The 1949 Swarthmore Lecture by Roger Cowan Wilson, reviewed by Jennifer Barraclough
The joy of the Swarthmore Lectures is their continuing ability to illuminate, console and inform. Although Roger Cowan Wilson wrote about authority, leadership and concern in the context of Quaker relief work during and immediately after the Second World War, there is much to guide our understanding in present times. The lecture examines how a religious concern can be made manifest in practical work and what needs to be considered so that this can be organised.
The historic interest of the lecture lies in the detail of that work. We are reminded of the long history of Quaker relief work, going back to the eighteenth century; we learn about the recruitment of relief workers, the structures which supported them and the particular issues they faced, with a concentration on the relief work undertaken in Germany. Christianity is the lens through which Roger Cowan Wilson sees his subject. He begins his analysis with a consideration of the motivation of those who undertake relief work and what he regards as a distinctive Christian ethic:
….’relief work goes back to roots in the nature of the universe…there is nothing that differentiates Christians in general, let alone Quakers in particular ..’
but then writes lovingly of the redemptive element of Christianity:
‘our failures do not cut us off from the pursuing Love of God….(men) can set out on an effort to serve their fellows , well knowing that they will often stumble, but that God will draw them forwards….’
Having considered individual motivation, he turns to the concept of corporate Quaker concern, which leads him into what is for me the most helpful and significant part of the lecture for our present time:
‘….the relation between the inspiration of ‘concern’ and sound sense when a Quaker organisation starting from a ‘concern’ is embarked on an enterprise where decisions have to be taken before inspiration is forthcoming…’
It is here, and from this starting point, that I find most to uphold and challenge us as we attempt to integrate decision-making and inspiration in our own times.
The structure of the Yearly Meeting has changed little since 1949 and Wilson’s definitions are still generally valid – we still have Yearly Meeting as the final governing body, committees to carry out ‘the continuous duty of formulating policy and supervising its execution’, administrators to ‘carry the responsibility of transforming the unformulated concern of the Society into administrative shape suitable for supporting members’ individual concern’ and ‘those through whose work the concern of the Society (is) actually expressed amongst those in need’.
The success of his analysis is that he shows how these groups can and should complement each other through a proper grasp of a massively important distinction:
‘To perceive the lines on which the unity between personal concern and administrative order can be reached, a distinction must be made between moral and administrative responsibility (my emphasis). To determine what shall be done and the quality of spirit in which ends shall be pursued, is a moral responsibility; to determine how that shall be done and to see that it is done, is an administrative responsibility within the moral framework. Moral responsibility is found by Friends through “the sense of the Meeting”. Administrative responsibility in complex matters is taken by individuals given the task of translating the ‘sense of the Meeting’ into action, being guided all along by the moral obligation to remain true to the “sense of the Meeting”.’
I want everyone who has to take responsibility within our Yearly Meeting to read this and be comforted by it; and I want all those who occupy a space neatly defined by Paul Lacey – Friends who want to be ‘inside the sphere of influence but outside the sphere of responsibility’ – to be made to learn it by heart.
This short paragraph gave me clarity at a time when I held a leadership position in one of Britain Yearly Meeting’s major institutions, Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. I never read anything which meant more to me than this when it came to maintaining my equilibrium in the face of Friends and others who saw themselves in a position to take any and all decisions, or resist taking decisions, on the basis that ‘our testimony to equality’ meant that ‘we have no leaders’.
This lucid, cogent differentiation helped me articulate why I wanted to be a director who encouraged everyone to contribute to the moral good of the organisation, but who would not expect someone to take a decision which was beyond the sphere of their administrative responsibility. It was my responsibility to act, not to avoid action, and then, on occasion, to try to manage a hostile, collective disapproval from those who, also on occasion, confused their sense of moral rightness with their sense of entitlement. But I wanted to ask then, and still want to ask of all of us, that if we are the not ones who will have to make the difficult decisions, but know we will carry some of the consequences, how do we support those who must make the decisions with a loving and generous spirit?
Roger Cowan Wilson is not naïve about the difficulties we face:
‘….there is always an element of tension between those who are morally equal but carry unequal administrative responsibilities, and …there is no sense in pretending that this tension does not exist. We are much too anxious to abolish tensions, whose right preservation is the very essence of true living….’
and those faced by the individual Quaker leader (I will forgive him the gender bias, from 60 years on):
‘…the good Quaker leader, whilst not shirking his responsibility for giving a lead in virtue of his more extensive knowledge, must be very sensitive to any truer, even if less broadly based insights that can be drawn from his team members. Acceptance of the truth from babes and sucklings* is difficult to handle both administratively and emotionally.’
(*it’s possible, also from 60 years on, that those less familiar with their Bible than Cowan Wilson would expect his readers to be, don’t recognise the reference to Psalms 8:2: ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger’– he is not being patronising!)
The more I re-read and consider this lengthy, wide-ranging contribution to our corporate and spiritual life, the more I find in it – and this review has done no more than highlight one theme, which carries particular importance for me. All I really want to do is to urge you to go yourself to the whole book and re-discover its intellectual and spiritual wisdom on matters which will never cease to exercise us.
The 1949 Swarthmore Lecture by Roger Cowan Wilson is available from the Quaker Centre Bookshop for £8.