Tag Archives: testimonies

Are we giving good evidence this Easter?

Prompted by discussion on Facebook – itself prompted by the arrival of Easter, Passover, and other seasonal festivities – I have been thinking about the Quaker ‘testimony’ of refusing to recognise times and seasons. I’ve written before about how this is a practice more honoured in the breach than the observance (and I plan to stop after this – it probably won’t come up again until December, anyway!). It’s common today to list testimonies in positive forms, often with the capital letter of vague importance – Peace, Truth, Equality, etc. We might not be sure what these look like, but we’re for them. Other discussions make it clear that testimonies can also be against things – against war, against injustice, against fancy clothing, against inequality, against gambling. The stuff about being against times and seasons seems to be firmly in the latter category, although it’s sometimes seen in a positive incarnation, as something like: all days are equally holy.

A testimony, however, isn’t just a practice, like wearing grey, or a position, like being anti-war, or even a value, like thinking equality is good. ‘Testimony’ comes from the same root as ‘testify’, to witness, to give evidence, and we can still use it in this sense as well. The image is of a court of law, where you can give evidence in a trial. However, in order for that evidence, your testimony, to make sense, it has to be given in the right context. You can witness to Jane’s impeccable character until you’re blue in the face, and it won’t make any difference if it’s John’s behaviour which is before the court.

So when we hold to or reject a historical form of testimony, we need to ask: what question is it we are answering? Since we’re witnessing to the world and to each other, this is question which people ask, not a question God asks: it isn’t “will you come and follow me/if I but call your name?” but rather “what would the world be like if it were ruled by God/dess?” We can then talk about there being a spiritual process which leads us to an answer, but also our actions need to answer that question – and our explanations of our actions can link back to the question. For example, one answer to “what does the Divine Commonwealth look like?” might be “everyone is equal”. In order to witness to that possibility, we practice equality – rejecting titles and fancy headstones and all sorts of other things – in order to give evidence about our understanding of God’s way of living.

At the moment, I think a court assembled to take evidence from British Quaker attitudes to times and seasons might conclude that we are hypocritical, unspiritual by our own purported standards, and easily swayed by consumerism and especially sweets. Quakers talk about not recognising times and seasons when it suits them – like when they not giving anything up for Lent or want to put down Friends who engage with Pagan traditions – but pick them up again for other purposes – when they have an Easter egg hunt for the children or Christmas carol concert. Similarly, the reason given for not celebrating times and seasons is that the events of the Christian story which are tied to the festivals early Friends were rejecting is that those events can be remembered every day – but it’s not always clear that modern Quakers think about them on any day at all (or even that the community thinks they should). And the majority of British Quakers participate in seasonal rituals, at home if not at Meeting: the eating of Christmas cakes and Easter chocolates, the giving of gifts and the hunting of eggs.

Can we really maintain this form of testimony? I think it was meant to give the answer ‘in the Kingdom of God we will remember and celebrate Christ’s story every day’, but it’s starting to sound like ‘in the Kingdom of God we will do what we like, picking and choosing when to live the Spirit’s way and when to live the world’s way’. If we can have simplicity without plain dress, maybe it’s time to let this one drop away, too.

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.

Unity of… what? Chapter 25

Quaker faith & practice chapter 25 is short chapter, at only 15 passages. I’ve read it a couple of times before – but always to find out ‘what Quakers say about’, and not for personal inspiration. Reading it now, a few questions occur to me.

What do I make of this language about ‘creation’? I don’t have the strong ‘nope! wrong!’ reaction to the term ‘creation’ which I know some people have, but I do see that talking about ‘creation’ implies a ‘creator’ – and although that can be a God/dess whose creative energy flows alongside that of the material universe (or even is the creative energy of the material universe; panentheist, pantheist, pannontheist anybody?), there is little discussion of creation among Quakers and so the standard use of the term tends to be set by seven-day creationists. I think that very few Quakers in Britain today think the world was created in seven days. Some have ways of interpreting the story to make it true in a mythological way, capturing some essence about the way people are – such as the fear of chaos. More probably rare think about it, or don’t consider it relevant to their religious lives. (I don’t have any evidence for this, so please feel free to comment with your thoughts. I wouldn’t like to assume that understandings of the term ‘creation’ mapped neatly onto approaches to ‘God’, but obviously they might be related – how?)

What did Quakers think about these issues between 1772 and 1957? There’s only one early Quaker passage in this chapter – William Penn writing in 1669 – and two from John Woolman in 1772. All the rest are twentieth century. Did those great Quaker industrialists never write about right use of resources? Perhaps they didn’t, or perhaps we disagree with them, or perhaps I am not alone in being ignorant about their ideas.

What would we say now? The passages also stop in 1994, when the chapter was composed. In the last twenty years, scientific knowledge, public opinion, and Quaker understandings of sustainability have all shifted considerably. The 2011 Canterbury Commitment is a landmark in that change, but a lot else has happened as well. Becoming a low-carbon, sustainable community has for some Quakers, myself including, become a significant part of our testimony to the action of God in our lives – or, if I can slip between different patterns of use of the word ‘testimony’, a Sustainability or Earthcare Testimony has been added to many people’s ideas about what it means to be a Quaker today.

My own leading to witness in this area wavers, and helpful suggestions often butt up against the limits of my financial and emotional capacity. I have just written and deleted a paragraph here in which I defended my inability to do X, Y, and Z, which would all lower my carbon footprint but are not feasible at the moment. I recognise the leap to defense from the other side as well – it’s the leap people make when I say ‘I mainly eat vegan’ and they say ‘oh, I could never be vegan because…’. Only months before I moved from vegetarian to vegan, I was saying exactly the same things. I think that at the time I said them, they were true. I certainly believe people who say them to me now. My experience was of a shift – a gift of grace from the Goddess – which enabled me to see that this was a change which I could make.

It was also important to me to see that this change was worthwhile even if it wasn’t complete. When what love requires is a paneer korma, I seek to enjoy it for what it is – and look for a vegan option again at my next meal. (And again this position might sound defensive: sometimes it really does feel like letting go of guilt, and other times I suspect it’s just a suppression of guilt as I fail to face my own failures.)

How does a commitment to caring for the environment connect to other aspects of Quaker testimony? Chapter 25 makes some of these connections – to simplicity, to economics, to peace – but I sense some other areas which could be explored. How do environmental concerns connect to our changing ways of working, especially our exploration of ways of using technology well? How does sustainability connect to our way of worship, especially if I am right that our understanding of ‘creation’ is now somewhat vague? (I’m glad to see my friend and colleague Stuart Masters engaging with other modern Christian thinkers around these issues.) Can traditional Quaker insights about the possibility of transformation in this life, turning away from sinful things when we have worn them as long as we can, and the need to stick close to our Guide help us to get through those tangles of defensiveness, guilt, desire to change and the fear of change which so often knot us up in inaction on issues around sustainability?

T is for… Testimonies

A testimony is a witness, a statement about the way things are. Quaker Testimonies could be considered as claims about the way things really are, a way which is disguised or made less than obvious by the world in which we live, but which is nevertheless true. They are sometimes presented as a list of abstract concepts, things we ‘believe in’:

Peace
Truth
Equality
Simplicity

You can add Integrity, Community, Sustainability, and others. I know some Friends who, confronted with such lists, say things like ‘well, this all a very modern formulation of Quaker principles…’. To which I am inclined to response: when does that matter and to whom? To historians, certainly. To those who wish to resist the oversimplification of Quakerism, perhaps. To people trying to explain Quakerism in one minute or less and in competition with professionally made advertising, not one jot. (One person may, of course, be any or all of these at various times.)

They’re principles or aspirations, not dogmas. Each and every one is up for debate – not (usually) ‘is x a good thing?’ but ‘how do we best manifest x in the world?’ To that there are often no easy answers, as I have written in my posts about Pacifism, Simplicity, Sustainability, and Truth.

It’s sometimes said about the Five Mindfulness Trainings that although you can technically take one and not the others, you’re likely to find that you have to face up to them all in the end because they are deeply intertwined. I think that the testimonies, however we list or number them or don’t, are also like that; if you want peace it’ll help to speak truthfully and to treat people equally, and if you want to live simply you’ll need peace in your community and your life as well as to acknowledge the truth about what you need and want, and if you are trying to be truthful you will need to acknowledge an essential equality (not sameness) between people… and so on.

Ultimately, the testimonies however phrased are collective normative principles of the Religious Society of Friends, arising from our patient and ongoing practice of waiting worship. They have been inspired in silence and tested by the community many times, and the authority which they bear rests in this process rather than in the formulations of the resulting ideas.