The idea of Unity is at the heart of Quakerism, yet we rarely try to define it. Instead we use the word as if we all know what it means. There are about seventy uses of the word in Quaker Faith and Practice, and from the context of each we might gain an idea of it.
In the Bible, NRSV, it appears seven times:
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life for evermore.
Here unity is in our common life, and it makes that life bright and beautiful. It is God’s anointing, and life-giving water.
1 Peter 3:8 Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
Ephesians 4.11-13 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
I read this as having maturity, the same faith and knowledge that Christ had, which will bind us together in unity. If we are in touch with what Quakers call the Inner Light, as Jesus was, we will live in unity together.
It was a Quaker word from the beginning. Edward Burrough wrote in 1662 of making decisions in love, coolness, gentleness and dear unity. All these words are aspects of one way of relating. Isaac Penington might find unity with anyone he meets, when he found the spirit and life in them. Francis Howgill repeatedly echoed the new testament in his description of worship, including 1 Peter: We met together in the unity of the Spirit, and of the bond of peace, treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion. George Fox wrote of our “unity in the Spirit” and Margaret Fell of “peace, love and unity,” both to people outside the new movement: it is a common English word, and Christians would understand it just as they understood Christian love. For William Penn, when someone ministered in meeting the rest, recognising the leadings of Christ, would adhere with a firm unity. Elizabeth Fry feared the snare of spiritual pride in the sense of religious unity.
Unity is a state of our being in eternity: Job Scott wrote of everlasting unity shortly before his death; we are in unity with the living and the dead. And unity is a process. We continually achieve it, in our meetings for worship as they gather, (when two or three gather together I am with them) and our meetings for worship for business. It is not in words and doctrines: We have sought unity through agreement in doctrines and institutions; and the track of church history, like some new road through the desert, is strewn with the parched skeletons of our failures. For John Punshon, we might find it with Methodists in communion- I am like you, and we share one faith in God- though Friends might disapprove, or counsel against. It is from God, and it is part of our wordless human, primate, mammalian way of being with each other when our words and our conflict fall away. Our differences are always present. How we deal with those differences is our continuing work, with God’s help. Iain Law feared breaking unity and his friendships if he ministered of his experiences in his meeting.
In business meeting we sometimes all join together in a certainty of immediate rightness and sometimes one will acquiesce in the discernment of their Friends, after they have been heard. As a worshipping community, particularly in our local and area meetings, we have a continuing responsibility to nurture the soil in which unity may be found. John Woolman found Quaker work best done with the discerned assent of the Meeting. The Yearly Meeting struggled to find unity on sexuality in 1994, and found it sixteen years later. There is unity in the search and the struggle together.
In the struggle to find unity, in finding the beauty of what one other has found and valued, we may grow. One Friend’s boldness leads us on. We might seek a feeling of safety from uniformity of outward practices and observations, or from creeds, but that is not true unity, which we find in Jesus.
Our differences persist, though mostly unexpressed, so in considering membership we need trust and a sense we are safe enough, for the moment. Rufus Jones wrote of the “hidden seed of God”, and for me our current exploration of privilege becomes relevant: we have differences of culture and of personality, and worldly ways of enforcing hierarchy come naturally and mostly unconsciously to us. We recognise we are at different stages along the way. We don’t require great achievement but sincerity of purpose. Boundaries are sketchy, because they cannot be defined beforehand in words but must be known in relationship in the moment: there are broad principles of belief and conduct on which unity is essential… even though precise agreement on every point is not required. Thomas Story wrote, The unity of Christians never did nor ever will or can stand in uniformity of thought and opinion, but in Christian love only.
Unity, and the sense of the presence of God, is our experience outside meeting: Anne Hosking found it kissing her children, and from the earliest days of Christianity we might find it in coitus. It is in our shared humanity- with everyone- so might be found in our most painful experiences such as bereavement.
Janet Scott wrote, This is the truth which we know and try to live … that every person is capable of response to the divine Spirit; that this Spirit, or Light, or God reaches out to each one directly and freely; that if we follow the leadings of this Spirit faithfully we are led out of sin into unity with the divine will; that this unity leads us into love of and care for all humankind, who are our kin; that what the Spirit shows us is living truth which cannot be fettered by words.
Two chapter headings include the word. Chapter 25 is Unity of Creation, arguing that All species and the Earth itself have interdependent roles within Creation. Humankind is not the species, to whom all others are subservient, but one among many. And, This is a marvellous world, full of beauty and splendour; it is also an unrelenting and savage world, and we are not the only living things prone to dominate if given the chance. In our fumbling, chaotic way, we do also make gardens, irrigate the desert, fly to the moon and compose symphonies. There is a unity of the human species, and of the biosphere.
Chapter 27 is Unity and Diversity. God’s truth is too wide for one person, or even perhaps one religion. John Woolman found it among the “Indians”, and Robert Barclay in the Turks. Henry Hodgkin, a Quaker missionary, wrote in 1933 I believe that God’s best for another may be so different from my experience and way of living as to be actually impossible to me. I recognise [a change] to have taken place in myself, from a certain assumption that mine was really the better way, to a very complete recognition that there is no one better way, and that God needs all kinds of people and ways of living through which to manifest himself in the world. We might also find truth among other Christians, for example in Thomas Merton’s contemplative prayer, but these things may be too close to us, and QFP does not say this. We value the Bible, and the Spirit which is above it. We have our reasons for rejecting specific consecrated sacraments, and ordained ministry.