In the first article of a new series, Craig Barnett considers some challenges.
The Quaker faith in Britain today is experiencing a period of questioning and reflection. It is a time of challenge and opportunity. Craig Barnett offers a personal assessment of some key concerns in a new monthly series.
Over recent years many Friends have diagnosed a crisis in Britain Yearly Meeting. They have warned us of a continuing decline in membership, and of intractable conflicts over religious belief and language. These concerns are important, but I believe that both are actually symptoms of a more fundamental crisis of spiritual vitality.
Throughout our history, Quakers have faced the challenge of continually renewing our spiritual life and shared practice. Every generation has had to rediscover the Quaker way anew. We all need to confront our own spiritual inertia and find the depth of reality in our own experience. Since most Quakers now join as older adults, we also have to learn the Quaker way as a ‘second language’. This requires us to avoid projecting onto the Quaker community the assumptions, hurts or disappointments we have received from other traditions.
These challenges have become especially acute in recent years. For several decades we have neglected to explicitly teach core Quaker practices to newcomers, with the result that many Meetings have little experience of gathered worship, Spirit-led discernment or lives rooted in responsiveness to divine leadings. These are the substance of the Quaker path. Without them we are too often left with the forms of ‘Quakerliness’ without the experiential substance, and inevitably we fall into disputes over words.
In the absence of any shared understanding of core Quaker practices such as Meetings for Worship and church affairs, we increasingly encounter chronic disagreements about how to live the Quaker way together. A shared understanding does not mean identical beliefs, but it does rely on a common language for communicating our experiences, explicit teaching and learning, and a continual conversation about the meaning and purpose of our core practices. In the absence of these, a Quaker Meeting can become simply a neutral space for the sharing of ideas from other religious traditions or secular ideologies.
Thankfully, there are signs of awakening. A growing number of voices are asking whether the way we have come to ‘do Quakerism’ over the last few decades really serves the needs of our communities or the leadings of the Spirit. Some Meetings are experimenting with new or rediscovered forms of outreach, worship and teaching. They are encouraging the sharing of spiritual experience, instead of evading the risks of encounter by focusing solely on the safer topics of shared political and ethical values.
What this highlights to me is that the rediscovery of our Quaker tradition as a living way of spiritual practice is in our own hands. If we want a deeper experience of community, and a renewed spiritual depth of worship and testimony, we need to take courage. We have to create opportunities for conversations about the meaning of our Quaker practices with each other and throughout the Religious Society of Friends.
We can encourage each other to take the Quaker way seriously as a path of spiritual practice to learn about, to discuss with each other, and above all to work at, allowing it to change us and the world around us.
We have been here before. At the very end of the nineteenth century the ‘Quaker Renaissance’ movement introduced the era of liberal Quakerism. This renewed form of the Quaker way unleashed a new wave of spiritual vigour and social engagement. It contributed to the heroic achievements of Friends during the twentieth century from conscientious objection, to the Kinderstransport, humanitarian relief and antiwar movements. We need a new kind of ‘Quaker Renaissance’ today that takes seriously the potential of the Quaker way to connect us with the source of life and power that can renew our lives, build up loving communities and heal the wounds of the world.
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