Reflections on the Foundations

Quakers have always tried to express our spiritual understandings through our actions. Famously, this includes refusing to fight, because the real problems aren’t solved by outward actions, and treating everyone as equals – whether that’s through refusing to doff hats or refraining from the use of titles. It’s not always clear, though, how particular spiritual insights should be worked through into practical actions. Does the equality of all before God mean that nobody should be allowed to be wealthy, or that those who are wealthy should treat others well, or that some people being wealthy is okay if everyone has their minimum needs met? In 1918, with the Russian Revolution and the First World War in progress, Quakers in Britain approved a statement, now known as the Foundations of a True Social Order, which laid out their picture of the way things should be. This year, Rachel Muers and I have been conducting some research about the context and legacy of this document. What follows are some of my personal reflections arising from this work.

The Foundations addresses questions about how society should be ordered, although it was criticised at the time for not being practical and specific enough. Reading it today, I can see why – both why people want something more detailed, and why it would be impossible to write such a thing and have it approved by the many and diverse Quakers who make up the Yearly Meeting. Take the last point, for example, which addresses my question about wealth most directly. “The ownership of material things, such as land and capital, should be so regulated as best to minister to the need and development of man.” Well, yes. For sure. But what does that regulation look like in the real world?

Someone said to me over the summer that they thought the project of liberal Quakerism, laid out in texts like these, could now be said to have failed. We haven’t, this argument says, created a world anything like that which is described in the Foundations. We haven’t attracted lots of people to be Quakers, we haven’t created a fair and just society, etc. On one level, this is obviously true. Anyone reading British political or economic news at the moment knows that there are many ways in which society at the moment is moving towards entrenching or even creating inequalities. At another level, I wonder whether this is the right question. It might not be right to frame the issue in terms of success and failure at all – and someone looking for progress could point to evidence that the world has changed both for better and for worse during that time.

(I once tried this argument out on some Jehovah’s Witnesses who knocked on my door to tell me that I should stop putting up posters about local politics and join their church instead. They argued that God is the true King and that participating in human government distracts us from this. I argued that we are trying to manifest God’s Kingdom on earth, and as evidence that this sometimes works, I pointed to the recent introduction of same-sex marriage. Needless to say, they declined to agree with me, but I do think we have made progress towards equality in some areas – including some areas which the Yearly Meeting at the time of the Foundations might not even have been aware of as problems.)

I also wonder what underlying theological picture is involved in this judgement. Is there a God who looks down from above, comparing the world we are building to a grand blueprint? It might be tempting to reading the Foundations as laying out just such a blueprint. I don’t think, though, that this is theologically realistic or true to the long-term and developing nature of Quaker witness. Perhaps something closer to what Bruce Epperly describes as process theology – which, he says, “affirms an open source, adventurous, and constantly evolving universe in which God and creatures are constantly doing new things” (Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2011, p44) – can help us to think about ourselves as work with, alongside, or even in God to explore multiple possible futures, rather than being bound to achieve or fail against a single measure.

Finally, one of the things which emerged when I was interviewing Quakers today about the ideas in the Foundations was that the work is long-term, and that the Quaker perspective can help us stick to that rather than being blown about by the winds of fashion and the demands of the 24-hour news cycle or the 5-year election cycle. Even among Quakers, we still don’t agree about the best way to regulate the ownership of material things – or many other similar questions. We are, however, building up a body of reflection on these questions. Our prayerful decision making process is able to take on board new evidence when it arrives, such as about sustainability, and relate that to commitments we already had, such as our opposition to outward violence.

The people who wrote the Foundations rejected more detailed proposals from other churches because they wanted not the minimum, but a vision. Standing in a long tradition, can we keep looking to this ideal, trying to put it into practice while knowing that we will fall short of that, and not be discouraged by apparent judgements of ‘failure’? For me, I think this will be a lifelong challenge.

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