Monday, 10 July 2017

See the person not the stereotype

Understanding White Privilege

My attention has been drawn to Understanding White Privilege by Frances E. Kendall, who is an American and writes about her own country, but her argument has been used to suggest that British Quakers are systemically racist. The argument runs that we inhabit a culture of white privilege that is systemically racist, in that there are many subtle ways we all operate that privilege white people over people of colour. This isn’t limited to the issue of race;  we inhabit a system that privileges men over women, straight people over LGBT+ people etc. So this broader definition of racism, related to white privilege, makes all white, privileged men racist, who have a responsibility to look inside themselves and work to heal the ways in which they unconsciously perpetuate a system that disempowers non-white people (as well as women, LGBT+ people, temporarily able-bodied people etc.).

What is a systemic discrimination?

A system to me is more than a loosely understood pattern of human behaviour; it is something objective like the tribalism of ancient Israel, the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South (which have informed Kendall's work),  the apartheid laws of former South Africa, or an overt social convention like the caste system in India.  Against these examples, modern Western liberal democracies, which enshrine equality in law (by, for example, legislating for same-sex marriage) are the least systemically discriminatory societies there have ever been.

'System' is an example of sociological jargon which is a departure from Quaker plain speech and is being used to dress up slogans, rash generalisations and actual falsehoods in pseudo-scientific language. 


To say that there is white privilege is a sociological assertion which only works if we are willing to accept the proponent’s own ideological biases and values.  I am white, educated and middle class but I am also far below average height for a man and have problems with my behaviour and mental health. By one set of measures I am privileged, by another not.   What Kendall seeks to do is to classify people, which is what sociologists do, but it runs counter to the non-judgementalism enjoined on us by Jesus (Mt 7:1); by George Fox, who told us to should walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone; and by Isaac Pennington in his beautiful words of about not laying accusations one against another (QF&P 10.01).

The irony is that those who loosely talk of racism are themselves out of touch with modern, sociological thinking.  Race is a hardly a term with any biological meaning, and the current appropriate term is cultural diversity, in recognition of wide acceptance that identity is largely socially constructed.  In short, each of us is free to choose the characteristics with which we each identify.  This is consistent with the Enlightenment idea of the autonomy of the individual.


In contrast, there is danger in our labelling other people by our own standards.  For example, I have a Jewish background.  I could (though I don't) choose to call myself Jewish.  So the corollary of the Kendall school of thought is that  I could be branded Jewish and privileged, which puts the Kendall proponents a whisker away from anti-semiticism.  In fact, there is an obverse racism and discriminatory outlook in Kendall which contradicts her own thesis, because if some people are going to be labelled white and privileged there is a need for others to be labelled black and deprived. For this reason, it contains the seeds of its own irrelevance.  Even if we were to accept the contention about systemic racism, what would follow?  Would we institute re-education classes and self-criticise each other as happened to the 'capitalist road-ers' and 'bourgeois intellectuals' in China's Cultural Revolution?  We might institute positive discrimination, which is a policy in the US and has had some examples in the UK, for example in the field of housing management education (as I know from my own experience in the 1980's).  I am doubtful about such policies.  They can be contentious and divisive, and are probably best only as temporary or short-term measures to overcome particularly egregious instances of unfairness. 

Beware not only the sociologist but the ideologue, particularly the ideologue who believes in their own unquestionable objectivity and their special privilege (sic) to judge and label others.

What BYM says

The sociology is also contrary to what BYM says about Quakers in Britain. According to the report 'Our Faith in Action: Quaker Work in 2016' (p.8),
Quaker communities are loving, inclusive and all-age. In a Quaker community all are heard, valued and supported in their needs and leadings.  Everyone's contribution is accepted according to their gifts and resources. All are welcomed and included.
It seems to me that it is impossible to subscribe to this assertion and to the proposition that Quakers in Britain are racist.

What Advices & Queries and QF&P say

Those who promote division and name-calling amongst Quakers should reflect on the following:
Respect the wide diversity among us in our lives and relationships. Refrain from making prejudiced judgments about the life journeys of others. Do you foster the spirit of mutual understanding and forgiveness which our discipleship asks of us? Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.   (Advices & Queries 22)
 Similarly, they ought to study the section on unity and diversity in Quaker Faith & Practice.  For example, John Woolman at 27.02:
Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life, and the Spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them.
This attempt to understand others from one's own point of view would seem to be a good instance of the behaviour which Kendall attacks.  Another example of the privileged, white male is Robert Barclay, who was university-educated and the son of a landowner.  He writes at 27.05 in the fourth edition:
The church [is] no other thing but the society, gathering or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit to walk in his light and life...Under this church...are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts.
This is a powerful assertion of unity and universalism from the pen of the foundational Quaker theologian.

Not in QF&P but worth quoting are the words of my beloved Edmund Harvey:
In the name of Friends the people called Quakers have set before them a great ideal.  Men are separated one from another by ignorance, by selfishness and by fear; the Light and the love of Christ draw them together to become a society of friends. (Quaker Language p.29)
Those Quakers who uncritically swallow the idea that we should be separating the sheep from the goats are promoting ignorance, divisiveness and fear.  Isn't there enough of that in the world already?

Love not ideology!

It's true that some people are more favoured than others, for a host of reasons, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on the circumstances. We should be aware of the subtle play of power between people and we should be open-minded about ourselves and others. However, Quakerism is about spirituality not sociology or secular ideology.  There is nothing wrong – indeed, it is positively desirable – that we congregate with like-minded people, which is what the sociologist would call affinity bias.  Affinity is the glue which holds people together.  The Quaker calls it fellowship, even love.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

McComb and Fosdick

 Samuel McComb

I have picked up a nicely bound edition of A Book of Prayers for Public and Private Use (1912) inscribed by its author, Samuel McComb.  McComb (1864–1938) was raised in Belfast and educated at Oxford. He was professor of church history at Queens University in Ontario and served as minister of Presbyterian churches in England and New York City.  He became a spokesman for the Emmanuel Movement in the US, which pioneered a psychologically-based approach to the religious healing of alcoholism and drug addiction. McComb subsequently left the US for an ecclesiastical post in Nice. A popular speaker and an excellent writer, he influenced the liberal theology and social activism of such prominent American Christians such as Harry Emerson Fosdick.

 McComb's book consists of thirty general prayers, a second part of intercessory and personal prayers and a third of prayers for personal use.  The second part includes prayers for persons afflicted with neurasthenia, which is an old term for emotional ill-health, and for persons striving to overcome the alcohol habit, reflecting McComb's interest in addiction.  Some of the prayers are out of date in terms of language and of gender roles, for example, there is one for a mother, but not a father, grieving for a wayward child, but other prayers are worded to be used for either sex, with gender-specific words marked in italics so that the alternative can be used.  There is also a little, perhaps unintentional, humour in the 'Prayer for a Person Who Cannot Pray', which is for those who need to 'unburden their spirit'.  Although this prayer, like the others, is couched in traditional Christian language, it works for the non-theist if phrases and sentences in the active voice, with 'God' or other such words as the subject, are re-written in the passive voice.

The Prayers of 1912 are as elegant as their binding.  They are designed to supplement not replace the collects of the Book of Common Prayer and are in the same exalted language but the thoughts they reflect are generous and humane without the self-flagellating emphasis on sin which spoils the BCP.  In the preface, and reflecting his progressive Christianity, McComb says that each generation must win the truth for itself and that the truth so won must touch deeply the springs of its religious life and in this way influence its devotional feelings.  What McComb is saying in Quaker terms is that a prayer book must speak to our condition.  Accordingly, while the BCP requires us to make a regular, dreary and oppressive confession of our sins, McComb presents us with scope for positive and life-enhancing religious practice, elegantly expressing the potential for personal growth in the religious and devotional life.  For example, in Prayer IV we are invited to pray on how instead of enjoying life 'we have sunk back into the complainings of our narrow and blinded souls'. Elsewhere, in Prayer V, he says that when we think of God we are troubled in our consciences yet continue to be drawn to God and to seek to live a spiritual life.  He quotes St Augustine's 'Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts our restless till they find rest [I prefer 'abide'] in Thee'.

Rowan Williams says of St Augustine that 'more clearly than any other early Christian writer, he presents a vision of the entirety of human experience caught up into grace and into God, of providence at work in sin, doubt, confusion, complex and imperfect motivation' (Wound of Knowledge location 1538/3074).  McComb also understands the importance of generosity of spirit and compassion when so often we are afflicted with 'the coldness of our affections', with the unhappiness of spiritual aridity and have cause to lament 'the prayerlessness of our lives'. He has some excellent insights into the nature of religious experience.  For example, in Prayer VIII he says 'Touch us, O our Father, with a feeling of Thy great realities, for though our thought about Thee is better than our words, our experience of Thee is better than our thought'.  This resonates with Quakers, for whom experience is of the essence.

 His book of prayers offers exalted language combined with a understanding of the human condition using elements of modern positive psychology as well as of traditional Christian spirituality.  I am surprised McComb is a forgotten figure and that there seems to be little attempt to follow his example of a richly wrought but insightful and deep language of prayer.


In the same vein as McComb is the American pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick (May 24, 1878 – October 5, 1969). Indeed, his The Meaning of Prayer (1915) includes several of McComb's prayers and it is likely the two men were known to each personally.  The book is available on Kindle, as is its companion volume, The Meaning of Faith (1917).

Fosdick became a central figure in the "Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy" within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s and was one of the most prominent liberal ministers of the early 20th Century, according to Wikipedia.  The modernist controversy was throughout Christendom. Modernist thought was condemned by the ultra-conservative Pope Pius X in the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, ‘on the doctrine of the modernist,’ issued in 1907.  John William Graham (1859-1932) was the leading Quaker modernist of his time who wrestled with the religious implications of social Darwinianism.  Fosdick may be characterised as a liberal and modernist but, as with Edmund Harvey, this should not be allowed to cloud our understanding of the lasting value of his work.

Fosdick might be styled an advocate of muscular, even phallocentric, Christianity.  For example, one of his books is entitled The Manhood of the Master, which could be the title of some BDSM gay porn.  His The Meaning of Prayer (1915) uses imagery which seems strange to modern Christians.  For example, one chapter is on prayer and the reign of law, while another is one prayer as a battlefield. However, again, simply to bestow dismissive labels on Fosdick's work would not to be doing justice to it, for like McComb he understands the reality of the spiritual life, not as a material, still less an economic or political, situation but as human experience in all its fullness.  He says in his 1917 book:
The peril of religion is that vital experience shall be resolved into a formula of explanation, and that men, grasping the formula, shall suppose themselves thereby to possess the experience.
Similarly, he understands the challenges of a spiritual life and our human follibles, so that his 1915 book contains a chapter on hindrances and difficulties, and on unanswered prayer.

Fosdick rejoices in the continuity of Christian history.  From the first, figures like St Augustine and Thomas a Kempis have seen that prayer is about the search of the soul for God rather than for His gifts.  The depth and candour of the prayers of St Augustine which Fosdick reproduces are particularly striking in this respect. Fosdick introduces the reader to religious figures such as Jeremy Taylor, the reputed Shakespeare of the Puritans, though I find his work lacks the love and joy which should be at least a part of the spiritual life.

Like Harvey, Fosdick is a believer in moral progress:
In social advance, some Edmund Burke, statesman of the first magnitude, basing his judgment on the established experience of the race, can call slavery an incurable evil and say that there is not the slightest hope that trade in slaves can be stopped; and yet within eighty-two years the race can feel its way forward to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Much the same could be said about same-sex marriage, which would have been inconceivable when homosexuality was first decriminalised.  However, moral progress is not just a matter of the modification of systems but of inward change in the personality (a word which both Harvey and Fosdick use in its fullest meaning). 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Psalm 32 and the skill of naming

The first five verses of Ps 32 are as follows, from the New Revised Standard Version:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

The meaning of ‘Selah’ is somewhat obscure but is generally thought to indicate a pause in sung recitation of the psalm.  However, what is striking about the passage is that it points to the psychological truth that to confess a misdeed, whether in thought or action, is a step to resolve it.  If we keep silent then the internal confusion and stress only increases: ‘my body wasted away’.  Confession is not just good for the soul, it is good for the body too. 

This psalm is not only an illustration of the theological truth of the availability of God’s forgiveness but it also contains a psychological truth.  Through stress and internal conflict handled creatively we can change and grow.  Mary Lou Leavitt, in her 1986 entry in Quaker Faith & Practice (4th edition, 20.71) offers three skills entailed in such creative handling of stress and conflict.  The first skill is naming: being clear and honest about the problem and owning it.  The ability to name what is going on, is crucial to getting out into the open the feelings underlying stress or conflict.  Such a skill is dangerous. It may seem like stirring up trouble where there wasn’t any problem. It needs to be done tactfully, carefully  and caringly, whether with oneself or with others.   It is a preliminary to the next steps of listening and letting go.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Vatican II abbreviations

I have a delightful little edition of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis published by the Bombay Saint Paul Society in 1998 and with an Imprimatur by the Bishop of Allahabad.  It includes reflections from the documents of Vatican II for each chapter.  The original documents show the influence of Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit theologian (1904 –1984).  The reflections are referenced by abbreviations.  I've correlated these abbreviations to the original documents as follows:

AL           Apostolate of the Laity   Apostolicam Actuositatem

DC          Dogmatic Constitution    Lumen Gentium

DE          Decree on Ecumenism     Unitatis Redintegratio

DM         Decree on Missionary Activity      Ad Gentes

DR          Divine Revelation             Dei Verbum

NC          Non-Christian Religions  Nostra Aetate

PC          Pastoral Constitution       Gaudium et Spes

PM         Decree on Ministry           Presbyterorum Ordinis

RF           Religious Freedom           Dignitatis Humanae

RR          Renewal of Religious Life              Perfectae Caritatis

SC           Decree on the Media       Inter Mirifica

SL           Sacred Liturgy    Sacrosanctum Concilium

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Role of Markets in the New Economy

Britain Yearly Meeting has published a further document in the New Economy Series, this one being entitled The Role of Markets in the New Economy.  In my opinion it has three shortcomings:

Bias against the present.

The paper itself says the UK has well funded and organised public services, raising the question why entirely new economic principles are needed at all.  The UK is a mixed economy in which private enterprise and public services are in a dynamic balance.  This balance is, by the paper’s own implicit admission, not fundamentally awry. No doubt adjustments, by political or administrative means or through market mechanisms, are needed from time to time, but this is not a matter for the Religious Society of Friends nor one on which the Society has any expertise.  It also needs to be remembered that it is the job of governments to make difficult decisions and that there is no magic money tree.

Bias against corporations

 There is a bias is against corporations and in favour of the anti-corporatist  lobby.  This is manifest in dark talk about for-profit organisations and double-talk about increasing democratic participation in the economy. Private corporations need to make a profit in order to pay their investors, and they make an immeasurable contribution to modern life.  Where would we be without Google and Amazon?  Of course, some behave badly and don’t pay their taxes, but that is true of other people too.

Double talk about democracy

As for democracy, there is a lot of it about – too much some would say, in the wake of the EU Referendum. The pamphlet relies on the campaign group We Own It, which consists of left-wing academics with no experience of government or business, and trade-unionists.  Their call for greater democratic and community involvement in the economy is largely double-talk for trade union power.  Even the apparently innocuous word 'community' can be a cover for self-serving parochialism if not outright xenophobia. Trade unions' proper concern is their members’ interests and they do not speak for citizens, consumers or the electorate.  Community leaders admittedly have their place but it is below that of elected representatives such as local councillors.

The New Economy Project

I continue to believe it is wrong of BYM to have embarked on the left-wing New Economy Project.  Quaker socialists already have their own special interest group within the Society, as well as being free to act in secular organisations such as the Labour Party or Green Party.  Too often BYM seems a univocal organisation in which the liberal political tradition of Quakers goes unrecognised.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Edmund Harvey: Quaker citizen, catholic and cantor

Thomas Edmund ‘Ted’ Harvey was born in Leeds of a prominent Quaker family in 1875.  A leading figure of his time, he was a politician and social reformer as well as the author of poetry, fiction and of religious, biographical, historical and spiritual works.  It was said that his spoken ministry was profound yet simple.  He was educated at Bootham’s School and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he got a first in Literae Humaniores.  He worked briefly for the British Museum and then was a local government councillor in London and Warden of Toynbee Hall, a university settlement in the East End of London.  During the First World War he was an MP for the Liberal Party and in 1916 was one of two Quaker MP’s who successfully pressed for conscientious objectors to be (conditionally) exempted from military conscription.  He then helped administer the system for placing conscientious objectors in alternative work of national importance. Later he wrote of how ‘a state in the midst of a great war recognised the right of conscience, at any rate in principle, for its individual citizens’.  He was involved in Quaker relief work on the continent during and after the First World War. His Swarthmore Lecture of 1921, The Long Pilgrimage, is an exposition of the idea and reality of human progress in the light of Christian hope and echoes many of the themes in his A Wayfarer’s Faith of 1913.  The vision in the Lecture is a grand one, of human progress driven by a Christian idea of the value of human ‘personality’ (a term in widespread use amongst thinkers at the time).  Harvey returned to Parliament as an Independent during the Second World War and died in 1955.

I am starting a research degree on Harvey.  The aim is to produce a comprehensive biography covering his life and work as a Quaker politician, activist and author, attempting to show how his faith informed his story and to illustrate the description of him as a Quaker citizen. In addition, the aim would be to show how his religious writings expressed what I am tentatively calling catholic Quakerism.  I want to explore how far Harvey exemplifies the pragmatic insider and the notion of the Quaker citizen. The Quaker citizen (as a working definition) discerns the difference between corporate faith in action sanctifying the person, which Harvey himself seems to have thought the essence of the Religious Society of Friends, and involvement in secular politics, which on one view is not faith in action as such.  Harvey’s words at 23.88 of QF&P are thematic  and the idea of Quaker citizenship also finds expression in Advices & Queries 34 .

He was influenced by the catholic tradition as well as by his classic education.  For example, the preface to The Long Pilgrimage is a quote from St Augustine, and the body of the lecture shows the influence of von Hugel, the Catholic theologian, the early Fathers and the medieval saints.  He hardly ever mentions George Fox.  His interest in European Christianity is further and delightfully expressed in Stolen Aureoles (1922), which I would describe as a collection of fabulist hagiographies. Indeed, his literary style is such that I wonder whether I could call him the poet or cantor of Quakerism

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Domination Systems

That some Quakers and Christians have been seduced into being crusaders in a class war may be due to the influence of the writer, Walter Wink (1935-2012). Wikipedia says Wink was an American biblical scholar, theologian, and activist who was an important figure in Progressive Christianity. Elsewhere in the internet I learn that Wink argued that humans live under domination systems, the powers that be. These are structural and ideological institutions that manipulate our minds, lives and activities, reduce our freedom and retard our flourishing. Christians are called to resist them, said Wink, who seems to have been a liberation theologian.  One may argue against the liberation theologian that we live under systems of service, not domination, which educate and entertain us, enhance our freedom and permit our flourishing; and to the extent they do not we should work with them to change this.  A further objection to Wink is that the domination systems that he had in mind seem to be those of Western capitalism in his life-time.  One wonders whether the domination systems of the old Soviet Union or modern-day China - or a fortiori those of China under Mao or terrorist groups like Daesh or Boko Haram - stand in comparison.  On the other hand, it is probably true to say that, partly from the opposition of people like Wink but also partly because of improvements in the governance of business enterprises, Western capitalism has grown more sensitive to ethical and environmental considerations.  It is also worth pointing to the improvement in human rights and the treatment of minorities including women and members of the LGBT community.  Accordingly, Wink's work, which continues to be influence some writers such as Richard Rohr and self-styled neo-Anabaptists, is looking if not wholly false then rather out-of-date. It also has an angry, accusatory and prejudiced tone which sits ill with the Quakers' commitment to love and truth.

A counter to Wink can be found in the work of Roger Scruton (b.1944).  In his essay What is Right? (1986), Scruton has the following to say about left-wingers' misguided yearning for a powerless world.  He says people are bound to each other by emotions and loyalties and distinguished by rivalries and powers.  (This is very evident amongst Quakers). There is no society that dispenses with these human realities, nor should we wish for one, since it is from these basic components that our worldly satisfactions are composed.  He goes on to quote another conservative thinker, Kenneth Minogue, who has said:
...the worm of domination lies at the heart of what it is to be human, and the conclusion faces us that the attempt to overthrow domination ... is the attempt to destroy humanity.
Our concern as political beings should be, not to abolish these powers that bind society together, but to ensure that they are not also used to sunder it.  We should aim, not for a  world without power but for a world where power is peacefully exercised and where conflicts are resolved according to a concept of justice acceptable to those engaged in them.

The theoretical base and practical effect of Scruton's philosophy is the legal notion of corporate personality, for it is noticeable that the followers of Wink are emphatically anti-corporatists.  By the device of corporate liability, the capitalist world ensures that, where there is power and agency, there is also liability, in contrast with the communist world where, as in modern-day China, the communist party is the supreme agent which is not held to account through democratic or market mechanism.  I think Scruton is not quite right here, because I believe that power relations between people are just too complicated to be ultimately reducible to legal or ideological abstractions, useful though these may be in decision-making.

Scruton concludes that Marxists and radicals are poor at explaining in detail what sort of society they envisage, since they do not see political systems as persons with their virtues and vices and movements in their intrinsic life.  We can know nothing of the socialist future save only that it is necessary,  desirable and different from whatever we have now.  The left-wing concern is with the case against the present, a negative bias against an admittedly and necessarily imperfect reality that leads radicals to seek to destroy what they lack the knowledge and skill to replace.  The leap into the kingdom of ends is a leap of thought that can never be mirrored in reality. The burden of proof should fall on the revolutionary not on the conservative.

That an ideological rather than a pragmatic position is out with traditional Quaker thinking, which properly focuses on the person, is evident from the Message from the All Friends Conference held in London in August 1920. The fine words are drafted by John Henry Barlow (1855-1924), who has been called the outstanding Quaker statesman of his generation.  One might add to his examples of depersonalising words such popular, present examples as 'domination systems', 'multinational corporations' or even 'inequality', all of which tends to reduce the relationship between people to matters of measurement and classification.

As nations and as individuals we have been thinking too much of possessions and power, too little of service and mutual helpfulness.  The one thing that matters in all our social structure is human personality, yet often we lose this essential fact in abstractions.  We speak of a nation as the “enemy”, we talk of a group as “labour” or “capital,” and we forget the men and women who make up the group and who are the only realities there, each of them different, yet each bearing the impress of the Divine and capable of a new birth into a new social order.
This new order, the Kingdom of God, is being built up silently here and now.  Its laws are revealed at work in many a simple life, in the trust and the joy of a little child, in the pure love of a mother for her babe, in the faith that binds friend to friend, in every act of honest unselfish service.