Is Quakerism like Marmite?

1. Is Quakerism like Marmite?

I believe that Quakerism is for everyone. Apparently this is a controversial thing to say amongst British Quakers, so I’d like to have a go at explaining what I mean by this, and why I believe it’s important.

I suspect that what most people mean when they say that ‘Quakerism isn’t for everyone’ is that not everyone likes sitting in silence. But I don’t believe that Quakerism is about sitting in silence. When I hear ‘Quakerism isn’t for everybody’ I hear the following:

  • ‘non-violent living – well you can take it or leave it..’
  • ‘living a life of obedience to the promptings of love and truth? I’d say it’s pretty optional…’
  • ‘growing into my most authentic self within a loving, supportive community just isn’t to everyone’s taste…’
  • ‘working towards a world overflowing with peace and justice? That’s not everyone’s cup of tea…’

To put it another way, I think that to say ‘Quakerism isn’t for everybody’ is to treat Quakerism like Marmite. It’s to say that Quakerism not only has a particular flavour, but it is completely defined by that flavour. I don’t think Quakerism is about the surface level of taste, but the deeper level of nutrition. The important thing about Marmite in terms of our health as human beings is that it contains B12, a really important vitamin. Within this food analogy, to say that Quakerism isn’t for everyone is like saying ‘not everyone needs a healthy diet’.

Earlier generations of Quakers distinguished between the ‘shadow’ and the ‘substance’. The shadow was an outward symbol, the substance was the inner spiritual reality. They saw the bread and wine of communion as shadows of the more real substance: inward communion with God. I believe that by treating Quakerism like Marmite, we are concerning ourselves more with the surface detail of how we do things, rather than the deeper invisible dimension of what Quakerism is about.

When we focus on the substance, the deeper, nutritional value of Quakerism, we can say that ‘Quakerism is for everyone’ as well as saying ‘not everyone has to be a Quaker’. B12 is for everyone, but if you can get it without eating Marmite then that’s great too!

2. Marmite missiology

All of this impacts on Quaker missiology – or what British Quakers call ‘outreach’. Why would we want to spread the Quaker message if Quakerism isn’t for everyone? (Here the Marmite analogy falls into difficulty – why wouldn’t you want to spread Marmite everywhere, oh I remember, because it’s disgusting!)

If Quakerism isn’t for everyone, then how do we know who it’s for? What are the characteristics of those people suited to Quakerism? As I’ve written about before, what if these ‘Quaker characteristics’ have arisen, not from our spiritual experience, but from a culture dominated and shaped by the values of the white, middle class, intellectual and retired?

So we could just say that, although Quakerism isn’t for everyone, who Quakerism is for remains a mystery. Then we have the problem of knowing whether we’re doing too much or too little outreach. If our numbers are declining, perhaps that’s just because there are no longer that many people that Quakerism appeals to. If Quakerism isn’t for everyone, and we don’t know who it’s for, then saying ‘we don’t need to do outreach, they’ll find us when they’re ready’ makes a lot more sense. Why waste time and effort telling people about something that is probably not for them?

As long as we’re committed to Marmite Quakerism, doing outreach remains confused and directionless, and the cultural homogeny of British Quakerism will remain unchallenged.

3. Marmite teleology

So what is the direction of Quakerism? Where is it going? Nutrition isn’t an end in itself; we need it in order to grow towards maturity. Theologians suggest that liberal Quakers are now more concerned with processes (ways of doing things – such as discernment) than with a sense of a final destination. I don’t have a problem with Quaker processes, I think they’re one of the great Quaker gifts to the world, but Quaker processes don’t count for anything if we cannot conceive of the possibility that the Spirit might ask us to change or do things differently. A feature of Marmite Quakerism is that its identity, its brand, is highly vulnerable. Change the flavour too much and you no longer have Marmite, just brown goo. To tamper with what happens on a Sunday morning is a huge threat to Marmite Quaker identify, and so Marmite Quakerism is more concerned with acting out the steps of a process, than with where the process will lead us.

All of this relates to Quaker teleology. Teleology comes from the Greek word telos, which means end-point or goal. Teleology asks ‘where are we going? What’s the destination?’

One of the assumptions made about me by other Quakers is that, because I talk about my religious life with confidence, I must have no room for mystery. Just because I believe that Jesus rose from the dead doesn’t mean I know how it happened. Just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I can describe God as I can describe what I had for lunch. It’s not a choice between ‘knowing everything’ and ‘knowing nothing’. There are lots of levels of ‘not knowing’.

So it is with teleology. The teleology of a murder mystery story is to find out ‘whodunit?’ The narrative of the story is driven by this quest to discover the murderer. We don’t know how Hercule Poirot will work it out, but we know that he will because he’s solved every other case before. My hope is in God, even though I don’t know what might happen to me in the next year, day or minute. I have confidence that Divine Love will accomplish all its purposes, even though I don’t know how it will come about. I base this hope on my own experience, the experience of my Quaker ancestors and the experiences recorded in Scripture. Hope is knowing the ending without knowing the rest of the book. ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ [Heb 11:1].

So teleology is about hope, knowing the destination without knowing the nature of the journey. If we are to journey to the New Jerusalem together, then we should expect travel to broaden our minds, we should expect to be changed. But a Marmite Quakerism that’s concerned with preserving its own distinctive flavour cannot change without becoming something completely different. It therefore also finds it difficult to account for previous developments in the Quaker tradition. So without history or future, without a teleology, and with a focus solely on preserving current shadows, this is a Quakerism that doesn’t corporately know why others should want it, or what sort of hope to offer a hope-starved world.

I doubt that there is a meeting in Britain where Marmite Quakerism is embraced fully, but I come across the signs of it too often for comfort. It’s a sentiment that needs challenging at every turn. When I hear ‘Quakerism isn’t for everyone’ it’s the sound of British Quakerism digging its own grave.

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30 thoughts on “Is Quakerism like Marmite?

  1. hope i can put my thoughts in to something understandable. Jesus sent the disciples out to preach to everyone as the gospel is for everyone but he knew some wont accept it or not then but later they might as a seed was sown by the apostles so as with Quakerism to me it is for every one but maybe not every one will accept it. But once the seed has been sown the spirit makes it grow and a few months or years later they may realize this is what they need, Jesus parable of the sower comes to mind if we think it is not for every one then as you are not sure who it is for you will go in and stop out reach and preserve what you have.People have had enough of the dogmatic churches where a guy stands in a pulpit telling you what to believe we have Jesus teaching us but the world does not realize and they wont unless we get out there and inform them and then let the Spirit work

  2. Even if I agreed that “Quakerism is for everyone”, what is the practical consequence of that? There are 65m people in the UK and 23k Quakers. How many more do we have to convince?

    You suggest that some one who says that Quakerism hasn’t got mass appeal is implying that ‘growing into my most authentic self within a loving, supportive community just isn’t to everyone’s taste…’ On the contrary, when I say that I don’t feel bad about being white, educated, middle class and retired that is a very authentic position to have. If you have a problem with people who are white educated etc, then that is your problem and not one I can help you with but it is not one that seems to be prompted by love and truth.

    1. You misunderstand me Mark. I don’t think saying ‘Quakerism is for everyone’ is the same as saying ‘everyone should be a Quaker’. I don’t think I understand your second point. I do not have a problem with people who are white etc. I don’t feel any guilt about being white, a man, middle class etc and I’m glad that you don’t either. However, I think unexamined privilege (which includes whiteness) is problematic, and the cultural homogeneity of British Quakerism should give us cause for concern.

    2. I tried to find a way to message you privately but WordPress won’t let me. Please moderate the tone of your comments. This one in particular crosses the line into the personal and accusatory. I’m happy with disagreement and debate, and will happily dialogue with you in a respectful, impersonal manner.

      1. Sorry, I wasn’t reading you closely enough. I’ll moderate my tone. Please don’t block me!

        I thought you were accusing Quakers of being racist but you meant they were culturally homogeneous. This is superficially true but as others have said below we are all individuals and we are all on a journey.

        I’ve come across a fine passage from John Henry Barlow in 1920 about the over-use of abstractions and have commented on it in my own blog.

  3. Thanks Mark. Growing into my fledgling Quakerness, I find that it’s actually a lot broader, deeper and wider than I could have imagined. All the elements of my spiritual experience come together in being a Quaker, and I do believe that we have something to offer everyone. You can come along to Quaker Meeting, identify with the Quaker testimonies and take wisdom from Faith and Practice without ‘being a Quaker’, so in that sense Quakerism is for everyone. As evidenced by the humanists, Muslims, Buddhists and more who worship with us. And that’s just in my Area Meeting!

  4. [As seen on social media] I’d add that ‘Quakerism isn’t for everyone’ sometimes comes with an argument that one has to have reached a certain ‘spiritual level’ or ‘level of maturity’ in order to appreciate it. Sometimes this sounds sort-of reasonable (there is stuff it’s helpful to understand in order to use waiting worship well and find it rich), but at other times it sounds distinctly like an argument for ignoring people who don’t share the middle-class values of the majority within a meeting. Have you come across this version of it?

    I also wonder whether the processes can sometimes be a model of the end, rather than strictly separate from it. For example, a good meeting for worship for business seeks to create here and now a space in which everyone is equal, conflicts are handled peacefully, and truth is told. That is a process, but it’s also an end in itself – the creation of the Divine Commonwealth on earth. Experiencing it within our Quaker community should change us, so that we are more able to enact those values in other situations as well. Does that sound right to you, and if it does, how does that fit with your discussion of teleology?

    1. Thanks Rhiannon! I feel I may have come across this sort of Gnostic-Quakerism once or twice, but not often, mainly in relation to the ‘they’ll find us when they’re ready’ sentiment. And yes, journey & destination being the same thing – totally agree! I missed out the realised eschatology bit. I think the New Jerusalem isn’t a state of perpetual happiness – it isn’t stasis – but all about process: continually forgiving one another, experiencing healing (which is a process) etc. I suppose I still have a sense of ‘it’s coming and has come’, in that we can experience the end now, but the end hasn’t come for everyone in all its fullness.

  5. I like the “Quakerism is for everyone” approach. I think it could be an invitation to a living vibrant Quaker movement. Your open-ness to and confidence of being led by God is a sign of hope. I think “Quaker ways” can be channels carved out by the Living Presence, but maybe we confuse following the channels with responding to the Presence. Sometimes visitors are an invitation to spiritual vitality through changing, so we can be more fully centred on the Living Presence and less on ‘the way we do things’. I especially feel this when visitors are not middle class educated white people. What if each newcomer is an a messenger calling us to shift the centre of our practice closer to God’s universal invitation and blessings, the deeper nutrition you write of?

  6. I very much believe that one reason for multiple spiritual paths existing is that they are suited for different people. On the other hand, I also think that the Quaker way is suited to far more than currently pursue it.

    The most important of your points to me is point 2. The idea of not being for everyone is one of the reasons to dismiss concern – or even a Concern – about outreach.

    We have a nearly unique degree of inclusivity, in terms of people’s spiritual bases. We have a unique approach to contact with the divine. These won’t appeal to everyone, and at that point whether or not they would benefit from them is academic – I don’t think we should be trying to cajole or berate people into trying our way. However, many more people would have an idea that it might appeal if they had the first clue about us.

    1. Thanks Sam. Yes, there’s definitely a need for more and better outreach, and without any cajoling or berating. 🙂

  7. Very interesting – thank you Mark! I agree with most of your points, yet there’s something which doesn’t quite fit for me. When I think “Quakerism isn’t for everyone”, I don’t mean that the core principles aren’t for everyone, but the methods of getting to the principles, the approaches. I feel that Quakerism (my Quakerism in my experience, anyway) is a very wordy thing, a very thinky thing. And that’s more than taste, it’s about approach, it’s about means to an end. I feel that when you talked about shadows and substance you put the means into shadow and the ends into substance, while I think I locate the Quakerness of Quakerism in the approach/means rather than in the core principles/ends.

    1. Thanks for this Jess. That’s an interesting point about where you locate the Quakerness of Quakerism. If you locate it in the approach then I wonder what impact that has on our relationship with Quakers around the world whose approach is different from ours, as well as how we relate to our own history, where the approach has changed so much even within living memory.

  8. I’m just thinking of another analogy I’m fond of, that of many paths up the mountain, or there’s also the one about people feeling different parts of an elephant and getting different impressions of the elephant from their experience.
    Perhaps I think that there are universal things in Quakerism for everyone, summed up as following the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. But Quakerism itself is also a religion strongly linked to a particular time and place and culture, so with origins in non-conformist 17th century England. Of course it has spread impressively from these humble beginnings, especially in the USA and in Africa. And has also branched out doctrinally in many directions, holding steady I feel due to the lived testimony of many faithful friends through the centuries.
    But I think fundamentally I feel that there are other paths one could walk to follow those promptings up the same mountain.

    1. Thanks for these thoughts Jo. I like the mountain analogy, but I swap it round a little bit – I see the mountain having one path, the path being the Way of justice, peace and joy, and that path having diverse pilgrims on it. Sort of what William Penn talks about: ‘The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers…’ [QF&P 19:28]

    2. The metaphor of many paths up a mountain is fine and time-honoured one. For example, it appears in Edmund Harvey’s ‘A Wayfarer’s Faith’ (1913) pp18-19.

  9. I couldn’t help but take your analogy one step further, especially as an expat. Though Marmite has very little appeal outside the commonwealth, Australians went so far as to create Vegemite which is just as inedible! They took the goo and made it their own! But it’s still just goo, Friends! It makes me think about how Quakerism has spread around the world, dare I say with mixed results in terms of it’s overall spiritual nutritional value and vitality.

    1. Thanks Evan! I very much appreciate the addition of Vegemite to the mix! (and yes, it’s just as foul)

  10. Do we have room for the idea that people become Quakers because that’s what God calls them to do? Is being Quaker a vocation, and not (just) a matter of personal choice or preference? In which case, Quakerism truly is not for everyone (meaning, not everyone has this vocation). But – crucially, and I think this is Mark’s point – we can’t specify in advance the kinds of people whom God will call into this community.

    1. Thanks for this Timothy. A very interesting point! I do think there’s an element of God calling us into particular kinds of religious community, but I’m not sure I’m willing to class being Quaker solely as a vocation as I don’t see Quakerism as a variety of monastic order. And yes, we shouldn’t specify the kinds of people, and yet we may unconsciously do so in that some may not feel welcome because of the dominant culture.

  11. Mark, the concept of vocation isn’t confined to monastic orders. It’s most often used in relation to the priesthood – whether or not within a monastic order. But many people would also talk about – for instance – marriage as a vocation.
    If we take seriously the statements about how Quakers have abolished the laity, then the idea of Quaker membership as a vocation fits quite well.
    Just to challenge you a bit: when people are considering Quaker membership, should they ask if this is what God is calling them to do? If this is the right question for them to ask, then aren’t we talking about vocational discernment? And if this isn’t the right question for them to ask, then what question should they ask instead?

    1. Thanks for the challenge Tim! Yes, in that broader sense, I’d say that membership should be a calling. If we set this within the context of Christ drawing all things to himself, then God is calling all of us into a more Christ-like way of living, whether that’s within Quakerism or not. This then prompts me to ask ‘so should we leave outreach up to God?’ or ‘if membership is declining, is that because God is no longer calling people into Quakerism?’

  12. I certainly don’t think we should sit back and leave outreach to God.
    And I don’t think we should have self-imposed assumptions about what sort of person might be drawn to Quakerism – on the contrary, I think we should expect surprises.

    1. I hope ‘expect surprises’ makes it into the next version of A&Qs, next to ‘live adventurously’ 😀

  13. Quakerism is like chocolate. More like chocolate than Marmite. (I like both but not at the same time).
    Outreach seems the right thing to do. God uses our hands.
    We need to balance the seriousness and the fun.
    I think we should build on a half-century tradition of doing more with and through the arts.
    Silence (stillness) is great but other forms of worship should be added and offered – especially, singing!
    There are lots of things to sing – a great variety. (‘Singing in the Spirit’, Woodbrooke, 26-29 May 2017, shows this.)

  14. My first thought was: It is shown that Brexit is making marmite more expensive and thus less available. Is that true for the British Quaker flavour and nutrition? How will Quakers overcome this growing divide with the rest of Europe?

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