Monday, 16 December 2013

Values and principles

Margaret Fell famously reports George Fox as saying:
“You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?” (1694)
Increasingly today amongst Quakers we don't know what Christ said, and hardly know who the apostles were. Instead, today, we might be told:
“You tell us about the Peace Testimony, and also about testimonies to truth and integrity, equality and simplicity, and even to sustainability, but what can you tell?”
The Britain Yearly Meeting website (, and the associated printed pamphlet, tell us that putting “faith into practice ... arises from an understanding of certain values and principles which are central to the Quaker faith.” , and this under the sub heading 'Our Beliefs'.

So why do we meet in silence, if all we have to do is understand and believe in the testimonies? Are we just having a time of pleasant contemplation on a Sunday morning? Why don't we just join some campaigning group or other that works out these testimonies in practice? Or when all is told are we in fact really just one of these political campaigning groups that happens to add some weird stuff on Sundays?

Our ancestors believed in gods and monsters, and priests and kings. And George Fox told us not to trust in them, but to search for the truth within, the light, the seed. Today we believe in values and principles, rights and ideals. We think that we are enlightened and have found the truth, and have forgotten that the truth can only be found within.

Our testimonies are not values and principles, and certainly not beliefs, but merely 'what we can say' about our lives. Yes there is one truth, which is why what we testify behind our concerns remains essentially the same down the ages, but that truth has to be discovered and worked out for each one of us,  for each and every particular time and place, and for each and every concern. And it is this discovery that we witness to in our lives, not idealistic principles. This is why we wait in silence, expectantly believing that the truth is there to be found. This is all that we need to believe as Quakers – that the light is within, that the seed will grow.

The rest is commentary - go and wait in the silence.

Friday, 13 December 2013

National Canterbury Commitment gathering 2014

'Transforming ourselves: transforming the system'

Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire

7-9 March 2014

Organised by the Meeting for Sufferings Canterbury Commitment Group

In 2011 Britain Yearly Meeting in Canterbury committed to become a low-carbon, sustainable community. Friends and Meetings are doing an impressive amount to cut their carbon emissions, but some have been discouraged by lack of change in the wider social and economic system.
We need a radical transformation that requires more than individual action.This national gathering aims to help energise our Quaker community in the urgent response to climate change and energy injustice.
This is an opportunity to connect up change in our own lives and Meetings, with action in the wider community, to create the transition to a low-carbon sustainable society.
We hope that the gathering will be the first step in establishing an on-going network, and will help Meetings to prepare for the Yearly Meeting Gathering later in 2014. The gathering will be grounded in worship and deep reflection together and there will be opportunities to hear about the experiences of other Meetings, celebrate successes and explore the challenges and ask how we can best support each other. There will also be resources and ideas for action. And there will be time to ask where we are led now in our corporate commitment.
The event is particularly aimed at
  • Friends who have championed sustainability in their meetings or who would like to do so
  • Seasoned Friends experienced in eldership and oversight
  • Friends with experience of work under Concern in this or other areas
  • Friends who have experience of activism in this or other areas
Arrivals: 4-6pm Friday 7th March; Departures from 2pm Sunday 9th March.
The cost of attending this gathering is £180 (Area Meeting bursaries are available for attending Quaker events - contact your overseer for details).

Online booking form here

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Becoming a Low Carbon Sustainable Community

I realised some time ago that growing food to eat was an important part of moving towards a more sustainable, low carbon lifestyle. An allotment means I can spend joyful time outside, with my hands in the soil, looking over to Wincobank, with a wren, robin and frogs as my daily companions. I have read up about organic gardening, both in books and on websites, and plan a 4 plot rotation growing lots of different vegetable: onions, leeks, potatoes, peas, beans, spinach, chard, kale, cauliflower, parsnips, squash, courgettes and pumpkins. I also have fruit on my plot and we have bottled and frozen lots of it to eat over winter. :-)

Friday, 6 December 2013

Transition Towards Sustainability...

Over the last two years, I have been attending quaker meetings. During that time, many changes have occurred in my life, some inward and some more apparent. Attending quaker meetings has given me a new freedom – a central point in time and space (Sunday morning, James St. 10:30am) where I know that whatever is going on in my life, I am welcome to come, sit down and reflect. No-one is there with a big stick telling me how bad I am or what I ought be doing. There are many people struggling just like me to do the right thing, be the right person, or even ask themselves if there is such a thing. Each of us sitting in that meeting are seeking the “inward light” which early quakers called Christ, in hopes that we may see life more clearly in that light. One of the big changes which has happened gradually over the last two years is that I have become vegan. For almost a year or so, I was “mostly vegan” and wrestled with the idea of having to refuse an offer of food from someone who had cooked for me without knowing my preference. I felt as though by refusing their offer, I would in some way be rejecting their kindness or as if I was saying “these are not good enough for me.” I shared these concerns with a number of Friends along the way and was listened to and understood, without being judged or coerced one way or another. It seems that the important thing for quakers is that we are each seeking to bring forth that which is inside us. Since making the decision to be vegan, I have felt better physically and am confident that it is one of the biggest things I can do personally to reduce my ecological footprint but moreover, I've gained confidence in the process of answering a leading with a testimony of action. It's not a smugness, but there is a lightness – an increase of energy and enthusiasm. Like Thomas Ellwood in 1659 (see Quaker Faith & Practice 19:16), I can rejoice that I am no longer weighed down by the wrestle I was having.

I love the way that Friends encourage one another to seek the light within and grow closer towards it and each other.

Paul Newman.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A message from James Nayler

A message for David Cameron's government from 17th Century Quaker James Nayler:

God is against you, you covetous cruel oppressors who grind the faces of the poor and needy, taking your advantage of the necessities of the poor, falsifying the measures and using deceitful weights, speaking that by your commodities which is not true and so deceiving the simple, and hereby getting great estates in the world, laying house to house and land to land till there be no place for the poor; and when they are become poor through your deceits then you despise them and exalt yourselves above them, and forget that you are all made of one mould and one blood and must all appear before one judge, who is no respecter of persons, nor does he despise the poor; and what shall your riches avail you at that day when you must account how you have gotten them and whom you have oppressed?

James Nayler - A Discovery of the First Wisdom from Beneath and the Second Wisdom from Above, 1653

There is an interesting article about James Nayler by Stuart Masters here.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Real Religion

"When religion is real, it throws the centre of our interest and our action right outside ourselves. It is not about myself at all, or only incidentally and for a purpose that is not my own. It is about the world I live in and the part that I must play in it. It is not to serve my need but the need of the world through me. Real religion is not something that you possess but rather a power that lays hold of you and uses you in the service of a will that is greater than your own."

John Macmurray, 'Search for a Faith', 1945

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

A Testimony to Sustainability?

In 2011, British Quakers made the 'Canterbury Commitment' to become a low carbon sustainable community. This is an important landmark decision in these times as the evidence for possible runaway climate change gathers apace.

However, this commitment is often being framed as a new 'testimony'. Craig argues against this in his blog 'Actions not Principles - an introduction to the Quaker Testimonies'. But Blackheath Quakers have 'Quaker Sustainability Testimony' and in the USA, the SPICE formulation of our testimonies (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community Equality) has become SPICES with the addition of 'Stewardship' as reported in Friends Journal here.

But is 'Sustainability' a testimony in any spiritual sense? After all organisations such as Friends of The Earth and Greenpeace, and the Transition movement all testify to the same thing. And many Quakers are members of such groups, and many Meetings generously host them at their meeting houses. Craig mentions other testimonies: anti-slavery, temperance, anti-militarism and the practice of equal marriage. These too are testified to by all manner of political and social groups.

What we need is a distinct spiritual or religious testimony of our actions in the world when led by the spirit. If we just follow the spirit of the age, then we will just be like any other political pressure group, no matter how noble our aims. We are first and foremost a 'religious' society and we need to work out what that means and how it makes our witness distinctive, such that it adds to and deepens the political witness of those around us.

We have been here before, and right at the start of our witness: Margaret Fox berated our 'silly poor gospel' of being obsessed with how we dress and losing sight of the spiritual reason for plain dress. That reason was a witness to our testimony of equality, in a day when ostentatious dress was deliberately used to set people up against one another. The mistake, I believe, was to make 'plain dress' into a testimony when in fact it was a concern arising from equality and specific to the circumstances of the day. Such also is our concerns against slavery, for anti-miltarism and for equal marriage – all arise from our testimony of equality, and we look to the time when they will no longer be concerns.

With our very real concern for sustainability in the face of climate change and 'peak oil' we run the very dangerous risk, as Margaret Fox so presciently pointed out of
“minding altogether outward things, neglecting the inward work of Almighty God in our hearts, if we can but frame according to outward prescriptions and orders, and deny eating and drinking with our neighbours, in so much that poor Friends is mangled in their minds, that they know not what to do, for one Friend says one way, and another another”
Just the sort of thing that is happening in meetings across the country right now as Friends struggle with widely varying levels amongst each other of 'outward prescriptions' to being 'low carbon'.

So where then is the spiritual testimony that informs our concern about sustainability and underpins our 'Canterbury Commitment'? Part of the answer was brought out wonderfully in our recent Meeting for Worship for business where we asked of ourselves ‘How is God leading us towards becoming a low carbon, sustainable community?’, and there was deep ministry about paying attention to simplicity as our guiding principle.

But for me, simplicity does not fully capture the spiritual underpinning of what it means to me to be in a low carbon sustainable community. None of our testimonies as commonly formulated does so, such is the radical and novel place we find ourselves in as we cope with these newly revealed concerns. But I think that Quakers do have a unique and special voice for our times as we worry about the destruction we are wrecking on the planet, and that is that we believe that everything is equally sacred.

If everything is equally sacred then we certainly cannot 'have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth' (Genesis 1:28) as so much of  Christianity has it – at least until the recent past, and from which much of the destructiveness that has led to unavoidable climate change can be seen to have come from in the Christian West.

If everything is equally sacred then we can't even have 'stewardship' over the earth, as most thoughtful Christians would interpret the Genesis imperative, and so it would seem, do many Quakers. For to be a steward is to set oneself over and above something else, to treat the other as an object for our use, or even at best, our care. But if something is sacred then it demands our acceptance of it as it is and for itself – 'put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground' (Exodus 3:5). 

If everything is equally sacred, what does it mean to throw something away? To put stuff in landfill, or send it somewhere out of sight, where they have lax environmental legislation? Everything that passes through our hands comes from a sacred place and should go to a sacred place. If everything is sacred then there is no place for a rubbish heap.

If everything is equally sacred what does it mean to treat our technology as toys to be played with to indulge our crude pleasures? And then to discard them in favour of the latest model? If we considered technology to be equally sacred, we would use it with care and proper attention, learning it's fit and proper place, and discarding it if it violated equality and simplicity in our lives.

If everything is equally sacred how can we ever think of anything merely in terms of its money value? Money destroys the sacred by putting a barrier between us and any possibility of entering into a relationship with it. This is why 'the love of money is the root of all evil' (1 Timothy 6:10).

If everything is equally sacred how can we allow so much of our stuff to wear out and not be properly maintained and cared for and even passed on to future generations so they too can see them as sacred? We should mourn the loss of our goods to wear and tear and remember the good and useful life they had with us.

In a secular age when the spirit of the age is to turn everything into a commodity for our selfish use with no thought of the morrow, it is vital that we develop a testimony to the sacredness of everything. We have a rich past of this testimony in action, and we are in good company for much traditional non-western spirituality also testifies to everything being sacred.With equality and simplicity in particular we will then have a rich and deep spiritual witness, which overcomes guilt and despair and enables us to cheerfully and courageously challenge the unsustainable society we are in, both in our own lives and in political action for change.

And we can look forward to the day when we can lay down this concern because we will find ourselves living in a low carbon sustainable community. And discover then whither the will of God will lead our testimony.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Actions not Principles - an introduction to the Quaker Testimonies

The Quaker testimonies are often misunderstood as a list of values or principles that Friends are expected to agree with, and then try to put into practice. Until very recently, Quakers had a shared understanding of our testimonies as actions that testify to our experience of reality. The testimonies are not values, principles, ideals or beliefs. Our testimony is our behaviour, as it witnesses to the truth of reality that we have experienced for ourselves.

Early Friends were clear that having the right principles or beliefs was of no use to anyone, without a personal insight into the reality that underlies all religious language:

Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?"
(George Fox, quoted by Margaret Fell, 1694)

The focus of testimony for early Friends might seem surprising. George Fox's emphasis in his letters to early Quaker communities was above all on Friends' truthful use of language, and rejection of worldly customs and official religious practice.

Friends, keep at a word in all your dealings without oppression.
And keep to the sound language, thou to everyone.
And keep your testimony against the world's vain fashion.
And keep your testimony against the hireling priests, and their tithes, and maintenance.
And against the mass-houses, and the repairing of them.
And against the priest's and the world's joining in marriage.
And your testimony against swearing, and the world's corrupt manners.
And against all looseness, pleasures, and prophaneness whatsoever.
And against all the world's evil ways, vain worships, and religions, and to stand up for God's.”
(George Fox, Epistle 263, 1668)

These testimonies were specific challenges to the social hierarchies and oppressive State-Church institutions of 17th Century England. The 'sound language' included addressing everyone equally (as 'thou') regardless of their social position, refusing to use flattering honorific titles (such as 'Reverend', 'Your Honour' etc), refusing to swear oaths in court, and a commitment to absolute truthfulness and plain speaking, without social lies, exaggeration or equivocation.

Truthfulness was central for these early Quakers (one of their earliest names for themselves was the 'Friends of Truth'). For them, Truth was not an intellectual conviction, but an existential commitment to speaking and acting truthfully; refusing all participation in falsehood, and bearing witness ('testifying') to the reality of the world as they knew it in their own experience:

Early Friends testified to the truth that had changed them by living their lives on the basis of that truth. The reality of their life (and of human life) shone through in their lives because they were open to that reality and lived in harmony with it. Lives lived in the truth would then resonate with how other people lived their lives, and more specifically with the deep sense within them that they were not living well, not living rightly. When Friends spoke honestly and truthfully to people, when they dealt with them as they really were, without pretence or projection, when they met violence with nonviolence and hatred with love, people knew at some level they were being confronted with the truth, whether they liked it or not.”
(Rex Ambler, The Prophetic Message of Early Friends, and how it can be interpreted today - full text available here)

Many early Friends also arrived independently at the rejection of violence – 'fighting with outward weapons'. For most Friends, this was not based on belief in a universal principle that 'all violence is wrong' - they accepted the right of government to use violence to suppress evil-doers and maintain public order. Instead, the first Quakers experienced a series of 'openings' – spiritual experiences of insight, that progressively revealed to them their own motivations and compulsions, as well as their fundamental connection to other people, to the living world and to the underlying spiritual reality of God. Through these experiences, Friends were discovering that they could no longer participate in exploitation or violence against other human beings. They found themselves in that spiritual condition, the 'covenant of peace that was before the world was', which freed them from the delusions, ambition and hatred that led to violence, oppression and war. They recognised that while most people were still not living in this condition, there was still a need for the State to use force to maintain law and order. Their public testimony and mission was aimed at bringing all people into the same 'covenant of peace', which would gradually make violence and oppression impossible for everyone.

The important thing about all these aspects of Quaker Testimony was that they were specific actions, discerned in response to specific circumstances. This is why the actions that have been considered 'testimonies' by Quakers have constantly changed over time, in response to changing social conditions and the new discernment of Friends. Some early testimonies have been abandoned, such as the testimony against music and the arts, which was originally a rejection of Restoration England's decadent aristocratic culture. New testimonies have also emerged in the areas of anti-slavery, temperance, anti-militarism, and most recently the commitment to become a sustainable, low-carbon community, and the practice of equal marriage.

It is only very recently that the concrete acts of Quaker testimony have been grouped together under the familiar set of headings, 'Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace' (or in the USA more usually Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality). The 'STEP' classification was invented in 1964 by Hugh Barbour in his book 'The Quakers in Puritan England', as a way of grouping together the great diversity of concrete Quaker testimonies into a few manageable themes. While this classification can be useful as an aid to memory, it has unfortunately had the effect of giving the impression that Quaker testimonies are a set of universal ethical principles or values that we are supposed to try to 'put into practice'. Trying, and inevitably failing, to live up to a set of principles of moral perfection is a fruitful source of guilt, but of little else. Fortunately, this is not what Quaker testimonies are.

The fundamental value of the corporate Quaker testimonies is as a guide to discerning our own leadings. By reminding us of the ways in which Friends have been led in the past, individually and collectively, the testimonies can help to sensitise us to the areas where the Spirit may be nudging us in our own lives and situations. By reflecting on the traditional Quaker commitment to plain and truthful speech, we might be become aware of a vague discomfort with the ways that we sometimes evade honest and open communication. Or by attending to the ways that Friends in the past have simplified their possessions and commitments in the service of a more spiritually unified life, we might feel drawn to the possibility of a less scattered and hectic lifestyle. These kinds of feelings are movements of the Spirit - 'the promptings of love and truth in our hearts' (Advices & Queries:1). They have a very different quality to feeling inadequate about all the ways that we fail to live up to absolute standards of ethical perfection. They are personal and unique; each of us will be led differently at different times in our lives, because each of us has our own experiences, talents and contribution to offer to the world. One of the gifts of being in community is that each of us brings something different, and that none of us has to try to do everything.

The Quaker testimonies can be a resource for all of us, to remind us of how the Spirit has worked and is working among Friends, and to point us towards the Inward Guide, to listen to how it is speaking to each of us in the depths of our hearts:

Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.
(From the Epistle from the Elders in Balby, 1656)

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Does anything go in Meeting for Worship?

We meet in silence in an unadorned room. On the surface it looks like you can bring bring your own spiritual tradition into the Meeting, since there is nothing nor no-one to indicate any different.

However, the lack of words and symbols is deceptive – for the purpose of Meeting for Worship is to take us to the place beyond words and symbols, the place where Quakers believe the truth will be found. And since it is truth beyond expression in words and symbols, no one can tell you what to look for or where to look for it.

But if you stay within your spiritual tradition, expressed in all manner of words and symbols, the truth that Quakers testify to will elude you. You will become an Anglican Quaker, or a Catholic Quaker, or a Pagan Quaker or a Buddhist Quaker or a non-theist Quaker or a Unitarian Quaker – whatever – unless you first let go of your spiritual tradition and wait expectantly in that place that Quakers say the truth will be found in. A place that we cannot talk about or describe, for to do that is to immediately constrain the truth in yet another tradition.

It is an accident of history that the Quaker testimony to truth emerged in a Puritan Western Christian tradition. George Fox could not say anything else but “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who spoke to my condition”. Until just a generation or two ago that historic witness was neither here nor there, since almost all people came to Quakers through Western Christianity. Now we embrace the diversity found in our society, and we can express 'that which speaks to our condition' in a myriad different ways, but the testimony remains – the truth is found beyond expression.

All this means that the pursuit of truth that we testify to requires a unique discipline that we must learn, over and above any discipline that we may have from our own spiritual tradition. Our tradition may take us a long way, and maybe even all the way, but we don't know – and cannot know – unless we first of all let go of all that we bring from our past life. And we learn this by experience, as George Fox did, and countless Quakers since, for there is no way to teach that which cannot be expressed in words – it can only be lived, in the Meeting for Worship, and even every waking – and dreaming – moment of our lives. For one of the first things that we discover is that all of life is sacred and has to be lived sacramentally if the the truth is to be constantly and fully open to us.

This is my experience – my spiritual tradition was evangelical Christianity, with both fundamentalist and charismatic overtones. I have not rejected this tradition out of hand, nor find it a burden. Instead, whereas my spiritual experiences in the past were caged by the bars of the rigid interpretation given to me by the preachers and evangelists, now I can say that the truth has set me free. The full depth of those experiences is now known to me and I can rejoice in the life that I have found. And the unique discipline needed to follow the Quaker Way continues to both deepen and broaden my spiritual understanding.

“To find your life, you must lose your life—and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39; The Voice)

This post was prompted by Jan Arriens' review and critique of Rex Ambler's 'The Quaker Way – a rediscovery', which can be read here:

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Everything you ever wanted to know about Quakers, but were too afraid to ask

What is supposed to be happening in Meeting for Worship? How do Quakers make decisions? Who runs things in a Quaker Meeting? What are the 'Quaker Testimonies'?

'Quaker Basics' - a new series of Inner Quest sessions to find out all those things no-one ever explained about the Quaker Way...

After Meeting, 12-1pm on:
September 15      The Meeting for Worship and Personal Spiritual Discipline
October 20           The Testimonies
November 17        Quaker Structures and Key Roles in Meetings
December 15        Early Friends
January 19           The Quaker Business Method

Elders are encouraging anyone who is fairly new to Quakers, or who would like to know more about what the Quaker Way involves to come along if possible. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Priests, Kings and Managers

In a theocracy, the Priests tell you what to do.
In a monarchy, the King tells you what to do
In a technocracy, the Managers and Experts tell you what to do.

George Fox, founder of the Quakers, told us we don't need priests because the truth can be found within for ourselves.
Tom Paine, son of a Quaker, told us we don't need Kings because we can work out how to govern ourselves using the truth within.
John Macmurray, Quaker philosopher, told us we don't need managers and experts because we can work out what we need to do ourselves from the truth within.

George Fox:
“But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition.”

Thomas Paine:

“There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required.”

John Macmurray:
“There is a curious idea abroad that only specialists and experts are capable of answering the fundamental questions at issue in modern society. This is the reverse of the truth.”

We listened to George Fox and got rid of the priests and no longer live in a theocracy.
We listened to Tom Paine and put our monarch beneath the constitution, and call our society a democracy.
When will we listen to John Macmurray, and stop thinking that because we live in a complex technological society, we must have managers and experts?

We thought we had the rich and powerful, who will do everything they can to find ways of ruling over us, on the run after ripping the grounds of religion and tyranny from under their feet, only to find that they have duped us into thinking that we must have managers and experts – who of course, are supplied and educated by the elite.

“No, but we will have managers and experts over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our managers and experts may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 1 Samuel 8, 19-20, modified.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

That of God in everyone?

When someone asks 'What do Quakers believe?' you often hear trotted out 'Quakers believe that there is that of god in everyone'.

This is a complete misrepresentation of what Quakers believe and what it means to be a Quaker.

This is what George Fox actually said:
“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”
What this says is that if you act in a certain way in the world – 'your carriage and life' - then you will experience something which will feel to you as a 'blessing' which will be reciprocated back to you by those you meet. It is this that George Fox describes as 'that of God in everyone'. It is not a belief but a way of describing the felt response in our hearts as a result of the way we act in the world. It is not a call to believe, but a call to action in the world in a certain way – 'be patterns, be examples'.

What Quakers do believe is that if we are to have any integrity at all then we must discover the truth in our hearts and minds for ourselves, and that the way that we do this is to come together in the gathered meeting and wait expectantly in silence. If we bring all our troubles and concerns, our joys and sorrows, to the place of silent waiting in our community, then we believe that the truth of our lives will be revealed, our 'condition' will be spoken to, as George Fox puts it - with both comfort and discomfort.

The truth that we discover and share in the gathered meeting will then be confirmed by the best of the teachings of scriptures and the words of the sages down the ages, but confirmed directly in the world as it is for us today.  

The gathered meeting is not a refuge from the world where we can contemplate 'that of god in everyone' to our hearts content, but rather a place of discovery, where the truth of our lives is revealed and where we discover that which we must do in the world.

The 'promptings of love and truth in our hearts' that come to us in silent waiting are calls to action with integrity which will result in us 'walking cheerfully over the world' no matter what may befall us. The rest – peace, equality, simplicity, community, follow from this.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Truth Carriers

If we are to discern the light within and discover there the truth, how then do we share that which we have discovered? How do we come together in community around shared experiences? How do we avoid sitting in our isolated bubbles on a Sunday morning?

Not for us relying on the ancient scriptures or the teachings of the Church or the wisdom of the elders - but what we can say for ourselves. This then illuminates the scriptures, teachings and words of the elders, but not necessarily as all good or true. We therefore need ways of communicating the truth that are adequate to the nature of the truth that we have discerned. I believe that there are three essential forms of 'truth carrier' in language - logical propositions to carry factual truth, metaphor and analogy to carry emotional truth or values and stories to carry relational truth.

It is important to realise that the propositions, metaphors and stories are not themselves the truth, but the carriers of the truth - a serious mistake made it seems almost universally, not least in asserting that the Bible is the 'Word of God' or the 'truth itself', but also very dangerously in confusing metaphors or models of scientific truth with the truth itself in many popular presentations of science - properly only esoteric mathematics can adequately describe scientific truth, and then mathematics itself is still only a 'truth carrier'.

Our western civilisation is very good at logical propositions and pretty good at metaphors or poetry, but lousy at stories. Possibly confusingly, novels and other forms of fiction - including the movies - are not 'stories' in this sense, though they may (and often do) contain stories - but are actually forms of emotional or value truth carriers.

Quakers have become very good at using the arts to illustrate the truth that we have discerned. Not just language in poetry, but visual arts and music. However, the metaphors and analogies in art still do not tell us everything. Art is very good at being a 'truth carrier' to ourselves as individuals, but it does not necessarily provide a sense of shared identity and common feeling in time and place. Art is very much about individual discernment - one person's beauty is another person's ugliness.

This is perhaps the important insight that the early Quakers had when they eschewed the arts. They were searching for a much deeper, shared integrity that binds together and perpetrates the community without reliance on scripture, ministers and dogma. And perhaps it is not surprising that as Quakers have become more and more caught up in western individualism, we have also promoted the arts more and more.

Unlike poetry and 'conventional' fiction, stories are independent of the language (or images) used to say them: 'There is, then, a particular kind of [fiction] which has a value in itself - a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work' (C.S. Lewis, 'An Experiment In Criticism' 1961, p41). This of course does not mean that stories cannot be well told - and should be well told - but: 'The story of Orpheus strikes and strikes very deep, of itself; the fact that Virgil and others have told it in good poetry is irrelevant.' (ibid.)

However, we confine stories to the nursery. We tell children bible stories and stories from the Greek and Norse myths, and stories of Arthur and 'The Matter of Britain', but we consider this something that we grow up out of. It is much more mature to be to able to understand scientific propositions and to appreciate art and poetry. But we have rejected that which binds us together, that which children instinctively recognise as the pearl of great price. Even worse, often when we do use stories, we make them into moral tales – they then contain the very dogma that we say should come from within.

Around the same time as Quakers emerged in Britain, Hasidic Judaism arose in eastern Europe. They realised that an important way of bringing the Kabbalah to ordinary people was through telling stories. The best stories stand on their own, without allusion to teaching or morality – their purpose is to go into us and find the truth that already resides in us, waiting for a means to be carried out and shared. Here is one:
A woman came to the Maggid of Koznitz asking him to pray for her that she have a child.
'My mother too was unhappy as you are,' said the Maggid. 'Then one day she met the Baal Shem Tov and presented him with a beautiful cape. One year later I was born.'
The woman's eyes brightened. 'I will make you the most beautiful cape in the world!' she said.
The Maggid smiled and shook his head. 'I am afraid that will not work,' he said.'You see, my mother did not know this story.'
And now these three remain: propositions, metaphors and stories. But the greatest of these is stories.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Journey into Life

Our Friend Gerald Hewitson's Swarthmore Lecture, Journey into Life, is an uplifting and heartening read. It occurs in two formats: the original version published by Quaker Books; and the version he delivered at Yearly Meeting, which is, or will soon be, available on the Woodbrooke website or on CD from Woodbrooke. I heard the lecture, but haven't been able to listen again to it yet, so I'm focusing here just on the printed version. Gerald's readiness to rework his lecture for oral delivery provides impressive witness to his understanding that texts, and especially spiritual writing, like the lives they commemorate, are always work-in-progress, needing regular rewriting to accommodate them to the new situations in which they find themselves.

His lecture tells his own spiritual journey from a poor background in South Yorkshire through higher education to a career in teaching, and more than thirty years of committed service as a Quaker. It is a story read in the light both of Quaker testimonies, from the earliest Quakers to modern materials collected in Quaker Faith and Practice, and of the Bible. He uses the Bible not, as evangelical Christians do, as a source of proof-texts, but as the source of 'patterns and examples' by means of which the visionary can articulate his own experience to himself and others.

The high points of this spiritual journey are presented straightforwardly as moments of vision and revelation. When first Gerald goes to Meeting (at Bangor) a voice speaks in his head to him: 'Why have you been travelling the face of this planet? There is no need to journey any more. You are home'. Much later, during a term's residency at Pendle Hill, he has personal revelations of 'great compassion in the heart of the Universe', alongside a 'burning anger at social injustice' and of something which many mystical writers would have well understood, and which he describes as 'the entire flower of our being'. Another 'seeing', which comes when he finds himself, newly retired, in 'the dark night journey of the soul', he describes as 'the love of God streaming through the universe for each and every one of us – endlessly, ceaselessly, cascading as a benign flood.'

In these moments he applies to himself a phrase of George Fox: 'Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter.' Fox's experience will be familiar to most lovers (think, say, of the love poetry of e e cummings), as well as to those facing their own death or the death of what they love (think how Dennis Potter, dying of cancer, said of the cherry tree, outside his study window, that it had the 'blossomiest blossoms he'd ever seen').

Fox is here blending two kinds of language, the mystical/experiential and the Biblical, and he is able to do so because he believes that the words of the Bible were themselves heightened visionary utterances: 'the Scriptures were the prophets' words and Christ's and the apostles', and what... they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it [directly] from the Lord.' In other words, the words of the Bible were an outward expression of an inner experience, which Fox and all convinced Friends share and can confirm from their own experience. Or, as Gerald puts it (speaking of a whole life and not just words on the page), 'The outer work of our hands is the result of the inner work of our heart.' This is not a view of the Bible likely to appeal to a modern sceptical cast of mind: which, in varying degrees, most of us share. But Fox's use of the Bible is at least in part a reflex of the language available to him to talk of ultimate reality. Had he been born in another age, as Gerald implies, Fox might well have used a different 'thought frame' to reach his readers. Like all mystics, Catholic and Protestant, Fox makes a clear distinction between the practice of contemplation and the credal statements (or Quaker lack of them) which I think of as the nursery slopes of the spiritual life.

In trying to return readers via Fox and his contemporaries to the biblical roots of Quakerism, Gerald has a very specific quarry in mind, the many members who have come to Quakers in flight from wounding experiences in other religious traditions, whether Catholic or Protestant: people for whom the experience of the Bible, and of words like 'God' and 'Christ', to say nothing of 'sin' and 'crucifixion', are really difficult to disentangle from the hurts that accompanied their previous delivery. But he insists that ways can be found through these hurts to a fuller appreciation of the truths they enact or point towards. He offers in his own story an instance of the process. Exposure when young to a Pentecostal preacher's ranting, 'being called to the front to be prayed over', has meant that 'language such as “the blood of the Lamb”, “God sacrificed his son for us”, “needing to be saved” can still raise the hairs on the back of my neck”.' But his time at Pendle Hill also included the experience of an American Quaker praying for and over him, thanking God 'for the meticulous attention paid to our lives'. The new context, his growth away from the reactive and angry child, and his ability to trust what was being offered, led him to feel he was 'encountering Truth'. At the same time, the earlier-noted vision of his own self as a flower was articulated for him 'in black American idiom' as '”who we say we are” [which] needs to be related to “Who we be”'. Probably this articulation of the spiritual journey – metaphoric, allusive, leaving the word 'God' out of the frame – will appeal more directly to readers than the Quaker praying aloud to God in thanks for Gerald. But, the text insists, both are complementary ways of apprehending and expressing the one truth.

If we want to use a single word for this activity of finding ourselves in the Bible and in early Quaker writing – and, equally, of finding them in us, as we and they model one another – that word is surely 'translation'. Gerald uses this word to describe the challenge he finds in translating 'seventeenth-century Quaker speech into the modern day speech which might be preferred by some readers', since he has 'barely learned to speak it, let alone translate it.' But he also offers a striking instance of translation, when John Woolman talks of his sense of his 'Inner teacher', the 'Christ within', as 'the presiding chairman.' This phrase is more fully 'translated' 150 years later by Thomas Kelly: 'it was as if there were in him a presiding chairman who, in the solemn, holy silence of inwardness, took the sense of the meeting'. Woolman and Kelly are both using a familiar idiom to represent an experience for which there are no adequate words: translating that experience into something homely and ordinary – a bit like what Christians think happens in the Incarnation. What is true of early and later Quakers is also true of the stories of the Bible. For a vivid example, think of Paul's account of a spiritual rapture in which he was caught up 'into the third heaven' (2 Cor. 12.2) – maybe an out-of-body state: Paul doesn't know – and heard words that 'cannot and may not be said by any human being'. As Gerald puts it:
'the Bible is, at heart, the continuing story of encounter, so it provided patterns and examples whereby their [Quakers'] new found, newly discovered experience was described and understood';
and again:
'their Biblical reading did not dictate the terms of the encounter, but helped them capture the sense and meaning of their experience.'

All the same, this new experience, and its new or more traditional articulation, cannot be had without cost. Gerald insists on the (self)-sacrifice that must accompany the journey; and on the pain that is part of the process: and the first such pain is the serious consideration that my own view of the world really is limited ('think it possible that you may be mistaken'). Here Gerald uses an extremely familiar metaphor (not, as such, biblical, though the Bible uses it frequently): childbirth, where pain is 'the price that must be paid for new life' – especially the new life in the spirit to which Quaker Faith and Practice constantly witnesses. Gerald starts by modelling 17th-century Quaker experience, as well as modern Quaker experience, on modern understandings of psychotherapy. But he rapidly returns to his difficult project of translating the modern experience by way of the seventeenth-century, biblically-inspired, Quaker one, when he adopts/adapts their terminology of crucifixion: 'crucifying the will', 'going to the cross'. We may find this more difficult than the psychotherapeutic model to work with: but since 'thought frames are simply that – a limited perspective on the world' - the rewards may be as great as the pains, if we make the effort. The struggle to develop what Buddhists call 'beginner's mind' is the first pain we must face en route to our new and fuller life.

But, unlike some doom-laden theologies, the end of this process is not pain at all, but, on the contrary (a word which Gerald uses twice), 'delight'. Hence that amazing and humbling story of Mary Dyer, climbing the ladder onto the gallows in Massachusetts in 1660 and offered her life if only she would come down. She replied that she could not deny the will of God, in obedience to which/whom she had put herself in such jeopardy. 'Then one mentioned that she should have said, she had been in Paradise. To which she answered, “Yea, I have been in Paradise these several days.”' Mary Dyer doesn't use the word 'delight' to express her sense of herself, and it might have felt strange, if not masochistic, had she done so. But that word seems to me the heart of any true spiritual understanding, the thread that joins Quakers to the source (God, life, spirit) of their vitality and will eventually return them fully to it:
'the voice of that Presence... delights in our unbounding glory'
'the Quaker answer [to the mystery of the human condition] however provisional and hesitant, has a delight in life, an acknowledgement of the richness and complexity of the human experience, and a wholehearted responsive affirmation to the world and all it offers.'

Better still, though we can obviously take delight in this book reading it by ourselves, Gerald hopes to make it a resource for Quakers meeting together. So the book ends with a series of activities readers can undertake in small or larger groups. Here Gerald's gifts as a teacher come to the fore. As does the sense that the book cannot be finished until we are finished with it, and it is finished with us. Or that the book is truly prophetic, in pointing us beyond itself, and ourselves, to that at which it, and we, imperfectly gesture. I do recommend it to you, and think it would be great for any of our smaller group meetings (like the Spiritual friendship groups) to work on.

Many thanks to Roger Ellis for this blog post.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Catch up on Yearly Meeting 2013

Relaxing outside Friends House on Saturday
For anyone who wasn't at Yearly Meeting this weekend, audio files of all the presentations (including the Swarthmore Lecture) are available here. (You have to click on the title of the talk rather than the 'play' button to play it, confusingly...)

Monday, 20 May 2013

Do we still know where we are?

Yesterday (Sunday 19th May) the swifts came back. Some of them nest in the eaves of our houses, and this year, what with our awful spring, they are two or even three weeks late. The day before, we had our first community get together in each others gardens and it seemed profoundly wrong in a deeply spiritual sense that it was cold and overcast and many flowers had not yet bloomed – and the swifts were not circling above.

In meeting for worship yesterday we were reminded that it was pentecost – a celebration of new life in the spirit. Weeks earlier it was Easter – the coldest on record, but supposedly a celebration of the resurrection of life. And then on the 1st May those with pagan inclinations were supposed to celebrate new life. A friend with Finnish connections told me that there they celebrate Walpurgis Night, after Saint Walpurga, on 30th April, again to mark new life, yet northern Finland  is still in the depths of winter.

What seems to have happened is that all these externally imposed festivals have disconnected us from the physical reality of the changing seasons. When we should be relating spiritually with the world as it is, instead we are encouraged to relate mystically with some imagined world where spring always arrives on Easter Sunday, or 1st May. And so it is that we become detached from the physical world as it is, and we are but a short way from exploiting it and the creatures in it, including our fellow human beings, for our own selfish ends, all justified by appeal to some disconnected ideal, whether religious or political.

When I first started to become really aware of the world-as-it-is, which coincided with first attending a Quaker meeting, I had become profoundly disillusioned with established Christianity, and came to call it the 'two thousand year ago, two thousand mile away religion'. But we do not need to have the external authority of imposed festivals to cut us off from the world, our consumer culture is more than effective by itself. It amazes me that supermarket fresh food sections, and even some greengrocers, look almost identical whatever time of year it is. And so it is that our disconnection is complete and we become lost and wander aimlessly over the world damaging it by accident as much as deliberately, so blind are we to the reality that is outside of us.

This last weekend we had asparagus for the first time in ten months, and we sat in the garden and toasted the swifts with bubbly.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The "G" Word

"The name of God can be used to freeze our wonder, to make a comforting and useful idol, or it can be the opposite: a name that opens into continuing mystery."

- Thomas Moore (The Soul's Religion)


Friday, 3 May 2013

Get out of your head and into the world

There is a need to engage with the sheer physicality of the world, to get out of our heads and feel the resistance of the world as we do things in it. By being taken up with ideals formed inside our heads, we become focused on wanting solutions before we have even looked properly at the problem, let alone understood the problem. The physical world does not let you do this. It will bite back at you and hurt you if you do not engage fully, with all the senses, but especially touch, paying attention to felt experiences. This is the true meaning of 'mindfulness': it is not about the mind at all, but about getting away from the mind and experiencing the world and being aware of the world and everything and everyone in it. 

Our western culture teaches us to be thinkers observing the world - we absorb this standpoint like mothers milk, not even aware of how it is distorting our perspective of reality. Instead we need to be actors relating to the world. This viewpoint is profoundly heterocentric – in the physical world, if you constantly pay attention to yourself, you will trip up, so you are forced to pay attention to the world of which you are a part.

Technology disengages us from the world - we think we are supermen, when all we are doing is flicking a switch to turn on the power. We think that we can shape the world to our own desires, hammer and chain saw our way through any obstacle, not realizing that once something has been broken without understanding how it works, it cannot be mended.

Engaging with the physicality of the world teaches us to engage properly socially. Staying with the physical problem, realizing our physical limitations, feeling it through, accepting uncertainty and risk, looking for the novel approach, being physically hurt by mistakes; all this teaches us to listen to others, teaches us the value of dialogue and interchange, and the uselessness of competition.

Realizing how puny we are in the physical world, how fragile our bodies are, how easily we succumb to disease and infirmity, teaches us the need to find ways of working that use minimal force, that don't wear us out. As our engagement with the physical world teaches us to be easy with ourselves, so we learn to be easy with others, to listen, to engage, to forgive.

As we actively engage with the physical world, so we learn that to not get bitten back we must relate fully to the other, to know the other and to discover ourselves back through the other. And so in turn we learn to empathise with others, to know ourselves through the other person we are engaged in a relationship with. We realise that sympathy is merely looking at the other person through our own eyes.

And so it is that we come to walk cheerfully over the earth, feeling that earth rising up to meet our feet, and realising that 'answering that of God' is not a notion in our heads about some sort of essence in the other person, but seeing ourselves through them.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

All in it together?

 “Vile Product of Welfare UK”
screamed the Daily Mail on 3rd April, after the conviction of Mick Philpott.

But when Dennis Stevenson (a lord), James Crosby (a knight of the realm) and Andy Hornby were found to have “recklessly” ruined HBOS (Halifax Bank Of Scotland) and cost the rest of us £20Bn, where was the headline:
“Vile Products of Bonus-Culture UK”?
George Osborne says there is a
 "question for government and society" about the influence of benefits on behaviour.
But is there not also a
"question for government and society" about the influence of bonuses on behaviour?
While people languish on welfare as a result of the crisis caused by the likes of Stevenson, Crosby and Hornby and are being scapegoated, Fred (“the shred”) Goodwin, who ruined RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) and cost us £45Bn, is probably paying the most expensive lawyers in the world to analyse every dot and tittle of the law to wriggle out of multiple lawsuits against him, no doubt easily paid for from his massive salaries, bonuses and pension, most likely held off-shore so as to pay as little tax as he can get away with.

Unless and until we see the likes of Goodwin stripped of every penny they ever had and joining the queue for the food bank with the people he impoverished, there is absolutely no justice or equality in this land.

It is not Mick Philpott who is “vile”, nor Fred Goodwin, but the system that entrenches the injustice and inequality that brought about the society we find ourselves in. Individuals can and should be forgiven and are capable of repentance – systems have to be overthrown, and it is to the system and it's perpetrators who are in government that we must direct all the anger and bile and contempt and passion we can possibly muster.

Friday, 29 March 2013

What's in a name?

At Britain Yearly Meeting this year, we are being asked to consider 'trusting in Quaker Trusteeship'. We are told that because we are a charity we have certain legal obligations and we must have trustees who must do things in certain ways.
Before the Enlightenment, people believed, as they still do in many parts of the world, that to find the right name for something was to be able to control it. Names had visceral power, and naming and cursing were dangerous activities. In our sophisticated civilisation we think that we are rational and know that names are mere labels. But we are mistaken. Research reported by CommonCause shows that the way we name things subconsciously 'frames' the way we think about them and value them (or otherwise). A report here illustrates this with the use of economic language – the differences that happen, tested in controlled experiments where only the names are chnged. For instance when we call people 'consumers' rather than 'citizens', positive emotions tend to be associated with materialistic values, such as wealth, image and success.
Calling people 'trustees' has unwittingly trapped us in certain modes of thinking. We have 'framed' our thoughts and don't realise that there is a whole world outside the frame. I believe that this has also happened in our meeting here in Sheffield. Rather than the more normal 'Premises and Finance' committee, we have a 'Management' committee, and rather than employ a 'warden' we employ a 'manager'. This has trapped us in hierarchical and controlling ways of working despite our testimony to equality. I wish that our meeting house business was a workers cooperative and we got rid of special roles for 'management', This is especially so when my wife, Chriss, who works at our meeting house, arrives home frustrated and sometimes angry.
Many people I talk to say we should not be a charity because charity law imposes structures on us that are against our testimony. In fact, in financial matters and care of resources our Quaker integrity makes demands on us beyond any law: we should not be conforming to the law, we should be surpassing it, and, where needed, demanding changes to the law, as we have done for gay marriage. Instead we seem to cow before the law, and fear the Charity Commissioners and feel that we have to conform to secular ways to satisfy them. The truth is that the work that 'trustees' do in the most part still needs to be done somewhere by someone. Where has our testimony to integrity gone and why aren’t we trusting the spirit?
What being a charity and calling a group of us 'trustees' has done, in my view, is to expose the ever creeping instrumentalism in Quaker work and organisation. The adoption of 'management speak', of ever more 'framing' in economic terms, of the veneration of 'experts'. We think that because we are Quakers we will not be infected by the ways of the world, but we have a 'Framework for Action', which many people, myself included, have found highly problematic. So we think that we can now tell where the spirit comes from?
We do need to explore how to be effective and use our resources wisely. We have to keep the name 'trustees' if we are going to remain a charity. But working out what 'Quaker Trusteeship' might be is fraught with problems, not just because 'Quaker' can mean just about anything, but because 'Quaker' refers to our values and relationships rather than to our organisation. I suggest that we explore 'Cooperative Trusteeship', to reinforce modes of association that are non-hierarchical and lead to equality rather than control. This is a debate that also needs to happen in the cooperative movement, since many co-operatives are or want to be charities, and vice-versa, so we can find common cause with like minded people, which will strengthen our analysis.
As for where we place our trust: we trust the spirit, that spirit that informs our testimonies to integrity and equality – we need to believe in people, not structures and names.
I hope that the debate about 'Trusteeship' will be a wake up call for our society. We are constantly at the mercy of the Zeitgeist. In the 19th century we fell for evangelicalism, in the 20th century for idealism, and now in the 21st century for managerialism.
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8, KJV

Monday, 11 March 2013

The New Priesthood.

The Quaker way is to discover the truth from within; that any external authority, be it priest, church, scripture, is not sufficient without inner convincement. This is our distinct witness, that is shown in the way we live our lives and organise our society. This is my convincement, discovered by revelation in December 1988, nine months before entering a Quaker Meeting House for the first time.

At Britain Yearly Meeting this year, we are to consider 'Trust In The Spirit' and 'Trust in Quaker Trusteeship'. Now 'Trust In The Spirit' I can understand: this is what we mean by inner convincement coming before any external authority: we trust 'the spirit' to show us the truth or otherwise of any authority or power put before us. Our discernment processes: Meeting for Worship for Business, Threshing, Clearness, Worship Sharing, have all been developed over the centuries to aid us in hearing the voice of the spirit.

But what does it mean to 'Trust in Quaker Trusteeship'? What is the difference between 'Quaker Trusteeship' and the normal secular sort found in charities that many of us are or have been trustees of?

The demands of the Quaker Way are profound – it is not a way for the faint hearted. Through the centuries, we have, as a society, failed in the challenge to discern and follow the 'leadings of the spirit', daunted by the sheer complexity and hard work of it all. In the eighteenth century all that persecution in the century before was just too much and we just became 'quiet'. In the nineteenth century, along with many other churches, we became evangelical and started to trust the scriptures – the infallible Word Of God or so they said. In the twentieth century we followed the trend of liberal idealism, to follow an ideal rather than work out what concrete action is required of us in our day-to-day lives.

And now, in the twenty-first century we seem to be overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of modern life and look to experts and managers to show us the way. In a technocratic society, the managers and experts become our priests – we trust their pronouncements rather than the wisdom of our own hearts gleaned from practical experience in the world. We are even told in The Friend by Tom Jackson (8th Jan. 2010) “I have come to the conclusion that the Quaker Business Method applied to the subject of finance is not appropriate”. So we are left with no alternative but to "Trust in Quaker Trusteeship" to sort out our finances and other complex problems of our relationship with society at large.

It was in just such a context, back in December 1988, when I realised from within myself that the authority of so-called experts was a sham. In the face of protests about an airport right next to our community, we were told that we needed to trust them to work out the complex economic problems of a large city like Sheffield, and that they would look after us, and that we would all benefit from increased employment and wealth. They have been proved wrong.
“There is a curious idea abroad that only specialists and experts are capable of answering the fundamental questions at issue in modern society. This is the reverse of the truth. The expert and the specialist, the highly trained and highly cultivated individual may be useful and essential for solving technical problems about the means by which the general solution can be carried into practical effect, but they are positively disqualified for deciding what the general purposes should be. There is nothing paradoxical in this." (John Macmurray, “The Creative Society” 1935; SCM Press, pp 167-8)
George Fox discovered  from within himself that “to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a [person] to be a minister of Christ" (Journal, 1647, qfp 19.02). So it is – or should be – with trustees: they are not fit to tell us what we should or should not do. John Macmurray, the Quaker philosopher, knew this too. They may advise us, but there is only one place for trust – and that is in the spirit, the inward light, as discerned in the gathered meeting, not by any individual, call themselves "minister" or "pope" or "manager" or "trustee", or in any group of such people.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Is Fair Trade Fair?
Since we are in the middle of this year's Fairtrade fortnight, it might be worth asking the question: Is Fairtrade fair? There is a lot of criticism out there, almost invariably from economists, which are dutifully picked up by newspapers and magazines during events like Fairtrade Fortnight. One prominent essay on the subject is by Peter Griffiths, which gets straight to the point by arguing that not only is Fairtrade not fair, it is unethical (Ethical Objections to Fairtrade, 2011). This essay has just been signposted here in Sheffield through Now Then magazine, in an article by Cassie Kill to mark the fortnight.
Now Peter Griffiths, like most good economists, posits a Utilitarian ethic, and basically concludes, after highlighting several problems with Fairtrade, some of which are picked up in the Now Then article, that the best way to support Third World producers is to pay the minimum price possible and give the money you save to charity. If you are a Utilitarian this is the end of the argument and you may as well stop reading this now.
There are many critiques of the Griffiths essay, and others like it, but at the end of the day is is probably fair to say that nothing is perfect in this complex world, and Faitrade has problems like anything else. A better way to look at this is to get beyond the problems or otherwise of Fairtrade marketing and look at fairness itself. And rather than struggling to understand the economics of remote countries, to look at fairness right here where we live and work and do our shopping. The minimum wage is regularly posited by economists as creating a 'market distortion' that leads to unforeseen unfairness, often around increased unemployment. We should instead, economists argue, allow wages to find their own level and so keep prices low so we can all afford goods and services and all (supposedly) find work.
The problem with this sort of utilitarian argument is that it assumes that the market works for all of us, and we are all on a 'level playing field' and all 'in it together'. In fact, what happens is that most companies are only interested in supplying goods and services and providing employment in order to make a profit for their shareholders, who are often not the same people who are buying these goods and services. This is called 'maximising shareholder value' and companies will do everything they can within the law (and sometimes a little bit outside it) to achieve this, including lobbying to get laws changed in their favour, avoiding paying taxes, and not checking supply lines. For them, the minimum wage and fairtrade agreements undermine opportunities to maximise shareholder value.
One of the key ways to maximise shareholder value is to 'externalise costs' , that is, to avoid paying the real price for anything if you can get away with it. Two key areas for externalising costs is firstly to pay the lowest wages possible and hope someone else will feed, clothe and house people who get paid so little that they cannot afford such basics, and secondly to trash the environment and hope that someone else will clean it up.
So if you seek the cheapest price for goods and services, in half decent countries like the UK you will find yourself paying increased taxes to support benefit payments and cleaning up the environment. When you see destitute people from the Third World on the telly you can always give some of the money you have saved to Oxfam.
But whether people are in East Sheffield or East Africa, they don't want charity, they want fairness and justice. The minimum wage is not enough, we should pay a living wage. People don't want aid, they want to sell their produce at a price they can live on and be able to send their children to school and afford health care.
If you pay the lowest price that you can find, someone somewhere, along with their environment, will almost certainly be being trashed whilst already wealthy shareholders pocket even more. These shareholders and their agents, the bonus seeking chief executives on obscenely high salaries, backed by their lawyers, will stop at nothing: they tried to convince us that it was safer not to wear seatbelts, that asbestos and tobacco do not kill you, and finally that climate change is not caused by their rampant overexploitation of the planet.
In Now Then Cassie Kill rather weakly say that she does not have all the answers and suggest that we should do a little bit of research, though she does say that she buys faitrtrade when she can afford it, how ever often that turns out to be.
So here are some pointers:
Firstly, get it straight in your head that the vast majority of big companies are in it for profit for shareholder value and nothing else despite all the nice things they say in their adverts and promotional literature. And secondly, see through the shortcomings of Utilitarianism. You can use utilitarian ethics to justify slavery – do you really want to go there?
So you want to buy something and you don't want to make people dependent on benefits or aid, and you don't want their environment to be trashed.
The most important criteria is provenance.
Do you know where it came form? Who grew it or made it? What their lives are like? What labour laws and other rights they have? If you don't, then either don't buy it or find out. If you cannot find out, either the supplier does not care, seeking only the lowest price, or knows something they don't want you to find out. If you had done this with your frozen beefburgers, you would not now be feeling sick at the thought of what you were eating last month.
The next step is to buy from a co-operative or small trader wherever you can. Shop at the Co-op and join and, if you want, influence policy. Buy from John Lewis and Waitrose. Buy from the very person who owns the business and get to know them and ask about their suppliers. Don't buy Cadbury's Fairtrade dairy milk, buy the Co-op's. Half the world's population benefits from cooperatives, including over a billion members, 100 million workers and over a trillion dollars of trade. You can help freeze out the already stupidly rich shareholders and build up the cooperative movement. Find out about Sheffield Co-ops here: Find out about co-operatives worldwide here:
You can help pay the £6.9 million salary of Tesco's CEO or you can help people like yourself. You choose.
The next step is to buy from countries that have established labour rights and decent welfare systems. Despite the efforts of our own country to the contrary, the EU has established and maintained comprehensive labour and welfare legislation. If you shop for food in season there is virtually no reason to buy food from outside the EU. And stuff like coffee, tea, chocolate and bananas can easily be bought fairtrade through cooperative suppliers or directly from known cooperatives.
And finally, yes it often costs more. After all you are making sure that growers and workers are getting a decent living, but the pursuit of shareholder value is so endemic that even cutting out the middle people and dealing with cooperatives still makes it more expensive. So what are you going to do, give in and go to Tesco's? Remember, one day they will come for you, and there will be no one left to help you.
Instead, why not spend twice as much on half as much? You are no worse off, you can learn to make do and mend and even end up recycling less. OK, you still need to eat, but do you really need to eat that expensive protein every single day? Fill up on fruit and vegetables and really enjoy that treat knowing that you are taking one small step to making the world a better place - and you will be healthier as well.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Trusting in the Spirit

A sunny Yearly Meeting at Friends House, 2012
Yearly Meeting is the annual decision-making forum for all Quakers in Britain. This year it will be at Friends House, London from 24-27 May.

The theme of this year's Meeting is 'Trusting in the Spirit', and Friends are being encouraged to consider some questions in advance of the Meeting, and to send our responses in by 7th May. I have been asked to present a 'distillation' of the responses during the first session of Yearly Meeting on Friday evening, so I'd like to encourage as many Friends as possible to contribute. The questions are:
  • How have you discerned the right way forward in your own life?
  • What experiences have you had of Quaker meetings being guided by the Spirit when making decisions?
  • What do you value about the ways in which Friends work together?
You can read others' responses and add your own at the YM webforum here
or send your contribution by email to:
Or if you'd prefer, you can also add your response to any or all of the questions in the comments section below, and I will add them into the mix!

More details about Yearly Meting 2013 are on the BYM website here.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Sheffield Quaker Book Group - books for the coming year!

Sheffield Quaker Book Group

Books for 2013-14

Blue Moon Cafe,  Saturdays, 4pm-5.30pm – all welcome

APRIL 6 2013                       To be decided

MAY 11th 2013                    Disgrace, by JM Coetzee

JUNE 1st 2013                      The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

JULY 6th 2013                      Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

AUGUST 3rd 2013               Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, by Robert O'Brien

SEPTEMBER 7th 2013         Have the Men had Enough, by Margeret Forster

OCTOBER 5th 2013             So Long See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell

NOVEMBER 2nd 2013        A Life of One's Own, by Marion Milner/Joanna Field

DECEMBER 7th 2013          A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor

JANUARY 11th 2014           Howard's End, by EM Forster

FEBRUARY 8th 2014           Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese