No shortcut to the Kingdom: Reflections from Britain Yearly Meeting 2019

From 24-27 May, Quakers in Britain met to consider issues of privilege, diversity and inclusion and climate justice. You can read the Epistle here.

Friends who were hoping for clear decisions to made, or actions to be agreed upon, may be disappointed. Some may worry that the gathering constituted a lot of ‘naval gazing’. To those Friends I would say that it was an important weekend of learning where we are as a Yearly Meeting on these issues. It became clear to me on the first day that everyone was in a different place, and that one weekend would not be enough to unite us on a way forward. There is still a lot of internal work to do, and I feel clearer about what that entails.

‘Privilege’ – a blessing or curse?

A key piece of learning, reflected in the Epistle, is that we are not in agreement about how to use the word ‘privilege’. In common parlance, privilege is a positive thing. In the more specific political use of the term, privilege is a negative thing. We are not yet clear about which definition to use corporately. I don’t think the conversation can move forward until we can arrive at a shared understanding of this word. Here are some thoughts that may be helpful.

Some Friends spoke of the ‘privileges’ they enjoyed such as growing up in a loving family, being part of the Quaker community, or simply being alive. It may be best to speak of these as gifts or blessings. Love and life are good. They flow from and are rooted in God and so they are available to us in abundance! Of gifts and blessings there is enough for everyone. When God’s abundant life is heaped upon us, no one else loses out. These are the things that are eternal. These are the things of the Kingdom of God.

Other Friends spoke of privilege as domination of one group over another. They spoke of having ‘white privilege’, or ‘straight privilege’. This sort of privilege is not good. It may confer certain, often unseen, benefits on one group of people, but always at another group of people’s expense. Whereas gifts and blessings are rooted in God, this sort of privilege flows from our lust for power, from our will to dominate. Privilege of this sort can never be shared equally. It does not come from God, so can never be used for good. The right use of privilege is to give it up, or to dismantle it as far as possible. These are the things that will pass away. There is no place for them in the Kingdom of God. In relation to climate justice, an oil-fuelled affluent Western lifestyle could be considered such a privilege – it is not something that can be shared equally with everyone, and it can only exist at others’ expense. It must be dismantled and given up.

If we are to make progress as a faith community on this topic, it is this second use of ‘privilege’ that we must adopt as the norm.

THE LAMB IN THE MIDST OF THE ELDERS, and THE OPENING OF THE BOOK, two miniatures on either side of a cutting from the Burckhardt-Wildt Apocalypse, ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT ON VELLUM Lorraine, late 13th century. Sourced from Wikimedia.

A community of the Lamb

As well as a lack of clarity over terminology, we may also be hampered by a concern with our own goodness. Over the weekend I heard Quakers relate experiences of being judged, derided and shunned by fellow Quakers. Friends listening to these stories were shocked. Why are we surprised when Quakers are racist or homophobic? Is it because we think Quakers are ‘good people’? Similarly, why do people keep saying to me ‘I’m not good enough to be a Quaker’? I think it has something to do with the overly positive story we tell about ourselves. We are used to being admired, to ‘punching above our weight’, to having the moral high ground. We use the word ‘Quakerly’ to mean ‘good’, but ‘Quakerly’ is what Quakers do, and Quakers do things both good and bad.

A concern for our own goodness both prevents people from joining our community, and prevents us from seeing ourselves as we really are. Jesus said ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ [Mk 10:18]. I used to think this was false modesty on Jesus’ part, but I have since learned that giving up on my own goodness liberates me to follow the Spirit. To focus on my own goodness is to try and do things in my own strength. I am not called to save the world, I am not called to be good. I’m called to be obedient to the promptings of love and truth in my heart.

This positive view of ourselves can also make us resist the difficult stuff. Seeing ourselves as a people of peace, we avoid conflict. We want to skip to the end, saying ‘Can’t everyone just get along?’ It is never that easy. Our Quaker tradition tells us that, although there is light at the end of the tunnel, we have to walk through the darkness first.

In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, there is a scroll closed up with seven wax seals. No one can be found with the strength to open it, and there is great sadness in heaven. Then, a Slaughtered Lamb appears – an image of extreme weakness – and yet this Lamb is the only one with the strength to break the wax seals. George Fox saw these seals as a description of his inward spiritual experience. At the opening of the seventh and final seal, there is silence in heaven. Fox saw this as representing the true, unmediated communion with God that early Friends experienced.

Although we may want to skip to the end, to this final seal with its pure harmonious worship, we cannot get there without the sixth seal:

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” [Rev 6:12-17]

Before the silence of true worship comes the inward earthquake. Fox saw this as the experience of inward judgment, the shaking out of all our false illusions, our self-deceptions, everything that is not of God and God’s Kingdom. This is partly why we’re called Quakers! We cannot examine our privilege and avoid the difficult emotional, inward work. We cannot have God’s Kingdom without God’s judgement. Although painful, the purpose of God’s judgement is our liberation. We must allow the Light to illuminate our chains if we are to be released from them.

Only the Lamb can break the seals. Only the Spirit can break our chains. Our own goodness, our ‘Quakerly’ reputation, cannot save us. Eden Grace, in her Swarthmore Lecture, spoke of the need to be ‘brought low’. As we continue to work together on these issues of privilege and climate justice, can we let go of our collective Quaker pride, be shaken free of all the ways we participate in the domination of others and the non-human creation, and become a community of weakness and humility, a community of the Lamb?

17 thoughts on “No shortcut to the Kingdom: Reflections from Britain Yearly Meeting 2019”

  1. I really appreciated your clear statement that Quakers are people, as flawed as the rest. I do think Quakers have trouble acknowledging anger, and it often comes out as passive aggression.

  2. At the end of what might have been a most frustrating day, I have just had the delightful experience of reading your account of BYM. It has said almost exactly what I have been trying to tell people for the last five days about the weekend sessions at Friends House, but oh so much better expressed here!

    The only problematic thing for me was arriving on Sunday afternoon for the Singing in the Spirit parallel session in Drayton House and being turned away because there were already too many people inside. So I shall have to postpone making your acquaintance until Woodbrooke on 28th June. Thanks for your wise words on our not being called to be good but to be obedient to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts.

  3. Thankyou for this. I was unable to participate in BYM but was regaled yesterday with the full “navel gazing “ story by a Friend who desperately needed to vent. I suspect that a conversation I’m due to have with another Friend today will be a completely different take on it. So I’m extremely grateful for your timely and measured clarification.
    Speaking for myself, I gave up thinking of myself as a “nice” person many years ago and have been much happier and more effective since. If we are following the Gospel imperative and building the kingdom, I believe “unearned privilege” is the only route Friends can realistically take.
    These things hurt but I know from my own experience, and from the mystical traditions -of which Quakers are a part – that the only way out is by going through.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Eleanor. ‘The way of holy obedience lies through the valley of the shadow’.

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