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.