Advice and Query 3: Pray without ceasing

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God’s guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God.

The previous two A&Qs spoke of God and the spirit of Christ. This third passage adds another word for the Divine mystery to our Quaker vocabulary – the Holy Spirit. It is to this Spirit that we are exhorted to be open to, to be guided by. How are we to do this? In this third A&Q we receive instruction on spiritual practice. We can be open to the Holy Spirit by setting aside times of quiet.

Silence is a central Quaker tool for opening ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance. Note how silence is not valued for its own sake. We do not worship the silence. This is not ‘Silence’ with a capital ‘S’. The purpose of silence is to deepen our awareness of the divine, and to find in that awareness strength that is not our own.

There is no prescribed way to use times of quiet. There’s no set time or posture, and no suggested frequency. There’s no prohibition against using song or movement or birdwatching to reach a place of stillness. All of us need to find a way into inward silence and openness, and we are free to find the way that works best for us. Remember that the aim is to deepen out awareness of the divine. This is the end of all our spiritual practice.

The path of spiritual discipline is one of progress and growth. Can we cultivate through our spiritual practice a continuing and continuous sense of inward stillness? Can we, with Paul of Tarsus, rejoice always and pray without ceasing (1 Thes. 5:16-17)? The Quaker experience tells us that ‘in time you will find, as did Brother Lawrence, that “those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep”‘ (Qf&p 2.22). What begins as a simple suggestion to set aside times of quiet, becomes an exciting and terrifying challenge to live a life of ever-flowing prayer, of continuous connection to God. It suggests that the life of the cloistered contemplative is available to us even in the hubbub of our daily lives.

Such a prayer-filled life is counter-cultural, and can only come through practise and perseverance. Such a life is so challenging, that we can’t do it by ourselves. We need encouragement from our fellow Friends, and they in turn need our encouragement. We must support each other in this Quaker-style monasticism. Our spiritual lives are not private – we have a responsibility to each other for our collective spiritual health.

Again we hear the message that we are not self-sufficient, we are not independent. We need each other, and we are dependent on God. The guidance and strength we receive from God doesn’t just come once a week. One hour on Sunday listening to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts isn’t enough. Like the Israelites in the desert, gathering manner from heaven daily (Exo. 16), and following the pillar of cloud and fire daily (Exo. 13:17-22), the Holy Spirit is present to feed us and lead us every day.

Not only are we to encourage each other outwardly in our spiritual discipleship, we are to hold ourselves and one another before God, in God’s Light, inwardly in prayer. To hold another in the Light strengthens both the one who prays, and the one who is prayed for. I firmly believe in the power of prayer. I also believe it is a great mystery. I don’t understand it, but I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse for not doing it! If we live in a God-centred cosmos, as I believe we do, attending to God and lifting up our fellow creatures before God does not seem a ridiculous way to behave.

With all this talk of spiritual discipline, we could fall into the trap of thinking that our worthiness as Quakers depends on how spiritually disciplined we are. The final line protects against this. We don’t undertake spiritual practices in order to earn the favour of God or our fellow Quakers. We do them because the Holy Spirit cherishes us, and wants to bring us to new life. All are cherished by God, whether we set aside times of quiet or not.


Advice and Query 2: Our experience of God is not God

This is a series of short, 500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.

A&Q 1 addressed the community of ‘dear Friends’. Now we move to a focus on the individual. There is much to unpack in this beautiful and seemingly simply paragraph.

First we must ask, what is this ‘spirit of Christ’. In scripture, spirit is synonymous with breath and wind. Spirit invisibly animates and enlivens. The spirit of Christ is the Life we see in Jesus of Nazareth. In John 20:22 the resurrected Jesus breathes on his disciples, saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. This spirit of Christ is mysteriously available to us all, and is one of order. We are invited to allow this spirit, which is also the love of God, to bring healing and order to our broken and chaotic lives. God won’t do this without our permission. Christ stands at the door and knocks (Rev. 3.20). We have to open the door before this work can being.

What is ‘that of God within’? God can’t be broken into pieces. We don’t have a fragment of God inside us. Neither do we have one of many ‘gods’ within us. Is it a natural capacity to respond to God? I don’t think so. As we saw in A&Q 1 our capacity to hear and obey God has been impaired. ‘That of God’, in the traditional Quaker understanding, is a seed that God plants in our hearts. It lies dormant in the earth, waiting for the Light to awaken it. We must cherish it, treasure it, and care for it, allowing the seed to grow within us. The process of our healing requires work. The garden of our inner life needs careful tending.

The message is a holistic one. We are asked to bring the whole of our lives to God. We cannot have a ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ life separate to our ‘work’ or ‘love’ life. Our worship and our daily life are intimately linked. If we attempt to keep them separate then we stifle the seed of God. The God-seed needs to flourish and bloom in every aspect of our being and life. Like the mustard seed, it is an invasive weed that will grow to tremendous proportions if we allow it.

We are asked to treasure our experience of God. An important point must be made here. Our experience of God is not God. Our experiences of God will vary, but the variation is in our experience, not in God’s-self. God remains the same, ever mysterious and ‘other’, inwardly knowable (yet still paradoxically hidden) through the spirit of Christ. It is misleading to speak as if Quakerism is based on ‘pure experience’ with an accompanying rejection of ‘talk about experience’. There is no such thing as pure, unmediated experience. I repeat, our experience of God is not God. Our experience of God is vital (in all senses of the word), and so are the ways we communicate with each other about these experiences. This brings me to the continually misused word ‘notion’.

What is a notion? I have heard this word used to dismiss any idea, or even theology and language altogether. I have heard similar mistreatments of Paul’s words that ‘the letter kills’ (2 Cor. 3:6). This is not helpful. Ideas, concepts and theories are vital if we are to communicate with one another. If all ideas are notions, then so are phrases like ‘Christianity is not a notion but a way.’ Rather, a notion is an idea that is empty of divine Truth, and is treated as an end in itself. Our ideas and theories are important, indispensable tools that are useful only when we use them as such. As soon as we mistake them for what they point towards, they loose their usefulness and become notions. God is always bigger than our ideas of God.

So Christianity is not a notion but a way. Christianity (originally referred to as ‘the Way’ e.g. Acts 9:2)  is not an intellectual curiosity, but a story and vision that promises the transformation and purification of the entire cosmos in the fires of Divine Love. It is a community to be joined, not an idea to be entertained. It is not a marker of social respectability or a security blanket, but a glorious adventure bearing the marks of crucifixion. Commitment to Quakerism is not a commitment to a purely abstract theology, or a practice without a theory. It is a commitment both to an embodied theology and a storied practice. Quakerism is a lived tradition.

In many ways this A&Q is a reiteration of the themes of A&Q 1 for the individual – we are called to open ourselves to God’s guidance and healing. A simple idea that I must continually return to and relearn.

Advice and Query 1: Is this the Quaker Gospel?

This is a series of short, 500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

(1) Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

‘What do Quakers believe?’ When asked that question, we might hesitate, fearing we’ll come across as pushy. We might unhelpfully answer with what Quakers don’t believe, or talk about sitting in silence, which to the enquirer might be construed as another negative – sitting doing nothing. Might we instead answer with this A&Q? Is this the ‘good news’ of the Quakers? Here there is no hesitancy. This is not a suggestion, it’s an exhortation! ‘Take heed – listen!’

Reading between the lines of these two sentences, an expansive story can be read. The language of listening and leading speaks of a relationship. This is not a relationship of equals, but between one who leads and one who listens. This is a relationship between God and humanity.

Why are we being asked to trust these leadings? Because this relationship has broken down. Both hearing and trusting the leadings of God must be difficult if we need such a reminder. Why has this relationship broken down? Why is it difficult? Because we are in a place of darkness, a darkness that is in opposition to newness of life. It seems that we cannot emerge from this darkness by our own efforts. We cannot even see the darkness without help. We need Light with a capital ‘L’, and this Light belongs to God.

What else does this say about God? This is a God that communicates with us, and this communication occurs inwardly. These promptings, God’s leadings, occur in our hearts, in our inner, emotional life. These promptings are of love and truth, corresponding to the traditional twin characteristics of the Christian God: mercy and justice. God both comforts and discomforts, soothes and reproaches, embraces and unveils.

This is a God who calls us, and if we respond will reveal the darkness we inhabit, the darkness that inhabits us, and will lead us out of it to new life. For all that ‘being saved’ is absent from liberal Quaker vocabulary, here we have a story of salvation. This relationship of revelation with God is a saving one.

So we have in this A&Q a description of a fractured human condition – we are blind to our own blindness – and the promise of a restored relationship with a saving God who both reveals and casts out darkness.

Importantly, this is not an individualistic statement. It is communal. ‘Take heed, dear Friends.’  It speaks of our hearts, and our darkness. This is a relationship with God that takes place in community. We are called to listen together, to trust and be led together, to be judged together, and healed together.

For two sentences, this is explosive stuff!

‘I’m religious, not spiritual’: Postliberalism for Quakers

In this post I’m going to get rather theological. Hopefully in a clear and understandable way. I recently wrote an essay for my theology MA, exploring the modern Western theological movement known as postliberalism. I’d like to have a go at explaining it in a less technical way, whilst also reflecting on what it might have to say to liberal Quakers This 40 year old movement is mainly associated with the academic theologians George Lindbeck, Hans Frei and Stanley Hauerwas, and has proved so influential that it permeates the thinking of popular theologians such as Nadia Bolz-Weber, Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne. It turns out I’ve been breathing the air of postliberalism for quite some time – New Monasticism could be thought of as a postliberal off-shoot.

Already this might sound quite heavy, but I’m going to try and explain it as plainly as I can.

What is liberalism?

Before getting to postliberalism (meaning after liberalism), it’s worth spending time on what we mean by liberalism. I suspect most of us use it when talking about politics or social attitudes. Modern British Quakers are sometimes described as liberal Quakers.

In theological terms, liberalism is a Western Protestant movement beginning in the 19th Century, having its roots in the thinking of German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, sometimes called the ‘Father of modern liberal theology.’

Liberal theology is concerned with taking the discoveries of science and philosophy – what might be called ‘extra-theological sources‘ – and reforming and re-shaping Christian theology in the light of these discoveries.

Liberal theology is also concerned with universals, particularly universal religious experience. This is the idea that religious experience is common to all people, across all cultures. It sees this as:

  • the source of religious truth – (we know something is religiously true if it conforms to our inward religious experience),
  • the heart of religious practice – (the ceremony and rituals are merely ‘window dressing’) – and
  • the basis of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue – (all religions are essentially the same, as they all have this universal religious experience at their core).


What is postliberalism?

One of postliberalism’s important features is its criticism of the liberal idea of universal religious experience. Postliberalism raises the following objections:

  • Quite simply, it is impossible to prove that there is a universal religious experience that all people share across all religious traditions.
  • As a basis of religious truth, it appears to make truth relative. If things are only true because they chime with our inner experience, what happens when two people have different inner experiences? If one thing is ‘true’ for one person, and differently ‘true’ for another, is it meaningful to speak of truth at all? And how do we know we can trust our inner experiences anyway?
  • Postliberalism also suggests that universal religious experience is not at the heart of religious practice, because discoveries in anthropology and sociology suggest that it is religious practice that shapes religious experience. The words we say, the images we use, the stories we tell, the ceremonies we perform and the songs we sing – these shape the religious experience that we have. Different religious traditions produce different religious experiences.
  • Therefore, we can’t make universal religious experience the basis of ecumenical dialogue. Not only do all religions look different in their manner of worship (and therefore the religious experience that occurs) but religions differ in their understanding of ‘salvation’. Their goals, their destinations, are different. Postliberalism says our basis for inter-religious dialogue should not be ‘how are you like me?’, rather there should be a true recognition of difference. Postliberalism questions the idea of the ‘anonymous Christian’ (Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s reasoning for how good non-Christians might be saved), saying ‘how do we know that Christians aren’t ‘anonymous Buddhists’? Postliberalism asks ‘how can we make peace with each other, without erasing our differences?’

Because of this rejection of universal experience, postliberalism focuses on religious specificity – the things that make a particular religious tradition what it is. Therefore, for Christianity, there’s an increased focus on the Bible. Rather than seeing scripture through the lens of ‘extra-theological sources’ such as philosophy and science, there is a focus on seeing the world through the lens of scripture. There is also a focus on how religious language shapes our experience, and how religion itself is like a language. To join a particular religious tradition is to learn its particular language, and be shaped and transformed by it.

Postliberal Quakerism?

So what challenge does postliberalism present to liberal Quakers? I would say my description of theological liberalism ticks many Quaker boxes. This isn’t surprising, as the roots of liberal Quakerism are in Rufus Jones (1863-1948), who himself was indebted to both Schleiermacher and William James (1842-1910) and his The Varieties of Religious Experience).

In contemporary British Quakerism I encounter a strong belief in universal religious experience which transcends religious tradition, and the idea that Quaker worship represents a stripping away of ‘window dressing’ to get to this core experience. Sometimes I come across the idea that Quakerism itself heralds a ‘universal’ religion – what I’d call Quaker exceptionalism. The idea that ‘George Fox only spoke in Christian terms because of the culture he was born into’ is a product of this thinking (as if Fox can be understood apart from his Christianity, or Jesus from his Judaism for that matter!), as is the idea that there are people out there who are Quakers without knowing it.

A postliberal approach provides a check on Quaker exceptionalism, and draws our attention to the specificity of the Quaker tradition. Quaker worship is not a blank canvas or empty container, but a form of worship that shapes the experience we have within it. Becoming a Quaker involves learning to ‘speak Quaker’, which in turn involves learning the tradition and its stories. From a postliberal perspective, attempts to make Quakerism more ‘universal’ – such as weeding out specific Quaker language or placing copies of the ‘World Religions Bible’ on meeting house tables – are misguided. A robust and vital Quakerism is one that has a healthy relationship with its own tradition, and does not seek to cast it off.

Some words from the wise Nadia Bolz-Weber to finish:

I think it’s interesting people dismiss the being “spiritual but not religious” thing. My business card for the church says, “We’re religious but not spiritual.” That yearning that people have is for something that’s more than 20 minutes old. I think people want to be connected to something that’s more than a whim… Since the age of progress, new is better, right? Now we go, “Wait a minute — that’s not always true.” When new is always better, we’re not tethered to anything. I think I see a longing in people to be tethered to something, and I like to say that you have to be really deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.

Note: The term postliberalism was coined in George Lindbeck’s book The Nature of Doctrine (1984).

Arms fairs, Ortolans and the Apocalypse

Last week I was present at the ‘No Faith in War’ day, part of the ‘Stop the Arms Fair‘ week of action. Here are my reflections on what I witnessed.
The ortolan is a small bird, considered in some countries to be a delicacy. It is kept in darkness, or perhaps blinded, causing it to gorge itself on grain. It is then drowned in brandy and roasted. When the ortolan is eaten, a veil is placed over the diner’s face and plate. The act of eating is hidden, either to preserve the dignity of the eater as they spit out the creature’s tiny bones, or, as some say, to hide such a cruel and shameful meal from the sight of God.
When we know our actions are wrong, we want to keep them hidden.

DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International) is taking place in London’s Docklands this week. Despite being one of the world’s largest arms fairs, it aims to keep out of the public eye. According to Campaign Against the Arms Trade: ‘DSEI takes place in secret, behind heavily protected security fences and police lines – designed to allow arms dealers to trade their wares unhindered by transparency or public protest – and is subsidised by the UK taxpayer.’
Within the Biblical narrative there is a recurring theme – what is done in secret will come to light. In my Quaker tradition, we affirm that the Light of God shows us our darkness, bringing us to new life. Jesus said that
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. [Luke 12:2-3]
In the Book of Revelation, God brings everything into the open by leaving nowhere to hide. The sky is torn away and the mountains are levelled:
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]

This is an apocalyptic moment, a moment of revelation. The word apocalypse means to remove the veil, showing things as they really are. The apocalypse is not about destruction, but about justice. To tear away the napkin that hides the gourmand crunching down on an ortolan is an apocalyptic act.
The ‘Shut Down DSEI’ week of action is also an apocalyptic event. It’s an attempt to reveal to the world the horror of what is occurring within the Excel Centre. Through creative campaigning – such as street theatre, art exhibitions, dancing and Daleks – and direct action – such as blocking the entrances to the exhibition centre – activists tear away the veil of secrecy and respectability and expose DSEI for what it is.

I took part in a Quaker meeting for worship at one of the entrances. In the middle of the silent circle, a Quaker was arrested by the police for obstructing the road. A priest placed a row of Bibles on the tarmac, which the police later removed. With the eyes of the worshippers on them, as well as many cameras, the police treated the trespassing Friend with great respect. Even the Bibles were picked up carefully and respectfully. For me, this was a moment of revelation – where I stood, a book was being picked up with such reverence it might have been a living thing, while across the street, preparations were being made to sell technologies destined to blow fragile bodies apart.
I am so grateful to all those who’ve worked on this campaign, and those who’ve put themselves in the way. DSEI is set to return in 2019, and I plan to be there to witness its unveiling.

Be a God-Bearer: A Quaker Mariology

Greenbelt, is a festival of arts, justice and faith that takes place at Boughton House near Kettering in the Midlands of England. It’s become almost an annual pilgrimage for me, and this year, helped by the glorious weather, it has refreshed and inspired me in unexpected ways.

One of the highlights of the festival was a talk by Teresa Forcades i Vila, a Benedictine nun from Catalonia, Spain. She spoke without notes, for about 45 minutes, quoting Hannah Arendt, Thomas Aquinas, Simone Weil, and a host of other philosophers and theologians, addressing the political climate in Europe today. I can’t sum up the content of her talk in one blog post, but I would like to focus on one particular point she made, that central to the work of the 21st century church will be the figure of Mary, the Mother of God.

Quakers, Catholics, Mary and Me

For a British Quaker, this might sound just too Catholic. In the 17th Century, the Puritans despised Catholics and Quakers alike, often accusing Quakers of being Jesuits in disguise, but that didn’t mean the first Quakers had any sense of solidarity with their Catholic sisters and brothers. A strong anti-Catholic streak runs through early Quaker writings, and it’s not unusual to come across a subtle anti-Catholic sentiment amongst contemporary British Quakers. As an atheist, then Quaker teenager, I was virulently anti-Catholic, associating it with excess and superstition.

My encounters with Catholics since then (both living and dead) have altered that view dramatically. Roman Catholicism, like any institution, has its problems, blind spots and systemic evil, but in reading the writings of Dorothy Day, and meeting the nuns working with refugees and asylum seekers in Birmingham, I’ve witnessed hearts that beat for justice far stronger than my own.

I think I’m also more open to Mary as a result. I find her a fascinating and enigmatic figure. She is a young women who has angelic visions and submits completely to God. She makes fiery prophetic pronouncements. She gives birth in squalor, and becomes a refugee fleeing state violence. She struggles to understand her son’s prophetic witness, but is there at the foot of the cross as he dies. She lives to see his resurrection, and the birth of the church. In the book of Revelation she is portrayed as ‘a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’.

Mary the God-Bearer

Mariology is the study of Mary, as Christology is the study of Christ. Like any branch of theology, Mariology has its own terminology and complicated metaphysical debates. One such debate resulted in Mary being given the title Theotokos – meaning ‘God-bearer’. The term is used in the Eastern Church, and in Eastern iconography Mary is often represented as the unburnt bush encountered by Moses. Like the bush, Mary contained God but was not consumed.


At Greenbelt, Sr Teresa explained how the relationship between God and Mary is the relationship that God wishes to have with us all. God cannot impose Her will on us from the outside. God will never enact martial law, and rule us in an authoritarian manner. That would make God a tyrant. God can only enter our individual and communal lives through our own freely given cooperation. God could only become enfleshed in Jesus because Mary freely said ‘Yes’.

Sr Teresa commented that, in Catholicism, the metaphor of being ‘channels of grace’ is often used. This reminded me of a oft-quoted passage from Quaker Faith and Practice about us being ‘God’s plumbers‘. But Sr Teresa feels these metaphors of being some sort of vessel or conduit do not fully communicate what it means to live an incarnational life. Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly wrote that ‘We cannot look upon the face of God and live, live as our old selves’. A channel is not transformed by what passes through it.

Sr Teresa suggests that, rather than just being passive plumbing, our calling is more visceral, bloody, painful and joyful. In Mary we see what we too are invited to become: God-bearers. We are called to a spiritual conception, pregnancy, labour and birth, to enflesh God in the world and be irrevocably changed by the experience.


A Quaker Mariology

The early Quakers knew all about being filled with God without being consumed. They took Paul at his word that ‘It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ This sense of Christ coming to birth in them has been called ‘celestial inhabitation.’  For early Quaker leader James Nayler, Jesus was enfleshed in him to the extent that he couldn’t tell where he ended and Christ began.

These were controversial claims that brought great persecution, and later generations of Quakers toned down such language, but in the Quaker tradition we have the bold claim that Christ is present amongst us, and that God works Her purposes thorough our weak and mortal bodies. This theology has been famously expressed in ‘The presence in the midst’, a painting of a Quaker meeting with a spiritual Jesus leading the worship.

I propose that we add another image to our visual theology, the image of Mary as Theotokos. Mary offers a model of Quaker discipleship – faithful, prayerful and open to the leadings of God. She captures the best of the Quaker tradition: She demonstrates the non-coercive workings of the Divine; in a patriarchal world she is a strong, prophetic women, a champion of the poor and downtrodden whilst herself a refugee. Like James Nayler, she knows that a life with God is not a life without grief, that bearing God leads to pain as well as glory. Also, as a man I have the opportunity to be challenged by female religious imagery.

I believe the God that is Love invites us to be God-bearers, to enflesh the Word in the world. Can we say with Mary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’?


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.


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.