‘What do Quakers believe?’ by Geoffrey Durham

Review by Stephen Cox

Close-up of the 'What do Quakers believe?' cover. | Photo: Courtesy of Christian Alternative Books.

We British Quakers make things difficult for ourselves when communicating our faith. The reasons why have been obvious from my first days attending. We celebrate not having a creed, but this complicates any quick, coherent attempt to explain our ways; we view all statements of Quaker belief with fault-finding suspicion. We are often ill-disposed to discuss our views, even to someone eager and hungry that we do so. We have a fondness for defining ourselves by a shopping list of negatives. All this means we can end up leaving people confused, without a sight of the power, clarity and life-changing nature of our way and our worship. And the world needs us.

In this book, Geoffrey Durham takes on the challenge of Quaker belief, watering nothing down, but aiming firmly at the new enquirer. In eight short chapters he provides a palatable and accurate understanding of the Quaker worldview. One chapter uses interviews of eight Quakers with a range of views, showing that no one of us holds all Quaker truth. The book is clear and positive, reaching considerable depth despite its brevity.

The author seeks to use words that will be understood, and the book sparkles with his choices. He dissects a bald statement that Quakers in worship ‘sit around in silence and every so often someone says something’. A classic outsider description, or bad attempt at outreach. It is technically not false, but utterly flat, unhelpful. He talks us through it: ‘A Quaker Meeting isn’t a vacuum, it’s full… a Quaker silence isn’t sudden, it’s planned… [the aim is] a nurturing stillness.’

Durham avoids jargon he fears will alienate. So the book talks about Quaker congregations as ‘groups’, and uses ‘Meeting’ only to refer to the act of worship. I find this acceptable for a first Quaker read, encouraging people to read further. He does give the correct term as well. Of equality, truth, simplicity, peace and sustainability he says ‘[they are] more than mere aspects of the Quaker character. They are five keynotes of the Quaker way… action points which Quakers try to put onto practice every day’. Yes, he does use the word ‘testimonies’ but, more importantly, he seeks fresh and accurate ways to describe them. He does not leap to a secular term and accidentally remove Quaker meaning.

The book takes space to talk about worship and our way of doing business, how worship links to witness, and what this means for our communities. You end with a real sense of a way of life – a spirituality diverse community of real potential. It busts a lot of myths, warns we are not perfect, and, I found, gives rigorous challenge to established Quakers to live up to our boldest claims. For me, he reflects the reality of our theological diversity fairly, while emphasing how we can still be in unity. Every Quaker will have niggles about emphasis. But the book meets it’s author’s aim admirably. It opens the door. It encourages the reader to experience Quakerism, to attend Meeting, and to look at Advices & queries. ‘Quaker Quicks’ is a series of short books by a sympathetic commercial publisher. If they all meet this standard, we are blessed.

Geoffrey Durham will be talking about his book at the Quaker Centre Bookshop, London, on 12 April.

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