Paul Parker writes about staying true to the essence
The Truth is one and the same always, and though ages and generations pass away, and one generation goes and another comes, yet the word and power and spirit of the living God endures for ever, and is the same and never changes.
Quaker faith & practice 19.61
Margaret Fell’s words may seem an odd place to start when thinking about change. I choose them not just because of what she says about the constancy of our spiritual experience of the truth, but because of what she doesn’t say. Generations come and go, the world changes around us, and the language we use to describe our spiritual experience twists and turns, but the essence remains the same. However, Margaret Fell also implies everything else can change; each generation must reclaim the truth for itself.
At Yearly Meeting this year, when we decided to revise our Book of Discipline, that sense was in the air. We should look hard at Quaker structures and practices, simplifying as we go, whilst remaining true to the essence.
And change we must. A new generation of seekers, who’ve grown up in a digital, secular age, tell us our practices are slow, stuffy and obscure; a distraction from the truth. We struggle to make the Quaker experience relevant to young people, or those who can’t commit to a Local Meeting. Some of our buildings aren’t fit for purpose, nor are some of our Meetings as welcoming as they might be. We haven’t yet found a way to turn around a century’s slow downward drift in numbers.
And yet, the world needs us. Whilst only fifty per cent of the British public now say they are religious, fully seventy per cent say they are spiritual – more than twelve million people seeking a spiritual experience without the stuffiness of organised faith. Among them may be activists who could help us change course on climate change and join our work for peace and justice; people who will enrich, challenge and teach our community with their insights from backgrounds and life experiences currently underrepresented in our Meetings; people who need Quakers as much as Quakers need them. Many have never heard of us, or been amazed by Quaker worship.
Put simply, the world could do with more Quakers around the place.
So change we must. Where shall we start? Maybe with our structures – which currently mean that one in twenty Quakers alive today is a treasurer, and even more have to be clerks, elders, trustees or overseers. Maybe with our Meetings, which aren’t convenient for many to attend – Sunday morning isn’t the uncluttered family time it once was; and maybe an hour is too long, or too short. Maybe with our welcome – which can inadvertently exclude as much as it includes. Maybe with our visibility – no more putting up outreach posters inside the Meeting house, facing in! Maybe by making our communities more loving; knowing one another better; learning and exploring our faith together; making our Business Meetings more purposeful and Spirit-led; ensuring our buildings are more accessible and sustainable. I could go on.
We will need to be creative; to work together; to overcome our own fears, resistance and privileges; to be innovative and bold.
So, dear Friends, hold tight to the truth, and change.
Paul is recording clerk of Britain Yearly Meeting.
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