Thursday, December 18, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - X for Xylography

It is the profile picture that I chose for the Quaker Alphabet Blog Facebook page that has inspired this post. Q for Quaker (and X for Xylographer) were both originally woodcuts made in the late 1890s for the first edition of An Illustrated Alphabet by William Nicholson (1872-1949). Xylography is the art of cutting woodblocks for printing and Nicholson's originals were so popular that they were converted to lithographs and printed in bound volumes. Nicholson's style is instantly recognisable, with the broad strokes from his original woodcuts printed with subtle variations of earth tones, harking back to earlier British chap book illustrations. The characterisations of his alphabet are also done in broad strokes with the Q representing an old-fashioned, archetypal Quaker.
Nicholson was not a Quaker but I have found at least two examples of Quaker xylographers and would be glad to hear of any more.  

Fritz Eichenberg (1901-1990) was born in Cologne and trained as an artist, choosing wood engraving as his special medium. With the rise of Hitler, Eichenberg, who came from an assimilated Jewish background, decided he had no future in Germany so in 1933 he managed to get his family out of the country and emigrate to the United States. In 1938 the tragic death of his wife prompted an emotional breakdown but he found solace in his conversion to Quakerism. In the Society of Friends he was attracted by the spirit of simplicity and stillness and the quest for the Peaceable Kingdom. 

The Peaceable Kingdom by Fritz Eichenberg
Another major event in his life was his meeting in 1949 with Dorothy Day, editor of the pacifist Catholic Worker newspaper. By this time Eichenberg had achieved some renown for his illustrations of the Russian classics, a passion for which he shared with Day. There was an instantaneous communion of spirits between the two, and Eichenberg gladly responded to Day’s invitation to contribute his art to her paper. Day felt strongly that images could touch people emotionally and communicate the Catholic Worker spirit to people who, perhaps, could not read the articles. For his part, Eichenberg felt that in this Catholic newspaper, with its emphasis on the works of mercy and the witness for peace, he had found the expression of his own spiritual and moral convictions. He made woodcuts for the paper throughout his life although he always remained a Quaker.

Mary Packer Harris was born in 1891 in Middlesborough in Yorkshire to Quaker parents. She trained as an artist in Edinburgh and graduated from the School of Art there in 1913, going on to take a postgraduate course in woodblock printing under F. Morley Fletcher. Mary taught in Scotland until 1921 when she and her parents travelled to Australia to join her brother who was living in Adelaide. She took up a teaching post at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts in 1922 and remained there until 1953.

Nocturne Elder Gardens 1927
Mary Packer Harris was enthusiastic about all forms of visual arts. In keeping with her Arts and Crafts training, she practiced a wide variety of arts including painting, xylography and other kinds of printing, and also produced printed fabrics, tapestry, stained glass (in the 1930s) and needlework. Mary exhibited for many years with the Royal South Australian Society of Arts (1922-67) and in many other exhibitions. She also wrote and published books on art and Quaker philosophy and edited the Arts and Crafts magazine, The Forerunner.  In her retirement Mary Packer Harris published In One Splendour Spun: Autobiography of a Quaker Artist in 1971. She died at Adelaide on 26 August 1978.

And all this because I was looking for a word beginning with X!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - W for James Wilson

James Wilson was born in 1677 in Kirby Lonsdale, Westmoreland. His father owned a 'tolerable estate' and James was brought up in the Church of England. However from his youth he was dissatisfied with what he had been taught and searched for what he called 'real religion'. He read the Bible, especially the New Testament, but eventually found what he was looking for among the Quakers.

After he was convinced James married Sarah Gardener in 1704 and they became members of Grayrigg Meeting. As well as their own numerous family they took in others including John and Samuel Fothergill who stayed with the Wilsons while attending school in Sedbergh. Later Samuel recalled that James 'discharged the office of a father to me in my minority with a father's regard and tenderness.'

When James was in her thirtieth year he became a Quaker minister and began to travel, at first locally and then farther afield. He visited Scotland and in 1714 went to Ireland. He also frequently attended Yearly Meeting in London, Wales and elsewhere.

He was not prominent nationally and wrote no journal of his travels, but he was much valued by those who knew him. His family connections with those of high rank in the district were useful to local Friends and he was of great service in settling disputes among his neighbours.

James Wilson was a good friend and neighbour as surviving letters to and from him testify. He gave good advice and encouragement, acted as a listening ear, sympathised with his friends' hardships and rejoiced with their joys. Lydia Lancaster writes to him in 1755 'with much thankfulness that I had such a friend as thee, to open my mind to and pour out my complaints...wherein thy wise counsel and tender, fatherly sympathy was a great strength to me, a poor distressed creature'. Samuel Bownas corresponded with him as a fellow minister when he was concerned about the state of Quakerism.

His old age brought much pain and infirmity but his memory and understanding did not leave him. James Wilson had outlived all his nine children and all but two of his grandchildren when he died at his home in Kendal at the end of 1769 at the age of 92.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - V for Variety

How much variety (or diversity) is there among Quakers in the UK and worldwide, and is it a good thing? This is one of the questions being discussed at the moment on the Facebook group Quaker Renewal UK in a very wide-ranging and (on the whole) good-tempered way.

It is obvious that Quakers in Britain Yearly Meeting now have a much wider variety of spiritual experience and belief than has been the case in the past. This variety is beginning to echo the variety  among Quakers worldwide, of which Friends in the UK have often remained unconscious. Different Quaker traditions, with their labels of Liberal, Evangelical, Conservative etc., have in the past led to splits and schisms and this can still happen. However if we can manage to remain open, to really listen to the hearts, lives and experience of other Friends as well as to their (often difficult) words, then variety can be embraced while we still retain our differences.

The variety of life experience encountered among Friends in Britain may be less evident. The vast majority of us are well educated, white, getting on in years, comfortably situated. This perceived lack of variety can be off-putting to those who feel themselves to be different from the status quo. Do Quakers as a group welcome 'people like us' while often unconsciously rejecting the 'awkward squad'? Even if we are insiders in some ways, do we stay silent about aspects of ourselves which might make others feel uncomfortable?

I became a Quaker because of what I found in Meeting for Worship and that experience, with all its variety, is still a sure foundation for my life and faith. From that foundation I have slowly learned to value the variety of people who I worship with. Living in community with Quakers in my local meeting, my area meeting, my Yearly Meeting and in other groups, both face to face and online, has been a valuable but often difficult path to tread. For me it has been about learning to listen to and learning to love a wide variety of sometimes inspiring, sometimes infuriating Friends. It is a continuing journey on which I sometimes take one step forward and two steps back but I know that it is worth my perseverance.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - U for Uncomfortable

I'm running late according to my timetable for writing this blog and that makes me both uncomfortable and uneasy. The pressure to write comes only from within so you might say that I have only myself to blame, but that doesn't help to dispel the uncomfortable feeling.

Perhaps in Quaker terms it is good to feel uncomfortable, not to be complacent and content with things as they are. For myself feeling uncomfortable is often what pushes me into writing and also from time to time into spoken ministry. I know the feeling of sitting in meeting resisting the urge to speak until I feel so uncomfortable that I have to rise to my feet and say something. That is why the accounts of similar experiences of Friends in earlier times ring so true to me and are so helpful in my own spiritual journey. So many journals and spiritual autobiographies tell of struggles to remain comfortable and to ignore the nagging feelings of uncomfortableness, but faithfulness to the guidance of the Inward Teacher, the 'promptings of love and truth' in our hearts, brings ease and comfort - at least until the next time!

When early Friends spoke of having a comfortable time with others they were not talking of sitting in a warm room among people of like mind. They meant that they had been given comfort for their ills. The foundation of Quakerism for me is that if we are open to the Light we will be shown our darkness, those uncomfortable truths about ourselves that we find it hard to acknowledge, but that we will not be left there but brought to new life - challenged but also given comfort.

So eventually I became so uncomfortable that I sat down and wrote this and now I feel better - for a while at least.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - T for Tradition

In a Quaker meeting that I was a member of for many years we used to joke that something only had to be done twice to turn into a tradition. There was a serious side to this as it tended to discourage experiment, a tradition being something that was difficult to change.

This dead hand of tradition can be seen in the way some letters in The Friend speak about Yearly Meeting Gathering as if it had always been our practice, and indeed that we would be going against tradition if we did not meet in tents. As a Religious Society of Friends that believes in continuing revelation I feel that it is dangerous to our future if we allow the assertion that 'we have always done things like this' to hold us back from trying to do things differently and looking for Quaker renewal.

This is not to say that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting any study of the past as irrelevant to our Quaker future. On the contrary I feel that an understanding of the great variety of our Quaker history and of how we got to our present position can only be helpful to us now. Listening to voices from the past may give us helpful insights but should not tempt us to try to recreate those former times.

When Ann Wilson pointed Samuel Bownas out as 'a traditional Quaker' she was challenging his unthinking acceptance of the traditions in which he had been brought up. He had the form of a Quaker without any of the power within that would make him a true one. He was changed by his experience in the same way as we can be changed now.

Some traditions may serve us well, especially if we understand how they have arisen, but they are only useful if we follow them with the power as well as the form. Words from the past can help us but not if only repeated unthinkingly. They must be, as Bownas puts it, 'old matter opened in new life'. Let us not be afraid of changing traditions or of making new ones so long as whatever we do and say is led by the spirit of truth.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - S for Joseph Edward Southall

Joseph Southall self-portrait 1925
Joseph Southall was born in Nottingham on 23 August 1861, the only child of Joseph Sturge Southall and Eliza Maria Baker. His father was a chemist and grocer but he died when Joseph was just one year old and his mother brought Joseph back to her Birmingham family home. Joseph was educated in Quaker schools at Ackworth, Birmingham and Scarborough. He showed artistic talent from a young age and from the age of thirteen was taught watercolour painting by Edwin Moore who is said to have remarked, 'Ah, here is a boy with an eye.'

In 1878 Joseph left school and was articled to a firm of Birmingham architects, Martin and Chamberlain. He continued to take drawing and painting classes and when he came of age in 1882 he abandoned his formal training in order to practice carving and painting to fit himself to be what he regarded as a true architect. He kept himself through inheritances from his father and an uncle and went to live in a house in Edgbaston belonging to another uncle where he remained for the rest of his life.
The artist's mother 1902

In 1883 Joseph spent eight weeks in Italy with his mother and a cousin, a turning point in his artistic life. He became an ardent admirer of the Italian primitive style and resolved to study and practice the art of painting in tempera. In 1884 Joseph's architectural drawings were shown by his uncle, George Baker, to Ruskin, who admired them and commissioned Joseph to design a museum for his Guild of St George. However in 1886 this project fell through and Joseph felt that his chance to become the architect he wanted to be had vanished.

Anna Elizabeth Baker 1897
Joseph continued to draw, paint and struggle with the tempera technique. He studied at Birmingham School of Art and exhibited with the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA). In 1893 he was greatly cheered when his work was praised by another artist from Birmingham, Edward Burne-Jones. Joseph's work became gradually better known and he was able to sell enough to support himself. With other like-minded artists he formed the Birmingham Group of Artist-Craftsmen and in 1901 was one of the founders, along with Holman Hunt and Walter Crane, of the national Society of Painters in Tempera.

The Blue Sea with frame by Anna

In 1903 Joseph married Anna Elizabeth Baker who was two years older than he was. The couple had been attached since their youth but, as they were first cousins, had deliberately delayed their marriage, making a conscious decision not to have children. Anna shared Joseph's artisitic interests and made elaborate frames for his pictures. Each year the couple would go to Italy or France and also to Southwold in Suffolk or Fowey in Cornwall, where they visited galleries, sketched and painted. Joseph's reputation grew in Britain and in 1910 he also held a very successful one-man show in Paris.

From Fables and Illustrations 1918

Joseph and Anna both remained Quakers and supported their local meeting in Edgbaston. Joseph was often critical and did not suffer fools gladly. His demeanour has been described as 'frosty but kindly'. During the First World War Joseph was active as a pacifist both in Quaker circles and with the Independent Labour Party. He painted much less and turned instead to illustration and political cartoons pointing out the evils of war. He accepted a commission from the Birmingham Corporation to paint a mural 'Corporation Street March 1914' but he gave it a subtly anti-war message, showing the prosperity which the city had enjoyed before the conflict.

Corporation Street March 1914, now in Birmingham Art Gallery

Joseph and Anna in Southwold 1911
As he grew older Joseph received more public recognition and executed several more murals in buildings in Birmingham, but in 1937 he became very ill and underwent major surgery. He never fully recovered and although he continued to paint until his death he did not go abroad again. He died in November 1944 at the age of eighty-three.

The Botanists 1928
Joseph's work has been characterised as 'static' and his preoccupation
was with materials and technique. However he painted some fine portraits, many of Quakers, and Picasso was much taken by his painting of water. He was true to his vision and to his roots and his work can still be seen in the city he lived in all his life. The critic William Rothenstein wrote, 'I have a great respect for Southall, both as an artist and a sterling character, one of the few considerable artists who has remained in his native city.'

The Food Queue, now in Oldham Galllery

Monday, September 22, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - R for Richard Reynolds

Richard Reynolds
Richard Reynolds was born in Bristol in 1735, the only son of Richard, an ironmaster, and Jane. He was educated at a Quaker school in Pickwick, Wiltshire between the ages of 5 and 14 and then returned to Bristol where he was apprenticed to William Fry, a grocer.

At the end of his apprenticeship in 1756 one of his father's friends, Thomas Goldney, sent Richard on a business trip to Shropshire to visit the ironworks of Abraham Darby II at Coalbrookdale. This visit changed the course of Richard's life as it was here that he met and fell in love with Hannah, Abraham Darby's eldest daughter. They were married in 1757 and Richard took over the running of the iron and coal works at Ketley and Horsehay, living at Ketley Bank a few miles from Coalbrookdale. He prospered in the business, becoming a partner, and the couple had two children, William and Hannah Mary, but their happiness was cut short when Hannah died of measles in 1762 when she was only 27.

Bank House, Ketley

Richard and his children moved into Dale House in the centre of Coalbrookdale where there were plenty of Darby family and other Quakers to look after them. After eighteen months as a widower Richard was married in 1763 to Rebecca Gulson, one of his late wife's closest friends, and went on to have three more sons with her, Michael, Richard and Joseph. Also in 1763 Abraham Darby died and Richard took charge of the whole Coalbrookdale company during the minority of his brothers-in-law. In 1768 when Abraham Darby was 18 Richard turned the business over to him and returned to Ketley but had to take charge  for a while again in 1789 when Abraham died of scarlet fever.

Dale house, Coalbrookdale
Richard Reynolds proved an energetic and innovative manager who much improved the profits of the company and grew very rich himself. During the first half of the eighteenth century scarcely any iron was manufactured in England, as the woods had been cut down and various attempts to use coal had failed. It was under Richard Reynold's supervision that the problem was overcome and coal was used, not only to smelt iron ore, but to turn the cast metal into iron that could be used. He assisted two of his workmen to take out a patent for this process which produced enormous profits for the Works. He extended the business considerably, manufacturing cylinders for the early steam engines and being the first to use cast-iron for colliery tram rails.

Coalbrookdale at night
Working conditions in Coalbrookdale were hard, dirty and noisy, but Richard Reynolds did his best to improve conditions for his workforce and their families providing decent accomodation for them. When he purchased the nearby estate of Madeley he laid out extensive walks through the woods on Lincoln Hill commanding beautiful views expressly for the use of the workmen and their families. Richard himself was passionately fond of the beauties of nature and took every opportunity he could to appreciate them. He did not feel that this in any way clashed with his Quaker faith. As he wrote to a friend 'I think it not only lawful but expedient to cultivate a disposition to be pleased with the beauties of nature, by frequent indulgences for that purpose. The mind, by being continually applied to the consideration of ways and means to gain money, contracts an indifferency if not an insensibility to the profusion of beauties which the benevolent Creator has impressed upon every part of the material creation.'

William Reynolds
Richard remained active in business and in time his sons joined him there. William in particular was as inventive and innovative as his father had been and the business continued to grow. As their children married and set up their own households in the area Richard and Rebecca moved back to Dale House and were joined by various companions. The most long-lasting of these was Priscilla Hannah Gurney who although brought up a Friend became a Plain Quaker through the influence of the Reynolds and the Darbys and looked on them as her family, calling Richard her 'parental Friend'.

However in 1803 Rebecca Reynolds died and later in the same year so did Richard's son William. Richard felt that after more than 40 years in Coalbrookdale it was time to move on. He signed his shares in the business over to his remaining sons and moved back to his home town of Bristol. At the age of nearly 70 he was determined to spend the rest of his days acting as 'his own executor'. He strongly disapproved of making charitable bequests by will but believed that it was his duty to do all the good he could during his life. In modern terms his donations totalled millions of pounds. He did not limit his donations to Quakers but gave large sums to many different bodies and individuals although always as anonymously as he could, working through agents. Inevitably in time his munificence became known but he refused all thanks, directing gratitude to God, the giver of all good.

In the late summer of 1816 Richard Reynolds travelled to Cheltenham Spa to take the waters for his health and died there in September aged 80. He was buried at the Quaker burial ground in Rosemary Street in Bristol followed to the grave by people of all classes and persuasions and by many of the poor of Bristol to whom he had been so generous.

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'.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - N for Nostalgia

I've been thinking about nostalgia quite a bit recently, partly because I've been spending time scanning old family photographs and partly because I have been considering the question of what it means to be a Quaker today ahead of Yearly Meeting Gathering.

My younger self
Looking back does not always involve nostalgia, which can be defined as 'a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past'. The memories evoked by the photographs of myself and my family that I discovered were not always entirely happy ones although I did sometimes feel a wistful affection for my younger self and the times in which I lived. 

It is as true now as it was in the past that as we grow older we may feel that things have changed and not for the better. I have heard it said with regret in my own meeting that 'This is not the Society of Friends that I joined'. Samuel Bownas was perhaps in the grip of the same kind of nostalgia when he wrote, towards the end of his life in 1751, to his old 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.’ 

From the second generation of Quakers onwards there have always been those with a nostalgia for a past that probably never existed looking forward with trepidation to the possible demise of Quakerism that so far has not in fact occurred. In the 19th century John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about his idea of an ideal Quaker in an ideal past who he felt that his contemporaries should aspire to emulate- 

Whittier aged 45 in 1852
'The Quaker of the olden time!
How calm and firm and true,
Unspotted by its wrong and crime,
He walked the dark earth through.
The lust of power, the love of gain,
The thousand lures of sin
Around him, had no power to stain
The purity within...'

Did such a paragon ever actually exist and is this nostalgic view of any help when considering how we may best be Quakers today?  For me a study of Quaker history can be helpful to us now when it reveals the reality of our past failures and inadequacies as well as inspiring us with stories of Friends going forward in faith in the best way they can. However if history is only used to confirm our present day positions and prejudices it is no better that the sentimental longing of nostalgia.