Monday, February 14, 2011

Who do we think we are?

Back in January David Boulton and I facilitated a retreat with this title at Charney Manor. It was billed as a conversation on Quaker identity, unity and diversity and I was hoping for a wide-ranging exploration of the subject. In the event however most of the 25 or so participants came to explore non-theism with David and I felt myself very much in a minority. The weekend seemed to go well and I had no difficulty working with David, who I knew through a shared interest in Quaker history, but I was left feeling uncomfortable and needing to work through some of the issues that were raised for me. 

As an introduction to the weekend I gave a historical overview of Quaker diversity, highlighting the changes of emphasis, different language and different orthodoxies, sometimes leading to splits and schisms, that have happened over time and which are all influences on present-day Quakerism world-wide. One of the questions I asked at the end of this was "Are we only happy to associate with 'people like ourselves'?" In the course of the weekend some answers to this question emerged which for me were profoundly uncomfortable.

First of all I had to confront my own prejudices about the non-theist position. What I heard sometimes seemed far too rational, cerebral and defined to appeal to someone with my mystical 'supernatural' approach to faith. I had to recognise that I needed to make an effort not to dismiss what I heard out of hand but to find some common ground. I believe the effort is worth making which is one of the reasons I am writing this. I believe that it is vital for the future of Quakerism that we find ways both of telling our own stories and of really listening to the stories of others. It is what the Spiritual Autobiography project that I have been working on for many years is all about. I can see the dangers of misunderstanding and division that arise when an open two-way conversation turns into a confirmation of only one way of looking at things. For example I am deeply uneasy with developments such as the website Quakerquaker's adoption of a new strap line 'Primitive Christianity Revived Again' which tends to exclude those Friends and seekers unhappy with identifying themselves in Christian terms.

At the weekend many people said how happy they were to have found others of a like mind who seemed to be going along a similar path. I understand  this feeling of solidarity very well and have found it most helpful in different contexts in the past but I was worried that there was also an attitude from some that theirs was the 'right' way and that eventually the whole Society of Friends would see the truth of this. I felt isolated, alone and unheard. Even when, in a session in which David and I explored our different positions, I spoke about my Quaker faith and how I had arrived at it - a 'transcendant' experience as a young girl which much later Quaker worship helped me make sense of, my experience of God as my Inward Teacher and my hesitant attitude to conventional Christianity - I felt dismissed by some and deeply hurt by the experience, although I did not show this at the time.

I did react and challenge another example of the 'only people like us' attitude that arose in an earlier discussion, mainly because it reflected some experiences in my own meeting. Someone described a particularly 'difficult' member of their meeting who expressed views in the 'outside world' which differed profoundly from Quaker orthodoxy and from the views of most of his meeting. He was talked to about what he had said and asked to desist but he refused. The person telling the story then said "But it was alright eventually because he resigned and left the meeting." There have been several members of my meeting over the years who have been perceived by some as 'difficult' for various reasons and I have often heard private conversations in which a wish was expressed that they would 'just go away and leave us alone'. I am profoundly unhappy with this attitude, partly because it tries to deny that conflict exists in Quaker meetings and partly because perhaps one day I might be perceived as the 'difficult' person. My experience at the weekend only made that seem more likely so I had to question the assumptions underlying the story.

Is diversity a danger to Quakerism or can it be a strength? While recognising a natural tendency for people to seek out others who they perceive to be like themselves I hope that we can also find ways to listen to and respect one another's viewpoints. This is not the same as agreeing with what everyone says and it is equally important to tell our own stories and state what we have found to be true without being paralysed with worry that what we say will upset someone else. If I have learned anything from my experience at this weekend it is that love is the key and that we need to 'attend to what love requires of' us. Unless we learn to do this the silence of meeting for worship will not unite us by leading us to the source of that love but will become a dead space out of which we cannot grow.


Martin Kelley said...

There's a lot of good stuff here but it's hard for me to read because of what feels like a gratuitous swipe at QuakerQuaker. Gil, it's just as okay for those of us interested in Quaker roots (yes, Christian or more precisely primitive Christian) to come together as it is for those who want to explore newer expressions of Quaker spirituality. A big part of toleration is being supportive of diversity. Christian Friends are part of the quilt too.

QuakerQuaker is completely transparent, and far more diverse than most non-theist websites. There are plenty of non-theist members. and they frequently post to the blogs and discussion boards; I see that the next listing on the event queue is this weekend's non-theist conference at Woodbrooke. The Universalism page has links to all the major non-theist sites and links to recent posts from a who's-who of non-theist and pagan bloggers. There was a bit of kerfluffle a few years ago when a small handful of angry non-theists challenged the legitimacy of the site and threatened to drive away it's core constituency, but it's been relatively quiet since then.

The site's purpose is indeed "primitive Christian revived." The quote is taken from that most liberal of early Friends, the Christian Universalist William Penn. Like Penn, our purpose is to support a roots revival and return again to the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. But this Good News and the invitation to walk with Christ comes from a place of openness and love. There's no right or wrong answers, no right or wrong language. Since QQ's not an official body, there's no need to draft unifying statements or minutes. Come as you are, leave as you will.

Gil S said...

Martin I know you don't mean the strap line to look or be exclusive and of course I'm very well aware of where it comes from. I am not swiping gratuitously - I'm really afraid that it will drive some people away from what I have always recognised as a really excellent site.

I do hope that you will read the rest of what I have to say - and comment on it of course!

Doreen O said...

This has made a link in my mind with an article in the Guardian today about Citizens UK, in particular about its religious basis and the importance it places on building relationships between communities, not just undertaking community activism for its own ends.
Perhaps something that might help bring Quakers of all backgrounds closer would be a greater emphasis on working together for the common good where we can see our differences in perspective.

Anonymous said...

Dear Gil, thankyou for this reflection on your retreat with David Boulton at Charney. I am sorry to hear it was painful for you and that some people were thoughtless and inconsiderate. I am impatient with forums that purport to promote dialogue when, from the outset, its patently clear that this is a boxing ring in which opposing sides are set against each other. We have more in common than we don't and the main way to learn from each other is to engage our common ground. Shared meals, shared struggles, shared interests, shared joys and disasters. The (relatively and so far ) peaceful revolution taking place in Egypt being a 1st class example of the “broad church” coming together for a common purpose.
It’s been many years since there was a meeting of Nontheists in the UK, at least 5 and some say 12 years. I have never attended a meeting of nontheist Friends (or any other type of nontheist or atheist meeting) myself despite being a lifelong atheist. I was so tired of my isolation in Quakers that I finally offered to organise a conference of Nontheists at Woodbrooke next weekend as it seemed the only way I was going to get the chance to sit in a room with like minded people. So I am more than familiar with the frustrations of being an isolated minority in Friends. My partner and most of my Ffriends are theists, so it is inevitable that my sense of understanding my views and ideas and what my heart tells me, has developed within a theistic paradigm. Isn't it almost inevitable that we nontheists will have a tinge of "what we are not" identity when our sense of relationship is forged within the context of theological privilege and we don’t meet and talk? I think so. I remind myself sometimes of women in the 70's who knew they didn't want the repressive model of a “real woman” being handed to them but were too deeply in the belly of the beast to have space to develop a vision of equality for themselves. I wonder if your painful experience at the retreat may have been partly due to poor facilitation and unleashed frustration from Friends who are starved of space to share and unable to give space to your (majority) view? I wasn't there so I don't know. I am not apologising for the pain caused you, but trying to understand the wider context in which it came about.
I have spent the last 6 months speaking on the phone to the participants of next weeks gathering and so far I have not heard the tone that you heard at Charney. You said, "there was also an attitude from some that theirs was the 'right' way and that eventually the whole Society of Friends would see the truth of this".
Gil, I hear this almost every week from theists in my meeting, and often at the QuakerQuaker website. Sometimes it seems that some people can’t see past my nontheism to who I am and resist finding common cause with me. If you are part of the majority in Quakers, maybe you don't notice the hostility and holier than thou voices as often as I do? I believe sectarianism is poisonous, that it comes from the place of ego and insecurity rather than that sense of being that we seek in the silence. I hope you continue to share.
Doreen, I read that article. I have always liked Citizens because they put common cause at the heart of their campaigning which requires real listening to engage everyone in all their diversity. When I joined the Green Party a couple of years ago, I found it similar to a Quaker meeting and met many other Quakers there. Many meetings begin and end with a period of "attunement", silence, as we know it. It came as no surprise to discover that Quakers have played a central role in the creation of the Green Party in the UK and party policies reflect most Quaker values and testimonies.

Anonymous said...

I have a great love of diversity but I have a complaint with the way that some Friends deal with diversity. Most Liberal Friends' seem to hold the idea that diversity is best dealt with by removing all boundaries between people. It is a good theory but it practice leads to the erasing of all distinctiveness between people and thus the erasing of diversity itself.

Those who wish to remain distinctive are treated with suspicion as isolationists, vain, holier-than-thous and so find themselves quickly uncomfortable in the Meeting. Thus "diversity" is said to have been saved by excluding those who are distinctive!

Early Friends deliberately chose to worship together with others of like mind or the RSoF would never have come into existance. If welcoming all other opinions and considering them equally valid were topmost in their minds they would have all stayed in the existing churches of the day. They left because they felt that existing denominations had lost something essential and there was something better for them in the RSoF. At times they were even obnoxious about that far beyond what I would ever consider warranted.

It is evident in history that all groups that survive offer their members something unique, something that they cannot get elsewhere. If I were to go back to my local Meeting and ask them what it is they offer me, that I should drive 15 minutes away rather than walk 5 minutes to the Unitarian Universalists, I doubt they would have an answer of any meaning.

If they answer "peace and social justice" well, the UUs have that as does every secular social justice and peace group. If they answer "Fellowship", why the UUs have it as well...and tolerance...and diversity and the rest. Nothing they showed me there was anything that other groups couldn't offer me. What I was looking for was something nobobdy else was offering me.

Every historical group, whether religious or ethnic, that loses it's distinctiveness and becomes watered down or hyphenated eventually disappears into the masses and ceased to exist. In becoming too diverse internally it eventually ceases to be diverse externally.

Being particularly Christian and/or peculiarly Quaker does not mean avoiding fearing or hating the "other". We are told to love the stranger among us and the strangers we are love our enemies as well as our neighbours but we are also told to set up boundary markers between our land and our neighbours. Good fences make good neighbours.


Gil S said...

Thanks for your comments everyone. You have given me much to ponder and I will probably return to some of these themes.

However I would also like to make it clear that I was not meaning to complain about the weekend, just to share my feelings about it. As I was one of the facilitators if what I felt was due to bad facilitation then I am to blame - and indeed I think to some extent I was in not recognising how exposed I was going to feel.

Heather Cawte said...

I understand your feelings of isolation, Gil. During my time as a Quaker I've moved from distinctly Christian, to more of a universalist, and finally to where I am now - a questioning theist. I've felt out of place with elements of my meeting, and with my online connections, in all of these states.

Perhaps what we *all* need to keep in mind, no matter who we are with, is Advices and Queries 17: 'Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it.' Even if we don't all call that aspect 'God'!

None of us is in possession of the absolute truth...