SoF and the Quaker Tradition

The Sea of Faith Network draws on a wide variety of religious and humanist traditions - but how much do we know about traditions other than those we happen to be born into or find ourselves at home in? This is the first of a series of articles on some of the streams which feed the Sea of Faith, each written from within the tradition in question. David Boulton has written widely on Quaker history and his forthcoming book "In Fox's Footsteps" relates Fox's seventeenth century theology to the radical non-realist theology of the late twentieth century.

The Quaker movement was a direct product of the English civil wars of the 1640s and the republican experiment of the 1650s. Before the breakdown of the old order in 1642, England was a totalitarian state with only one lawful church: the Church of England. The king's subjects belonged to the Church, paid tithes and other compulsory taxes to the Church, worshipped as prescribed by the Church, had their transgressions punished by Church courts, and, of course, were baptised, married and buried by the Church. They were ruled by the Lord's anointed, king and Head of the Church.

When king and parliament parted company, this monolith collapsed. As in eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was suddenly not just freedom but a cacophony of free expression. Religious censorship was effectively abolished along with the monarchy, the House of Lords, the Bishops, church courts, and the Church of England itself. New sects came and went. The Quakers came, and stayed.

George Fox was one of a number of radical dissenters who took advantage of the new and short-lived freedoms. Travelling through the Yorkshire Dales and the southern Lake District in 1652, he encountered an organised group of separatists calling themselves Seekers. They were seeking a charismatic leader, he a following. They got together, and the Quaker movement achieved lift-off.

Early Quakers - so-called by their detractors because of the way they quivered with charismatic enthusiasm - had a number of distinctive beliefs. They valued the Bible (and knew it better than most), but denied the orthodox Protestant view that it constituted an infallible authority. Their ultimate authority was their "inward light", the light of conscience. Samuel Fisher subjected scripture to scholarly analysis, inventing Biblical criticism one and a half centuries before the German liberals. Gerard Winstanley taught that God was Reason, Rhys Jones that it wasn't necessary to believe in an historical Jesus. George Fox derided churches as "steeple-houses" and priests and ministers as "hirelings". Above all, Fox taught that there was "that of God in everyone": in Don Cupitt's words, he "sought to bring spiritual power down from heaven and disperse it into human hearts".

Early Quakers were very political. They shared Cromwell's republicanism, and many of them served in his armies until they were kicked out as suspected subversives. They did not embrace pacifism till after the Restoration, when renunciation of arms was embraced not only as an inescapable implication of loving one's enemies and turning the other cheek - Jesus of Nazareth's most revolutionary teaching, never taken seriously by the church - but also a piece of shrewd politics.

They were social radicals. Edward Billing warned that there "would never be a good world as long as there was a lord in England", defining lords as "the whole rabble of Duke, Marquesse, Lord, Knight, Gentleman". Fox also pamphleteered against the class enemy, those who "cumbred the ground", who were "harlotted from the truth, and such gets the earth under their hands, commons, wastes and forest, and fells and mores and mountains, and lets it lie waste, and calls themselves Lords of it, and keeps it from the people, when so many are ready to starve and beg". And he had a remedy: take into public ownership all former monastic properties, great private estates, church glebe lands, and - a nice touch this - turn Whitehall into a hostel for the homeless. Lords should be dispossessed of their manors, parsons of their tithes.

Small wonder the Quakers were bitterly persecuted when the 1660 counter-revolution restored king, lords and bishops! Sweet revenge! But, responding to the moral imperative they called God, Friends (their own preferred name for themselves) organised England's first nonviolent mass civil disobedience movement against tithes and military taxes. Most important of all, they went to jail in their thousands campaigning publicly, relentlessly, non-violently and quite unlawfully for "toleration": the right to believe, act and worship according to conscience. Fox just lived to see the passing of the Toleration Acts before he died in 1691. They were his and his Friends' lasting legacy to subsequent generations, for they opened the way to a new world of religious and political freedom and pluralism, a world which, in the West, we have long taken for granted, but a world long resisted by those who stood to lose their ancient monopoly of power - not least the established Church of England.

Quakerism turned in on itself after the achievement of Toleration, becoming obsessed with distinctive modes of speech and dress - "a silly poor gospel" as Fox's widow complained - and shaking off its earlier radicalism till its rediscovery and revival a hundred years ago.

Today's Religious Society of Friends sits loose to all dogma. It has no creed or formulation of faith. The Society acknowledges its Christian roots, and most Quakers would probably call themselves Christians, but rejection of the Christian label is no bar to either full membership or the half-way-house membership of "registered Attenders". There are Quaker Buddhists, Quaker agnostics, Quaker atheists and Quaker universalists. There are even Anglican priests like Paul Ostreicher in full membership, which must make George Fox turn in his grave.

These very different outlooks do create tensions within the Society, and these tensions have tended to grow as non-Christian or post-Christian ideas have gained greater visibility. It was easy for the Christian majority to tolerate radical and even bizarre minorities in their midst- "See how tolerant we are!" -but it is harder when the minorities use their freedom to voice their own insights, and perhaps cease to be minorities! How the Society copes with its diversity will be one of its greatest tests in the next decade.

A great strength is the fact that the Society's unity (it has avoided the major splits which divided American Quakerism into competing sects) is dependent not on doctrinal agreement but on common practice: the form of the weekly "meeting for worship". As is well known, there is no liturgy. Each meeting begins in silence, and sometimes the silence is maintained for the full hour. More often, someone, anyone, (women, of course, as often as men, for women shared in the "priesthood of all believers" from the outset) will stand and speak, sharing a thought, a reading, an idea, with the rest of the meeting. Prior preparation of spoken contributions is discouraged. Speakers rise "as the spirit moves them", which some interpret as the prompts of a "real" God, and others as a metaphor. Similarly, some think of themselves as offering worship to a "real" God, others as celebrating human values, "things of worth". All emphasise that "the fruits of the spirit" are more important than its definition: deeds rather than creeds.

It is not difficult to see why the Society - like SOF - has become something of a refuge for those fleeing the churches but reluctant to abandon all religious links. In this sense it is hardly surprising that several Quakers have joined SOF, and some members of SOF have found a spiritual home among Friends. Certainly SOF ideas are beginning to get an airing, if not always a welcome, in Friends' meetings and journals. The Friend has published articles expressing SOF ideas, which invariably attract both polite Quakerly denunciations and letters of support in its correspondence columns; the Friends Quarterly has been asking "Is God Real?"; and the Universalist, journal of the Quaker Universalist Group, has run pro and con pieces. I have been asked to talk about SOF at this year's Quaker Universalist Group conference, and the Quaker Theology Group has commissioned a paper on "non-realism" from another of our members. There's a SOF buzz in the S of F!

If George Fox and his fellow men and women on the Reformation Left were concerned to "bring power down from heaven and disperse it into human hearts", that's also at the very heart of the Sea of Faith project. Our annual conferences usually contain Quaker "worship", not for sectarian reasons but because the democracy, openness and spontaneity of the Quaker ritual is clearly appropriate to SOF universalism. Similarly, our steering committee meetings open with silence and try to appropriate some of the consensual methods of Quaker decision-making (not always successfully, but that's just as true of the Quakers!).

SoFers for whom the greatest appeal of religious culture is the glory of the music, poetry and art of the great traditions would probably find Quakerism drab. But there are no Popes, no Bishops of Chichester, and therefore no Anthony Freemans in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

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