Part of the Quaker testimony to equality is a thrawn insistence on showing only the respect of an equal, even to the monarch. When a man addressed a superior as “you” and an equal or inferior as “thou”, we called all men “thou”; and where an inferior would take off his hat to his betters, we took off our hats to no man, no Lord, no judge. Our founders were put in prison for this lack of respect.
Men worshipped wearing their hats, a custom we in Britain have dropped only in the last century. A friend wanted to get a Quaker hat, but the problem was that there was no one design: the Quakers’ hats and bonnets were visibly different from those of outsiders, but their fashions changed over two hundred years.
Fashions change in Ministry, as well. I have only ever heard ministry which is addressed to the gathered congregation. People talk of God, of right conduct or of politics with a moral slant; but I am aware that there is a convention if anyone in ministry prays to God. The minister in that case kneels down, and everyone else stands. And, when the men wore hats, they would take them off.
John Perrot, who still does not have his own Wikipedia article, wished to keep his hat on during prayer. He argued that if taking off the hat was no true honour to another man, it was no true honour to God either. George Fox imposed his authority, and Perrot was driven out of the Society of Friends.
Where we have ritual- shaking hands to end a meeting, or the guidance on what is appropriate Ministry- it helps that it is the same across the country. We seek the leadings of God in making our decisions, but the orthodox Quaker custom had evolved in worship and been affirmed by decisions made in worship. Perrot sought to go his own way on this.
My own refusal to obey authority led to a minute of disunity from my area meeting, condemning me. That minute was reversed when it was considered by wise Quakers from outside the AM, but that process was incredibly painful for me. As a lawyer, I want to distinguish the imposition of authority on me from that on Perrot. When I made a stand against my friend being scapegoated, I was myself scapegoated, wrongfully. I absolutely refused the ultimatum imposed on me. I was always willing to meet in Worship to discern a way forward, and promote reconciliation between my friend and her persecutors. Fortunately, I am happy in my current area meeting, and I have a role in which I serve it.
Ours is a Society without a hierarchy. We make decisions together, seeking God’s loving purposes: what is the right thing for us to do, here, now? Our Quaker roles, of Elder and Overseer (from Greek “Episcopos”) circulate among the members of the meeting.
Retreating together is a powerful thing, able to build community, and that is why it is an excellent thing for Northamptonshire AM or Central Manchester LM to do, and in this case such a toxic thing for South Wales AM elders and overseers to do. It was in one of their retreats that they considered a conflict between one of themselves and a vulnerable but committed Friend, and decided to exonerate themselves, and scapegoat her. Seeing that it was a conflict between themselves and one Friend, H, they should have sought outside help and reconciliation: but they did not see that. The outside helper already involved was asking them uncomfortable questions, so they rudely told her that her assistance was no longer required, and started a sustained campaign of bullying and vilification. That has led, two years later, to H’s exclusion from the Society of Friends.
At area meetings discussing this, where Friends are supposed to attend “with hearts and minds prepared”, elders and overseers have worked very hard to prevent the facts being known. Only their interpretation could be heard. They directly accused me of lying, behind my back, when I could not be present and had no chance to respond, and on the evidence of one witness, which was contradicted by her own writing. When I complained their accusation was false, they silenced me: I was impugning the word of the one of them who called me a liar. One reason they gave for silencing me was that she was not present to answer me, a rich hypocrisy. Thereby, they forced through the minute of disunity with me, which was only reversed on appeal six months later. Because I had moved, they sent a letter to my new area meeting. Perhaps fortunately, it condemned me utterly, and portrayed me in an entirely negative light: it was therefore belied by experience of me. I am accepted and happy in my Quaker meeting, no thanks to the liars in South Wales.
The appeal panel overturned the minute of disunity, which is now void. They specifically criticised South Wales elders and overseers for claiming that I alone was responsible for the conflict. Having more delicacy than I about the use of the word “lie”, they call this an “oversimplification”. In the meeting of the AM which received the appeal panel’s report, elders and overseers prevented this criticism from being read out. And so they continued their campaign of mendacity to force through the humiliation of my Friend H.
My current area meeting show their regard for me by appointing me assistant clerk. I am unsure of the current situation in South Wales and Cardiff Meeting. Sometimes, scapegoating and expulsion of an innocent victim, and the creation of an out-group, can make a community bond more closely. Quakers should have a more excellent way of building community.