Faith Hope and Clarity
I have as yet little idea as what direction this page will take, and so I'll start with a couple of items that have already seen the light of day. The first was written in 2016 for the Cross Street Rag, a lively news-sheet produced for the congregation of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester.
The French philosopher Voltaire is said to have remarked that in England, there were sixty different religions and only one sauce, whereas in France it was of course the other way round.
My own family has illustrated this rather well. Way back on my father's side they were middle-of-the-road Scottish Presbyterians, but my three times great grandfather took his congregation from Glasgow to the coastal town of Girvan, and set up the Church of The Future, who were later joined by the Christian Universalists.
His son, also a clergyman, was strongly influenced by the remarkable scientific advances of that century, and promoted a variety of Natural Theology, the creation of the material universe being seen as direct evidence of a purposeful incorporeal creator. Perhaps not dissimilar to the ideas of today's Unitarians?
Two generations on, my grandfather though nominally Presbyterian, had lapsed into atheism, though his wife-to-be was very high-church Anglican, having at the age of 19 secretly eloped from Glasgow to London's East End to be baptised into the Church of England by an evangelical clergyman who practised a life of apostolic poverty.
My father was pretty much of his father's opinion, but in early adulthood became very interested in the then-popular mysticism of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, which invoked ideas of higher dimensionality, well in advance of cosmologists in this era. In his later years, my father became almost obsessively interested in Manichean history and theology, and the tragic fate of the Cathars, who in fact believed that this world was intrinsically evil, the work not of God but his antithesis.
He had two sisters, one of whom was happy to convert to Catholicism after marrying in middle age, and the other who married at the age of seventy, spent twelve years learning Gaelic and took to the Celtic tradition of St Columba rather than the Roman one of St Augustine (though I'm pretty hazy about the fine distinctions!). She loved the weekly Gaelic choral evening at her church in Victoria BC.
My mother's family had their roots in industrial Birmingham, and belonged to the Congregational church, though later moving south to the Middlesex area. Her parents actually first met at a church choir practice, and her father (who was a book-binder by trade) bound two copies of Handel's Messiah in leather, his and hers. In her middle years, however my grandmother took to Christian Science, with its emphasis on illness being a symptom of spiritual maladjustment, and I think this had a persistent negative effect on the family.
I think this is probably way too long already but, reverting to Voltaire, there was certainly no evidence in the very unimaginative meals I remember from childhood, whether at home or staying with relatives, of any intrusive flavour, whether or not the result of anything other than gravy!
And the second was scripted in 2012 for a ten-minute presentation at the Friends' Meeting House in Reading, during the national Quaker Outreach week that year. I've inserted a few square-bracket parentheses.
My name is Robin, and I've been an Attender at the Reading FMH [Friends' Meeting House] since 1982, though only intermittently until about 6 or 8 years ago.
I'm going to share with you some background stuff about the origins of Quakerism and its roots in the Christian tradition.
I'm not an expert on the subject, and the views I express are purely personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views or attitudes of any other Attenders or Friends, or the Quaker Faith and Practice manual.
I'll start by recounting just a bit about my own journey (as it's always called these days) towards a form of religious belief, and then I'll delve back into history for a while, to consider the Quaker Journey. Finally I'll briefly compare the outcomes of these journeys, and then I'll stop.
I'll have to refer to my notes pretty frequently, but at least that should keep me on track and up to schedule. It should take about 10 minutes.
Both my parents had been scarred by excessive indoctrination as children, and so I was brought up in a non-religious household.
But I liked the Christmas carols at school, and the Christmas story, and it is of course very beautiful. Nevertheless, it was really just an annual thing, and for the rest of the year it was on the back burner, so to speak.
However, as a teenager, I succumbed to the crude sort of materialism so popular back in the 1960's: Angels? Miracles? Don't make me laugh!
But I was still strangely drawn to the personality of Christ himself. Even if he "hadn't ever existed", he was still a powerful role model, and one that I did try to stay with over the next 30 years or more.
In 1997 I was persuaded to attend an Alpha course. It was very well-meaning but completely unconvincing. It still didn't explain the miracles (whether Old or New Testament). But it did get me thinking again.
Some years later, the penny dropped, and I realised that miracles were the rule rather than the exception. Rightly viewed, everything is a miracle. I also came to a personal interpretation of the New Testament that made sense to me. I can explain all that on another occasion, if anybody is interested [they weren't].
But could this be squared with continued attendance at MfW [Meeting for Worship] and, even more to the point, regular and meaningful attendance?
THE QUAKER JOURNEY
We have to briefly revisit the England of the 1640's and 50's, during and just after the Civil War.
The Church of England had emerged from its domination by the Pope, and it now conducted its services in English, and we now had the wonderful King James' bible to read.
But the Church still retained the traditional hierarchy and patriarchy inherited from the Roman Empire on the one hand and the teachings of St Paul on the other. And this status quo suited the authorities just fine.
However, Diggers (1649) and Levellers (1647), Quakers (1647) and (later on) Shakers (1747) now began to vocalise the widespread feeling amongst ordinary Englishmen – and women – that things needed continued change and further questioning, both socially and religiously.
They were anarchists in a way, refusing to pay tithes, or to accept the doctrinal leadership of clergy and bishops, or to fight the monarch's wars for him, or to accept the continued lock-out of women from religious responsibility.
And when George Fox, and other Quaker evangelists, started their open-air ministries they found a massive popular response to the new Quaker mode of worship, despite cruel repression by magistrates and militia.
WHAT WAS THEIR MESSAGE?
Crucially, they insisted that genuine religious experience could not be delivered at second hand by the clergy, but should spring from within the hearts of people gathered together in common cause – and certainly not in churches dedicated to the old way of doing things.
And that the Second Coming would now be in peoples' hearts, rather than a physical return of Christ and all those complicated apocalyptic expectations.
Also, Quakers turned their backs on the churches' traditional obsession with Sin, both Original and Casual. Genesis had something to say on the subject, of course, and Christ himself when healing people often said 'Thy sins be forgiven thee' – sin in the context of being out of alignment with God's purpose, covering bodily illness as well as actual misdemeanours.
And the church had compiled numerous lists of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins that could imperil your chances of going to Heaven, such as:
- Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride
Of course the avoidance of Greed, Envy and Pride are central to modern Quaker teachings about Fairness, Sustainability and Simplicity, whilst the others are just completely out of character anyway!
But in any case Quakers don't dwell on Sin or Redemption in the way that even modern Anglicanism or Catholicism do, which I find a great relief, as I personally don't accept that the Crucifixion had a redemptive purpose. Quaker teaching has a much greater focus on the positive than on the negative, on what we should do rather than on what we shouldn't do.
The early Quakers also abandoned ritual and ceremony, especially Eucharist, also called Holy Communion, and paid little attention to Christmas and Easter, feeling that the significance of these occasions should be kept in mind throughout the year. I couldn't agree more, especially as I find the body-and-blood idea of Holy Communion utterly repugnant, an echo of primitive pagan theophagic ritual.
HAVE WE REACHED THE SAME PLACE?
The early Quakers experienced Jesus in their hearts, and sometimes described this as the Light Within, but modern Quakers refer to this as the Inner Light, most frequently identified with God.
But which God? The rather scary angry Old Testament Jehovah, or the loving God to whom Jesus referred, or the tripartite Trinitarian God cooked up at the Council of Nicea centuries later? Or indeed the Holy Spirit, the messenger of God?
I know which I prefer, though I'm happy for other participants in a MfW to think differently. But for Enquirers it could be a considerable hurdle to begin with.
And who was Jesus? This must be the most-often-asked question in history. And there have been such varied answers, and so much blood spilt between the rival factions. Some would say it doesn't really matter, he was a good man who preached brotherly love and came to a sticky end. Others that he wasn't the Messiah, just a very naughty boy, as Jewish Friends might well privately agree. Others that he was the Son of God, whatever that may mean, and is now part of the Holy Trinity. Or always was, opinions differ.
C S Lewis asked rhetorically was Jesus mad, bad or God? Like the Unitarians, I don't think he was any of these things – perhaps he was simply the last and greatest of the Prophets, with a uniquely close relationship with God. And for many of us he will always remain the Light of The World, the defining figure through whom God, who laid the foundations of the Universe, reaches down to reassure us that we are part of his blueprint.
Quaker ministries at Reading MfW frequently mention the G word, but seldom the J word, and in a way that's no bad thing as it enhances our appeal to enquirers from other religious backgrounds. And I've never heard any mention of the Holy Trinity at MfW, and to that extent I have a great deal of sympathy with those who say that Quakerism (at least in the unprogrammed format such as at Reading MfW) is moving away from its traditional Christian roots and is reaching towards a simpler, clearer form of faith that can be reconciled with the other great Abrahamic religions.
And that's got to be go(o)d.
Thank you for listening to me. I've now finished.