Becoming Friends – or the Bumper Book of Quaker Fun

Becoming Friends is a response to requests from newcomers for a way to learn more about Quakers and Quakerism. Some people were finding that welcoming as their local meeting may be, it was not easy to ask more searching questions, or to share with people on a deeper level, or even to know where to start reading all the books in the meeting house library.

I remember a newcomer to my meeting saying ‘I’ve been trying to read Fox’s Journal, but I’m finding it really difficult to understand’, to which my immediate reply was ‘I’ve never read it, despite being a Friend for nearly 30 years, perhaps it’s not the best place to start’. When I heard about the plans for ‘Becoming Friends’ I offered to help with the trials, and invited the Friend who’d struggled with Fox’s Journal to join me. We both enjoyed and were challenged by the activities suggested, but found the opportunity to share something of our spiritual journeys particularly valuable.

The ‘course’ (forget all your ideas about courses at school and college, this one has no assignments, examinations, deadlines, essays or being told what to do) consists of ten units, eight covering different topic areas, plus opening and closing units (which are recommended to look at first and last, so there is a bit of structure).

Each unit has a range of activities to try, grouped into three sections:

Distinctives: exploring the distinctive Quaker way in relation to that topic,
Discovering: more about Quaker people and community, structures, resources and events, Deepening: opportunities for personal reflection and journalling, prayer or spiritual practice and spiritual friendship conversations.

Apart from the opening and closing units, units can be looked at in any order (they are arranged alphabetically – a method traditionally used among Quakers for listing almost everything in an attempt to avoid discrimination) and at whatever length and depth the participant wishes, although taking at least one activity from each of the three sections is suggested, for balance and maximum benefit.

A great strength of the ‘course’, at its best, is the provision, if desired, of a local ‘companion’ to meet with to discuss progress, ask questions, plan how to proceed, arrange to talk to others and for general support and sharing. The role of the ‘companion’ is support and listening, not instruction or teaching. I have been privileged to serve as a companion to several newcomers and it has been a profound learning experience for me. I have also been with the online course since the launch in January 2009, and have been moved by the depth of the sharing in the online forums and by the welcoming, supportive atmosphere.

The ‘course’ is available online from Woodbrooke and in book form (from the Quaker bookshop). The book is very thick and possibly daunting which is why a fellow companion dubbed it ‘The Bumper Book of Quaker Fun’ likening it to the ‘Bumper Fun’ books of puzzles we used to have as children. Like that, one can dip in and out, skip from page to page, do all the dot-to-dots and leave the crosswords, or spend hours colouring one page with great attention to detail.

B is for Banking, Business, Barclays and Balby

What’s the connection between all these Bs?

In 1656 the elders of Balby Meeting wrote some advices, in a epistle (or letter) that concluded with the well known (to Friends) and much loved postscript ‘Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life’ which is still appended to our Advices and Queries to this day (see January 5).

Among the 20 advices is ’15.That all Friends that have callings and trades, do labour in the thing that is good, in faithfulness and uprightness, and keep to their yea and nay in all their communications: and that all who are indebted to the world, endeavour to discharge the same, that nothing they may owe to any man but love one to another.’. This clearly refers to the advice Jesus is quoted as giving in Matthew 5:37 ‘But let your communication be ‘yea, yea’ or ‘nay, nay’; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.'(21st King James Version) or in more modern parlance ‘All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.’ (NIV).

This advice was accepted widely and literally amongst Quakers, although it was not always easy, as Luke Cock observed: ‘… I was to speak the truth from my heart – and before I used to swear and lie too for gain. ‘Nay, then,’ said I to my Guide, ‘I mun leave Thee here: if Thou leads me up that lane, I can never follow: I’se be ruined of this butchering trade, if I mun’t lie for a gain.’ Here I left my Guide, and was filled with sorrow, and went back … So here I found my Guide again, and began to follow Him up this lane and tell the truth from my heart. I had been nought but beggary and poverty before; and now I began to thrive at my trade, ‘

As Luke Cock found, though, it actually led to improved business. The trustworthiness of Friends became well known, leading them also into money lending and, thence, into banking, including Barclays.

I am interested to note that on Thursday Sky News reported ‘Barclays employees who do not wish to adhere to a strict new ethical code of conduct should quit the bank and find jobs elsewhere, its chief executive warned today as he began attempting to rebuild its tarnished reputation.
In a message sent this morning to Barclays’ 140,000 staff around the world, Antony Jenkins said that Barclays had to become “a values-driven business” if it wanted to be “a valuable business” in future.’

I leave you to draw your own conclusions regarding modern banking practices.

Advices and Queries and the Attributes of God

What do the Advices and Queries tell us of the Quaker view of God?

Quakers don’t have a creed, a formal statement of belief. One thing we agree about is that words are inadequate to express deep spiritual truths, so we refuse to be bound by them. Many of us are particularly cautious about using ‘the G word’ ie God. For some of us that is because we don’t believe in what we understand the word God to mean, for others it is that we feel our listeners or readers won’t understand what we, as individuals, mean by ‘God’. Most Quakers do turn to Advices and Queries, occasionally or frequently, individually and in communal worship, for guidance and challenge in all the varied aspects of our lives.

In Advices and Queries the word ‘God’ appears thirty-six times, along with several other words such as Love and Light that are used as synonyms for God.

I had a look at how the word God is being used in these cases. Frequently it is used with another word which I feel describes an attribute of God. This may help to give us an image of the Quaker view of God. On eight occasions Advices and Queries refers to ‘God’s guidance’ or ‘the leadings of God’; five times to ‘God’s love’; twice to ‘God’s light’; twice to ‘God within’ and seven times to ‘experience of / awareness of / presence of / communion with God’. There are also references to God’s healing power, purpose / will and continuing creation. There is mention of our responsibility to and service of God. There is NO mention of vengeance or judgement.

The image of God that I draw from this fits with my experience. This God is a Presence rather than a person, it is loving, forgiving and healing. It is an energy or force, rather than an entity. It has a purpose, a positive, creative purpose and will guide us (if we pay attention) to co-operate with it in carrying out that purpose. It is through people that God acts in the world.

As Quakers, individually and corporately, we try to listen to ‘the promptings of love and truth’, to ‘trust them as the leadings of God’ and to apply them in the decisions and actions of our daily lives. The Quaker understanding of God is a Presence that guides us; our responsibility is to ‘take heed’ of that guidance.

Oh look – we’re back at Advices and Queries 1!

Advices and Queries

‘Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.’

Let’s start at the beginning. A Quaker topic for A? – A is for ‘Advices and Queries’. A handy little red booklet that I find myself referring to, and quoting from, rather frequently. The above quotation is the first ‘advice’ and my current view is that it says all that needs to be said, though the rest of the booklet is valuable too.
So, what does it mean to me?
‘Take heed’ – not a phrase we use everyday – I understand to mean listen, listen well, take notice, pay attention and then act in the light of what I ‘hear’. Somehow, using the rather archaic word gives the advice more weight.
‘dear Friends’ – this is offered by Friends to Friends, with love. It is offered as advice not as an instruction.
‘the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.’ These promptings may come in different forms. It is possible that I may ‘hear’ an inner voice, or that someone may speak words that move me to action. It is equally possible that the ‘promptings’ are a response to something I read, see or otherwise perceive. I come a step closer to ‘seeing’ what is wrong (my darkness) and how to move towards correcting that (towards new life).
This summarises the Quaker approach to religion and to life. I commit myself to listening carefully, often in silence, to paying attention to that force within and beyond me, that I term ‘God’, in the belief that it has a positive purpose in the world. I commit myself to following these ‘promptings’ to align myself with ‘the will of God’ trusting that this will lead to a better world, to ‘heaven on earth’. I confess that I am often slow to respond, rebellious and questioning, but I keep trying. Will you join me?

I think we’ll return to ‘Queries’ when we get to Q.

Advices and Queries‘ forms the first chapter of ‘Quaker Faith and Practice: the book of Christian Discipline of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain’