Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Need for Constant Rediscovery

As Quakers, we have a wonderful, rich history, full of learning. We have discovered principles and practices that guide us in our spiritual life and our secular life; indeed, ideally the two should become increasingly indistinguishable. There a centuries of Quaker writing to inform and edify.
And yet the very start of the Quaker story was railing against empty forms and notions. The idea that confession of the creed and going through the motions at church weren't enough, not even for those who tried to live virtuously and believed sincerely. Today, we wouldn't make a blanket assertion of this, but it is our experience for ourselves that true religious experience derives only from seeking to know the Divine for ourselves, and acting in the world out of sincere conviction stemming from this knowledge – not from acceptance of knowledge and teachings received from others, however wise and insightful. The story of Penn's Sword, however dubious its historicity, is an illustration of this principle; while wearing a sword was contrary to Quaker testimony, Fox did not urge Penn to abandon it until it was a matter of personal conviction for him. Even as a parable, this story is a great illustration of this principle, along with the complementary fact that, if we are open to it, the Spirit can transform us.
Here we stand today. Quakers in Britain have made marvellous, wonderful statements, progress on so many issues. We led the charge for allowing equal marriage, particularly in allowing those faiths who choose to do so to conduct same-sex marriages. While we might be little-known to the population at large, campaigners for peace and disarmament, campaigners for sustainability, and campaigners for social justice, are aware of us far more. We have powerful spiritual practices and traditions that we know work, by our own experience, when we do them faithfully and with due preparation. We meet together in joy and solemnity and do what we need to do, great things and small but necessary things.
I have no doubt that it is right that we do these things. It is right that we champion the inclusion of the marginalised and disadvantaged, that we champion peace and fairness, that we look to the future of our planet and our species. But it is not right that we do them because it is what we have always done. It is not right that we do them because of an expectation that we do them.
In 1926, the Young Friends Committee of London Yearly Meeting (now Britain Yearly Meeting) said:
“[Our] work is based on the thought that ‘What you have inherited from your forefathers you must acquire for yourselves to possess it’. That is to say that each generation of young Friends by its experiments must discover for itself the truths on which the Society is built if it is to use those truths and to continue and enlarge the work of the Society.” (Quaker faith &practice, 21.04)
This is not merely true for each generation. It is not merely true for Young Friends. It is true for each of us individually. Our principles, our methods, our leadings and our decisions must be rediscovered and confirmed anew for each of us. This does not mean that we start from scratch. It does not mean that we throw out all that has come before us; the lessons of our Quaker forebears are important and valuable, and we should not throw out what has worked for centuries just because we need to discover it for ourselves. Rather, we should not assume that our forebears had the final answer. The attitude to sex and relationships, including same-sex relationships, has changed among Quakers in Britain incredibly in the last 100 years. Early Friends held separate business meetings for men and women. Quakers were slave-owners, and even in areas where slave-owning was not legal, Quaker craftsmen and businesses profited directly from the slave trade – and Friends who spoke loudly against this situation, loud enough to be heard beyond the Religious Society of Friends itself, were in some cases disowned by their Meetings. It took generations for Quakers to divest themselves from slavery and the slave trade, and then to start in on advising the rest of wider society that slavery was an evil that should be ended. Even affirmative conclusions of the past have been reversed as our understanding grew and changed, such as the relatively recent embracement of the arts as a valid interest, or even occupation – never mind the idea that they may have a spiritual role to play.
The only way to be sure we are right, and to be sure that we are conducting ourselves in the right way, is to continually question our conclusions and our methods. Usually, we will be reassured. I have no doubt that, if Britain Yearly Meeting were to review its attitude to same-sex relationships from scratch next year, it would come to essentially the same conclusion that it currently holds. Yet, even though I have no doubt about it, it is a mistake to assume we have the last word. It is only by continually, if gently, reassessing our commitment to peace, sustainability, equality, and all the other issues, that we will see the areas we need to improve, that we will see the areas where something has changed and our approach needs to change to follow. It is only by constantly re-examining our practices and processes that we will understand them deep in the bone, understand why we do things the way we do, see the ways we don't do them quite rightly, and see how to do them better. The act of questioning and testing anew makes the conclusions real for us today.
Our practices and our structures have changed before, and they will change again. Maybe we should be introducing programmed elements of worship now and then. Maybe we need to find a way to prepare matters better before our business meetings. Maybe we need to radically change our attitude to theological diversity. Maybe we need to rethink our attitude to proselytisation. Maybe we need to figure out why we have so few people among our Meetings between the ages of 18 and 45 – and decide whether we're going to do something about that, or that it doesn't matter.
I don't know whether we should be doing anything along any of those lines. I have opinions about some of them, but opinions are just opinions; what we do, corporately, has to be determined by us all, corporately, with due deliberation and prayerful discernment. But if we assume that we already have the answers, we will, I am sure, be doomed to decay, leaving only a fossilised remnant of a great and powerful faith tradition.
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