20th July 2023
In some people's minds we seem to have a reputation for being 'good people'...no pressure then!
Actually no, you don't have to come equipped with a shiny halo to join us. We are just ordinary people, even if there appears to be that expectation of being different, somehow better. Early in my Quaker life, telling a friend of a friend that I had joined Quakers, I was told in no uncertain terms: You? A Quaker? Surely you're not good enough! – Well, it didn't feel quite so funny at the time.
Maybe it is our 'testimony' to truth and integrity that has earned us this respect. Then again, back in the early days of Quakers, we were far from respected, seen rather as a bunch of bolshy dissenters who were doing their best to upset the established religious and social order. Though of course we would have said we were trying to renew and improve, not wreck.
From the Quaker perspective, there are two angles to this being good business. For one thing, we have our saying 'There is that of God in everyone' – or 'that of good'. This is one of the few things we can probably firmly unite around, despite our many different takes on God, Spirit, Common Ground, or whatever we may call it.
Right from the beginning, we saw all human beings as being equal. Not just the poorest peasant and the grand upstanding member of the nobility, but also those who had broken the law. Visiting prisoners started early in our history and continues to this day. We would say that somewhere in every human being, however misguided their past actions, lies a seed of goodness, an innate chance of better behaviour, a clear hope of a reformed kind of life. And we see it as our (well, everyone's) job to see that seed, to nurture it and help it find full expression. In short, not to just endlessly criticise, but to work to bring out the best in others.
That may mean loving understanding of an individual with maybe a difficult back story or environment. But that can also mean loud if respectful campaigning to make 'them' – the politicians, bankers, whoever – see the error of their ways and encourage them to find the path to a better politics or a kinder business model, etc.
Of course becoming better people than we currently are applies equally to ourselves. When we sit in our often entirely silent, inwardly still, meetings for worship, we open ourselves up to whatever may come to us. In our inspirational writings collected in a book called Quaker Faith and Practice we find not just uplifting things but some pretty hard-hitting phrases. For instance we are urged to let the Light (of God, Spirit, our deepest insight) show us 'our inner darkness': contemplating the Best, we may be reminded of that sniping remark yesterday, that unkind failure the other day to offer help. And resolve to do better.
I know that years of attending Quaker meetings have certainly had their effect on me. I'd say that for instance I'm more tolerant of difference – especially those niggling minor differences. I have learnt to express myself more cautiously, in more measured ways, preventing feelings being inadvertently hurt. Clearly not always, I'm still imperfect old me. But I have probably, gradually, been changed for the better in all sorts of ways – hopefully that friend of a friend from long ago would be pleasantly surprised!
The bit of Quaker Faith and Practice we maybe cherish most is the first section, called Advices and Queries. It is full of all sorts of gems. 'Live adventurously', it says. There's a joyful advice. Also one to consider in more depth. But then there are also the challenging ones: 'If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity, are you prepared to resist it?' And: 'Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford'.
Plenty to ponder, but in case all this sounds a tad too prescriptive, the text starts by saying that these bits of advice and probing questions are not to be considered as a rule to live by, but it is hoped they may act as a helpful guide, in the context of meeting together with others ready to consider the rights and wrongs of life, individual, collective, private, political, all of it.
And so we imperfect people who call ourselves Quakers look for the 'darkness' shown up by the presence of 'light', in order to overcome some of the worst in both ourselves and in the world around us. And, conversely, we look to nourish the brightest potential where, superficially, things look bleak.
'Goodness' is something we work with, not something we embody or are especially good at. So no, never 'good enough', but always trying.
Angela Arnold – Oswestry Quaker Meeting and North Wales Area Meeting