Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Looking Forward to Revision of the Book of Discipline

As previously mentioned, Britain Yearly Meeting is in the process of deciding whether to start a process of revision of our book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice. The Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group (BoDRPG), tasked with laying ground work for the next revision – whenever it might occur – and preparing Quakers in Britain for taking any decision regarding revision, reported to Meeting for Sufferings in December 2017, recommending that they (Sufferings) recommend to Yearly Meeting in May that the process of revision begin. It's not a done deal, by any stretch of the imagination, but there's a decent chance the process will progress.
I'll be quite honest – I'm looking forward to it.
We all know the book will have a wholesale revision some time. If it didn't, I feel we would have failed in our core principles; we would have moved from a text that represents the living, evolving truth of the Quaker way to a new scripture, something I doubt that many Quakers, of any flavour would support. Some would rather not have any sort of scripture, whether it exists already or that we made our own, whereas others would consider creating any new text that is treated in any way similarly to scripture would be, essentially, blasphemous.
I know there's opposition to any wholesale revision. Some would rather see the book simply added to with new material, but never losing anything in the anthology chapters – just revising the church government-related chapters as needed. The fact that this would lead, as an ongoing policy, to an indefinitely growing book either doesn't occur to such Friends, or doesn't strike them as a problem, I guess. Others don't oppose revision in principle, but are quite sure that this is not the time. Sometimes this is for concrete reasons, like wanting to resolve issues around theological diversity first; for others, it seems like the subtext is “I know it will be revised some time, but can't you wait until I'm dead?”
For the BoDRPG, the most imperative reason in their report seems to be the increasingly unworkable nature of ongoing revision to the church government sections, combined with a sense of impracticality around revising those sufficiently – and in a way that reduces the growth of such a need in future – while leaving the rest of the book untouched. The proposals that the book be based on a core intended to have a longer life, with supplements that can be updated more frequently to reflect changes in policy, structures and legal requirements, is a daring one – but daring in the best way, in my opinion. It resolves the tension between reluctance to undergo extensive (and expensive) full revision processes and the constantly evolving landscape that church government involves.
But far more than just giving us a cleaner way to keep church government chapters up to date, the proposed revision represents a fantastic opportunity. There's a tremendous amount of interesting thought, and writing, going on among Quakers in Britain – and around the world – at the moment, with books and articles and blogs sharing and stimulating fantastic thought on practicalities, theology, history and spirituality. People are sharing their experiences, their ideas, their aspirations. For a revision to occur during this amazing time means that the process will involve the revision committee – and through their work and consultations, the whole of the Yearly Meeting – will have to address this rich humus, and all that sprouts from it. This can, I feel, only add to the fecundity of ideas, leading to who knows where – but perhaps to a real stride forward, the Whoosh! that the Recording Clerk of BYM, Paul Parker, has spoken of, or a real spirit of renewal and spiritual development in our Meetings (or perhaps those are the same thing).
Thought on many areas has moved on, in wider society as well as within our Religious Society, in many areas, even since 1994. There are ways in which the red book has fallen behind the times, for instance in how we think of disability – one area with which I am intimately familiar. There will be many other areas, I'm sure, where thought has moved on, relative to how up-to-the-moment we were when the red book was compiled. I imagine that we're missing some possible tricks in intimate relationships, for instance, though figuring out where we stand on some of the newer areas of discussion in that department will require some searching within and among ourselves; the current book barely scratches the surface of current discourse on gender and sexual diversity. Likewise, environmental issues have both moved on, and the positions in the red book become more mainstream. Geopolitics and human rights, issues of international security and foreign policy, have moved on, and the red book says a fraction of what we could say now. If we are truly committed to being at the forefront of such things, then the process of revision will allow us, indeed will force us to figure out what we can say collectively, or where we differ, how we can represent that breadth of that difference faithfully in a collection of writings.
That is an important point to remember. Setting down the state of our collective journey and what we can say doesn't mean we have to come to agreement on all of it. Anyone who has been participating in the Reading Quaker faith & practice programme, or indeed anyone who has read the anthology chapters of the current book at all recently, will realise that the voices within it are not singing in unison; indeed, they are not always singing in harmony. The anthology format used in recent books of discipline means that we can give an indication, to those among us who have not witnessed it, as well as to those new to our ways, of the breadth of variation, of the fact that we not only tolerate differences of understanding, but are able to celebrate it. There are several very beautiful, meaningful, impactful passages of Qf&p that I cannot say speak for me; many are deeply personal to their authors, and indeed anyone who felt they could agree with every single passage would have to be labouring under significant cognitive dissonance. Yet those passages are still of value to me, to us all, because of what they show us about one another's experience, of other people's knowledge of the impact of the Spirit in their lives.
So, yes, I think that Britain Yearly Meeting should move forward with the proposed revision process. I think we should do it cautiously, but not trepidatiously, with hope rather than fear. It will be difficult, but then so is labour. The revision committee will be the midwives of the birth of a new record and statement of our corporate position, and our corporate and individual experiences, being born from the body of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain. A difficult task, that will take much effort from both the mother and the midwives, possibly somewhat traumatic, but one that should be, in the end, rewarding for all.
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