Reflections on the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture. Part 1 – Seeking clarity on being Quaker

Last August, whilst travelling among Friends in the US, I listened online to Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore Lecture, delivered to a crowd of Quakers at (British) Yearly Meeting Gathering. As with the previous year’s lecture by Gerald Hewitson, I felt strongly affirmed in my individual Quaker identity, and challenged in my commitment to Quakerism as a communal endeavour. Ben articulated all the problems I have with contemporary British Quakerism, and it was inspiring to hear them voiced in such a prominent way. To contribute to the ongoing discussion that is happening online, in local meetings and at Woodbrooke later this year, I’m going to devote three blog posts to summarising, and giving personal reflections on, Ben’s book version of the lecture – ‘Open for transformation: being Quaker’.

Chapter 1 – ‘A community of the transformed’

In his prologue, Ben writes that ‘if we as Quakers in Britain want our Quaker approach to faith to be vibrant, cohesive, coherent and socially useful, we need to be clear about what we are and what we are not… Healthy communities are the ones that do this well.’ I have found clarity to be distinctly lacking in my experience of contemporary British Quakerism. We are unsure about how to articulate who we are as a community, feeling only able to speak for ourselves. We may find it easy to negatively define ourselves by our lack of paid priests or liturgical sacraments, but when it comes to individuals we are fearful of drawing a line in the sand to demarcate who is Quaker and who is not, for fear of being exclusive. This is evident in the current confusion and disunity over the significance of formal membership. I myself am unclear about my own place in British Quakerism. With a gradual eroding of a shared religious language, how do I know we’re talking about the same thing, or doing the same thing in worship? How do I square my understanding of the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact, with my involvement in a community where the Jesus story is optional?

Ben devotes his first chapter to this much needed search for clarity. He sets out a simple, powerful vision of what Quakerism is, one drawn directly from our book of Christian Discipline, Quaker Faith and Practice (QF&P). Section 11.01 states fundamental beliefs that all Quakers (at least those committing to membership) are asked to affirm. These are not the familiar ‘STEP testimonies’ of simplicity, truth, equality and peace that I often hear trotted out (and have trotted out myself), but a dynamic process comprising of: ‘(1) the understanding of divine guidance, (2) the manner of corporate worship and (3) the ordering of the meeting’s business, [corporate discernment] (4) the practical expression of inward convictions and the equality of all before God [testimony – a life lived in response to this discernment].’

Faithfulness to this reality leads to individual and, more significantly, corporate transformation. If we are not engaged in this process then we are not being Quaker. I think it’s interesting that silence is not mentioned as the defining factor, or even part of the process. I often hear silence spoken about as if it was the heart of our faith, but silence has only ever been a means to an end, enabling us to wait upon the Divine Will.

Although modern British Quakerism is markedly different to the Quakerism of the 1650s, and to other expressions of Quakerism round the world, this call to faithfulness and transformation is consistent with our 350 year old tradition. Our tradition, our stories, are important. That’s why QF&P is filled with them! Accounts of the God-filled lives of our spiritual ancestors act as lenses through which we understand our own journeys. Early Quaker leader George Fox saw the whole narrative arc of the Bible played out in every individual convicted by the Light of Christ. Ben draws our attention to the pattern that emerges in the lives of early Friends, a dramatic, transformative journey that is available to us here and now:

The individual (1) encounters God and (2) experiences a revelation (apocalypse) of their current spiritual state. This provides the opportunity for (3) repentance (metanoia), a change of heart and mind. Turning to the Light provides (4) inspiration, empowerment by the Holy Spirit to live a changed life. In order to receive support in faithful living, such changed people are (5) gathered together into the church (ekklesia) based on a covenantal relationship of trust, not a contractual one of coercion. Strengthened by such communities of mutual support and love, the individual is then (6) sent out (mission) to witness with their words and actions to the transformative power of the Divine (testimony and evangelism), and to be instrumental in the ever widening reach of the Kingdom of God.

According to Ben, this is what being Quaker entails and what anyone seeking to participate in the Quaker tradition should hope to experience. Quakerism cannot be whatever you or I want it to be. It is fundamentally communal in nature, and many have trodden the path before us. Ben concludes the first chapter writing ‘Not all of us are immediately ready to hear this message, or receive this call. We do all need to understand, however, that this is the destination that Quakerism offers… It is not a Sunday activity but a life commitment… It is not an individual path, a personal Quaker way, but a journey we have always taken together’.

How am I being-Quaker?

I wholeheartedly support Ben’s clear vision of Quakerism. It is refreshing to hear the Quaker tradition explained without recourse to ‘simplicity, truth…’ etc., with no caveats on religious language and without the awful sentiment (that I’ve heard expressed more than once and even made its way into the 2013 Junior Yearly Meeting epistle) that Quakers can believe what they like. It doesn’t answer my own difficulties regarding the centrality of Jesus to my own understanding of Quakerism, but I suspect the solution to that lies outside Britain Yearly Meeting and is best saved for another blog post.

The challenge I find myself presented with in this chapter is ‘how am I being-Quaker?’ How am I participating in the dramatic narrative he describes, a story lived by Fox and Fell, Nayler and Howgill, Fry and Woolman and so many others? I’m currently living and working at Othona, an ecumenical Christian retreat centre in a remote corner of Essex. It’s been a while since I last worshipped with North West London Quakers, where my membership is held, and it’s been at least a month since I attended a Meeting for Worship. I spend a lot of time reading-Quaker, and thinking-Quaker. As administrator of the Quaker Renewal UK Facebook group, I’ve also spent a lot of time posting/blogging/getting annoyed with people I disagree with-Quaker. But how am I being-Quaker?

Surrounded by the sea and the calls of birds on the marsh, with the huge expanse of sky and a 7th century chapel round the corner, you’d think it’d be easy to open myself up to Divine encounter. It’s certainly something that I’m not doing often enough. It would be easy for me to stop there and say that sitting on a bench by the sea, listening to God, is enough for me to carry on being-Quaker. But Quakerism isn’t about me, it’s about a gathered people. There’s no such thing as a Quaker hermit! [Since writing this post, I’ve discovered there are such things as Quaker hermits. See the comments below] In his Apocalypse of the Word, Doug Gwyn writes ‘Fox’s attacks upon the established church were not the rebellion of an individualist against the constraints of corporate faith, but an outcry of a person with an alternative vision of what corporate faith can be. At the conclusion of his Journal he reviews the beginnings of the movement as the Truth’s springing up “to us so as to be a people to the Lord”’ (p.50).

I’ve felt a physical ache in my chest over the last week and sadness deep inside me. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s the pain of separation from my Quaker family. I have underestimated the importance of remaining grounded in Quaker worship. Being connected to Quakers via Facebook and email isn’t enough. In describing my vision for Quaker renewal, I wrote that ‘it will be local… Conferences at Woodbrooke and elsewhere are great, but they are not a surrogate for a local community.’ I’ve begun reaching out, scheduling phone calls with trusted Friends, and I’m intending to worship at the next opportunity with the nearest local Meeting. I find that I can easily forget the corporate aspect of Quakerism, that we should be entrusting each other with our pain and our plans, with our joys, sorrows and life decisions.

I feel like I’m in a time of transition, where lessons learned over the last six months are being cemented within me. When I feel isolated, when I’m missing Friends (and friends), I find great comfort in the words of Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’, introduced to me by the wonderful folks at QIV-C, especially at Othona where the fields are full of migrating wild geese, a symbol of the Holy Spirit in the Celtic Christian tradition:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

16 thoughts on “Reflections on the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture. Part 1 – Seeking clarity on being Quaker”

  1. Dear Mark, I do feel your blogging helps you to stay part of my community. Keep going.
    And maybe you could come to our area meeting awayday on Saturday 28 March at Lumen, WC1. It would be lovely to see you there. Leonora is organising children and young people’s activities, though don’t feel you need to be involved in that aspect.

    All best wishes

  2. Mark, thank you for sharing these reflections on Ben’s lecture. I’m finding them very thought-provoking and look forward to part 2.

    Interestingly, I know a couple of Quaker hermits! They are very much Quaker, very much concerned with humanity, the Quaker community etc. They go to meeting when they can. Their service to the community is largely through prayer. One of them holds me in the Light specifically with regard to my teaching and retreat leading ministry among Friends – and I have to say I’m very glad of it.


    1. Thanks Ginny. Quaker hermits! Thanks for setting me right. I suppose I meant that you can’t be a Quaker with being connected to other Quakers… as in Quakerism is about being drawn into Quaker community rather than being a purely individual spiritual path. Your hermit Friends are obviously very connected to other Quakers, even if they don’t see them very often. Since leaving London I have had very strong experiences of Meeting for Worship as a ‘communion of the saints’, with the sense that there are more present than are physically sitting in the chairs. Thanks again for reading and commenting on the blog, I really appreciate it!

  3. This chimes with my experience. I lose touch with bits of Sharon-ness when I miss out on Quaker meeting for long.

    Thanks for writing.

  4. I am wondering, Mark, as someone who, unlike you, is entirely Jesus-less but apart from that agrees with every word you write above, whether you worry about the future of our religious society (or wonder about your place in it) too much? It is possible to relate to god/spirit, waiting for divine guidance, living our corporate insights, together, in the world…without necessarily subscribing (exclusively, or wholly, or at all) to the Christian narrative. It strikes me that this is the ‘renewal’ that many of us seek. Not throwing out all the established ways of being Quaker, but honestly and imaginatively engaging with the fact that not that many among us (and very very few in wider society – potential Quakers, a lot of them) base our faith any longer on what was the accepted theological understanding when Quakerism first arose. I have no problem with your position. Do you think ‘straightforward Christians’ like you will eventually feel alienated and leave? I think that would be a great loss. Unity in diversity seems very much the way forward to me.

    1. Thanks for your comment Angela. I started writing a response then realised it would be best addressed in my next blog post.

    1. Hi Chris. I’ve added a contact page to the blog (next to ‘about’ and ‘bibliography’), so you can contact me from there.

  5. Hello Mark,

    This is a beautiful post. Thank you.

    a) “There’s no such thing as a Quaker hermit! ” (goodnatured ribbing) Oh yes there is… ha (Even GF started out needing to leave the community behind and find the One who could speak to his condition). Read my post at if you want to hear more about that. Your point of community is noted….but I also see that before all of that sharing and empowered action we must plug into the fuel source. You are reaching out, as guided — but may also find opportunities to plug more deeply into your Divine fuel source through your pain as you sit there with the geese. See what you think about my comments.

    b) I believe that your words are quietly reassuring me about my current job situation. I feel thrust out “into the world” by my own passion to a particular work context involving disenfranchised people. Now that I work there daily and see how certain people there actually behave toward their own community and what difficulties they heap on themselves and others — this is hard, spiritual work to be there working with them. I’ve found myself coming home to cry out to God for about 5 days now, and have the sense that I need to do this another week or more and that eventually I’ll be okay. You give me moral support for continuing this painful journey into love.

    1. Thanks for your supportive words Olivia. I’m really glad you’ve found these words helpful.

      When I read this post, which I wrote just over a year ago now, it’s interesting to see what a different place I’m in now! The seven months I spent living at the Othona Community (Bradwell) were at times extremely difficult. I was brought to depths of misery I didn’t know where in me! But I wouldn’t change it, as now I realise that I learnt so many important lessons through the experience. One of those lessons, related to your post about ‘the call to inaction’, was that daily prayer is absolutely fundamental. It was praying with my community twice a day that got me through. I wrote about it here –

      Thanks for the link to your post, and your comment on Quaker hermits. Friend Ginny, in the comments above, pointed out that she knows several Quaker hermits, so I retract that statement! 🙂 All the best with your work situation. It sounds like a real challenge. I hope you’re finding the support you need.

  6. Simply identifying as Quaker to the general public takes courage in some societies. That’s been true in the United States since before its inception as being Quaker went against cultural norms around slavery and expanding the empire through force (Indian Wars etc.). Quakers were always moving, usually westward, to get away from neighbors who considered Quaker views subversive, if not outright traitorous. Coming forward as a recorded member of said Society took guts!

    Much is the same today. Quakers tend to be boat rockers more than champions of the status quo, which isn’t to say they can’t be cheerful and jolly about it.

    As a clerk involved with how Quakers represent themselves to the general public, I’m aware of how many of us prefer to keep our religious affiliations private. Our regional directory goes out with strict enjoinders to not share the contents more widely. Try going to any Monthly Meeting website in our region to find a published list of members.

    No wonder the concept of “membership” is fading fast — if it meant anything, it would mean “a matter of public record” and Friends would gladly see word of their membership spread on public websites.

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