find it hard to achieve any sense of what the Light requires, and when I do, I'm starting to wonder if it's because I'm relying too much on the mystical, ecstatic, heightened understanding of what the Light is. I'm waiting for the blinding headrush of compulsion to go off and do something extravagant. I'd probably die of fright if I actually felt any such compulsion, but half the time I wonder if the problem isn't more prosaic - I'm neglecting the more commonsense thread in Quaker understanding, which suggests that what the Light requires is simple, practical recognition of the ingrained sense of right and wrong which is so much part of my everyday consciousness that I can effectively take it for granted, but which I often fail to respond in my actual conduct. The Quaker understanding seems to be that the blinding, ecstatic sense of the sacred, and the humdrum demands of an everyday life conscientiously lived, are the same thing. The thing they both are is the Inner Light, and if you plug fully into the one, it brings the other along with it. And if not, not. Living in the Light may sometimes mean charging up a mountain to do a lot of shouting, but it also means being in the habit of confronting everyday situations with the question, "Well, what's REALLY the right thing to do?" and then doing it.

Phew. Tough call!!

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Quaker Worship for the un-cool?

I've just been on a Quaker Life conference exploring 'the heart of our Quaker identity' - more on this soon. But this quote from Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox just leapt out at me (came across it on Chris M's blog):
There is a popular notion, even among some Friends, that the Quaker "brand" of worship is not for everyone; that it requires a cool, detached, middle- to upper-middle class Anglo-American temperament. Not only is this notion implicitly classist and racist, it constitutes a terrible misunderstanding of what Quaker worship means. What makes this worship difficult for people of all races and temperaments to accept is the way it brings the experience of the cross into worship itself. No one takes up this cross easily. Yet it is in this quiet, sometimes desperate, prayerful attitude that one may give up one's self to God and say, "nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:44).
What do you think?