«By CAROLE ANNE HAMBY A thesis submitted to the University of Birmingham for the degree of DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY Department of Theology and Religion ...»
160 the main, constant, belief is so changed in modern liberal Quakerism that Alistair Heron, questioning Quaker identity, asks: ‘is our ‘Christian heritage’ so secularised that we are really humanist at heart?’31 Later in this publication he claims ‘my concern is to assert afresh that ours (Friends’) is a religious society, not a secular or humanist one’.32 In this view, inwardly experienced knowing is to be attributed to religious experience. However, as indicated above, this understanding and its attendant language is not shared by all twenty/ twenty-first century Quakers.
The following section identifies aspects of the many transitions that have affected the modern Religious Society of Friends and given rise to a range of specific issues. These are discussed under three headings to clarify attendant concerns: they include a) Quakerism in terms of discursively written academic accounts versus devotional descriptions of spiritual experience (5.4); b) Understanding of ‘that of God within’ in terms of the ‘Inward’ versus the ‘Inner’ Light (5.5.), and c) the growth of non-theism (5.6).
5.4 Discursive accounts of academic considerations as compared with devotional descriptions of spiritual experience This section indicates how, in the present, a range of perspectives show interdependence and interaction between different, but compatible, modes of description.
There is a tone, language selection and purpose in academic writing that distinguishes it from the more personally experiential, often devotional, description of spiritual practice that is sometimes ‘mystical’ in its character. On occasions these two approaches to expressing spiritual understanding seem at variance. However, when given due attention, it is evident that they complement each other and, in combination, they offer the breadth of perspective that is needed to provide full understanding of Quaker spiritual practice, experience and knowledge.
5.4.1 Discursively expressed academic considerations Among his addresses, and following the Manchester conference, John Wilhelm Rowntree, suggested that the Religious Society of Friends had not had anything to say of public note or interest for at least half a decade.33 He acknowledged internal communication among different trends and movements within the Society but lamented that, once having been a forward player in theological change, Quakers were theologically silent in the eighteenth century. He asked searching questions rhetorically;34 but he required the Society to address them: ‘Is there a God? Is He knowable? What is inspiration? How far can we rely on the Bible? Was Jesus divine? Can we trust his claim to reveal the Father? How does the evolution of species affect the problem of sin?–and so forth and so forth’.35 However, as he suggested that Friends ‘had stopped thinking in the seventeenth century’, his tone was not optimistic of receiving profound answers and explanation, despite the fact that he claimed the time as one of ‘peculiar hopefulness’ (yet also one of ‘peculiar peril’).36 Rowntree maintained that ‘He who neglects his intellectual powers or refuses to be guided by them in discovery of truth, is not only an intellectual coward, he is defying the purposes of the Almighty …’37 Inwardness, as the rest of Quaker faith and practice had become, for him, not only significant as experience exclusively and without confirmation in the Bible, but also subject to and supported by intellectual consideration. He urged the 33 Rowntree, J. W. Essays and Addresses (London: Headley, 1906), p. 241. John Wilhelm Rowntree, was an activist of the Quaker Movement in the 19-20th centuries. He played a significant role in enabling the Religious Society of Friends of his day to encompass the new knowledge of the periodparticularly in the form of biblical criticism and that gained from scientific developments. He also helped to establish the Quaker Study Centre at Woodbrooke, in Birmingham.
34 Rowntree, J. W. Claim your Inheritance. Essays on Man’s Relation to God (London: Bannisdale Press, n/d.).
35 Rowntree, Essays and Addresses. pp. 241-242. See also Rowntree, J. W. Claim your Inheritance, pp. 61-68 for an argument for Christianity and, p. 50 for ‘truth … [to be] tested by experience’.
The conception of inwardness of the Kingdom faithfully interpreted, cut at the root of all shams, all mere conventionalities, all religion by proxy, all unbrotherliness, all injustice, all artificial limitation. Interpreted with sincerity, it worked itself out into a practical gospel, a spiritual and social order transcending all contemporary ideals in its realization of lofty purity, and loving fellowship.39 Once the fact that ‘the Bible was never the ultimate court of appeal’ had been accepted, Rowntree’s assertion, concerning lack of understanding of the Inward Light, resounds as particularly damning of Quaker theology. Rowntree was urging Quakers to rethink their theology, to clarify their religious stance and to challenge each other to better expressions of their faith and practice. Whilst at the same time he claimed the stance for such
theology to be based in worship. He maintained that:
It is only in the inwardness of true spiritual worship that the soul grows aware of its deepest need, becomes impatient of self-deception and of the world’s poor baubles, and seeks with passionate longing to know the real basis and meaning of life.40 The increasingly discursive approach to explaining and interpreting faith and practice is expressed in more recent times in many of the Swarthmore lectures [g] yet, at the same time, the lectures are accepted by some of the lecturers and the Swarthmore lecture committee as ministry. Some Friends offer approaches that are exclusively Christian and others provide Universalist positions yet seek to maintain and express the core ‘Quaker propositions … derived from experience’ devotionally; additionally, some are presented in discursive mode theologically and philosophically.
163 Janet Scott’s Swarthmore lecture, has been and remains important in facing the questions that seek to define the wider view of Quaker theology for this generation.41 In her reference to ‘experience’ Scott means not only that encompassed in the three hundred and sixty-year history of the Religious Society of Friends, but also that of God’s disclosures to human beings individually. Addressing the latter Scott asks ‘what canst thou say?’ There is in Scott no explicit talk of the meaning or significance of Inwardness or inward knowing, although in her closing paragraph she intimates the importance of truth known in ‘that tenderest compassion’ as a ‘response …. in the silence of waiting’.42 For Scott, and for many twenty/twenty-first century Friends, a Christian interpretation of Quaker theology remains acceptable, and for some essential, for others a ‘reasonable uncertainty’ is more appropriate.43 Despite the challenge presented by language, Gerald Priestland maintains ‘we cannot pursue our [Friends’] interior life without some attempt at formulation, some resort to language’ in expressing our [Quakers’] experience.44 Writing
of the relationship between language and experience, Keith Ward argues that:
Linguistic tradition is vitally important in religion. But experience is an equally important factor in enabling us to understand diverse traditions, and to revise or advance our own tradition in creative ways. It is thus possible to run together the experiential and cultural-linguistic dimensions in such a way that new and vivid experiences prompt the linguistic tradition to move in new directions, while the existing interpretative tradition governs to some extent the way in which the religious object is experienced.45 Ward’s observation is significant not only for the fact that Quakers use increasingly diverse ways of describing their faith and practice, but also for the fact that one stage of
45 Ward, K. The Case for Religion, p. 75. In relation to the issue of the extent to which our knowledge and its related language affects experience, see also Katz, S, on conceptualised experience.
Beth Allen’s Swarthmore lecture,47 as that of Janet Scott, attempts to provide some
theological certainty through a particular line of questioning.48 She asks:
Although her own answers are as a Christian Quaker, Allen acknowledges that Universalist and non-theist Friends might answer such questions differently.
For Allen, the ‘inner spaces within each of us are mental and spiritual worlds huge beyond our [human] imagining’.50 So Allen’s view is that everyone is the same–all people are endowed with far reaching inner dimensions, an immensity of Inwardness. 51 Allen’s lecture speaks of ‘inner worlds’ and what is held ‘within our hearts’ [Quakers’]. In conclusion, she suggests that for Quakers ‘worship teaches us quietly how to enter the world in our heart, how to wait upon God, how to listen to the inward teacher, and how to watch for the hints and guesses, the sparkles along the web of our community’. She asks ‘In our silence, what is God doing? How can we help?’52
52 Allen, B. ibid, 118. It is of interest to note that Allen uses the term ‘attentive availability’ rather than ‘Attentive Presence’.
165 In the present generation it is Allen’s fourth question that Friends embrace particularly fully, especially in academic presentations i.e. what can Quakers do? This question upstages the importance of what Quakers need to be. As Christine Trevitt says, ‘The worthy issues of peace and social action seem to occupy a higher place in Friends’ thinking and giving than does our own [Quaker] spiritual nurture’.53 ‘The rock of modern Quaker diversity’ leaves Friends with many unresolved uncertainties and no clear faith position.54 There are, however, increasing numbers of academic journals, and research publications that focus on the subjects that need clarification, and which answer questions such as those posed by Allen and Scott.55 In 2010, the Religious Society of Friends ran a Quaker Essay Competition comparable to that of the one organised in 1859. These essays include some interesting material relating to the nature of contemporary Quakerism and the significance of the inward dimension of worship experience. Of the three prize winning Quaker essayists, Felicity Kaal 56 writes most explicitly about the inward dimension of Quaker spiritual practice.
However, both Linda Murgatroyd,57 the outright winner, and Simon Best58 also emphasise the importance of the religious nature of the Society and, in turn, the significance of its spiritual practice as the core of the Quaker Way.
Murgatroyd is even-handed in relation to Quaker faith and Quaker action. She writes ‘we are a faith of applied mysticism: without the mysticism – the direct experience of the
54 See Quaker Studies Research Association and it related publications.
56 Kaal, F. ‘The Future of Quakerism in Britain Yearly Meeting’, (Quaker Essay Competition), The Friends Quarterly, No. 2. 2010 pp. 64-85 57 Murgatroyd, L, The Future of Quakers in Britain:.Holding Spaces for the Spirit to Act’, (Quaker Essay Competition), The Friends Quarterly, No. 2,.2010, pp. 1-29 58 Best, S. ‘The Religious Society of Friends in Britain: Simple, Contemporary, Radical?’ (Quaker Essay Competition), The Friends Quarterly, No. 2. 2010 pp.49-63 166 holy - the action is meaningless, but without the action our Quaker faith is hollow’.59 However, she is unequivocal in affirming that the fact ‘That we humans can each have a direct communication with God, has been central to Quakerism from the outset’.60 Although she does not provide a detailed explanation of the means by which ‘communication with God’/ ‘direct experience of the holy’ occurs, she does state clearly that, ‘It is the very process of our worship - rooted in silence and reaching inwards and outwards in open listening – that lies at the core of British Quakerism’.61 Further, Murgatroyd recognises that from this practice,62 usually corporate, the individual gains immense benefit. She writes, ‘Quaker worship is a wonderfully energising and healing activity, the more we practise it the greater the power of the spirit in our individual lives’.63 She only mentions the term ‘inward’ once in her essay and her description of process is of ‘sinking into our spiritual shared silence, … activity that seems eternal and intangible, yet very much in the present moment’.64 For Murgatroyd, Quaker worship involves a process based in and utilising silence that is in the main corporate. Her description of ‘reaching inwards and outwards’ is consistent with Table 1, p. 11, which depicts the practice of worship as described in this thesis.
For Best, the issue of Quaker worship gives rise to a questioning of practice. He writes, ‘We need to move away from our rigid adherence to the silent form of Quaker Worship and explore different approaches to worship, including semi-programmed worship that enables different types of people and people of all ages, to engage with worship’.65 Best endorses Dandelion’s claim concerning the importance of silence and the