Why I am a Quaker, how I am a Quaker
by Leo Vincent
How is a much easier question to answer than why.
How am I a Quaker? I am a Quaker because I go to meeting to worship, am an elder and an overseer and because I take part in roles for Britain Yearly Meeting and for other Quaker bodies and organisations. But these are not really the ways I would use to describe how I am a Quaker. They are, in many ways, just the way that I engage with my Quaker community. The real how I am a Quaker is defined by the way I live my life, the choices I make and the actions I take.
My work has taken my all over the world exploring new places and engaging with different communities. I work in conflict resolution with young people using educational development as a key driving force to promote peace sustainability. It is an exciting role that I enjoy doing but it brings with it many challenges and difficult obstacles that I need to navigate and overcome in order to be effective.
My work is my personal testimony. It is the way that I am viewed by the people around me and a big part of that relates to being a Quaker. I don’t know if I would have been on a different path if I was not a Quaker, nor do I complete understand the intricate two way relationship between my work and my Quakerism – but I do understand just how big an impact being a Quaker has on my work.
Being a Quaker brings with it a huge burden of history. If you ask people about Quakerism they tend to know about Quakers and peace, or Quaker involvement in the end of the slave trade. Most recently, of course, people know about Quakers and gay marriage. I think people tend to have the impression that Quakers are intrinsically good people always fighting the good fight. The weight of history is something that each one of us has to carry as a Quaker, but I often wonder just how well I am measuring up to it! When I was working at UNESCO I was asked to be on a committee conflict and education not because of my skills as an expert in this area but because I was a Quaker and therefore it was assumed I would be able to contribute something wonderful to the discussions. I wonder whether they would ask me to do that again if they knew that inside I just wanted to shout and scream throughout most of the meetings!
I came to Quakers because I wanted to be grounded in my spirituality and to be something more than someone who went once a week to a place of worship and did the singing, praying and confessing. I wanted to integrate my whole life with my faith – whatever that faith is. And I hope I do that.
During the everyday I try to base my decisions on that grounded spirituality. I take all of the big decisions in my life through a process of discernment – both using the silent practice of Meeting, my Quaker community for support, and other tools such as dowsing and kinesiology. Through this I try to make sure that the decisions I make are as connected to the spiritual side of me as possible.
Living in faith this way has been scary and an emotional journey and a challenge to the way I was bought up. I grew up in a world full of privilege. Money was no object. I went to a good school and everything I wanted was provided for. I didn’t find this way of living to be totally fulfilling but I, like many people, never questioned it. Then the disaster happened. I came face to face with my own mortality and began a period of reassessment that has continued to this day. Now, despite the fact that I often have to cope with struggle, I feel as if that bit of my life that was missing growing up is now found and that I am fulfilling the role that I came into this world to do.
I’m not sure I would say I was a good Quaker. I do the truth testimony pretty well. I do the peace testimony to best of my ability, but I’m not too good on the simplicity one. I try to live my life and my relationships in the simplest way possible – and then I get distracted by the new i-pods, kindles and blackberry. I am totally opposed to gambling, don’t drink to excess too often and smoke just enough to keep my addiction! But that’s what I like about living in faith. I don’t need to be perfect – I just need to do my best and let go of the guilt that I don’t always succeed – I’m learning, experiencing and witnesseing and that’s the fun of it!
So why am I a Quaker?
I have always been spiritual in some way but I never connected with the Church of my childhood. It didn’t seem to me to be anything about living a good life; more talking about it. I don’t believe in a God that has a personality and judgements – in fact I wouldn’t call what I believe in God at all. And I don’t connect with the bible – it doesn’t inspire me. I understand that other people do and I think that’s great but it’s just not for me. But I do find inspiration and spiritual nourishment in other things – in the connections I have with other people and the world around me and I do like the idea of a worshipping community.
I came to Quakers originally for a space in which I could have silence and escape from the world around me. I didn’t offer anything into the silence and I didn’t want to take anything out of it. But as is often the way things never quite work out how you plan! I found Quakers to be liberating. I discovered that it was ok to have a spirituality that doesn’t have words and before long I was hooked – it was like something had just fallen into place and I felt peaceful about my spiritual life instead of in constant conflict with it because it doesn’t conform to what other people expect and since I’m ok with it my spirituality grows more and more every day.
I guess what keeps me with Quakers is that I feel I can commit to the worship community without losing my personal integrity. I can contribute and gain and no one demands any more of me that I can offer. And I feel like I am not the only one on a personal spiritual journey. At Church, as a child, it seemed like everyone was trying to beat the same path to the door of wherever it was they thought they were heading, but with Quakers I love the way we support each other to tread our own paths.
When I was asked to write this I thought it was a huge topic that I could go on and on forever talking about how I reached this decision or that or what I feel about this view of the world, or that view so I tried to think of one defining thing that being a Quaker is for me, what it offers and how I live it. This is what I came up with: being a Quaker has allowed me the opportunity to have my own space in the world, to stop chasing daylight and rest quietly, with an open heart, in the darkness and light that comes through my life. And for this I am extremely grateful and humble.
This talk was delivered at Westminster Friends Meeting for Worship for Business.