This is the bit, I think, which makes Quakers sound maddest when we talk to the outside world – especially the secular world. It’s all very well to say that Quakers believe in a continuing revelation, it’s got a good long word in and is a bit vague, but what we really mean by this is that we not only think that God did talk to people in the past (revelation, whether Biblical or not), but that God is still talking to us now.
If you go around saying things like ‘God told me so’ in polite company, at a dinner party or the doctor’s, you’re likely to get at least a funny look and maybe a referral to a mental health service. Now, I fully believe that you can have mental health needs and have God talk to you, but I don’t think that participating in continuing revelation – especially in a community context – is necessarily a symptom. This is the claim that I take Quakers to be making, though; when we have threshed and tested and considered a concern, we say, ‘X, because God told us so.’ ‘We should treat all marriages equally, regardless of the sex of the participants, because God told us to, and marriages are God’s work.” “I’m trying to reduce my carbon footprint because God told me to.”
Sure, some of us are worried about the word God – I personally find I can’t do without it, but that I’m not committed to there being an external, a Something you could point to and say, ‘there, that’s God’. This might be because I read too much Don Cupitt a few months ago.
The Quaker method of doing business, though, relies on messages arising in the silence which guide the Meeting towards a conclusion, and our experience is that this does in fact happen. We feel led. We listen, and there’s something to hear. We don’t always agree – indeed, you can unite with a minute if you agree that it’s the way the group is being led; you don’t have to agree that it’s sensible or that it’s the logical way forward or that it’s what you’d have wanted. From time to time we defer a decision because we just can’t get a read on it, but generally we get something that actively takes us in one direction or another. That thing, wherever it comes from, is what I call continuing revelation, or God talking to us.
There is a worry – and I can quite see this – that if you encourage people to trust ‘what God tells them’, they might get and trust messages which don’t seem to be good or ‘Godly’. ‘God told me to kill them’, that kind of thing. I agree that it’s a danger, and one which is not unique to this approach (trusting your intuitions has similar risks, for example). The Quaker safeguard against this problem is ‘testing’, bringing what you’ve received to the community. We’re good at this for big, obviously community-affecting problems, like climate change or end of life care. We can do it in a very informal way for small things, like when you ask a friend about whether you should do Quaker paperwork or visit your family this weekend. We also have a more formal method for larger but still personal things; the Meeting for Clearness is widely in use before weddings, but can be used for all sorts of questions – should I take this job? shall I have this operation?
It’s not perfect, of course, like any system operated by humans. I expect we do still end up doing the wrong thing sometimes; but I don’t think that’s the same as doing something which looks weird to the rest of the world. If we’ve been called to look ‘mad’, maybe that’s part of our continuing revelation. It wouldn’t be the first time – the ‘young prophet’ of 2 Kings 9 gets called a maniac.