Saturday, September 06, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - Q for Questions

Questions are at the heart of how Quakers have always expressed their faith, but these are not questions asking for certain answers or for certainty at all. Rather they are part of an ongoing process of questioning, both individual and corporate, as we strive to listen to the continuing revelation of the truth for ourselves and for our times.

In the early days of the Quaker movement in Britain, Yearly Meeting asked for oral replies from local representatives to a series of factual questions about how many ministers had died and how many friends had died in prison since the last meeting. Slightly more subjective was the question about 'How the Truth has prospered amongst them since the last Yearly Meeting and how friends are in Peace and Unity?' Over the years more questions were asked and replies were written rather than spoken. From 1723 onwards the word 'question' was replaced by 'query' perhaps reflecting the broader nature of the enquiries being made.

During the 18th century the queries were used as a means of attempting to standardize the behaviour of Friends and of naming and shaming practices that were disapproved of, such as paying for the local militia, drunkeness, buying ornate furniture and wearing fashionable clothes. When the queries were revised in 1791 a few short 'general advices' were added to them and these were expanded and revised continually until the present day. 'Advices and Queries' were two separate lists until the 1994 edition of Britain Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice (the Red Book) when they were combined and organised by theme.

The value of the queries for self-examination had been commended by Yearly Meeting in 1787 and as time went on the emphasis shifted from a corporate towards an individual practice, although from 1931 there has been a requirement for Advices and Queries to be read in meetings for worship. The value of Advices and Queries as a tool for outreach has also been recognised and they have been published seperately and often given to enquirers as a distillation of Quaker belief and practice.

But in recent years it seems to me that we have become less comfortable with questions - either asking or answering them. When a new badge was produced a couple of years ago saying "I am a Quaker - ask me why" many Friends were acutely uncomfortable about it.  and would not wear it. They did not want to be asked questions about their faith (as opposed to general questions about Quaker beliefs and practices) and felt that they were doing enough if they 'let their lives speak'. There has also been  some disapproval of the Yearly Meeting theme 'What does it mean to be a Quaker today' as being too introspective and self-indulgent.

However if questions are uncomfortable perhaps that is all the more reason why we should ask them, and attempt to find answers for them. For example, Craig Barnett has urged British Friends to engage in a lively open-ended discussion about their differences which must include some questioning.

The answers to the questions Friends have asked over the centuries have changed, as have the questions themselves. We are not looking for the one right answer or to formulate a dogma to which all Friends will be required to sign up. Questions help us to 'know one another in the things that are eternal' and that can never be a bad thing.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - P for Penn's sword

Portrait of young William Penn
The story of Penn's sword is one of the best known Quaker myths. It does not appear in print until the American Quaker Samuel Janney wrote about it in 1852 and its inclusion in British books of discipline is excused in the following words - 'The following anecdote depends on oral tradition, but it has played so large a part in Quaker thinking that it is included here'.

There are different ways of looking at myth. Either myths are, as one Methodist writer calls them, 'weeds in the garden of history' which need to be rooted out in the interest of historical truth, or they can be appreciated as being memorable stories which serve to teach a moral lesson - almost akin to parables. For those who have not encountered this particular myth before I think it will bear another repetition, so here is Janney's version, taken from Quaker Faith and Practice 19.47.
Possible portrait of Fox by Lely

'When William Penn was convinced of the principles of Friends, and became a frequent attendant at their meetings, he did not immediately relinquish his gay apparel; it is even said that he wore a sword, as was then customary among men of rank and fashion. Being one day in company with George Fox, he asked his advice concerning it, saying that he might, perhaps, appear singular among Friends, but his sword had once been the means of saving his life without injuring his antagonist, and moreover, that Christ had said, ‘He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.’ George Fox answered, ‘I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.’ Not long after this they met again, when William had no sword, and George said to him, ‘William, where is thy sword?’ ‘Oh!’ said he, ‘I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.’'
Samuel Janney

It is true that William Penn and George Fox knew one another so that it is feasible that such conversations might have taken place, even though there is no contemporary evidence for that. It is also true that Quaker convincement and the personal adoption of particular testimonies come from within, from the persuasion of God, the Inward Light or individual conscience rather than from the persuasion of another person. Another truth is that there are more examples of this kind of convincement in other, better attested, contemporary writings and I would like to share one example which I find particularly powerful.

When Edward Coxere was convinced in the 1680s by two unnamed Quakers in Dover, he was a sailor and gunner protecting merchant ships. In his spiritual autobiography he tells how he accepted the truth of Quakerism and then goes on - 'This was not all, but the Lord in his mercy followed me that very day and brought not peace but trouble; for the first remarkable opening I had before I slept from the Lord was concerning fighting and killing of enemies. The questioning the lawfulness or unlawfulness of it lay on me as a very great burden, because it struck at my very life.'

Illustration of fighting ships from Coxere's manuscript memoir

Looking for answers Edward went back to where the two men who told him about Quakerism were staying and asked them to put his mind at rest. He explained that he made his living as a seaman and asked whether, going to sea in wartime and meeting with an enemy, he was allowed as a Quaker to fight or not. Their reaction was not what he expected and echoes the response of George Fox in the story of Penn's sword.

'They, being very mild, used but few words, I being a stranger to them, but wished me to be faithful to what the Lord did make known to me, and words to that purpose, so did not encourage me to fight, but left me to the working of the power of the Lord in my own heart, which was more prevalent than words in the condition I then was in.'

Looking back Edward appreciates the rightness of their reaction, even though he remained troubled for some while. As he says 'I did not lay down fighting on other men's words, but the Lord taught me to love mine enemies in his own time.'

A little-known sailor and two nameless Friends cannot perhaps compete with the famous William Penn and George Fox but the two stories are equally good lessons and, I think, worth remembering whether myth or historical fact.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - O for Obedience

St Martin of Tours, Chelsfield, Kent
Going to a family wedding last week reminded me of my own, almost 44 years ago. Chris and I were married in the Church of England parish church near my home and what a trial we must have been to the vicar! To begin with, although we knew that we wanted (and our families expected) a religious ceremony, our relationship to the church was ambivalent. I had been baptised into the Church of England but had refused to be confirmed as I didn't see why I needed any priestly intermediary between myself and God - you can see why I was so happy to find Quakers later on! Chris had not even been baptised as at the time of his birth his father was a Baptist, later becoming a URC minister. The vicar accepted my position but Chris had to produce a letter from his old college chaplain (at that time conveniently a bishop) to prove his qualifications.

On top of this we had the certainty of youth (we were 22 and 23) that we did not want to use the 'modern' marriage service but insisted instead on the traditional 1662 version, the language of which we both preferred. We swept aside the vicar's objections, assuring him that that we understood what we would be saying, even though it meant that I would promise to 'obey' my husband. After all it was a safe promise to make, as Chris would never ask me to do anything unreasonable!

Lucretia Mott
Looking back, a wife's obedience to her husband has indeed hardly figured in our marriage. I hope that we have so far managed to live up to the aphorism favoured by the American Quaker (and feminist) Lucretia Mott. 'In the true marriage relationship the interdependence of the husband and wife is equal, their dependence mutual and their obligations reciprocal'.

But perhaps the importance of the possibility of obedience was always there and it has always been an important part of my commitment to Quakerism. Our worship and testimonies are based on a willingness to be led by the Light, by our Inward Guide, into action and behaviour that, individually and corporately, we might not choose for ourselves. I know that when I have felt led into a new path on my spiritual journey at first it often seems impossible. The leading is not demanding, but it is insistent. It may recede from the forefront of my consciousness for a while but it does not go away. In the end, with the help of my friends, my family and my community, I have found a way forward in faith - I have obeyed. Corporately too Quakers have been led to positions which are often uncomfortable, which are sometimes too difficult for some individuals, but which are still spirit-led.

Obedience is not something to be entered into blindly but it is an important part of the Quaker way. As Isaac Penington put it in 1661, 'Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee'.