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.