One of the questions I am frequently asked is "What do Quakers believe? As with almost all questions involving Quakers, this usually results in a pause. Instead of being able to provide anyone with a manifesto about Quakers, or pretend that I will ever be in a position to speak for them, it seems more honest for me to talk about how I see them, and, as part of that process, have chosen to identify myself as being one.
There is the almost
irresistible temptation to begin by saying, "Well of course we differ
widely," Rather a lot depends on who writes what and where you happen to
be (left or right of "the Big Pond". Those of us in Britain Yearly
Meeting might well resort to Wikipedia before meeting up with any
American Quakers, having absolutely no idea what all those groupings are
about. Among ourselves we have a tendency to use the terms "Liberal"
"Orthadox" and "Universalist" (At this point I should probably apologise to Quakers for leaving some of these definitions we give ourselves out.)
In recent years there has been a growing tendency get double-barrelled faith
such as Jewish-Quaker, Quaker-Unitarian, Christian-Quaker, Buddhist-Quaker. For those
of us engaged in interfaith,
where there is so much diversity and choice, this very specific approach may result in changing your religious identity more times than the names of your average
prisoner on the run! (unless it is possible to set up in the first place a more accurate and inclusive
definition of "Quaker").
Whenever we claim a view is held by Quakers, it would seem unlikely
everyone signed the form stating this to be their belief. Instead what we claim as representative is more usually a majority
verdict, leading to a problem now of what to do with the rest. Should these
individuals be now considered on the peripheral of Quakers? Are such
views so upsetting as to constitute a threat? Perhaps we should encourage anyone who is not happy with
our opinion, to worship where their presence will no longer provide a
Even when that view has been
agreed by a number of Friends in a reputable place, and could be seen as
resulting from our ancient testimonies, it seems to me that
somewhere during this process something very important has been lost.
These dilemmas have been with Quakers for a very long time. It would seem likely to me that if anyone had asked James Naylor what was the hardest outcome of his trial and sentencing for blasphemy, he would have said the response of other Quakers.
So what about our differences? For as start, I find it a little hard to imagine the likes of William Penn beginning his defence before an English court with a plea to be treated on an individual basis, he was a very much nicer guy than all the rest, and "of course we differ widely." Right from our very beginning, Quakers have been perceived as a job lot. You either liked or loathed them. You either put them all in prison or waited a few years, looked with appreciation at that picture of Elizabeth Fry on an English five pound note, fondly imagining that in some mysterious way every other Quaker might be like her. To those outside Quakerism we have always been one people, one insidious group of troublemakers, one stubborn set of Seekers after Truth, one group that resisted the role of priests, used silence in their worship, one group that placed such emphasis upon love in all our dealings and persisted in seeing the human race without exception as being children of God. It does seem to me as being so illogical that we should see
ourselves as being divided when there has always been so great an
emphasis on unity from everyone else.
To me, it is important that Quakers should not all
looking be looking at each other. Such judgements with their associated
hierarchies have always been irrelevant because we believe Christ speaks
to us direct. Since we are
all individuals with unique needs and expectations, how we hear that
message will quite naturally
This morning I am thinking in particular about kites. As with Quakers, these need to remain attached and guided or else they are in danger of getting lost. When Quakers get entangled with each other, it is generally because they
are not looking in the right direction. We can get in a right mess sometimes and then come crashing down.There will be those times when it is necessary to unravel and untangle
our perception of the truth. It is important not to pull the knots
tighter because this process is not about power. The line is constant,
the wind an endless possibility, Like kites, we have long brightly coloured tails of experience which can help stabilise us in the sky. Who is capable of judging which way the wind will blow? Who can predict our pattern?
It would seem to me that we all need to be humble about our understanding of the Truth, concentrate upon our own spiritual journeys and refrain from judging others. At times it helps to remember that life is not an easy process. We are all Quakers doing our best to fly.