The first week of October is Quaker Week, when many Quaker meetings in Britain make a concerted effort to educate others about Quakerism. This Quaker Week, my local meeting invited me to give a short talk as part of a panel discussion on Quaker testimony, and here’s an adapted version of what I said.
I was initially asked to speak about how my job helps me to live out Quaker ‘testimonies’. The ‘testimonies’ are a list of values that capture particular Quaker attitudes. In Britain, Quakers speak about Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace. I responded to the invitation by saying ‘I don’t think I can, because I don’t like the Quaker “testimonies”. In fact I’d like to get rid of them all together!’ So instead of speaking about the list of values, I spoke about my whole life as testimony. (I’ll save why I dislike the ‘testimonies’ for another blog post! Friend Maud’s thoughts are similar to my own.)
My understanding of testimony
I want to start with how the word testimony is understood in the non-Quaker world. To give testimony, to testify, is to speak publicly about what you’ve witnessed, about what you’ve seen, particularly in a court of law.
What if we lived our whole life in the witness box? Then everything we said and did would testify to something, usually to what is most important to us. I believe that testifying is something we all do all the time. Our whole life is our testimony. Our words and actions tell other people what we value the most, and what we think life is for.
Once I’m conscious that my whole life is my testimony, once I realise that I’m in the witness box all the time, I have to ask myself what I’m witnessing to. What is it I’ve witnessed? What have I seen? What have I experienced?
The most important experience of my life is the never-ending love and grace of a God who is merciful and just. Every time I speak about that love, grace, mercy and justice with my words or actions, I am testifying to it.
Living this sort of testimony is really hard, and I don’t think I’m very good at it. It’s made even harder because many of the systems we live within aren’t built on love, grace, mercy and justice. Being a witness, telling the truth, can make people who benefit from these systems uncomfortable or angry (and sometimes, perhaps often, those people are Quakers). That’s why I’m a Quaker, because I can’t be the witness I want to be by myself. I need other people to help me.
So how do I live it my testimony? How do I testify to the love of God?
I testify by living joyfully. One of my favourite quotes by C S Lewis is ‘joy is the serious business of heaven’. I love to laugh, and dance, play games, eat and drink, and take deep delight in living – life is to be enjoyed, and life has meaning.
I testify by living openly, proudly and loudly as a gay man. I’m part of an LGBT running group, so part of my testimony involves running through the centre of Birmingham covered in rainbows, witnessing to the wonderful existence of queer people. And this is very important as not everyone is happy about us existing.
As well as being openly gay in straight spaces, I’m openly religious in queer spaces. It’s not unusual for me to experience the presence of God on the dancefloor in a gay club, and I’m vocal about it. Being openly gay and openly religious challenges those who think the two are incompatible, and it’s a witness to how the love of God is revealed in queer experience.
Something I’m reflecting on at the moment is to how I can best testify to how trans people are loved by God and reveal God’s love to others by being who they are. The topic of trans-inclusion is creating a lot of anger and confusion within the Quaker community, and so this is another example of how testimony is not easy, and can bring you in to conflict with others.
Finally, an important part of my testimony is being an openly imperfect person. I meet so many people who tell me they don’t feel good enough, so it’s become really important for me to say, ‘well neither am I. I don’t have it all sorted. I’m constantly failing to live a completely God-led life. But you know what, that doesn’t stop God loving me, it doesn’t stop God working through me, it doesn’t make my feeble efforts meaningless.’ Part of living my whole life as testimony is letting the light shine on my darkness, it means looking at myself in all my messiness and failings and still seeing a beloved child of God. It means a commitment to keep following God in spite of my failings, and never seeing myself as unworthy to do so.