Re-Membering Scripture: a footnote to the 2017 George Gorman Lecture

The George Gorman Lecture is given at the Yearly Meeting Gatherings of Quakers in Britain by a younger Friend. Tim Gee delivered the 2017 Gorman Lecture – ‘Movement Building from Stillness’ – on Wednesday 2 August.

I would like to congratulate Tim on his excellent, engaging and thought provoking lecture. He presented hard truths in a loving and generous spirit. He covers the intimate connection between faith, our Quaker structures and activism; how we can work with others for change; the right marriage of power and love; making our meetings truly inclusive; the challenges of being privileged people in the 21st century and the dangers of relying too heavily on our past status as a marginalised group. I’m really grateful for his words. If you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend you check it out.

There is one point Tim made that I would like to work with, as a footnote to his lecture. I have been minded to write about this particular topic before, and now seems an excellent opportunity.

By their books shall ye know them…

Tim ends his lecture with a number of suggestions, one of which is that – in order to emphasise our openness to new Light, and to show that everyone is welcome at a Quaker meeting – every meeting would consider having a ‘World Religions Bible‘ on the table during worship. This book is a collection of religious writings from a variety of traditions rendered in modern english. I’d not come across it before, and at first glance it seems a very cool book. I thoroughly support the study of other faiths and their scriptures, and anything that encourages religious literacy and respect for other traditions gets my ‘hope so’. It also looks like a great resource for personal devotional practice.

Our lack of overt religious symbols can make it easy to see Quakerism as a blank canvas, a sort of religious ‘neutral-zone’. However, although we don’t have candle sticks or stained glass, our way of worship still communicates important aspects of the Quaker story, of Quaker theology. The plainness of our worship space reflects the inward simplicity we seek in order to hear the ‘still small voice’. Our seating arrangement communicates the equal worth of all present. The books we choose to put on the table communicate something about the corporate identity of Quakerism. Quaker Faith & Practice communicates the collected experience of British Quakerism, and the Bible speaks of our rootedness in (and continuing dialogue with) the Christian tradition.

Tim suggests that by adding ‘A World Religions Bible’ to the table this would emphasise our commitment to be open to ‘new light’ from whatever source it comes and show that everyone is welcome. I agree with the sentiment, but disagree with the method. I suggest that:

  1. being religiously specific and welcoming to all are not mutually exclusive (e.g. you can be Jewish and welcome Christians into your worship without putting a copy of the Christian Bible next to the Torah), and
  2. to place non-Christian texts on our table is problematic for several reasons. (And just to be clear, none of those reasons is ‘non-Christians are wrong/not as good’ etc. – I stand by the Quaker understanding of the Spirit being poured out on all.)

I think the first point probably deserves a whole blog post to itself – and Friend Ben has written brilliantly about this already – so I’m going to focus on the second point.

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Why might placing non-Christian religious texts on the meeting table be problematic?

Does it erase difference?: Having a variety of religious texts (either separately or as a compilation) together on a table may be making claims about the compatibility of these texts that is not true. Different religions may have things in common, but they also make different claims. Such an approach may fail to honour the distinctiveness of each tradition. The suggestion that ‘all religions are the same really’ may even work against an authentic religious literacy. Religious scripture is not just defined by the words on the page, but in how it is used. For some Muslims, the Quran must be kept physically separate from other books in the house. In Judaism, the Torah has a very special role within worship and is treated in many ways like a person. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Hebrew Bible contain the same texts, but they are arranged differently and perform very different functions in each tradition. Perhaps a better approach would be for a meeting to engage in real, face-to-face inter-faith dialogue, rather than make a gesture that presents too simplistic a view of world faiths.

Is it cultural misappropriation?: Some Christian churches choose to practice a passover seder on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday). I’ve recently become persuaded that this is an example of cultural misappropriation. The passover meal doesn’t belong to Christians. We don’t have the right to perform it. Christians already have their own wonderful Maundy Thursday ritual – communal foot washing. This has led me to ask ‘what scriptures belong to Quakers?’ A Western, postmodern, consumerist (and usually white) approach is to say ‘if I can pay for it, it’s mine!’ With this attitude we can fill our homes with Native American dream catchers and Buddhist prayer bowls, wear bindis on our foreheads and build a sweat lodge in our back gardens. But do these things really belong to us? There are many individual Quakers in Britain who authentically draw on non-Christian sources in their religious lives, but for Quakers as a corporate body the only scriptures that belong to us are the Old and New Testaments. We cannot lay claim to any others. Before we place other religious texts on our table, we need to discern our right to do so.

Is it a form of escapism?: I believe that cultural misappropriation in the West springs in part from shame at our own cultural roots. For all its achievements, we can’t ignore the fact that Britain is built on foundation stones of colonialism, racism, slavery, oppression and empire. The temptation to shake off this heritage is strong – to reject Christianity and the Bible as a Western instrument of oppression and ally ourselves with the innocent ‘other’. If we fill our table with a multitude of religious texts, are we trying to escape our own history? Having privilege allows us to benefit from being European/white etc., but distance ourselves from these roots when it suits us. This desire to escape can be heard in John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, which naively suggests that if we could just cast off the trappings of religion and culture, we’d all be able to get along. As much as we may wish to, we cannot escape into a non-existent ‘universal religion’, into an illusory postmodern freedom from history. We have to face and reconcile ourselves with our own inheritance.

Re-Membering Scripture

In Frances E. Kendall’s book on white privilege, she writes of the need to ‘re-member’. As a white woman there are parts of herself she tried forget. In ignoring her own white privilege, by distancing herself from her white Southern family, she had cut off a part of herself. The only way to heal her own racism was to re-attach the amputated limb – to re-member. This re-membering is painful, but necessary if we are to authentically work towards right relationship between all peoples.

As Quakers, we cannot examine our own privilege whilst we think of ourselves as somehow the vanguard of a ‘universal religion’ that encompasses all faiths. To seek new Light does not mean a continues journey away from Christianity. Whether we see it as a glorious heritage or as unsavoury baggage, we can’t escape our Christian roots. We have to re-member our own scriptures, as painful as that might be.

In this years George Gorman Lecture, we have an excellent example in Friend Tim. He speaks of his excitement at reading the Gospels with fresh eyes. He speaks of Jesus’ turning of the tables, and the sermon on the mount in ways that communicate the Spirit’s calling to British Quakers in 2017. He is re-membering scripture for us!

The stories are old and difficult, but they are our stories, and if we take the time to get to know them they will have startlingly new messages for us. The river of the Spirit continues to flow strongly through them. As Dorothy discovered on returning from Oz, our heart’s desire can still be found in our own back yard. New light can be found in old stories.

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4 thoughts on “Re-Membering Scripture: a footnote to the 2017 George Gorman Lecture

  1. The World Religions bible has been on the table at Hampstead meeting for years. Perhaps you never noticed it. The points you make are interesting, but I don’t completely agree, perhaps because half my heritage is Jewish. Best wishes Susan

    1. Thanks for reading Susan. I hadn’t noticed the World Religions bible at Hampstead. Just goes to show that having books on the table doesn’t necessarily mean they get read! 🙂

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