The 1994 Swarthmore Lecture by Margaret Heathfield. Reviewed by Judith Roads.
Being together was the Swarthmore lecture for 1994, given by Margaret Heathfield. She discussed a number of aspects to the general theme of what it means to be a Quaker in Britain Yearly Meeting. In the book of the lecture she first looks at the question of our personal inner life and the practice of discernment; the second chapter moves into the heart of the topic: community. She concludes this chapter by saying:
In our yearly meeting, we have so far managed somehow to contain this vast panoply of views, roles and temperaments in one fairly coherent mass… We do manage to organise ourselves locally and nationally, and sometimes when we feel called as a group, we do manage to follow, after our fashion.
Later in the lecture she investigates the Quaker “corporation” as she then saw it in 1994. There were two things which struck me very much when I read the lecture at that time and which I think are even more urgent now. The first was her “digression” as she calls it, where she explains the difference between an open group or movement and a closed group – in our case a People of God. An open group such as the Green movement is different from the Green Party. Joining an open group is normally a question of choosing to belong and probably paying a subscription in order to become a member, whereas joining a closed group involves some kind of qualification for entry. This could be professional requirements or status for example or admission only if the group decides to accept an application. Somebody or a select group is empowered to make that decision and membership is by no means open to all. There will be stricter mechanisms for refusing to renew someone’s membership than there is with an open group. A brief look at the history of Quakers in Britain shows us that Quakerism started as an open group, became a tight closed group in the 18th and 19th centuries and appears to be moving towards openness again in recent times. This interests me very much because of our muddle about membership. In many cases we seem to feel relaxed about admitting pretty much everyone who requests membership of the society and yet we have a rather arcane procedure for reaching that end. Since Margaret’s lecture in 1994 it seems to me things have got even more muddled. We are so unclear about the nature of our Society.
I said above that there were two things that struck me. The second one was her consideration about group discernment (“not a magic formula”) and the way we seem to be losing a sense of leadership and of trust in the groups in whom we ask for a discerned decision. Margaret questions if we are still united in our search for Truth. “Outward unity is of no value on its own” she says. We know we are supposed to follow Gospel Order in George Fox’s term, that is to say the outward structures of how we run our organisation, both locally and nationally. I like the way that Margaret comments on how we try to resolve large issues which seem, as she puts it, to:
bounce around in our system between committees. These [decisions] may be best solved by looking for leadership and leadings. If there are none, then maybe the issue should be left until they appear? We like to think we are good at waiting, but in practice we sometimes seem to find it difficult.
So she raises again the familiar question about authority and leadership and how and if to trust the discernment of a group. Her conclusion is the most interesting part. She asks if our Yearly Meeting is a People of God or a religious movement supporting individual journeys and she reminds us that a united experience is unlikely to occur in an open group. She asks if we are “still united in our search for Truth”. At the lecture in 1994 she believed we were at a crossroads. My question is: did we choose a way out of the crossroads after that year? My personal view is that we did choose a way. It seems to me we are much more about being a religious movement supporting individual journeys and that many of our recent newcomers especially wouldn’t understand the question about still being united in our search for Truth. Of course I’m generalising and we all have recent experiences of being part of a gathered group coming to a decision in a felt unity.
I believe that the 1994 lecture was more important than we realised at the time; the series of questions that Margaret asks of us (more than I have outlined above) are there to be answered by us individually and collectively if we choose to think about them. In the 15 years or so since the lecture, our Yearly Meeting has moved on. We have made changes nationally, we have started to recognise the importance of grassroots Quakerism – see the Framework for Action – and yet again we are planning on restructuring Meeting for Sufferings and our new trustee body. I haven’t been aware of any real discussion about Margaret’s key point – not at all a digression in my view – on whether we are an open movement or a closed one, a People of God. And I think it’s because we haven’t a clear view on this that we are in such a muddle about membership and what it means to be a Quaker in Britain.
Being together by Margaret Heathfield is available to be borrowed from Quaker Meeting house libraries around the UK.