This recent gathering at Woodbrooke was billed as a ‘threshing event’, exploring the potential for a renewal of the Religious Society of Friends for the 21st Century. It is an initiative of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Recording Clerk, Paul Parker, who has been visiting Meetings throughout the country, gathering a sense of new confidence and outspokenness among Friends, which he sees as the stirrings of a new period of growth and revitalisation.
I have had a sense for some time that the Quaker Way has the potential to speak to the needs of very large numbers of people, so it was a pleasure to be in a group of Friends with a clear sense of the possibility of growth and renewal. The final epistle recorded that ‘we discern a growing confidence within the Religious Society of Friends that our experience-based religion is increasingly what many people are looking for. Growing numbers of people have rejected all claims to absolute truth, but are hungry for a path of personal and social transformation. This could be a “transition moment” for British Quakers, as we discover a new radicalism in response to turbulent times.’ It also notes that ‘at the end of the 17th Century, Quakers made up 1% of the British population – the equivalent of 600,000 members today. We are convinced that the UK would be a better place with 600,000 Quakers in it.’
British Quakers appear to be in the middle of a major cultural shift, perhaps on the same scale as previous ‘transition moments’ from prophetic to quietist, evangelical and liberal eras. It has been one of the ‘dogmas’ of Quaker culture throughout the 20th Century that we ‘let our lives speak’ exclusively through our actions, rather than telling anyone explicitly about the Quaker Way, and that ‘people will find us when they are ready’. One Friend at Woodbrooke spoke of the ‘culture of hiddeness’ that has governed Quakers for a century, and that is only recently being challenged, primarily through the impact of Quaker Quest over the last decade.
As Friends have started to find a voice to share their spiritual experience with newcomers and with each other, many Meetings (including our own) have experienced a deeper sense of relationship and spiritual depth. More vibrant Meetings in turn become more attractive to newcomers, which has led to many Meetings of all sizes, throughout the country, receiving many new attenders along with a renewed sense of vitality.
One of the more surprising messages to come from the ‘Whoosh’ event was the clear sense of our need to nurture leadership within the Religious Society of Friends – including prophetic voices, spiritual guides and a confident ‘teaching ministry’, in order to support all of us in ‘continuous spiritual development’ throughout our lives. Many ‘Whoosh’ participants were clear that we need to be doing far more for the spiritual preparation, nurture and development of all of our members and attenders, including a greater attention to preparation for membership, inter-visitation, and travelling in the ministry. This is another area that has been a huge taboo for liberal Quakers, who have generally insisted that Quakerism is ‘caught not taught’, and resisted any suggestion of leadership as an offence against the principle of ‘equality’.
As Geoffrey Durham said during the weekend, ‘for a very long time Quakers have only ever talked to each other’. It seems that this is finally starting to change. Undoubtedly this process of turning outwards towards the world will provoke considerable resistance. I am imagining many ‘Whoosh’ participants going back enthusiastically to their local Meetings, only to be met with stern disapproval. We were also reminded at the weekend to be ‘tender and patient’ with Friends in our Meetings who have lived their commitment to Quakerism quietly and faithfully over many years, and who may find all this new enthusiasm for outreach and experimentation painfully ‘unquakerly’.
Nevertheless, there are signs that the Spirit, that ‘blows where it will’, is once again moving British Friends in a new direction, responding to the needs of the world in turbulent times. I hope that we can be open enough to listen to its call, and and courageous enough to follow it.
There is more information about the event, including the full text of the epistle, on the Sheffield Quakers blog at: