Look around an average Quaker meeting on an ordinary Sunday morning and you will not think ‘what a diverse group’. You’ll see a lot of grey hair, neat casual clothing, most people present will appear to be white and middle class. So why an interest in diversity? Ask these Quakers what they believe and you’ll unearth a wide spectrum of views. Some will define their beliefs in traditional Christian language, some will use alternative terminology from early Quaker writings, some will use language from other religious traditions (which they may have been/still be actively involved in or have come from), others will refuse to use any ‘religious’ language at all.
Quakers have always refused to have a creed, a form of words to which all are required to subscribe, because they perceive that any form of words will fail to encapsulate the truth. The refusal of creeds is probably one of the few things almost all Friends will unreservedly agree about. Words are good and help us communicate, but they are also a problem and lead to misunderstandings. Often people have different ideas about what a word means. If I say ‘God’ and you immediately think of God as sitting on a throne on a cloud issuing instructions to men, or you think or a fierce old man sending earthquakes and causing volcanoes to erupt, you will have totally misunderstood me. I am thinking of a loving, creative force that surrounds us all and is like a spark within us all, the purposes of which force we can chose to align ourselves with. Other people have other ideas what the word ‘God’ means. The result is often misunderstandings. While I often use the phrase ‘that of God within’, I will also comfortably speak of a person’s ‘inner Buddha nature’ or ‘inner Light’, I will say ‘Allah’ or ‘Adonai’ if that seems likely to be better understood by my hearer. I may write ‘G-d/d-ss’ or ‘YHWH’, I have been practising saying ‘She’ instead of ‘He’ and really like it a lot better.
So how do I find it possible to enter into worship with people whose conception of ‘God’, if they even have one, is so different to my own? And how can we make decisions in the Quaker way, by seeking together to know ‘the will of God’ when some of those present deny the existence of God? I believe that, whatever terminology we use to try and explain our experience, when we sit together, honestly and openly, in silence, and wait expectantly, we can perceive together something else. It may be something deep inside ourselves and/or something beyond ourselves, but if we trust the process (rather than the words) we will be guided to the right step forward at this time for this group or individual. We can align ourselves with that positive force in the universe, whatever we may or may not name it. Sometimes, we do not seem to get any particular guidance, and then we should use our common sense, intelligence and past experience to decide the best way forward. To me, these assets are ultimately from what I call God, so there is no contradiction in this. Sometimes, as I put it when clerking our local meeting: ‘God may not care what colour we paint the walls, but we’ll ask her, just in case’. Our different understandings all contribute to, rather than detract from, our ability to do this as a group.
So I give thanks for the Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, non-theists, seekers, Sufis, Universalists and others who join with me in Meeting for Worship, regularly or occasionally. All contribute to a rich mix that strengthens our meetings.