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)


Unknown said...

I have heard two friends say that "sustainability isn't one of the testimonies" - implying that there are only four (Peace, Equality, Simplicity and Truth). Your article has made it clear to me that anything we do that is response to an inner leading is witnessing or bearing testimony to that leading - acting in faith.

patricew said...

As a very new Quaker, this post is very helpful to me, thank you.