By Oliver Robertson
Quaker Faith & Practice, Britain Yearly Meeting’s book of discipline is revised each generation, incorporating fresh insights and revelations given to Friends. The last time this happened was in the early 1990s, and while I don’t believe we are yet in need of another wholesale revision, there are parts I have found lacking, issues where I have gone looking for guidance but found none. Was I alone in thinking this? To check, I went to facebook (where else?) and posed the question: which parts of Quaker Faith & Practice do you feel are out of date and no longer speak to you, and which issues do you feel are not covered or insufficiently dealt with?
The answers came back, so many and so varied! Different people’s responses reflected issues that concerned them, but they also pointed to things that Quakers are still grappling with and have not yet found answers that they can corporately commit to paper. In fact, the exercise turned as much into an analysis of the (mainly internal) issues facing British Quakers today as it is about issues in Quaker Faith & Practice.
What follows is the issues raised by me or by others, grouped into categories as I see them. It is not particularly elegant, and there is no summary or conclusion, because this is an ongoing discussion. If you want to add your voice, I welcome comments below.
There were lots of separate responses related to members, membership and attenders, but which are all fundamentally about the nature of commitment.
There are many people for whom Quakers is one aspect of their life among many, with non-Quaker people and activities taking up the majority of their time. The needs of this group needs close attention, as do the specifics of sub-groups such as the Single Quaker In Family (SQIF). Another type of multiple affiliation is when people are involved in more than one Local Meeting; they may feel equal commitment to both but are required to be linked to one. The requirement for local location of Quakers is also problematic for those whose connections are to national bodies like Young Friends General Meeting, or Britain Yearly Meeting itself.
There was also an extended discussion about the nature of membership and the appropriate privileges and responsibilities of members and attenders. Often, attenders were seen as less worthy (“I’m only an attender”), excluded from certain jobs within Meetings and excused from obligations such as financial donations and attending Business Meetings. Some Quakers are grappling with what should be the degree of commitment that attenders show, others with what membership should be about. What is our corporate understanding of membership? Are there any essential features (beliefs or practices) to being a member? Should we abolish membership altogether? These are ongoing and contested issues among Friends, which have been discussed at other times and places (including the forthcoming Yearly Meeting Gathering 2014), so I won’t go into them more here.
A couple of issues emerged about moving into membership. One asked why people don’t apply for membership, particularly in cases where they are considered suitable to undertake a members-only responsibility like elder (or to put it another way, why do Friends change their requirements rather than people change their status as attender?). A second, separate one praised the system of visits for those applying for membership and recommended that they be extended so that they are not just experienced once.
When Quaker Faith & Practice was last revised in 1994, the outreach section (chapter 28) was one of the shortest, with just 12 sections. Since then, its prominence has increased markedly, particularly through the creation of Quaker QuestQuaker Week (a multi-session introduction to Quakers) and (an annual week-long, Society-wide outreach push). Some Friends also felt uncomfortable or unsure about how to speak to non-Quakers about their faith, either in formal outreach activities or when meeting them at funerals and the like.
This cluster of issues had two parts. One was about having more coverage of disability and accessibility issues within Quaker Faith & Practice, particularly as they relate to equality. The other (discussed at greater length) was about how accessible the book is itself.
Some respondents reported that Young Friends found both Quaker Faith & Practice and Advices & Queries to be out of date. There was a request for more of Quaker Faith & Practice to speak to and be written by younger Friends (perhaps this lack points to a lack of opportunities (offered or taken) for Young Friends to participate in the life of the Society?). The language was also felt by several to be inappropriate, either because it was archaic (too much seventeenth century usage), too Christian or too complex (one analysis of the readability of a revised section of QF&P found that it was A-level or degree-level language). One suggestion was to follow This We Can Say (the Australia YM book of faith and practice), where ancient writings are given a different background shade; another was to add more readable translations in the same way that English translations of Welsh passages are currently included. Including illustrations, musical notation or (in an electronic version) audio and video could help Friends use whatever medium they find best helps them to express themselves.
One book or two?
There was a lot of discussion (and disagreement) about whether the church government sections of Quaker Faith & Practice (about the organisation and right running of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain) should be separated from the more ‘inspirational’ sections. Some Friends hoped that a split would encourage people to look beyond the one book for advice on spiritual and organisational matters; others felt that separation would mean that fewer people read about church government at all and that having everything together reminds people that everyone is responsible for doing the tasks laid out in church government. If everything was kept in one volume, one respondent asked for more mixing between the church government and straightforwardly spiritual parts, because “it’s *all* spiritual stuff [and] the structures should be part of the spiritual whole”.
Individual and personal issues
The issue with the most independent requests for more coverage was death. Currently the focus is largely on practical aspects or on death when elderly. What more can be said on the variety of death and its spiritual aspects?
Other life issues raised were relationships (especially same-sex relationships, where Quaker understanding has moved on significantly since 1994) and being unemployed – currently this issue is only dealt with only from the point of view of the employer.
Finally, there was a desire for guidance on some major emotions, particularly fear.
Current sections on money, investment and economics feel outdated for some Friends. As the inadequacies of the current economic system and its impact on the environment become clearer to Quakers, there is a desire for more of a Quaker perspective on these issues. Similiarly, the environment is a bigger issue for Friends today and there has been more Quaker writings and insights about it: the 15 extracts in chapter 25 were felt by some to no longer adequately represent Friends’ attitudes on this issue.
Some Friends wanted more guidance about the difficult parts of truth and integrity, such as when not to be honest and how to avoid being needlessly rude when engaging in ‘plain speaking’. The multiple meanings of truth (or Truth) were also noted, with a request that the meaning related to God and being true to the essential self was not eclipsed by the meaning of ‘opposite of lies’.
Miscellaneous other issues
The last chapter of the current Quaker Faith & Practice, on Leadings, feels to me more like a snapshot of Friends’ concerns from 1994 than a reflection of how we are led today. It is important to identify the leadings that Friends have, but many of them change and evolve faster than revisions of QF&P.
The concept of trusteeship and its relationship with the gathered Meeting is something that has become far more prominent since 1994 and is a major change in stewardship rules. The information at present is very functional rather than spiritual or insightful.
Do you agree with the ideas in this article? What do you find most or least inspiring in Quaker Faith & Practice? Tell us in the comments.