I’ve previously written about the disappointment some people feel when they discover Quakers haven’t taken a unified position on a particular issue or action (‘Why don’t Quakers campaign on x?’). The fact that Quakers rarely act as whole body could be seen as a huge failing. If only all the Quakers could focus their energies on a single point, what great change there would be! However, I’d question whether unity of thought and action is the point of Quakerism.
The Quaker community is organised on the understanding that when we come together we can discover the will of God for us in our particular time and place. If we believe that there’s one God, one Spirit and that this Spirit forms us into one ‘body’ (Eph 4:4), then it makes sense to believe our discernment will lead us to be of one mind. If we all follow the same Spirit of Love then surely it will lead us to the same action.
I think this way of thinking is related to how we understand the ourselves as human beings. The first Quakers saw a clear distinction between the human person and God. Early Quaker Robert Barclay saw human beings as pipes through which the Spirit of Christ flowed. The human flesh had to get out of the way of the Divine Spirit. When Quakers modernised at the beginning of the 20th century, they disagreed with this sharp distinction between the human and the Divine, but they still made a distinction between our spiritual mind, psychology and personality, and our fleshy material body. With either of these approaches, human beings are as vessels or channels of the unified Divine Spirit. The multiplicity and diversity of physical human bodies and bodily experience doesn’t enter the equation.
In contrast to this, I see bodies as incredibly important. I’m not separate from my body. Who I am as a fleshy being shapes my experience of God and understanding of the world. Like Quakers before me, I believe we’re called to be a home for the Spirit of Christ and so incarnate Christ in the world. However, I don’t believe this Spirit of Christ, as it grows in intensity within us, obliterates us or outshines us as individuals. Rather, I believe we incarnate Christ in all our individuality. Rather than being transparent vessels or passive channels, I think we’re more like stained glass windows through which Christ shines, or flowers that enflesh God’s sunlight. My journey with Christ has been a journey of becoming more myself, and the more I am truly myself the more Christ is able to work in and through me. As individuals we reflect and refract the Light of Christ in ways no one else can. The flipside to this is that Christ is incarnated in the world in a huge variety of ways, many of which are beyond my understanding. This is why we must discern the Mind of Christ in community. The more monocultural our community, the more limited in perspective our discernment will be.
So I don’t see the aim of Quaker discernment as unity of decision or action. More importantly, I think our discernment is about unity of communion, about finding peace amidst difference. As a group of diverse bodies with diverse experiences of the Spirit, we can be gathered together by that same Spirit and experience a sense of togetherness and community within the tensions of our differences.
This kind of communion is not an easy thing to find. The Blessed Community is a costly thing (as I’ve written about here.) It’s so costly, that it’s easier to seek peace in uniformity, in sameness. In the music video of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, Lennon sings of a world shorn of religion, of culture, of history, and says this is the way to peace. In a blank white room, the message is that difference is an obstacle. I see a refreshing contrast to Lennon’s vision in one of my favourite poems, “Snow” by Louis MacNeice. This poem is about the giddy variety of the world, of everything being much more complex than we would like it to be. In this poem, difference is confusing but it’s joyful. MacNeice’s words speak to my experience of finding the Spirit at work in all sorts of unexpected places. The Spirit of Christ continually surprises me with the ‘incorrigibly plural’ nature of God’s creation. Christ is ‘drunkenly various’, a vine that outgrows any trellis we might build for her. I know Christ in me, but Christ is infinitely, delightfully strange in others. The way of peace is more a spirit of curiosity and love in the midst of difference. Unity of communion doesn’t mean that our differences disappear, but they are no longer a dividing wall of hostility between us (Eph. 2:14). We remain our ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ individual selves (Ps, 139:14), but we understand each other better.
Perhaps in our Quaker Meetings we sometimes confuse unity of communion with cultural unity, or we try to make up for its absence with unity of action. If our Quaker community is feeling tired and fractured, or guilty and frustrated at a lack of unified action, perhaps we need to make unity of communion the focus of our corporate life. We can pray and hope to experience a peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7) in our life together, a peace that is not dependent on conformity of opinion or action.