Quaker Life annual conference 2008
‘Perhaps the defining feature of Quakerism is that it cannot be defined’, was Barbara Windle’s opening comment on the subject of this conference, which is part of a process of re-examining the identity of British Quakerism for our time initiated by Quaker Life.
Just what our identity as Friends consists of seems to be a continuous problem, and in the weekend’s first session Alex Wildwood gave a convincing presentation of how this has come about. He described the development of British Quakerism from a distinctive and universalist understanding of Christianity in the 17th Century, to the very broad movement of today. This includes both liberal Christianity and what he calls the ‘new spiritualities’, ranging from eastern religions and growth psychology, to pagan, ‘New Age’, feminist and Green movements.
Alex urged us to embrace our unique position as a ‘bridge’ between traditional Christianity and the new spiritualities, and to recognise it as a ‘Spirit-led’ process in which all the aspects of contemporary Quakerism are essential. ‘For us to cut ourselves off from our Christian roots would be catastrophic,’ he argued. But equally he calls for us to recognise and welcome the growth in consciousness that is expressed in the new spiritualities. Alex also offered his own contribution to expressing ‘the heart of our Quaker faith’ as ‘a life lived under guidance’.
Our own attempts in discussion groups to express the distinctive identity of British Quakers were predictably inconclusive. There was the usual list of ‘Quakerly’ characteristics: acceptance of diversity, being comfortable with uncertainty, being ‘seekers’ who recognise the inadequacy of words to define our experience. There was an assertion of the rootedness of our faith in personal experience and the indivisibility of faith and practice, which still begs the question of what our ‘faith’ consists of.
For me, the most challenging aspect of this discussion was the contribution of David Boulton, a well-known and much-published ‘non-theist’ Friend. He gave an articulate and persuasive account of his ‘religious humanist’ convictions, which exclude a belief in any spiritual reality. For him religious language is poetry that expresses purely human values, and belief in a spiritual realm ‘even when smuggled in under the guise of transcendence or mysticism’ is akin to believing in ‘goblins, ghosts and Gandalf’s magic staff’.
I don’t think I was alone in finding this expression of Quaker diversity stretching the limits of any conceivable shared faith or identity. While I understand and recognise the force of David’s arguments for an entirely rationalist and materialist world-view, there is a fundamental difference not just in our language and symbolism but in the nature of our experience. This doesn’t make me ‘right’ and him ‘wrong’, but it does challenge the existence of any shared faith or identity for a Religious Society that can include such radically incompatible experiences of reality.
On the final day there was a dramatic shift in gear, with a presentation by Rex Ambler on ‘the prophetic message of early Friends, and its relevance for the 21st Century’. Rex began with a close reading of some rather obscure early Quaker writings. As an academic historian he is clearly in his element interpreting the texts and contexts of 17th Century Friends. He is also a speaker with a gift for Ministry, which could be felt throughout the room as he summarised his understanding of the original Quaker message:
“The early Quakers did not teach a belief. They did not urge people to believe the statement that there is ‘that of God in everyone’. Instead they directed people to look within themselves, to the Truth of their own experience as revealed by the Light in their consciences.”
They turned people away from outward authorities and rituals, to a practice of ‘waiting in the Light’, which enabled them to gain ‘a sight of themselves’; to wake up to who they really were. This enabled them to see the world without illusion, deceit or pretence, and to recognise the presence of the Light within each person. The ‘Unity in the Light’ which results from this shared experience of awakening is not a ‘unity of opinion’, but a sense of communion based on acceptance of themselves and of other people as they are.
In the final session Beth Allen responded to some disquiet from Friends about our seeming inability to find common statements of faith with the reminder that ‘we are not a People of the Book’. We do not put our confidence in structures and statements, but in a shared practice – ‘a way of worship that teaches and transforms us’. Alex Wildwood also drew our attention to the contribution that Quaker spirituality has to offer in the rapidly escalating ecological and economic crisis that we are beginning to live through, if we can rediscover its prophetic power to reshape lives and communities.
One of the strongest messages from many contributors to the conference was the need for Friends to talk more openly about our beliefs and our experiences; not to sidestep our differences in the convenient silence of Quaker worship. Quaker Life is planning to help with this process by producing a study pack for use by Local Meetings to use in exploring our Quaker identity.