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.

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