I’ve been meaning to write something for the Luton Quaker blog for some time and have been slow in getting round to it, in part because I was not sure what I could offer to a tradition of which I am as yet only a partial member. For the record, I’m an ‘attender’, rather than a ‘member’, as I have not yet formally requested to join the Religious Society of Friends. I’m conscious of it being one of the options available to me, and I have given time already to wondering at what point I might take this step, and why.
For now, I’d like to write a little about what prompted me to set foot in a Quaker meeting house for the first time in February 2011. It was not without trepidation, as even now I really fight shy of describing myself as ‘religious’ in any way. Incidentally, I can recommend making contact with the Luton meeting beforehand if you are interested in coming along, as that’s what I did. I was invited for a cup of tea before the meeting, and knowing that I wasn’t turning up entirely out of the blue made the whole occasion much less daunting.
It might be helpful to begin with a few remarks about my background and my experiences with religion. Baptised Roman Catholic after my father, I got as far as taking first Holy Communion, in fact in Luton (at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church), during a two-year period when I lived here as a child. Despite my baptism, I was brought up in a (loosely) Church of England household by my mother, who had no truck with (what she saw as) the Catholic ‘smells and bells’ approach to religion. For her, being ‘Christian’ is not a deeply held religious belief but a safeguard of ordinary British respectability: the very notion that one might actually read the Bible or be part of a church quite unthinkable (and unnecessary) in her view.
As a child, I marked myself out as an early non-conformist when I took issue with her desire to hang a ‘glow-in-the-dark’ plastic crucifix (with apparent talismanic qualities) in my bedroom, and by the time I had left school I had decided that I simply could not in conscience ally myself with a religion (even a God) that viewed homosexual relationships as necessarily sinful, or inferior, or which drew (to my mind) petty and legal distinctions about wedlock or ‘legitimacy’ (of children), or placed restrictions on family planning. When I breezily told my mother at some point that I no longer considered myself to be a Christian, my mum was shocked: ‘But you believe in being nice to people, don’t you?’ Why, yes. But I did not believe (as I still do not) that Christianity (or indeed any one religion, or of necessity any religion at all) is an exclusive path to the possession of a moral conscience, or compass.
In fact, my non-religious turn was never as monolithic as it appeared, and the clues to my rehabilitation (!) were there in plain sight. I have described myself as ‘agnostic’ (rather than as an atheist) for many years; moreover an agnostic of the ‘permanently agnostic in principle’ type so scorned by Richard Dawkins. It has never felt especially meaningful to describe myself as definitively atheist even though I am equally unable to say with certainty that I believe in [a] g/God. Perhaps all I can say on this matter is that I have time for an experience of God (where ‘god’ is the name of something that I am finally unable to put into words), and of the encounter of ‘that of God in everyone’, the form of words used by Quakers to found their belief in the radical equality and fundamental worth of all human beings.
I think what is key to my interest in the Quakers is the way that Quakerism allows me to sit with my uncertainty in a way which is nevertheless productive. When I walk into meeting for worship, I do not wear the mantle of a believer; I am not asked to sign a creed; I can take inspiration in the teachings of (Christian, potentially other) scripture but do not have to hand over that portion of my incredulity that struggles to engage with the specific creedal aspects of Christianity (angelic visitations, virgin births, etc.) and which is unwilling to concede exclusive access to spiritual truths to any one religion. For all that there is much that I value in the Christian tradition, I cannot in conscience call myself Christian, since I do not accept (which is not quite to say that I reject) the doctrinal significance of Jesus or see in Christ an exclusive pathway to an experience of God.
At the same time, I recognise that I am broadly ‘Christian’ by heritage and by upbringing, and here again being involved with the Quakers makes sense to me. The story of the Quakers is an originally Christian and British story about coming to terms with one’s conscience and seeking to describe and live a new path sooner than live ‘in bad faith’. In the modern Quaker tradition, it is now entirely possible to be Quaker without being Christian, or Quaker and Christian, even Quaker and Buddhist, etc. Quakerism allows for the possibility of a range of hyphenated identities giving expression to a range of different experiences. I imagine some people see this as a distinctly ‘wishy-washy’, uncommitted approach; for me it is the only way to proceed authentically from where and who I am, and I think this path can be both authentic and rigorous through what I perceive as the powerful alliance of mindfulness (reflecting on one’s values, and trying to live in alignment with these) and silence; both key aspects of the Quaker ‘way‘.
Engaging with the Quakers gives me a way to ‘run with’ my uncertainty rather than running away from it. I don’t go to the weekly meeting with a view to receiving easy answers to any of my questions, and nor do I look to anyone within the meeting for authority on this or that spiritual topic. I do, however, drink deeply of the undoubted wisdom which I find more broadly within the Quaker tradition and within their published thinking on a number of issues, such as their peace testimony, their evolving thoughts on sustainability, economics and social justice, and their views on relationships and sexuality.
I never fail to be moved by the range and depth of testimonies that are included in Quaker Faith and Practice, the remarkable handbook of Quaker thinking and values that is available in every Quaker meeting house, and from which passages are sometimes read in the course of the Sunday meeting. It is a remarkable and indeed beautiful document that brings together writings from the very first Quakers of the 17th century with individual and corporate accounts from the last few decades, and which together weave a tapestry of thought and experience that is striking not only for the range and diversity of views but also for making the case for what is cohesive and enduring within the Quaker tradition: values of compassion, reasonableness and humility and above all of these, a willingness to think, a willingness to feel, and a willingness to learn from experience.
I love that the diverse writings within Quaker Faith and Practice are not set in stone, and that the volume is edited and re-published at intervals in order to ensure that the testimonies continue to reflect the central ground of Quaker thinking today.
I can imagine that some people might baulk at the idea that Quakers place value in a changing, evolving set of reflections rather than in unchanging scripture (though it should be noted that a copy of the Bible is also available in meeting). For me there is something both rigorous and subtle – and infinitely demanding! – in the Quaker idea of ‘discernment’ – of listening carefully (as an individual, or as a meeting) for the ‘leadings of the spirit’, as Quaker language might put it. I understand this term to mean those thoughts and feelings which emerge from lived experience, from reflection, and from the silence of meetings.
I want to make a case for the idea that the experience of God (if I can speak of g/God, and it’s not an obvious or easy word for me to use) is not fully ‘revealed’ (and did not come to an abrupt halt in 33 AD or even 632 CE): what we may understand as ‘god’ unfolds over time, finding expression in the lived experience of individual human beings, relationships, communities, and ecosystems.
To conclude, I want to present a couple of the things which led me very personally to make a connection with the Quakers. Firstly, there is their view on homosexuality in particular, but also relationships in general, and more recently their expression of support for marriage equality. There are a number of passages within Quaker Faith and Practice which joyfully affirm the role of sexuality in human life (and which give the lie to any notion of dour (porridge-eating!) Quaker ‘puritanism’):
Human sexuality is a divine gift, forming part of the complex union of body, mind and spirit which is our humanity. The sexual expression of a loving relationship can bring delight, joy and fulfilment.
Of relationships and homosexuality:
Where there is genuine tenderness, an openness to responsibility, and the seed of commitment, God is surely not shut out. Can we not say that God can enter any relationship in which there is a measure of selfless love? – and is not every generalisation we make qualified by this?
It is the nature and quality of a relationship that matters: one must not judge it by its outward appearance but by its inner worth. Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection, and therefore we cannot see that it is in some way morally worse.
Homosexual affection may of course be an emotion which some find aesthetically disgusting, but one cannot base Christian morality on a capacity for such disgust. Neither are we happy with the thought that all homosexual behaviour is sinful: motive and circumstances degrade or ennoble any act…
We see no reason why the physical nature of a sexual act should be the criterion by which the question whether or not it is moral should be decided. An act which (for example) expresses true affection between two individuals and gives pleasure to them both, does not seem to us to be sinful by reason alone of the fact that it is homosexual. The same criteria seem to us to apply whether a relationship is heterosexual or homosexual.
I also love the way that the Quaker marriage ceremony gives full expression to the idea of marriage as a freely chosen commitment between equals, something which was highly radical and counter-cultural in the time of the first Quakers in respect of sexual equality. I am moved by the wording of the ceremony, which (as always) I understand to be mostly conducted in silence, but to involve the two partners calling on each other explicitly as ‘Friends’ to join them in marriage.
All of this seems to me to be profoundly sane, compassionate, and carefully weighed, but also – and I want to emphasise this – joyful, passionate. It is correct to note here that there are also Quakers who hold different views with respect to gay marriage; the ‘Quaker way’ in Britain has not been to exclude these views, but nevertheless to pursue a corporate path of support for gay marriage since (at least) 2008. Finally, I was delighted with the wording of a recent press release on the occasion of the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill through the House of Lords, which Quakers ‘greeted with joy’. Joy! How great is that?