Thought for the Week: What is a Quaker concern?

John Hall reflects on what a Quaker concern is

George Fox said, in a sermon in Ulverston Church in 1652, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?’ He was arguing against sole reliance on the Scriptures and for belief – for receptiveness to God within and to what Quakers came to call the Inward Light.

So, what happens when this Inward Light tells you to do something? Quakers call it acting under concern. It is not the same as being concerned about something; it is being given an imperative to action.

In his 1941 posthumously-published A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly, the American Quaker mystic, wrote, ‘A concern is God-initiated, often surprising, always holy, for the Life of God is breaking through into the world. Its execution is in peace and power and astounding faith and joy, for in unhurried security the Eternal is at work in the midst of time, triumphantly bringing all things unto Himself.’

Of course, right from the beginning Friends have had concerns conforming to this, such as gave rise to the two peace declarations to Charles II. Individual concerns have included travelling in the ministry, sometimes to quite unlikely places such as when, in 1658, Mary Fisher travelled to explain Quakerism to the sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire.

What is clear is that a concern, in the Quaker sense, is an obligatory call to action. It is usually made by an individual and may, on some occasions, lead to imperative action by a Meeting and sometimes a Yearly Meeting. What is important in the case of corporate action is that as Roger Wilson, in his 1949 Swarthmore Lecture, said, it ‘is rooted in Worship and not in debate or philosophical analysis or social synthesis.’ Also, ‘as one examines good Quaker service in the past, it is clear that there is an absence of any desire for power or prestige, which can be said to be its most attractive feature.’

Concern’, he went on to say, ‘is a word which has tended to become debased by excessively common usage among Friends, so that too often it is used to cover merely a strong desire. The true concern is a gift from God, a leading of His Spirit that may not be denied. Its sanction is not that, on investigation, it proves an intelligent thing to do – although it usually is; it is that the individual, and if his concern is shared and adopted by the Meeting, then the Meeting knows, as a matter of inward experience, that here is something which the Lord would have done, however obscure the way, however uncertain the means to human observation.’

In contrast, often proposals for action are made which have every appearance of good sense, but as the Meeting waits before God, it becomes clear that the proposition falls short of being a concern.

So, when we are enjoined in Advices 36 to ‘uphold those who are acting under concern, even if their way is not yours’, we are being asked to support those whose leadings come from God [even if they would not use that term] and have been tested by the Meeting.

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