Locating my Quaker identity

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.

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17 thoughts on “Locating my Quaker identity

  1. Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. I have had similar thoughts recently, both at JYM and other events in response to the ‘message’.

    The current neo-orthodoxy of “you can be a Quaker and believe what you want and belong how you want and no-one can tell you are not a Quaker” is so far from the origins of even Liberal Quakerism, and from what it says in Quaker faith and practice that I feel British Quakerism is having a crisis. Lots of people who are members or attenders do not understand (or not even know) what it previously meant to be a Quaker.

    The balance between the individual and the corporate has been lost and rather than the ‘ourselves’ meaning each generation and the faith community, it means each individual.

    1. Thanks Simon. I think your final comment is particularly pertinent. It feels like I’ve written a grumpy ‘letter to The Friend’ and I don’t want to become that sort of person. I’ve reread some Patricia Loring and am constantly amazed at how well she describes what Quakerism is. She should be compulsory reading for all Quakers.

  2. Perhaps the contribution toward individual significance(self-realization?) given by the Enlightenment in human history needs an antithesis(Disillusionment?) if Quakerism is ever to reach a new synthesis?!

  3. It’s the same here in the US, though I have the sense that the drift toward post-Christian, post-traditional Quakerism may be a little farther along in Great Britain. But is there not in Great Britain (as there is in North America) a movement of Friends who really have been touched by God?

    I feel that the very soul of Quaker spirituality is the faith and practice of traditional Quaker ministry—practicing a listening spirituality that prepares to hear and to recognize how we are called to serve and then seeking to be faithful to the call. I wonder whether thee might be called to a ministry of renewal

    1. Thanks for your comment Steven. I completely agree with your description of Quaker authentic spirituality. Patricia Loring’s ‘Listening Spirituality’ volumes are two of the best books on Quakerism I have come across and I would dearly like to see her wise words more widely known within Britain. A call to ministry is certainly something I am discerning and wrestling with at the moment. What form that will take is still beyond me!

  4. Two things: First, to do as they suggest in AA – look for the similarities, not the differences. It may surprise you to find that there is much more similarity and much less difference. As they say in AA, “Our stories are 80% the same. The rest is just details.” Second, It is no less “solipsistic” to proceed as you seem to suggest in this post than it is to state what the Young Friends said. The reason I say that is because I don’t see any mention of wondering what God, Spirit, the cosmos, the Tao, the Inner Light, or the bodhicitta might intend for you to do, just what you think or feel or perceive. What if the Lord wanted you to be the yeast in the dough of BYM, no matter how unsatisfying that may be personally? Not meant as a criticism, just something to think about.

  5. Thanks for your comment Bruce. The theme for Britain Yearly Meeting, which takes place next weekend, is ‘Trust in the Spirit’, something I really want to be better at!

  6. Thanks Mark. I found this via your post on BYM and was struck by the comments on the JYM epistle. I’m really ambivalent about my own involvement with JYM for similar reasons to those given by both you and Simon. There seems a prevailing diffidence about anything reminiscent of teaching or leading for fear of hijacking the individual journeys of each young person or boring them with religion. Such Quaker input as there is is mainly outsourced to visiting speakers. There seems to be an assumption that by providing a framework of Quaker business method, some nomination processes and terminology, all else will follow. This trust is misplaced if we (the Quaker community as a whole noy just those involved with JYM) offer no information on which to build an understanding of Quakersim – no history, no theology, no explanation of our own convincement, no more than a smattering of testimony, no rooted confidence (apparently) in our own faith. The role of staff and adult volunteers is to support the appointed young people to plan, lead and deliver the programme themselves. The staff are not members or attenders of RSoF. The majority of adult volunteers are recent JYM participants but otherwise semi-detached from RSoF. So diffidence in the way we do this will not easily change. Any Friend can of course offer to serve as an adult volunteer for JYM…

    Despite this, much of the feedback from participants expresses a powerful belongingness in community, a keen search for Quaker identity and motivation to develop it in other ways beyond the event – to be “more Quaker”. As a youth event with a sense of community and a social conscience it is a success – thoughtfully structured, generously resourced and popular with participants. As a Quaker event, for many participants it may be no more than a launch from Quaker family to secular world with some memories and friendships to take along.
    (Incidentally the total number of under 18s in membership of BYM does not reach 3 figures so it is unlikely there will be many members involved in drafting the JYM epistle. This reflects the disappearance of birthright membership and I don’t think is in itself a problem)

    1. We are losing the content of Quaker tradition and increasingly identifying ourselves in terms of values and process. Part of the problem is that it isn’t easy to answer the basic question that most people ask about a religion in the case of liberal Quakerism: what do you believe? We are ambivalent about belief itself, and we have become so pluralistic theologically that one feels you can’t reallly give a simple answer. When you can’t explain your religion to interested inquirers or even your kids, you’re in trouble.

      I have developed what I hope is a fairly servicable answer to this basic question—well, two answers, really. First, I say that asking what we believe is, we believe, actually the wrong question. The deeper question is what have you experienced?

      Second, given our experience as a worshipping community over the centuries, we have come to know (rather than believe) these four essentials:

      First, there is that of God in everyone; that is, every person is capable of direct, unmediated communion with the divine.

      Second, the worshipping community itself also is capable of direct, unmediated communion with G*d (by G*d I mean the Mystery Reality behind our spiritual/religious experience, whatever that experience is). Hence, we do not have professional ministers or programmed services, etc. The epitome of this direct experience of G*d is the gathered meeting for worshiop.

      Third, we know through experience what we call continuing revelation—G*d is always present, always guiding, healing, teaching, strengthening, correcting, and inspiring G*d’s people. Hence the Bible is not the ultimate source of religious authority, but only the Holy Spirit itself.

      Finally, we each are called to live outward lives that testify to the truths that have been inwardly revealed to us. As a community, we have, over the centuries, consistently found ourselves inspired to follow certain testimonies, though more are being added through continuing revelation all the time.

      There is a fifth principle, too: the commandment of love—loving G*d and loving each other.

      You can unpacke each of these five essentials to get to virtually all the Quaker distinctives.

      1. I like your “serviceable answers” Steven and the point that we need to be able to talk about what we have experienced to enquirers and to our own young people. Re your previous comment on differences between US and British liberal Quakers I haven’t found much difference between British and American liberal Quaker teenagers in their connectedness with the content of Quaker tradition, albeit they inhabit a far more secular society and peer groups in which “God” is deeply unfashionable. The “commandment of love” is perhaps the most accessible to all through Quaker community. The Swarthmore lecturer Gerald Hewitson (who also spoke to JYM) describing his early contact with Quakers says
        “Quakers are non-credal, and this to me meant that I was free of any obligation to any beliefs. Indeed the feature I valued was being able to range widely in my thinking…. I had no experience of God. God was a concept I tried from time to time to understand. I lived my life by well-meaning liberal values, albeit ones which were informed by the decencies of Quakerism.”
        If this resonates for anyone (as it does for me) reading on from here may be personally inspiring as well as informing outreach, “inreach” and the way we engage with our youth – opening our experience to them as well as to each other.

      2. I must confess that I am not comfortable with the kind of Quakerism that Friend Hewitson describes in your quote. It “resonates” with me, but discordantly.

        First, I am uncomfortable with the Liberal Quaker emphasis on our non-credalism. Historically, we have been “non-credal” because what matters to us is the inward experience of the Spirit, not an outward formulation of religious ideology. But a non-credalism that has no inward experience of God (and by God I mean the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience, whatever that experience is), is a society of seekers—that puts us back into the condition we were in before George Fox convinced the Seekers at Firbank Fell in 1652. The Quaker movement was born then and there because Fox had FOUND something. Have we lost it?

        What have we found, even we post-Christian, post-traditional Friends who glory in having no creed (as though that meant we don’t believe anything or have nothing cogent to say)? If we have no religious experience at all, not even nonQuaker spiritual experience that we have come to understand in Quaker terms, then where are we?

        I think we should welcome seekers, people who are hungry for experience of the Spirit. But we can’t build a movement or sustain a religious community on the non-experience of people who aren’t even seeking.

        Meanwhile, we HAVE FOUND something: direct communion with God is a reality, as long as you don’t get too traditional and fussy about what “God” means.

        For me, it all comes down to the gathered meeting. In the gathered meeting for worship, something truly transcendental and miraculous takes place, and its signature is the incredible thrill, the joy, that one feels in the gathered meeting. THAT is what we have to offer the world—an unbroken tradition of a practice of worship that consistently delivers on the promise of communion with the divine that has lasted for more than 350 years. That is what seekers are hungering for. And that is what we have to offer.

        Now, as Michael Sheeran has said in his book, Beyond Majority Rule, and as we know from our own experience, gathered meetings are rather rare these days. Many meetings have not experienced one in who knows how long. Many Friends have not experienced one at all. THAT is our real problem—that so many Friends do not have the essential experience of the Quaker religion, the experience that proves that the rest of what we claim is real.

        I believe that those of us who HAVE experienced the gathered meeting owe it to the rest of us to ask whether we might be called to a ministry of ignition, of speaking, teaching, and traveling in the service of the gathered meeting—helping Friends develop a spiritual practice of listening and deepening that will prepare them to bring a full bucket to the gathering, and helping meetings develop spiritual nurture prrograms and religious education programs that would prepare those meetings to be gathered.

        And those of us who have not experienced the gathered meeting? Time to find out what you’re missing and prepare thyself to be gathered.

      3. I would recommend reading the whole of Gerald Hewitson’s Swarthmore Lecture. The bit Simon quoted was the starting point of Gerald’s journey with Quakers. Gerald goes on to describe some very powerful experiences of convincement, using George Fox’s image of passing through the flaming sword and reentering paradise. I first began worshiping with Quakers for the reasons Gerald and Simon describe, I felt it was a place where I didn’t have to believe anything. Then, due to some powerful transcendent experiences and the wise guidance of a very weighty Friend, I fell in love with the Quaker story and found what you describe above. Our challenge is to be open to seekers (‘belonging before believing’ partly captures what I mean) as well as providing a thorough grounding in the Quaker experience, both through example and education programmes. Both parts are needed, and perhaps in Britain we have swung too much in favour of the former, although with Gerald’s lecture maybe we can begin to reverse that.

  7. Yes to both your last comments Mark! It can be exasperating to hear “not having to believe anything” trotted out as the reason for coming to (or staying with) Quakers. So if I am not able to tap my own (past and present) unbelief, the exasperation is what is likely to be felt by those I hope to share my experience with. Nor will I even see the shafts of light that may be penetrating their own lives. For most of my years I would have run a mile from anything presenting as a “religious education programme”. Insofar as I am still spiritually an adolescent, needing belonging at least as much as believing, I may be a useful companion, as so many Friends, in person, in worship and in print, have been to me.
    The title of the Swarthmore lecture, “Journey into life: Inheriting the story of early Friends” indicates the context of the passage I quoted but there’s no substitute for reading the whole of it.

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