Thought for the Week: Words

John Lampen reflects on words and understanding

Some weeks ago, a correspondent to the Friend suggested that we should stop using the word ‘worship’ on the grounds that it not a good description of what happens in our Quaker silence. She asked: ‘How does this in-language impact on people outside Quaker circles?’ Thinking about this yardstick, I realised that if we are to give up the words that Friends use in a special way, ‘worship’ would not be the only one to go. When we talk about ‘concern’ or ‘discernment’ to non-Quakers, we have to do a good deal of explaining. We might even have to consider giving up the term ‘Friend’, which we use in a very different sense from the common understanding of the word!

More recently, another correspondent, who has visual impairment, spoke of her distress at being asked in an exercise to look her neighbour straight in the eyes; it made her feel she had no place in that group and she left. She suggested that the Hindu Namaste greeting would have been more appropriate. But I suppose that if it had been used, Friends with severe motor difficulties might have felt the same way as she did. With many disabilities being invisible, it may be impossible to behave in a way that couldn’t upset anyone. Should we stop quoting ‘walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone’ because not all Friends can walk and some have depressive illnesses that make cheerfulness impossible?

I wonder whether cutting down on the words, gestures and social rituals we tend to use will only lead to a dead end. Perhaps the alternative is to enlarge our repertory, so that when there is a chance that one action might be offensive or hurtful, we have a better means in our toolkit to convey our meaning. Yes, when we use Quaker jargon to an enquirer it may be off-putting; but it can also be an opportunity for outreach if we explain it and say why Quakers use a familiar word in a different way.

It would be presumptuous for me to offer advice to those who are hurt at those times when I am insensitive. But I once had an experience that may be worth sharing. When I first worked in Uganda, just after the long civil war ended, I was struck by the huge number of aid and development agencies there; and some of them seemed to me very paternalistic, overbearing and unself-critical in the way they worked. I asked a wise Ugandan what he thought of their contributions. He was silent for a moment and then replied with an answer, which has guided me in many situations since: ‘Whatever is offered in love is acceptable.’


John Lampen’s new book Quaker Roots and Branches is published by Christian Alternative at £6.99

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