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)