Friday, 23 July 2010

Who We Are and What We Do

The Interim Report of the Review Group for Sufferings and Britain Yearly Meeting Trustees has just been presented to Meeting for Sufferings for feedback from Area and Local Meetings. Buried in the linear propositional logic of the 'management speak' of this document is, I believe, an attempt to evolve the relationship between 'Who We Are' and 'What We Do'. However, this way of speaking cannot even begin to capture the dynamic and living mutuality of such a relationship.

It is at the heart of our identity as Quakers. For we are not just a religious group, silently contemplating the nature of reality, nor are we just a society campaigning for peace, justice and equality. No, we are a religious society – What we do is for who we are, and who we are is through what we do. This relationship is at the heart of the nature of our testimonies. They are not ideological statements or political positions, but illustrate the essential nature of that part of the dynamic: Who We Are is through What We Do.

But how do we go about the other half of the dynamic: What We Do is for Who We Are? The great danger of the approach of using 'management speak' is that you can easily lose the dynamic significance of the relationship. We become mere ants in a nest or bees in a hive busying ourselves for some treasured ideal to be achieved in some utopian future.

The full richness of the relationship can only be expressed through poetry and metaphor when using language, or through images and art. I therefore tentatively offer an incomplete diagram of the various groups in BYM and the relationships between them.

I suggest that each pair of relationships, the mutual to-ing and fro-ing between groups, can be illustrated by a single word or a simple image. The word or image does not define the relationship, but rather acts as a pointer to enable us to see the dynamic of the relationship, expressed in body mind and soul as we participate in it. I invite you to fill in the words and images and I have provided a few words to get you started.

The formulation of the relationship between what we do and who we are: 'What we do is for who we are, and who we are is through what we do' is from the work of the Quaker philosopher John Macmurray. He originally stated it as 'The functional life is for the personal life; the personal life is through the functional life.' in 'Persons and Functions', four talks on the interrelation of the religious and the political aspects of social life, delivered on BBC radio in December 1941. He also stated it as 'The state is for the community; the community is through the state' later in the same talks, describing the necessary and proper relationship between the structures of government and people living in communities. Macmurray explored what it is to be a person, especially in relation to the world and other persons. The titles of his major works: “The Self as Agent” - i.e. what we do is more important and prior to what we think, and “Persons in Relation” - we are only truly persons in so far as we are in relationships, in many ways sums up his philosophical position. You can find out more at


Laura Kerr said...

Why are these kind of Quaker documents so indigestible? I struggled through, with difficulty, yet conscious that the authors were trying to make it accessible and clear! What on earth do newly joined Members, or attenders considering membership make of these discussion?

Craig Barnett said...

Thanks for bringing this to our attention Gordon. Looking at your diagram, I found it interesting that I recognise what the bodies on the 'who we are' side are about, while I am much more vague about the role of those on the 'what we do' side. Is this significant? or maybe just ignorance?