Tuesday, 7 August 2012

On being a Quaker and Quakerism

'Quakerism' in the normal sense of such words ending in '-ism', is an ideology – a way of thinking about the world and ourselves in it. It is something that can be read about in books, and taught in classrooms. But how do you go about teaching silence, no creeds and no dogmas? This is maybe why liberal Quakers get stuck saying that 'Quakerism' can only be 'caught not taught'.

It seems to me that most Quakers, like most white liberal westerners, are idealists first and Quakers second. In the same way that 19th century Quakers swallowed the prevailing religious ideology of evangelicalism and began to put scriptures ahead of personal revelation, so 20th century Quakers have swallowed prevailing secular idealism and put thinking ahead of action.

This can be seen in different approaches to the peace testimony. In the mind of the idealist, the peace testimony becomes pacifism, an ideal of Quakerism, but in the hands of the practitioner, the peace testimony is about enabling positive relationships in a complex and difficult world.

Being a Quaker is actually about possessing a set of skills to enable practical action in the world, especially in working out relationships in the world. Skills, unlike ideas, cannot be taught in classrooms. Consider a practical skill such as joinery. There is no such thing as 'Joinerism' that you might be able to get an MA in. Instead you serve an apprenticeship and are recognised by your peers and master joiners as being a 'Journeyman' – able to go from place to place practising your skills and commanding a day's wages for them.

Skills though, are not 'caught' – but they are taught in different ways, as the demands of a proper apprenticeship make manifestly clear. Richard Sennett in his book 'The Craftsman' suggests ways of teaching that avoid the rigidity of fixed rules and working practices – for us creeds and dogmas. He says that instruction must be expressive – 'show, don't tell'. Possible teaching tools, he suggests, are sympathetic illustration, narrative description and use of metaphor.

All demand an active relationship over an extended period. It is not enough to hand out a pamphlet or suggest a reading list – in fact these approaches can send the newcomer down entirely the wrong path, perhaps illustrated by confusion over trying to discover what Quakers believe, when what is needed is to discover how Quakers live – by practising it.

Perhaps this distinction between ideals and skills is most starkly seen in learning how Quakers make decisions – what we call discernment.  In Leonard Joy's submission, from Pacific Yearly Meeting, to the Co-Intelligence Institute (http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-QuakerCI.html), he enumerates 19 practices essential to Quaker decision making. If we think in terms of the 'Quaker Business Method', then these 19 principles have to be learnt in the manner of a catechism, and we have become no different from other religions with their catechisms and prayer books.

Quaker discernment should be viewed as a set of skills, and Joy's 19 practices can then be seen as a 'tool-box', and we need to develop the skills to use the tools effectively. However, Richard Sennett makes the point that tools are not rigid devices only 'fit for purpose', but rather, for the craftsperson, a tool is a dynamic extension of their hands and bodies to enable effective work in varied and demanding situations.

If Quakers are to succeed in the 21st century, and not fall into another idealistic trap to follow Quietism, Evangelicalism and Liberalism, we must first realise that our way is about practice, about living and relating well in the world. Let your lives speak.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012


I have just got back from a weekend 'threshing event' at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, discussing the prospects for a renewal of British Quakerism for the 21st Century. Many see this process of growing our spiritual vitality and reaching out to newcomers as already underway, and perhaps signalling a 'transition moment' when the Quaker Way finds a new resonance with the needs of the wider society.

I have written a fuller discussion of the themes of the weekend on Nayler.org here (Nayler is a free online magazine for British Quakers to share their experience along the Quaker way with each other and with newcomers).

The full text of the epistle from the 'Whoosh' event is below:

To all Friends in Britain,

We are 57 Quakers who have gathered at Woodbrooke for the Quaker Life threshing event ‘Whoosh!’  – united by our determination to energise the Religious Society of Friends in Britain, and to help it build on the vitality of the past and present to create fresh fizz and purpose for the future.
We discern a growing confidence within the Religious Society of Friends that our experience-based religion is increasingly what many people are looking for.

Growing numbers of people have rejected all claims to absolute truth, but are hungry for a path of personal and social transformation. This could be a ‘transition moment’ for British Quakers, as we discover a new radicalism in response to turbulent times.

We have been reminded that at the end of the 17th Century Quakers made up 1% of the British population – the equivalent of 600,000 members today. We are convinced that the UK would be a better place with 600,000 Quakers in it.

Our Meetings are facing many challenges from a changing world and the pressure of Quaker business. We need to give ourselves permission to think positively, so that we can recognise our gifts and potential, and be open to transformation.

We have been asked to consider which parts of our lives bring us closer to God. We share a desire to build joyful communities, places that help us live faithfully, and recognise that vibrant Meetings are a channel for God’s love. Should we be more rigorous in testing what we gain from our Quaker roles, being ready to spring-clean our structures when they are not helping us?

How can we use our premises to renew our sense of purpose and reach out to the people who live and work around us?

Do we have the courage to speak with passion and conviction about our spiritual lives? Can we acquire the confidence to find our own words to express the ways in which we understand the divine? Can we encourage others as they reach for the language that is right for them?

How can we share our collective experience and wisdom with and between Meetings? How can we become learning communities, which recognise and foster each others’ gifts?
This conference has been characterised by a clear affirmation of the need for growth, vibrancy and the enrichment of faithful lives. We acknowledge our need for experimentation and openness to change.

We have been inspired by the observation that ‘Quakers are ready to take off’, and by the insight that we do not do this only in our own strength. We ask all Friends to consider how we are led to respond to this challenge to participate in realising God’s purposes for our Society in these times, when a confident Quaker voice is needed more than ever.

Signed in an on behalf of the Whoosh! conference

Paul Parker & Helen Rowlands