The book that defines, if anything does, what it means to be is Quaker, is Quaker Faith and Practice. (Read it online.) Some of its chapters are practical stuff – making marriages legal, who runs burial grounds. But much of it is an anthology of writings and statements, not creeds every Quaker must sign up to, but writings over 350 years which speak to Quakers today. We heard this week how people return to the Advices and Queries, and dip into the book when they have a knotty problem.
Over the last century or so, the book has been revised every thirty years (very roughly and there is no rule it must be). The last revision ran for nine years and culminated in the 1994 “Red Book.” Is the spirit calling us to revise it now? Revision involves the whole of British Quakers, with committees, consultations, and last time, a draft that many meetings spent years working through, in study sessions. Finally the book is adopted, amended, or not, at our governing annual conference, Britain Yearly Meeting, under our unique Quaker way of doing business. I joined Quakers towards the end of that process and it wasn’t an unalloyed success for everyone. Yet many of the changes from the 1960 draft were necessary to reflect changes in the role of women (objections to sexist language in the old Advices and Queries was what set the ball rolling), attitudes to sexuality, and a much broader understanding of Christianity and other faiths.
An interesting Sunday Focus was our first steps as a meeting to thinking about the issues involved in a rewrite. If we need one, which many of us remain unsure we do. What issues might just need to be added as amendments, and what is fundamental thinking that might cause us, for example, to rewrite the Advices and Queries in a major way? To take one example, it would be possible to add a few extracts giving different Quaker views on assisted dying. This would not necessarily need a revision of the book or its theological nuances.
Four issues to me seemed to have salience in our group and might require more thorough change. God, worship, the changing place of a religious society, and sustainability.
The discussions between ‘theist’ and ‘non-theist’ Quakers goes beyond mere language about God… some people hate the word God but describe something many theist Friends would recognise … this is actually about whether there is anything ‘beyond us’ at all.
Do we have a common understanding of worship, including of Quaker business which is worship to a particular end? If people practise individual meditation or sleep in worship, do we water down our definition to accommodate what people do, or do we assert what our worship actually is, as we understand it?
The 1994 book mentions, but does not fully process, changes in society. Organised religious belief is less common, most Quakers come to it as adults, to be the only Quaker in the family is quite usual. Sunday is a working day for some. Do our thoughts and structures fully reflect a world where many Quakers cannot be the three-Quaker-jobs holy beaver we idealise?
With sustainability, Quaker thinking is, at best, half cooked. Some are half over the hill following the green movement, half barely caught up with the questions. Quakers have a contribution to this debate but it is not likely to be the current state of thinking.
I have one conviction, which is that we should continue to seek the truth, by patient waiting and listening. What I think we must seek is something that allows us to live in the strength of the spirit as we understand it. Many movements in the world are growing and achieving things, by knowing what they stand for. Making Quakers stand for less will mean fewer people participate and commit in the long run. Being nice and having an interesting history are not of themselves reason to exist.