Last year I mused that British Quakerism is having an identity crisis. It may be, although I don’t know for certain. More truthfully, it’s me who’s having the identity crisis! I have said to friends in the past, ‘I’m a Quaker depending on which day you ask me’. I’d like to explore this thought a little more.
Am I a Quaker? Well it depends…
In certain respects I feel deeply Quaker. My Quaker identity was cemented largely by the formative experience of worshipping with Edgbaston Friends. I have been in Membership of the Society for ten years. I connect strongly with Quaker literature, with Barclay’s Apology, Thomas Kelly ‘A Testament of Devotion’, Doug Gwyn’s ‘Apocalypse of the Word’ and Patricia Loring’s ‘Listening Spirituality’ at the top of my ‘Quaker-essentials’ reading list. I have experienced profound instances of corporate worship. I see the Quaker tradition as an expression of the non-violent Way of Jesus, stressing direct experience of the Living Christ, with a history of speaking Truth to Power, confronting the inherent violence of the powers and principalities with the gospel of the Prince of Peace.
This all said, certain things suggest that I might not be as Quaker as I think. I have journeyed beyond the formal British Quaker community for several significant things, such as my religious education (in particular study of Christianity and the Bible) and spiritual direction. I chose to celebrate my marriage in a hybrid ceremony of our own devising, without input from my local Quaker Meeting.
Locating our Quaker identity
Largely, we form out identities by comparing ourselves with those around us. If I compare myself with the majority of Quakers worldwide the answer is a definite yes, I am a Quaker. But what if I compare myself with British Quakers?
Very recently Junior Yearly Meeting (JYM), the formal gathering of Quaker youth aged 15 to 18, closed their epistle with this statement: ‘Quakerism doesn’t just let you believe what you want, but helps you believe what you want, allowing us to interpret Quakerism for ourselves’. I feel this is a ‘Quaker Fish Tank‘ sentiment of the highest order, but how seriously should we take it? Membership of the Society is not a requirement for attendance of JYM. How many of those involved in drafting and approving the epistle are in Membership? I don’t know, but if the numbers of Members are small, it is to be expected that they will sometimes misunderstand, in this case significantly, the nature of the Quaker tradition. This then raises questions about the state of Quaker religious education, which I won’t go into now.
But do these sentiments extend beyond JYM? I have heard sufficiently solipsistic ideas expressed frequently enough to suggest that this is so. Perhaps my interpretation of Quakerism is based on what British Quakerism used to be (or at least what I think it used to be) and not what it is developing into, or is now.
So the question remains – where does my Quaker identity reside? In my relationships with other Quakers? In past spiritual experiences? Formally, in my membership of an Area Meeting, and attendance at a Local Meeting? In a Quakerism that is no longer practiced in this country? I’d be very interested to know why other Quakers identify as such.
But does it matter?
Does it matter? No, in that I’ve seen the Way of Jesus travelled by people of many different labels, both of the church visible and church invisible in Barclay’s terms. It may also be the case that my concerns on the direction of popular Quaker thinking are misplaced and I’m worrying about nothing, although I think this unlikely.
So does it matter? Yes, it does matter, because where else would I go? My yearning for community is born out of the realisation that I can’t go it alone. The Way is one of fellowship. Where is there another queer affirming faith community witnessing to the non-violent nature of the Kingdom of God? To join a different faith community would require some theological and liturgical compromises. Separation from the faith community I’ve inhabited for the last decade would be very painful indeed.
I am as yet undecided. I am looking forward to attending Britain Yearly Meeting later this month, for the first time in a number of years, and it will be interesting to see if my Quaker identity is affirmed or challenged. I pray that I will be led into a deeper knowledge of my religious identity as the year progresses.