In this address, I am thinking about the ‘Religious Society of Friends’, or as they are better known, the ‘Quakers’. I think in a way, it’s odd to use words to discuss them, for the obvious reason that Quakers are distinctive in that they meet primarily for ‘Silent Worship.’ It is in the silence of the Meeting that they commune with one another, cutting through the kind of knots it easy to tie ourselves up in with words. This allows them to just simply be present one with another. On Wednesday I was the speaker at the Quaker’s monthly discussion group; I used the opportunity to introduce myself to them, telling them my spiritual journey, and my journey into Unitarianism. I then went on to give them my take on Unitarianism – who we are, our history, what we stand for, and some of the challenges we face as a movement. Some open-ended discussion followed my talk; an opportunity for me to learn more about them, how they understand the significance of their faith, and to learn how they perceive the similarities between our two movements. The conversations were interesting and wide ranging. A Quaker meeting takes the following format: an hour of silence, in which an individual may stand and offer a contribution, an insight which has occurred them, an issue they have been wrestling with, a cause that they passionate about. After the contribution has been given, the Meeting maintains silence for few minutes, reflecting on what has been said, before another speaks. In some meetings, much is said, and many people speak. In other meetings, no one speaks, and the entire hour goes by in silence. One of the Quakers on Wednesday said that because there was no structured input, no pre-prepared address, people could come to many Meetings before they started to understand what Quakerism is all about. Very much the slow-burn approach, one needs to be fully enveloped in Quakerism before they can really get it. For one must learn for themselves the value of communal silence. The value in being strengthened and upheld in silence. The simplicity of it. Drawing into the divine presence within themselves, allowing sacred space to heal hearts. It made me think of the silence we keep here, silence which helps our concerns and worries to melt away, as we prepare ourselves to worship. Being intentionally still and quiet in a building in which people have done likewise for hundreds of years.
At the end of the evening, Riena made a comment which captured my feeling exactly. After hearing the Quakers talk about their faith, and what is was about Quakerism they found valuable, Riena said it made her feel proud to be a Unitarian. In hearing others talk about the value of their faith, we are reminded of what is valuable in our own faith. We see it with fresh eyes, we see the value in what we can so easily take for granted. We choose our faith: our Quakerism or our Unitarianism says something about us, it says something about what we value. In so many ways, Unitarians and Quakers are really similar; politically, theologically, and culturally, there is a paper-thin difference. As the joke goes - Unitarians are Quakers with Hymns. Two things which do stand out, making us distinct, is what we do on Sunday mornings in our Meetings, and the histories of our two movements. As the centuries have passed, the divide between Quakerism and Unitarianism seems to have shrunk. I think we may very well be more similar now, today, than we ever have been.
When I think of the Quakers, two things come to mind: their Silence, and their Peace Advocacy. As they say, “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons…” The Peace Testimony has been a source of inspiration to Friends through the centuries, for it points to a way of life which embraces all human relationships. Quakers are totally opposed to all wars, all preparation for war, all use of weapons and coercion by force, and all military alliances. No end could ever justify such means. I am very much taken by the Quakers’ call to peace. Of course, one could say, there are terrible forces at play in our world. One could say that to protect the free, we must prepare for war, and be prepared for violence. One could say, that justice requires the possibility of punitive action upon the belligerent state. One could say many things to justify many actions… But to simply say, one must start with their own heart and mind, that war can only stop when each of us is convinced that war is never the way; the Quakers emphasise that it starts with the individual. Whenever one talks about the legitimacy of war, one immediately starts thinking in macro terms, in geopolitical terms, and on that scale war becomes an abstract notion, a creed that one ultimately believes in or not. But when you emphasise the person, this one person who stands against war, this one person who chooses not to use violence, this one person who wants to be an example to the world of living peaceably, it becomes far more practical, far more grounded. And ultimately, for the individual, that is what it comes down to. Don’t think in lofty terms, about the practical feasibility of such a view; think about yourself, what you yourself want to be an advocate of, what you yourself want to project to the world out there. Are we a peaceful people, with peaceful thoughts, longing for a peaceful world? Or wolves in sheep’s clothing? To practice sensitivity and empathy, gentleness, and kindness, well I for one would rather hold up that chalice to the paining world and be an advocate of hope, than be a sensible person, with sensible views.
It was good to spend Wednesday with the Quakers. We felt that it was strange we did not do more with one another, and so I made the small commitment to consider the Quakers, and they have done likewise, to invite one another to our special events and they to do the same. To state the obvious, liberal religions such as ours may need to look out more for one another over these coming decades. For our ways, and our approach, are increasingly becoming alien to the world. When I think about the Quakers, it ultimately comes back to God. Like we Unitarians, there is a broad spectrum of belief around God - what that word means, what images that word conjures. And like we Unitarians, Quakers continue to emphasise their Christian heritage, their journey, their narrative, which makes them unique and special. The roots of our movements lie in a very similar place. They lie in a refusal to be swept up into the status quo, a desire to take a sacred text and read it for ourselves, wrestle with it ourselves, and understand it for ourselves. As Paul said in our first reading, in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “I therefore, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Humility, Gentleness, Peacefulness, and Patience: these are fruits of the Spirit, characteristics of the divine within us, qualities of our Unitarian way that we carry into a world in pain. May we go in peace, to love and serve.