Quakers have no hierarchy, but we have leadership. Every time someone speaks in ministry in the business meeting, they offer leadership. The rest decide whether to follow or not. With a single leader, decisions might be made more quickly, and not necessarily less well, if that leader listens to others. If anyone can lead, everyone has to be willing and able to follow when appropriate, or we just bicker pointlessly.
This is difficult, and requires practice. On listening to others, Britain YM’s Advices and Queries says, “try to sense where [the words] come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language.” We have to be careful in both speaking and listening.
Every human being has inexpressible value. We are made in the image of God. Jesus says the hairs of your head are numbered, all valued by God. Quakers say there is that of God in every one. I am materialist, averse to the idea of a mind or soul in a body, so think of it as the incomprehensibility of the whole human, responding in the moment, so much greater than ego or consciousness which is just a part of it.
On the spiritual path, we learn our value, and the value of every other human being.
Unfortunately, out in the world, we learn the opposite. Capitalism values people for what they produce. White supremacy and the ideology of empire values white people higher than others. Men are valued higher than women. People who have been to university or have higher status jobs are valued higher than others. Certain accents are valued more highly.
My autistic friend is devalued because of his difficulty reading certain social cues, rather than valued for his excellent memory and systematising ability.
In hierarchy, life is a struggle. How can I exalt myself, and do others down? Or, how can I keep up? In the Kingdom of Heaven, which is among us, ready for us to step into it, everything is beautiful. Just as we seek the value in others’ words, we seek the value in everything, and are rewarded by seeing it. What is there that is good, in this moment, situation, encounter?
We grow up in the world, we are steeped in the world, and we are imbued with the world’s habits of hierarchy. It teaches us not to see God in the other. Seeing God needs practice, effort and thought. The unconscious reaction that another is a lower status person is hard to shake off. First we have to become conscious of it. My source of pride, that I am white and educated, is an invisible barrier preventing me from seeing the value of others. It is painful to lose something that is a source of pride, and gives a sense of entitlement and safety in the world, yet felt so normal and natural I thought no more of it than I think about gravity.
Quakers are wrestling with these matters now. Iowa YM (Conservative) asked “How is white supremacy keeping us from hearing God’s voice?” Well, by making Black people uncomfortable amongst us, so that they do not stay, or do not imagine they will be welcome, and by making white people think less of Black people’s ministry. More widely, our privilege stops us listening to the disprivileged, and makes them feel unwelcome. We do not hear the voice of God in the words of those we subtly devalue.
I am aware that the Black person’s experience of a Quaker gathering may differ from my own. I feel assured of my welcome and that if I speak I will be listened to. A Friend told me of Quakers touching her hair, a put-down so cliched that it made a book title. Perhaps the white Friend thought she was being friendly. She meant no harm. She was blind to the disrespect she exuded.
With LGBT folk, in the 1950s Quakers might tell them their love was sinful. Since then we did a great deal of discernment to come to the point where we support equal marriage, but Meetings have split over the matter, and even now some LGBT folk feel pressure to appear normal among Quakers.
Our initial steps to include disabled people can feel othering: it is what we, the good Quakers, who are able-bodied, do for them, the disabled. A ramp gets a wheelchair into the building, but not necessarily its occupant into the position of trust and service fitting their potential. Or some talk of how “we Quakers” are well-off, which can make people who are struggling financially feel excluded. In reality it should be what we can do for us- every person has gifts, strengths, needs and weaknesses, and we must care for each other, allowing each to serve.
When we restrict the range of people in our meetings we restrict the range of perspectives we hear. The Spirit speaks through people, and cannot say what her instruments are incapable of saying. White supremacy restricts God’s voice among us.
Most Quakers come to the Society as adults. We are on a spiritual path. We are not perfect. We do the work necessary as we become aware it needs done.