Reflections on the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture. Part 3 – Cheap Quakerism and Living Tradition

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?’

24 thoughts on “Reflections on the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture. Part 3 – Cheap Quakerism and Living Tradition”

  1. Another well written, interesting blog post Mark. I’ve been thinking about the Society recently and it isn’t difficult to see why British Quakerism has lost its way; it’s biggest strength (having no creeds or beliefs that must be accepted) is also its biggest weakness. In my opinion without some rules people can lack coherancy. We live in a largely secular country now and a country with many different faiths. Because Quakers welcome everyone to become a member and require no set beliefs whatsoever it was inevitable that Christianity within the Society would weaken.

    I think the Society should begin to require it’s members to believe certain things in order to join the Society. Attenders should have no requirements made of them but for membership I don’t think it would cause harm but might do alot of good.

    The Shakers refused to budge on their issue of celebacy and as a result their group has practically died out. I think it would be a great shame if Quakers went the same way

  2. Other Quaker groups have done it already such as Ohio Yearly Meeting in the US who say in their ‘Book of Discipline’

    ‘An individual must be open to the experience of the Divinity of Christ and must have an under- standing of the necessity to surrender oneself to the Will of God as shown to us by the Power of Christ within us’

    Without this the applicant doesn’t get membership. What’s to stop Quakers in the UK from adopting the same position?

    1. Thanks for this Chris. One of the things that Ben points out is that we already do have a description of what Quakerism is in our book of Christian discipline, it’s just very much underused. I can’t see Britain Yearly Meeting ever agreeing on a creedal statement. It’s a difficult problem with no clear answer in sight.

      1. Hi Mark, sorry to be a pain; where in Faith & Practice can I find the description? Thanks 🙂


        ‘Membership is also a way of saying to the meeting, and to the world, that you accept at least the fundamental elements of being a Quaker: the understanding of divine guidance, the manner of corporate worship and the ordering of the meeting’s business, the practical expression of inward convictions and the equality of all before God. Participation in the process that leads to admission into the community of the meeting is an affirmation of what the meeting stands for and of your willingness to contribute to its life.’

  3. “For, when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up…” Robert Barclay (1648-1690)

    As a U.S. liberal Quaker, I find the above quote from Robert Barclay speaks my mind. And that’s enough for me.

    I attend a meeting that has no rules per se except to follow the way of Love to the best of my ability.

    That universal Love can be found in the silence of Quaker worship, waiting to energize me to go forth into the world. I so appreciate this simplicity of my faith and would have it no other way.

    1. Thanks for your comment Howard. As regards the blog post, how do you relate to Quakerism as a tradition? What do you make of Ben’s comment that ‘wherever we are as Quakers in our personal journey… we need to locate ourselves as part of a narrative which began in 1647’ And what do you think about the idea that Quakerism is not about the individual at all, but about a gathered community?

      1. When first becoming a Quaker 28 years ago I was literally consumed with Quaker Faith & Practice and its tradition spanning hundreds of years. I remained such for 20 of those 28 years. I was so consumed that I was called upon by my meeting to explain current Quaker practice in the context of Quaker history, and I read and wrote about Quaker tradition extensively (as my spare time allowed). About 8 years ago something began to change for me (which would be too lengthy to explain here), and I have done an about-face that has matured to my present view of things. Basically, my (and Quakers’) obsession with our tradition began to ring hollow for me – like an empty shell that was missing the whole point of view from the perspective of the very first Quakers. I began to view our obsession with our history and tradition as a form of idolatry that I believe is absolutely smothering us and is at the root of why we can not attract new seekers in a modern world that (rightfully) does not respect tradition just for tradition-sake.

        I believe the two important offerings that Quakerism has given the world are (1) the practice of ‘expectant waiting’ worship where we go into silence to seek communion with the divine essence that is the Source of all existence – no matter whether we name this “Christ”, “the Spirit”, “the All”, “Nature”, or “the Universe”, or whatever. It simply IS, and it is only smart in an ever-more complex world to take time to really connect with it; (2) the practice of seeking the way forward for a community (the “meeting”) by listening and discerning the truth through putting aside our individual egos so that the truth of any issue can emerge in the unified minds of the community.

        For me, I have come to believe that everything else that Quakers have built up over hundreds of years can go out the window – if at least these two things in the above paragraph remain. These two constitute a spiritual practice that all humankind sorely needs. Everything else is transient in that they may come and go as time marches on, circumstances change, and ‘what works’ for people in any given time and location emerges.

        If more Quakers regularly chose to worship in the manner of Friends, the values the world needs will naturally emerge from the Spirit that is inspiring us in worship. If groups of Friends returned to using their Meetings for Business as occasions of discernment for the way forward (instead of announcements and administrative reporting), a true gathered community in the Spirit will naturally result and the individuals’ egos will be voluntarily laid aside.

        I have come to believe that the very earliest Friends (before the worship of “tradition” was embraced and codified) had it right. Their faith was living; it was current; it was simple in Spirit; it was relevant to the world they were living in. And the two mechanisms they instituted: ‘expectant waiting’ worship, and discerning the way forward as a gathered community – were enough. In actuality all they needed. It is still all we need today. And it is all the world needs today if we as Quakers would just return to it. The rest of what we have idolized is ‘noise’ that turns most potential seekers off. That is the source of our current crisis in both Britain and the U.S.

      2. Thanks for this Howard. In my travels amongst British Friends, I’ve not witnessed the obsession with tradition that you have. More often I’ve seen a disconnection with our roots, the Early Friends being seen as odd or embarrassing. I completely agree that we need a faith that is living, current, simple and relevant, and I think engaging with our tradition (rather than traditionalism) can give us that.

      3. Your post is sprinkled with pleas that Friends “return” to the knowledge and respect for Quaker traditions. Modern Friends do not see much value in doing that because they have rightfully identified it as noise that at best is merely historically interesting. I think that rather than our glass being ‘half empty’, our current state of affairs is ‘half full’. And if we emphasize our manner of worship and process for discernment as WHO we are, our “glass” will run over with the Spirit.

        A living faith, like the one preached by Jesus, does not rely on tradition and books. It relies on the power of the Spirit to transform people so their lives, their families, and the world are better. All religions that argue for respect for their “holy” books (i.e., “Faith and Practice”) and their traditions eventually will lose relevance.

        Consider this: Perhaps the mass of Quakers who are ignoring tradition and their ‘Faith and Practice’ manuals have gotten it right. The powerful and meaningful aspects of Quakerism to their modern lives is silent worship and gathered communal discernment. And all they now need is for the Quaker experts and historians to recognize that and help them to focus on it alone.

        Seems like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were also steeped in their books and traditions, viewing these as very important. And they missed the boat as to what people needed and wanted.

      4. Where are my ‘pleas that Friends “return” to the knowledge and respect for Quaker traditions’? I honestly don’t see them! I explicitly differentiate between inhabiting a lived tradition , and practising a dead traditionalism.

        Please also realise that I write about these things from a place of dissatisfaction, not with Quaker’s knowledge of their history, but with the fact that I’m not encountering Quaker communities as places of transformation! I’ve been to so many meetings for worship where there is no sense that we’ve come together to be transformed and built into a living temple. We can do better than that!

    2. Howard said, “Seems like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were also steeped in their books and traditions, viewing these as very important.”

      Let’s remember that Jesus was also “steeped in books and traditions, viewing these as very important.” In fact, he viewed them as so important that he emphasized their importance in the Sermon on the Mount, saying:

      “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

      Jesus was calling people back to authentic Judaism, where the law was a manifestation of and a guide for the Jews’ inward righteousness and devotion to God rather than a heavy burden used to determine who was “in” and who was “out” of God’s favor. Jesus preached “primitive Judaism revived,” engaging with tradition rather than discarding it.

      “Silent worship and gathered communal discernment” can easily become empty forms, which many of us have probably seen in the context of certain business meetings in which any pretense of worship is rapidly discarded in favor of discussion and debate moderated by the clerk. Tradition isn’t THE answer, but it does give us a vision of what actions and attitudes can promote and manifest faithfulness to the Word of God.

      1. Thanks Adria! Early Friends similarly saw themselves as calling for a return to ‘primitive Christianity’. I really agree with Nadia Bolz-Weber when she says “you have to be really deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.”

      2. Maybe we are saying the same thing from different vantage points. I think there is a fine line when it comes to emphasizing tradition. The human tendency (as Jesus pointed out so well) is to over-emphasize it to the point of idolatry; i.e., missing the mark of an unadulterated relationship with the divine due to over-stressing the importance of a religious tradition. Tradition can be helpful (as might be true with the Bible or other “holy” book) – but not necessary to have a solid spiritual experience. Maybe that is all you are saying here, Mark. But I have heard (read) here that in order to correct the lack of depth in Quaker meetings, understanding Quaker tradition and ‘Faith and Practice’ are needed. I do disagree with that.

      3. It does sound like we have different understandings. Firstly I don’t believe in un-mediated spiritual experience – which is how I understand your reference to ‘unadulterated relationship with the divine’. I also believe in the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event, so I see myself as part of a narrative (tradition) that has a beginning, middle and end. I also believe that to be ignorant of your tradition is to be denied a very effective tool in being a faithful community. We represent two quite different perspectives within the global Quaker family and a debate that isn’t going to go away any time soon.

  4. Chris, by suggesting that we need to have some sort of requirement for membership as suggested above belies the different level that this piece is operating at. I think your reading misplaces what I think Mark (and Ben) are arguing, which is that we are lacking in the LIVING SPIRIT and experience of the the divine within. Having such a requirement for membership will not solve that problem, which is why Quakerism was started as a non-creedal religion to begin with.

    1. Thanks Jay. Yes, what binds us together should be our lived spiritual experience, not a creedal statement. Unfortunately, the shallowness of our communal life and the seemingly optional nature of spiritual convincement means that some meetings are gathered according to shared values/ideas (notions?!) rather than shared experience – a very weak foundation for being a transformed community!

  5. As perhaps most of us I support Mark’s critique of “Sunday Quakerism”. But, as we can’t leave our family and work obligations alone, the problem seems to be: How do we get family life, work and Sunday under a common concept as parts of life connected “organically”.

  6. Mark: I find your reflections on Ben Dandelion’s talk thoughtful and stimulating. And the comments by others are also exceptionally good. But then, the question arises about what is the way forward?

    Attempting to reconfigure a yearly meeting, long established and mostly satisfied that it is on the right track, is unlikely to bear good fruit!

    I believe that a better course of action is to form new local groups which can attempt to model a more faithful witness and fellowship. This option itself is not trouble free. Issues of leadership and power, the basis of fellowship, and relationship to established Quaker structures all come into play. And “take-over artists” come out of the woodwork and make their moves to control the life of the fellowship. Nevertheless, these local fellowships can become laboratories in the quest for new life in the Society of Friends.

    1. Thanks William. I totally agree. I’ve found myself part of an experimental Quaker/Anabaptist-flavoured house group which feels like it has Life in it. We’ll see!

  7. Hello my Friend Bill! Your wisdom is so practical and refreshing to the spiritually weary! Your insightful comment is exactly what my meeting has concluded and is now doing. Although we do consider our Yearly Meeting’s stated practices, we place real importance on our own divine leading using Quaker process and discernment. This experiential approach to our seeking the divine for our spiritual community has over time removed secularism from the core of our communal experience, greatly increased the spirituality of our community (in our corporate life and individual lives outside the meetinghouse), brought an awareness of what the very earliest Quakers were REALLY experiencing, and reintroduce a respect among our Friends for the Spirit obviously within Jesus – and how powerful of a message he really had.

    All this has happened without any thought given to Quaker traditions or literature. It happened naturally merely by emphasizing ‘expectant waiting’ during our worship and times of discernment – the same initial practices that awakened the Spirit in the very first Friends before ‘traditions’ became cemented in the Society of Friends. Although we are not united in notions or doctrines (thank God!), we have NEVER been so united in the divine Spirit present within us all.

    I do think your advice works! Thank you.

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