Lent Talk 2007, Bridget Walker

Contact with God :  A Quaker contribution

 

Bridget Walker

 


Introduction

I should begin by saying that this talk does not represent any kind of official Quaker view. It is rather a personal contribution from a Quaker. Quakers are a very diverse group. We place a high value on individual experience and joke that two Quakers will have three opinions. However, we do have a corporate discipline, and find guidance in our ‘big red book’ : Quaker Faith and Practice, the Book of Christian Discipline of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. This outlines the structures and procedures of church government and has an anthology of faith and practice over the centuries. I shall draw on this in what I have to say.

Quakers elsewhere around the world have different practice – sometimes with a pastor and programme of worship. I am confining my remarks to what I know of Quakers in Britain.

We had a meeting of some Friends from Headington Quaker meeting to reflect on the theme of this series of Lent talks and I hope I can reflect some of our thoughts and that Friends here tonight will add to what I have to say.

First a couple of personal stories: I was not brought up in a church going family, so my understanding of contact with God was fairly eclectic. I spent my summer holidays at my grandmother’s in the country. She had few books, and no children’s stories apart from a bound volume of copies of The Children’s Friend dating from 1865.

In this there was a story about a boy who hated his boarding school and prayed to God not to be sent back. And he died. I can still remember my sense of outrage. It was clear to me – if not to God – that this was not the answer the boy wanted to his prayer. God was not on the same wavelength, distant, not understanding, and, as in the way of adults, had different priorities. So my prayers became more and more extended and detailed to make quite sure that there was no room for error, until in the end I gave them up for lack of response.

The other childhood memory probably came at a later stage when God had fallen off my childhood radar. This was of Leigh Hunt’s poem about Abou ben Adhem. My mother used to recite it to me. Those of you who know the poem will remember that ben Adhem woke from a dream to find an angel in his room writing in a book of gold the names of those who love the Lord. His name was not among them so he asks that he be recorded as one who loves his fellow men. The angels writes it down and comes again the next night and shows the names whom love of God has blessed and lo ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.  Love of fellow men – and women. I was content to aim for that and leave God out of it.

So it was from other people to whom God was important that I learned – Quaker workcamps in Eastern Europe in the 60s, and then working for Christian Aid when I travelled in the desert regions of West Africa in the aftermath of the drought of the early seventies. Many project partners were Muslims, for whom faith was central and the practice of prayer and fasting an unselfconscious routine. I met Spanish little sisters of Jesus living the religious life on the edge of the desert. In the ecumenical family it was the time of liberation theology, black theology and feminist theology. Quakers have always been rather suspicious of theology and God talk, believing that our lives must speak. These lives spoke to me.


In introducing the first of this series of Lent talks two weeks ago, Hugh Whybrew looked at the concept, image and mystery that we call god. I would like to take some of the things that he said and reflect in light of personal and Quaker experience


1. Not a person but personal

God is not a person, but God is also not an abstract life force. God is personal. For early Quakers the direct experience of God, the leadings of the Spirit was key. Quakers emerged at a time of enormous change/ferment. People were debating how society should be governed and questioning the established order of church and state. They were looking at authority in both the political and the religious sphere. There was discussion of the role of bishops in the established church, and the role of women. Margaret Fell, a founder of Quakerism, wrote a pamphlet on Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed by the Scriptures and women have always played a key role in work and ministry.

Quakers in the seventeenth century studied the Bible and regarded themselves as the direct inheritors if the early church. A key word was light which they associated with the risen Christ in their hearts.

Friends weren’t alone in saying that our experience of god is personal, direct and can be unmediated. However, it is probably fair to say that they carried this to the logical extreme - stripping out what seemed to come between them and God . So out went outward religious ceremonies, and the words and music of the liturgy, out went tests of belief and the creeds. What mattered was not assent to doctrines but personal experience and a faith to live by. Revelation was continuing. Out went the paid clergy (hireling priests) . Everyone, men and women, girls and boys, had a ministry. Out went the times and seasons of the church year, out went the sacraments – the whole of life was sacramental and holy. What was left?

Harvey Gillman, in A Light is Shining , an introduction to Quakers, describes the foundation of the Religious Society of Friends like this: there is a creative, loving power in all people and in the world around. Many call it God, though it is beyond all names. Everyone can become aware of it directly, by listening to its promptings in their hearts …it is not in the institution of the church, nor through the sacred texts that God is most keenly felt, but in the human heart. Obviously if you have difficulties with the institution and the scriptures this is attractive and helpful. But it is also, I think, very demanding. There is no hiding place from the direct relationship with God wherever God is to be found.

At last year’s annual gathering of Quakers I went to a meeting of the Committee on Christian and Interfaith Relations. A Baptist minister who had been invited was asked for his impressions. Well, he said, I have been to Quaker meetings, of course I have, and 20 or 30 people in silent worship in a room, it’s fine, it’s lovely. But five hundred, gathered together, I wondered when the silence was going to begin, and then I wondered when it would end ….it’s scary. Robert Barclay , the Quaker theologian described his experience thus: When I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up….he began to hunger more and more after the increase of this power and life and so he says ‘I became knit and united unto them. This describes a close relationship both with other Quakers but also with this creative living force.

 

2. Relationship

Relationship was the second area mentioned by our speaker last week. The creator, he said, is not separate from creation. All things are in God and God is in all things. There is no part of ourselves where God is not present. He suggested that this God relationship is one of friendship and reminded us that Jesus had called his disciples his friends. This fits rather neatly for us – Quakers were originally called Friends in the truth and we remain officially the Religious Society of Friends. Quakers have taken wholeheartedy to the concept of God in all and all in God. There is no compartmentalisation into the public and the private domain. All our relationships, personal and social, economic and political are in God. How does this belief translate into action?

At this point I turn to our red book, Quaker Faith and Practice. In the section entitled Living Faithfully Today we have simplicity and equality, moderation and abstinence, honesty and integrity. We are exhorted to be careful not to defraud the public revenue. Fraud is out, but some Friends feel called to the honest withholding of tax judged to be used for war purposes with the concomitant sanctions – and bailiffs - that this brings down on their heads, just as Friends in the past refused to pay tithes. There is a section on oaths and affirmation – we should avoid two standards of truth - payment of just debts, sources and use of income, gambling and speculation. Conflict and how to deal with it.

A quick word here about conflict. a Somali friend once said to me ‘We Somalis know a lot about waging war and that means we also know a lot about making peace.’ When I was working at Friends House I sometimes felt that the reverse might be said of Quakers at times. Of course there will be strongly held views and differences. I can think of a particular occasion. It was a committee meeting. Quaker business is conducted in the context of worship, decisions should be reached by a process of discernment. There is no voting, and the record of decisions reached is written at the time by the clerk.. I remember an extremely heated discussion, about what, I no longer recall, but at one point the clerk asked for a moment of silence and then said ‘May I remind Friends that we are not here to agree or disagree on this issue –we are hear to discern the will of God.’ That took the discussion on to a different plane and we did find a way forward .

Back to the red book – there is a chapter on close personal relationships. Then there is the matter of our responsibility as citizens, social justice, poverty and housing, slavery, torture, discrimination and disadvantage, racism, disability, education (there is ongoing debate about Quaker schools in the private sector) world and economic affairs, and the unity of creation and, of course, peace in all its fullness. Like the News of the World we could claim that all of human life is there – and that all is in God.

Is there a danger that faith gets lost in action? I remember just prior to the invasion of Iraq some of the staff at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham busily lettering posters and organising transport to London for the big demonstration. I asked another Friend if she would be going. She said to me. ‘Well Bridget, I am not an activist, I just pray a lot’. That, I thought, may well be the hardest part. But action too, can be testing. It is one thing to march behind a banner, and enjoy the comradeship of others for the day and go home at the end of it. Why did we go home that day by the way? It is quite another to take part in non violent direct action to blockade nuclear bases. Yet should we be doing anything less?

For if all are in God and there is that of God in everyone, then every war is a civil war. When I hear politicians on the radio say that nuclear deterrents have brought 60 years of stability I do wonder what planet they are living on. It is not just a matter of all the wars that were fought by proxy outside Europe and North America and the current phraseology around the war against terror. There is the ongoing violence which results from the inequalities of the rich and poor, north and south. And it’s not just a matter of people – how can we honour God when we dishonour the earth. Peace writ large is about rebuilding a broken world.

In a recent little booklet called Twelve Quakers and Pacifism one Friend writes:

As a Society we challenged the immoral and illegal war in Iraq only in the ways of the ‘bourgeois pacifist’, courteous demonstrations and polite letters. The Quaker termites of peace nibbled only imperceptibly at the foundations of power. Our latter- day respectability, economic prudence and lack of youthful vision increasingly hold us back.

As a bourgeois pacifist – I try to keep on nibbling!

(and cheers for our MP Andrew Smith who has decided to vote against the replacement of Trident, and cheers for all those nibblers whose correspondence and conversations may have influenced his decision).

All things in God: God in all things – a mutuality of relationship if we are attentive and mindful. Quakers love to talk of the light within and light can bring knowledge and warmth and security – but it also brings the hidden out and that can be uncomfortable. 20 years ago the Quaker women’s group produced a book entitled Bringing the Invisible into the Light. In it a group of Quaker women described their experience of God and of their fellow human beings. They challenged Friends to enlarge their understandings of God and also to face the way in which God may be mocked in the person of women. I found it really inspiring. Drawing me closer to Friends at a time when the Anglican church was struggling with issues over women’s ordination to the priesthood. But some Friends found it really hurtful. Maybe the light was both that of revelation and also of interrogation into truths we would rather keep in the dark.

A male Friend has written of his own difficult feelings about sexism, guilt, he says, is not a helpful response. In ourselves as well as others we must seek that of God and this will lead us in the right path.

A member of the Quaker women’s group wrote

To me, worship is recognising and communing with the divine whether it is within myself, in others or in the world. The pre-condition of worship is my belief in my worth –ship, my own and that of other people.


3. The Kingdom within us

This leads me to the third note I made from the first lent talk. This was about the Kingdom within us. The speaker talked of the need to meet god inside because we won’t otherwise find god outside. He quoted St John Chrysostom: the door of the heart is the door of the kingdom of god. We journey through the self to reach the point where God and I meet.

When Headington Friends had our discussion of prayer we looked at the roots of worship in worth and the need to affirm our worth as the starting point to respond to God and the worth in others. For some the personal relationship was strong, one Friend spoke of what her children call her ‘hello God’ moments. For others such moments of intimate encounter were rare. In our corporate worship we still ourselves to wait on god. There is no formal moment for intercession.. An American Friend said that his meeting had a time for holding people in the light. We talked of prayer as thinking lovingly of others.

If God is within us and the inner light is in everyone then the kingdom of God is also a commonwealth where all are equal in the sight of God and one another. Early Friends addressed everyone as thee and thou, and did not use titles. It was plain George Fox and Margaret Fell. This custom continues, and can still present problems. I find it quite contradictory when people trying to sell me something will call me Bridget at the drop of a hat, but still ask for a title on most official forms. At the weekend I installed a new printer for my computer but when I tried to register it I was not allowed to be plain Bridget Walker. I had to be Mr/Miss/Mrs/or Ms. I wonder why gender and women’s marital status are important to Canon copiers. You may be interested to know that there was no slot for Reverend. Perhaps this is an outward and visible sign of a social order which still tries to put women in their place – and has moved the formally religious out of the frame.

To acknowledge that of God in all we meet is to try and be respectful. That has its challenges even with family and like minded friends. The more diverse company we keep the more we may need to work at it. In the red book, in the section of Advices and Queries, we are bidden actively to go out and learn about other people’s experience of the light, to work gladly with other religious groups, to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith and to be open to new light, from whatever source it may come, while recognising that we must also exercise discernment.

This has always attracted me as I have spent a lot of my working life in other people’s countries and communities. Two years ago in Mozambique I was sharing a room with a Muslim colleague. The room was very small. She needed physical space to say her prayers so we had to push the beds together. But there was no way we could re-arrange the furniture so that she could face in the right direction. ‘No matter,’ she said, ‘God is everywhere’. As she prayed I perched on my suitcase and reflected on the pattern of time and space that are the frame for prayer for many Muslims. We need space both physically and also psychologically. In our discussion of prayer among Headington Friends this came up – how do we find/create the right space in which to be able to pray. We don’t need a dedicated building: that can be both a resource and a burden, but we do need to have the psychological space to come together with hearts and minds prepared.

This brings me to our corporate worship about which I would like to say a few words. As we have seen, Quakers share the foundational concepts about the nature of God with many others from different Christian traditions. What is different is the practice.

Here is Caroline Stephen, the aunt of Virginia Woolf, describing in 1890 her first experience of a Quaker meeting some years earlier: "On one never to be forgotten Sunday morning I found myself one of a small company of silent worshippers who were content to sit down together without words, that each might feel after and draw near to the divine presence unhindered at least if not helped by any human utterance. Utterance I knew was free, should the words be given ...". She goes on to talk of a sense that At last I had found a place where I might, without .the faintest suspicion of insincerity, join with others in simply seeking God’s presence. To sit down in silence could at least pledge me to nothing, it might open to me the very gate of heaven.

I think that to sit down in silence could at least pledge me to nothing is interesting. In her book Interfaith Pilgrims, Eleanor Nesbitt suggests that this form of worship may offer an opportunity for interfaith worship, that can sometimes founder on familiar formulations of words. This made me think of a Quaker work study camp I attended in East Germany in 1965. There were participants from the American Friends Service Committee, the Friends Service Council (now Quaker Peace and Social Witness) and the German Youth movement. There was also a member of the ANC who had reached the GDR through a communist underground railroad. The Quaker contingent asked if we might start our day with silent reflection. We were asking this for ourselves, not with any intention of being exclusive but not expecting the others to join in, as most of the Germans were vociferous about the dangers of religion as the opiate of the masses. In fact everyone joined us for our quiet start to the day and that, together with the hard physical labour of getting in the rye harvest with a minimum of machinery, brought us together, while our discussions often tore us apart.

Of course we have to ask ourselves what’s going on in the silence? We are advised to go with heart and mind prepared , to gather ourselves and seek the still centre, then wait attentively and leave the rest to God. And at the end? Well that is the beginning. We are not breaking contact with God. As William Penn said in 1682, "True godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it." When worship ends, service begins.


References

  1. Quaker Faith and Practice: The Book of Christian Discipline of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain
  2. Quaker Women’s Group: Bringing the Invisible into the Light
  3. Harvey Gillman: A Light is Shining
  4. Eleanor Nesbitt: Interfaith Pilgrims
  5. John Punshon: A Portrait in Grey
  6. Helen Steven: No Extraordinary Power
  7. Alex Wildwood: A faith to call our own


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