Thursday, 27 August 2009

Quakers in Transition

The Friends Quarterly has recently launched an essay competition on 'The Future of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain'. This is a subject I have been thinking about a lot, especially in relation to the Transition movement, and I would like to ask for your help in working out some of these ideas by reading and responding to my 'work in progress'; part 1 of which is below. Any comments, suggestions or questions much appreciated.

We are living in extraordinary times. A combination of climate change, energy crisis and resource shortages are undermining the industrial civilization that has dominated the globe for the last two centuries.

The questions and struggles of British Quakers over the coming decades will not be those of the past. The most pressing and controversial issues will no longer be about our relationship to our Christian and theist roots, or the challenges of pluralism and secularism. These were the debates of the age of globalization, that effectively ended with the financial collapse of 2007/8.

The debates of the age of the ‘long descent’ will be quite different. How do we prepare for a future of diminishing energy resources and a contracting economy? What aspects of our religious tradition need to be revived or transformed to meet the needs of the future? What ways of life, habits of thought, practical skills and spiritual practices can sustain us and our children through the profound changes that we are facing?

This is not a perspective that comes easily to British Friends, and it may turn out to be exaggeratedly pessimistic. It is certainly unrealistic, however, to expect the next few decades to continue on the same trajectory of accelerating economic growth and energy consumption that we have lived through since the 1950s.

The usually unacknowledged basis of much of the prosperity of the late 20th Century was cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy, chiefly oil. Just as Britain’s Industrial Revolution was powered by coal, it was the cheap and ever-increasing supply of oil that fuelled the last century’s massive expansions in industrial capacity and technology, first in the USA, and then throughout much of the world.

However, the physical limits to oil production are well-established. Once the cheapest and easiest to reach oil deposits are extracted, production first plateaus and then goes into an irreversible decline, as each remaining barrel of oil requires more energy and expense to extract. This pattern has already repeated itself over most of the world’s 800 major oilfields (including the North Sea). It is also a pattern that applies to the world as a whole, in which oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s, and oil production will inexorably follow it. The International Energy Agency, official energy policy advisor to the main Western governments, has recently predicted a peak in world oil production by 2020, with a global ‘oil crunch’ sufficient to prevent economic recovery from the current recession within the next five years (The Independent, 3rd August 2009).

These hard facts of resource depletion and energy scarcity have far-reaching consequences for a civilization that has been built on the necessity of ever-increasing consumption. A prolonged period of economic contraction with spiralling energy, food and fuel costs; at the same time as climate change is blighting much of the world’s food producing capacity, will have deep political, social, cultural and spiritual effects as well as economic ones.

How will these global shifts affect our society, our economy and our own lives and neighbourhoods? How will they re-order our priorities and concerns as a religious community? And what resources and relationships will we have to draw on to guide and support us?


Peter Lawless said...

Interesting blog Craig. One of the issues it brings to mind for me is the long curve model of development based around the work of Kondratiev which sees development as a series of S curves based around changes of the type of power used. I don't know the work in detail but the version I was introduced to in the late 1980's has the 1st Industrial Revolution based around water power hence the growth of cotton mills etc. near water to be followed by coal which allowed steam to become the dominating force which created growth of heavy, steam powered industry.
In the late 20th century electricity and the growth of the electronics industry became significant but as you point out the use of fossil fuels, especially to create electricity has beome extremely problematic - along with the use of oil for transport, plastics, fertilisers etc..
A major re-think is needed around the world and as I used to try to explain to my strategy students this and coming generations must expect less than previous generations in the developed world which is a major reversal of how things have been for a number of generations now. In addition to this however are the issues thrown up by the developing world who are aspiring to those standards of living which have been enjoyed by the developed world so far. A very difficult equation to get right if I may use that image here.
Tomorrow always seems to arrive before today is over and it is here now but many seem blind to it.
We certainly are in the period of acting locally and thinking globally but there is also a need to act globally and whilst world leaders appear to acknowledge this when gather at conferences as politicians I feel, and fear, that few will actually govern in a manner which is required. We must forget the words of Thoreau to the effect that 'that governs best which governs least' because strong government is needed but not in a manner which is a form of dictatorship but one which communicates the facts in a way which engenders concensus not adversity.
The social divide in the UK is such that it is greater than that of the late 19th century. Yes the outwards signs of 19th century poverty have been removed but that does not mean that it has been eradicated.
A radical re-think of all aspects of life is needed and it is here that I believe the religious/spiritual element comes in because if we are to consider these issues we must take a holistic perspective. I am aware of my short-comings in these matters. I could do more and these are part of the changes I must make and hopefully will make. I do have part of a plank in my eye I know but that could be the force for movement.
Thank you for all you have done in creating this blog.
In Friendship

Simon Heywood said...


Great post. I don't know if you saw my "Age of Simplicity?" post - it's fallen down the list a bit, so here it is again. I think it's possibly time for Quakers to think and act in such a way that future generations will think of Quakers as "Oh, they're all about Simplicity, aren't they?" in the same way that people currently have vague ideas about Quakers as Those Peaceniks or Those Anti-Slavery Agitators of Days Gone By. The future will perhaps require us to bear our testimony in such a way that Simplicity might come to replace these other testimonies in the general, non-Quaker consciousness as the second thing everyone thinks of when Quakers are mentioned (since the first thing, of course, will always be porridge!). As with equality and peace, we will have to go through a period of possibly uncomfortable internal threshing and putting our house in order before we can bear this testimony to the world. But I think it's the task the future is requiring of us. I also think it would do us a power of good to have something like this to take on and it is pretty much at the heart of the matter in terms of the testimonies and the way in which we have borne them over the centuries. It is something which all the various 'flavours' of Quakers can justify and defend with equal authenticity within their own 'theological' terms. Liberal Quaking is practically an eco-spirituality by design - no need to labour that point. What fascinates me is how amenable traditional Christian spirituality is to the same thing - did we but notice. I've been unsystematically collecting 'proto-green' and 'proto-low-impact-lifestyle' references in trad/Christian Quaking: in reverse chronological order: Penn's attack on worldly vanities in 'No Cross No Crown' is spookily justified with reference to the moral consequences of overconsumption in terms of waste, poverty, etc.; George Fox's Journal refers from the outset to 'using the creatures in their service ... to the glory of him that created them;' like the rest of the Valiant Sixty generation of Quakers, Fox and Nayler unselfconsciously enacted wild elements in their own lives of witness, in that they stopped being productive accumulators and consumers, inhabited wild places (like Pendle Hill and Morecambe Bay), and cultivated a wild appearance (old leather breeches, shaggy shaggy locks - the conventional picture of George on his travels would almost recall a Wild Man except perhaps that there's no mention of the colour green in it).

Simon Heywood said...

All this was done in inspired but apparently conscious imitation of Biblical models, and the Bible in turn sometimes looks to me like a sustained essay in rewilding the urban/agrarian Bronze Age middle east, courtesy of a succession of pioneering re-creators of low-consumption, low- or non-accumulating, foraging/nomadic lifestyles, such as Jesus (Live by the day and don't provide for tomorrow - how wild is that!), John the Baptist (locusts, wild honey, the Jordan - an area apparently off the beaten track at the time), Elisha (with his ravens, hanging out in the desert) and the prophets, the Rechabites (lived in tents, didn't drink, maintained the nomadic pastoralism of ancient Israel and were the only Hebrews justified when the Assyrians and Babylonians came to visit God's vengeance on all those who had been dabbling in worldly evils like agriculture, urbanisation, architecture, monarchy, and the centralised state), Abraham, and Adam and Eve before the Fall. Ultimately, it all goes back to a God who is a God of the wild - the deserts and mountains - and only later and in a secondary sense an urban/temple-based God, and never, apparently, a God of cultivated ground, in the sense that no-one in the Bible ever seems to have a major theophany on a farm (except Gideon maybe?). The Bible is arguably a narrative of Wild Monotheism, and, taken from this viewpoint, the traditional churchy preoccupation with subduing the earth and maintaining human dominion over nature begins to look like one more Constantinian foul-up to add to the collection.

Anyway I am a bit tired and clearly lapsing into habitual soundbiting and overstatement, so I'll have to refine all these thoughts later, but it's just to note the general outlines of the point. Here's the previous post.

Simon Heywood said...

"I've been thinking for a while that there's something very significant in the relationship between Quakers and climate change, which maybe we're not responding fully to.

The missing piece in the jigsaw regarding humanity's response to climate change is the absence of a mass movement of the general public forcing/enabling the centres of power to take the action needed.

Quakers have always emphasised different testimonies in response to the challenges of the times. We prioritised equality when slavery was the issue. We prioritised peace when world war was the issue. Now the urgent issue is one of overconsumption, so maybe it's time for us to prioritise simplicity. In terms of Quaker history, maybe the Age of Equality and the Age of Peace need to make way for an Age of Simplicity.

In order to uphold these testimonies, Quakers had to go through an often trying period of internal discernment and threshing. Once that was done, we became united, active, and vocal enough in the world outside to contribute to the change which occurred. This had benefits for us as a worshipping community and obviously it also did good in the world at large. It's good for us spiritually as a community to have a real challenge to face, and we do most good in the world when we face it.

So maybe we need to become a people campaigning for simplicity in the way we have been a people campaigning for peace or equality. I see the beginnings of this among Quakers at the moment, but maybe we could/should go further?

I might write at more length on this when I get time."

Gerard Guiton said...

I wish to respond to the letter posted by our Friend Craig.
However, I trust what I say will have generic application.

The first Friends, for all their bluster, replaced the then current version of 'Churchianity' with what the Church at large had neglected 'since the dayes of the apostles'--the Sermon on the Mount, the Kingdom of God. They reversed the Pauline emphasis on Jesus as Lord and Saviour with Jesus' central Concern, the Kingdom.

The Sermon can be found in Mt. 5-7, probably the most subversive literature in human history. It advocates true revolution of nonviolence and compassion.

About 90% of early Quaker tracts, especially those published between 1652-1663, focused on the Rule of Love. Their outward expression of this inward Christ (i.e. Light)-filled understanding, their orthopraxis so to speak, was called the Lamb's War which included what today we call 'social justice'. It was not a movement for social justice in itself but one for 'salvation'. When we hear the word' salvation' we Quakers often get the wrong end of the stick (the one brandished by the wider Church); by 'salvation' the first Friends meant 'wholeness', 'unity in God' of which their Meetings were to be exemplars.

This understanding of the Rule of Love(and its Lamb's War) was a direct challenge to the political-military-ecclesiastical establishment of their day. The response, as we know, was often lethal.

And it remains a huge challenge to Caesar today, to his various empires. But modern Friends are in danger of failing to grasp this reality in their zeal for secularisation, for their 'throw-baby-out-with-the-bathwater' disdain for what they believe is 'Christianity' (actually a contemporary version of 'Churchianity').

One consequence of this is that followers of the Jesus Way within the Society are being gradually marginalised. And one aspect of this is the labelling they receive. For instance, we often hear in conversations such pejoratives as 'Christocentric', 'fundamentalist'. Not only is such labelling insulting but it is historically and theologically inaccurate. 'Christocentric' in today's Quakerspeak presupposes a 'born-again mentality', 'taking Jesus into one's heart' - states beloved of Christian evangelicals, the Christian Right or both. It presupposes that Jesus was the Christ, God. But the early Quakers, as I have discovered from studying their works for 20 years, sought the Christ that was in Jesus, the same Christ (Spirit) that was 'before Jesus was'. For Isaac Penington Jr. and others, the body of Jesus was the 'garment' of the Spirit within what some theologians call the 'historical Jesus'. Careful reading of the early and later Fox reveals the same thinking.

As for 'fundamentalist', I think the above explanation dispels such an accusation.

Early Quaker theology was dynamic and revolutionary. Study of it today will reveal the same for our times. Their orthopraxis lies at the heart of today's Quaker Testimonies, today's new Lamb's War if you like, if only modern Friends were truly aware of it. It remains the UNDERPINNING of all our social justice Concerns, including our work for peace and a sustainable world.

But we need to understand the vital importance of the Rule of Love and the Sermon for the continued working of our beloved Society lest we continue on the secular road to the dystopia Craig so prophetically envisages.

Finally, early Quaker theology is actually illuminating not deadening. Today it can provide--since it is based squarely on the Rule of Love as enunciated by Jesus the Jewish sage--a coherent theology that seekers will find attractive, meaningful, purposive and challenging, one that will 'speak to their condition'.

Yours in Friendship,

Gerard Guiton
Australia YM

Craig Barnett said...

Peter – thanks for this, and for Kondratiev reference, which I will look up.

Simon – I think the kind of shift within the Quakers that you are suggesting is close to the vision of the 'Living Witness' project, which is encouraging local Quaker communities to act collectively to embody the kind of lifestyle change that is needed for carbon reduction.
The great challenge for this vision is how willing all of us are to embrace the kind of self-discipline involved in a genuine commitment to a testimony to simplicity. Certainly discipline was once something that Quakers were pretty used to, but I'm not sure it's a very striking feature of contemporary Friends' lives (my own included).
I do think that rediscovering a culture and spiritually that acknowledges genuine ecological and economic limits has to be a feature of any more sustainable society (and Society). I suspect that we will all have to start learning to practice more disciplined lives rather before we are quite ready to, either through energy-constrained economic decline, carbon rationing or both.

Gerard – many thanks for this beautiful articulation of Quaker spirituality. There seem to be many British Friends and regular attenders who have never encountered the distinctive spirituality of the Quaker Way, which is extraordinary given the power and beauty of this message.

Unknown said...

Craig and Simon,

You may like to know that I have very recently completed a new book which I've provisionally entitled, 'The Way of Revolution: The Early Quakers, the Kingdom of God and the Future of Quakerism'. It'll be ready for the publishers pretty soon and should, hopefully, be available sometime next year.

I addressed the work in a paper delivered to the Quaker Theological Discussion Group in Ohio in June, sharing the podium with Ben Pink Dandelion, Doug Gwyn, Canby Jones, Paul Anderson etc. The result should be published in the QTDG's journal, 'Quaker Religious Thought' sooner than the book. So keep an eye open for it.

There is a wind of change blowing through the Society. I detect this as I travel around Quakerdom. It is a mere zephyr at the moment but contributions and thinking such as yours contribute to its growing strength. We must take heart.

One of the things that keeps me alive to the core beliefs of our Religious Society is a little joke I tell myself in these postmodern times in the form of a query: 'what is 'post-' about the Sermon on the Mount?'

Interestingly, in their very rapidly changing (and horrific mid-17th C) times, our Quaker forebears suggested the same in a different way: the Kingdom, they said, was 'from everlasting to everlasting'. They came to this understanding through their Gospel reading to be sure. BUT they came to live it in their 'flesh and bone' because it emerged from their own experience.

May I recommend an early Quaker work? It is Francis Howgill's 'The Mysteries of God's Kingdom Declared' (1658): you only need to read the last section on 'What the kingdom is'. Beautiful writing from a saintly man.

I hope to be in the UK at the end of the year. I would like to meet with you both and maybe offer one of my workshops on the Kingdom of God (the Rule of Love) to the Meeting. It'll be the same one I will be giving at the new Australian Quaker Centre which is starting up in October (we're all very excited about it. Check it out on the web).

Blessings to you both,

In Friendship,

Gerard Guiton (yes, Derek Guiton's brother!)

Simon Heywood said...

Dear Friends

Many thanks for these posts which I have just caught up on.

Craig: Thanks for the pointer to Living Witness, I shall certainly follow it up.

Gerard: I've sent Derek some dates for a possible meet-up and know at least one other Friend in Scholes, but I'm not sure whether any result would coincide with your visit - it sounds like it might.

Alice Y. said...

Thanks so much for this post Craig! (Thanks to the authors of the helpful comments too.)

Breath of fresh air! Too often I feel like I am living in a different reality than many of the other Friends I encounter and this seems to resonate with exactly why: I understand it to be by God's grace but as I pray and learn God's way I seem to dwell much more in a radical christian community understanding of the Quaker way which belongs to a time beyond the present oil surplus.

The vision of God's kingdom, the city of God and so on beckon us onwards to a realm where peace and justice reign.