Is the concept of ‘generations’ useful to revising our book of discipline?
This was a question which came up in discussion at a recent weekend event about the book of discipline and what it’s for. I think the idea of generations probably is useful in some ways in thinking about the revision and how revision processes work – but it needs a bit of nuance and some care in how we apply it, so in this blog post I want to explore different approaches to ‘generations’.
In the current book of discipline of Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker faith & practice, it says that we revise it about once a generation. This is only sort of true. For one thing, it’s an attempt to tidy up and explain briefly what has actually been a complex series of processes in which a text has developed, been added to by hand and by supplementary publications, been edited and revised, been split into multiple volumes (repeatedly, several different ways) and recombined into a single volume, until there are very few parts of the text which have remained the same throughout. (Perhaps none; if you’d done a detailed textual analysis of this, currently difficult because the texts are mainly not digitised, please let me know!)
However, I think there’s a sense in which this a self-fulfilling prophecy. What if it’s not so much that each generation of Quakers creates a book, as that the process of revising the book creates a new generation? This means letting go of a numerical definition of a generation. In some contexts, it might be useful to reckon, for example, that a prehistoric society probably had generations of 25 years, so a century is about four generations – but long-lived individuals might meet someone from two generations before or after them, so there can be a direct word-of-mouth memory of an event over that period of time. That isn’t the kind of generation we’re dealing with here. Nor it is the pop-history version of a generation, in which generations in a society (let’s face it, we usually mean Western or even American society) are defined by social events, whether that’s people who were aged between 5 and 18 at the turn of the millennium (Millennials) or people born in a period of rapid population increase (Baby Boomers). Instead, what I want to propose is perhaps related to that concept, but unique to Quakers.
It’s also related to the alternative generational scheme which Gretchen McCulloch describes in her book Because Internet. Very roughly – please do go and read it for yourself – she lays out a scheme in which your relationship to the internet does put you into an ‘internet generation’, but one defined not by when you were born but by what the internet was like and how you used it when you first encountered it. By birth I’m a (relatively old) Millennial, but by McCulloch’s system I’m somewhere between Old Internet and Full Internet. For me the internet is a vitally important way of connecting with people who have similar interests, which I originally did through mailing lists and bulletin boards. That’s characteristic of the Old Internet, an internet in which a few people who had access connected around common interests, usually using pseudonyms. The Full Internet generation comes with its own technology, but also with a particular set of assumptions – especially that the internet is real, that a friend online is a much a friend as a friend in person, and that there is no necessary limitation to the success of communication online versus communication by other routes. Other generations, especially the Semi Internet generation who regard it as supplementary to in-person connections, may not share these beliefs about the possibilities of online communication.
What if we combined that idea with what we know about the development of the books of discipline? If a book of discipline creates a generation within a Yearly Meeting, we could talk about a Church Government/Christian Faith and Practice generation, whose first encounter with the book of discipline was with a two volume system. Before that, the older generation knew a three-book system. People who have become Quakers since 1995 have only known Quaker faith & practice, a one-book system. Of course, people who knew CG/CF&P have had plenty of time to also encounter Qf&p – but just as my assumptions about the purpose the internet are shaped by the technology and common uses of the internet when I first encountered it, the assumptions Quakers have about the form and uses of the book of discipline might be shaped by the way that it was when they first encountered it. How things are when you first notice them can easily, sometimes accidentally, become your idea of ‘normal’ – an issue ecologists have pointed out in other areas of life.
Of course, this will never be the only factor in someone’s approach to the revision, and there won’t always been a straightforward correlation between ‘generation’ and opinion. People who first knew two books might have a deep appreciation of the good reasons for making it one book, even more than people who have only ever known one book but find it vaguely unsatisfactory and wonder whether it would be better as two. Growing up in the age of the internet doesn’t make you like it – and growing up without the internet, as I did, doesn’t make you dislike it. When I discovered the internet as a teenager it was literally life-changing, and my life wouldn’t be as good as it is today without it. By contrast, the change when I was about ten from one book of discipline to another had, as far as I can remember, no impact at all on my life at the time, probably because I was already embedded in a Quaker family and community which knew about the changes as they came and rolled with them rather than making any sudden adjustments.
What this idea might help us to do is to put the revision into a wider context and to detect patterns in the responses to suggestions for change. People don’t usually fit exactly into a generational pattern – but recognising that world events, like the arrival of a new technology or a major economic shift, do shape people’s lives enables us to make connections, to feel less alone when we are lost or failing to explain something (for example: trying to explain why it’s now much harder to get a job than it was for my grandfather). In the same way, playing with the idea of ‘Quaker generations’, without taking it too seriously, might help us to talk about the ways our Quaker experiences differ and engage more fully with the complexity of our whole community. It’s going to be at least as useful as talking about the ordinary concept of generations in a Quaker context – where, while it’s true that something like your age when you first accessed the internet may be relevant to your willingness to embrace the internet as a Quaker tool, it’s also the case that your age on becoming a Quaker, and experiences you did or didn’t have prior to that, are relevant to your interaction with the Quaker way.