Wednesday, 25 June 2014

When Quakers get Tangled Up - Healing our divisions.

One of the questions I am frequently asked is "What do Quakers believe? As with almost all questions involving Quakers, this usually results in a pause. Instead of being able to provide anyone with a manifesto about Quakers, or pretend that I will ever be in a position to speak for them, it seems more honest for me to talk about how I see them, and, as part of that process, have chosen to identify myself as being one.

There is the almost irresistible temptation to begin by saying, "Well of course we differ widely," Rather a lot depends on who writes what and where you happen to be (left or right of "the Big Pond". Those of us in Britain Yearly Meeting might well resort to Wikipedia before meeting up with any American Quakers, having absolutely no idea what all those groupings are about. Among ourselves we have a tendency to use the terms "Liberal" "Orthadox" and "Universalist" (At this point I should probably apologise to Quakers for leaving some of these definitions we give ourselves out.)

In recent years there has been a growing tendency get double-barrelled faith identities such as Jewish-Quaker, Quaker-Unitarian, Christian-Quaker, Buddhist-Quaker. For those of us engaged in interfaith, where there is so much diversity and choice, this very specific approach may result in changing your religious identity more times than the names of your average prisoner on the run! (unless it is possible to set up in the first place a more accurate and inclusive definition of "Quaker").


Whenever we claim a view is held by Quakers, it would seem unlikely everyone signed the form stating this to be their belief. Instead what we claim as representative is more usually a majority verdict, leading to a problem now of what to do with the rest. Should these individuals be now considered on the peripheral of Quakers? Are such views so upsetting as to constitute a threat? Perhaps we should encourage anyone who is not happy with our opinion, to worship where their presence will no longer provide a challenge?
Even when that view has been agreed by a number of Friends in a reputable place, and could be seen as resulting from our ancient testimonies, it seems to me that somewhere during this process something very important has been lost.


 These dilemmas have been with Quakers for a very long time. It would seem likely to me that if anyone had asked James Naylor what was the hardest outcome of his trial and sentencing for blasphemy, he would have said the response of other Quakers.

So what about our differences? For as start, I find it a little hard to imagine the likes of William Penn beginning his defence before an English court with a plea to be treated on an individual basis, he was a very much nicer guy than all the rest, and "of course we differ widely." Right from our very beginning, Quakers have been perceived as a job lot. You either liked or loathed them. You either put them all in prison or waited a few years, looked with appreciation at that picture of Elizabeth Fry on an English five pound note, fondly imagining that in some mysterious way every other Quaker might be like her. To those outside Quakerism we have always been one people, one insidious group of troublemakers, one stubborn set of Seekers after Truth, one group that resisted the role of priests, used silence in their worship, one group that placed such emphasis upon love in all our dealings and persisted in seeing the human race without exception as being children of God. It does seem to me as being so illogical that we should see ourselves as being divided when there has always been so great an emphasis on unity from everyone else.

 To me, it is important that Quakers should not all looking be looking at each other. Such judgements with their associated hierarchies have always been irrelevant because we believe Christ speaks to us direct. Since we are all individuals with unique needs and expectations, how we hear that message will quite naturally differ widely.

This morning I am thinking in particular about kites. As with Quakers, these need to remain attached and guided or else they are in danger of getting lost. When Quakers get entangled with each other, it is generally because they are not looking in the right direction. We can get in a right mess sometimes and then come crashing down.There will be those times when it is necessary to unravel and untangle our perception of the truth. It is important not to pull the knots tighter because this process is not about power. The line is constant, the wind an endless possibility, Like kites, we have long brightly coloured tails of experience which can help stabilise us in the sky. Who is capable of judging which way the wind will blow? Who can predict our pattern?
It would seem to me that we all need to be humble about our understanding of the Truth, concentrate upon our own spiritual journeys and refrain from judging others. At times it helps to remember that life is not an easy process. We are all Quakers doing our best to fly.


  1. Some wonderful words. I seem to have become an attender at just the same time as Quakers are getting jittery about a growing minority who have found themselves attracted to exploring Quakerism and trying to find a place for themselves within it.

    It's easy to feel that aspects of the liberal Quakerism they were attracted to may be in retreat or at least having to stand up to some robust criticism (at times it feels akin to the British values debate but that's probably being unfair).

    Your last paragraph certainly has me in complete agreement though right now I'm unsure if I'm qualified to really comment other than from a completely personal point of view which is from that of a seeker.

    1. Thank you. It means a great deal to me getting this type of feedback- if fact, for me it is the best possible sort of feedback so please never discount your qualifications or the impact of a kind response! Happy Seeking! :)

  2. I attend an Anglican Church and I've been quite involved in its day to day functions at some points. Your kites analogy makes wonderful sense to me. When I am looking at other church members or at what the priests are doing, instead of concentrating on keeping my (spiritual) line straight, I'm far more likely to get tangled up and even fall to the ground.