To be a Quaker today

by Trevor Bending

I listened to the ministry by Geoffrey Durham at Britain Yearly Meeting and later nearly stood to speak myself.  But the moment passed.  I’m a new member (since February).  What could I say?

I reflected that not too many months before and only a few yards away I had heard Geoffrey speak when I was attending Quaker Quest.  Time rolls on.

Geoffrey spoke with enthusiasm.  Among the older definitions of enthusiasm (from its Greek etymology) is ‘divine inspiration’ or ‘possessed by God’.  I remembered being told this by an inspirational teacher of Italian (Trudi Berger).

We (all of us, just Quakers? OK, most of us) are rightly wary of too much enthusiasm.  We are wary of ‘rapture’, ecstatic trance and dance, shamanic practice, perhaps pentecostalism, speaking in tongues, the certainty of ‘those who know’ and so on.  This doesn’t mean these things are wrong, just that we are (rightly?) wary of them.  In the ‘christian fold’ this wariness can be found right back in Paul (for example I Corinthians: 12-14).

The early Quakers must have been much influenced by this teaching of Paul but they did not follow all of it.  Especially those parts (14: 34-36 and 11: 3-15) which speak of women! In due course, beginning with Fox and Margaret Fell, they rejected that part of Paul as being of his time and his view, of the letter and not the spirit.  They recognised that Paul could be wrong as well as right, that that must apply to all scripture and you could only discern what was right (for you, for your time and place?) through the spirit or through the heart – just as Paul also taught.  Fox said that he did not find what he was looking for in the Bible – but after his opening to the spirit, then he did find it in the Bible.  So it is for us today.  Quakers do not give primacy to Scripture but can find support in scripture and test their ‘leadings’ against traditional teachings, being wary of literalism.  (If some Quakers do give primacy to scripture then we might question whether they are being true to the early Friends’ message?).  Some of us might feel that this ‘freedom’ from rigid application of scripture, or literalism, is entirely consistent with the teachings of Jesus as presented in the gospels – and that exceptions to this can be explained (not explained away) in a variety of ways after careful reflection, including the possibility that in some cases there might be mis-attribution or misreporting, possibly to a later agenda.

But, to return to Geoffrey’s inspired address, I want to be careful to treat it with careful reflection and not be bowled over by enthusiasm.  I am not saying (for God’s sake!) that Geoffrey is wrong or that enthusiasm is wrong, but simply that any enthusiasm must be my enthusiasm or my spirit and come from the heart, passed through the filters of my careful reflection and weighed against the views of other Quakers in meeting.

In II Corinthians 3: 5-6, Paul says (or, if you prefer, it is claimed that Paul said) “not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who has also made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life”.  (And today we quote this from the Elders of Balby – still a Quaker meeting near Doncaster today – in 1656).  Paul follows at 3:17-18 with “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.  But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord”.

Quakers may not have a creed or articles of faith, but perhaps, partly in relation to the ‘discipline’ of which Geoffrey spoke, it is time to find, not 100 ‘fundamentals’ nor a conflation of the exciting variety of ‘Faith and Practice’ which exists from Yearly Meetings around the world, but a simple form of words which gives some coherence to ourselves and newcomers in explaining what nearly all or most Quakers might generally assent to.  Not to be affirmed or ‘signed up to’ and certainly not a requirement for membership but, as the Elders of Balby said: “Dearly beloved Friends, these things (for example, Advices and Queries) we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that ALL, with the measure of light which is pure and holy, may be guided; and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life”.

Such a form of words would not be a replacement for ‘Advices and Queries’ and need not be a ‘nutshell’ but perhaps a kernel or seed from which those outside the Society, and even ourselves, might be led to enquire further and explore their own spirit in the spirit of the quotation from Penington that Geoffrey gives.

John Lampen attempted this in a pamphlet ‘Finding the Words’ (Finding the words: Quaker experience and language Stourbridge, The Hope Project – [2007] (8 pages)) which I think is available from Woodbrooke.

I would like to attempt such a finding of words myself but hope that others might come forward with their ideas.  What does it mean to be a Quaker (any kind of Quaker?) today?  But would want to keep in mind the claim of Quaker Universalists that ‘Spiritual awareness is available to everyone of any religion or none’ – very much in the spirit, I think, of Penington and Penn.

Trevor wrote this post in response to Geoffrey Durham’s prepared ministry at Britain Yearly Meeting in 2012. Trevor’s blog is Not Oats.


Photo: Pensiero/flickr CC

8 thoughts on “To be a Quaker today

  1. Thee writes, “In due course, beginning with Fox and Margaret Fell, they rejected that part of Paul as being of his time and his view, of the letter and not the spirit.”

    That is not an accurate depiction of what they were doing when they supported women’s preaching. They in no way rejected that part of Paul, nor did they parse it, as some modern Quakers do, as being a mere expression of his time and place. What they argued is that men of their day (Fell and Fox’s day) were misrepresenting what the Apostles were saying.

    “And how are the Men of this Generation blinded, that bring these Scriptures, and pervert the Apostles Words, and corrupt his Intent in speaking of them?” (From Fell’s Women’s Speaking,

    Modern Friends need to be careful applying modern ways of managing theological information to historical Friends, or assuming because they have come to the same conclusions we have (women should be allowed to preach) that they do so with the same justification in mind.

  2. Here’s my attempt at a personal summary of the Quaker Way in one sentence:

    We can all experience the presence and guidance of God in our daily lives, and this guidance will lead us to witness to the character of God in lives of integrity, simplicity, and peace-making.

  3. Is it possible that I am a (non-affiliated) Quaker? There is no meeting place near enough for me to attend, nor have I ever attended a meeting, but my soul says we are one. Would it offend any of you for me to write, on forms and such where asked one’s religion, that I am Quaker? I could hardly say I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends, for I am not in society, but in my heart I believe myself to be Quaker.

    • Hi Wil, it seems no one’s knows how to reply to your question. In my opinion, we’re all one in the Spirit, so I can’t think there’s anything wrong in your describing yourself as a Quaker or a Friend. ‘Member’ on the other has technical implications and we have two categories, ‘members’ and ‘attenders’. Since your circumstances don’t permit you to qualifiy as either of those maybe they wouldn’t be appropriate. However, it could be that you may find other people of similar inclination who’d like to meet now and then for silent worship. I’m sure you’d get support from your nearest meeting to do this and a new meeting could be established. If this isn’t practical, then welcome, we’re pleased to know you.

      • Thank you for your response to my query, Brian Holley. You answered well. I would be horrified, should I be incapacitated and someone wanted to call in a spiritual advisor or counselor, to find myself with a priest or rabid protestant preacher hovering over my bed. Not to beg the issue, but I shall likely take your good counsel and define myself as unaffiliated friend. You are kind to take time to respond.

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