That Infamous Guardian Article
A few days before Britain Yearly Meeting 2018, a comment piece appeared in Britain’s Guardian newspaper with the mischievous title, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God” (May 4, 2018). The piece’s author Simon Jenkins praised British Friends for their refreshing take on spiritual matters:
The Quakers are clearly on to something. At their annual get-together this weekend they are reportedly thinking of dropping God from their “guidance to meetings”. The reason, said one of them, is because the term “makes some Quakers feel uncomfortable”. Atheists, according to a Birmingham University academic, comprise a rising 14% of professed Quakers, while a full 43% felt “unable to profess a belief in God”. They come to meetings for fellowship, rather than for higher guidance.
Instead of taking refuge in the metaphysical consolations, Jenkins sees Quakers as a group of honest therapeutics, committed to ‘expressing doubts, fears and joys amid a company of “friends”, who respond only with their private silence.’ Suffice to say, Jenkins interpretation of contemporary British Quakerism generated a forceful response from the Guardian’s letter pages, with one Friend remarking, ‘discomfort with “God language” is not the same thing as the abandonment of a spiritual life. Even non-theist Quakers have a spiritual life, and certainly don’t come to meetings just for fellowship.’ Another Friend remarked, ‘While there is certainly a spectrum of beliefs among Quakers, including those who call themselves “non-theists”, the question is more to do with how Friends think of God than of his absence.’ While these responses are clearly meant to reassure the reader that British Quakerism has not become a form of secular therapy, the acknowledgement of discomfort with theological language and the existence of a ‘spectrum of beliefs’ is indicative of an unruly complexity in the identity of British Quakers which defies simple definition. Yet, such spiritual intricacy is not simply perplexing to outsiders like journalists but is becoming increasingly perplexing to Friends themselves. As Keith Redfern expresses the existential challenge of our present condition:
The current climate is one of questioning and self-examination in an effort to find the right way forward. Before we can do this however, we have to be sure that we know who we are. Although British Quakers maybe clear individually as to their stage on a spiritual journey, as a religious community it seems that we are still seeking unity regarding our overall spiritual position.
Such diversity becomes vividly apparent when Friends are asked to explain what they are doing in Meetings for Business. Is the Meeting’s practice of discernment dependent upon some conception of Divine Guidance, a form of consensus decision-making or the unconscious wisdom of the group? If the first option than the decision arrived may possess a significance far beyond those gathered in Worship. If the latter options, the decision a Meeting might reach is merely the product of circumstance. As Redfern notes pessimistically of this divergence of understanding:
We are a Religious Society, in direct descent from those of the 17th century who realised that it is possible to have a direct communication with God; that we are not alone in our decision making, but that the Spirit is constantly on hand to guide and advise. If we insist on going it alone in our Quaker business, we may never find unity in anything and risk pulling our Yearly Meeting asunder.
One does not have to wholly agree with Redfern’s conclusion to see the fundamental issue he is driving at. If radical diversity is the new reality of 21st century British Quakerism, the question rightly persists, what, if anything, unites its miscellaneous strands? Does the Spirit evoked in the process of Quaker discernment even have an identifiable character to which diverse Quakers can assent? On initial inspection, it appears that Universalist, Christian and Non-theist Friends live in separate religious silos, each generating their own expression of Quaker spirituality. While Meeting for Worship may bring such Friends together in physical terms, their visions of Quaker life and Worship are radically different. Yet this rather polarised view of the present situation is overly hasty, since it ignores the striking similarities between diverse perspectives. Such similarities rest on the common philosophical terrain of ‘belief’. In the theistic version of this account, something called ‘Quaker theism’ is the key ingredient for binding Friends together into a unified whole. As Derek Guiton starkly puts the problem:
The Society today is criss-crossed with divisions and it appears that we now have no alternative but to ‘celebrate’ the diversity that, far from being a strength it is ritually affirmed to be, is in danger of destroying the unity which Friends have always regarded to be there, despite differences in their outward lives. Theists, non-Theists, atheists, Christians, pagans, Universalists, humanists, Friends who welcome this diversity, Friends who regret it, we sit in the same room and share the same silence.
The answer to such discordance according to Guiton is the adoption of a broad-based theological position that ‘unites Friends in the essentials’–an ‘area of acceptable belief’ which is ‘theistic without being Trinitarian’ and rooted in a ‘rich vein of mystical Christianity.’ Here we see the common assumption that belief always comes first in the religious life. Actions are said to spring from such belief. The concern behind Guiton’s formulation is that the intense debates over Quakerism’s future are the result of substantial deviation at the level of core belief, which inevitably causes a rupture in the fabric of the community. What about folk we might call modelist Friends? While it is true that the notion of core belief is less important to Quakers of this disposition, the centrality of belief remains the same. What such Friends claim is that there should be maximum freedom of belief in the context of a supportive community. As the Universalist Quaker Tony Philpott summarises this attitude: ‘The freedom to believe what I wish…enables me to use whatever model of the self is appropriate; I am not constrained by the Christian model of ‘the sinful man’ or an atheist model of monism and materialism. As with many of my beliefs I can have a universalist and syncretic view of the self.’ The non-theist David Boulton broadly concurs, arguing:
The theological diversity that has increasingly marked liberal Friends throughout the world over the last 120 years is the result of our growing discernment that unity is not dependent on someone’s notion of doctrinal orthodoxy. That’s a liberating experience – and a humbling one! It has freed us up to think and rethink everything, to challenge ourselves and each other. There’s nothing incoherent about accepting that we don’t know it all, about living the questions rather than insisting that we have all the answers. It means recognising that Quakers are still seekers on a continuing journey, not finders at the end of the road. There’s no going back.
In the latter account, Quakerism is a protective umbrella under which a variety of beliefs can be grown and fostered. Such Friends want diversity, but like their theist counterparts, never stop talking about belief. Thus, despite all appearances, we can see that the common ground between modelist and theistic camps is the centrality of belief in understanding the nature of religious community. Yet such tacit agreement is, I suggest, the root of the tensions and unease we have observed in Meetings. The crucial mistake made by the positions surveyed above is that all camps assume that the most significant elements of religious identity revolve around maintenance of ‘belief’. This gives the misleading impression that if only we could find the right hypothesis, the right settlement, the right form of words, all discord would vanish. Yet, attempts so far in this direction have been fruitless. The attempt to listen and include every shade of opinion has only magnified the sense of fracture in our Meetings. Why is this? Because Quakerism, like any other religious community, does not remain cohesive because of belief. Something much deeper draws religious communities together; the notion of a shared story.
Deconstructing the Terrain of Belief: Durkheim and Douglas
In 1912, the French Sociologist Emile Durkheim published his seminal work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The study’s compelling attempts to categorise the essential structure and function of ‘religion’ across human culture still provides a compelling framework for contemporary social theorists and anthropologists. What is perhaps less appreciated is the extent to which this text provides a snapshot of the ways in which the Western secular intelligentsia viewed religious phenomena at the beginning of the last century. A central element of Durkheim’s picture was the view that religious communities sprung primarily from beliefs about the status of holy and ordinary things. If we want to understand religious institutions and practices, it follows that we must first understand the claims which animate them. As Durkheim summarises this position: ‘[a] religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.’ According to this account, religious communities are ‘bound together by their common beliefs’ externally expressed through shared rites. While Durkheim understood that in most cases religious life consists of a diversity of ceremonies, taboos, and symbols, such structures are always derivative from an initial faith.
It is this Durkheimian model of religious life which explicitly structures contemporary debates over Quaker identity. Yet, ever since Durkheim articulated this theory of religious origins, there has always been a sense that something was missing from this overly belief-driven account of religion. In the rising tide of modern secularism, the only things Durkheim could see that were distinctive about the religious was their tendency to say religious things and performed sacred rites. Yet such a description of religiosity ignores other things which keep people in religious communities. The great disciple of Durkheim, the anthropologist Mary Douglas drew out some of the limitations of her mentor’s approach in her 1971 study Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. At the centre of the book is the claim that religious belief should not be reduced to primary beliefs and their derivative manifestations. While Douglas thought it true that rituals were often sustained by beliefs, it was equally true that the content of beliefs were often sustained by the symbols contained and encoded in ritual practices. As Douglas notes of the dynamics of the Catholic Eucharist:
The condensation of symbols in the Eucharist is staggering in its range and depth. The white circle of bread encompasses symbolically the cosmos, the whole history of the Church and more, since it goes from the bread oﬀering of Melchisidech, to Calvary and the Mass. It unites the body of each worshipper to the body of the faithful. In this compass it expresses themes of atonement, nourishment, and renewal.
In this vein, when we observe the Mass, we are neither seeing a straightforward manifestation of ritual through belief or belief through ritual, but a set of symbols which operate prior to either ritual or belief. This is a hidden structure, made up of words, images and assumptions, which allows a group to structure their experience into a coherent vision of the world, which Douglas called a ‘cosmology’. Summarising the concept, Douglas suggests:
We should try to think of cosmology as a set of categories that are in use. It is like lenses which bring into focus and make bearable the manifold challenge of experience. It is not a hard carapace which the tortoise has to carry for ever, but something very ﬂexible and easily disjointed. Spare parts can be ﬁtted and adjustments made without much trouble. Occasionally a major overhaul is necessary to bring the obsolete set of views into focus with new times and new company. This is conversion.
So, the question for contemporary British Quakers is not, ‘what do we believe’? But, rather, ‘what are the foundational words, images and stories that bind us together’? In Douglas’ terms, we should ask, what is our cosmology? While such a carapace cannot be easily described (just as it would be hard for a fish to describe water), we can begin the process of articulation by being attentive to the words and symbols in our Quaker tradition. This process (as Douglas’ own comments imply) is not about pickling Quaker identity into any permanent configuration but is about starting with the rich bed of resources which are implicit in the Quaker way of seeing, speaking, and relating. Think of these distinctive markers of Quaker identity (our words for God and social action, for instance) as miniature maps, which induct us into a particular interpretation of the world. Living out this interpretation is more important than a series of abstract questions about God. A satisfactory vision of God is never going to come about by adopting some over-arching theory or belief. But a deep coherence may arise if we become attentive to the language and stories Quakerism uses to illustrate (perhaps we should say picture) what God is for us. This process has many dimensions, but the most crucial one it seems to me, is about recovering a sense that our words and stories come from somewhere and have the capacity to lead us somewhere else. It is about saying, ‘I am a Quaker because this shared story calls to the very depth of my life—it fits the pieces of experience together, it shapes, it heals, it clarifies’.
The Challenge of This Approach
Viewing our present Quaker condition from this cosmological point of view can be challenging for a great many Friends occupying different places on the so-called spectrum, not least because it challenges the language of both belief and or belief-diversity as central to Quakerism. For non-theist and Universalist Friends, this perspective may seem troubling because it implies a robust recovery of some shared Quaker story. Might that exclude some people and alienate others? Not necessarily, although it might generate some hard questions which in turn force us to say what we are. Let’s be clear what it is we are talking about here. Make no bones about it, a shared story requires a shared language and that language, is, for the most part, Christian. So many of our fundamental words and images are emergent properties from the New Testament story. The Quaker story cannot be fully appreciated without this context. This is not in itself excluding of Universalist or non-theist Quakers, but it should raise thorny questions for those Friends who may be actively hostile to the centrality of Christian stories or language within Quakerism. What then binds such Friends to the lives of other Friends and to the Quaker tale? What is the centre of their shared Quaker life? Does the following Advice still speak to such Friends?
Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way. (1.02)
If such words leave some Friends cold or troubled, what might be getting in the way of working with such language? Baggage, intellectual scruples, past pain, our Meetings? But again, let’s be clear what is being talked about. The importance of Christianity argued for here, should not imply adopting a rigid set of beliefs (the historicity of the Resurrection, the Ascension, or the virgin birth) for surely then we are into the barren world of notions. What good would a creed or theology do us unless we were able to live in its words, and swim in its possibilities? This has always been central to the Quaker call. Think of Margret Fell and her earth-shattering experience in Ulverston Church in 1652:
You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’ This opened me so that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly, we were all wrong. So, I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves’… I saw it was the truth, and I could not deny it; and I did as the apostle saith, I ‘received the truth in the love of it’. And it was opened to me so clear that I had never a tittle in my heart against it; but I desired the Lord that I might be kept in it, and then I desired no greater portion. (Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.07)
Interestingly, Fell or Fox don’t say ditch the story (they use the language of the Scriptures), but neither do they say merely copy the story. Quakerism is not some hollow re-enactment fundamentalism. They say live the story, love it, embrace it. Let your manner of life follow from this. In this highly practical mode, the religious life isn’t primarily about believing things (if by belief we mean assenting intellectually to this or that proposition or statement). It isn’t even about protecting belief, so we don’t step on people’s toes. It is about letting the symbols of the shared story into one’s life, trusting that they will deliver their ‘fruit’, in meaning, in purpose, in depth. Belief of all kinds might follow later from this kind of narrative assent, but that isn’t the most important thing about the concept of a shared Quaker story. What matters the most is the ability of Friends to see and hear one another in ways which are rooted and shared. We must get beyond personal models and get into the habit of sitting under a more expansive canopy. This is a far richer starting-point than the one offered by some belief-focused Quaker Theists, or indeed some self-identified Non-Theists. It is not ‘theism’ or belief pluralism we need but a fresh and lively appreciation of the narratives that help us ‘be Quaker’. This is about Quaker literacy and not Quaker literalism. To non-theists and universalists, I would say, don’t simply dismiss, translate, or minimize the Christian stories and words that sit behind our Book of Discipline. Sit with them, test them, speak them, pull them apart, but don’t ignore them. Let them impinge your imagination, your heart, your thoughts. Let them work their alchemy in you, generating new ways of seeing and knowing. To self-identified Quaker Theists, I would say, don’t reduce Quakerism to ‘transcendence’ or the defense of God- language. Realize that we are invited into a whole cosmology, a living way of knowing and experiencing. We cannot argue away difference, but we can find unity if we sit on the same symbolic ground. If British Quakerism is to be more than a storehouse of competing beliefs, or a therapeutic group on a Sunday morning, we must get beyond belief and start telling the Quaker story together.
 Simon Jenkins, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God”, May 4th 2018, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/04/quakers-dropping-god
 Jenkins, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God”, May 4th 2018, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/04/quakers-dropping-god
 Letters: ‘Debate on ‘God language’ doesn’t mean all Quakers are losing faith’, 7 May 2018, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/07/debate-on-god-language-doesnt-mean-all-quakers-are-losing-faith
 ‘Debate on ‘God language’ doesn’t mean all Quakers are losing faith’, 7 May 2018, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/07/debate-on-god-language-doesnt-mean-all-quakers-are-losing-faith
 Kevin Redfern, ‘Doing Our Quaker Business’, in Searching the Depths: Essays in Search of Quaker Identity, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1998), p. 77.
 Redfern, ‘Doing Our Quaker Business’, in Searching the Depths: Essays in Search of Quaker Identity, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1998), p. 83.
 Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, p. 2.
 Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, p. 15.
 Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid
 Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid
 Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid
 Tony Philpott, From Christian to Quaker: A Spiritual Journey from Evangelical Christian to Universalist Quaker, (Winchester: Quaker Universalist Group Publishing, 2013), p. 240
 David Boulton. ‘Diversity’, in The Friend, 9 April 2010, https://thefriend.org/article/letters-9-april-2010 [Accessed 18 May 2018]
 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Carlos Cossman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 46
 Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Carlos Cossman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 42
 ‘Sue Stedman Jones, ‘The Concept of Belief in Elementary Forms’, in On Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, ed. N.J. Allen, W.S.F. Pickering, W. Watts Miller, (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 53
 Mary Douglas, Natural Symbol Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, (London: Routledge, 1971), p. 49-50
 Douglas, Natural Symbols, p.158