Here’s part three of a series of posts reflecting on Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore Lecture – ‘Open for transformation: being Quaker’. In part one, I reflected on Ben’s call for clarity and his description of Quakerism as a journey of individual and communal transformation. In part two I wrote about the theological pluralism of contemporary British Quakerism, and the challenges that presents. This third and final part considers ‘cheap’ Quakerism and how engaging in a living tradition can counter this, and aid us in being a robust and faithful worshipping community.
An optional Quakerism is a cheap Quakerism
The central premise of Ben’s second chapter is that the two currents of individualism and secularisation have undermined our Quaker foundations and created a Quakerism in which everything is optional. No longer thinking of ourselves as ‘the true church’, or in some cases even a church, Ben suggests we have lost a corporate understanding of the importance of Quakerism beyond the individual’s own journey. Ben believes that we’ve arrived at a point in Britain where ‘Quakerism is one faith amongst many or none and represents a choice which is itself optional… We do not need Quakerism in any ultimate sense… we simply enjoy our Quakerism.’ As a result, regular attendance at meeting for worship and meeting for worship for business, contributing financially, becoming a member, accepting a nomination, the ‘testimonies’, religious education, believing in Divine guidance, experiencing a gathered meeting – all of these things have become optional. If every aspect of our Quakerism has become entirely optional, how valuable is it?
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed the church of his day, he saw a religious culture that said ‘say you accept Jesus as your saviour and you’ll get into Heaven for free’. He saw people going to church on a Sunday, but no evidence in their lives that the power of Christ was transformative. He named this ‘cheap grace’. He was adamant that following Christ is hard work and requires commitment, sacrifice and a transformed life. Discipleship costs! Bonhoeffer witnessed to this with his own life when he was martyred by the Nazis in 1945. Many of our own Quaker ancestors have met violence and even death because of their witness, and yet now in Britain we find ourselves living a compartmentalised, Sunday-club Quakerism, separated from our ‘private’ lives and competing with a whole host of other commitments for our time, energy, gifts and financial resources. Ben suggests that ‘we have embraced a way of being Quaker that allows everything to be questioned and everything to be related to personal choice… When our faith becomes optional, so does our practice, and vice versa’. A Quakerism that requires nothing from us – where every component is optional and obligation-free – is cheap Quakerism.
Cheap Quakerism results in pseudo-communities – groups of people who have made no commitment to each other, and therefore don’t spend any time cultivating interpersonal relationships. How can we trust each other if we hardly know each other? How can we be a Society of Friends? If we don’t trust, we don’t have faith. Ben writes: ‘The 2013 Yearly Meeting documents in advance carried the question, “Can we really trust in the Spirit?” I tried reading this a number of ways but it always came out as a Quaker heresy: that the Spirit may be the kind of thing that might be untrustworthy!’
What’s the cost?
What has your Quakerism cost you? What may it cost you in the future? With this challenge comes joy, as to rediscover a costly Quakerism is to rediscover hope. Faithfulness and hopefulness go hand in hand. Faithfulness means not worrying about falling numbers amongst Quakers, it means taking risks. ‘Our faithfulness in the end is not dependent on the security of Quakerism as a denomination. We are not here to save Quakerism, but to nurture our spiritual life as Quakers’. Are we prepared to give things up? ‘In 2009, one of the hesitations listed by Friends about campaigning for equal marriage was that we might lose the right to perform heterosexual marriage. In other words, we worried about doing the right thing in case we lost privilege’. Are we prepared to move out of our comfort zone for the sake of the community? Ben writes that ‘the Amish divide their Districts when they contain more than 35 families’ and there are house churches that divide when their cell groups contain more than twelve people. Are our larger meetings prepared to divide for the sake of growth? When we collectively listen to the Divine Will, we may be called to all manner of things, such as giving our money and our time. Following the Way may cost us material gain and social status. It may call us to break familial ties. As inconceivable as it may be to many of us, it may even cost us our lives.
Inhabiting and transmitting the tradition
How can we communally shrug off the ineffectual culture of cheap Quakerism? In his third chapter, Ben issues a call to faithfulness, emphasising the need ‘not just to inherit our tradition but to inhabit it’, and to transmit it in bold and joyful ways.
Tradition is a challenge to individualism. Tradition is composed of many voices. ‘Tradition’ writes G. K. Chesterton, ‘is the democracy of the dead… Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.’ Being a Quaker means we’re part of a conversation, not only within our meeting, but with Quakers nationally, internationally, and with the many Quakers who have gone before. Ben writes that ‘wherever we are as Quakers in our personal journey… we need to locate ourselves as part of a narrative which began in 1647, one which has taken many different expressions over time and geography’. To engage with tradition is to take your place in a narrative. Perhaps one of the reasons I have encountered anti-tradition sentiments within British Quakerism is that the dominant story (the mystical story that I write about in part 2) is a-historical and anti-narrative. To inhabit tradition is to abandon any notion that it’s all about you: ‘The Quaker way is, ultimately, not about the individual at all, but the meeting community… We can only live in diversity if we are practiced in the giving and receiving of spiritual friendship, rather than the implicit encouragement of individualistic isolation’.
Tradition is also a challenge to secularization. Our tradition is explicitly a religious tradition based on covenant and discernment. ‘We are not a community centre with a free cup of tea… we are a worshipping community’.Engaging with tradition asks us to examine how influenced by the World we have become. It reminds us that ‘our business method is not about efficiency, but relationship and process’, and that ‘we need not thank people for their ministry, but rather for being faithful for sharing what they were given’. Tradition also reminds us that there are core insights to being Quaker, and that it’s not a theological free-for-all: ‘Theological difference is fine – and at times all we can hope for… – but theological divergence, especially over the nature of our processes, affects the way we can work together’.
Perhaps our failure to fully inhabit our tradition is due to our difficulties in transmitting it. Beginning in the 1850s, the ‘hedge’ of peculiar Quaker practices such as plain dress, plain speech & endogamy was gradually dismantled. The explicit, outward signifiers of Quaker identity, which were themselves a way of transmitting tradition, were shed. Now that there is nothing distinct about our appearance, how do we communicate our Quakerism to each other? Religious education is the duty of every individual worshipping community, but Ben asks ‘why have we been so reluctant to teach Quakerism?’ Perhaps paralysed by theological plurality and fear of authority, we ask ‘who are we to speak for the Society? ’Tradition gives us the tools we need to transmit it. We have a Quaker Faith and Practice in every meeting house waiting to be used. Ben writes that ‘knowing our book well and using it wisely is an important part of maintaining the reality of a Religious Society of Friends. It is our book, and through its sculpture and adoption, we find a primal tongue for our time’
Tradition vs traditionalism
I have heard tradition spoken of as a straight-jacket, as repressive and suffocating. Jaroslav Pelikan (quoted in C. Wess Daniels ‘A Convergent Model of Renewal’) writes that ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living’. To inhabit a living tradition does not mean unquestioningly doing everything as we’ve done before. Ben writes: ‘When a structure becomes a burden, we need to change the structure. If there is no Life in keeping the meeting going, let’s close the meeting.’ Meeting for an hour on a Sunday morning could be considered ‘traditional’ if that’s all you’ve ever done, but why not meet for longer? Or on a different day? I’ve had very powerful experiences of longer meetings for worship, referred to by Ben as ‘Quaker-slow’. A rota might be considered ‘traditional’, but if we’re having trouble finding someone to do the flowers each week then lets just stop having flowers – our Friends in the US do just fine without them!
From triviality to transformation
Having heated discussion about flowers may sound trivial – because it is! It may also be a sign that you’re caught up in Sunday-club Quakerism. Tradition is an antidote to the boring irrelevancies that weigh community life down. We’re reminded that Quakerism is about more than flower rotas, renting the meeting house out to the local ballet school or determining who’s going to run the stall at the local street fair. In engaging with the Quaker tradition, I’m brought into contact with people who made bold claims that God was intimately present, lovingly subversive and powerfully transformative. Their witness cost them so much. The likes of Mary Dyer and James Nayler ask ‘what is our story worth to you? If you want it to be your story as well, how much are you prepared to give?’