Looking around at the condition of the Quaker movement in Britain, it is tempting to grow nostalgic about the profounder spirituality of a previous age. I want to encourage us to resist this temptation. We should not aim at a return to the Quaker forms of the past. Instead, we need a more disciplined attention to the practices that can help us to be faithful to the Spirit in our contemporary world.
I should want to add that it is sometimes tempting also to grow depressed about our perceptions of present-day Quakerism. We can look at the encroachment of secularism, as discussed by Ben Pink Dandelion in this year’s Swarthmore Lecture, and worry that, between the external pressures of consumerism and the internal pressures of nontheist humanism, Quakers are turning from the Light to mere kind thoughts and good works, or we can look at the demographics of Quaker meetings around Britain and conclude that we are soon to die out through old age and mortality.
Craig Barnett goes on,
By concentrating on the lives of ‘great Quakers’ of the past, we can easily overlook the fact that Friends such as John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry or Rufus Jones were not at all typical of the wider Quaker movement of their time. For most of our history, Friends have been largely what we are today – spiritually tepid and deeply compromised by our accommodation to the surrounding culture.
I recall having this discussion many times before I became a Quaker, when, playing as I was in church worship bands, members of the congregation would lament to me that contemporary worship songwriters couldn’t hold a candle to the great hymn writers of the past. I often used to point out that 18th-century hymns were based on the popular music of their day, and were frequently trite, obscure or both, and the majority of the hymns the Victorians wrote wobbled uneasily between the sentimental and the grandiose. The ones we have in our hymnbooks today are the ones that made it through the sifting process of history, just as a hundred years or so from today, only the best worship songs will be remembered, and the others will have been left on the shelf.
There is much to celebrate in contemporary Quakerism. Writers like Ben Pink Dandelion, whom I’ve mentioned already, Harvey Gillman, Jenny Routledge and Alex Wildwood are doing much to disturb and excite us ordinary Friends in local meetings, where renewal, if it is to come, will take root and grow. Craig Barnett quotes Ursula Jane O’Shea’s 1993 Backhouse Lecture to Australia Yearly Meeting:
Healing spiritual malaise within a group and initiating revival cannot be accomplished by office-holders or weighty Friends. It must be the committed task of a large section of the community, if not all of it. Transformation of a group can begin nowhere else but within each person. Willingness in many members to begin the hard work of inward transformation, without waiting for others to go first, may be the test of a community’s desire and capacity to be revitalised…
Renewal of the Society waits for the choice of each Friend: Am I willing to risk the disturbing, transfiguring presence of the Spirit in my life? To obey it? To expect ‘the Cross’ and dark days as I discover and nurture who I am before God? When we choose to live the spiritual life the Quaker Way, these are the experiences we are committing ourselves to, whatever words we put upon them. If significant numbers of us are not interested in, or willing to live by these experiences, the hoped-for renewal of our meetings cannot occur. But if our collective spiritual power gathers strength it will infect other Friends and newcomers. Ministry will become more grounded in the Spirit and individuals will be inspired by the Spirit to serve our meetings as nurturers, prophets and conservers.
Writing this twenty-one years ago, Ursula Jane O’Shea was herself, I believe, both prophet and nurturer for the present generation of Friends. Her words are courageously borne out in the work of Friends like Jenny Routledge in particular, who writes, demonstrating just this choice to hear and obey the Spirit, to take the risk of the Cross,
When I was asked at the beginning of this journey [of exploring the spiritual basis of eldership] what I wanted to achieve, I said that I just wanted to sow seeds. I didn’t have any sense of what the end point might be. I just wanted to be heard. It was one of the numerous occasions on this journey when I knew the answer straight away. I experience these as leadings of the Spirit, promptings from my inner teacher, and they have been a feature of my journey, not a very convenient feature, but undeniable…
This is the authentic voice of experimental faith, the voice that has led Friends through the thickets of stagnation and renewal over and over again through the 350 or so years of our history. I sometimes think we need to remind ourselves repeatedly that what matters is not the survival of Quakerism as a religious movement, but the faithfulness of Friends “to the promptings of love and truth in [our] hearts, which are the leadings of God.” (Advices and Queries, 1)