Face to faith: Guardian article
Below is an extract from a 2007 article in the Guardian by David Boulton, a Quaker humanist, that I thought was worth a read. David Boulton edited Godless for God’s Sake, a book of essays by 27 non-theist Quakers.
(The fact that the Quaker movement has members of non-theist disposition who happily rub shoulders with the majority whose conceptual framework conforms more with the traditional Christian roots of the organisation is a testimony to the eclectic yet generally harmonious mix of Quakers who attend Meetings – at least in the ‘West’.)
The “advices and queries” on the tube are drawn from Quaker scripture (using “scripture” in its plain sense of “writings”). Quakers – or just Friends, as they usually call themselves – do not suppose that the Almighty dictated the wording or beamed it down. The earliest version was knocked together in 1682, and it is revised every 30 years or so, most recently in 1994. From the start it was made clear that the advices were just that, not rules but a guide to be fulfilled in spirit rather than to the letter.
Regular revision of these very human “scriptures” is by no means the only innovation of 17th-century Quakers that has endured. Friends, at least in Britain, have no professional priesthood, no clerical or lay hierarchy, no creed, dogma, sacraments or sermons. Quakers celebrate their roots in a radical libertarian Christianity, but the new shoots that have sprung from these old roots come in a diverse array of colours. There are biblical and secular Quakers, Jewish and pagan Quakers, born-again Quakers and Quaker agnostics and humanists. Is this diversity a problem? Only to those who stubbornly insist that they alone know the way, the truth and the life.
The Society of Friends came together in the aftermath of the English civil wars of the 1640s, a movement of conscientious objectors to clerical power and the religious and secular dictatorship of the wealthy. Leveller John Lilburne and “True Leveller” Gerrard Winstanley became Quakers. They demanded freedom of conscience, a social revolution, a democratically elected parliament. Theirs was an early liberation theology opposed to bishops, lords and the personal rule of anyone claiming to be the Lord’s anointed, whether he called himself lord protector or king.
They were activists, but activists with a difference. The compulsive urge to work for a just and compassionate social order was rooted in an inner peacefulness which has been described as “living sacramentally”. They were contemplatives who understood contemplation as a form of action, and activists who understood action as a form of contemplation. Over the centuries Quakerism has had its quietist and its activist phases, its conservative and its radical impulses and expressions. Today’s Friends ride the earthquake, wind and fire, but do so in obedience to a still small voice of calm.
Attending a Quaker meeting for the first time can be an odd experience. The silence can last a full hour, broken only by the distant polyphony of tummy rumbles. Anyone is free to stand and speak, “as moved by the spirit”. Who or what Friends mean by “the spirit” depends on who you ask. But as the Turner prize-winning artist Martin Creed put it, while designing the National Quaker Week T-shirt, “Silence is not negative, an empty room is not empty.” Artists know that. So do Friends. You need a still place in which you can find your voice and a springboard for effective action.