Monday, November 25, 2013
Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 47 - X for eXtinct
This is far from a new worry. In the 1750s, towards the end of his life, Samuel Bownas wrote to his friend and fellow-minister James Wilson, 'The Church seems very barren of young ministers to what it was in our youth, nor is there but very little convincement to what was then.' This cry has been repeated in different forms down the centuries.
In the 19th century John Stephenson Rowntree's 1859 prize-winning essay examined the reasons for decline at that time, including restrictive practices such as expelling people who married non-Quakers, and his conclusions did bring about some change. There was a feeling too that Quakers in the 19th century were prepared to rest on the laurels of their reputation rather than looking for new converts. An article of 1880 in an American journal describes a Society of Friends in Britain in such a position, although the amount of influence it had in central government might seem enviable to present-day eyes!
During the 20th century the face of the Society of Friends in Britain changed irrevocably. No longer were there generations of Quaker families and a few members coming in by convincement. Now the position is reversed with most members joining as adults and few children continuing as Quakers when they grow up.
In 2009 The Friends Quarterly instigated another essay competition to look at the possible future of Quakerism. The judges' report set out their objectives and findings and the text of the entries can still be read online. There are also all kinds of outreach activities - not only during the annual Quaker week - that aim to spread knowledge of the Religious Society of Friends more widely and to increase numbers.
Has this made any difference to our fears about extinction? Probably not if numbers are the only things we look at. Counting members is clearcut, but counting attenders is a much more difficult exercise. The meaning of the word shifts so that some counted as attenders one year may not be noted as such at another time.
Perhaps extinction is not a subject that we ought to think about at all. Perhaps it is better to concentrate instead on faith, on living our lives as Friends and on showing a positive face to the world - but not too positive as that would be less than truthful!