Friday, 31 October 2014

Should anyone be allowed into Quaker membership? Is it being mean to exclude people who want to join us and what are we all about anyway?

A few weeks ago our neighbourhood group met for the first time. Although we skirted around various topics, and all of us were tired, bits of the discussion somehow stuck in my mind.

From what was being said, it would seem there can at times be huge dilemmas when accepting Friends into membership. I wonder if this is true of other Quaker meetings out there.

It seemed to me that the issue of membership provides an opportunity to look honestly at who we are and what we represent. Are we considering ourselves to be Christian these days as our founder members did or sneaking into the various ecumenical groups under false pretences? Do we see ourselves as still being a religion, or more relaxed (liberals with a small "l"). Should Quakers make the saving of planet earth a priority, adapting to become more like a way of life these days? Is it now all about culture? Should all Quakers be conscientious objectors or can such matters be left for the individual to decide?

It is always good to hear from those who talk very enthusiastically of their first time in a Quaker meeting and how they immediately feel at home. Perhaps however there are others who have looked around the Meeting House on a Sunday morning, then sat through notices and wondered how came they to be among so very different a group of people to themselves. At times like these I have been reassured by my love of history. We have always had individuals who were not quite like the rest. Its a little hard for me to imagine George Fox sitting down quietly to a men's creative listening group, or putting himself on the flower rota, though sometimes I do like to try!
Some of the more vigorous ministry from Early Quakers such as interrupting church services, shouting out abuse to the people of Litchfield, burning your musical instruments so you can walk about with something resembling a barbecue on your head, or going naked for a sign, might easily attract the attention of elders these days. All of these individuals understood the importance of drama to communicate a message, how necessary this approach was to be inclusive in a semi literate society and absolutely sane.

So what is Quakerism really? Are we consistent, or subject to a changing environment, irrevocably changed from the old days?  Who do now we think we are?

Although it is often said that we began in 1652, the climate which made so many individuals receptive to the message of Quakerism developed during the English Civil War. Many regimental chaplains who enlisted for the Parliament side soon became disillusioned and returned home to their parishes. In the absence of the usual spiritual leadership, Parliament resolved this each soldier in the New Model Army should receive a pocket Bible. This vital piece of military equipment for the time encouraged soldiers to work things out on their own. That characteristic of being on a campaign and needing to seek out truth is I believe,what defines us even today as being Quakers.

Our Meetings for worship do not create membership through the ability to accept a creed. Instead it is process whereby we come to a belief rather than the belief itself which matters. This feature enables Meetings to have considerable diversity, without compromising its identity in any way.

So what should we be asking when an individual asks to join us? Since I have never been an Elder or part of those gatherings that decide such things, the best resource I have available is our history.

1- Are you a Seeker after Truth?
Historically Quakers can be at their worst when instead of focusing on the opportunity of their own unique spiritual journey they start looking around at each other and gossiping among themselves. Instead of allowing a religion of freedom, and personal responsibility, there is the opportunity to judge, so much emphasis on our way of life, and tremendous pressure to conform.

2-Do you require leadership?
The process of being a Quaker is about our unique relationship with God. It does not require interference or distractions.  If you are looking for human intervention, it could be very frustrating to worship in silence.

3-Do you understand what it is like to be human?
At times Quakers can come over as being arrogant. A knowledge of our own weakness and dependence helps make us receptive. Since we are all a part of God's Creation, it is not appropriate to create hierarchies within a Meeting, or see Quakers as being superior to any other faith.

3-Are you Convinced?
Quakers take responsibility for their own spiritual journey. This practice would not make much sense if we did not trust God's love and ability to guide us.

If you genuinely care about a person, it is natural to want the best thing for them.  Love for another human being may be expressed in many ways. It is easy to see love as we welcome Friends into membership of a Meeting. Surely it is also a demonstration of love not to mislead or obstruct those might benefit from a different framework for their journey?


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Preaching epidemic

A few weeks ago I received an e mail from a Quaker at our meeting thanking me for raising awareness about the situation in Libya. This kindness came with an offer of a "collection slot" so I could speak about my concern more widely and raise money from other Quakers.

The following week another Quaker offered to help me set up a Facebook Group so that anyone wishing to send a message of support for people living in Libya would be able to do so. Although the technical side was relatively easy, I felt very inhibited when the site required me to divulge my identity. Perhaps this was lack of courage on my part. It did not seem appropriate for me personally to be leading a campaign. By far the biggest challenge was that of impressing my priorities onto other people. Without a supportive cast of people wishing to join in, it was so easy to give quite the opposite impression from what I originally intended.

Very early on in this process I encountered competition. It seemed there was some kind of league for world problems where those without the benefit of professional marketing skills might so easily fall off the bottom of the list. A single Facebook page jostled uncomfortably with so many other worthy causes. Somewhat illogically I hoped for magical solutions, there would be less to worry about generally in the world and we then could all focus our attention in a much more efficient manner.

Promoting my own concern made me very aware of how often Quakers seem to do this. These activities result from an interpretation of our testimonies. These also have a tendency to jostle for attention.Some become comfortable and compelling with a certain feel-good factor. Others of a more challenging nature mysteriously become "something we might aspire to" as they slip steadily down the list. My very short campaign to raise awareness about a particular issue, challenged me with a realisation that it not our way of life that just happens to make us Quaker.

To me, whether from a soap box, a pulpit, in a leaflet or even through social media sites, all of this telling people what to do is preaching. However well intentioned, in my concern about Libya I could imagine myself being vigorously heckled by George Fox. In his very loud persuasive voice he would be telling everyone not to worry about people like me intervening since God spoke to individuals direct. In a country devastated by suffering, religious extremism and the recent civil war, this uneducated, itinerant shoe-maker reminded everyone he met of their own power to communicate with God direct. When asked for specific advice on the subject of wearing swords (something we all occasionally do in Meeting!) he very decisively threw the issue back for the individual concerned to work it out for themselves. (The next instalment of this story about William Penn would suggest he did this rather well!)

When Early Quakers talked about being directly accountable to God, there must have been some connection in other people's minds. These views had been expressed before. It would have seemed quite shocking that the Divine Right of Kings should be held by ordinary people. Surely this was a recipe for chaos! This understanding of kingship had already proved so devastating and destructive. Just four years earlier it had been the main cause of a very public trial, sentencing and then the execution of a King. Happily these days, although Charles I sometimes raises a Royal standard in Meeting, however strong the views, Quakers do not have the resources for an army.

This link to Divine Right demonstrates why we were seen as being so subversive. In the aftermath of civil war, survivors were desperate to restore law and order. They could already see how all their original ideals had been transformed by conflict, there was now relentless greed, an insatiable desire for revenge and such insecurity at every level of society from all that power had achieved. When people are frightened there is often an incentive to seek out a greater force to assert its authority. Their world would not seem very different from that of many communities today. Although English people considered Cromwell's military rule as a very definite option, for Early Quakers this process led to a search for truth.

Whereas early Stuart Kings had gained Divine Right through a process of hereditary, to Quakers this remarkable privilege and opportunity was an inclusive characteristic of being human. We have all been born with a capacity to seek truth, and in this journey of discovery, can have a direct relationship with God. That process, mysteriously referred to as "convincement" made their behaviour entirely logical. If you are able to trust a power so much greater and better than yourself, it does not seem that necessary or very sensible to settle for anything less. Why should they settle for the power of weapons, the influence of wealth, the external padding of popular opinion, or so many lesser truths when given what God has to offer as a resource?

At times, being caught up in our freedom and enthusiasm, we might forget that crucial connecting link, be  distracted by the temptation to impose our individual leanings upon others. Like every other human being, I have my priorities and concerns.

The people and peacemakers of Libya are often in my thoughts. I remember a country so obviously blessed by God in its natural beauty and know that those people living in it right now are part of that creation. Sometimes all of us need to be reminded quite how beautiful we are. That awareness of being valued may come through the love and support of other human beings. From a distance I have very little idea of the internal politics, only remember a few words of Arabic and genetically cannot possibly describe myself as belonging to a tribe! The God of Islam when communicated honestly and sincerely is however the God I also know.

When there is an opportunity to send my love to Libya, I have chosen to make that commitment, despite the inevitable problems with translation. There are so many needs out there, so many different people and communities about, all requiring the right medicine. To a world pre-occupied with power, status and success, there would seem a need for us not to worry about getting things right all the time, or how we might seem to others. Instead there is the opportunity to trust in the power of our Creator, do what God tells us to do, respond to the promptings of the Spirit and just share love about.