The Challenge for Liberal Religions - A Quaker Perspective by Paul Parker, Recording Clerk Quakers in Britain to Unitarian Annual Meetings, Keele, April 2012
Thank you for this invitation to speak to you, and for the warm welcome I've received. It was a great pleasure for me to join you for your anniversary service yesterday evening here in this room, and to be here this morning while you have been discussing the issue of marriage for same-sex couples, which, as you know, is close to our hearts as Quakers, as well as yours as Unitarians. I'd like to tell you how good it is to know that we have some company over here at the liberal end of the religious spectrum. I'd also like particularly to let you know how important it has been to me personally, to find a colleague in Derek McAuley, your chief officer - there aren't many of us who work in these positions in the dissenting churches, and it's good to have been supported and welcomed into that small community by Derek, who was one of the first people to contact me when my appointment was announced about a year ago.
You've invited me to speak about the challenge for religious liberals in the 21st century, from my perspective as a Quaker. That sounds very grand - what I'm planning to do is to tell you a bit about Quakers, a bit about me, a bit about what's challenging us as Quakers, and then to invite you to consider whether those same challenges also exercise you as Unitarians. So I'm hoping there'll be time for me to hear about your challenges, as well as for me to tell you about ours! Incidentally, I'm not here to recruit you as Quakers, although I would hope that if you chose to visit a Quaker meeting you would receive a welcome at least as warm as the one you've offered me here.
I'm a Quaker. I'd like to think you can't tell that by looking at me, but I am. I don't know how much you know about Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, as we're formally known. We're a smallish group - depending on how you count there are somewhere between 15 and 25 thousand of us in the UK, in around 470 local meetings, with a fair number more in North America. Outside the UK we are quite fragmented, with evangelical and liberal arms - the evangelicals took their form of Quakerism far and wide, which is why there are more evangelical Friends Church members in Kenya and Bolivia than there are liberal Friends in the USA and the UK! Pretty much all my experience of Quakerism so far has been among liberal Friends here in the UK, so it's that perspective that I'll be giving you today. By the way, like any community, Quakerism has its own distinctive language, as I’m sure Unitarianism does. So you’ll need to excuse me if I use some of our terminology without thinking, and if I get some of yours wrong after such a short time among you.
Quakerism originated at a time of great turbulence in Britain in the mid 17th century - 1652 is the date we usually quote, 360 years ago this year, in the time of the civil war. Quakerism spread fast, or at least, as fast as you could ride on a horse. George Fox (the ‘founder’ of Quakerism) and others addressed huge crowds and Quakers were clearly seen as enough of a threat for them to be persecuted, imprisoned, banned from meeting indoors, and for a long period barred from adopting any of the professions. So what was it that made that happen?
The early Friends were challenging the established order - they believed (and we still believe) that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, that there is that of God in everyone. Early Friends knew their Bibles, and they also knew warfare - many of them had been soldiers at that time, and they knew the two weren't compatible. They went to see the new King, Charles II, to tell him they rejected all outward wars and strife, and all the causes of it which had their roots in society. That, what became known as the Quaker Peace Testimony, is still an important basis of our shared faith as Quakers today.
I think what Friends then had also identified was that theirs was a religion rooted in continuing revelation - they discovered in their silent meetings that new light could come from unexpected sources, and certainly didn't require them to have priests. They also recognised that the Kingdom of Heaven was not something that we should be aspiring to in the future, 'banking' our good deeds against future reward, but that the Kingdom of Heaven is here on Earth among ourselves, and that it therefore behoves us to set about creating it. So Quakers became recognised as a group who put their faith into action - we call it witness - and that tradition has continued very much until today. Quakers were instrumental in the abolition of slavery, the foundations of modern employment practices - Rowntree's and Cadbury's, the Scott Bader commonwealth - all of these started as Quaker businesses. Quakers are active at the United Nations in New York and Geneva, founded the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (now Oxfam), provided relief services during the two world wars, and we are still recognised for our work in peace and social justice.
What you'll find in our meetings is silence. A few people - meetings range in size from 3 or 4 to over a hundred in a few cases - sitting quietly in a circle, in unprogrammed worship, awaiting inspiration. Occasionally someone is called to speak, and the message they give is received in the silence. Outside the silent meeting, you'll find the usual hubbub of a community who know each other well, support each other through the trying and the joyful times of each other's lives, and seek to make a difference in the community around themselves. We know from our experience, that when Quakers gather in the silence, remarkable things, amazing things, can happen, both in the meeting itself, and when people step outside it back into the outside world. I’m sure that applies to Unitarians too.
I've been a Quaker for about 25 years - I grew up in a mixed atheist-Methodist family, attended Sunday school as a child, mainly because my mother ran it, and found myself thinking, as a teenager, that I couldn't go along with all of this. I grew tired of being told what to believe, and of repeating things aloud which made no sense in my experience, and so I began exploring to see what other churches might be out there. I didn't try Unitarianism - I don't think there are any in my area, or if there are, they keep themselves to themselves! - but I tried a number of other church groups in my local town. When I went to Quaker meeting, I found a group who were interested in me - they talked about what they believed, were open about the questions they had, and most importantly for me in my teens, they asked me what I thought, rather than telling me the answers they had found. I kept going, and have been going ever since.
As I've said, we don't have priests - we do talk about the 'priesthood of all believers' - so we have to work things out for ourselves. And as you'll have gathered by now, I'm no theologian. All I can do, all any Quaker can do, really, is to speak of what we know from our experience. Anyway, I carried on going to meeting while I was a student, met lots of other Quakers, got involved in events for Quaker children and young people, and found myself belonging to the Quaker community. I was a teacher for 16 years, and tried hard to take my beliefs about respect and equality for all, about there being something of God in everyone, into my place of work – not always easy in a secondary school. Last year, I gave up teaching and was appointed to be the Recording Clerk of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain - Quakers are great at snappy job titles. That means I'm the senior member of staff at Friends House in Euston, London, the base for the 130 or so staff Quakers employ to work for them at national level, and I'm the person who is responsible for taking the decisions made at our Yearly Meeting and its many committees, representative bodies and subcommittees, and for making sure they are put into practice across the work of the staff. We have a huge range of work going on, from training Ecumenical Accompaniers to be impartial witnesses at checkpoints in the West Bank in Palestine (there’s been at least one Unitarian EA recently), to training campaign groups in non-violent activism ahead of the Kenyan elections, and helping Quakers live up to their commitment to becoming a low-carbon community, to supporting our meetings with employment law, safeguarding procedures, spiritual nurture, work with children and young people, and also a great deal of advocacy work on issues like Trident and same-sex marriage. I think I must have a wider range of staff to manage than almost anyone else - it's turning out to be the most fascinating, rewarding job. And, on the face of it, it feels like we're thriving, although of course much of this work is fragile, and there are the challenges which all faith groups are facing, of changes in membership, and the demographics of our community, of a fragile economic climate, and of the increasing secularisation of our society, to a point where religion doesn't always make it onto people's radar at all.
And yet, when I offered myself for the post I now hold, I did so because I had a sense that Quakerism in Britain could be about to go Whoosh! That we could be at a moment (another moment) in our Quaker history where we, as a liberal religion, turn out to have just what it is that people need. I've been expecting that for a while - and I wanted to make sure I was there when it happened. I don't know if you have that sense too, that Unitarianism offers the world something distinctive and desperately needed? Something vital, that people would embrace if only we could find ways of telling them about it?
Which brings me to the challenges in my title - the challenge for religious liberals. What are they, what can we do about them? We don't just have to roll over, and say, the time for liberal religion has passed - we know that it hasn't - that's why, after all, we've all bothered to come here, and we all bother (I hope) to keep going to our churches and meetings week after week. What is it that the world needs of us?
So - challenge number 1. Understanding what's going on with our membership. I don't know about Unitarians, but if you looked at Quakers a hundred, or even fifty years ago, the vast majority of them were Quakers because their parents were Quakers – what we used to call ‘birthright Friends’. They knew Quakerism inside out - they'd grown up with it, it was just the normality they were accustomed to, and they didn't need to ask questions to find out what it was all about. They had been taken to meeting as children, been looked after by the community. When they went out to work, they did so as established Friends, brought up their own children in the tradition, gave any surplus money to support their meetings, and left generous legacies to Quaker work.
Look at us today, and we see a totally different picture. The majority of Quakers today found their way to Quakerism later in life, often much later - most of our new members come to us in their fifties, sixties and seventies, and most of the people we presently rely on to help run our meetings, serve on our committees, and so forth, are in that age group. Fortunately, the supply of new Quakers in that age group doesn't show any sign of drying up just yet (although the changes to the retirement age may affect it, in time), but it leads to all sorts of challenges.
How are people who join a group later in life (what we Quakers call 'Quakers by convincement' - as opposed to by birthright) meant to find out about its traditions, its experience, its ways of doing things, to understand why things are done that way - we've found ourselves needing to provide training, support, opportunities to come together and discuss all sorts of things to help people fit in. How do we equip people, who may be the only person in their household to go out to meeting, or to church, to talk about the demands their faith makes on them, their time and their money?
More importantly, I think there is something we are missing - where are the people under 50? Where are the people with children, with busy jobs, with commitments on Sunday mornings (work patterns have changed a lot in the last 50 years)? We know they’re out there, and sometimes they come to events we organise – but they’re not a visible, regular part of our national Quaker life. Are we failing to make religion relevant, and more importantly, accessible to them? Have we asked people what they want from a meeting at that stage of life, when it's convenient for them to meet, what they'd like their children to be doing? Or have we ended up with meetings and services that suit those of us who are already coming, but aren't accessible to anyone else?
Challenge number 2 is Being confident about who we are, and what we have to offer. Lots of Quaker meetings have been involved with a scheme we call Quaker Quest (some of you may have been to one in your area), which involves individuals from the meeting - just ordinary Quakers - being prepared to stand up and talk about their understanding - of God, of faith, of peace, of worship, of sexuality, all sorts of issues. Actually putting what it is we believe into words and being prepared to tell people. I joked at the beginning that you probably couldn't tell I am a Quaker to look at me - perhaps I need to wear it on my sleeve. I'm having some badges made that say 'I'm a Quaker, ask me why?' I think they'll be terrifying to wear, because people will, and I will have to respond. What would you say if someone said - I see you're a Unitarian, tell me why? But if we can't answer that question, we're in trouble, aren't we? At the very least, we have to know the answer for ourselves, and ideally, we need to be prepared to open our mouths and tell others. That's not evangelism (Quakers are terribly touchy about proselytising!), it's just making sure people know what we stand for.
So challenge number 3 is about Speaking a language people can relate to. Howw we answer that question in a language people understand. We've talked about the change in our membership. I don't know how many of you came to Unitarianism via other faith groups first, but among Quakers we find that at the moment those convinced Friends I mentioned are 'refugees' from other churches. So they often bring some baggage, some understandings of the Christian heritage which isn't quite ours. Nonetheless we have a shared language with them - that Christian upbringing dies hard. But we know from the statistics that that shared Christian heritage is fading in our society. Most people don't now identify themselves with Christianity (apart from a tendency to default to CofE, which doesn't always mean they've ever actually been to a church!). How do we explain our religious insights and understanding to people who know they are looking for something, but haven't got a developed understanding or experience of the kind of terminology we bandy about among ourselves - words like worship, witness, testimony, Light, blessing - can be at best meaningless, and at worst downright offputting. Even we often find ourselves ‘translating’ what we hear into a language which fits with our own experience. How do we rise to the challenge of describing what happens for us in our meetings and services in a way which people can relate to their own lives?
Challenge number 4 is Actually living up to what it is we say we believe. This is a hard one. There's a lovely Quaker quote (in our ‘red book’, Quaker faith & practice) from the 17th century, from a young man who was apprenticed to a Quaker and was taken along to meeting every Sunday. As he was nodding off during meeting, a woman rose and pointed at him, and said 'you're nothing but a traditional Quaker - thou comest to meeting as thou went from it, and thou goes from meeting as thou came to it, and art no better than thy coming! What wilt thou do in the end?' In other words, if we don't do something with our faith, then there's not much point in having it. I've got some sympathy with that. I'd like to think people could tell I'm a Quaker by the way I behave, but I don't suppose they can. As I said, it's a hard one. We fail often. But it's no use having a religion which is just words. Sometimes we can get too comfortable, too cosy in our faith, and kid ourselves we're doing just fine. What does that say to the newcomer, the enquirer, the child growing up in our meetings? If we're going to be members of something, that membership has to be meaningful. We also have to get our Meetings for Worship right - so that they do what it says on the sign outside. If we tell people they can experience God in the silence, then it has to actually be able to happen. We have to run our affairs well.
Challenge number 5 is Making sure people know we exist. I don't know how it is with Unitarians, but the research some Quakers commissioned a few years back told us that people don’t know about us. Most people have never heard of Quakers. Those that have overwhelmingly think we are a closed, rather strict sect, and we probably died out in the 17th or 18th century. Either that or they think we're something to do with grey costumes and porridge. Round here we’re probably associated with pottery, in York it's chocolate, in Saffron Walden, where I come from, it's Quaker bankers (now there's a mixed message in the modern world!). I like my porridge, but I don't want to be defined by it. So we have work to do making ourselves visible. Each of us has to be willing to play our part in changing that picture in people's minds.
Challenge number 6 is Making sure people can find us and feel welcome. Some of that is easy, and some of it really isn’t. Some of it is about basic practical steps - putting signs up, advertising in the local paper, making sure we're on the internet, making sure you can get your pushchair, or your wheelchair up the steps to the building - that sort of thing. Obvious, I hope (although I bet you're not doing all you could). But the hard bit is what happens when someone new gets inside the door. Do they find somewhere they think they could belong? Do they find the community they're looking for? Are they made welcome as they should be, not just the first time, but the second, and the third, and the fiftieth time they come? I talked about making meetings accessible for people with children, people in full time work, young people, old people - do we need to change the way we do things to be truly inclusive and accepting of people's needs. Think around your own congregation on a Sunday - who's there? Who's not there? Who can't make that time, doesn’t find what they need among you? Is that something you need to do something about? Or are we just fine as we are, thanks? What signals do we send out, inadvertently or otherwise, about what you have to be like to be a Quaker, or a Unitarian - people will judge us by what they see. The United Reformed Church have a wonderful phrase I've been stealing a lot recently, 'radical welcome' - it's sounds like Quakers to me. It's about not just saying to people, 'you can come and join us if you're already a lot like us', but saying 'you can come and join us, and we'll make who you are a part of who we are' - much more of a challenge, I think. But much more welcoming if we have the courage to do it.
Challenge number 7 is Being effective, vibrant communities. I want to tell you a story about two meeting I visited last year. The first was quite a small meeting - I turned up on a Sunday (we were away for the weekend). There were about 10 of us at meeting. I was the youngest person there by a margin of about 30 years, which is fairly normal. The meeting was in rented premises as they don't own their own building. We had a lovely, reflective meeting, and some tea and coffee afterwards. The biscuits were a bit stale, as there weren't that many of them. They told me how sorry they were there weren't more of them, and that they hadn't had any children in the meeting for a while. But they were pleased to see me, and we had a nice chat. I came away feeling a bit sad - maybe they won't still be there next time I'm in the area.
The second was also quite a small meeting - again I just turned up, and they were in rented premises. There were about 10 of us there. I was the youngest by a margin of about thirty years - as I say, that's not too bad… We had a lovely, reflective meeting, and some tea and coffee afterwards. And as we were chatting they were pleased to see me, and they said - it's great, you know. There's ten of us now! We might even have some children in the meeting soon, and we're thinking of getting a building to meet it, so people know where we are. They were a new meeting, going about 18 months, excited and wanting to find out more. I came away feeling enthused and inspired, and promised to go back before long to see how they're getting on.
But what's the difference - to see a photo of the two groups, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart! But one will be there in five years' time, and the other may not. I want to be able to bottle that difference, and to know what it is that gives a faith group permission to think positively, to see that they have something to offer their community, and the people living in it. I wonder which of those meetings is closest to the congregation you're part of - and is that something you might need to do something about?
We're starting a research project among Quaker meetings to see if we can capture what it is that makes a vibrant meeting, what are the replicable steps that meetings can take to move in the right direction. And I'm convinced that a large part of it is about getting that welcome right, and about defining ourselves so we know what it is we offer now, not just doing what we've always done and allowing things to get a bit jaded.
And finally challenge number 8 is what I call Recognising the variety of ministries. We use the terminology of ministry a bit differently among Quakers – it’s quite a broad term for the service people give in response to their faith. I'd like to read you a short passage from our book Quaker faith & practice, from the section headed Belonging to a Quaker Meeting:
We recognise a variety of ministries. In our worship these include those who speak under the guidance of the Spirit, and those who receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer. We also recognise as ministry service on our many committees, hospitality and childcare, the care of finance and premises, and many other tasks. We value those whose ministry is not in an appointed task but is in teaching, counselling, listening, prayer, enabling the service of others, or other service in the meeting or the world.
The purpose of all our ministry is to lead us and other people into closer communion with God and to enable us to carry out those tasks which the Spirit lays upon us.
Quaker faith & practice 10.05 (4th edn. Britain Yearly Meeting, 2009)
I wonder how well we really do that in our meetings and congregations - do we acknowledge what people bring, and the service they offer? Do we show them that we care about the rest of their lives, the fact that they are being a Quaker in their workplace, and their family home, their retirement home, if that's where they are, as well as when they come to meeting. I was talking to someone in my meeting, about whether it was time she applied to become a member of the meeting, rather than just being what we call an attender, and just coming along. She said to me "I have a busy job - [she makes films] - and a teenage son who needs my support. My partner's not a Quaker. I just haven't got time to be a Quaker now!" I was a bit horrified by that, as you can imagine - is that really the impression we give, that you have to drop everything else ? And yet, there she was, being a Quaker in the film industry (not easy, I suspect), being a Quaker at home with her son, and her husband. Do we really value all the ministry Quakers in our meetings offer?
I think it's that sense of needing to belong to a community which gives us most to work on. We know that people are looking for something like us, as I'm sure they tell you they are looking for something like you. So we know that. We just have to have the determination and the courage to open our communities up and welcome everyone in; we have to believe we can do that, and we have to be ready to express what it is that keeps us coming to our meetings, week after week, so that the people who are looking for us find us, come and meet us, and keep coming themselves. That's not always easy or comfortable. And then, in our communities, to turn to face outwards, to face the world, and the challenges the world poses us, and to work together to build the kingdom of Heaven.
I'd like to finish with another short reading from our Quaker faith & practice. This one's by Parker J Palmer, from 1977. I like it because it challenges me. Because it tells us we’ve still got work to do.
In a true community we will not choose our companions, for our choices are so often limited by self-serving motives. Instead, our companions will be given to us by grace. Often they will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives!
Quaker faith & practice 10.19 (4th edn. Britain Yearly Meeting, 2009)
Delivered to General Assembly of Unitarians & Free Christian Churches held at Keele University, 5th April 2012.