What it means to be a Quaker today

by Geoffrey Durham

This text was given as prepared ministry at Britain Yearly Meeting, a gathering of Quakers, in 05/2012.

My name is Geoffrey Durham and I am a member of North West London Area Meeting. I am a Quaker. And the purpose of this session is to explore that phrase in depth. ‘I’m a Quaker’. What does ‘I’m a Quaker’ mean today?

It is a topic that covers the whole of our religious society. It is about spiritual journeys, testimony, membership, openness, belief – and the ways in which they connect. We are asked to consider personal faith and diversity; to speak of our discernment around religious difference; to share our deepest convictions. And to return to our local meetings and continue the exploration there: what makes us Quaker?

It is important to speak from experience, but I am going to start by briefly relating some episodes in the life of a Quaker community – imaginary, yet replicated often in my meeting, and perhaps in yours, too.

An enquirer arrives, let’s call her Mary. She is made welcome, she reads the leaflet about Your First Time in a Quaker Meeting, she finds the stillness of our worship to be moving, perhaps inspirational. She is fairly sure that she is in the right place and she comes back for a second meeting and a third. By the time she is in her sixth consecutive week of worshipping with Quakers, local Friends have become delighted by her presence and confident that she knows herself to be a valued member of their community. She misses week seven, but a couple of weeks later, she is back. This time, though, she slips away before the notices, because – you know what’s coming next – it has been Mary’s last visit and she is never seen again.

Now, if you don’t recognise that scenario, I suspect you may be one of the lucky ones, because it does happen throughout our Yearly Meeting with mournful regularity. Local Friends try to find out what is going on, but both parties are embarrassed, no one wants to upset the other and the story ends there, in a kind of nebulous limbo, with the local meeting hoping fervently that Mary has found spiritual fulfilment elsewhere. Now, my job here is to introduce a topic, not to rattle off snap answers. But I am going to ask one question and venture a reply to it, just as a starting point. Why did Mary decide not to stay? Well, one possible reason was that she never discovered what it means to be a Quaker today. Perhaps she never found out how to join the dots.

It is understandable. There is a lot to grasp before those dots can make a picture. And Quakerism has changed during the last thirty years and it continues to change. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be Quakerism. So, presenting our faith to outsiders requires – from both halves of the conversation – patience, good will, the ability to listen. And that can be a challenge, because people like to get straight to the point. Tell me what Quakerism is. What do you believe? Just put it in a nutshell. And it is essential to know what you are going to say. I sometimes start by telling these questioners as gently as I can that if you can put your religious faith into a nutshell, that’s possibly where it belongs.

And since Quakers don’t live in a religious nutshell, since we all know with clarity and conviction that there isn’t a spiritual formula, it is a good idea to take stock every so often, to look at what we have and to see who we are. One reason that we need to do it, of course, is that we are talking about Quakerism to newcomers, but it extends much further and far deeper than that. To function, we must know ourselves as a body. Every Quaker in the world, no exceptions, has experienced the truth behind a famous saying of Socrates: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. If it is like that for us as individuals, it follows that it must also be true for us corporately as a religious society. So, I am grateful that this topic is on the agenda today.

Here are some of the fragments making up the Quaker mosaic that, it seems to me, we might want to examine in this session. And there is quite a number of them. I begin, of course, with the meeting for worship and the meaning and purpose that I and many other Quakers of my acquaintance find there. Without the right holding of meeting for worship, what it means to be a Quaker today becomes thin and insubstantial. Without the right holding of meeting for worship, Quakers become a pressure group.  Worship remains, as it always has been, at the centre of our lives. People speak of Quaker silence, of silent meetings, but we make a mistake, I think, if we talk too long or too often about our lack of noise. The right holding of meeting for worship encourages stillness out of the silence, and it is Quaker stillness that can engender radical change.

But there are more elements to Quakerism than the meeting for worship – this isn’t one-day-a-week religion. Quakers believe – all of us – that the whole of life is sacramental. There is no difference between the sacred and the secular. We work for peace, for sustainability, for economic justice. And we accept that our concerns are often profoundly counter-cultural – you can’t seriously believe in truth and equality, you can’t make them the essence of every decision, without upsetting a status quo.

Yet, for the same reasons, we are tolerant of religious beliefs we may not share and we learn from them. We do not fear uncertainty. We welcome people of all faiths and backgrounds – we are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, theist, nontheist, and we find that of God in everyone. We acknowledge that the valiant Quakers of the 1650s would not recognise this religious society at all, but we hope they would understand how we got here, because we know that they, too, were open to new light. We welcome change. Indeed, we demand it. Above all, we know that what we do matters more, far more, than what we say. And, heaven knows, we say a lot.

It can be hard to keep all this in focus.

So, as we get this session under way, I want to suggest that we might look at a familiar non-sequitur. Quakers have no creed: it follows, therefore, doesn’t it, that Quakers can believe what they like. Well, no, I don’t think it does. We call this (Quaker Faith & Practice) our book of discipline. Now, I find ‘discipline’ a forbidding word and I wish there were an alternative, but its meaning is clear to me; and without discipline, as far as I’m concerned, there would be no Quakerism. Look for the word in the index and you will find that it comes up just twice. That is because the whole of this book is about Quaker discipline. The chapter headings are telling: caring for one another, faithful lives, worship, prayer, unity, diversity. This isn’t a rule book, but it does do a lot of insisting. It insists that I, as a Quaker, live faithfully, that I listen for the promptings of love and truth in my heart and treat them as the leadings of God. So, no, I don’t believe what I like. If I do what this book insists I do, if I allow myself to be pushed by the spirit, I believe what I must. If I didn’t, this life of mine, this examined life of mine, would not be worth living. If I didn’t, I’d fail my own examination.

If ‘discipline’ is mentioned just twice in this index, another word essential to our corporate life isn’t there at all. That is because, as with discipline, the entire book is concerned with little else. And what word is that? Love. It infuses this book like a perfume. ‘Love was the first motion.’ ‘Our life is love and peace and tenderness’. And here it is again, nestling in the middle of Advice 28. ‘Attend to what love requires of you’. It doesn’t say, ‘Attend to the things you love’. It doesn’t, heaven knows, say, ‘Believe what you like’.

Years ago, when I first began going to Friends’ meetings, colleagues asked me what I was doing, consorting with these Quakers. And I said – I remember this vividly, because it came from nowhere – ‘I think they’ve got a lot to teach me about being in the world.’ It took me a while to understand it, but when I first got the hang of this gentle, insistent phrase, ‘Attend to what love requires of you’ (because I skated over it a few times, I can tell you), when I first really absorbed the requirement in it, I found myself able to engage with people in ways that I had been too proud, too shy, or too diffident to do before.

I don’t know about you, but I have had experiences in Quaker worship that have been electrifying. And they have almost always been the result of a realisation that, in that moment, meaning and purpose have become the same thing. At the time that I was talking to those colleagues, I thought I was going to Quaker meetings to understand myself better, to achieve religious insights for myself, to give myself meaning. I was looking for a sort of spiritual cushion. And I found it, I suppose, because I kept coming, but what I didn’t know was that the cushion would turn out also, at exactly the same time, to be a springboard. It is a ridiculous image, I know, but it is true for me, because as a result of some unnameable spiritual process, what happens to me in worship is that I discover that the meaning I’ve been looking for is to be found in getting out of the meeting house and doing something with and for someone else. So meaning becomes purpose and purpose becomes meaning, and I can’t tell the difference between the two, and it doesn’t matter. Because what love requires of me is that I simply go where I’m pushed. We sometimes call it faith in action. I think of it as worship in action. This book (Quaker Faith & Practice 11.01) calls it divine guidance.

For the last ten years or so, I have been pushed into work that has involved me in opening up Quakerism to newcomers, in trying to make this religious society transparent and available to them. I love talking about our faith to enquirers, but it has been a sharp learning curve, and one thing I discovered early was that it is a big mistake to bend over backwards in an effort to make Quakerism suit everybody. We don’t have to please people. We don’t have to try to make them into members. It isn’t our job. We just need to be patterns, to be examples. It is dangerous and ultimately untruthful, I think, to offer people a pick-and-mix, believe-anything, mish-mash. I’ve learnt not to be afraid of offending people with what I have to say about my faith. If I tell people clearly who Quakers are, who I am, what my experience is, and they say “Well, it’s not for me,” then that’s fine. And I’m also wary of the converse of that: enthusiasm for Quakers based on something we are perceived not to believe. ‘I’m attracted to you because you aren’t all Christians.’ No, it’s what we do that matters, not what we don’t.

And it is concentrating on what we do, that helps people into membership. Do you remember me saying earlier that there are just two references to the word ‘discipline’ in this book? Well, here they are: 11.01, ‘Membership is a spiritual discipline’ and 11.10, membership is ‘a commitment to the discipline of Friends’. That is pretty clear, and I had a sense of it at the time that I was contemplating applying, though I had never read those passages and certainly couldn’t have put any of it into words. All I knew was that it felt like a big, disciplined step. I know some birthright Friends who find this curious, but it was a life-changer for me. Not so much a spiritual development as a God-given jolt. All the other shifts I had lived through were gradual meanderings – an insight here, a determination there – but this was a conscious desire to acquire a religious discipline. And it did change me. I said a moment ago that I had been electrified by the experience of Quaker worship and the revelations it brought. Well, membership of the Religious Society of Friends upped the voltage. I felt able to see who I was, and to be who I could be. There was all the difference in the world between this new membership I was experiencing and being an attender. And because I know that difference, I cherish it. I hope we don’t forget it.

One particular area in which I felt the difference, to my slight surprise, was the meeting for worship for business. I had attended business meetings before and loved the Quaker business method, but as a member I began to understand what George Fox meant by ‘standing still in the Light’. This, too, it suddenly struck me, was sacramental living. The outcomes – we have seen this all around us over the last two or three days – are spirit-led. They are achieved through stillness, through faithful waiting on God. And so the binding nature of our decisions becomes a religious matter. We trust them because we have become familiar with a deep, holy place from which they spring. And I hope that in this session – and when we take its spirit home to our meetings – we may be able to acknowledge that the way in which we conduct our business is an indelible part of what it means to be a Quaker today.

And for many, that word Quaker is enough.  I have a sense that a large number don’t find words like ‘theist’, ‘Christian’, ‘Buddhist’, ‘universalist’, ‘nontheist’ helpful in expressing their most deeply held convictions. My impression is that for many of us, adherence to credal labels of that kind may have fallen away a little, and the religious impulse may perhaps have become something we might call ‘the Quaker path’ or ‘living the Quaker life’. This doesn’t indicate to me, as I’ve heard it said, that Quaker beliefs have changed – they have never been conveniently listed. What it may mean, if I’m right, is that the discipline of Quakerism has become more of a defining factor in the lives of some us than allegiance to a specifically Christian or other religious faith.

Speaking for myself, ‘Quaker’ is what I write in the box marked ‘religion’, when I’m filling in a form. And when I joined the Society, Quaker was what I hoped to become. I thought it was all I would ever be. So, I surprised myself a year ago when I found myself declaring in a little book I wrote that I am a Christian Quaker. It arrived on the page unheralded, like automatic writing. I read it again and again and again. I thought, ‘Where did that come from? Is it true? Yes, I think it is. I think a Christian Quaker is what I have become.’

But in saying that, I am aware that calling myself a Christian doesn’t tell the same story as your declaration might, or, heaven knows, that of George Fox, or James Nayler, or Isaac Penington. The Inward Light of Christ Within burned brightly for those early Friends in ways that I have not yet discovered. I appreciate the use of the word ‘Christian’ on the cover of this book (The Book of Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends) – and, as we know, it replaced another called Christian Faith and Practice – but while I believe that Christianity is not a notion, while I believe firmly that it is a way, I also believe that no two Christians are remotely the same, particularly if they are Christians without a creed. Here is Isaac Penington in 1660: ‘This is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk.’

Beautiful words. Kind words. And in coming to the end of this introduction, I do need to say something that I don’t think I have expressed in public before: I have never known such kindness as I have experienced in the Quaker community.  Over two thousand years ago, Plato wrote, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ If love is often the first motion, kindness is never far behind. And kindness and love are to be found, above all, in listening. Quakers listen. It is part of what it means to be a Quaker today.

And so, Friends, as this session gets under way, I hope we shall listen with love, with kindness and with creativity. We have time now to share our experience. There is much to consider, both here and in our meetings at home. It is our task to discover and embrace the reality of the worshipping community that we are, and to discern the religious society that we may become.

Visit http://www.quaker.org.uk/sites/default/files/What-it-means-to-be-a-Quaker-today_0.mp3 to listen to Geoffrey giving this introduction.

5 thoughts on “What it means to be a Quaker today

  1. I listened to this speech by Geoffery 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 Geoffery speak when I was attending Quaker Quest. Time rolls on.

    Geoffery spoke with enthusiasm. Amongst 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 Geoffery’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 Geoffery 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 Geoffery 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 Geoffery 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 ba 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.

  2. Just a quick note about the Apostle Paul. If you read the writings of Fox and other early Friends you will find that the words of Paul (or those writing under Paul’s name) are used more often than any other part of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I don’t think that they disagreed with anything that Paul wrote. However, they did disagree with the way the institutional church had interpreted and used Paul over the centuries.

  3. For a number of reasons, I no longer attend yearly meetings and so it was good to be able to read this introduction which I found, and I am sure yearly meeting found, to be really stimulating.
    Because it was an introduction, it was clearly designed to get Friends thinking about issues and so had to be provocative in the best sense. However, I think that Geoffrey Durham may have confused “believe what I like” and “do what I like”.
    I am reminded of an occasion many years ago when an overseer, outside an event organised by London and Middlesex Quarterly Meeting, told an enquirer, “We shall not judge you on what you believe but shall observe what you do.”
    I think this has always been the case with the Society.
    George Fox, Robert Barclay and the Valiant Sixty used the Bible as an authority when defending Friends against attacks from conventional Christians of their time, but at Meeting interpreted it within the context of their belief that the Kingdom of God had arrived and was within them.
    In the same way, while offering the freedom to follow their own leadings, they had to do it within a discipline enforced by a small group of male ministers who met in London. It was only in this way that they were able to deal with the problems created by James Nayler, and the Johns Perrot, Story and Wilkinson.

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