Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Revision: Hopes and Fears

A paper copy of Quaker Faith & Practice (not most recent edition), a paper copy of the update Chapter 16 (Quaker Marriage Procedure), Kindle e-reader showing the Kindle edition of the book, and a tablet showing the web version.
Well, the time is almost here. Again.
Britain Yearly Meeting, taking place this coming weekend, has managed to draw a little press attention, both specialist and general (paywall), regarding the question of whether to revise our Book of Discipline. So I thought I'd take another little look at the whole matter.
Firstly, both of the linked pieces put an unreasonable focus on specific elements of change that Friends think might happen in a revision process. One focuses on environmental matters and gender & sexuality; the other focuses on the suggestion that we might remove “God” (or, they acknowledge, maybe just reduce the use of the term). These are all things that will be live issues if the revision goes ahead, to be sure, but they miss the key point of revision.
Firstly, it's important to remember that Quaker faith & practice is not scripture, and should not be treated as scripture (at least by those for whom scripture holds special value). It is a handbook, spiritual and practical, for living as a Quaker and for running a Quaker Meeting (or other organisation). It touches on many things, and the spiritual parts are not, by and large, attempting to be authoritative. It is, in large part, an anthology work, collecting the writings of various Friends down the centuries and presenting them, contradictions and all, for the benefit of Friends today. The parts that are authoritative are the organisational ones, and the occasional section with real legal substance (such as the conduct and recording of Quaker marriages).
Going along with this is an important key fact of the Quaker faith (though the extent and manner of its importance does vary between, and sometimes within, the different Quaker traditions). Ours is a living faith, based on direct experience of the Divine. This means that things change; whether you believe that this is because the world changes and thus the most appropriate guidance changes, or because something changes about the Divine itself, it is clear that things do change. We are confronted with issues that previous generations were not. Industrialisation, the rise of capitalism, slavery, civil rights, women's right, gay rights, environmentalism, trans rights – occasionally, the Spirit has called us to lead on an issue, and more often it has guided us on how to respond to a broader issue already live in society.
The book is not a series of positions on issues, not a series of test or criteria. It is a statement of where and who we are – the nature of our faith and our Yearly Meeting means that this is always plural; even in our unity we are different. It is an expression, a guide, a collection of wisdom and advice and speculation. It is owned by us, not because we have received it but because we create it, we build it. It is the work of our collective hands, and hearts, and minds. It is the work of our souls. It is ours more fundamentally than any scripture could be.
That is why our Book of Discipline is revised from time to time. People often say “once in a generation”, which is a marvellously imprecise term, but the real determining factor is “as often as we are led”. This isn't about whether we think it should be revised, though many of us have opinions about that. It is about what the Spirit is leading us towards. Perhaps our opinions are already shaped by the leadings of the Spirit, but they are also likely to be driven by our desires, our ego, our hopes and our fears.
And make no mistake, there are many things that individuals hope for or fear from any revision that might happen. Many of the things that some hope for, others fear, and no-one seems entirely unreasonable in such fear. Some hope that theistic language will be weakened, and others fear the same; others hope that theistic underpinnings of British Quaker belief will be strengthened, maybe even introducing a “God test” to deal with the perceived threat of non-theism, and conversely, some quite reasonably fear that prospect. If the proposed terms of reference from the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group are adopted, neither seems terribly likely. Perhaps the proportion of theistic, particularly Christian language will drop, if there is an effort to bring in more diverse language, but I don't see it dropping very far. Nor do I see any revision group trying to make such a radical change to the practice of our Yearly Meeting as to drive out of membership or fellowship either staunch theists (a term I use descriptively; I know few would use it as self-identification) or non-theists.
Similarly, especially in the current climate, there are those that hope for stronger affirmation of different gender experiences, such as trans, genderqueer or non-binary, and there are those who fear that acceptance self-identification threatens the idea of womanhood and the meaningful advance of gender equality. There are those who wish to see even greater emphasis, more up-to-date with recent developments, on environmental concerns, and there are those who feel this is already drawing excessive attention from Friends and that we should shift focus to social welfare and economic matters.
We do not need to have unity on any of these matters to begin the process of revision. We do not even need to have unity on them to finish the process. The anthology nature of much of the book means that we can represent a variety of views, sometimes contradictory, and be upheld by the fact that we are open and honest with the variety of opinion, experience and belief among our Religious Society. On the other hand, it is possible that the revision process will help us to resolve some of the tensions, or to grow more comfortable with them.
Of course there are risks. It seems implausible that there will be no-one unhappy with the results of the process, and likely some will be so unhappy that they resign membership or cease active involvement in the activities of the Society. That happens with other decisions we take as a Yearly Meeting, most notably and recently with the decision to embrace same-sex marriage. Change is difficult, but our faith is one that cannot avoid it without betraying more fundamental principles, so traumatic changes will happen and will cause breaks in fellowship. It is regrettable, and there are things we can and should do to minimise it, but it will happen.
I won't be at Yearly Meeting. I wish I were, even if just for these sessions, but I have done what I can to help people prepare. My views are known to those who know me, and evident to those who read some of my writing. I feel they are the result of my own discernment, of attempting to be guided by the Spirit, but I know that my own reason is also involved (which is fine, because the Spirit asks us, in my experience, to apply our own faculties as well as – but not instead of – prayerful discernment), and I know that my own ego will also have had an impact. That's why we need to come together in worship to discern this together, smoothing out the effects of ego and pride, and when our business method is followed faithfully it is very effective at that.
We do not vote, and we should not campaign. If our decision-making were by voting, I might be urging a certain vote and explaining the reasons for it. It is not, and I don't think it appropriate to urge anyone to go into discernment with the aim of securing a particular outcome. We should go with hearts and minds prepared, which means (among other things) exploring the issue for ourselves and attempting to understand it as best we can. But we also need to go with open hearts, ready to move in the direction the Spirit urges at that time. We cannot go without preconceived ideas of what the right outcome will be, but we can go attempting to let go our attachment to those ideas.
For those attending Yearly Meeting, that is what I advise you to do. Understand the matter as best you can, understand what a revision will mean – what might happen, how it might happen, what risks and opportunities it presents. Understand that this is, if not routine, at least not a strange thing for us to do. Most of all, be open to the Spirit when you are in session, and trust that together we can be led by it. Doing so won't always lead to the best outcome by any metric people might apply, but it will lead to the outcome that we ought to reach, even if we cannot understand why it is the course we should follow. Sometimes it takes years, generations, to understand why the Spirit leads us a certain way. Perhaps we never realise. Nonetheless, being a faithful Quaker means taking that leap. We acknowledge our fears, we apply the best effort and skill and knowledge that we can to achieve our ends, but we let ourselves be led and trust that, even if all is not well as a result of the actions to which we are led, we have still done as we should.
It can be terrible, sometimes, to follow the path laid out for us by the Divine. When the path leads to apparent harm or to strife, we should check our discernment to be sure we are really on the right course, but we know that sometimes the right path will cause harm in order to do greater good. Some types of harm we rightly consider never justified, as just ends cannot justify all means, but it is still the leadings of the Spirit that show us which means cannot be justified.
In the hardest decisions, where we can see no course that will satisfy all, no course that avoids stress, and even maybe harm, we place ourselves in the hands of the Divine. It is possibly the most profound expression of the depth of our faith; faith in God, if that is your experience, or in whatever you understand to be the source of leadings, in our practices and processes, and in one another. We do not know where a revision will lead, but if we are led into it we trust that it will lead to the right outcome, if we hold tight to our purpose and the guidance of the Spirit, that the unseen future will be revealed by the Light at the appropriate time, and that Love will sustain us through the task and its outcome.
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