Monday, 14 August 2017

Foundations of a True Social Order: then and now

I blogged about this earlier and now comment on the article by the two researchers, Rhiannon Grant and Rachel Muers, in the Friends Quarterly no. 3 for 2017, 'Seeking a true social order: from Foundation to today'.

In their piece Grant and Muers claim to take an holistic approach but they do not put FTSO in a wider historical context and don't ask the question how far the aspirations in it have been met. Nor do they ask why Quakers seem largely to be making the same points now as they did 100 hundred years ago, admittedly with the addition of points about sustainability and the environment (though, as they say, the modern language ties in with the traditional testimony of simplicity).

I believe that the world has changed so much (and for the better) since the Foundations were produced in  1918 that Quakers could say that their job has been done and they can hand over strategy and tactics to others, rather than talking to each other within the own bubble. Historical changes that have taken place are:

  • The growth of democracy - in 1918 women didn't have the vote​; associated with the growth of democracy has been...
  • Growth in the lobbying industry - now there are any number of political parties, think tanks​, charities and lobbying bodies to campaign on any number of issues, taking advantage of ...
  • the growth in the media, including social media - in 1918 there was no BBC, let alone the internet, and the press was in the hands of a few barons
  • growth in supranational bodies, such as the UN, which began only after WW1 and in response to it, faltered in the 1930s but was revived after 1945; associated with this...
  • spread of human rights: Declaration of Human Rights 1948
  • spread of progressive ideas - the Catholic Church in the early C20 was in the hands of anti-modernists but now its teaching on social justice (apart from gender rights, of course!) are indistinguishable from the Quakers and other Christian Churches; this is not to mention the plethora of charities and campaigning organisations​ I refer to above.  Conservative thinkers are still active, of course, but over the century have been in steady retreat.
Grant & Muers draw an analogy between FTSO and QPSW's present project on the Principles​ of a New Economy (PNE), seeing the two as part of a cyclical pattern whereby Quakers move from high-level aspiration to detailed policy-making.

 I see FTSO as a fine piece of work but its content is essentially moral not technocratic. PNE, by contrast, is a waste of time. QPSW has set itself up as a alternative Civil Service and produced papers which few Quakers have paid attention to and certainly no one outside the Society. PNE draws on material from secular sources, is naive and unoriginal. It has served to give work to bright young graduates, which may be a good thing, but it isn't the job of the RSoF. The world does not need another lobbying organisation.

As I've said before, Friends with concerns about social justice or the environment should be active in a political party or suitable secular organisation. It is an intrusion on my faith community for secular activists to seek to turn it to their purposes when they have a clear alternative.  It is interesting that Grant & Muers tell us one of the people behind FTSO, the left-winger Walter Newbold, saw things similarly, leaving the Society to become active in the secular, political sphere. Catherine West MP, this year's Swarthmore Lecturer, (about whom I have blogged) please note!

My criticism of the FTSO research project is that it just looks at its subject within the tiny confines of the RSoF and ignores how the world has fundamentally changed in the last hundred years.  As a result Grant & Muers fail to highlight the unnecessary and divisive politicisation of BYM.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Yearly Meeting Gathering 2017

Epistle from Britain Yearly Meeting held in Coventry, at the University of Warwick, 29 July – 5 August 2017

I stayed away from YMG this year fearing it would be dominated by the nagging nabobs of negativity, and that the Epistle would be a repetition of the theme favoured in previous years that we are all angry about going to hell in a handcart. I could say I have not been disappointed but the main thing that strikes me about the Epistle that has emerged is its incoherence. It has clearly been drafted by a committee and a committee which has lacked crisp clerking. The drafters were unwilling, or unable, to elicit an overarching theme to the Gathering and as a result have strung together sets of phrases which are at variance with each other in tone and content.  Not only do the drafters need a course in critical thinking, but on occasions their language is such that they seem unmindful of Advices & Queries.

The Epistle opens by sending loving greetings and saying how pleased we are by the presence of Friends from other Yearly Meetings, but these are empty words because we are then told how angry we are at greed and ruthlessness.  Since abstractions cannot have these qualities, I must assume that the Gathering expressed itself angry with other people whom the Gathering deems greedy and ruthless. But perhaps these others are us, because the Epistle then tells us that we ourselves are part of the problem and that many are too rich. We are also told to recognize our own selfishness and privilege.

I reject as dissrespectul any attempt by BYM to label me or anyone else.  I would remind the Epistle committee of A&Q 22:
Refrain from making prejudiced judgments about the life journeys of others.
I agree with the Fox Cubs that  as individuals we all find different ways of being faithful, and if this were the sole message of the Epistle then I would be applauding it but an attempt to expand on this theme produces a bewilderingly varied set of exhortations.  

When we engage with the brokenness of the world, one of our tools can be our willingness to listen: to the vulnerable, to each other, to those with whom we disagree, and to the leadings of the Holy Spirit. This will enable us to work alongside others powerfully, telling the truth of what is wrong in the world. Sometimes listening will lead us to stillness, at other times to practical action. In all things the Spirit will direct us.
So the Spirit can lead us in many directions at once.  Whatever happened to discipline and gospel order? 

The Epistle then goes on to say we can be in a supporting role, which seems to suggest we can properly choose to be entirely inactive, when the theme of the triennium is how we work with others to make a difference and build a better world.  The Epistle then does a volte-face and tells us action may mean taking part in public protests or acts of disobedience, to challenge rooted injustices and to use our energy to bring about radical change, so Friends seem free to go from one extreme to another. The Epistle ends with a further volte-face, the beautiful words of William Dewsbury which close QF&P and express in the unmatchable language of the early Quakers the ethereal process of personal growth through silent worship.

I find just trying to make sense of the Epistle an exhausting and fruitless experience.

Saturday, 12 August 2017


Brexit won't happen

My party's leader, Vince Cable, has said Brexit won't happen.  He may well be right and here's why.  What I say below is taken from the media, particularly lectures to Gresham College by Helen Kennedy and Vernon Bogdanor

Three issues need to be settled before the EU is even prepared to start talking about post-Brexit arrangements.    These are the rights of citizens, the Brexit bill and the Irish border.  I used to think that the first of these was the easiest to settle but Kennedy’s lecture has made me realise that, because the EU is insisting on no detriment to citizens and families and the continued jurisdiction of a supra-national court – in effect, the ECJ –  the UK has very little room for manoeuvre.  Secondly, as for the exit bill, BoJo has said that the EU can ‘go whistle’. On this occasion, he may actually be speaking for the Cabinet because any exit payment is very unattractive but, of course, if the UK refuses to pay what the EU deems the right figure, that makes it impossible to have an organised departure on time, making it imperative the UK has a transitional deal.  Thirdly, the Republic of Ireland is committed to an open border because, as Kennedy points out, it dropped its constitutional claim to the North as part of the Good Friday Agreement.  The RoI will veto any deal which rows back from the Agreement, with the support of the rest of the EU, as the national parliaments will have a voice in the acceptability of the exit deal.  It’s worth mentioning that the exit deal will also have to be agreed by the UK Parliament, where ideological nationalists are in a minority in both Houses but particularly the Lords. 

The Cabinet already recognises that Brexit negotiations will not have been finalised by March 2019 and that a transitional deal will be necessary.  However, it looks like even an agreement on the Brexit deal, let alone fresh arrangements with the EU, is unachievable.  If there is a three year transitional deal from March 2019 that will take us into the next General Election, after which the most likely outcome is that the transitional deal will solidify into a permanent arrangement entailing a continued economic relationship with the EU but weakened political influence. The Chancellor and the International Trade Secretary agree that the government wants to ensure "there will not be a cliff-edge when we leave the EU" (Philip Hammond and Liam Fox in post-Brexit deal call: BBC 13/8/17) but a comprehensive post-Brexit trade deal will take decades to negotiate and will depend on the goodwill of the EU and its constituent members, not on what suits the Brexiteers, who continue to fail to realise that Johnny Foreigner has his own voters.  In other words, a lot of inertia will attach to a transitional deal.

 One consolation for Remainers such as me is that Brexit will probably be achieved to the extent that we will withdraw from the European Parliament, which means that the UKIP MEPs will lose their cushy numbers. I hope they lose the pensions too but if they do they can always go to the ECJ. That would be ironic.

Another possibility is that by March 2022 all but the most fanatical Brexiteers will have realised the whole thing is a farce and there will be a referendum on rejecting whatever deal has been struck by then and we will formally revert to the status quo.  That, hopefully, will be framed in such a way that we don't get another stupid result.  A second referendum does not seems a possibility at the moment though the less progress is made with the talks and the more the underlying realities strike home, the more likely it becomes.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation hails Brexit

Meanwhile, I react with incredulity, indeed anger, to Emma Stone, Director of Policy & Research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who in the latest Friends Quarterly assures us that Brexit gives the UK an unprecedented opportunity to forge a new long-term deal to solve poverty in a generation. This sounds at best naive and at worst like a slogan to be found in the mouth of the most ardent English nationalist. On 1 August William Hague, a former Foreign Secretary, said Brexit has the potential to become the "greatest economic, diplomatic and constitutional muddle in the modern history of the UK, with unknowable consequences for the country, the government and the Brexit project itself".  This actually, sounds like an understatement, because there is no question of 'potential' about it. Similarly, former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband has described the outcome of last year's referendum as an "unparalleled act of economic self-harm" (BBC 13 August 2017).  Dr Stone, however, seems to know better.

The anti-poverty lobby must surely understand that Brexit is thoroughly bad news for the UK and particularly for the poor, but let me remind Dr Stone of the reasons. Firstly it has led to a fall in the pound and a rise in inflation for basic goods such as food. Secondly it has undermined confidence and the potential for economic growth and job creation. Thirdly, it has diverted human and economic resources towards solving the conundrums which Brexit poses and away from the issues that really matter, such as poverty and climate change. At best, Brexit will result in a messy version of the status quo but in any event any beneficiaries will not be the poor.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Speaking truth to power

The phrase ‘speaking truth to power’ (STTP) is one that raises my hackles.  It really means ‘shoving my prejudices down other people’s throats’.  The latest example is from Steve Whiting of QPSW at Yearly Meeting Gathering 2017:
  “Speaking truth to power”.  We like that saying, don’t we Friends? And we Quakers seem to have adopted it as our own. I think that’s because those four short words capture the essence of our witness in the world.  “Speaking truth” suggests an external expression of an internally received insight, an outward faithfulness to a spiritually experienced truth.  It comes from the heart, from a place of love.  Saying it  “to power” implies courage to speak that truth to those who  may not want to hear it, and are in a position to punish you.

A number of points need to be made about this narrow minded and paranoid example of Quakerspeak.  Firstly, as far as I can tell STTP is neither a uniquely Quaker phrase nor an ancient one.  Google suggests it dates from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.  Secondly, a quick look at Quaker Faith & Practice shows ‘power’ being used largely as applying to God alone, on the sound theological grounds that God has all power and man has none.  For example, consider the use of the word in the following well-known and very wonderful passage from George Fox:

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms.  That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.  (QF&P 2.18)

The early Quakers did not recognise earthly power at all, which perhaps is Whiting’s point, but recognition of the exclusive power of God should make us very cautious about applying the term to the earthly realm.  Whiting commits the leftist fallacy of dividing people up between those who have power and those who don’t, when due consideration –  what Quakers call discernment –  will tell him it isn’t that simple.  The dynamics of power in any one demographic are fluid, as a Quaker meeting for business will show– and isn’t that a good thing, because how else could we learn and grow? 

A fortiori with the question of truth, which is probably best thought of as a process and a virtuous quest in love and integrity rather than as a hard fact.  Some truths are more easily discerned than others. As QF&P says at 19.34:
Truth is a complex concept; sometimes the word is used for God, sometimes for the conviction that arises from worship, sometimes for the way of life.
Even if one is seized by a strong conviction which arises from worship, we need to remember that we, unlike the early Quakers, live in a flourishing democracy where people are free to join any number of campaigning and political organisations.  In his speech, Steve Whiting goes on to ask:
 Imagine we’re a local Quaker Meeting and we’ve just heard about a planning application to our local authority for test drilling for fracking in our neighbourhood. And we want to do something about that.
On this occasion, the truth is very simple.  Friends who want to 'do something' are free - indeed, I would say, have a duty - to join Friends of the Earth or the Green Party.  It is unnecessary and divisive for them to involve their faith community.  My own Area Meeting, Kingston & Wandsworth, has considered the corporate statement on fracking and not acted on it.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Understanding White Privilege

Understanding White Privilege

My attention has been drawn to Understanding White Privilege by Frances E. Kendall, who is an American and writes about her own country, but her argument has been used to suggest that British Quakers are systemically racist. The argument runs that we inhabit a culture of white privilege that is systemically racist, in that there are many subtle ways we all operate that privilege white people over people of colour. This isn’t limited to the issue of race;  we inhabit a system that privileges men over women, straight people over LGBT+ people etc. So this broader definition of racism, related to white privilege, makes all white, privileged men racist, who have a responsibility to look inside themselves and work to heal the ways in which they unconsciously perpetuate a system that disempowers non-white people (as well as women, LGBT+ people, temporarily able-bodied people etc.).

What is a systemic discrimination?

A system to me is more than a loosely understood pattern of human behaviour; it is something objective like the tribalism of ancient Israel, the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South (which have informed Kendall's work),  the apartheid laws of former South Africa, or an overt social convention like the caste system in India.  Against these examples, modern Western liberal democracies, which enshrine equality in law (by, for example, legislating for same-sex marriage) are the least systemically discriminatory societies there have ever been.

'System' is an example of sociological jargon which is a departure from Quaker plain speech and is being used to dress up slogans, rash generalisations and actual falsehoods in pseudo-scientific language. 


To say that there is white privilege is a sociological assertion which only works if we are willing to accept the proponent’s own ideological biases and values.  I am white, educated and middle class but I am also far below average height for a man and have problems with my behaviour and mental health. By one set of measures I am privileged, by another not.   What Kendall seeks to do is to classify people, which is what sociologists do, but it runs counter to the non-judgementalism enjoined on us by Jesus (Mt 7:1); by George Fox, who told us to should walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone; and by Isaac Pennington in his beautiful words of about not laying accusations one against another (QF&P 10.01).

The irony is that those who loosely talk of racism are themselves out of touch with modern, sociological thinking.  Race is a hardly a term with any biological meaning, and the current appropriate term is cultural diversity, in recognition of wide acceptance that identity is largely socially constructed.  In short, each of us is free to choose the characteristics with which we each identify.  This is consistent with the Enlightenment idea of the autonomy of the individual.


In contrast, there is danger in our labelling other people by our own standards.  For example, I have a Jewish background.  I could (though I don't) choose to call myself Jewish.  So the corollary of the Kendall school of thought is that  I could be branded Jewish and privileged, which puts the Kendall proponents a whisker away from anti-semiticism.  In fact, there is an obverse racism and discriminatory outlook in Kendall which contradicts her own thesis, because if some people are going to be labelled white and privileged there is a need for others to be labelled black and deprived. For this reason, it contains the seeds of its own irrelevance.  Even if we were to accept the contention about systemic racism, what would follow?  Would we institute re-education classes and self-criticise each other as happened to the 'capitalist road-ers' and 'bourgeois intellectuals' in China's Cultural Revolution?  We might institute positive discrimination, which is a policy in the US and has had some examples in the UK, for example in the field of housing management education (as I know from my own experience in the 1980's).  I am doubtful about such policies.  They can be contentious and divisive, and are probably best only as temporary or short-term measures to overcome particularly egregious instances of unfairness.

Judge not that ye be not judged

Beware not only the sociologist but the ideologue, particularly the ideologue who believes in her own unquestionable objectivity and her right and privilege (sic) to judge and label others.

What BYM says

The sociology is also contrary to what BYM says about Quakers in Britain. According to the report 'Our Faith in Action: Quaker Work in 2016' (p.8),
Quaker communities are loving, inclusive and all-age. In a Quaker community all are heard, valued and supported in their needs and leadings.  Everyone's contribution is accepted according to their gifts and resources. All are welcomed and included.
It seems to me that it is impossible to subscribe to this assertion and to the proposition that Quakers in Britain are racist.

What Advices & Queries and QF&P say

Those who promote division and name-calling amongst Quakers should reflect on the following:
Respect the wide diversity among us in our lives and relationships. Refrain from making prejudiced judgments about the life journeys of others. Do you foster the spirit of mutual understanding and forgiveness which our discipleship asks of us? Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.   (Advices & Queries 22)
 Similarly, they ought to study the section on unity and diversity in Quaker Faith & Practice.  For example, John Woolman at 27.02:
Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life, and the Spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them.
This attempt to understand others from one's own point of view would seem to be a good instance of the behaviour which Kendall attacks.  Another example of the privileged, white male is Robert Barclay, who was university-educated and the son of a landowner.  He writes at 27.05 in the fourth edition:
The church [is] no other thing but the society, gathering or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit to walk in his light and life...Under this church...are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts.
This is a powerful assertion of unity and universalism from the pen of the foundational Quaker theologian.

Not in QF&P but worth quoting are the words of my beloved Edmund Harvey:
In the name of Friends the people called Quakers have set before them a great ideal.  Men are separated one from another by ignorance, by selfishness and by fear; the Light and the love of Christ draw them together to become a society of friends. (Quaker Language p.29)
Those Quakers who uncritically swallow the idea that we should be separating the sheep from the goats are promoting ignorance, divisiveness and fear.  Isn't there enough of that in the world already?

See the person not the stereotype!

It's true that some people are more favoured than others, for a host of reasons, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on the circumstances. We should be aware of the subtle play of power between people and we should be open-minded about ourselves and others. However, Quakerism is about spirituality not sociology or secular ideology.  There is nothing wrong – indeed, it is positively desirable – that we congregate with like-minded people, which is what the sociologist would call affinity bias.  Affinity is the glue which holds people together.  The Quaker calls it fellowship, even love. 

A theology of gifts and the testimony equality

As St Paul teaches, we need not look for an equality of gifts.  We all have different talents and strengths, just like we all have different shortcomings and weakness, regardless of our socio-economic standing.  In recognising the diversity of gifts Quakers should not talk of each other as more or less privileged.  There is no conceptual connection between the gift of leadership and socio-economic so-called privilege. Edmund Harvey makes this point far better than I in writing about William Penn and Robert Barclay as follows:
But though Barclay was able to set forth the principles of the Quakers in a way none had attempted before him, and to challenge the theological scholarship of Europe, and though Penn might have been expected to take a position of pre-eminence as the founder of a new colony and commonwealth, and author of a unique experiment in civic government, yet neither endeavoured to take any place of peculiar authority apart from their fellow-workers.  They were simply Quaker preachers like the rest, and took their part gladly with men of modest intellectual powers and humble rank, as brothers of a common service. (The Rise of the Quakers pp131-2)


Dytopia and the Drama Triangle

Dytopia and the Drama Triangle

The Marxist analysis of society is a dystopic one and employs a conceptual framework which is better used to analyse disfunctional families.  Members of such families are divided up as perpetrators, victims and rescuers, these roles sometimes rotating. Thus for the Marxist-Quaker analysis of society as a whole (rather than individual families) the white male is the privileged oppressor, the black woman is the victim and the morally pure Quaker is the rescuer.  While the Drama Triangle may have some value as an aid to analysising particular sets of circumstances, as a preconception it leads us into a false and dystopic view of the world in which salvation is always out of reach.

Walter Wink

That some Quakers and Christians have been seduced into this false view and into being crusaders in a class war may be due to the influence of the writer, Walter Wink (1935-2012). Wikipedia says Wink was an American biblical scholar, theologian, and activist who was an important figure in Progressive Christianity. Elsewhere in the internet I learn that Wink argued that humans live under domination systems, the powers that be. These are structural and ideological institutions that manipulate our minds, lives and activities, reduce our freedom and retard our flourishing. Christians are called to resist them, said Wink, who seems to have been a liberation theologian.  One may argue against the liberation theologian that we live under systems of service, not domination, which educate and entertain us, enhance our freedom and permit our flourishing; and to the extent they do not we should work with them to change this.  A further objection to Wink is that the domination systems that he had in mind seem to be those of Western capitalism in his life-time.  One wonders whether the domination systems of the old Soviet Union or modern-day China - or a fortiori those of China under Mao or terrorist groups like Daesh or Boko Haram - stand in comparison.  On the other hand, it is probably true to say that, partly from the opposition of people like Wink but also partly because of improvements in the governance of business enterprises, Western capitalism has grown more sensitive to ethical and environmental considerations.  It is also worth pointing to the improvement in human rights and the treatment of minorities including women and members of the LGBT community.  Accordingly, Wink's work, which continues to be influence some writers such as Richard Rohr and self-styled neo-Anabaptists, is looking if not wholly false then rather out-of-date. It also has an angry, accusatory and prejudiced tone which sits ill with the Quakers' commitment to love and truth.

Roger Scruton

A counter to Wink can be found in the work of Roger Scruton (b.1944).  In his essay What is Right? (1986), Scruton has the following to say about left-wingers' misguided yearning for a powerless world.  He says people are bound to each other by emotions and loyalties and distinguished by rivalries and powers.  (This is very evident amongst Quakers). There is no society that dispenses with these human realities, nor should we wish for one, since it is from these basic components that our worldly satisfactions are composed.  He goes on to quote another conservative thinker, Kenneth Minogue, who has said:
...the worm of domination lies at the heart of what it is to be human, and the conclusion faces us that the attempt to overthrow domination ... is the attempt to destroy humanity.
Our concern as political beings should be, not to abolish these powers that bind society together, but to ensure that they are not also used to sunder it.  We should aim, not for a  world without power but for a world where power is peacefully exercised and where conflicts are resolved according to a concept of justice acceptable to those engaged in them.

The theoretical base and practical effect of Scruton's philosophy is the legal notion of corporate personality, for it is noticeable that the followers of Wink are emphatically anti-corporatists.  By the device of corporate liability, the capitalist world ensures that, where there is power and agency, there is also liability, in contrast with the communist world where, as in modern-day China, the communist party is the supreme agent which is not held to account through democratic or market mechanism.  I think Scruton is not quite right here, because I believe that power relations between people are just too complicated to be ultimately reducible to legal or ideological abstractions, useful though these may be in decision-making.

Scruton concludes that Marxists and radicals are poor at explaining in detail what sort of society they envisage, since they do not see political systems as persons with their virtues and vices and movements in their intrinsic life.  We can know nothing of the socialist future save only that it is necessary,  desirable and different from whatever we have now.  The left-wing concern is with the case against the present, a negative bias against an admittedly and necessarily imperfect reality that leads radicals to seek to destroy what they lack the knowledge and skill to replace.  The leap into the kingdom of ends is a leap of thought that can never be mirrored in reality. The burden of proof should fall on the revolutionary not on the conservative.

John Henry Barlow

That an ideological rather than a pragmatic position is out with traditional Quaker thinking, which properly focuses on the person, is evident from the Message from the All Friends Conference held in London in August 1920. The fine words are drafted by John Henry Barlow (1855-1924), who has been called the outstanding Quaker statesman of his generation.  One might add to his examples of depersonalising words such popular, present examples as 'domination systems', 'multinational corporations' or even 'inequality', all of which tends to reduce the relationship between people to matters of measurement and classification.

As nations and as individuals we have been thinking too much of possessions and power, too little of service and mutual helpfulness.  The one thing that matters in all our social structure is human personality, yet often we lose this essential fact in abstractions.  We speak of a nation as the “enemy”, we talk of a group as “labour” or “capital,” and we forget the men and women who make up the group and who are the only realities there, each of them different, yet each bearing the impress of the Divine and capable of a new birth into a new social order.
This new order, the Kingdom of God, is being built up silently here and now.  Its laws are revealed at work in many a simple life, in the trust and the joy of a little child, in the pure love of a mother for her babe, in the faith that binds friend to friend, in every act of honest unselfish service.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Swarthmore Lecture 2017

I sent this rather tart letter to The Friend, which they have published

Edward Burrough wrote in 1659 that 'We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other' (QF&P 23.11).  It is therefore with some surprise that I have learned that this year's Swarthmore Lecture is to be given by Catherine West, a Labour MP and member of the Corbynite faction, who happens to be a Quaker.

The Swarthmore Lecture has two purposes: firstly to interpret to Quakers their message and mission, and secondly to make the wider public aware of the spirit, the aims and fundamental principles of Quakers.  Ms West’s will focus on addressing inequality, tackling poverty and promoting social justice. As warm words about such issues are on the lips of politicians of all parties, including the Prime Minister, a concern for social justice cannot be the distinguishing mark of a Quaker.  This calls into question whether the Swarthmore Lecture is the proper platform for what sounds like an address to voters.  No doubt what Ms West has to say will be of interest to those, Friends and others, with a secular and civic concern about socio-economic equality (see A&Q 34) but whether it fits within Burrough's rubric and the purposes of the Swarthmore Lecture is less clear. 

I have sent this further letter:

This year’s Swarthmore Lecture, which was given by a Member of Parliament, is an opportunity to remind ourselves of a previous such occasion.  In 1921 the Lecture was given by Edmund Harvey, who had been local government councillor before the First World War and during the War had been a Liberal MP, when he had won the legal right for exemption from military conscription.  Harvey’s Swarthmore Lecture did not proclaim his accomplishments in office, considerable though these had been, nor was it co-authored with a non-Quaker to boost his party of choice.  On the contrary, The Long Pilgrimage was a profound and scholarly lesson in the mission and principles of Quakerism. Harvey taught the moral development of the personality, supremely through the example of Jesus Christ.  He also suggested we are called to faith in action where the kingdom of man impinges on the kingdom of God by detracting from the dignity and autonomy of the individual.  His words from 1937 about Friends and state authority at 23.88 of Quaker Faith & Practice remain worth pondering.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

McComb and Fosdick

 Samuel McComb

I have picked up a nicely bound edition of A Book of Prayers for Public and Private Use (1912) inscribed by its author, Samuel McComb.  McComb (1864–1938) was raised in Belfast and educated at Oxford. He was professor of church history at Queens University in Ontario and served as minister of Presbyterian churches in England and New York City.  He became a spokesman for the Emmanuel Movement in the US, which pioneered a psychologically-based approach to the religious healing of alcoholism and drug addiction. McComb subsequently left the US for an ecclesiastical post in Nice. A popular speaker and an excellent writer, he influenced the liberal theology and social activism of such prominent American Christians such as Harry Emerson Fosdick.

 McComb's book consists of thirty general prayers, a second part of intercessory and personal prayers and a third of prayers for personal use.  The second part includes prayers for persons afflicted with neurasthenia, which is an old term for emotional ill-health, and for persons striving to overcome the alcohol habit, reflecting McComb's interest in addiction.  Some of the prayers are out of date in terms of language and of gender roles, for example, there is one for a mother, but not a father, grieving for a wayward child, but other prayers are worded to be used for either sex, with gender-specific words marked in italics so that the alternative can be used.  There is also a little, perhaps unintentional, humour in the 'Prayer for a Person Who Cannot Pray', which is for those who need to 'unburden their spirit'.  Although this prayer, like the others, is couched in traditional Christian language, it works for the non-theist if phrases and sentences in the active voice, with 'God' or other such words as the subject, are re-written in the passive voice.

The Prayers of 1912 are as elegant as their binding.  They are designed to supplement not replace the collects of the Book of Common Prayer and are in the same exalted language but the thoughts they reflect are generous and humane without the self-flagellating emphasis on sin which spoils the BCP.  In the preface, and reflecting his progressive Christianity, McComb says that each generation must win the truth for itself and that the truth so won must touch deeply the springs of its religious life and in this way influence its devotional feelings.  What McComb is saying in Quaker terms is that a prayer book must speak to our condition.  Accordingly, while the BCP requires us to make a regular, dreary and oppressive confession of our sins, McComb presents us with scope for positive and life-enhancing religious practice, elegantly expressing the potential for personal growth in the religious and devotional life.  For example, in Prayer IV we are invited to pray on how instead of enjoying life 'we have sunk back into the complainings of our narrow and blinded souls'. Elsewhere, in Prayer V, he says that when we think of God we are troubled in our consciences yet continue to be drawn to God and to seek to live a spiritual life.  He quotes St Augustine's 'Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts our restless till they find rest [I prefer 'abide'] in Thee'.

Rowan Williams says of St Augustine that 'more clearly than any other early Christian writer, he presents a vision of the entirety of human experience caught up into grace and into God, of providence at work in sin, doubt, confusion, complex and imperfect motivation' (Wound of Knowledge location 1538/3074).  McComb also understands the importance of generosity of spirit and compassion when so often we are afflicted with 'the coldness of our affections', with the unhappiness of spiritual aridity and have cause to lament 'the prayerlessness of our lives'. He has some excellent insights into the nature of religious experience.  For example, in Prayer VIII he says 'Touch us, O our Father, with a feeling of Thy great realities, for though our thought about Thee is better than our words, our experience of Thee is better than our thought'.  This resonates with Quakers, for whom experience is of the essence.

 His book of prayers offers exalted language combined with a understanding of the human condition using elements of modern positive psychology as well as of traditional Christian spirituality.  I am surprised McComb is a forgotten figure and that there seems to be little attempt to follow his example of a richly wrought but insightful and deep language of prayer.


In the same vein as McComb is the American pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick (May 24, 1878 – October 5, 1969). Indeed, his The Meaning of Prayer (1915) includes several of McComb's prayers and it is likely the two men were known to each personally.  The book is available on Kindle, as is its companion volume, The Meaning of Faith (1917).

Fosdick became a central figure in the "Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy" within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s and was one of the most prominent liberal ministers of the early 20th Century, according to Wikipedia.  The modernist controversy was throughout Christendom. Modernist thought was condemned by the ultra-conservative Pope Pius X in the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, ‘on the doctrine of the modernist,’ issued in 1907.  John William Graham (1859-1932) was the leading Quaker modernist of his time who wrestled with the religious implications of social Darwinianism.  Fosdick may be characterised as a liberal and modernist but, as with Edmund Harvey, this should not be allowed to cloud our understanding of the lasting value of his work.

Fosdick might be styled an advocate of muscular, even phallocentric, Christianity.  For example, one of his books is entitled The Manhood of the Master, which could be the title of some BDSM gay porn.  His The Meaning of Prayer (1915) uses imagery which seems strange to modern Christians.  For example, one chapter is on prayer and the reign of law, while another is one prayer as a battlefield. However, again, simply to bestow dismissive labels on Fosdick's work would not to be doing justice to it, for like McComb he understands the reality of the spiritual life, not as a material, still less an economic or political, situation but as human experience in all its fullness.  He says in his 1917 book:
The peril of religion is that vital experience shall be resolved into a formula of explanation, and that men, grasping the formula, shall suppose themselves thereby to possess the experience.
Similarly, he understands the challenges of a spiritual life and our human follibles, so that his 1915 book contains a chapter on hindrances and difficulties, and on unanswered prayer.

Fosdick rejoices in the continuity of Christian history.  From the first, figures like St Augustine and Thomas a Kempis have seen that prayer is about the search of the soul for God rather than for His gifts.  The depth and candour of the prayers of St Augustine which Fosdick reproduces are particularly striking in this respect. Fosdick introduces the reader to religious figures such as Jeremy Taylor, the reputed Shakespeare of the Puritans, though I find his work lacks the love and joy which should be at least a part of the spiritual life.

Like Harvey, Fosdick is a believer in moral progress:
In social advance, some Edmund Burke, statesman of the first magnitude, basing his judgment on the established experience of the race, can call slavery an incurable evil and say that there is not the slightest hope that trade in slaves can be stopped; and yet within eighty-two years the race can feel its way forward to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Much the same could be said about same-sex marriage, which would have been inconceivable when homosexuality was first decriminalised.  However, moral progress is not just a matter of the modification of systems but of inward change in the personality (a word which both Harvey and Fosdick use in its fullest meaning). 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Psalm 32 and the skill of naming

The first five verses of Ps 32 are as follows, from the New Revised Standard Version:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

The meaning of ‘Selah’ is somewhat obscure but is generally thought to indicate a pause in sung recitation of the psalm.  However, what is striking about the passage is that it points to the psychological truth that to confess a misdeed, whether in thought or action, is a step to resolve it.  If we keep silent then the internal confusion and stress only increases: ‘my body wasted away’.  Confession is not just good for the soul, it is good for the body too. 

This psalm is not only an illustration of the theological truth of the availability of God’s forgiveness but it also contains a psychological truth.  Through stress and internal conflict handled creatively we can change and grow.  Mary Lou Leavitt, in her 1986 entry in Quaker Faith & Practice (4th edition, 20.71) offers three skills entailed in such creative handling of stress and conflict.  The first skill is naming: being clear and honest about the problem and owning it.  The ability to name what is going on, is crucial to getting out into the open the feelings underlying stress or conflict.  Such a skill is dangerous. It may seem like stirring up trouble where there wasn’t any problem. It needs to be done tactfully, carefully  and caringly, whether with oneself or with others.   It is a preliminary to the next steps of listening and letting go.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Vatican II abbreviations

I have a delightful little edition of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis published by the Bombay Saint Paul Society in 1998 and with an Imprimatur by the Bishop of Allahabad.  It includes reflections from the documents of Vatican II for each chapter.  The original documents show the influence of Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit theologian (1904 –1984).  The reflections are referenced by abbreviations.  I've correlated these abbreviations to the original documents as follows:

AL           Apostolate of the Laity   Apostolicam Actuositatem

DC          Dogmatic Constitution    Lumen Gentium

DE          Decree on Ecumenism     Unitatis Redintegratio

DM         Decree on Missionary Activity      Ad Gentes

DR          Divine Revelation             Dei Verbum

NC          Non-Christian Religions  Nostra Aetate

PC          Pastoral Constitution       Gaudium et Spes

PM         Decree on Ministry           Presbyterorum Ordinis

RF           Religious Freedom           Dignitatis Humanae

RR          Renewal of Religious Life              Perfectae Caritatis

SC           Decree on the Media       Inter Mirifica

SL           Sacred Liturgy    Sacrosanctum Concilium

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Role of Markets in the New Economy

Britain Yearly Meeting has published a further document in the New Economy Series, this one being entitled The Role of Markets in the New Economy.  In my opinion it has three shortcomings:

Bias against the present.

The paper itself says the UK has well funded and organised public services, raising the question why entirely new economic principles are needed at all.  The UK is a mixed economy in which private enterprise and public services are in a dynamic balance.  This balance is, by the paper’s own implicit admission, not fundamentally awry. No doubt adjustments, by political or administrative means or through market mechanisms, are needed from time to time, but this is not a matter for the Religious Society of Friends nor one on which the Society has any expertise.  It also needs to be remembered that it is the job of governments to make difficult decisions and that there is no magic money tree.

Bias against corporations

 There is a bias is against corporations and in favour of the anti-corporatist  lobby.  This is manifest in dark talk about for-profit organisations and double-talk about increasing democratic participation in the economy. Private corporations need to make a profit in order to pay their investors, and they make an immeasurable contribution to modern life.  Where would we be without Google and Amazon?  Of course, some behave badly and don’t pay their taxes, but that is true of other people too.

Double talk about democracy

As for democracy, there is a lot of it about – too much some would say, in the wake of the EU Referendum. The pamphlet relies on the campaign group We Own It, which consists of left-wing academics with no experience of government or business, and trade-unionists.  Their call for greater democratic and community involvement in the economy is largely double-talk for trade union power.  Even the apparently innocuous word 'community' can be a cover for self-serving factions. Trade unions' proper concern is their members’ interests and they do not speak for citizens, consumers or the electorate.  Self-appointed community spokespeople have a place but it is below that of elected representatives such as local councillors.

The New Economy Project

I continue to believe it is wrong of BYM to have embarked on the left-wing New Economy Project.  Quaker socialists already have their own special interest group within the Society, as well as being free to act in secular organisations such as the Labour Party or Green Party.  Too often BYM seems a univocal organisation in which the liberal political tradition of Quakers goes unrecognised.  That this year's Swarthmore Lecture, as well as the Salter Lecture, are both being given by professional left-wingers is evidence.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Edmund Harvey: Quaker citizen, catholic and cantor

Thomas Edmund ‘Ted’ Harvey was born in Leeds of a prominent Quaker family in 1875.  A leading figure of his time, he was a politician and social reformer as well as the author of poetry, fiction and of religious, biographical, historical and spiritual works.  It was said that his spoken ministry was profound yet simple.  He was educated at Bootham’s School and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he got a first in Literae Humaniores.  He worked briefly for the British Museum and then was a local government councillor in London and Warden of Toynbee Hall, a university settlement in the East End of London.  During the First World War he was an MP for the Liberal Party and in 1916 was one of two Quaker MP’s who successfully pressed for conscientious objectors to be (conditionally) exempted from military conscription.  He then helped administer the system for placing conscientious objectors in alternative work of national importance. Later he wrote of how ‘a state in the midst of a great war recognised the right of conscience, at any rate in principle, for its individual citizens’.  He was involved in Quaker relief work on the continent during and after the First World War. His Swarthmore Lecture of 1921, The Long Pilgrimage, is an exposition of the idea and reality of human progress in the light of Christian hope and echoes many of the themes in his A Wayfarer’s Faith of 1913.  The vision in the Lecture is a grand one, of human progress driven by a Christian idea of the value of human ‘personality’ (a term in widespread use amongst thinkers at the time).  Harvey returned to Parliament as an Independent during the Second World War and died in 1955.

I am starting a research degree on Harvey.  The aim is to produce a comprehensive biography covering his life and work as a Quaker politician, activist and author, attempting to show how his faith informed his story and to illustrate the description of him as a Quaker citizen. In addition, the aim would be to show how his religious writings expressed what I am tentatively calling catholic Quakerism.  I want to explore how far Harvey exemplifies the pragmatic insider and the notion of the Quaker citizen. The Quaker citizen (as a working definition) discerns the difference between corporate faith in action sanctifying the person, which Harvey himself seems to have thought the essence of the Religious Society of Friends, and involvement in secular politics, which on one view is not faith in action as such.  Harvey’s words at 23.88 of QF&P are thematic  and the idea of Quaker citizenship also finds expression in Advices & Queries 34 .

He was influenced by the catholic tradition as well as by his classic education.  For example, the preface to The Long Pilgrimage is a quote from St Augustine, and the body of the lecture shows the influence of von Hugel, the Catholic theologian, the early Fathers and the medieval saints.  He hardly ever mentions George Fox.  His interest in European Christianity is further and delightfully expressed in Stolen Aureoles (1922), which I would describe as a collection of fabulist hagiographies. Indeed, his literary style is such that I wonder whether I could call him the poet or cantor of Quakerism

Friday, 7 April 2017

Caroline Stephen

Caroline Stephen (1834-1909) is known, if at all, as the aunt of Virginia Woolf.   She seems to have been portrayed by the male members of her family as a daft old bat or frustrated spinster, when she in fact she was a model of social engagement, kindness, strength of character, brains and spirituality, not to mention the literary ability that was also manifest in her niece.  One of the intellectual aristocracy of the C19th, she produced a number of writings on a range of Quaker-related topics which could be seen as the last gasp of the quietist tradition.  This would fit with the evidence of a photograph of her, which seems to show her in a bonnet of plain dress.

Given modern Quakers' predilection for public advocacy and radical theology, her life and work are overdue for revival.  A particular case in point is her Quaker Strongholds, which is a neglected classic.  Another case in point is her feminism. Stephen opposed violent suffragetism so she was a suffragist rather than a suffragette.  Her The Service of the Poor (1871) is wide-ranging piece on the arguments for and against having religious sisterhoods for charitable purposes, at a time when an increased role for the State in welfare matters was still in contention. She took an anti-statist position, seeing a particular role for female religious orders in providing welfare services, in direct opposition to socialism.  I would claim her as being in the liberal tradition of Quakerism, like Edmund Harvey, who knew her when he arrived in London as a young man.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Extra-judicial direct action in a democracy

Meeting for Sufferings has upheld extra-judicial direct action by a Friend from Huddersfield, Ian Bray, against the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

Extra-judicial direct action in a democracy breaches the testament of equality because it is a claim to special treatment.  To cause disruption in a protest against Heathrow expansion is not only counter- productive - as it will generate more nuisance than can ever be saved - but says that the protestor's conscience overrides the freedom of others to go about their lawful occasions.  It is doubly objectionable given that the voters of  the Parliamentary constitutency of Richmond Park, of whom I am one, have had the opportunity to strike a double blow, against Heathrow expansion and against Brexit.

Meeting for Sufferings needs better to test its support for extra-judicial direct action in a democracy.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Is unilateral nuclear disarmament by the UK the whole of the Peace Testimony? A lesson from World War One and the Franco-Dutch War.

Chapter 24 of Quaker Faith & Practice deals with the Peace Testimony.  The introduction points out:
“…in our personal lives we have continually to wrestle with the difficulty of finding ways to reconcile our faith with practical ways of living it out in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have not always all reached the same conclusions when dealing with the daunting complexities and moral dilemmas of society and its government”
The chapter goes on to say that public protest is a practical expression of our peace testimony but it also deals with reconciliation and mediation so it presents a very balanced view of the Peace Testimony.

It is possible for a Quaker to uphold the Peace Testimony while being convinced that nuclear disarmament  by the UK unilaterally, in defiance of its allies and without regard for wider, multilateral arms-control procedures, would be internationally destabilising and not conducive to peace-building.  As Hilary Benn has said, do we want North Korea to be the only country with nuclear weapons?  For my part I think that the quiet processes of reconciliation and mediation do far more for peace in the long run than waving banners about Trident.

The 2016 Swarthmore Lecture prompts me to query whether unilateral nuclear disarmament is consistent with the Quaker peace testimony.  The lecturers told us that the  prerequisite of peace-building is trust between communities, without which there is risk of violence (whether with machetes, as in Rwanda, or nuclear weapons).  I invite Friends who urge the non-renewal of Trident to ponder what such a move by the UK Government  would do to international trust. Our allies would lose trust in the UK; other powers such as Russia and China would be incredulous and would treat the move as a gimmick and a temporary aberration; the Iranians would feel they had been tricked into a non-proliferation deal which the UK would have let them have for free; while the North Koreans would claim the UK had succumbed to its threats.  Unilateral nuclear disarmament by the UK would simply destabilise the international situation. The lesson of the Swarthmore Lecture is that multilateral, not unilateral, disarmament is the secure way - and the truly Quaker way - to build trust and so to build peace.

It is disappointing that there seems to be very little recognition or even acceptance of the multilateralist point of view in the Society.  The CND lobby goes largely unchallenged; indeed, unilateralism is close to that most improper thing, an article of Quaker dogma.  This is in contrast with the openness in the Society a hundred years ago about the quandary in which Friends were placed by the First World War. I would commend the essay 'Quakers and the Great War 1914-15' by David Rubinstein in his Essays in Quaker History (Quack Books, York 2016).  Rubinstein concludes that the mood of many Friends at the time of the Yearly Meeting of 1915 was to support the War but to remain committed to peace as an ideal.  It is interesting that many British Friends, perhaps most, agreed with the Government that the War had been justified by German aggression against Belgium.  (If there is a error in Rubinstein's essay it is that he denies the basic truth in the press reports of German atrocities and brutality in Belgium, a truth which was attested by the Belgian refugees who had arrived in Britain and were being cared for by Quakers, amongst others).  In the face of challenges such as world war or weapons of mass destruction, the only credible Quaker position has to be a nuanced one, which recognises the importance of peace as an ideal but also that democratically elected governments are answerable to a constituency beyond the Society of Friends.  A credible line on Trident would be to urge the British Government to do more to reduce the global nuclear threat but to recognise that retention and, as necessary, renewal of a minimum independent nuclear deterrent, as agreed with the UK's NATO allies, can act as a diplomatic bargaining counter to bring about workable disarmament agreements.  Such a position is not jingoistic but progressive.

Much earlier than the First War World the Quakers were tested by another war on the Continent.  In 1676 Robert Barclay travelled with George Fox and others to Holland and Germany on a mission to a Europe which at the time was torn by a war between France and their allies, on the one hand, and the Dutch.  Barclay published a pamphlet in 1677, An Epistle of Love and Friendly Advice to the Ambassadors of the several Princes of Europe met at Nimeguen, to consult the peace of Christendom so far as they are concerned. This was a  call for peaceable behaviour amongst kings who were Christians with a religious duty to behave accordingly, Jesus being Lord of All.  Barclay includes in his pamphlet the ringing phrase, ‘Magistry is an ordinance of God who bear not the sword in vain’, drawing on Rom 13:1-4.  This means he upholds lawful state violence for internal security.  He calls not for unilateral disarmament or even multilateral arms control but, rather, for peace-making.  The Treaty of Nijmegen of 1679 established a long peace between France and the Dutch Republic, and placed the northern border of France in very nearly its modern position.  This suggests that Barclay’s call for wise and effective peace-making did not go unheeded.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Rowan Williams (2016) Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (SPCK)

In this little book, designed for study by church groups, Rowan Williams asks what it is that keeps the Christian disciple going.  His answer is not –  as one might expect from any former senior cleric other than Williams –  doctrinal and moral purity, but the qualities of self-awareness, stillness, growth and joy.  This book, which for me expresses in Christian and Biblical terms the basic truths of mindfulness therapy and Buddhist ethics, is an essential guide to spirituality, or faith in practice, for Quaker theist and non-theist alike.


Non-Christocentrics should not be put off by the blurb, which proclaims:
The aim of this little book is simple: to help you see more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly the way of Jesus Christ.
For Williams as a Christian, being a disciple means being with Christ but it also means, in non-religious language, questioning our consistency and honesty –  in other words, integrity and truth.  It is also about how Christians as a church go about being a learning community –  in other words, personal growth with others. 

Chapter 1: Being disciples

Taking Jn 1:36-39 as the text for his first chapter, Williams expounds discipleship as about being aware and attentive – living in awareness with mind relaxed but attentive.  Disciples are alert, attentive, watching symbolic acts (something irrelevant for Quakers) and listening for instructive words (very relevant to Quakers) in a quiet state of mind, which to me resembles mindfulness. Williams is careful not to use this term but the question he puts in the mouth of the disciple, echoing Bonhoffer  –  ‘What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?’ –  is the Christocentric equivalent of the principle behind the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Eckhart Tolle. 

Community is also an essential part of discipleship.  Conceiving of Jesus as a living power, Williams says that being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks.  The non-Christocentric Quaker might say that the spiritually minded naturally flock together.  The attitude of mind of the disciple is one of being sufficient free of the preoccupations of the ego to be open to what God in Christ – the true demands of a reality properly understood, one might say –  is giving.  We have all got to grow into a mature stillness, a poise and an openness to others and the world.  

Chapter 2: Faith, hope and love

For the second chapter Williams takes as his text 1 Cor 13:8-13, the famous passage in which St Paul tells us that faith, hope and love abide, the greatest of these being love. Williams says we privilege a consumer mentality when it comes to desire so that we fail to ask the deep questions about the direction of the desire at the root of our being. The most important freedom is the freedom to discover how we should grow, to find the context in which we will grow as God, or Good Orderly Direction, means us to.  Love is an expression of the freedom to receive; is that which drives us to take time and let go of anxiety; is a state of openness and joy.  Love is not simply doing good but is a deep contemplative regard for the world, for humanity in general and for human beings in particular.  As the Buddhists would put it, love is compassion.  Williams admits it is a challenge for his Church to become a place sufficiently still for people to open up to receive the truth the universe wants to give them. (For Quakers  this is perhaps less of a problem.)  Love, together with faith and  hope, are about personal growth or, as Williams puts it, of our learning and growing in Christ.

Chapter 3: Forgiveness

The text for the third chapter, on forgiveness, is Mt 7.7-9. Forgiveness is a crucial feature of personal growth, to use the modern term that Williams is not afraid to do.  Forgiveness is one of the most radical ways in which we are able to nourish one another’s humility. The person who asks for forgiveness has acknowledged her own need for healing.  In one of those creative insights into traditional language and practice which so characterises Williams’ work, he suggests a connection between the prayer for daily bread and that for forgiveness.

Chapter 4: Holiness

The fourth chapter, headed by 2 Cor 3.17-18 and 4.6, is about holiness, which is about being involved, absolutely so, and not separated.   Truly holy people make you feel good about yourself and cast a new light on the landscape of life.  Such people are in love with themselves, not in an egotistic way but because they sense the joy that God takes in them. Williams gives Desmond Tutu as an example. A holy person is imbued with joy in the extraordinariness of God (or, if you like to put it in non-religious terms, the sheer joy at the good luck of being a live human being).  Williams goes on to suggest that holiness entails contemplation, or what he calls looking at Jesus, and exploration, or an open-mindedness about the human world.  (This is closely aligned with gratitude, another healthy state of mind).

Chapter 5: Faith in society

The fifth chapter has a lengthy text, 1 Cor. 12.12-26, and is about faith in society, about Christian social action.  It is a relief to find that Williams does not equate such action with simplistic and na├»ve left-wing politics.  Rather, he takes a philosophical position, saying that we are each of equal value to God –  something Quakers would wholeheartedly embrace –  and that we are all dependent on each other.  Christians and all people of good recognise that which is special about each other, difficult though it may be to pinpoint exactly what that amounts to in any one individual.  At the same time, we are dependent on each other, an idea which in Buddhist philosophy is that of interdependent origination.  That is why we should avoid discriminatory judgements about people based on categories of identity.  (Sadly, the mainstream churches continue to have a serious problem with this.) Williams quietly suggests that Christians should avoid large-scale issues of public prosperity, by which I think he means the often too partisan politics of health provision, welfare and defence, but concentrate on shifting attitudes.  He gives as examples the hospice movement, fairtrade and prison reform.  This is a very important insight for QPSW, who tend to take fixed campaigning positions on very complicated issues and thereby threaten unity.  What Williams suggests to me is that Quakers would do better to concentrate on those issues which they do well - those quiet processes about gender equality and peace-building, for example - and leave divisive questions of public prosperity to the political parties and secular campaigning groups.

Chapter 6: Life in the Spirit

Williams summarises the life in the spirit in his sixth chapter, taking as his text Gal 5.16-22.  What keeps us as disciples is:

  • self-awareness
  • stillness
  • growth 
  • joy   
Williams' list is strikingly similar to the Buddhist Seven Factors of Enlightenment, which are mindfulness, intention, zeal, joy, calm, concentration and equanimity.  It also resembles the Quaker notion of the light which, admittedly, most Quakers would not say was the same as enlightenment.  In any event, for Williams, salvation is not the continuation of the individual consciousness after death in some earth-like paradise but enlightenment here and now in community with like-minded people.

Something I have also discovered since reading this book is that there are traditional values within the Christian Church, the seven graces of the Holy Spirit, and that Williams' exposition is in line with that tradition. Early Christian thinkers, the Fathers of the Church, identified a set of seven values which resemble the Buddhist Seven Factors of Enlightenment and, furthermore, the Eightfold Path.  These  Seven Graces of the Holy Spirit are divided into the intellectual and the theological.  The four intellectual Graces are wisdom, understanding, knowledge and counsel or right judgement; the three theological Graces, which draw us to God, are fortitude or courage, piety and wonder or fear of the Lord.  There is an obvious overlap with the seven cardinal and spiritual virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance; faith, hope and charity) and it is noteworthy that modern secular philosophers have taken an interest in the ethics of the virtues including the intellectual virtues.  There is also a connection with positive psychology.  It is heartening that so many thinkers, past and present, have emphasised the virtues and the moral and intellectual gifts we have, or potentially have, rather than seek to control us through demoralising emphasis on sin and our shortcomings.  The early Quakers, in emphasising the Light and our ability to discern right from wrong by the powers each and everyone of us possess to some degree, took on the controlling and miserable Puritans like Richard Baxter.  Indeed, the scope for, and duty of, personal growth is what Robert Barclay draws attention to in Proposition VIII of his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, concerning perfection.  The founding Quakers accepted the doctrine of original sin but, unlike Baxter and the other Puritans, believed that the salvation through Jesus Christ is available in this world and that perfectability is to be had now in the present kingdom of God. Barclay says of his Proposition that 'this perfection still admit[s] of a growth' in this life.  In other words, redemption from sin and, beyond this, further spritual growth is possible here and now.  Penn in No Cross No Crown talks of Quakers' opponents being themselves 'opponents of perfection'.  Given the Quakers' firm commitment to salvation and perfectability in this life, it is odd some modern Quakers make such free use of the term 'brokenness' even to the extent of referring to the brokenness of God (QF&P 26.50), which strikes me as heterodox.  Barclay is clear that conquest of sin and spiritual growth is possible in this lifetime through Christ Jesus, and there is every reason why modern Quakers should continue to adhere to this proposition, whether or not they choose to put it in Christocentric terms.

What I find most impressive about Williams is that he takes his readers beyond the tired old dichotomies between theism and non-theism, Biblical inerrancy and the Bible as myth, with a message that is both Christocentric and biblical but also universal.  As I have tried to show, it is possible to transform the self by giving his words their full intellectual and emotional meaning.  If I have one complaint about Williams, it is that he is prone to redundant language.  Phrases like ‘quite simply’ pepper the text.  This may be because this book, like his Tokens of Trust, is based on talks which may in turn have been partly extemporised and so the book may have captured his habits of speech.  In addition, at £8.99 for 86 pages Being Disciples is expensive for what is not much more than a pamphlet, though I am glad to see that the publisher has cooperated with the profiteering stateless corporations of global capitalism by providing a Kindle edition at the lesser price of £5.98.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Quakers, progress and the long pilgrimage

Progress as a theme of the Swarthmore Lectures

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy tells me that a robust sense of confidence in human progress characterises the philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  Be that as it may, it is striking that a hundred years ago the word on the lips, and issuing from the pens, of Quakers was that of progress. A number of Swarthmore Lectures have progress as their theme.  The 1911 Lecture Human progress and the inward light by Thomas Hodgkin was a call to Quakers to embrace Darwinian evolution.  It is remarkable that such a call was necessary fifty years after the publication of The Origin of Species. The 1913 Lecture, Social service : its place in the Society of Friends by Joshua Rowntree was about the value of social service and philanthropy in the life of a Christian community.  The quintessential progressivistic Lecture was that by T.E. Harvey.

Edmund Harvey (1875-1955) sat in Parliament first as a Liberal and later as an Independent Progressive (sic).  He was not in Parliament in 1921, when he gave a Swarthmore Lecture entitled The Long Pilgrimage, which is an exposition of the idea and reality of human progress in the light of Christian hope.  Progress is understood by Harvey as the spiritual growth of the individual rather than the acquisition of material possessions or economic well-being. Harvey’s vision is a grand one, of human progress driven by a Christian idea of the human personality. It contrasts with the impending Swarthmore Lecture by a sitting MP, Catherine West, which, as I have blogged elsewhere, looks like it will be a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party properly belonging to the Quaker Socialist Society’s Salter Lecture not a Swarthmore Lecture.

There may be a number of reasons why a hundred years ago progress had become a keyword of Quaker discourse.  Dating from the Manchester Conference, Quakers had aligned themselves with Darwinian, science and liberal scholarship.  Another influence may have been the progressive movement elsewhere, for example the muscular progressivism espoused in the US by Theodore Roosevelt, and perhaps even what was seen, even after the First World War, as the triumph of European values.

Whatever happened to Quaker progressivism?

It is for consideration why progress has ceased to be a keyword of Quaker discourse.  The explanation cannot be the catastrophe of the First World War, because the admirable Foundations of a True Social Order (1918), about which I have blogged separately and which represents the culmination of the progressive movement in the Society of Friends, was issued in the War's closing stages.  In addition, Edmund Harvey’s optimistic lecture post-dates the War. Perhaps the economic slumps of the inter-war period, the Second World War and then the Cold War made division, rather than progress, the hallmark of the period.  In the theological and theoretical sphere, the pessimism of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) may have been influential.  Be that as it may, what seems to me a key factor in the emergence of Quaker pessimism seems to have been globalisation and the succumbing of British Yearly Meeting to left-wing populism, which seems to date from the 1950’s, when the emergence of CND led to the growing influence in the Society of unilateralists and the political left with its anti-establishment rhetoric.

It is regrettable that Quakers, as internationalists, seem to disregard, even deprecate, the improvements across world in the last thirty years or so.  It is time that Quakers (and others), rather than fixating on inequality, caught up with the revival of optimistic progressivism represented by such books as Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg,

An independent charity has asked what's happening to poverty. (  It says that looking at the sheer numbers of individuals in poverty (in the UK) can be misleading. As the number of households in the economy grows, (which it is doing as we are all living longer) all else being equal the number of individuals below the poverty line will also tend to grow. Looking at the proportion of the population below the poverty line gives a more accurate idea of how poverty is changing over time. In all of these cases, it's worth noting that poverty has fallen substantially over the longer term.  In fact, despite the popular perception, humanity has never been safer, healthier, more prosperous or less unequal.  Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history. The risk of being caught up in a war, subjected to a dictatorship or of dying in a natural disaster is smaller than ever.  This is the message from Norberg’s book.  

It is true that some communities in the developed world perceive themselves as having been left behind by globalisation, and similarly that young people may seem disadvantaged with respect to property ownership compared with their parents, but this should not blind us to the stupendous progress made across the world in the last thirty years or so in improving life expectancy and reducing absolute poverty.  We are still on Harvey’s Long Pilgrimage.