19th June 2023
What do Quakers believe? This may be the most frequently asked question when you let someone know that you're a Quaker. And the one we often fail to answer satisfactorily by saying things along the lines of: Well, that depends who you ask or we don't all believe the same thing, you know. Or, maybe most puzzlingly: it's not actually about believing.
But if it has a name, then surely it must have some kind of a definition. So what is it we have in common that makes us all 'Quakers'? The most obvious thing, in terms of practice, is that we meet together in not just silence but inner calm and waiting...for an inner experience. George Fox said – not: This I believe – but 'This I knew experimentally' *. A word that has undergone a change since his time; we would now say experientially: it was an experience, not a new religious theory, that led to the birth of Quakerism.
During meeting, we set aside any beliefs, theories, or hypotheses we may have about the nature of God, the Ultimate, the good, the meaning of it all, while we sit quietly waiting for something to come into this receptive space we have created inside us. We don't think (or try not to!), we wait. And of course our personal experiences differ. It – whatever you may wish to call It – speaks to us as the diverse individuals we are. It may give us an idea, a vision, a feeling, a new understanding hard to even put into words. This is what we can say: we seek. We are seekers, rather than believers.
The next question that tends to come up then is: But if you are doing all this seeking, don't you ever find? Well, yes, we do. We find all the time. But then we seek anew, find anew. It's like learning. You let go of old understandings as you gain new ones. Your old views are superseded, your previous theory goes in the bin. You meet with something appropriate for your current condition and needs.
Anyone who thinks they know for sure will have a problem with that. Fundamentalists of any stripe, including hard-core atheists who 'know that there is nothing' tend not to flock to us. Those who have fled from the rigid dogma of other religions, who have maybe experienced an inner voice that made them doubt and now want to explore different understandings, find a ready home with us.
But isn't there something we all subscribe to – can we really be that amorphous? Here I would like to introduce a picture of a 'point cloud with outliers'. It would have been nice to have a handy graphic for that, so I ransacked the internet for one, but it only came up with results that do their best to ignore the outliers and force an acceptable shape on all the rest of the dots. Interesting. Our Quaker cloud of dots emphatically does not do that. So imagine drawing this yourself by making pencil marks on a blank page: you start roughly in the middle, randomly at first and then make many more right in the middle, rather fewer as you spread out across the page, then fewer again, and then some here and there in the corners – each and everyone valued as contributing to the whole. So there you have the shape of us. It is called Quakers.
Individual understandings, outlier dots, a cloud that changes shape all the time as we keep seeking, experiencing, learning to see things from a different angle...so can anyone who isn't dogmatic about their (non-)belief call themselves a Quaker or is there something a bit more concrete that defines us?
I think we can only come back to lived practice. We hold our 'meetings for worship' not as individuals but as a group and anyone who has experienced what we call a gathered meeting will know – experientially – that the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. The very thought that has just popped into your head and that you're wondering whether it is for sharing with the group, is suddenly 'ministry' given by the person across the room. We have no idea how this works, but sometimes it just does. Or we may compare notes after the meeting and find that we were all gripped by the same feeling of deep peace during the middle part of it. Or maybe one person wasn't and looks puzzled. But that is OK; she was maybe off on a necessary inner journey of her own.
The cloud of seekers we are finds room for us all. That is something we 'believe' in. And in living out our 'testimonies' to peace-building, equality and justice, truth and integrity, simplicity and sustainability. That is what defines 'Quakers'. Or so I believe. But you may like to ask a few others.
* George Fox's Journal, 1647
Angela Arnold – Oswestry Quaker Meeting and North Wales Area Meeting