How we perceive Quakers

The Religious Society of Friends is not how Friends perceive it. How we perceive the Society changes as we mature. Failing or refusing to apply for membership, some say they do not feel good enough to be Quakers; if we persuade them that they are, that they are a valued part of our community, and they join, it means surrendering an idealised view of us, and seeing us warts and all. We are people with spiritual experiences, often with particular gifts, and we still suffer from tensions between members.

I had the feeling in 2016 that I was expecting too much from my Quaker meeting. Starting to attend in 2001, I felt extremely vulnerable newly expressing myself as female, and the Friends I met seemed wonders of wisdom and integrity. I applied for membership quickly, wanting somewhere I belonged. I saw Friends as having particular concerns or witness and decided my own witness was self-knowledge and self-acceptance, something I still work on. In 2016, I was more and more aware of tensions. I had given a great deal to my community, and taken freely perhaps too much of its support; I was more and more aware of the costs of that support.

We see the swan’s feet as well as its feathers. We are seeing Friends more clearly. There is still the beauty and strength of each Friend’s ministry in their life and action, but also the difficulty, false starts and unknowing. Everyone finds unknowing difficult, especially the educated and intelligent who are used to knowing so don’t have the practice.

Or we can retain the idea of the Religious Society of Friends as a beautiful, Godly structure by not noticing the bad stuff, or forgetting it. That is tempting and reassuring. Jesus says, they who have ears to hear, let them hear! A person who is merely strong and loving is not a whole person.

I doubt my good motives. I have airy thoughts of responding In Love, or even in Presence. If I fully value my fear and anger as legitimate reactions, I may avoid acting them out. In worship on Monday morning, I felt fear and alienation. Sitting with it, accepting it, not knowing the end to it, frightens me. At one time the pain of that was too great for me to admit it to consciousness. It remains difficult.

I apply Scott Peck’s analysis of group work to Quakers. Ideally we cycle between Emptiness, where we let go of our demands for the world to be other than it is, and Community, where we experience Unity, or the Presence of God. In reality we may retreat to Pseudo-community, where we are superficially nice to each other. On Monday morning I felt we were in Chaos, making those demands on the world, stating how others should be Fixed. One sign of Chaos is that someone may make a highly emotive share stating their pain, distress or alienation, and it may then be ignored. A Friend stated her distress and left the meeting. Later, another Friend pointed out that we had not responded to that distress. Though another said, Quaker rules had dealt with the matter so there was no need: an Overseer had followed the woman out, to do Overseer stuff.

I was quite clear it was Chaos in Peck’s sense. We were divided. Some of us knew that White Privilege was a thing, and we were complicit. Some of us denied it. Some statements of the complexity of Equality and Privilege help us work towards equality, and some obscure and minimise the effects of privilege. I felt distanced and atomised.

The Clerks’ intervention after the shuffle-break was to read the Epistle of the Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns at FGC in July 2018. After the break I did not feel as alienated. I attempt to listen in a state of openness. I stood, wanting to explain Peck’s concept of chaos, but after the first ministry from the floor no longer felt the need. The time for that had passed.

Here’s Mark Russ on us seeing ourselves as better than we are, and the problems that causes. He prays that the Spirit can break our chains of Quaker pride.

I wanted the Minute to express our division on Privilege more clearly. Some say this, but some say this. Reading it, [download word document] I see it implies a better understanding of privilege and equality, and shows how far we have got towards that goal. It too talks of us as “a community that knows weakness and frailty” rather than seeing ourselves as “good respectable people”.

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