New thinking for Quaker Faith & Practice

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 and posed the question: which parts of Quaker Faith & Practice do you feel are out of date and no longer speak to you, and which issues do you feel are not covered or insufficiently dealt with?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.

Commitment

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.

Speaking out

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.

Accessibility

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.

Social issues

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.

Truth

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.

21 thoughts on “New thinking for Quaker Faith & Practice

  1. I think there could be a lot more interesting thoughts and advices on parenting – I feel there are some distinctive Quaker approaches to raising children (though not exclusively Quaker) and yet this aspect of life is barely touched in the current edition

    • Jo, Parenting is something I feel very interested in. I asked if it could be included in next year’s YMG. If I could take 6 weeks off in the summer I would consider applying for an Eva Koch scholarship to look at it!

      • There was recently a programme at Woodbrooke for Quaker parents, and hopefully we can explore some issues raised there on Nayler. If anyone else would like to contribute, please do get in touch.

  2. I am grateful and impressed by Oliver’s initiative in undertaking this research. I would have preferred a little more quantitative data. How many Friends thought this or that, and how many were committed as members as opposed to remaining as attenders.

    I do not have strong views on the subjects covered in his report. But I greatly regret there is so little on the topic which concerns me most – the spread of non-theism which is eating at the heart of our supposedly-religious society.

    In my view it would be very unwise to commence revising QF&P until we have resolved this issue.

    Is non-theism to be a fully accepted feature of modern Quakerism? Not merely tolerated but endorsed, much as we developed from tolerating homosexuality to fully embracing and effectively supporting gay Friends?

    Is God to be down-played much as Jesus was when we last revised QF&P? Will Advice 1 become, “..Trust [good things] as the leadings of our nature and nurture, our id which shows us our darkness and our Friends who bring us to a new life”? Or, “1.01: We commit ourselves to a form of meditation which allows our sub-conscious to teach and transform us”?

    Could we make a decision on this fundamental issue – the centrality of a divine guidance (described in the chapter on membership as a Quaker essential) in a Yearly Meeting in which at least a third of those present are firmly convinced there is no divinity?

    While we struggle to suppress our own opinions, to seek the will of God, while they simply assert their firmly held, well-rehearsed opinions? (The debate on whether a Minute should be the clerk’s discernment of God’s will, or whether it be the sense of the meeting, seems to have resulted in acceptance of the latter, which is close to democracy rather than theocracy.)

    Non-theism has now become so widely held (according to the non-theists, over 30% of members) and so well organised as to make YM decision-making on this matter unworkable. (Not to mention the number of non-members who would be present.)

    I have come to the conclusion that the best way out of this conundrum would be for for the non-theists to form what might be called the Spiritual Society of Friends (Reformed Quakers) (BRYM). BYM and BRYM could work together on most or all projects other than ecumenical Christian and inter-faith ones, and BYM might donate assets to BRYM in proportion to the number of members transferring their allegiance. QPSW might become semi-independent, rather like ASFC, serving both BYM and BRYM (but free also to work for other organisations).

    While the Non-theistic Network gleefully counts its burgeoning membership, no-one is counting the Friends leaving due to our drift from religion to humanism. While I was clerk to my AM Overseers I was involved in four such cases, and I know of others. There is a hunger out there for religion without religiosity; for ‘a new kind of Christian’ which Quakerism is if not blighted by rigid, evangelical non-theism.

    • hi Stephen, I think you raise some interesting points and I certainly wouldn’t express them in the same way that you do.
      Your use of the term “committed” to describe members reminds me of Gus Hales’ comment a few days ago on another Nayler post, see http://www.nayler.org/?p=733.

      There’s certainly discussion and discernment to be had on the nature of our faith but I don’t think the comments on this article are the place to resolve it.

      Stuart Masters and Simon Best have helped lay the foundations for this work by their series of articles that have appeared recently in The Friend.

    • Even more specifically(honestly?), “Quaker Phalanstery” which sounds religious/spiritual but, by definition, is a group of individuals amassed, in ancient infantry shoulder-to-shoulder formation, with sharp spears protruding so as to discourage infiltration.

    • I always feared that revision of QF&P would become an excuse for schism. What we need is a revolution that puts loving and caring for each other first and last and leaves arguments about the meanings of words outside on the door mat.

      • I rather agree. This isn’t a new issue. Chapter One of the 1960 edition of ‘Christian Faith and Practice… ” begins:
        “This section of our Book of Discipline was first conceived in 1921, after a time of theological difference, by Friends who longed not to be separated by dispute, but to share an experience which men and women had reached in different ways. For the Society of Friends might be thought of as a prism through which the Divine Light passes, to become visible in a spectrum of many colours; many more, in their richness, than words alone can express.”

        plus ca change…?

    • While I can understand this is held to be an important subject, I am unsure that it can be resolved. For instance, non-theists, i.e. those who do not believe that God interferes directly to over-ride the laws of physics It has put into place, are not necessarily “convinced there is no divinity.” What about deists?
      And if it cannot be resolved, how do we tackle the concerns of the majority of Friends, like Stephen?

    • I wonder Stephen if you could cite the source for (according to the non-theists, over 30% of members) – I have attended conferences of both the Quaker Universalist Group (of which I am a member) and the Non-theist Friends Network (of which I am a member) at Woodbrooke and found both inspirational.

      Membership of these groups does NOT mean that I’m necessarily a non-theist or a ‘universalist’ (though I think I’m probably the latter).

      I think the debate about non-theism v. theism takes you to the cutting edge of what ‘God’ might mean.
      I have not come across any ‘rigid, evangelical non-theists’. Rather, amongst both Universalists and so-called ‘non-theists’ the position seems to be one of honest enquiry into the nature of God and spirituality and whether God can be said to ‘exist’ (after Karen Armstrong) or ‘just is’.

      ‘Christian Atheists’ (so-called) are found widely amongst other Christian groups and are at very least ‘tolerated’ by organisations like the Progressive Christian Network and the Sea of Faith.

      I have come across ‘Christian Quakers’ who are similarly tolerant and others who are rigid if not evangelical.

      The Universalist position is that ‘Spiritual awareness is available to all of any religion or none’ (aka ‘that of God in everyone’).
      The UK and USA non-theist websites are models of ‘quakerly’ enquiry into the nature of the Spirit.

      Perhaps the time has come for Quakers to downplay ‘God’ (perhaps in the Buddhist sense of not attaching too much importance to theistic beliefs or a form of words) and RESURRECT Jesus/Christ (the Seed, the Light within, the Word, come to teach his people himself) as the supreme example of humanity – but not necessarily in accordance with the Nicene Creed.

      But as BYM welcomes Jews, Catholics, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and apparently Atheists into membership, they/we presumably wouldn’t want to exclude ‘Niceneans’ – unless perhaps they are of the rigid (only we are right and we cannot be mistaken) variety?

      This year’s Swarthmore Lecture – Gerald Hewitson, Journey into Life – ‘spoke to my condition’ and I do not have much doubt that Gerald Hewitson would consider himself in some sense a ‘re-born’ Christian as did the early Friends in contrast to the ‘so-called’ Christians that early Friends including George Fox decried.

      The personal spiritual experience or awakening described by Hewitson might be something that others hope for and that might shake ‘rigid non-theists’ to the core.

      The point would appear to be ‘love one another’, not ‘fight amongst yourselves in lumps’ or promote schism. So, can we continue on our journey together, convinced Theists and Doubters (or Enquirers?), puzzling about what non-theists do in meeting for worship, perhaps wondering if you worship someTHING, that could be idolatory (a notion, not a way)?

      I don’t think non-theists have a ‘burgeoning membership’ and (being a tiny fragment of a tiny fragment in membership terms) if they count it, probably do it ruefully rather than gleefully.

      Is it time for Friends to go ‘Whoosh’ and take on board all those who are honestly seeking a better way, whether or not they currently believe in the ‘Divine Presence’, and become once more a force to be reckoned with in a place where, if they have open minds and open hearts they might one day meet the Presence of which Gerald Hewitson (and the peoples of many religions) speak?

  3. For me, we need to resolve (or go someway to resolving) some of the issues identified above before we can articulate them in a book (or whatever format it is).

  4. Responding to Stephen Petter’s comments:

    Thank you for your kind words about the article. It was based on responses to a facebook post, so I didn’t feel I had a sample either large or representative enough to make any quantitative analysis.

    On the non-/theist debate, I suspect that we are not there yet. I think that if there is a definitive change in position, it will be codified in the edition after next. Non-theism is still an emerging trend and I think that it probably will and should be referenced in any new QF&P, but that any crunch point has not been reached.

  5. When I joined Friends in 1973, I lent my mother the copy of ‘Christian Faith and Practice…” (1960, blue cover) that the MM had given me. She found it so inspirational that I had some trouble getting it back!

    I do not think that she would have found the version that replaced it (red cover – the current version) anything like as inspirational for her, nor would it have been as good for telling her about the SoF at a deep level. The inclusion of the ‘Church Government’ information on organisational matters would have been a turn-off for her. That info is vital for us, but not inspirational. The letter killeth…

    So, from the outreach point of view, the 1960 edition was (I contend) head and shoulders above the current one. It is contended that the current version encourages Friends to see the inspirational and organisational elements as a unity (which they are), but I really doubt that the gain from that is any sort of compensation for the loss of the book that so impressed my mother, and many, many others.

    Ironically, the loss of this resource occurred at just about the time that the Society began to become more interested in outreach. I’d say we had shot ourselves in the foot if that wasn’t an unQuakerly expression.
    🙂

  6. Hi Oliver,

    thanks for putting this together, and whilst some of the suggested updates speak to me (social issues, simplicity in language, death) I share with Stephen a serious worry about the direction BYM is taking, and how it will impact the spiritual usefulness of a future QF&P for me.

    Interesting, but I also find the 1960 version (issued 10 years before I was even born), inspirational (even though the overuse of male pronouns does irritate me a little). Its clarity and spiritual content often (not always) speaks to me more than the 1994 version. What I do like in the 1994 version is a better feeling of inclusiveness.

    I use the English version of QF&P a lot in my daily worship and in an ecumenical setting. Whilst we have recently improved the translation of many sections of the 1994 version into a better German, I also struggle within German (and Austrian) YM about the commonly used term “sense of the meeting” instead of the “Seeking Gods will FOR this meeting”. There is a fundamental difference, and will probably lead to decisions being made that I feel in the long term detrimental to the vitality of the Religious Society of Friends. Such a move to democracy may benefit a (spiritual) Society of Friends (Reformed Quakers).

    In Austria and Germany, we have place “Church Government” into a separate section for members, this booklet was update and approved at last yearly meeting a few weeks ago.

    I find the theist/non-thiest development the most challenging because it does fundamentally change how we as a religious society operate (and writes/approves the next version of QF&P).

    Blessings in Christ

    Christopher

    • I think ‘sense of the Meeting’ is very hard to translate — when we do it into Spanish we likewise face problems of what do we “really” mean? If we are ‘seeking God’s will for the Meeting’, how do we know we’ve found it? We don’t expect thunder and lightning, or flashing lights on a scoreboard, or a bell ringing; rather we ask the clerk to express the sense of the Meeting, our general sense of what God’s will is. If something is sensed (even if its a spiritual sensory experience), someone must sense it, and that’s the role of the clerks. When the (recording) clerk reads back that sense as a minute, the table are seeking if that matches others’ sense or if there are dissenters… in order to move closer to the sense of the Meeting in the effort –not to build consensus or accommodate those who disagree– to get closer to God’s will. I hope that helps you frame it in a way that permits a clearer translation into something perhaps more idiomatically German.

  7. Hi all,
    Some of us have been discussing this on the other Quaker website at forum.quaker.org.uk – at the moment you still need to register to read and contribute but I understand there are imminent plans to enable visitors to read most content, which we hope will encourage more people to come over and take a look.
    In my recent post on the theism/ non-theism issue within Friends (and relevant to consideration of a new edition of QF&P) I’ve said that I don’t feel that all non-theists (especially within Friends) are opposed to God language. Those that don’t believe in an interventionist God may still find much truth and beauty within the sacred story of many traditions, and the collected wisdom of many generations.
    I hope a future QF&P will retain the richness of expression of individual Friends through the years and across the spectrum of belief – possibly being more confident in our non-credal tradition, united through our testimonies, and with a wider variety of testimony included in the main body of the book, addressing many different life situations and issues of interest and concern to Friends.

  8. Thanks Trevor, I was just popping back to correct my link as I just realised I’d got it slightly wrong. Thanks for doing it for me and making it clickable too.

    Hope people will come over and have a look especially as we’ve now made it open access to visitors (though read only before registering) Perhaps some will even be encouraged to register and post or start a new thread?

  9. Pingback: Faith and social media | Brigid, Fox, and Buddha

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