Tag Archives: early Friends

#oceanofdarkness: early Friends today?

At the end of a recent blog post about Quaker structures and our future, Alistair Fuller asks an interesting question: ” if [early Friends] were forming a new and radical religious society today, what might it look like?”

I’ve no idea what it would really look like. But here are three ideas.

They would use Twitter. Early Friends were all about communicating, whether through preaching in the street or printing pamphlets. They went where people were, and gave their message. Today, that’s Twitter – not just Twitter, but the circumstances symbolised by the speedy, political, argumentative, and interactive style of that platform. This is about being recognisable, as Alistair says in his post, but also welcoming. Margaret Fell used to write to the king on a regular basis, so I think today she’d be tweeting Donald Trump several times a week. Early Friends could be upfront about their beliefs to the point of being philosophically (rather than physically) combative. Where better to take that stance today than Twitter?

They would create structures for people and for what God was really calling them to do, not try and fit people into structures. Someone else said something like this once. Early Friends were in the business of rejecting and remaking tradition, not upholding it, and they didn’t have any three hundred year old grade 1 listed meeting houses to worry about. I don’t think that renewing our Religious Society means throwing all of that out, but it does mean asking at every turn: are we doing this because we want to or because we’ve always done it? Have we chosen the time and location of our meetings to suit people – those we know and those we don’t yet know – or are we just chugging along like a train on lines built to suit a previous generation? Do we search for, nominate, and appoint a sixteen-person Committee on Thermostat Management* to the glory of God, or is it a guru’s cat?

*I think this is a joke, but please tell me if you’re serving on it!

We might not enjoy having them at Meeting. Someone taking the approach of early Friends today could easily look disruptive in a Quaker meeting as much as in the rest of the world. They wouldn’t respect the unwritten rules about the length or style of spoken ministry (or about acceptable foods for shared lunch). They might embrace new technologies and ideas in uncomfortable ways: broadcasting the discussion group via Facebook Live, using Google during worship to find the right passage in Qf&p, Instagraming the flowers on the table – or throwing them to the floor as idolatrous. (Or maybe the smashed vase would make a dramatic snap.)

They also wouldn’t have much patience with meetings who don’t put a sign outside or Friends who won’t tell their friends about Quakerism – or maybe I’m projecting here! If early Friends were forming a new and radical religious society today, would they get eldered?

Advertisements

Openings: Qf&p chapter 19

This is a chapter with a lot of famous passages in it; I’m no historian, but skimming through, I find that I recognise a lot of the stories. Here’s George Fox on top of Pendle Hill, seeing the sea and the people to be gathered. Here’s James Naylor called away from his plough. Here’s Thomas Ellwood pretending to be hunting when he’s actually gone to meeting. Here’s Mary Dyer, executed for her religion.

Skimming through also reveals the structure of the chapter. Some of the material is chronological, but there’s no attempt to provide a complete history. (There’s no need to; plenty of other histories of early Quakerism exist.) What is does do is to try and provide some examples of the historical roots of things which are now important to Quakers: universal access to the Inward Light, our structures or ‘gospel order’, and our testimony or witness in the world (here presented as a list of four ‘testimonies’). For me, the benefits of this approach are that it shows us how we are part of a continuity, working along the same lines as our forebears, worried about the same kinds of issues and using the same kinds of methods. Some of them have even more or less worked – English did abandon the you/thou distinction, and affirming rather than swearing is well recognised in law. Bigger goals, like the abandonment of outward warfare, are still works in progress!

Feeling part of the community who have never been afraid to stand out, to be different, to work by our own values and not those of the rest of the world, can be a real aid to taking courage and continuing the work.

There are disadvantages to this presentation too, of course. It could gloss over all sorts of things that I don’t at all have in common with early Friends. Sometimes I’ve felt that this was a real weakness of the book – especially when this book is treated as the only book, as if it’s called ‘All About Quakerism’ or ‘Everything You Need To Know About Quakers’ – but actually there are lots of other resources out there about Quaker history. (Books, films, a free online course running again this May…) We might benefit from being reminded of some of the ways in which early Friends disagreed with us, but we also gain a lot from the sense of community created by focusing, in one chapter at least, on what we do have in common.

That being so, I want to end with someone from this chapter with whom I feel a commonality: Samual Bownas, perhaps one of the first people able to write about the experience of having grown up as a Quaker. Among the very earliest Friends, that experience didn’t exist; then it came to dominate the Society for hundreds of years; but today, it’s almost gone again, with a majority of Quakers arriving in adulthood. Samuel Bownas describes very vividly the need to move from merely being a Quaker because you have always been one, to being a Quaker because you want to be one. My own experience isn’t like his at all – except that in some ways, it is. These experiences doesn’t fit the ‘convincement’ narratives often preferred by Friends, especially if it happens more slowly and less dramatically than it did for Bownas. I sometimes need to be reminded that it is no less valid for that.