Open for Liberation: A View from Britain

In recent months, a profusion of articles and blog posts have called for a new vision for Liberal Quakerism. Sometimes the call is in response to the decrease in the number of members; sometimes it’s a response to spiritual hunger which is only partially nourished by the way things are. Discernment at yearly meetings has reflected this hope for a new vision, and Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) has agreed to a process of revising its book of discipline, Quaker Faith and Practice. In so doing, every local member and attender will be able to have a say in the direction of our community and the articulation of our beliefs.

It would be overstating the case to say we don’t have a direction in Britain. There is—at least in theory—a vision for change. The BYM document “Our Faith in the Future” sets out six goals toward which the yearly meeting wants to work, including these three: (1) Quakers are well known and widely understood; (2) Quaker communities are loving, inclusive, and all-age; and (3) Quaker values are active in the world. But, as the adage goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Words are cheap without a change in how we do things.

Culture change is possible, however, and probably simpler than we think. With the right action now, within a few years, every Quaker might be able to say with confidence: we’re here, we’re inclusive, and we make change. But that change needs to begin within ourselves.

We’re here

When we let people know that the door is open, people walk through it. I first learned this whilst part of the small Quaker meeting at Bunhill Fields, built on the site of the first Quaker burial ground that is the resting place of thousands of the earliest Friends, among them George Fox. When the meeting initiated a community day at the site in partnership with local residents’ groups, more than 300 people turned out: to eat, to meet one another, and to hear the story of the garden’s past.

I was reminded of this again when in a team of young Friends who embarked on the journey of recording a podcast of what turned out to be an entirely quiet meeting for worship. It caught the attention of the BBC News, national newspapers, and National Public Radio in the United States. Once again, I learned that if you open the door, people enter, or in this case, will tap on their touchscreens.

More recently, my meeting decided on another local history tour, this time focusing on the inspirational social reformer Ada Salter, a one-time elder of our meeting whose name adorns a walled garden in a South London park. We posted an event on social media and without much effort had so many people that we reluctantly needed to close bookings—to prevent our guide needing to deliver the tour through a megaphone.

I share these three stories because they should be unremarkable. Instead, they are rare because they go against the grain of a culture that prefers to stay quiet. In every case except the most recent, there were weighty Quakers who tried to stop or stifle us. On other occasions, I’ve attended events in Quaker Outreach Week to which nobody except existing Quakers had been invited. At one public event planning meeting, we spent almost as much time asking how to stop too many people from coming (“there might not be enough chairs”) as we spent discussing how to encourage attendance. Unsurprisingly, on this occasion, no one except regular members of the meeting came.

It may come as a surprise, but people are interested in Friends. In a frenzied and unfair world, we offer an open space to connect to that which is eternal, to discern the difference between what could be and how things are, and to act together for change. Yet we often lack confidence in ourselves to share the things we treasure. That we might be mistaken is a caution found in Advices and Queries, but this needn’t mean we need to assume that no one is interested in us.

To be charitable, our reticence could be a modern-day manifestation of the Quaker modesty, which once long ago led us to wear only gray. Seen another way though, our reticence could be reminiscent of the long-abandoned prohibition against marrying out, a racially tinged practice that prioritized purity over openness to transformation through people coming into the community.

Saying “we’re here” means building alliances; showing up; letting people know that if there’s solidarity to be shown, the Quakers will be there; and that everyone is welcome to the meeting for worship. It also means sharing with people why we’re there and working toward the day when the ability to articulate our spiritual journey in public will be as core to the Quakers’ repertoire of capability as it was to the earliest Friends.

Our Society has become accustomed to fundraising, lobbying, and marching on behalf of people, but we need to become better at translating these activities into true solidarity. As a faith group, we need to open up and offer stillness and connection through the precious practices we value. We’d thereby offer a priceless gift to those people on the frontline who might be most in need, rather than continue to clasp our treasure to ourselves.

This isn’t new; such movements are already in train. For example, Friends in Essex recently supported 15 activists who were standing trial in their city after nonviolently disrupting a deportation flight. Local Quakers hosted them in their houses, offered their meetinghouse for events, and organized a powerful meeting for worship to uphold them in their trial. An anti-deportation activist reported afterward in The Friend: “It made a huge impression on everyone. It was beautiful and heartfelt, and soothed and grounded a lot of frayed nerves.” At the end, some of them sang. These are examples of spiritual solidarity in action.

We’re inclusive

Quakers should be the most inclusive denomination there is. Our identity is forged in our history, and our posters explain how Friends were among the first to promote women’s ministry, to campaign against slavery, to embrace same-sex marriage and more. Yet we have a long way to go before embodying George Fox’s recognition that “God who made all pours out of his spirit upon all men and women in the world . . . upon the whites and blacks, Moors and Turks and Indians, Christians, Jews, and Gentiles.”

In the course of the 2017 Britain Yearly Meetings sessions I gave a lecture in which I suggested that in our present state British Quakerism is less ethnically diverse than the candidates of the xenophobic UK Independence Party (UKIP). It sent a shudder through the room,but it’s a fact we need to wake up to. In the words of Unitarian educator Chris Crass, quoted by Friends General Conference anti-racism coordinator Vanessa Julye in her workshop at the same event:

the key question, for a white/white majority community, is not “how to get people of color to join our faith community,” it is “how can we make a prolonged, spiritually rooted, engaged commitment to uprooting white supremacy within our community and take on-going collective action to challenge it in society.”

However much people may not like to admit it, it is still worryingly common for a well-meaning Friend to enquire of an attender with black or brown skin: “Where are you from?” In the Sanctuary Movement, I’ve heard Friends insensitively asking refugee allies to explain their life stories over post-meeting for worship tea and biscuits. When discriminatory or exclusivist ideas or words are used—whether in Quaker or other movement spaces—our culture does not yet require us to robustly challenge them, especially if the unthinking offender’s feelings might be hurt. In our decision-making structures too, we need to change more quickly in moving toward greater diversity.

At the same time, there are others who declare that “certain kinds of people” just aren’t interested in Quaker meeting because it’s too quiet, too still, or too nuanced. For as long as such attitudes prevail or go unchallenged, Quakerism will not fulfill its potential as the world’s most inclusive church. Things are beginning to change: for example, this spring BYM produced its first publication offering a toolkit for “owning power and privilege.” I hope it will be a step toward living the insights of our faith in our community: that God resides within every person, and that through stillness and solidarity, we can experience true spirit “wherever two or three are gathered.”

We make change

The elder of the meeting where I became a member used to call the New Testament book of James “the Quaker Book.” The writer, who was thought to be Jesus’s brother, is unambiguous in his view:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (2:14–26)

There has been a trend toward categorizing and dividing Friends into activist Quakers and spiritual Quakers. This needs to be quickly nipped in the bud. In a movement for change that inherits the spirit of the early church, such a dichotomy makes no sense at all. Prayerful upholding, financial giving, preparing the meetinghouse, caring for the community, and simply being present are all crucial parts of a movement for change rooted in faith. So too, to suggest that a Friend who engages in activism is somehow less spiritual is way off the mark. There are thousands of progressive organizations working for change. We actively choose to act with our faith community specifically because we want to do so from a place of spiritual connection, in a way that secular campaigning groups ignore or preclude.

All of us are part of a movement for change. And if there’s something Quakers are known for, it’s that we wear it on our sleeves (or perhaps on our bumper stickers and pin badges). Almost half of BYM’s church staff are employed as campaigners and advocates. Making change is part of what we do, as it has been even before the birth of the Quaker movement: when we speak out today against unjust inequalities of power, for wealth redistribution, or for environmental justice, there’s a little bit of the inheritance of the seventeenth-century Diggers and Levellers showing through.

Open for liberation

It’s true that Quakers approach things seriously, but that is not why I am a Quaker. I am a Quaker because at events for teenagers, I experienced a sense of joyful liberation, in contrast to the conformist and sometimes violent culture of the school playground.

In 2014, Ben Pink Dandelion stirred a new wave of conversation with his Swarthmore Lecture “Open for Transformation,” which inspired a still-active Facebook group. I think we can go further though: in making ourselves fully open to the Spirit as experienced in ourselves and our relationships, we can become open for liberation. In stillness, we are able to become open to the liberation of ourselves from the norms and practices which exclude and sow the seeds of discrimination and war. In solidarity with others, we embody the much-loved phrase of George Gorman: “It is in and through all things that we hear God speaking to us. But . . . it’s in my relationships with people that the deepest religious truths are most vividly disclosed.”

For all that though, Quakers know well that in almost all circumstances, words are secondary to the well-discerned action. I’ve never known that better shown than in the life and witness of the late Scottish peacemaker Helen Steven, whose vibrant presentations at Quaker events made a profound impression on me and many others. As we contemplate culture change, the closing words of her 2005 lecture to yearly meeting seem both relevant and likely to be remembered for a long time:

The important part is the doing, the stepping out in faith. Doing our utmost to the very limit of our being: not to be bound by success, but to hold on to the confidence that the outcome will be picked up by others and the flame continue to burn…and then we have to hand it over, to let go. Let go of the outcome of one’s actions in trust and confidence that they are not in vain and that somewhere in the secret workings of God a change is taking place.

Unexpected as it may seem, this is the point of resurrection.

Tim Gee

Tim Gee is a member of Britain Yearly Meeting and was the 2017 George Gorman Lecturer. His third book, Why I Am a Pacifist, will be published next year.

7 thoughts on “Open for Liberation: A View from Britain

  1. Some excellent thoughts here and I share some of your frustrations. I am, however, happy to report a recent example of successful outreach: at a summer fete in the local park, I suggested that we should have a small presence as Quakers. Friends really ran with this idea and in no time at all we had a gazebo, some bunting, cakes, leaflets and a plaque that said ‘I’m a Quaker, ask me why.’ Lots of people dropped by to talk and several were interested in attending meeting. Afterwards we were talking about how to do it better next year

  2. Culture may eat strategy for breakfast, but where does it get the appetite to do that? I understand this article as an encouragement to change in the direction of inclusiveness and ‘works’. Great, I love motherhood and apple pie too. You cite two weighty Quakers, but not the position they took. This has the value of making them wrong without us knowing whether we would ourselves have shared their concerns — have known, that is, whether we are ourselves guilty of something. I cannot imagine the reader who would find themselves in opposition to this piece other than being perplexed by its vagueness or irritated by its smugness. Speak plainly, Friend.

  3. I have to agree with BetsyF, and will take the plain speaking further: all the changes suggested by Tim Gee are just fine, but they don’t address the real problem: Quakers don’t know WHAT they stand for; Quakers don’t speak or teach of God or Christ or the (supernatural, aka holy spirit) power that is promised to those who walk in Christ’s ways and do so openly. This was the stuff that powered George Fox along to found the Quaker movement in the first place, and if the latter is now foundering, it is because we don’t do any of Fox’s stuff any more. Ben Pink Dandelion put his finger exactly upon the issue, in that we should say to all comers: “Welcome! THIS is what we stand for, join us if you like it. Please go elsewhere, if you don’t.”
    And that’s the real problem. Quakers have been infected by the secularisation of the world, and as long as they go along with that, no amount of strategies will fix the basic issue.

  4. Maybe we are destined to be a ‘peculiar people’? I was once accosted by a gentleman who had learnt I was a Quaker – and therefore a pacifist. He challenged me in the form of the query “How can you sleep at night knowing others are doing the work of protecting you?”

    That began a long discussion between us, whereby I reiterated many times (and in many ways) that the role and life and witness of a “pacifist” was NOT to “be passive”, but to be constantly active … for justice and actions to stop war or the preparation for war. I did not convince this gentleman to become a pacifist himself, however in the end, I did convince him that I slept well. And he gave me a line which I will happily take to the grave with me: “I suppose pacifists do add a certain leavening to society.”

    When I think about the difference between leavened and unleavened bread, and what a small addition to the baking mix a leavening agent usually is, I think it is a wonderful analogy. In this I was truly able to walk cheerfully and answer that of God in my disputer.

  5. A very interesting article Tim.
    However with regard to “it is still worryingly common for a well-meaning Friend to enquire of an attender with black or brown skin: “Where are you from?” I don’t think it is necessarily insensitive to ask this, just as I might ask a white person the same question. (of an American or Canadian or French speaker for example).
    The only thing that might be insensitive is to assume that ‘an attender with black or brown skin’ must be from ‘somewhere else’.

  6. There is a whole generation missing from the Society. It is the most pressing concern Friends share, even if they find it hard to acknowledge, because failing to address it is showing in ever falling numbers. Tim is surely right that people, especially young people, want to join in worship (‘spiritual’ and ‘activist’) with the Society and that the ‘door is open’ for them. But Tim raises the major problems that can undermine at least three of BYMs newly stated aims and risk closing the door shut.
    I would bet that almost all Friends will admit that resistance to change comes from settled attitudes and habits. Little can be done about that. But the source of the problem is not these attitudes. It is the institutionalisation of the division between Friends.The divide between ‘activist’ and ‘spiritual’ Friends is no match for the formal and institutionalised division between ‘members’ and ‘attenders’. For once a Meeting can draw this distinction the attitudes and habits of existing members can turn a Meeting into a clique, a social club and a hobby for a small self selected group of private individuals. Like it or not ‘member’ and ‘attender’ means ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, ‘you’re in’ and ‘you’re out’, ‘you’re one of us’ and ‘you’re not’.
    It happens in churches and chapels, in clubs, societies, pubs and even in places of work. It is hurtful to ‘seekers’ and attenders and not a few members are repelled by it.
    This division is fundamentally at variance with everything the Society of Friends stands for and it is contrary to Jesus’ own teaching against social and religious distinctions. The formal division between ‘attenders’ and ‘members’ must be abolished if the Society is to be open to ‘seekers’ of all ages. The evidence of history shows that this division lies at the root of falling numbers and ever smaller cliques are self-fulfilling prophecies. Hence for as long as Friends are divided this way by the formal organisation of the Society of Friends itself, the door will slowly close on the Society.

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