Why? How? Simon Colbeck

by Simon Colbeck

To answer this question like a Quaker I’ll start by saying “It depends what you mean by “why””.  No single answer is enough.

In one sense I’m a Quaker because my parents made the decision for me.  They were quite religious people and when I was about ten they decided that the mainstream Christianity of the Anglican Church was no longer enough for them.  They started attending a Quaker Meeting and taking me and my sisters with them.  I went along with the change as any ten year old would, without giving it much thought. They also sent me to Quaker camps every summer, which I loved and they sent me to a Quaker boarding school for my secondary education.

These places and people were formative in many ways but as a youth I never thought of myself as a Quaker and no-one really asked me to.  So I just drifted off into different groups associated with politics, music, sport, vaguely alternative lifestyles and my work as a committed but personally unambitious social worker.  If I ever discussed religion I declared myself an atheist but would admit that Quakerism had been influential in my values and attitudes to life.  I was impressed by the deeds and writings of revolutionary warriors but also by the testimony of Howard Marten, an elderly Conscientious Objector in my childhood Meeting.  He had told me of his turmoil of sickening fear and faithful certainty when the death sentence was read out at his court martial for refusing to obey orders as a conscript in 1916.  (The sentence was commuted to “ten years penal servitude” and he was released from Dartmoor in 1919 some months after the end of the war.)  He was the first to explain “that of God” to me, as the compelling reason for his absolute refusal to kill another human being.

In another sense I’m a Quaker because in my early thirties a girlfriend was curious about Quakers and I was willing enough to go with her to a Quaker Meeting by way of explaining this aspect of my past life.  A couple of years later and with a year old daughter together, it happened that we decided to get married and neither of us wanted anything other than a Quaker wedding.  The Meeting community embraced us as a family in the way they welcomed us and celebrated our choice as two newcomers and they joined us to them as much as we joined ourselves. It was several more years before we jointly decided to apply for membership and all that stuff is also important to the “why”.  I felt part of a loving community, I agreed with the things Quakers stood for, I enjoyed some strong friendships within the Meeting which held me when I felt hopelessly broken. I didn’t really have any sense of myself as a spiritual person but that seemed okay and they were willing to have me.  I was bewildered when my Meeting was desperate enough to appoint me as an elder and my fellow elders were desperate enough to appoint me as convener. I was relieved to reach the end of my appointment without seriously upsetting anyone.  I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing in silent worship and often felt quite restless, bored or sleepy but sometimes I was moved by ministry or by a sense of a power among us that was more than shared fellowship with a dash of altruism.

My complacent “default atheism” was also jolted by the far more passionate atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  I didn’t recognise the faith they seemed to be defining and caricaturing for the purpose of deriding it as simple, primitive and destructive.  I knew I wasn’t that kind of believer or that kind of atheist so what did it mean to call myself a Quaker?

I’m a Quaker now for all the reasons above and because in the last few years, with my children grown up, less preoccupied with occupational and family roles, I have made connections to the wider Quaker world (online and off) which have opened me to different versions of my Quaker and Christian heritage.  I have been curious about language, theology and forms of worship that previously exasperated me.  I have been motivated to find new ways to listen although I can still be angry, judgmental and argumentative and I need Quakers to help me with this.

In 2010 I was incredibly fortunate to be an adult ‘leader’ for a month with The Quaker Youth Pilgrimage travelling among diverse Quaker communities in the Pacific North-West of the USA.  In truth whatever I had to offer was outshone by the youthful light and energy I was given for my own journey by my teenage companions.  I have been led to explore and articulate more about why I am a Quaker, more about the way our faith is rooted in the teachings of Jesus (as reported and interpreted to us by fallible human story tellers).  I’m far more interested in this kind of truth and how it continues to unfold, than in the remote possibility that Jesus was a real person or in any literal sense, the son of God.  I am willing to claim the Christianity expressed in William Penn’s advice “To be like Christ is to be a Christian”.  In fact I love the simultaneously essential and impossible demand it makes.  I am less satisfied with woolly, “don’t ask, don’t tell” tendencies among some of the liberal Friends with whom I belong.  They seem particularly self-defeating when we are evasive about discussing what we believe and why, with curious others and with our own young people.  Sometimes we seem afraid that our faith is an empty shell, that if we say anything that can’t be proved we are peddling delusion and superstition, that we know what we do and what we stand for and it’s best to steer clear of why in case we disagree.  I’m a Quaker because I agree that faith must be lived but also that for it to motivate us or anyone else, we must surely nurture and build it by talking about it!

I am a Quaker now because I have learned my Quakerism from communion and spoken ministry and from some of the stories of the 360 years worth of Quakers I have found time to read and listen to.  I am not a Quaker merely because I like the silence, liberal politics, the absence of dogma and the friendliness and decided to call myself one; attractive as all these things were and are.  I am a Quaker because “the priesthood of all believers” resonates as a call to equal responsibility in building our faith community as well as a better world (the kingdom of heaven on earth may take a bit longer).

The 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. Photo: QYP.

The 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. Photo: QYP.

I am a Quaker because I do not believe in supernatural beings but feel strongly that science and reason do not begin to answer questions about the meaning of life and what to do with it.  I am easily distracted but I can’t dismiss those questions all the time.  I am a Quaker because I don’t expect to ever arrive at a literal or absolute understanding of Justice, Truth, Equality, Peace or God (let alone proclaim it to others).  I am a Quaker because I hope to keep up the search and to try to share it in the way I live with my Friends and family and everyone my ‘journey’ brings me into contact with.

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