MINUTE of the workshop on “Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith” at the FGC Gathering, Blacksburg VA, July 2009
28 Friends (26 from USA and one each from Britain and Canada) have participated in this workshop. We have met together on six successive mornings from June 28 to July 3 2009 to tackle some of the questions facing unprogrammed Friends today: What unites us in our diversity? Do we have a common Quaker language? Is our theological diversity a strength or a weakness? What can we say together?
We began by each describing where we find ourselves within the spectrum of diversity, revealing ourselves to be a mix of theist and nontheist Friends, Christocentric and Universalist Friends, and Friends who prefer to avoid labels. We were able to affirm this diversity as a strength, while recognising that significant differences in theology and our understanding of spirituality can create barriers and tensions. We acknowledged a need to work through these tensions and misunderstandings by mutually supportive discussion and in shared worship.
We examined our history and noted that unprogrammed Quakerism has always been changing, from Fox’s day to Penn’s, from activism to quietism, from evangelicalism to liberalism, and from liberalism to today’s pluralism. But we sought out characteristics that have remained constant through these outward changes: rejection of formal hierarchy, corporate discernment and decision-making, attention to Advices and Queries rather than commandments, rejection of outward sacraments, refusal to express our faith in credal formulations, faithfulness to our tradition of unprogrammed worship, and unmediated access to the sources of truth.
We acknowledged that some characteristics we commonly claim for ourselves are not a Quaker monopoly. Other traditions also commit to peace-making, social justice, forms of corporate decision-making, and the quest for both personal transformation and building a better world. We claim no monopoly of truth.
From seeking a common thread of identity in our history we switched our focus to the pluralism of contemporary unprogrammed Quakerism. We explored the issue of the presence in the Society of explicitly nontheist Friends, seeing this as a sign of our greater inclusiveness but also recognising it as a source of tension in some of our meetings. This led us to explore our Quaker language, where we noted that key terms such as “God” and “the Spirit” may be used with integrity by all Friends, understanding them either literally or metaphorically, and with appropriate translation strategies. Similarly, we explored our Quaker worship, recalling the Old English origin of the word “worship” as meaning “things of great worth”. For some of us, worship is an encounter with the living God; for some, reflection on and commitment to those values we accord ultimate worth; and for some, an opening up to that which we understand to be greater than ourselves.
In small groups contributing to the writing of this Minute we affirmed the following: We met and deliberated in a spirit of love. We learned that there is diversity in nontheism as well as in theism. We sought to reach beyond words and to listen to where words came from. We found more pointers to Quaker identity in Quaker action than in Quaker belief. We affirmed as a central conviction the concept of that of God, Light, Spirit, the Good, in everyone, as the basis for our core processes of unprogrammed worship and corporate discernment. We heard again the call to let our lives speak.
We discussed and worshipped, sometimes all together, sometimes in small groups. We helped each other think through our own positions as we exchanged experiences, examined vocabulary, searched for similarities and acknowledged differences. We did not seek a verbal formulation defining Quaker identity, but as we talked, listened and fell silent together before each contributing to the writing of this Minute, our common identity as Friends was known experimentally, overriding our different theologies and life journeys. We know who we are. We are Friends together.
Although some Friends indicated a preference for a different wording in some places, all 28 of us united with the spirit of this Minute.
Signed on behalf of the participants by David Boulton, workshop facilitator, July 3 2009