Quiet. Silence. Stillness. Quakers are certainly associated with sitting quietly, and to quite an extent that’s right – we do make a habit of sitting regularly in silence. Being quiet, we find in everyday life, helps you to listen, and listening is what we’re after in our worship, so quietness seems like a good idea.
It’s not all we’re about, though. Although ‘peace and quiet’ go together in a traditional phrase, they don’t always go together in life; a busy city street, in which people are chatting, laughing, buying what they need and sharing what they have – isn’t that a vision of peace, too? A lively institution (a church, a university, a social club) that welcomes people of all ages, races, and genders, which involves them all in conversation – that can be a kind of peace, but there’s no way it’s quiet. If you sit still and use your ears while Quakers are sharing food or tea, it’s obvious that we know this really!
Another way in which we’re not quiet is in speaking out about things which are important to us. You can use silence as a way of drawing attention, sometimes – not speaking when speech is expected, for example – but sometimes you need to tell people what you’re on about. Besides doing this nationally, as with the campaign for same-sex marriage*, it has to be done locally and personally, usually over and over again. I tell myself that as I explain again that I’m a vegan, that yes it means I don’t eat milk or cheese or eggs – and then try and explain that I do eat free range organic eggs sometimes especially if they’ve come from within walking distance, and that it isn’t that I have a moral objection to drinking cow’s milk, and that I do eat honey – not even organic honey! – because I want to support British bee-keepers. And that yes, I know soy can be problematic too. I would make a difference to my carbon footprint if I was a vegan in secret, remaining vegetarian outside the house, but I make more of a difference if I try to be vegan in as many places as possible, and I might make even more of a difference if I let people know that it’s because it’s the only part of my carbon footprint I have much control over at the moment.
Sometimes I’m quiet about it, when I just can’t face explaining or when I don’t think it will go down well with the audience – usually, when just the act of choosing to be vegan has already spoken loudly about my unusual lifestyle. It can be true that ‘actions speak louder than words’, although I think there are quieter and louder actions. Generally, going along with the crowd is not a loud action – although if you’ve joined a crowd at a protest, your presence is still a voice for your cause.
I’ve heard stories about Quakers whose friends and work colleagues didn’t find out about their religion until after their death. I hope that those friends and colleagues discovered that so-and-so was a Quaker and said to themselves, ‘well, that fits, I should have seen it all along’. I’d like people to be able to ask me about Quakerism while I’m still here, though (anyone ever done a seance for outreach?), and I don’t think we’re well-known or distinctive enough for people to actually deduce my identity from the way I behave. I like peace and silence, but I choose not to be quiet.
* I don’t call it equal marriage for the reasons Kat Gupta outlines in this post.