One of the great virtues of Quaker practice is that it makes a clear distinction between persons and what they do. It is refreshing to not be defined by what one does, and equally refreshing to discover by accident what others do or have done.
This practice is built into our structure. Meetings have clerks and convenors, not chairpersons. Minutes are agreed by all present, not by an executive. Persons are nominated to a task, they do not apply or get voted in. The need for tasks is discerned, and laid down when no longer required.
However, this is very hard to interpret in the world or even to one another. When one does things, results are evident (or not if done badly). We like to find out who made such and such a decision, who authorised this or that. We want responsibility to rest with individuals, so we can call them to account. But in a Quaker meeting, all our accountable, concerns are turned into action by the whole meeting.
Thus we achieve the primacy of the personal over the functional. I am a member of a community, not a functionary in an organisation. I am not a member of a society, I belong to a community. ‘Membership’ is an outward sign, and has no significance in the community. It is akin to ‘marriage’, where the ‘piece of paper’ only means something to the tax inspector.
George Fox saw vividly the failure of the church in his day. It had become an organisation. His genius was to set up the Society of Friends (of Truth) to make it very difficult for us to suffer the same corruption.
‘… it is salutary to remember that all of us can fall into apostasy if we lose our sense of the pre-eminence of the inward truth over the outward order in which it is embodied and expressed.’ (from Britain Yearly Meeting Quaker submission to World Council of Churches on the Nature and Mission of the Church, MfS 2008).
So now our Yearly Meeting Recording Clerk can be known as a CEO (Chief Executive Officer). I for one will be very nervous about attending a business meeting where the person at the table cannot tell the difference between clerking and executing.
For the difference is categorical.
We needs must *do* things to at least get our daily bread, but we do these things in order to make space for us to *be* persons in community. The Yearly Meeting should be the ultimate expression of British Quakers *being* together.
When I talk to people about Quakers and how they do business, I make it very very clear indeed that the conventional model of chairperson and or executive is completely invalid. We have these seemingly anachronistic words for our key activities precisely for this reason – they are only anachronistic by dint of minority usage.
I highlighted this same category error in an earlier blog in response to the Long term Framework questionnaire (http://sheffieldquakers.blogspot.com/2007/12/politics-and-community.html).
If there is not a word for something, it does not exist. Ask the Inuit about snow. If we stop using special words for our almost unique way of coming together, we will quickly slip into just doing things the same way as everyone else. The pearl of great price will have been trampled on by swine.
Phew! I managed all the above without using religious or spiritual language. Just two biblical allusions for the cognoscenti to spot. This was deliberate. If we dispense with spiritual and religious language we will be even more lost. For religious and spiritual language *describe* something categorically different: Community and being. Persons distinct from functions. Friendship and love. Community and being does not result in something concrete that can be demonstrated, so we have worship and celebration and ritual and we needs must talk of sin and redemption and atonement and forgiveness and immanence and transcendence and…and…, for these are the characteristics of beings in community.
Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts As we have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.
For only then will the kingdom come.
The title of this blog, “Persons and Functions” is the title of a series of BBC radio broadcast talks by the moral philosopher and (at the end of his life) Quaker, John Macmurray, published in The Listener, 26 (1941) pp. 759; 787; 822; 856. Macmurray, like C.S. Lewis in ‘The Abolition of Man’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Abolition_of_Man; full text here: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition1.htm) saw more clearly than I ever can the truth of the error I have attempted to point out.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Friend of 26 September 2008
What a long way we’ve come since To Lima with Love (our last public response to the World Council of Churches in 1986, many quotations from which are to be found in Quaker Faith and Practice).
When I read the Quaker Committee on Church and Interfaith Relations’ (CCIR) Introduction to the Nature and Mission of the Church, I felt concerned that many Quakers today would be alienated by its Christian language. Yet it lies within the Quaker tradition, reaffirming so many of those radical seventeenth century insights which were my main reason for becoming a member. It is designed to send some powerful yet loving challenges to Christians everywhere.
This polarisation was expressed by Friends at Meeting for Sufferings, as some found this paper unacceptable both to themselves and to their Meetings, and others recognised the authentic challenge of true Christianity which it sends to other Churches. One Friend remarked that we appear to be treating the Christian tradition more harshly than we do other religious groups. Perhaps our desire to welcome refugees from other churches adds to this, and it feels good when people express their delight at ‘coming home’ and ‘feeling comfortable’; and yet….
‘Unprogrammed Friends’ worship may seem to be a time for uplifting reverie, for cultivating inspirational thoughts and pleasantly soothing reflections. Quaker worship then appears in the guise of a subdued escape into an attractive fantasy world. However pleasant (and however widespread) such a use of the silence may be, it is surely not what Fox and other early Quakers intended, not what ‘waiting upon the Lord’ is about.’
This quotation comes from a Pendle Hill pamphlet I discovered in the bookshop during the lunchbreak: A Quaker in the Zendo by Steve Smith.
When I applied for membership, I also felt I had come home. However as time went on, I realised that I needed to develop further spiritually. Steve Smith found what he needed through Zen, as I did through the discomforting satisfaction of deep Yogic meditation. Like him, I found that by working within a different tradition I could come close to what early Friends describe as true spiritual experience. What I had been searching for had been there all along at the heart of the Quaker way, but obscured by a number of factors: the polite and well-intentioned desire not to offend; an emphasis on peace and social activism without an explicit connection to its spiritual basis; the intellectual debt to secular humanism; and above all the reticence about inner spiritual experience among modern Quakers.
There was passion on both sides at this Meeting for Sufferings. I think this issue is at the heart of our Religious Society of Friends, and Janet Scott expressed this clearly in the challenge of her closing words. Are we working from our own individual intellects and egos, or are we reaching down into the depths where uncomfortable truths become visible to us, where we have to engage and struggle with the discomforting workings of the Spirit of God? Where through accepting our personal challenge to be transformed, we can hope to find true unity as a community?
I think that the distance we have moved since To Lima with Love has taken many Quakers away from the paradox of Quaker worship: the discomforting – but also strangely comforting – experience Penington puts so well:
‘Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee…’
Might an instant negative reaction to Christian language, to the teachings of Jesus however profound (and strangely similar to those of Thich Nhat Hanh and the current Dalai Lama), be a way of avoiding engagement with the experiential spirituality at the heart of being Quaker? We are so used to hearing Christian language spoken through the prism of right-wing fundamentalism that we are in danger of missing the universal truth of its teachings. The richness and relevance of our Quaker Christian roots provides our counter to right-wing, fundamentalist Christians who claim validity for the unequal, unpeaceful rhetoric that informs so many of their actions. This is a thoroughly Quaker struggle to establish the truth as it lives in and for us today. Each of us needs to see through the thick settled dust of interpretations which belong to previous generations, and the smokescreens erected by the world we live in. We need to find the truth within our own tradition which speaks to our present day. What Margaret Fell experienced when she first heard Fox preaching speaks to me today:
‘I saw clearly that we were all wrong. So I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves…’
I am glad that our first priority in the new Quaker Framework is to ‘strengthen the spiritual roots in our meetings and in ourselves…from which action can spring’. All our other priorities flow from this. I hope that Meetings throughout the country will share worship on this, and that Meeting for Sufferings will have time to devote another day to it.
If we don’t find the words to speak to other Christians, who else will? If we can’t unite in the profound experience and challenge of Quaker worship, where else is our unity?
Craig Barnett looks back on changes in the Society of Friends over the last two decades.
With hindsight, the name-change of 2015 from 'Religious' Society of Friends to the more universal 'Society of Friends', was perhaps a significant turning point for British Quakers. Alongside our new Mission Statement; 'to be a modern and progressive organisation, promoting ethical lifestyle choices and social reform', it was intended to revitalise our dwindling local Meetings. However these long-debated changes failed to produce the influx of new members we had hoped for. They contributed instead to the formation of several breakaway groups, including 'New Quakers' (formerly Young Friends General Meeting), and the 'spiritual realists' or 'Friends in the Spirit'.
The continued rapid decline in local Meetings culminated in the landmark decision to reform the SoF as a dispersed network of autonomous groups and individuals, rather than a unified organisation. The last CEO of the Society accepted redundancy in 2024.
Friends House was sold 5 years ago, but Friends continue to be involved in its new role as an emergency hostel for climate refugees. It proved an essential refuge when hundreds of families were forced to take shelter there during the recent anti-refugee riots. London's City of Sanctuary teams have since been working hard at peacemaking in the affected areas and most families have now been able to return to their homes.
Friends have also played an important role in mediating at the recent 'Truth and Reconciliation' hearings, which have tried to resolve the bitter conflicts between young adults who came of age in the 2020s and older people of the so-called 'climate genocide generation'.
New Quakers have also been instrumental in securing prosecutions for climate negligence at the International Criminal Court against former Prime Ministers Blair, Brown and Cameron. Continuing legal delays and the infirmity of the defendants mean that these cases seem unlikely to reach a successful conclusion.
With hindsight, the series of financial, energy, food and climate crises that started to unravel Britain's 'age of greed' after the crash of 2008, should have been a clear signal of the drastic changes that were necessary, long before they were eventually imposed by the emergency government of 2020. Those of us who remember those times now find it difficult to account for the strange inertia that gripped British Quakers in the days when they could still have helped to avert the worst of the current climate chaos.
We are are now justly proud of the Quaker Meetings that did become early supporters of local Transition Initiatives, which have been such an important factor in Britain's conversion to a low-energy society. Woodbrooke has also won several Transition Awards for its role in re-training unemployed Friends and other Birmingham residents in the practical skills that are in such high demand in our modern, localised economy.
More recently, there have been unexpected signs that our new slower-paced and community-scale society is encouraging the growth of many small groups of 'spiritual seekers'. Some of these groups are starting to draw on quaint-sounding Quaker practices that the SoF has long abandoned, such as 'silent Worship' (forerunner of our modern 'Quiet Time'), and even 'discerning leadings'. (No-one in the office was able to tell me what this means, but according to Wikipedia it was some kind of pre-modern risk assessment.)
Our next e-bulletin should be available in December, carbon credits permitting.