A Conversation Class

20160406_101829.jpgA young friend wrote to the googlemail group of our Local Meeting recently, ‘I am on the Young Adult Leadership Programme (YALP) and Liverpool Meeting is my ‘supporting organisation’ (lucky you!). On returning from an energizing and meaningful weekend at Swarthmore Hall, I thought you might be interested in some questions that have been raised by other members of the group with their meetings, regarding the Spiritual Life within Meetings. These are not Liverpool specific but they are very thought provoking and, after this week’s Trident March, I feel these questions are particularly prominent.

“What needs to happen for there to be a Quaker revival today? Have we become too stuck in our ways? Have we become too comfortable in our middle class lifestyles? Have we lost touch with the radical essence of the early Quakers, who looked to shake the foundations of the world, whatever the costs?”

That’s a good question and one I have given some thought to over the years. However, I’d decided, it was not a discussion I was going to join in on, certainly not on email. We have other ways of doing this, such as meetings for worship for business and for clearness or threshing meetings too, although I’ve never been to one. And they’re all described in the flippin’ red book*!

That is, until I got an email directly from a friend. ‘Hi, friend, can you read this for me and let me know what you think? Thanks.’ I couldn’t see anything. Then, just after, ‘I’ve shared an item with you:      Quakers: A Class Act? It’s not an attachment — it’s stored online.’

It was my friend’s response to the email questions posed to our local meeting. I replied, ‘I may write a blogpost about this, if I have anything to say or add to this. Thanks for sharing.’

‘Do you have any comments or suggestions?  I am trying to address the issue of class in an article but I want to do it sensitively, given that I am responding to other people’s comments.’

I was reluctant to say anything by email but waited for the words I needed and wrote back to him later that day, ‘I think it’s a uni-dimensional approach, one worth raising for discussion. There are many others, for example, age, gender, race you can also explore meetings by. Quakerism offers the most radical challenge there is, deepening the self, over a lifetime, listening and waiting to hear what we are called for.

Most friends in the society today are not born into it. They made a choice. This, if we
stop to think about it, is probably the most significant decision we’ll ever
make. This may also mean Quakers are more highly educated to take such a step but not
necessarily so.

Quakers measure time over centuries, not weeks. Our Local Meeting has survived near collapse over the move from Paradise Street and is slowly growing. We are friendly and
welcoming. This matters to all who discover us and step across the threshold. Is
Quakerism meaningful to them? Hope so but it may be they are called elsewhere.
We are seekers, after all. But we are called to keep on building our small
community as best we can to hand on to the next generation.

If you go to regional, national and international events, you get an idea of the
richness of Quaker experience. If we truly believe there is that of God in
everyone, then people of all classes and beyond are welcome here.
In friendship’, I ended.

By the speed that is email, on the same day, he replied, ‘Thanks for your comments. The question posed was about class, so that is what I am addressing the article to – but I think ethnicity, for instance, is just as relevant a concern and there are others.

I personally think that Quakers and Quakerism presents much of value to me for the reasons you mention.  But the question of class – for me – is a key concern that cannot be ducked. I’ve been to Quaker meetings around the country.  If the question of class posed by our young friend is uni-dimensional, I think that is because it reflects the socio- demographic profile. I feel that deepening myself requires extending myself beyond that rather flat (white, middle class as she describes it) demographic. Thanks again for your feedback and friendship – both of which I find deepening. Shalom.’

The next day, I wrote, ‘I’ve been able to extend and deepen myself within this flat, largely white group of people more than in any other place.’

A day later, my friend sent the following out to the googlemail group, ‘Please see the link for a really interesting article on where faith communities are struggling and where they are growing – which is part of the question that our young friend raises: https://sojo.net/articles/letters-dying-church/dying-church-millennial      Shalom.’

This generated a number of different comments from friends:

‘A very interesting and thought provoking article. The American author Brandon Robertson has a degree from The Moody Bible Institute Chicago. I can remember at school seeing films that were produced by them. If my memory serves me correctly, they were very slickly produced. I agree with much of what the writer stated. However, I must admit to being very wary of Evangelicals, particularly American ones! My reason is because of their opposition (in some cases downright hatred) for those people, like myself, who are in a relationship with a person of the same sex. I have been horrified to hear of the absolute venom that the supposedly Christian, Anglican Church in Uganda has for gay and lesbian people.

I noticed that you mention that you sometimes attends an evening Roman Catholic Mass. You feel comfortable there because of the broader demographic of people attending. I can well understand that. This is interesting. The number of Quakers worldwide is believed to be in the region of 300,000. That total number worldwide of Quakers falls short of the number of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, I believe their numbers are in excess of 500,000. Therefore, by virtue of their “superior” numbers, they draw members from a wider cross section of society.

I myself left the RC Church and became a Quaker, mainly because of Quakers’ non-judgmental attitude toward gay people, like myself. I apologise if it seems like I am on my hobby horse! We are all at different stages in life and must respect the opinions of others, even though we may sometimes disagree with them. It’s when the difference manifests itself as violence and hatred, then it is time to resist.

I myself have received only love and open acceptance from Quakers and that is why I continue to worship. There are other reasons as well. I hope my thoughts do not seem to be a lecture. I think we have been having a thought provoking constructive debate. In friendship.’
The friend replied to this, so. ‘As a Christian, I read your message with a heavy heart.  Christianity is about one thing to me – love. That implies non-judgement and acceptance.  Sadly the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England have got some things badly wrong in this respect and continue to do so.

What marked Quakers out for me, and, hence, the original attraction to me (which this ongoing discussion is usefully clarifying for me) are the testimonies to equality, peace, simplicity and truth.  Realising these testimonies in practice requires us to challenge ourselves and each other, but, in loving kindness, and that is what we are each trying to do here.  However, there are some differences, so it’s a discussion that we should perhaps continue, somehow.

But I do share your scepticism of the RC Church – I just feel the need to share my life as widely as possible.  Presently, I can do this by worshipping in two places (St Anne’s and St Bernard’s are radically open and non-judgemental) and Pope Francis is also making this easy. That may not always be the case – for instance, in the event of a new Pope. But therein lies one of many differences. Quaker testimony is to always treat each other equally which is why I found my way here and I am glad it has been here for others too.   I also continue to be inspired by my Catholic Worker friends, who are similarly anchored in testimony (hospitality, personalism, peace, voluntary poverty).  I often feel we could learn from each other in this respect.’

 

The day after this exchange, my friend sent an email to me, ‘I have just received your email, sent to my work address. Of course, you may reflect on the content of our discussion in your blog post.  I’m not publishing my first attempt (that I shared with you) on this topic but am going to write something new, which reflects on the great deal I have learned, and new depths reached, as a result of my discussions with other Quakers. You volunteered to be my Quaker mentor ages ago, and I still see you in that way.  It would be nice to meet for coffee soon, as it would be good to chat further and properly.  The written word is very limiting and sometimes unintentionally harsh, I feel.’

 

We were also exchanging text messages from time to time on the same subject, ‘Hi, friend, I saw an article on how the housing crisis is affecting Liverpool people during a search yesterday. If I write a short commentary on it could you post it through your work networks, like Facebook? Ps. I’m now not sending the class article to The Friend l. Hope to see you soon. Shalom.’

‘Yes, of course, my friend. Why aren’t you sending the article to the Friend? Or Quaker Voices? It is an important topic which does come up from time to time. The largely middle class Quakers agonise over what to do about it. End inequality, I say! End poverty! Why are there so many young men sleeping rough – one on every street corner – in the city centre? I was working class once. I’ll never be accepted as middle class by some (I’m accepted by Quakers, and this has helped me greatly to become me in this class society we live in…and I have come to accept them too). I sit inbetween and outside of the boundaries …and draw on the best, sometimes the worst of both. Send it and see what happens. Just don’t think you’re the first to raise it. Local solutions…taking the few working class people out of the meeting is not part of the answer, I’d say. That’s why I go. I’m going walkies, 2ish today, heading towards Otterspool Park, then round to Lark Lane for coffee and, I hope, cake (how twee!) (me mum would let us have a cake). It would be great if you can join me. Go well, my friend.’

‘Hi, I don’t feel that I’m articulating the point well enough or in a way that people won’t find personally critical at the moment. That’s my problem. I need to think carefully. I’ll be about at 3.30ish, if you’re still around? Would love to see you and chat and hand your books back!’

‘Think about sending it to Quaker Voices in the enquiring spirit, searching for common grounding. QV is a bimonthly periodical, written by Quakers of all shapes and sizes (to use a technical term). Ask friends to contact you with their experiences. Hopefully, there will be some positives too. It may even turn into a piece of funded research! Don’t think I’ll make 3.30 as need to shop. I’ve got an enquirers’ day tomorrow. Come to Kindlers’ event in Manchester on 19th? 10.30 till 4.30. Theme is Community. Right up your street/alley/ginnel/jigger/boulevard! I do feel it’s a good thing to raise this with friends with fairness and tenderness. Hope so!’

‘Thanks, I agree. The term I was looking for is to raise it with ‘loving kindness’, so I need to do some more work on it. Sorry to miss you today. See you soon. Shalom.’

 

A few days later, I received this email, ‘This is where I got to with my thoughts on Quakers and class as a result of our conversations. It is private between you and I at the moment but I would like to put it on my blog, if you are ok with that? In Peace and Friendship.’
I read the draft blog post and replied the same day, ‘Almost moved to tears, my friend. Of course, please share on your blog. Offer it to Quaker Voices too for publication. Google Quakerlife/quakervoices. I have two comments and an observation. Make it clear you are referring to Britain Yearly Meeting, as Quakers worldwide are very diverse. And secondly, I don’t think your comments hurt me. Rather, it doesn’t speak to my experience now. It did when I first started coming. Yet my experience of Quakers has changed over nearly 30
years of coming to meeting and deepened, especially after Equipping for Ministry, Woodbrooke and visiting Quaker places in Britain and Europe. It is a lovely, challenging article. I went below the label to discover who I am. Thank you, my mentee and teacher.’

Two more days followed until my friend’s blogpost was finally published with the words, ‘Please follow the link below for a blog post that I have written that reflects on the discussion of social class that we have had on this email list, and also some of the follow up discussions that I have had with individual Quakers https://chrisallen291269.wordpress.com/ , Shalom.’

 

And local meeting friends responded quickly. W, wrote, ‘In sum, my point is that Quakers in reality do not repudiate class at all. They are happy to perpetuate its material causes or pretend that simply by being ethical somehow, the material problem disappears. Jesus sided with the prophets in attacking the rich because from their point of view, “Thou shalt not steal” is primarily an injunction against the rich, for it is they who steal from the poor. That is capitalism for you and the relationship of the rich to the poor has not changed from the first century of our era. Love is much more than a feeling. It is a revolution in values.’

 

Another wrote, ‘On Sunday I attended Meeting for Worship after a week of feeling depressed and exhausted. It was children’s meeting with a shared lunch after. In Meeting for Worship, we seek spiritual union with the divine and, on this Sunday, the Light of God shone in the hearts of many there. It was a healing and strengthening time. Those that were there were open and welcoming to each other across a broad spectrum of ages, class, gender, wealth, education and health.

On a statistical basis compared with the city as a whole, white Anglo-Saxon, middle class males were very under represented and other ethnicities and the disabled over represented. This should not be relevant if we understand the meaning of Advices and Queries 22.

In Quaker terms, if you have a concern you should go through a process of discernment and act on that concern. The negative, critical, intellectual posturing that some people have indulged in in this discussion is unlikely to make anyone feel like attending, let alone people of working class or ethnic minority origin. If you want a more diverse worship group, you need to talk to a range of people and invite them to come to Meeting with you to see if it is the right spiritual path for them.

It seems wrong to judge good, kind, well-meaning people without trying to get to know them. Many in the Meeting quietly do a lot of work for the Meeting and society in general. It is easy to lose touch with our common humanity, trying to be anti-intellectual and working class. Society is becoming the super-rich and the rest. Nobody associated with Liverpool Meeting is in the super-rich category.’

 

Another friend responded, ‘It is not often that I find myself angry and at a loss for words.
The email from W was very denigrating about Quakers in general. This is the first time I have been aware that a prerequisite of being a Quaker was in being a “socialist”. Interesting thought. As I am not and never have been a socialist, nor would I subscribe to their views. It seems, according to W, that my Quaker beliefs are invalid because I do not subscribe to the pseudo intellectual claptrap that masquerades as Marxism! That is all I have to say, except that I am a very disillusioned Quaker!’

 

I listened to this friend and felt these words coming up, ‘Don’t be, my friend. Else your Quaker roots are not quite as deep as you thought them or, perhaps, they need nurturing. ‘Twas ever thus in the religious society of friends, and yet we’re still here. Maybe, something to be said for the Quaker way..? It might be worth remembering the words of Isaac Penington (QF&P 10.01) and Parker J Palmer on Community (QF&P10.19). Hope so!’

 

The blogging friend also commented, ‘I have found these helpful in discerning the issues and in writing about them, so I hope others do too. From Quaker Faith and Practice (QF&P) 27.13,

Even in the apostle’s days, Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in these things; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity but the judging of one another because of different practices…everyone learning their own lesson, performing their own particular service, and knowing, owning and loving one another in their several places and different performances …For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same spirit and life in him and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way…Isaac Penington, 1660

Then, next came, ‘Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.’ Isaac Penington, 1667 (QF&P 10.01) Thank you. In Peace

 

The Local Meeting (LM) clerk now joined in the discussion, ‘Hi all, I have read with interest the comments, thoughts, and reflections on the question, raised by our young friend. I have also valued them in reminding myself that once upon a time, I  held views that I was certain and clear about, views that couldn’t be challenged, and, if they were, I took pride, actually enjoyed, destroying my opponents’ argument; their viewpoint, being  clearly misguided and lacking in intellectual rigour. I have come to understand that certainty is of limited value and has fuelled so much that is wrong in our relationships and our world.

I no longer, at least I try not to, denigrate an opinion offered but try to understand the viewpoint. I cannot say it is wrong and neither am I going to ‘man the barricades’ in its defence. Does that mean I don’t care? Before you think this is a question for a problem page, I will answer it! Answer – I think not. I think I care more but how I resolve differences has now changed. I know that the testimonies are the means by which I need to live my life and, as I try to live that life, sometimes better than others, I begin to understand a bit more. That doesn’t always come from hearing wise words.

Being a Quaker is about Faith and Practice, and if we practice our faith, we learn to have compassion and understanding. I realise that I haven’t directly addressed the question of the spirituality of our community, which I am grateful to our young friend for raising.  I, as an individual, will try to be open and truthful, I will respect all and I will try not to hurt anyone by words or actions. In that way, I hope it nurtures our community. I think that’s a start.’

 

Still another friend responded, ‘Those words are so wonderful they gladden my heart. Thank you, friends, who have responded with love. I’m thankful that the Religious Society of Friends isn’t a political party! In my experience, when we reach out and speak to people from all walks of life, its amazing how our prejudices, our neat categories and earthly systems fall away and we are left with ‘knowing them in that which is eternal’. I believe Quakers, who are all individuals of course, seek to know that of God in everyone. This comes from knowing that God is love and loves every one of us. The ‘knowledge’ comes by waiting in the light and self-surrender to God (the inward light) in silent worship. Being ‘patterns and examples’ is exactly those little acts of kindness that our friend so movingly describes, the “kingdom” of God on earth.

When I hear or read things that want Quakers to be more like this or be more that, or even be less the other, I am reminded of the words of a very experienced Friend in our meeting who once said something that, although it appears to be simplistic, is, in fact, a profound challenge: ‘Just be Quakers’, or I sometimes hear it as ‘Just be more Quaker’, putting the emphasis on us as individuals and our continuing insights, as the spirit leads us daily into the ‘life and power’ which enables us to go on with renewed strength and courage to be a “channel of God’s peace”. In friendship’.

 

We heard from friends, whom I’ve not seen at meeting for a while, ‘I have followed this train of disparate thoughts with interest, confusion, alarm and relief. I had to go back to the beginning to make sense of the whole (as is so often the case). Good job, that young friend, for starting the ball rolling so that we could all discover that we are individually strongly political/ non political/ socially aware/ gay/ hetero/ tolerant/intolerant of our differences/ marxist/liberal capitalist but with all of us having some spiritual quest, whatever that is, to either/and/or fulfil ourselves or some more ideal society and, despite our differences, to  be able to meet and take pleasure in each other’s company and find we do have some common understanding. Even if it be only to be able construct sentences of Dickensian length. Thanks for the stimulation and inspiration.’

 

The thread of emails led to our friend, W, writing this, ‘The Kingdom of God is about the Spirit of Love, incarnating itself in the present moment. It carries with it demands that we, as humans, are only too happy to run away from. Quakers have challenged our country to change its ways in response to that call. Before we try speaking out, we need to address the state of our own house – do we walk the talk? I am not addressing any individual – simply that love is not so much a feeling as a revolution in values in every aspect of our lives, social, political, economic and so forth. The question is: How are we incarnating the Spirit of Love that is in our midst in the city in which we are placed? It seems to me that all the contributions made in this discussion offer part of that answer. I am sorry if my contribution has been viewed as a personal attack or criticism of any one.’

‘Thanks, W. Your explanation is appreciated. Much to ponder on, in a good way.’

 

And there we left it; the threads, dangling quietly in the waters.  I wonder, is that an adequate response to your questions, my young friend? It might seem that nothing is happening but, for me, it is better to sit with the question than to already have the answer. I may be wrong. And so may also be you. Early friends were compromisers at times, as in the Declaration to Charles II 1660 (QF&P 20.04).

Each of us is called to minister to the world with his and her gifts.  We are not called to do everything. But till we know what our gifts are, if we do not know who we are, how can we do anything?  Still, we must hold everything up to the light and try to act in the spirit. If we are guided by the spirit, then I trust that we will be well. How long do we have?

 

 

*Quaker Faith and Practice (QF&P), often referred to as the flippin’ red book, as in iaitfrb, it’s all in the flippin’ red book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “A Conversation Class

  1. Phew! A long read but so worth it. Honest and thought provoking. Ultimately love is all and I Quakers demonstrate that, despite our differences.

  2. Totally agree with Val. But Quakers are not alone is grappling with class. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have a stratified society. Despite being excited by it, I am also anxious because my grand-daughter has just won a scholarship & bursary to a very good private school. This was not in any way sought by the family nor has she been ‘prep-schooled’ or hot house reared to date (aged 10 and a half). She simply sang a solo at a concert and the school wanted her and approached the family. But if we took away private schools completely there would still be a situation requiring a meritocracy. With Quakers the ‘middle class-ness’ is at least not linked to privilege but IS linked to education & intelligence. Most people joining the Society of Friends have been disillusioned with other denominations or even religions and also have an aversion to anything that smacks of superstition so thought about it a great deal. then there are those who have been educated in Quaker schools (which are a kind of have your cake and eat it too set-up). So really only LOVE, JUSTICE, HUMILITY and PEACE can break though the fact that society is riddled with inequality and that we have a very privileged sections of society the apex of which are the aristocracy and monarchy. Back to the Old Testament.
    The Israelites wanted to have Kings like the pagan nations instead of honouring God and Samuel warned them: Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

    And so it has been ever since! But if we put God (however we describe him/her/it) at the centre of our lives and not pride we will get by OK and perhaps it doesn’t matter if the Quakers are a self-selecting group of thinking people as luckily there are enough other styles of worship to go round for everyone to find their own niche.

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