The Tickle of God

How do Quakers take decisions collectively? We don’t vote or aim for consensus. We believe we are led by (and here individual Quakers will insert their own word for…) God/the Spirit/the Guiding Light/Presence/Christ to discern the way forward…or to wait a while longer.

The Mind of Christ, Bill Taber on Meeting for Business, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 406

‘But how do you know’, I asked the tutors and the students on the webinar*, ‘when the spirit is present with us during group discernment?’ And the answer came back to me straight away and was so simple. It’s the same feeling as in meeting for worship! We’ve all experienced the power and wonder of people speaking in ministry, sometimes for the first time, and revealing how the spirit is working in their lives. We are moved and left deepened by our sharing. ‘So, that’s how you make decisions in your meetings..?’ ‘Well, this is the ideal. All sorts of things can get in the way, like if you’re feeling stubborn, like the bear or sad, like the wolf (Isaiah 11: 6-9)) We don’t always succeed in holding a fully ‘gathered’ meeting for worship but we feel it when we do.

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom

American friend, Bill Taber, described  the way a meeting makes decisions.  It starts with waiting, he wrote. For how long? For as long as is needed. He recognises five gut feelings, which show a healthy group discernment meeting. The first is Joy in Being Together with friends, part of supportive, challenging community, large or small. The second is Joy in the Presence of God. Thirdly, there is the Assurance we will be helped by God’s guiding presence, if we listen well. And fourthly, there is Trust in the process. It works. It may take time, although some decisions may be reached very quickly. It isn’t always about time. It can be more about intensity, when decisions come quickly. During the meeting, we are enabled to step out of our own individual minds into the mind of Christ, while maintaining our self-awareness.

The fifth gut feeling tickled me  – Excitement! How often do we experience the excitement of entering the room, leaving it up to God to discover what is going to happen with surprising results! We do have fun in our meetings at times but not excitement. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced excitement but, perhaps, I’ve never known it was there.

Time places great demands on friends, we heard. Our meetings can feel long and laboured. Too often, tasks fall on the same group of individuals, who do the work but lack the joy. How do we encourage more friends to come to business meetings when we have so many callings on our time?  One of our tutors told a story. Two friends were talking about the next Business Meeting. ‘Oh, no,’ said one, ‘how am I going to get through three or more hours of agenda!’ His friend replied, ‘ I can think of no finer or more joyful way than spending time with God, discerning our way forward.’ And I’ve felt this too at times but also felt the slow hand ticking of the clock.

How do we learn and practise our business method? It’s true that by contacting Quaker Life at Friends House, you can arrange for a team of Young Friends to visit your meeting to model good and bad practice. And I wondered about holding a business meeting in our children and young person’s meeting in January. The children could take on roles of clerking, eldership and ministry. It would help us be clearer about what we can do the rest of the year and who we can ask to do it. Bill Taber emphasises the importance of a daily spiritual practice in helping us arrive at meeting with ‘heart and mind prepared’.

‘And the ministry, so often dry in business meeting, so moving in meeting for worship’, commented a friend on the webinar. ‘That’s it, Christine! That’s it!’ It stuck me forcibly that I’d always put an subconscious divide between the two forms of worship. Yet they were both the same. I’m feeling so excited about attending my next business meeting for worship!


Links and further reading:

A Sustainable Life, Woodbrooke course*

Douglas Gwynne, A Sustainable Life

The Mind of Christ, Bill Taber on Meeting for Business, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 406

Alistair Heron, Quaker Speak

Brian Drayton and Bill Taber, Language for Inward Landscape

Emilia Fogelklou Norlind, The Atonement of George Fox, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 166 (1969)

Ben Pink Dandelion, Quakers, A Very Short Introduction


What politics and economics for equality?

One Saturday afternoon, I was attending a talk, given by Alan Pinch and Enid Pinch on inequality in the UK and the wider world at Mount Street Quaker Meeting House in Manchester. During the lifetimes of people in the room, there were those, who had witnessed the campaign for the 1944 Welfare Reforms, supported the Miners’ strike, noted the Northwest’s regional dependency on manufacturing armaments and sought answers to local to global effects of climate change. Attending were interested individuals as well as members of Green and Labour parties. Nobody disclosed they were a good Tory and not all present were Quakers.

It reminded me of meetings I attended in my teens to talk about political ideas. Sadly, the world has gone backwards since then, though not everything was great in the 1970s. While hearing that 1.6 billion people have been lifted out of poverty is good news, millions of people in the UK today are heading back into it, including children. An awful lot of them are in work, struggling already or looking carefully at inflation and interest rates.

Universal Credit could be a good thing, if its current implementation plan could be amended. 50,000 people have died from pollution in UK too. An unequal society is a better society? I just wanted to hear how that sounded. It sounds like what it is, nonsense; a more equal society is a better one. So, how do we go about achieving it?

Small groups like us, talking and listening, leading to action, like campaigning groups, local food growing and cooking groups, Save Our Bank groups are part of the answer. Some suggested introducing the Citizens’ Wage to end poverty, wherein everybody receives a basic income to live on. There are pilots under way in Glasgow and Iceland. Others thought its implementation would be too problematic. Better to keep a range of benefits.

If some 60% of the electorate is not represented by the party they voted for in government, then do we need to build a progressive alliance to bring back more ‘socialist’ policies in power? Does that mean electoral reform and, if so, of what type? Or can Labour win a majority on its own, even after revised constituency boundary changes?

Sometimes, judging by the headlines, it feels like little positive change is taking place. Small groups, like ours, meeting on a stormy Saturday afternoon, talking about what matters to us, contribute to the good in the world. One day, we might just reach the tipping point, needed to make UK a more equal society, politically and economically. And, as our chair, Jonathan Dale reminded us, this would be fulfilling our testimony to equality.

As we got ready to go out into the dark night, we were presented with a challenge! What if friends created their own local Quaker Socialist groups in their meetings? The following day, I spoke about this in the notices after meeting. One friend unexpectedly came up to me afterwards to say he was interested. ‘Good’, I said. ‘I’ll send an email round the googlemail group to see who else is interested.’ It’s a contribution, friends!

So, you may well ask, what does a small Quaker Socialist group look like, and how does it differ from any other Socialist group? Well, that’s a good question. We haven’t got one yet but let me think… Each would have its own character, I suppose, depending on those involved but, probably, it attracts mainly older, white, middle class people, employed in or retired from public service. That’s not like Socialist groups these days, then? The manager of our local meeting tells me that attendance at local Labour Party events when they hire a room is heaving, particularly with young people.

I think a Quaker Socialist group would attract young friends to it, where we have them. Some would find themselves leading it in many cases. The group meets face-to-face at the meeting house or in people’s homes, as often as agreed, with food to talk and learn, a film to watch or text to discuss, perhaps a speaker. It also uses technology like Skype or Zoom to get together online, widening the circle, to discern what actions to take or groups to connect with and which campaigns to take part in or support.

But there’s hardly anything Quaker particularly in this, you might say. Well, no, I’m coming to that. I was once listening to an elderly Quaker friend, who had been active in local politics. He told me that, when faced by opposition, the thing to do was to crush it. And if they got up again, crush them still harder! Perhaps, this is the reality for many politicians today. But does it have to be this way..?

I’m reading George Lakey’s ‘Viking Economics’ at the moment. It’s an enlightening read. In the Nordic states in the 1940s and ‘50s, a consensus of people of all social classes decided they wanted to end poverty and worked out how to do it. They supported radical and progressive organisations (trade unions and political parties), able to take them there. This approach met with strong resistance from employers and banks, sometimes using the police and the military to break strikes, till they too realised everyone benefited from having a high wage economy. Rather than paying for individuals to be idle, the opposite seems to be the case. The basic income, in fact, stimulates the individual’s desire to work creatively and constructively, earning more and paying taxes. Everybody gets on with living now that they don’t have to worry about childcare, housing, education, health care, even eldercare costs, which are subsidised either in your own home or in a care home. The necessities of life are affordable and not a worry. So, people pay higher taxes at a level necessary to make this work and everyone buys into it because everyone benefits from lifelong ‘universal services’. So-called Popular, right-wing, anti-immigration parties support the safety net, even proposing measures to strengthen it, placing them well to the left of the Democratic Party in the US.

We Quakers have a discernment process, which we believe is spirit-led. Together with our core belief that there is ‘that of God in everyone’, it’s hard for us to think about crushing anyone, though we might wish for it at times. We’re only human, after all. Rather, we do what we can, individually and together, for the good of all in our society, advocates for equality and supporting good causes and campaigns, rebuilding belief in social capital, like that, which existed widely in Britain from the late 1940s to ‘60s. It started to unravel in the 1970s.

Such an approach also means accompanying ‘the good Tory’. They may even be leading the way, though, regrettably, I personally don’t know anyone, where I live, who is a Conservative. Maybe, a Quaker Socialist group could meet with members of the local Conservative Association to explore common ground..? I’ve no doubt Tories care deeply about this country and its people too. The idea that the richer people become, the more this wealth ‘trickles down’ to all of us somehow still holds on to the nation’s psyche. Does anyone still believe this, when millions of people in the UK are wondering whether they will have to make a choice between mortgage or rent rises and food or clothing for themselves and their kids?

In 1918, London Yearly Meeting approved eight “Foundations of a True Social Order”, which warrant revisiting today. Number 8 reads, ‘The ownership of material things, such as land and capital, should be so regulated as best to minister to the need and development of man.’ (Quaker Faith and Practice: 23.16). And American Quaker and author, Douglas Gwynne, reminds us that when George Fox published his “Fifty-Nine Particulars” in 1659, for the economic empowerment of the poor, Fox advocated that church lands be parcelled out to the poor for farming. Manor houses, church buildings, and even Whitehall (the government’s administrative headquarters in London) should be converted into almshouses for the disabled. Fines should go to poor relief, not to the lords of manors. All forms of patronage should be outlawed.’ (Douglas Gwynne, A Sustainable Life, Chapter 4, p.62)

It was Joseph Chamberlain, the nineteenth century Liberal Mayor of Birmingham, later a Liberal-Unionist, and not ‘the good Tory’, who pushed for and achieved great social improvements, leading to the city being called the ‘best governed in the world’ (1). It gained greater powers for local authority control, which addressed public health issues, housing, education as well as supporting wealth creation. This voice is still there within the moderate elements of the Tory Party. Occasionally, you hear a few of their voices, when discussing the roll-out of Universal Credit, for example.

I know Quakers as a body, The Religious Society of Friends, do not outwardly support one political party over another. Individuals can and do align with all political persuasions and none. Our disparate views are often reflected in the letters pages of The Friend. Yet, just as we meet together to discern our ways forward in our business meetings, encountering diverse, even awkward views before our clerks reach for a minute to describe the ‘sense of the meeting’, then so can Quakers work with others of all political persuasions to bring about the peaceable kingdom on earth…or at least in the UK. They fought for it and achieved it in the Nordic countries. Why can’t we? And how long does it take..?

From all this , you might think I ‘m a socialist. Well, I probably feel a
socialist. I feel all Quakers should be socialists…however, I don’t like
labels, which is why I’m a Quaker and prefer to hold issues in
the Light and see where the ‘still small voice’ guides me, us. I appreciate my
views are not underpinned by any philosophical thinking and I prefer it
that way. I can draw on new light, listening to all views without
prejudging, even to that ‘good Tory’, who just might hold a vital piece of
the solution.

Wikipedia, Mayors of Birmingham, Julian Ralph, (June 1890), in Harper’s New Monthly magazine, pp99-110



Quaker school

“Threads, sprints and collaborations…” ‘Oh, yeah, what are they?’ ‘I’ll tell you later.’ ‘Later? Why can’t you tell me now?’ ‘…because I’m feeling sad, that’s why… I’ve just finished Quaker Life Rep Council after six years and it feels like leaving school. I’ll not see me mates again. That’s why I’m feeling sad.’ ‘Right, well, what are you going to do with all the things you’ve learned at Quaker School for grown-ups…not saying, you’re a grown up, like! Do they give you a certificate?’ ‘Not exactly, but I have got a blue hoodie and I am growing younger! You know, I have got a few ideas of things l’d like to do.

For one, I’d quite like to visit some of the other local meetings in my area, talk to people, find out how they’re doing. Haven’t done that for ages. And I’d like to go to a few more regional events, meet more Quakers…possibly even a bit of Quaker Camp in the summer months…anything involving outdoor worship, singing and telling stories ‘round camp fires and owls has to be good, yeah?’ ‘…Singing…in a Quaker meeting…that doesn’t happen, does it?’ ‘Well, why not? There’s no law against it.’ ‘Are you sure?’  ‘Yes, I am. Anyway, I’m wondering about Quaker chaplaincy work but need to know more. There’s a course on at Woodbrooke in September…and I might do some visits in prison or hospital to see if I really want to do it…something worth thinking about, anyway.’‘You know, that Quaker school sounds good. How come I’ve never heard of it…and who’s going now?’ ‘Don’t know…not sure they’ve got anyone. And they need two people, a first named Rep and a deputy. I think Area Meeting nominations are on to it but I haven’t heard anything.’ ‘Well, I’d be interested…’

‘Really, shine of me..?’