Quaker

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1 RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF FRIENDS

Briefly, this is the formal title of the society whose philosophy, beliefs and practices are known as Quakerism. The people who belong to the Society and the people who follow Quakerism are, for historical reasons, known as Quakers. Formal members of the Society are known as Friends. I use RSoF as short for the formal title of the Society. Attendance at Meeting for Worship, taking part in activities of the RSoF or living a Quakerly life do not require formal membership of the RSoF.

Quakerism was founded in 1652 in England by George Fox. It arose from and is historically and philosophically rooted in Christianity and is one of the protestant sects within that tradition. Quakerism comes in different ‘flavours’. Most Quakers are evangelical and have programmed meetings for worship with paid pastors, unlike us in Britain.

For the purpose of this essay I assume that my readers are, if not Quakers, familiar with Quakers, Quakerism, its history and its testimonies. However my experience and view of Quakerism is relevant to appreciating what I have to say. It comes with the usual Quaker health warning that it is only my view and might not be shared by any or all other Quakers.

This section contains many jargon words and phrases that need unpacking, which is beyond the immediate need of this essay.

More information on Quakers in Britain can be found at www,Quaker.org.uk

2 SOME ELEMENTS OF QUAKERISM

2.1 Beliefs

One of Quakers’ core beliefs is that everyone, whether Quaker or not, has direct, un-mediated access to God. No priest or rituals are needed. This leads directly to the belief that everyone is equal before God and to the method of worship based on silent waiting on God.

Quakers recognize that individual, passionate convincement may be mistaken for divine leading. Worshiping in a gathered meeting, as well as enhancing the quality of the worship, acts to test the leading and validate it against the leadings of others (standing in the Light).

A second core belief is that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone.

A third belief is that one should live one’s beliefs.

2.2 Quaker faith and practice

Quaker faith and practice is Quakers’ user manual. It consists of three parts: advices and queries, church government and a selection of helpful inspiration, guidance and testimony. It is revised from time to time, typically once each generation.

2.3 Meeting for worship

In Britain, Quakers gather for worship by meeting in silence. From time to time there may be spontaneous un-programmed vocal ministry. Typically this is spoken prose but may also take the form of traditional prayer, singing, reading and so on. The conduct (right ordering) of the meeting for worship is the responsibility of Elders who might be appointed for the purpose. Elders are guides with hopefully deep and mature experience of Quaker ways.

Other branches of Quakerism, typically those found in the USA and East Africa, are evangelical or are programmed like a typical Christian church with pastors.

Meetings can be held anywhere at any time so long as two or three Quakers are present. Quakers hold that no places or times are more sacred than others, so that all places, times and people are equally sacred – there is no laity.

2.4 Testimonies: Truth, Simplicity, Equality, Peace

From the earliest days of Quakerism, Quakers have collected the experience and insight of individuals as they seek to live out their beliefs in the secular and spiritual world and experience of living their beliefs, into a growing number of Testimonies. These are guides and advice born of personal experience. They are expressed in the words of individual Friends and have been chosen because they speak to the condition of several other Friends. Quakers have no set form of words or creed or catechism.

Over the centuries Quakers have accumulated testimonies on some forty or fifty subjects. At the beginning of the twenty-first century many Quakers in Britain focus their interest on a few of them which seem to speak to the condition of our society today: Truth, Simplicity, Equality before God, Justice and Peace. Recently global sustainability and a reverence for nature have emerged as new testimonies.

2.5 Scripture

Quakers believe in continuous, personal revelation. The scriptures (Christian and other faiths) are helpful and inspiring. These writings may be the Word of God but experience and scholarship suggest (and Quakers believe) they need interpreting in the Light of each person’s own experience and condition. Fixed absolutes have only a small place in Quaker belief and practice.

2.6 Organisation

RSoF is organised in geographical layers from the Local Meeting (LM) through Area Meeting (AM) to yearly meeting YM which is the national body in Britain, (BYM).

Meeting for Sufferings was until recently the executive and managing body for the Religious Society of Friends in Britain. This function has now been taken over by the charity’s trustees.

Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) in session remains the ultimate authority and decision-making body representing the RSoF.

2.7 Centres of excellence

Britain Yearly Meeting has several centres of excellence including Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Claridge House, Charney Manor, Jordans and so on

2.8 Discernment – Quakers making decisions

Quakers are a spirit-led society – in contrast to a democratic or consensus society. In making decisions on practical, moral and spiritual matters it seeks to determine the Will of God as led by the Spirit. The method for achieving this is a Meeting for Worship for Business. This is a meeting for worship focused on the matter in hand. The clerk of the meeting is charged with determining the sense of the meeting as it discerns the right way forward.

The earliest Quakers were absolutely convinced of the supremacy of personal discernment and it was only reluctantly that they conceded the need for the group discernment that we now call Meeting for Worship for Business. Group discernment acts to check the perversity and essential arrogance that can be in personal convincement. Pooling insights and experiences can lead to greater Light and thus a closer approach to Gospel Order and the will of God. Rational understanding and action does not, in my view, take anything away from the mystical experience of Meeting for Worship but in the twenty-first century it adds a new and valuable dimension.

2.9 Mystical

Quakers’ beliefs and practices are inherently and fundamentally mystical.

Mysticism (from the Greek μυστικός, mystikos, an initiate of a mystery religion[1]) is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on a practice or practices intended to nurture those experiences or awareness. Mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or may be nondualistic. Differing religious traditions have described this fundamental mystical experience in different ways.

3 My Quakerism

My personal view of Quakerism now has its own page, My Quakerism.

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