There’s been some discussion recently about the future of Quakerism, sparked in my corner of the internet by Craig Barnett’s blog post The death of liberal Quakerism (and the birth of something else?)
It remains to be seen, of course, whether this discussion either identifies or begins processes which will lead to historically-visible change, but I think there’s something important about knowing our visions for the future whether or not they come true. (It’s like watching old sci-fi. The year 2000 wasn’t like that, but it tells you something about the 1970s if you know what they thought 2000 would be like.) Towards the end of the post, Craig identifies some ways in which the Religious Society of Friends of the future might be different to the one we know today. They are:
- a movement towards a “deeper, more disciplined worship and spiritual practice”
- a new recognition of the need for leadership, specifically a leadership which empowers and supports others
- a shared understanding of and language for the Quaker Way, arising from an inclusive threshing process
- more work on outreach
- a better knowledge of early Friends
- a changing, more practical arrangement so that our “structures and bureaucracy … serve the spiritual practice of the community”
Some of these are beginning – Craig mentions meetings which have done away with their committee structures and begun afresh – while I think others may be there but disguised. For example, I can’t help wondering whether some of the depth of spiritual practice is hidden when people have expectations about what spiritual practice should look like or how it should be described. If a Friend isn’t doing in Meeting what I choose to do in Meeting, does that make them less a part of the gathered Meeting, or just interacting with it differently? Our visions of what ‘spiritual practice’ can be might need to expand, and we might be helped in doing that by work on the third point, about our language.
You aren’t, of course, at all surprised to hear that I’m interested in issues around the language that we use, and the extent to which we have or don’t have a shared understanding. I do think a threshing process might be useful (I’d certainly be interested in it with my professional/philosophical hat on!) but any threshing process around language needs to be handled carefully, to be inclusive, to be aware of Friends’ tender spots and – not to avoid them – but to support Friends in living with them.
I think this – acknowledging tender spots and possible conflicts and living with rather than denying or hiding them – might be one of the big changes in my vision for the future of British Quakerism. It’s not something our wider society supports (we’re not supposed to be emotional, people who point out conflict are often treated as creating it, and speaking up when you’re upset, when your metaphorical foot is trodden upon, is often met with defensiveness from the tread-ee who stands on your other foot in the process in the hope that you’ll be quiet). That doesn’t mean we can’t do it, although it will take courage; Friends are often proud of their reputation as a radical group.
I’m not sure about all the other things Craig outlines. I’m inspired by much of our central work, for example, and I hope we can find ways to continue projects which we have previously decided, usually through a long process of discernment, to start or support. We could live without quite a few of our formal appointments, though – some of the best oversight I’ve ever had was offered by a Meeting who didn’t appoint overseers (or elders, or anyone, actually).