My Quakerism

1 MY View

I find that most people, most of the time are firmly rooted in the tangible real word of practical activity. Quakerism is an activity that one does on Sundays and sometimes on other days. It is a source of fellowship, belonging and friendships.

Living as I do in the conscious, spiritual world of unseen ideas and emotions I find myself out of step. In a Quaker family, growing up among Quakers, taking part in Quaker activities and living in a Quaker community I saw Quakerism as life: as the central focus around which everything else happened and which gave everything else meaning and value.

It is only recently that I have come to the view (of most other people, including it seems Quakers) that life is not about Quakerism, or religion or philosophy or belief. Rather life is, in the same way that material things are and ones own being is. Life can be lived in a myriad of ways: geographically, economically, spiritually and so on. Quakerism, my spiritual system, is only one of those ways. The one that I have deliberately chosen for myself. Thus Quakerism is a manner of life not life itself.

Seeing the spiritual in the practical realities of life is a manner of life. One that draws on religious practices, spiritual teaching, the traditions of Christianity and applies a system of belief and philosophy to practical reality that makes sense of it, gives it value and justifies one’s existence. I appreciate that there is more in Christianity than this: sin, ritual, sacrifice, comfort, and so on. Important as they are, they do not speak to my condition – perhaps I am too egotistical and not sufficiently humble.

To live one’s life in Quakerism (in a Quakerly manner) is to risk distraction and even perversion from the reality of life – into spirituality rather than real behaviour (with a spiritual and even ethical dimension).

2 Inner and Outer Experience

Quakers clearly distinguish between the inner world where the Light, Truth, the Spirit and God are experienced, and the outer world of secular experience. Although these are separate, distinguishable worlds, it is a fundamental principle, and part of our testimony on integrity, that one’s behaviour in the outer secular world should be consistent with ones beliefs and experience in the inner world. Briefly Quakers try to live their beliefs not just practice Quakerism on Sunday.

3 Acts of faith

As a Quaker with a scientific education, living in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in my first act of faith, I believe in the essential order and harmony of the universe. Not to believe it means that the whole universe is unpredictable, without structure or reason, essentially incomprehensible. Most religions credit the order to God. George Fox referred to it as Gospel Order, the essential natural harmony found in the Gospels. After much thought and agonising it was obvious to me that the personality (if such there be) of God, His design, intention and thus will, are manifest in the world in which we live, just as the personality of the artist, inventor or scientist is manifest in his or her works.

In my second act of faith, I believe that I can discern this will, and act in harmony with it through careful and intelligent study of the world around me. Subjective experience, feelings and response to art in all its forms, goes a long way towards understanding. Only a little thought, and the experience of several thousand years of human experience some of it Quaker, shows that to rely only on one’s own perception is unreliable and can be disastrously misleading. We used to call this evil and sin. Careful, rigorous and rational study of the world (such as in science) gives powerful insight into Gospel Order and hence the will of God. We can all feel emotionally, think rationally and experience Gospel Order in the world and in each other. In this sense we are all children of God and have ‘that of God’ in us, whether Quaker or not. Furthermore, in so far as other people’s behaviour is God-like (because they too have direct access to God and seek to act in harmony with God), they have insight into the mind of God and I should pay attention to it. Writings, and reports of their experiences, in history and in testimonies, are valuable sources of insight and inspiration to me. Just as I have little insight in to the mind of another person, I see God’s mind darkly, I know only in part.

My third act of faith is that it is better, more satisfactory, more rewarding and more enjoyable to act in closer accordance with Gospel Order than to act contrary to it. To over-simplify: it is better to eat in harmony with our biochemistry than not to eat or to try to eat inorganic substances like plastic or charcoal. My simple model is: study God’s creation (of which I am part and experience part), identify a question and the options that exist, choose the option that seems to be closest to Gospel Order, act to realise the benefits of the choice and suffer the consequences of my action or in action.

4 My experience of worship

• I once asked a minister what worship means. His answer was that it means worth – ship. At the time that was not very helpful but I thought about it over the following years. I think it means respect, appreciation and study of things of value. This of course raises the question of what is of value.
• Worship is intimately connected to my idea of God. Very briefly, I see a continuity from the big bang of physics to my personal experience of God today. So understanding the world around me, who I am, what I’m doing here and why, is part of knowing and working with God. Seeking to live and act in harmony with that principle I think of as my form of worship.
• One of the Quaker ideas that appealed to me from very early on, is that one should live one’s beliefs in practice. In 1682, William Penn one of the earliest Quakers and the founder of Pennsylvania, said, “True godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it”. You can find the whole quotation in Qf&p 23.02.
• For me worship is not an exotic experience, but an ordinary and everyday one. My approach is quite similar to the 12th of Twelve Quakers and Worship.
• In the normal business of living, working, being a parent, running a business, restoring furniture I look for and think about the deeper things behind what happens and what I experience. I actively welcome insights, rub ideas together, look for better ways of doing things, and ask questions. This sort of worship is challenging and adventurous. It is based on the idea that we each have direct access to God.
• Personal exploration and collecting insights is dangerous. I might be wrong, Things can go wrong: there is a risk of self-centredness, megalomania, and anarchy.
• Exploration in Meeting is fundamentally the same as exploring outside it. MfW is different in that everyone else is working on their issues of understanding, living and behaving morally, savouring spiritual adventure and experience. Because we are all together at the same time, we form a community, with shared values and understandings, in which we reach new insights and resolve dilemmas, support and affirm each other. We call this standing in the Light and reaching unity – not with ourselves but with God.
• Quaker worship is not a licence for anarchy or animal behaviour. It must be human – fully. Leadings and insights need to be checked by and with others because they have a part of the truth too.
• I have never liked the idea of abasing myself in mindless adoration of anything. Liturgy and religious language means nothing to me. I certainly have a spiritual life and what I call spiritual experiences. I am very interested in behaviour: doing the right thing, living a “virtuous life.

5. Nuts and bolts of my Meeting for Worship

Meeting for Worship begins before I arrive. Usually through the week there are one or two ideas that I want to think more about or there is some problem or worry that keeps coming back to me. Ideas pop up as I work. Sometimes what I read generates an idea and I follow it up. Sometimes a phrase or an idea from the television or a meeting with a client strikes me as insightful or relevant to some on going theme in my mind. Some themes and experiences have been with me for many years – like our testimony on simplicity. I have found that my vocal Ministry often begins or has its roots many days or years before.

I try to arrive just on time so that I can go into Meeting and sit down without distractions from people wanting to talk to me. I usually sit away from the door so that I do not crowd out any late-comers or get in the way of the children when they come in later.

At one time I learned Yoga, meditation and self-hypnosis techniques. I still find them helpful for what we call centering down and focussing my mind. I used to fight the sounds outside and the noisy thoughts in my head, to be disciplined, focused and still. I have learned that these noises are part of the settling process and focusing on the business of worship. In a way they are the fuel that drives the worship for me and for others. Children’s noises and sounds from outside – for me – are a part of the worship and keep it rooted in reality.

In a few minutes I find one or two themes or ideas emerging in my thoughts. Often, but not always, these are the ideas or worries that I brought to Meeting. My thoughts are not still or static but are like a conversation with myself or with God. Some people call this prayer or meditation. Quakers call it bringing something into the Light.

If there is vocal Ministry from other people I almost always find there is some link with my own thoughts that gives a new twist or direction. Sometimes I recognise a powerful theme from someone else and bend my thoughts to follow it. Most often I hear a request for help or a problem that someone else is facing. Sometimes it’s sharing a joyful uplift.

Almost always I find that there is a rational theme to the Meeting and to my thoughts within it. Sometimes a meeting is deep and profound, if silent. At other times it might be tense and crackling with energy. In those Meetings there is usually a piece of ministry towards the end that resolves the tension and gives us all a new, uplifting insight.

Sometimes thing go wrong. Perhaps someone starts speaking but doesn’t know how to stop and sit down. Sometimes we get what the Americans call a popcorn meeting, where one person after another leaps to their feet and there is no time to absorb or consider what is being said. Like the popcorn meeting sometimes one person argues with a previous ministry. This is easy to deal with when the people are new to a Meeting for Worship, but when the apparent disagreement is over a fundamental issue and is between seasoned Quakers the meeting becomes tense, charged and alive.

The journey slows to an end and the two elders shaking hands to signal the end of the meeting is like a train stopping in a station and we all get out and resume our social chatter.

6 The core

My Quakerism stands on two legs.

The first is the mystery that each person has direct, unmediated, constant access to God (George Fox Qf&p 19.02). So I must treat everyone with equal respect, recognising their different characters. Everyone can search for truth and guidance for themselves and validate their insights in community. It presupposes there is something to listen for and to respond to. From this belief come our positive, moral values. But it takes us into contention with authoritative organisations.

The second leg requires me to live out our beliefs and values (William Penn Qf&p 23.02). It puts integrity at the core of living and inspires our living testimonies. It drives our practice of Meeting for Worship, our book of discipline and our institutions. Continuous revelation means our practices are under constant scrutiny and revision.

One can be Quaker without formal membership of the Society and, with difficulty, Quaker in a non-Quaker culture. To be Quaker means using both legs to 'walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone' (George Fox, Qf&p 19.32).

Four personal relationships stride on the legs: my relationship with God; my relationship with myself, my relationships with other people and the relationships between other people that I help and support. Crafting personal relationships lies at the cusp of science, art, religion and practical experience. It means working with heart and mind in the minutiae of everyday personal behaviour to build communities.

I came to Quakerism as a place of sanctuary, comfort and encouragement. I soon realised that, like a good family, it is also a place of challenge, responsibility and discipline. In maturity, it has been enough to meet the challenge of living Quakerism, in my family and career. This is no longer enough. Now I look also to the future of Quakerism and of the world. The future lies in answering that of God in me and in the world.

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