Search terms: quaker values as a unifying force

This phrase, ‘quaker values as a unifying force’, appeared in my search terms recently and I think it makes a couple of assumptions which are worth discussing.

Are Quaker values really a unifying force? Is that what brings Quakers together, or what helps us work with others? And what are ‘Quaker values’ anyway? Is this a useful way to think of what might also be called ‘testimony’ or ‘the testimonies’?

When people say ‘Quaker values’, I think they often mean the list of abstract words which, in the mid-twentieth century, began to be used to describe the actions we are led to take, the ways we make our faith concrete in the world. The list varies a bit, but it usually includes peace, equality, truth, simplicity, and sometimes community, integrity, sustainability, earthcare. These are often called the Quaker testimonies. This is both a strange way of using the word ‘testimony’ – think of giving testimony in court – and tends to make these things remote and sound acceptable to everyone. That has political uses, for sure. But it also hides the counter-cultural nature of many of them. Having an equality testimony could be mistaken for a belief or paying lip-service to equality, rather than actually behaving as if everyone is already equal – as we all are in God’s eyes, but very much aren’t in the social structures in which we live.

Instead of a list of abstract values, we can also see Quaker testimony as something more like the testimony we might be asked to give in court. Like in court, we’re called to give it – and the quality of it will be judged by our peers (the jury) and by the judge (God?). Like a witness statement, it will be individual – if I didn’t see the crime, I mustn’t say that I did; and if you and I both saw it, we might still have seen very different things. Multiple testimonies might point in the same direction (the butler did it!) but they can’t be reduced to that conclusion. Instead of a crime, though, we’re giving a witness statement about what we see as the truth of the world, revealed in our spiritual experiences and through meeting for worship. And as well as using words, we can give our testimony through actions – behaving as if the world we’ve glimpsed, the Divine Commonwealth or Kingdom of Heaven, is already here.

Will that be a unifying force? The list of values certainly can be unifying in some ways. Lots of people agree that peace, truth, and equality are a good ideas. What we tend not to agree about is how we should get there – the pacifist and the just war advocate both want peace, but they don’t agree about the route to it. Sometimes it isn’t obvious – I don’t use any titles because I want to achieve equality, but in some professional settings where sexism is a strong factor, not using my earned title, Dr, might prevent me from being treated equally with men who are my peers. Neither path is an easy or automatic route to equal respect for all people. Explaining our reasons, as well as acting and naming values, might be necessary in order to make common ground with those who agree with our aims but might be using different methods.

Another question we might want to ask is: do we want a unifying force? It sounds good, but it might not be that simple. I would need to think carefully before I declared myself in unity with, or even on the same side as, some of the people who are working for the same goals – but through means that I think are contrary to those goals. Consider, for example, the ‘this just war is this one which will bring peace!’ position. As a pacifist, who thinks that war is always wrong, does it help me to be ‘unified’ with people who hold that view? Or those who uphold ‘equality’ between some people by contributing to the exclusion of others – speaking out against that, rather than trying to be unified with it, might be part of my testimony.

Alternatively, perhaps the searcher was wondering whether the Quaker values are a unifying force within the Quaker community. I would say that they are to some extent. The list of values can be useful as a shorthand, a teaching device, or a test of knowledge – starting any analysis of anything by reference to ‘the testimonies’ can provide a shared structure from which to move forward. However, the existence of different lists in different communities, and the problem of explaining that the lists are recent convenient devices rather than a core or central truth of Quakerism, suggests that they are not as unifying as all that. The lists can also be a bit lacking or weak – why don’t they include Love and Justice, for example? Given that, would we want them to be the unifying force in Quakerism? Do we need anything extra to unify us as a community? This sometimes comes up in discussion where there’s an underlying anxiety about something else – that our theology is too diverse, that our practice of unprogrammed meeting for worship isn’t clear enough or lacks a shared understanding, or that our bonds of friendship and love aren’t strong enough to hold us together.

Articulating our testimony/testimonies can help us explain and teach our faith, and living a witness to the truths we know is part of that faith itself – but ‘Quaker values’ can’t stand in for other work we also need to do.

2 responses to “Search terms: quaker values as a unifying force

  1. Lucus Greenwood

    My earlier comment was snuffed out prematurely by the system. If it lingers anywhere, please ignore it and accept this redraft.
    I agree wholeheartedly with your final paragraph, and I happily followed your development. There are, however, some nuances that never seem to be acceptable to bring to the table of Quaker discussion. Bullet points coming up:–

    > The Peace Testimony can be discussed earnestly without banning such words as ‘conflict’, as happened in a Meeting for Business I attended some years ago.
    > The Testimony to Truth was not usefully upheld by a photographer Friend who self-righteously reported to us that she walked out of a Photoshop course on ethical grounds when the tutor began to explain how to use it to add clouds to a dull sky.
    > On the issue of unity, I recall a vehement speech after Meeting for Worship from a Friend who insisted that we should adopt every Quaker peculiarity of dress and speech from the past in order to distinguish ourselves from others and so advertise our unity.
    > It is always possible (but scarcely ever right) to crush and silence mention of uncomfortable issues, by a targeted one-liner from Faith and Practice or other well-known Quaker source. I have found this to be particularly abhorrent when I have seen it used used, with relish to sideline, and even exclude, Friends from the community. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break my heart.”

    To take this any further, in particular to rake up specific examples, would risk becoming fractious. I believe that Unity is where you find it, feel it and further it. That includes being comfortable and supportive in working with other groups, both religious and secular, whose aims and desires are like our own, without fussing about cosmetic differences

    (Whoa! I just used a provocative word. Let it stand. Give peace a chance.)

  2. Terry Oakley

    Being a Quaker

    I want to be associated with Quakers, especially the British kind of Quaker. I share many if not all of the values that are commonly held by British Friends. Here is am responding in part to a blog by Rhiannon Grant (https://brigidfoxandbuddha.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/search-terms-quaker-values-as-a-unifying-force/). For me, values are not abstract but motivators for action. When I make decisions about what to do, which choices to opt for, then it is the values I hold which determine the way I go (at least in theory, I know subconscious factors often play a significant part in our decision-making).

    However, I do not necessarily share the same beliefs as other Friends. This is of course well known and obvious to those who know British Friends well. None of us share the same system of beliefs, but we are glad to be together none the less.

    I do like the Quaker style of worship (or silent communal reflection, or whatever else you might think it is). Partly, I confess, because of what it isn’t. It doesn’t involve assenting to forms of words and beliefs that are expected or even mandatory for believers. It doesn’t involve sharing in arcane rituals (though there are of course Quaker rituals). The experience of lockdown has been a revelation to me, because I am not missing the weekly gathering for Meeting for Worship, and I have not felt the need to engage in online sessions with others. However, when it is possible to share again in person, then I will.

    So why do I want to be associated with this community of Friends? Well, I suppose it’s partly that I value community and the relationships with people I admire and want to support. I do not want to be a solitary human being. I need relationship with others and the benefits that belonging offers. This sounds very selfish, but I am ready and willing to make my contribution to the health of the Meeting. I realise that most of us belong to a variety of groups, which give expression to the various aspects of our personality. I enjoying singing, so belong to a community choir. I value gardening and appreciate the way in which my allotment also leads to a sense of community with my neighbours. My family is important to me and so to spend time talking with them and being with them is precious.

    Given the choice of faith groups to belong to, I think the Quakers in Britain are the best. Not everyone will want to be associated with a faith, and to be honest I have reservations too. But on balance I would rather be known as someone who has a faith, who believes, who lives by values and who tries to discern and create meaning and purpose in life, based on love.

    There are tensions with the British Quaker community, and by what I have written already I have exposed and added to some of them. But that is a positive and healthy situation to be in. Creative conflict enriches community. As long as we are truly committed to one another and wish each other every good, then our community will be strong.

    Whether other Quakers will be as positive about my belonging as I am, remains to be seen.
    I am content to be a Quaker. .

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