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.

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