Thought for the Week: Isms and ists

Martin Pennock considers labels, isms and ists

A year or so ago our Local Meeting introduced name labels for members and regular attenders. Like some other Friends, I felt a resistance to the idea but have begun to feel more comfortable about pinning my name to myself. I can see how this helps enquirers and newer attenders. It clearly identifies me as a local Quaker.

I have been dwelling a little on this since a recent weekend at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, where it felt comfortable and reassuring to be able (after perhaps a brief glance at lapel or jumper) to address a new or vaguely remembered Friend from a Yearly Meeting two years ago by their first name. This was a useful form of labelling. More than once at the same weekend we got round, with different groups of Friends, to discussing what sort of Quakers we felt ourselves to be. One thing that we had in common was a reluctance to stick a label on ourselves. This may feel particularly vague, but these were meaningful and deep conversations with a degree of unity about how we identified a Quaker way. Despite clear differences in how we verbalised the Spirit, the Light or the God within us, we were drawn together.

We have left a century behind us in which ‘isms’ became at best abused and at worst used as an excuse for dehumanising and destroying others. In the words of John Dewey, the influential humanist:

For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism’ becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms’ that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems and possibilities.

We do talk, particularly when putting our movement into a historical context, of ‘Quakerism’ (although I have yet to meet a ‘Quakerist’). But perhaps we should be wary of pinning labels that fix our connection to an ‘–ism’ on others and ourselves within the Religious Society of Friends. It has been moving to hear from Friends who were at the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) plenary meeting in Pisac, Peru, earlier this year as they talk of what bound together that diverse body. It does not seem to have been language.

Locally, like many Meetings, we have been reading and sharing responses to Quaker faith & practice. This has been helpful and moving for many of us. As we prepare to consider moving forward with revising our Book of Discipline we should heed carefully the postscript from the elders of Balby in 1.01:

that all, with the measure of light which is pure and holy, may be guided; and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.

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