Recently, I’ve seen a number of people on social media expressing sadness that Quakers in Britain aren’t at the forefront of campaigning for a particular cause, or against a particular problem. By not taking a collective stand on a moral issue, the Quaker community is falling short of their expectations. I’ve been thinking about why this disappointment might occur, and what I might say to someone who feels this way.
Quaker unity on social issues is rare
I think there’s a common belief among Friends that the forefront of good causes is the natural place for Quakers to be. We like to think of ourselves as ahead of the curve on many social issues, as progressive, and as generally on the right side of history. Although Quakers in Britain are a tiny community, we don’t see this as an obstacle, instead thinking of ourselves as a group that ‘punches above our weight’.
I wouldn’t be surprise if this is rooted in the story we tell about Quaker involvement in the abolition movement. Many individual Quakers were involved in anti-slavery campaigning, and over the last century you’ll be able to find Friends involved in a wide variety of social justice campaigns. However, we tend to forget that it’s rare for Quakers as a body to unite around any particular cause. An example of this is women’s suffrage. Equality is a central Quaker value, and the spiritual equality of women was a foundational Quaker testimony. Because of this, we might naturally assume that Quakers would be at the forefront of campaigning for women’s right to vote. But in 1910 and 1911, London Yearly Meeting was unable agree a position on the issue.
Even when the Yearly Meeting makes commitments to action, however vague, convincing all individual Quakers that this applies to them is not straightforward. In 2021, the Yearly Meeting committed to being an antiracist community. In February 2011, Quakers in Britain agreed a national position to boycott products from the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. How many local meetings and individual Quakers realise these commitments apply to them? We don’t all agree on how authority works in Quakerism.
The only hope that Quakers will corporately campaign for anything, is if Spirit-led individuals campaign for a particular cause within their local Quaker community. The changing of hearts and minds is hard work. Rousing a whole community to action, energising a group of people to personally commit to a cause, takes a lot of time and energy. This means that only a very few of these campaigns (or ‘concerns’ to use the Quaker term) will permeate the whole Yearly Meeting. Quakerism is set up to be a grassroots movement. If you’re frustrated that Quakers aren’t doing x, then maybe that’s the Spirit nudging you into this arduous, slow-burn work.
We are a miniscule faith community with diverse social attitudes. There is very little we can all agree on. We were recently unable to agree a position on assisted dying as a Yearly Meeting. Sometimes these differences go deep, with Quakers holding conflicting views on gender diversity, population control and vaccinations. Taking all of this into account, I think that Quakers being at the front of any campaign would be a colossal achievement.
Finding unity in the Spirit
So perhaps this expectation of unified political action comes from a belief that we are far more unified than we actually are. Although we celebrate diversity of belief, I often hear Quakers speak about the joy of belonging to a group of ‘like minded’ people. Despite our varied opinions, we are generally a monocultural group, much more so than other churches. Do those of us who represent this monoculture unconsciously expect to find Quaker unity in a sharing of white middle-class liberal values? I hope we can abandon our need for Quakers to be a ‘like minded’ community, and instead seek spiritual unity across cultural difference.
Early Quakers would often quote from Ephesians, a book of the Bible that emphasises unity. This unity is found in the Spirit (Eph. 4:3). This Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is a spirit of peace-making between different groups. Christ is described as breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between us (Eph. 2:14). For the first Christians, this wall was primarily between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), and the conflicts they had were cultural. If we’re to remain faithful to this Spirit, we should expect our faith community to contain difference. Our experience of the Spirit doesn’t erase these differences, making us all the same. Rather, the Spirit can unifies us across and in the midst of our differences.
After I enthusiastically joined Quakers in my late teens, I have gradually learned that the Quaker community can’t give me everything I need. I’ve had to let my ideal Quaker community die. What I can expect of my Quaker community is that they will offer me a space to seek the energising presence of the Spirit, take my experience of the Spirit seriously, and give me the support and tools to test what I think the Spirit is leading me to do. As Martin Kelley said on Twitter: ‘I think at its best, Quakerism gives individuals non-judgmental community support to try something unproven, risky, or just a bit odd. Sometimes this (very) slowly coalesces into a group norm but in the meantime it’s the building of individual leadings that starts change.’ What matters is if the work is Spirit-led, not that the work is labelled as ‘Quaker’.
Cultivating a Sabbath spirituality
The expectation that Quakers should be active on all manner of social issues perhaps also comes from the idea that Quakerism is mainly about taking action, that Quakers exist to save the world, to build the Kingdom of God on earth. Of course, I think that this quest for the Kingdom of God is hugely important. Jesus said that it should be what we seek first and foremost. But I think we can emphasise Quakerism as action to the point where we forget that our worth as people is not tied up with the amount of good works we’re engaged with.
The language that expresses this best for me, is that it’s God who saves the world, not Quakers. The Kingdom we are seeking is God’s Kingdom, and is ultimately of God’s making. I don’t think God can be collapsed into humanity. Yes, God calls us to this work, but this work isn’t the foundation of our existence. In the creation story at the beginning of the Bible, God’s finishing touch to the creation of everything is the Sabbath. The seventh day is not an afterthought. Seven is a number symbolic of wholeness. The Sabbath completes creation, it’ss the pinnacle of God’s creative work. On this seventh day, God rests in creation and creation rests in God, and this rest completes us.
Quakers say ‘attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness’ (Advices & Queries No.28). I would love to see us respond to this advice by cultivating a Sabbath spirituality. In the Sabbath, everything comes to a peaceful stillness of mutual enjoyment. We rightly value things for their usefulness, but we also need to value things for their beauty, including ourselves and each other. In worship we can be shown the brokenness of the world, and be inspired to fix it, but worship is also about appreciating the beauty of creation. Quakers can rarely offer a unified political voice, but the Quaker community can and should offer a place to be with the Divine, and be reminded that we are loved for who we are and not for what we do. Worship is about rest, and the joy of being together, as much as it is about seeking the Kingdom of God. Maybe resting in the ‘useless’ beauty of holiness is as central to the Kingdom of God as our vital work for peace and justice.