Quiet and Inconspicuous?

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At this point in modernity, a deeply ingrained antagonism to an authority of truth beyond self has become a serious obstacle to religious faith. Determining truth for oneself has replaced a need to receive truth from the unquestioned authority of religious tradition. For many people, questions of ultimate religious import, if they are a concern at all, must be decided without interference, exclusively for themselves. And that often means an idiosyncratic formulation, an amalgam of vague religious notions culled and constructed from disparate sources. It is the truth for oneself that alone matters, if truth is sought at all… Pride and a self-sufficient intelligence make… humble submission unappealing, if not impossible…

It is an opposite orientation by which contemplative life prospers. The contemplative soul thrives only by a reception of truth from a source in the Church, which requires, not just the soul’s faith, but an act of love. Submission in faith to the doctrinal truth of Christianity is a loving act, which deepens precisely in prayer. Truth for a contemplative is never a discovery simply from searching and effort: it comes always as a gift. More intensely, perhaps, than an ordinary believer, the contemplative is aware that faith is a great gift and the reception of truth depends necessarily on a source for truth. The contemplative’s love for truth cannot be separated from a love for the Church and for the vast witness to truth embodied in the Church’s teaching. The common disposition of a true contemplative to prostrate the soul in awe and gratitude before Catholic teaching reflects this attitude of dependency. Truth is embraced only in love and must be received in humility.

Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger

British Liberal Quakerism appears to be in a state of radical transition between a complex past and an uncertain future. Yet, it is at least arguable, that the future is so uncertain precisely because Liberal Friends exist in a state of increasing unease about their past. ‘God’, ‘Christianity’ and ‘Christ’ seem to act as uncomfortable presences within the Society at large, like a cluster of disturbing ghosts stalking some old corridor rattling their chains. As a consequence, our Society no longer assumes a straightforward identification with the life and teachings of Jesus.  This is of course a completely understandable development. The matrix in which British Friends operate is a pluralistic and secular one. And since our faith is not isolated from our lives of work, family and leisure, this is having a great impact on our Meetings. People now come to us from diverse backgrounds and cultures seeking succour from us as a spiritual community. Many have fled from authoritarian or hierarchical expressions of Christian church and theology. Others have come from different faith-traditions; Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan, seeking shelter and sustenance. For such folk, Jesus is probably the last person they want to talk about. He is a symbol of all they have run away from; suffocating dogma, unflinching moralising, and institutional naval-gazing. Such seekers may come to meeting with the impression that the reason why Liberal Quakerism is ‘liberal’ is because it has deviated from historic Christianity. Yet, I would argue that the ‘liberal’ character of modern British Quakerism; its diversity, its inclusivity, is not a deviation, but an echo of George Fox’s provocative Christian revelation that Jesus ‘had come to teach the people Himself’.

How so? British Quakers are a gathering place for many paths because we are fundamentally nourished by a story and a heritage, which calls for the unity of the world, and the unity of creation. Yet, this call is not grounded in some generic ‘John Lennon-like humanism’ but has a particular shape. It subsists, not in grand utopian plans, much less the dismissal of heaven, but in peace, humility, and the renunciation of power. It is a faith with a face, the face of Christ.

Ben Wood, from Reflections on Liberal Quakerism and the Need for Roots

Do we have a problem here? On the face of it, Fr. Donald Haggerty, a (Roman Catholic) priest of the Archdiocese of New York, currently serving at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, is writing here as spokesman for precisely the “authoritarian or hierarchical expressions of Christian church and theology” that many contemporary Quakers have fled. But British liberal Quakers are in many ways facing just the crisis of faith that Fr. Haggerty describes. Five years ago, on his blog Transition Quaker, Craig Barnett wrote:

…over recent decades Liberal Quakerism has unmistakably declined in numbers, and in spiritual coherence and vitality. Although many Friends are very active in a huge range of social action, we no longer have a shared language with which to communicate our spiritual experience, or a shared understanding of core Quaker practices such as Meeting for Worship, testimony or discernment. We have retreated from sharing our spiritual experience with each other or with the wider society. Consequently we have shrunk to a group of predominantly White, middle class retired people, while complacently assuring ourselves that ‘people will find us when they are ready’, without the need for any action on our part.

We have cultivated a marked hostility to spiritual teaching, insisting that ‘Quakerism is caught not taught’, and as a result many Friends who have been members for decades remain ignorant about traditional Quaker practices and spirituality. We have developed a hostility towards any suggestion of leadership or authority, and by failing to encourage and support each others’ gifts and leadings we have deprived ourselves of direction. We have become collections of like-minded (because socially similar) individuals, rather than true communities of people who are both accountable to and responsible for each other.

We have rejected the Quaker tradition, with its embarrassingly fervent early Friends and old-fashioned religious language, and ended up with a Quakerism that is almost evacuated of religious content, in which our spiritual experience is something ‘private’ that we cannot share with each other. Consequently we have little to offer to people who are seeking a deeper spiritual reality beyond an accepting ‘space’ for their own solitary spiritual searchings.

In many Quaker meetings today there is a deep uncertainty about spirituality, and about the possibility of spiritual leadership of any shape or form. This at times seems to show itself in an insecurity and an anxiety about the role of elders, and about the exercise of eldership. Quaker faith and practice 12.12 states:

It is laid upon elders… to meet regularly to uphold the meeting and its members in prayer; to guide those who share in our meetings towards a deeper experience of worship; to encourage preparation of mind and spirit, and study of the Bible and other writings that are spiritually helpful; to encourage individual and united prayer in the meeting…

How is this possible in an atmosphere of “marked hostility to spiritual teaching,” amongst “a Quakerism that is almost evacuated of religious content”?

Earlier in his book quoted above, Donald Haggerty writes:

There are paradigm shifts in the history of spirituality as there are in the history of science or law or technology. There are major innovations at certain periods in the radical pursuit of God. Options in spirituality that earlier did not exist suddenly become possible, attracting a contagious, expansive response. These transitions occur precisely when a hunger for God intensifies without a corresponding opportunity present in the current structures of spirituality for satiating it. Assuaging that deeper yearning for God demands something more radical. The innovation then arrives as a supernatural response to the desire for a more radical offering to God.

Haggerty goes on to give some examples: the flight to the Syrian and Egyptian deserts after the institutionalisation of Christianity in the Roman empire in the early 4th century; the innovation of the mendicant life in the medieval period under Francis of Assisi and others; the Jesuit revolution in the Catholic Church after the start of the Protestant Reformation, and so forth. Perhaps we might be permitted to suggest adding to the list the beginnings of Quakerism in the mid-17th century?

Fr. Haggerty goes on:

The question now is whether another paradigm shift in spirituality is taking place–in this case a quiet and inconspicuous one, yet quite real nonetheless. A yearning for more prayer and for deeper prayer seems to be spreading… A contemplative movement of spiritually linked souls, joined invisibly in many cases by a love for the silent prayer of Eucharistic adoration, may be somewhat hidden by its nature and go unnoticed and yet be a leaven of much grace and conversion throughout the Church in this new century…

Contemplative life cannot prosper in detachment from the contemporary crisis in belief. It would betray itself by disappearing behind walls, retreating into the breezes and shades of a garden enclosure… Day-to-day perseverance in what may be an obscure and dark faith is always a triumph over the dismissal of faith that seems to gain increasing ground in the current time… And this divine action of grace may be effective in a unique way today especially because of contemplative souls who remain living and working in the world.

Craig Barnett again:

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

Perhaps we are at a crossroads in the life of faith that extends far beyond the apparently opposite communities of the Society of Friends and the Catholic Church. Perhaps we might consider that we may both – and the many denominations and movements in between – be experiencing a call that has as much to do with the environmental, political and cultural struggles in the world at present as it does to do with any loss of faith. As a society we are facing unprecedented change, and there is more to a prophetic response to change than making speeches. Change hurts. Things die, and things are born in pain and uncertainty. The world so needs those who will sit down beside it, and listen to it, and weep with it.

Let us be still for a while, and remember Isaac Penington’s advice to:

…Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

5 thoughts on “Quiet and Inconspicuous?

  1. Howard Brod

    Dear Friend,

    I believe liberal Friends deeply understand the spirit of Jesus’ message which is a universal one based on his own relationship with the Light. When we promote labels, outward forms, theology, holy books, doctrines, and church traditions, we are placing obstacles in front of the very being of Christ.

    It is clear to this Quaker that Jesus modeled how to live in relationship with the Source of our being. Liberal Quakers have represented his message well. Our purpose is not to promote our “church”; it is indeed to promote the same Love and Light that was manifested in Jesus.

    Reply
    1. Mike Farley Post author

      Dear Howard

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I do agree with you about Jesus’ “model[ling] how to live in relationship with the Source of our being.” My concern has been that, in the UK at any rate, we have in recent years been in danger – some of us at least – of losing our focus on our Quaker roots, and on the shared spiritual aspects of being Friends, and, as Craig Barnett wrote, “ended up with a Quakerism that is almost evacuated of religious content, in which our spiritual experience is something ‘private’ that we cannot share with each other.”

      I don’t think I am suggesting that we promote “our church” at all, certainly not as over against other denominations and streams of faith, nor promoting our Quaker roots as doctrine, or tradition in the sense I believe you are using, as in “the Tradition of the Catholic Church” or anything like that – or indeed “promote” anything, in the sense of proselytise. I am merely saying that, by losing sight of our spiritual roots, we we can tend to take and to project the attitude that the Society of Friends is little more than a kind of portal for any number of political, peace, environmental and other concerns that share a broadly pacifist, left-wing, climate-sensitive stance. My understanding of Quaker renewal in this country is to a great extent the recovery of “the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us” (Barnett again). Once again, I am writing very much as a UK Quaker; the situation may be very different in the US, where your spelling leads me to assume that you live.

      In Friendship

      Mike

      Reply
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  3. Howard Brod

    Thank you Mike for your reply. At my meeting, we occasionally use your posts as a basis for our Sunday morning discussions before worship. So your efforts are much appreciated.

    Within North America and specifically the United States, liberal Quakers are a diverse group – both between meetings and within meetings. Some meetings tend to be more secular; however, many (perhaps most) liberal Quaker meetings are very spiritual. All liberal Quaker meetings here are universalist by nature; yet they all recognize that Jesus himself was a universalist who was speaking and living among Judaic-centric people. They were his audience for his universal message; so of course he used Jewish culture and history to reach them with that universalist message, The spirit of Jesus is valued and appreciated within liberal Quaker meetings here, even though his person is not viewed as a required intermediator to modern people if his message of Love and Light comes to them through other means.

    Most liberal Quaker meetings in the U.S. are comprised of both Christ-leaning Friends and non-Christ-leaning Friends, as well as atheists, non theists, and any other “label” you can think of. Yet, the unity that is experienced among liberal Quakers is generally a spiritual one: Becoming One in Love and Light; recognizing that all these labels are not from a spiritual core. They only serve to further divide humanity in our modern world. As Jesus knew and prayed for, the only thing that will save this planet is the recognition that we are all One. It is a recorded fact that Jesus’ mission was not to start a religion called “Christianity”; it was to bring Light into the world, manifested through acts of Love. Only then can we experience God – no matter what spiritual or secular name we choose to call her.

    In recent years, more and more liberal Quaker meetings in North America are finding more spirituality by turning to the Spirit itself, being careful to not “worship” Quakerism as we once did. Rather, these meetings seek to use Quakerism simply as a tool to free the Spirit to become enlivened among us. Primarily, ‘silent expectant waiting’ worship and ‘sense of the meeting’ discernment are seen as essential spiritual practices to facilitate the action of the Spirit within us. However, many of the Quaker outward forms first initiated by George Fox (and others) after the 1670’s are being laid down in the US as obstacles that only serve to control Friends; thereby preventing the Light from within to motivate us into unity with others and with the Light itself. Things like formal recorded membership, elders, permanent controlling committees, petty guidelines and norms, and all levels of hierarchy are being laid down, in favor of more egalitarianism that the very first Christians and Quakers utilized.

    I do think liberal Friends need to ensure we are coming from a spiritual core in all we do (even when we undertake social justice actions). In order to make that more organic and natural, we do not need to take the worldly, “church” approach of promoting ‘outward Quaker forms of old’ as our savior. Those need to simply undergo a graceful death.

    Thank you for considering my comments. I continue to look forward to your inspiring and helpful posts.

    Howard

    Reply
    1. Mike Farley Post author

      Thank you, Howard, for your long and helpful post. We in the UK might be advised to look more closely at North American Friends’ life and work. We can tend to become rather insular (metaphorically as well as literally!) here, and it’s not good for us. Friends from the UK have visited in recent years, and returned with much to share – I’m thinking especially of Jenny Routledge and the genesis of her excellent book ‘Living Eldership’, but there are several others too.

      I’m very glad my posts here have proved useful – I hope they’ll continue to be.

      Mike

      Reply

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