Friday, 30 December 2016

Psalm 2

Psalm 2 is interesting for a number of reasons.  In the Latin of the Clementine Vulgate the first line is given as Quare fremuerunt gentes, which in Archbishop Parker's Psalter is rendered as Why fumeth in fight: the Gentils spite.  Thomas Tallis set the English of Parker's Psalter to his ineffable 'Third Mode Melody', which is the theme in Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

The Psalm is one that appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls, suggesting that from earliest times it has captured the imagination of the religiously minded.  I need to investigate further the numbering of the psalms, to find out if there is any significance in this fine piece being early in the sequence.

At many points the traditional Hebrew, Masoretic text is corrupt, and emendation has led to differences between Christian and  Jewish interpretations, particularly around Ps 2:7 and the references to the Son. Christian translations link the  reference not just to David but to Jesus.  It would be interesting to find out more about the scope for various interpretations of the Hebrew.  Readings of a couple of words of the Psalm are also affected by revocalisation, the re-interpretation of vowel signs added to the original Hebrew.

The Psalm is about governance and kingship but also the need for politicians to serve the Lord, which in contemporary terms might mean to have regard to the well-being of all, not just their own constituency, and to their own limited power.  It may be read as an attack on faction and on rulers bickering amongst themselves on short-term issues in the face of the demands of wisdom, love and truth.  The call to obey the Son may read metaphorically as a call to follow the kingdom of God not of Man.

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Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Equality: the words of Jesus and of the philosophers


On the issue of socio-economic equality it is interesting to consider the words of Jesus. In the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, Jesus asks (Matt 20:15) 'Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?' The theological message is that divine grace is available for saints and sinners alike but the message as it could be applied to secular matters is that socio-economic justice does not have to mean exactly equal shares for all. Similarly, the phrase 'Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's,' which appears in the three synoptic gospels, is open to multiple interpretations as to whether it bestows or denies the right of secular authorities to govern as they see fit and proper. Also open to multiple interpretations are Jesus’s words that the poor are always with us (Mk 14:7; Mt 26:11; Jn 12:8), which may be taken to mean not so much that we should neglect the poor but rather we should not neglect our own spiritual lives for the sake of an overriding preoccupation with charity or social policy. In Lk 18:3 Jesus says he has been anointed 'to bring good news to the poor' and 'to let the oppressed go free' but in these passages the interpretation may be that he is making a universalist claim, a promise of salvation to all, rather than saying that he has been sent to reduce socio-economic inequality in a secular or political sense.

A glance at a dictionary of philosophy shows that the concept of equality is less an issue which can be settled by debate as an irresolvable paradox. The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that the 'central question about equality is how one might link [on the one hand] empirical or moral claims about the extent to which persons are equal to [on the other] judgements about the moral acceptability or unacceptability of social inequalities...'. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy says that in the abstract equality 'means that people who are similarly situated in morally relevant respects should be treated similarly; but everything depends on what kinds of similarity count as relevant'. In other words, in considering socio-economic equality we have to consider what we mean by the term, in what respects people are unequal and then we have to consider whether that is right or wrong and then we have to consider what we, individually and collectively, are going to do about the problem, if there is one.  In saying that the poor are always with us, Jesus may have been stating an uncomfortable philosophical and social truth.



Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Foundations of a True Social Order 1918

I have been studying The Principles for a New Economy (PNE) http://old.quaker.org.uk/sites/default/files/principles-for-new-economy-2015.pdf.  It quotes two passages from 23.16 of Quaker Faith & Practice, the second as follows:

Our rejection of the methods of outward domination, and of the appeal to force, applies not only to international affairs, but to the whole problem of industrial control [ed: what we might now call economic injustice and ‘structural violence’ ]. Not through antagonism but through co-operation and goodwill can the best be obtained for each and all.

I believe that interpolation in square brackets by the editors of PNE shows the lack of historical perspective which has tended to characterise the debate about the New Economy.

 

The Foundations Of A True Social Order 1918


According to the notes in the appendix to QF&P, passage 23.16 is taken from Foundations of a True Social Order approved by London Yearly Meeting in 1918, the year which saw an armistice ending the First World War and the start of post-war peace negotiations. The interpolation in square brackets by the editors of PNE equates paragraph vi of the original, 1918 document and its reference to the ‘whole problem of industrial control’ with economic injustice and structural violence. I believe that this interpretation of 23.16 is a mistake and that we need better to understand the 1918 passage in its historical context.

The reference to the problem of industrial control is a reference to the troubled relations between labour and capital in the period before the First World War. 1910-1914 were years of great industrial unrest in Britain, as were the post-war years 1919-1926. Evidence for this is the comparative number of days lost to industrial disputes then and now http://www.unionancestors.co.uk/Images/Strikes%201901-2000.pdf.  Similarly, the years before the outbreak of the First World War were a period of widespread political unrest, in Ireland and on the streets of London in agitation for women’s suffrage.  The 1918 call is for political and industrial peace, for no return to the violent suppression of strikes and dissent which had marked the pre-war period.  Above all, the 1918 document is a call for an end to, and no resumption of, world war. The Foundations of a True Social Order was written in the context of a fear of a return to pre-war industrial violence and, more importantly, of a fear of actual, devastating global war.  It is wrong to see the Foundations in terms of structural violence; the issue concerning the Quakers of 1918 was actual violence – on the streets, in workplaces and, above all, on the battlefield.

Structural Violence

There is little justification for equating paragraph (vi) of the Foundations with the modern notion of structural violence. Structural violence refers to a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.  The term is a sociological one dating from 1969 used to label selected social structures and institutions as detrimental to human rights and well-being.  The social sciences have their place in Quaker discourse but human and spiritual relationships are not reducible to the structures which may manage or constrain those relationships, be these structures churches or government departments.  The term 'structural violence' needs to be used cautiously, because it can be a lazy way of stigmatising agents with whom one has a political disagreement. Ultimately it does not sit well with the Quaker commitment to the equality of persons and to answering that of God in everyone in love and truth.  The term was not one known to Quakers of 1918 who, had they wanted to proclaim a new socio-economic order, could have looked to the Bolshevik Revolution of the previous year. Instead, the 1918 Foundations proclaimed the brotherhood of man and called for peace on earth and harmonious industrial relations, the antithesis of the Bolsheviks’ commitment to class struggle with its related modern notion of structural violence. (If one wanted to find good examples of structural violence one need look no further than to the institutions of the former USSR).  London Yearly Meeting of 1918, rather than calling for a new social and economic order and the overthrow of established institutions, upheld the ethical capitalism which is in the Quaker tradition. Indeed, the Foundations can be read not as a revolutionary manifesto but as a conservative, even reactionary, document, as a call for a return to the peace and progress of the nineteenth century before the breakdown in political, industrial and international relations of the early twentieth century.

The fundamental Quaker value

In carrying forward the work on The principles of a New Economy it would be worth our while considering how far, a hundred years on, the world has changed since 1918 and how far the aspirations in The Foundations of a True Social Order may have been met.  Such consideration gets us to focus on the fundamentals of Quaker principles enunciated in the Foundations.  Attention needs to be paid to paragraph (ii) which says that the social order should be directed towards the growth and personality truly related to God and man; (viii) similarly says that the ownership of material things, such as land and capital, should be directed towards the need and development of man.  This is a humanist, not a socialist value.  What counts is not socio-economic equality as such but the opportunities for each and everyone of us to flourish.  In 1918, Friends saw that harsh working conditions, long hours and the lack of welfare provisions and of educational opportunities were not conducive to the spiritual development of the individual, but they did not seem to believe that socio-economic inequality was per se a  bad thing.

Readers will want to ponder the social progress that has been made in the UK since 1918.  The key statistic is life expectancy, which was about 50 for men in 1918 (disregarding the statistic impact of WW1 which put male life expectancy at less than 45 in that year) and is now about 75.  Life expectancy is now half as good again as it was when the Foundations were drafted.  This is a crude but highly significant measure of social and physical progress.  Other examples of progress in the UK that spring to mind include: full franchise for women (1928), National Health Service (1948); homosexuality decriminalised (1967); Open University (1969) and growth in tertiary education based on information technology; Equal Pay Act (1970) and subsequent equal opportunities legislation; same-sex marriage (2013) etc etc.  None of these may have reduced socio-economic inequality by strict financial measures but they will have greatly advanced human rights and increased quality of life and the scope for the personal growth of the individual.

Outside the UK, the aspiration in the Foundations for the brotherhood of man has been largely fulfilled in the founding of the International Labour Organisation (1919) the United Nations (1945), the European Union (1993 and earlier) etc etc.


Simplistic leftism

Something seems to have happened to Quakers after the discerning of the admirable FTSO, with erosion of the traditional notion of social justice as social solidarity by an ingress of simplistic leftism.  QF&P 23.21 contains some of the same strictures as we find in the Minute 36 of BYM 2015, with talk of anger - whatever happened to unity, love and truth as in QF&P 1.01? - and of Quakers being "at odds with the priorities of our society which deny the full human potential of millions of people in this country".  There is no recognition that there might have been progress since 1918 or gratitude for such progress; there is much negative talk about the evils of affluence; there is nothing about how further progress is possible through quiet processes rather than oppositionistic campaigning and there is little international perspective or talk of the brotherhood of man or the growth of liberal values.  On the contrary, QPSW's campaign against TTIP has been one of tacit economic nationalism.  None of this is to say that the world is perfect - how would it ever be possible to say this? - but it is to say that we need to maintain some perspective otherwise we will drift into a delusive pessimism.

Research

I was pleased to learn from the 2016 annual gathering of British Yearly Meeting that the importance of FTSO has been recognised by two Quaker academics, Rachel Muers and Rhiannon Grant, who have embarked on a research project.  I wish them well with their efforts and look forward to hearing about their progress. Follow this link http://www.quakersocialorder.org.uk/

Assisted Dying

Assisted dying is a major public issue which evokes passionate responses from people on both sides of the argument.  Assisted Dying: A Quaker Exploration is a collection of essays published this year by Leeds Area Meeting (http://assisted-dying.leedsquakers.org.uk/).  This topical and thought-provoking collection explores the issue from various standpoints, whether professional or deeply personal.  Contributions from a theologian, criminologist, philosopher, sociologist, nurse, doctors and Quaker thinkers challenge the reader.  The book is for a Quaker readership but will also help others consider this important issue.

The background to the controversy of assisted dying is that people are living longer, medical advances mean that people can be kept alive much longer than previously, and consequently the health and social care services are under increasing pressure.  Assisted dying is already a legal practice in various places outside the UK.  Here, however, the law is complicated.  Suicide itself is not illegal, unlike the act of assisting a suicide, which is against the law but will not necessarily get prosecuted.   A reader of this compilation will conclude that, as with most issues of bioethics, it is impossible to take an absolutist position.  On the one hand, there is much force in the slippery slope argument from those against legalising assisted dying but, on the other, these voices cannot be allowed to prevail if progress is to be made to meet a growing moral dilemma.

My own, humble opinion is that, as Bill Clinton said of abortion, assisted dying should be legal but rare.  However, what I particularly liked about this book was not the subject matter per se, as it is not a topic in which I have a strong opinion, but the example it provides of the Quakerly way of discerning the truth.  A collection of essays, edited by Quakers but with contributions by non-Quaker experts, is an excellent aid to deep opinion-forming.  So many of the issues of the day which may come before Quakers in Meetings for Worship for Business are very complex, technically and morally, and rarely lend themselves to an easy answer.  The response of simplicity in the face of complexity must be patient inquiry rather than a leap to judgement.  (I say this as someone who constantly battles his own violent prejudices.) Quakers should be cautious in forming a strict position on a matter of controversy and be on their guard lest they are led by inadequate or biased information or by ministry which is more strident than wise.  The quality of Assisted Dying (2016) reminds me of the forward-thinking and influential A Quaker View of Sex (1963), which lead to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts.  This balanced, comprehensive and commendable work by Leeds Area Meeting is a model of its kind.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Quaker tradition and inequality

It is not clear to me that Quakers have a traditional objection to social or economic inequality. The principle of eldership and church discipline, which as I have said in my blog about Farnsworth dates from 1666, is not consistent with a strict equality. In addition, consider the words of Isaac Pennington (QF&P 23.74) "This is the true ground of love and unity, not that [...] a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way." Pennington's talk of ranks and orders is feudal not socialist.  Too much can be read into the refusal of hat honour, which is best known through Thomas Ellwood's acts of adolescent rebelliousness recounted in Quaker Faith & Practice (19.16, 19.40).  If we look at Fox's 59 Particulars, which I have blogged about separately, we find Fox objecting to fines for the refusal to doff the hat in court rather than insisting, as Ellwood seems to have done, on giving offence for its own sake.  Fox's objection to hat honour seems more to do with his objections to corrupt law courts and to the vice of extravagant dress than to an insistence that everyone should be equal in all social and economic respects.  Objections to vice and corruption are commonplaces of religious discourse and, in the case of the early Quakers, reflect the influence on them of contemporary Puritanism, however much the Quakers may have differed with the Puritans in political and theological matters. In his Journal Fox recounts how he took action in the courst against employers who were 'oppressing' their servants in their wages.  Again, his concern seems more with legal justice and equality before the law than with strict financial equality.  His favourite target, apart from 'physicians' (whom these days we would call scientists) and paid clergy are lawyers, who are 'out of equity, out of the true justice and out of the law of God'.  Equality before God and equality before the law are for Fox related notions.  He extolls help for the poor but out of traditional ideas of charity and philanthropy rather than justice, which he conceives in legal rather than socio-economic terms.

Like their Puritan contemporaries, Quakers had no objection to the possession of wealth per se as long as riches were used ethically. The testimony of simplicity is not a vow of poverty.  Margaret Fell, Robert Barclay and William Penn were all well to do.  The genius of Fox and Fell lay not just in their spiritual energy but in their practical work, in their protecting and promoting Quakerism by acquiring land, building meeting houses and setting up administrative structures. They and the other early Quakers were religious and social entrepreneurs, not proto-socialists.  I have blogged elsewhere about how the work of the great Marxist historian Christopher Hill has tended to lead to an over-emphasis on the political radicalism of the early Quakers.  In religious terms they were in a long line of reformers, who sought to revert the church to the simplicity and communitarianism of the early Christians.  Despite Fox's provocative behaviour, the Quakers' exalted religious language was metaphorical and spiritual rather than a call to political revolution.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Living Buddha, Living Christ

In chapter 3 of his book Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995) Thich Nhat Hanh (‘Thay’) describes how a Protestant minister had accused him of ingratitude because he did not believe in God, the creator of all things. Thay was upset by this accusation, because he thought that he is very grateful for everything. He writes ‘Every time I touch food, whenever I see a flower, when I breathe fresh air, I always feel grateful’. He refers to the incident later in the chapter when he writes that for the Protestant minister love could only be symbolized by a person, and that in Judeo-Christianity God is always presented as in the image of a person.

Thay points out that Buddhists sometimes personify traits they aspire to, such as mindfulness, understanding, and love in the form of bodhisattvas or the Buddha himself but do not create narratives around these figures concerning actual bodily resurrection. For Thich Nhat Hanh, the living Christ is not a physical body which is living in the flesh now but ‘the Christ of Love who is always generating love, moment after moment’.

He goes on to say that Christians have to help Jesus Christ be manifested by their way of life, showing those around them that love, understanding and tolerance are possible. This will not be accomplished just by books and sermons. It has to be realised by the way we live. Thanks to the practice of many generations of Buddhists and Christians, the energy of the Buddha and the energy of Jesus Christ have come to us. We can touch the living Buddha and we can touch the living Christ. We have a wonderful opportunity to help the Buddha and Jesus Christ continue.  He goes on to say that, thanks to our bodies and our lives, such practice is possible. If you hate your body and think that it is a source of affliction, that it contains only the roots of anger, hatred and craving, you do not understand that your body is the body of the Buddha, your body is a member of the body of Christ.

Thay’s words remind me of Buddhist warnings about attachments to negative feelings and the Christian prayer of St Teresa of Avila about how we should think of ourselves as embodying Christ in the here and now.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, 
no hands but yours, 
no feet but yours, 
yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out to the earth, 
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good 
And yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now. 

I must confess to an occasional repulsion by St Teresa’s prayer and the very idea of imagining myself as embodying Christ or the Buddha. In my moments of cynical atheism I see such practices as the worst sort of insincere and pretentious evangelical posturing. In these unholy moments I need to remind myself that the saint's prayer and Thay’s words are not scientific claims but aids to mind-training.

Spiritual practice is not about a point of view, a philosophy or about statements of how the world may be in objective, scientific or material terms, just as prayer is not properly about getting God to perform miracles on one’s behalf. Prayer, meditation, religious and spiritual activity generally are not about conceptualising but about being creative and imaginative, inducing deep wisdom and positive feelings through self-treatment and fellowship, using great narratives and metaphors and other cultural artefacts, such as music, or the beauty of the natural world, to damp down the ego and put one in right ordering with one’s fellows and the rest of the world.  Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the mark of good spiritual practice is not rightness or wrongness judged intellectually but about feelings, virtuous behaviour and emotional well-being.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

Elizabeth A. Johnson: Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury 2014) is a work by a Catholic feminist theologian and was recommended to me by a member of a prayer group I go to.  The book explores the question of the theological meaning of the natural world by examining The Origin of Species and the Nicene Creed, taking its title from Job 12:7-10.

For millennia the natural world of plants and animals has received little attention as a subject of Christian theology and ethics in its own right. Focused on the human dilemma of sin and redemptive grace, theology has considered the doctrine of Creation an overture to the main drama of human beings’ relationship to God. Theology needs to look out of the window as well as in the mirror. Johnson concludes that love of the natural world is an intrinsic element of faith in God and that far from being an add-on, ecological care is at the centre of moral life. She refers to the Holy Spirit, the third element in the Trinity, as calling us to attend to the presence of the Giver of life within and around the evolving circle of life. Johnson quotes the elegant question from the arch-atheist Stephen Hawking, what is it that breaths fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? Johnson’s answer is that the Spirit of God awakens and enlivens all things. She would have us re sacralize the natural world through our modern understanding of it and our inter-connectedness with it. Johnson’s book is a hymn to science as worship.

It is good to see a Christian feminist writer upholding the positive connection between theology and science but, while I admire Johnson’s book, I actually would not recommend it to the general reader, because it is largely aimed at the student of Catholic theology. Far more to be recommended is the book to which it is, to an extent, an homage. I picked up a copy of Origin of Species in a local Oxfam shop and, following my predilection for counter-counter-cultural practices, browsed it in the nearby McDonalds over a quarter-pounder meal with coffee. I immediately grasped Johnson’s enthusiasm for this book. Far from being a cold assault on religious passion, Darwin’s work prompts in the reader two strong feelings. The first is astonishment at the complexity of Creation. The second, even stronger feeling, is astonishment at the power of the human mind to engage with this complexity and make some sense of it. There are political and philosophical lessons in his theory and method: diversity and variety are strengths, in societies as much as in species; change is the only constant and is necessary for survival; you can’t buck the system; you’ve got to keep an open mind. I particularly like Darwin’s discussion of the old Latin phrase Natura non facit saltum, which means that nature does not proceed by jumps. The necessity and wisdom of gradual rather than revolutionary change is something that should not be lost on politicians 

Monday, 18 April 2016

Give Refuge to the Stranger

In March 2016, Linda Rabben gave a talk at the Kingston Quaker Centre on her book, Give Refuge to the Stranger: the Past, Present and Future of Sanctuary (Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek California, 2011). 

Sanctuary is the giving of refuge to the threatened, vulnerable stranger.  It is universal and older than human society. From its origins in primate populations to its elaboration in ancient religious traditions and the modern legal institution of asylum, Rabben tells the story of sanctuary as it evolved over thousands of years.  She then examines asylum today, analyzing policy in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia and linking them to the experiences of courageous individuals to show how immigration and asylum are under attack around the world.  Her book is both an academic study of sanctuary and an impassioned call for the humane treatment of asylum seekers.

An important point she makes, which is often overlooked in the current heated debate about the migration crisis in Europe, is about the advantages, and indeed the delight, of rescue.  Human beings, and indeed other animals, naturally move about in order to flourish, migrating from one feeding ground to another.  Furthermore, we have in common with other species a tendency to act altruistically.  Rabben refers to the concept of reciprocal altruism, helpful acts that are costly in the short term but may produce long-term benefits if the recipients, or other members of the society, return the favour.  As much as there may be a tendency to emnity amongst humans and primates, there is also a tendency to develop social norms and enforce them, to develop the capacity for empathy and sympathy, mutual aid and a sense of fairness, mechanism of conflict resolution and so on.  In other words, welcoming the stranger is not only a natural thing to do but is also helpful.  It is at the heart of how societies grow and flourish, morally and economically. 

It goes beyond Rabben's subject to deal with trade and its history, but there are economic as well as moral advantages in migration and in welcoming the stranger, because of the gains in skills and knowledge as well as cultural enrichment.  Intermarriage and the strengthening of the gene pool is another benefit from movement of peoples.  Sadly, many opponents of migration just perceive the negative side, such as pressure on local services and infrastructure, without seeing that the vital ingredient of economic and moral growth is people.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Peace Tax

Conscience, http://www.conscienceonline.org.uk/ is an organisation promoting the idea of taxes for peace not war. It campaigns for a progressive increase in the amount of UK tax spent on peacebuilding, and a corresponding decrease in the amount spent on war and preparation for war. It also campaigns for the legal right of those with a conscientious objection to war to have the entire military part of their taxes spent on peacebuilding. This latter idea is known, rather misleadingly, as the Peace Tax.

There seem to me three arguments against the Peace Tax. Firstly, there is the slippery slope argument. To allow a legal right for those with a deep personal or religious objection to some aspect of government expenditure is to open the door to any number of single-interest enthusiasts, most obviously the anti-abortionist. Medical staff are already able to decline to participate in abortion procedures on grounds of conscience. If the right of conscientious objection is granted in respect of taxes going towards military expenditure, a Pro-Lifer could reasonably argue for the right on grounds of conscience to disallow any of their tax payments going to fund abortions on the National Health, insisting instead the money going on life-sustaining medical activity.

Secondly, in the UK donating through the Gift Aid scheme means charities can claim an extra 25p for every £1 given, so if it is open to a peace campaigner to donate to the organisation of her choice, which then gets back public money which would otherwise go on defence. In effect, there is already a means for a tax-payer to divert public funds to a peace charity and accordingly away from objectionable military expenditure.  No doubt Conscience itself uses the Gift Aid scheme, which would be slightly ironic.

Thirdly, administering a Peace Tax would be burdensome for the government and of little benefit to tax-payers as a whole. There is an excellent video on the history of Quaker war tax resistance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W658HYZGgPY. The speaker makes the point that life these days is too complicated to permit of simplistic measures like the Peace Tax.

Conscience are sponsoring a Peace Tax Bill in Parliament.  It is a good way of drawing attention to the organisation's correct and commendable principle that spending money on peace-building rather than on defence is much better value for money, if one may put the issue just in economic terms.  However, I expect the Bill itself will make little progress.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Faith in the Public Square


Yesterday I went to a lunchtime talk given by Rowan Williams at St Mary-le-Strand in central London on the subject of 'Faith in the Public Square', which is the title of one of his books.  I had pre-booked, which was just as well as St Mary's - a fine Baroque building - was packed.

I'm absolutely a fan of Bishop Rowan Williams.  (He has stepped down from being Archbishop of Canterbury but was being billed as a Bishop; I wonder if this was a mistake for his now being a Baron).  He's an impressive physical presence, a humble and engaging speaker and expresses a deep spirituality.  I also like him because he's known to be an admirer of Quakers, and indeed he made favourable mention of us in his talk.  His subject was the familiar one of the secular/sacred divide but he took a refreshingly positive approach, avoiding the wearisome denunciations of secular immorality and materialism usually to be found in the mouths of churchmen.

For Williams, the sacred is a sense that the person and the environment are not fully under our control, that there is more to reality than me and the totality of other me's.   The spiritual life is to look through 'a window into the inexhaustible depth'.  The Church - and Williams would include Quakers in this, as would I - is a hospitable space where stuff goes on which doesn't go on elsewhere.  This can include creative doubt (and also the expression of existential and emotional pain, though Williams didn't mention this).  The sacred space is for those for whom the ordinary world of things and busyness is not enough.  This means that the Church speaks for those for whom others do not speak. 

The church asks whose depths are not being attended to, who has been forgotten?  By this Williams was making the familiar point about the need for the churches to speak out on social justice and for minorities but I felt more to his words than this.  The church is also for those who may have power and a voice in the secular domain but whose spiritual needs must be identified in, and served by, the spiritual domain. I have in mind people like me, middle-class, well-to-do, white, heterosexual men who may operate well enough in the secular domain but who struggle to express themselves satisfactorily between persons and within a faith community.  One of the issues which concerns me and which I was able to talk about to people on at a recent residential I attended at Woodbrooke is the role of men in the Society, who are prominent and apparently powerful but seem to contribute less to, and get less from, fellowship than women Friends. Williams talked of the church has conveying a sense of something that doesn't go elsewhere.  He could have used the phrase 'a gathered meeting'.  Perhaps this is the point I'm trying to reach for; a church is about fellowship between all.

Williams said the role of secular power is to act positively to hold the ring between faith communities, which should have an unembarrassed voice but must accept that they may sometimes lose the argument with the secular.  In so saying, Williams mentioned the argument over assisted dying but he might equally as well have mentioned same-sex marriage.  (I get the impression that Williams is uncomfortable with the conservative position of the mainstream churches on these issues but his standing as an ecclesiastical prince makes it impossible for him to say so publicly.) He is optimistic about the prospects for communities of faith working under the protection of benign secularism.  He ended his talk by a message of hope for the mended life, rather than the fractured one, which is expressed in Christianity by St Paul's words about a new creation through Christ (2 Cor 5:17).


Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Power of Quaker Values

From time to time there is the suggestion Quaker values are not the same as the values of society as a whole and that we have a special messages for those who are not of us, if only they would pay attention. I wonder whether by this attitude we rather marginalise ourselves.

Let us remind ourselves of our values, which are embodied in the Testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity and truth. These values are rooted in the Golden Rule, that it is good and wise to do as you would be done by. The Golden Rule is beautifully expressed in the Beatitudes and is found is all religions but Quakers have succeeded in stripping away sectarian and doctrinal encumbrances and made the Testimonies a simple statement of what it is to lead the good and holy life, a statement of true secular and religious values, for the two are at root one and the same.

Let us humbly acknowledge that the principles in the Testimonies were not invented by the Quakers. Thinkers since ancient times have dwelt on the virtues and vices. The so-called cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, to which the Christian theologians added the religious virtues of faith, hope and charity. These values are not inconsistent with the Testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity and truth, though how they might fit together in theory and practice is the hard part and challenges all of us every day. Similarly, there is traditional condemnation of the vices of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony, and this is not inconsistent with Quaker condemnation of violence, including sexual violence, gross inequality and material self-indulgence.

Quaker values, far from being at variance with those of the rest of society, express in a pure form those values shared by all people of good will, whether or not they are Quakers or of any faith at all. After all, there are few who will say outright they are against peace, equality, simplicity and truth and in favour of unjust wars, oppression, unrestrained extravagance and lies. Fox told us to be patterns and examples, but the patterns need to be recognisable by others. Indeed, Quakers are at their most effective in giving practical examples of how to live the Testimonies. I am thrilled and humbled by the examples of service through quiet processes by Quakers past and present in many ways and walks of life. Probably the crowning glory of Quaker service has been in the field of peace and reconciliation. We do Quaker peace-workers an injustice if we fail to recognise their enormous influence. It is because of the influence of those who have struggled for peace and human dignity that most Governments pay at least lip service to policies that promote peace and human rights - commonplace now but rooted in Quaker action against war and injustice from the outset.

The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office has a campaign on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict. This is in the tradition of Quaker work for peace and human rights. No doubt the Government has an eye to the prestige of such campaigns and we know from the media of the less attractive aspects of Government policy, but I would encourage Friends to examine for themselves what Governments are doing by paying attention to their pronouncements and take a balanced view of their activities. The Iraq War and the renewal of Trident are stupid and deplorable but there are other stories which put the UK Government in a better light and show the power of Quakers' message of peace and reconciliation.

If we fail to recognise the influence that we have we are in danger of talking to ourselves. Quakers have been great visionaries, and others have come to share those visions, however falteringly and incompletely. Quakers are not oppositionists and anarchists, who condemn governments whatever they do, for their sins of commission and omission alike, nor are Quakers Marxists, for whom class conflict is the engine of progress. In fact, Quakerism is not a political position at all but a personal moral and religious commitment which we share in worship with others. The testimony of truth requires us to see the good in others, particularly politicians, unfashionable though that may be. Speaking truth to power is not a matter of demonising politicians or of preaching to the unconverted or unconvertible but of patiently influencing through quiet processes and example so that our message is heard and understood.

(Edited version of my article from The Friend)

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Quakers Visit Russia (1951)


I have come across this book about a Quaker goodwill and fact-finding mission to Soviet Russia in July 1951.  It was published by the East-West Relations Group of the Friends' Peace Committee. It is of double interest to me as the visit was in my birth month and my father was a lifelong atheist communist who would have viewed Quakers as well-meaning bourgeois dupes of the imperialists.  The visit took place while Joseph Stalin was the Soviet leader and at the time of the Korean War and the growing tension between East and West which began after the end of World War II and endured until the collapse of the Soviet Empire (but which seems to have revived with the emergence of Vladimir Putin as a new Russian strongman).

The Quaker delegation had met the UK Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, prior to departure but their mission was neither officially sponsored nor discouraged. The mission carried a message of goodwill to all men (sic), which had been issued in 1950 and appealed for the avoidance of words and deeds that increased suspicion and ill-feeling, for renewed efforts at understanding and for positive attempts to build a true peace.

The mission was made up of very weighty Friends.  It included the editor of the book, the scientist Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-71), who had earlier in her career been imprisoned for conscientious objection (see 24.15 of QF&P); Paul Cadbury, a member of the Cadbury family, who had been chairman of Birmingham’s house building committee; Margaret Backhouse, a lecturer in psychology; Mildred Creak, a child psychiatrist; and Frank Edmead, a reporter on the Manchester Guardian.    One wonders whether Quakers today put together a delegation of such quality, to include scientists, academics, writers, experienced peace workers and public administrators.

Once in the USSR, the visitors were conducted to some extent but also freely wandered on their own.  Relations with their interpreters were frank but friendly.  The delegation did not see, though asked about, the gulags and prison camps, and would have been unaware of the persecutions that Stalin had resumed after the Great Patriotic War, during which he had largely stopped murdering Russian people because he could leave it to the Nazis to do so.

The delegation were as interested in the religious as in the political situation in Russia.  They met the Russian Orthodox and Baptist-Evangelical communities.  The officially sanctioned churches were strong in their denunciations of the western powers, the Vatican and 'the handful of blood-thirsty Anglo-American businessmen who seek to warm their hands over the fire of a new war'.  The Quakers enjoyed the vibrant religious life they encountered but disapproved of the vituperative tone of the official churches' contradictory preaching of peace for Russia and hatred of the west.  The delegation also disapproved of the display of posters depicting western leaders (including the British Prime Minister of the day, Clement Atlee) as warmongers.  The Quakers pointed out to their hosts that, while the Quakers themselves opposed war, Western leaders were freely elected, represented their people and reflected their fears and suspicions.  The Russian hosts could see no need for opposition media or opposition politicians as the country was united, the delegation was told.  Their hosts were baffled by the Quaker practice of peace-building and reconciliation.  While upholding western, democratic values, the delegation learned to be very patient and very sincere. 

On Sunday 22 July, while my mother was being delivered of a twin boy and girl in London's Whittington Hospital, the delegation were visiting the Molotov collective farm outside Kiev, with mixed feelings because they were aware of the ruthlessness with which Ukrainian land had been collectivised.

The visitors were particularly interested in the official peace movement in Russia, which stood against western intervention in Korea (but of course ignored the part that Stalin was playing there).  The delegation concluded that the official peace movement, while suiting the agenda of the communist authorities, reflected a sincere belief that the West meant to attack them and had a ‘genuine core and a genuine potential for peace […] which it is neither right nor sensible to ignore’.  In this refreshingly uncynical approach, the Quaker party helped pave the way to eventual arms control negotiations.

The visitors found much that was wrong or misguided in the policies and practices of the Soviet Union but that there had been solid progress towards economic and social betterment in the mass of the people.  They found the shops were crammed with goods of all kinds, which was more than I found when I visited in 1984, but the concept of political liberty was alien.  Their main concern was whether or not the official peace campaign was genuine.  Their conclusion was that the Russian people were afraid that the West intended to attack and destroy their country, because of the power of vested interests in Government and business circles.  The Russian people were encouraged to believe this by their press and leaders.

I am very impressed by the quality of discernment in this book and the calibre of the delegation, who conducted an open-minded quest for information untrammelled by prejudice in favour or against their Soviet host.  There was a willingness to see that there are many sides to a story and to present findings in a cautious and moderate tone.  There is no incoherent anger or prejudice. It needs to be said in fairness to the delegation's hosts that the Russians showed themselves willing to engage in dialogue while strenuously defending their own position.  The visit was an example of peace-building at its best and a contrast to the politics of protest which, for some Quakers these days, is the entire content of the peace testimony. The skill of the 1951 delegation and the knowledge gained thereby helped build, if not warm relations between West and East, then at least a recognition that honest contact over shared issues was possible.  The Quakers' visit to Russia was a model example of the peace testimony in action. 

Friday, 4 March 2016

Ann Morisy

Yesterday (3 March 2016) I attended a Lent talk at All Saints, Kingston upon Thames, by Ann Morisy, who is a community, rather than an academic, theologian.  After a deceptively light-hearted introduction of herself as a simple lass from the Bootle Bible Belt, she ranged widely.  She talkedof God as the presence of another in times of vulnerability, of the importance of integrity and accepting integrity.  She had been an active evangelical when young but then moved towards scepticism, via the study of sociology, and Buddhism before returning to the church.  She became a campaigner for women's ordination and as a reward, or punishment, got posted to the ultramontane diocese of London, where she took to studying her conservative opponents as if she were an anthropologist with a curiosity to experience and learn.  As a result she realised her own tendency to 'otherise'.  She developed a scheme to show how the process of otherisation makes religion dangerous.  Opponents - in her case, opponents of women's ordination - are seen as persecutors and collectively guilty leading to exponents - supporters of women's ordination - becoming supremacists and persecutors in their turn, in a vicious cycle.  It was a brave, Christian conclusion for her to come to and reminded me of my own proclivity for taking entrenched positions. An antidote to otherisation is the traditional practice of confessing sin, which induces in one a healthy humility. Morisy talks, less traditionally, of the transgressive power of the Holy Spirit, the power of spiritual practice to move one across boundaries.

She briefly went over some of her other interests: humour as the bizarre return of repressed behaviour; the spirituality of aging and inter-generational inequality; and the importance of acting locally.  On the latter point I felt she had perhaps not quite got the balance right.  We live in a global world and it seems right and possible to have a global perspective while recognising that one's scope to make a difference is largely confined to the local level.  Lobby nationally but act locally, as the Quakers say.  (Although out of my own sense of guilt I feel that lobbying and generating words is more congenial though less productive than actually doing anything).

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Derek Guiton: A Man that Looks on Glass

I have been dipping into Derek Guiton A Man that Looks on Glass: Standing up for God in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) (FeedARead Publishing 2015).  According to the blurb,
the Quaker movement in Britain is beset with problems — growing secularisation, incompatible belief systems, ideology as a substitute for faith. Add to these the emergence of theologically-based ‘special interest’ groups with their own sectarian agendas and campaigning methods and we have a genuine existential crisis on our hands.

When Guiton talks about standing up for God, one is tempted to ask whether God is not powerful enough to do this for Himself.  Predictions of the collapse into irreligiosity of the Quakers, like those about society at large, tend to be premature.  My experience is that in all churches there are some members who are more interested in doctrine, theology and the nature of worship than others; indeed, I would rate the quality of spiritual and religious understanding amongst Quakers as higher than in other churches I have encountered.  It’s just that because of the lack of a creed, differences (and indifference) amongst Quakers are more obvious.  All Quakers are on a journey, are seekers but at any one time, some are bound to be in a different place, and moving at a different pace, than others.  Snapshot surveys about belief or disbelief, on which Guiton places much reliance, cannot capture the richness of even the most superficial of spiritual lives, just as bald statistics about numbers of members cannot capture the true health of the Society.  (Another indication of the health of an organisation is its financial wealth.  It would be interesting, and perhaps a bit embarrassing, to know if BYM has a balance sheet and what is the value of its assets are per head of membership.)

Guiton dislikes non-realism, the notion that religion is no more than a human construct, but says of mystical non-theism, which allows that there may be something more than ordinary reality, that it is in keeping with Quakers’ traditional perception of themselves as seekers.   This offers a common ground between theists and non-theists: the notion that faith and practice is a path, not a fruition.  I believe this to be true, which leads me to be relaxed in the face of self-styled Cassandras such as Guiton. I believe he exaggerates the threat posed by David Boulton and non-theist network, which far from seeking to split the Society has opened up a refreshing debate on the nature of what it is that Quakers do.  I have found that the debate and my own spiritual journey has tended to move me from a firm atheism, to a universalist humanism and on towards a soft theism but I could not have done this without non-religious and Buddhist Friends just as I could not have done it without the mainstream Christians I have encountered in other churches.  Even so, the state of my interior life at any one moment may have more to do with what I had for breakfast than with a committed relationship with the Almighty.

Guiton has some interesting but passing remarks about the role of discernment in social activism.  I would like to have seen more from him about the threat posed to the Society not by over-extended diversity, to use his phrase, but by political ideologues who ignore the Quaker tradition of ethical capitalism and moral progressivism and who twist the testimony of equality into angry and ignorant words about so-called domination systems.  This trend has less to do with weak theology as weak thinking generally and a lack of disciplined discernment.

God has a tendency to break through in unexpected ways, as Janet Scott pointed out in her Swarthmore Lecture, to which Guiton pays much attention.  If we carry on doing what we do – whatever that is – there may be surprisingly positive consequences.  Is this blind optimism or true faith? There is mention of Keith Ward (p.233), who has made a vigorous case for a theism springing from philosophical idealism.  I cannot find mention of the early Quakers’ panentheist contemporary, Spinoza but unfortunately there is no index or bibliography so it is hard to be sure.

Guiton is ambiguous about diversity, seeming to welcome open-minded thinking while worrying overmuch about its diluting a theological purity and primitive goodness which, by my reading of Quaker history, never existed.  His chapter on the need for a theology is contentious.  He quotes Rowan Williams saying of Don Cupitt that Cupitt ‘gives his readers very little sense of the range of intellectual options involved’ in the debate on non-realism but the same might be said of Guiton.  Guiton praises Robert Barclay, but there is much to dislike about our greatest theologian’s authoritarian sectarianism, which is a neglected (because unattractive) theme in Quaker history vide the shameful and prolonged domination system of disownment for exogamy.  See my earlier blog about this key feature of the history of Quaker exclusivism.

Guiton begins to lose my sympathy from chapter 5 onwards, in which he seems to uphold the experiential basis of Quakerism while insisting on the need for a Quaker theology which would necessarily deny a shared identity to non-theists or even to those committed Friends whose tastes and interests take them away from theology and more towards activism or administration.  He recognises that Quakers have a long history of controversy about their identity while not recognising that such controversies, in Britain at least, have not led to schism.  The non-theist controversy, like the universalism v. Christocentric controversy, will run its course (indeed, it may already have done so)  and its lessons absorbed.  Guiton adopts an exclusivist tone, correctly linking emotional with spiritual experience while seeming to assert that spiritual discernment and fellowship are truly available only to the theist.

The final chapter is on theism and the sovereignty of love but contains very little love directed towards non-theists.  Generally in the book there is little sense of how non-theism, in all its guises, adds to the life of the Society. I look in vain for a discussion of the beneficial influence of Buddhism on Quakers and of how eastern non-monotheist spirituality has enriched Quakerism and, indeed, Christianity generally.  I look in vain for a recognition of how modern psychology has deepened our understanding of human minds and emotions and helped us re-engage with the classic texts of  Christian spirituality such as St Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises.  I look in vain for the point that Ben Pink Dandelion has made about the ministry of gifts and for a recognition that it is not given to some Friends to want or need to engage in theology.  I look in vain for recognition that each of us is on a journey and that at any one point in that journey we may be more or less engaged with the deep things of life and more or less inclined to use God language.

 This is a lively but disputatious book which, in seeming to call for a revival of exclusivism, is overly uncritical of the past of the Society, overly critical of its present and overly pessimistic about its future.

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Year of Mercy; Pope's monthly prayer intentions

Pope Francis has declared a Year of Mercy, to run for most of 2016.  The Year is being commemorated by various events including, at Westminster Cathedral, a Way of Mercy, which I visited on 30 December 2015. It is like a Stations of the Cross in which a path of meditation unfolds the notion of holy mercy. Each of the ten stations along the Way of Mercy is marked by a work of art commissioned for the occasion.  I was struck by the simple, even cartoonish, piece illustrating the seventh station, dedicated to works of mercy.  There are fourteen works of mercy, divided between those of corporal mercy, such as feeding the hungry, and those of spiritual mercy, such as bearing wrongs patiently and forgiving offences willingly.

Many Quakers dislike the Roman Catholic Church. Its denial of contraception and of equal rights to women is indefensible, and the scandal of clerical abuse has revealed the ugly consequence of its authoritarianism.  On the other hand, Quakers will respond to the words from the Bible which Pope Francis takes as the text for the Year of Mercy, Be merciful even as God is merciful (Luke 6:36). The idea of mercy is powerful but comprehensible, easier to grasp perhaps than the vague notion of love.  In Church Latin it is misericordia, poorness of heart, indicative of its association with humility.  Mercy is directed as much at oneself as at others.  To be merciful to oneself is to accept and forgive one's own trespasses as much as one accepts and forgives the trespasses of others.  To be merciful is to practice compassion as best one can, recognising that one will always fall short of the divine standard which, Christians believe, is set by Jesus. The sense of mercy is well expressed by the familiar words of Isaac Pennington (10.01 in Quaker Faith & Practice).

Another initiative by the Pope is to post on video and social media his traditional monthly prayer intentions. The first video, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6FfTxwTX34 features the Pope’s prayer intention for January: “That sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of peace and justice”.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Early Quakers and the Kingdom of God

There has been a suggestion that early Friends made a fundamental distinction between the dominant ways of 'the world' and the ways of God's kingdom.  I have looked at that contention in the light of Gerard Guiton: The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God’ (Inner Light Books, San Francisco, California 2012).  Unlike Douglas Gwyn (1995) Guiton takes a theological rather than an anarcho-Marxist approach, and more fruitfully analyses Quakers’ use of language.

The peace testimony is less an oppositionist or revolutionary stance as pointing to the permanent need for networks for resolving conflicts.  Quakerism is creative rather than revolutionary.  For Guiton, central to the Quakers’ salvific programme is the Kingdom of God, or a convenant of love, a pentecostal-paracletal movement revived from the days of the Apostles and a ‘pearl of conciliation’. Guiton refers to spiritual maturity, which well describes the religious virtues of creativity and responsiveness.  The spiritual journey goes from pride to humility accompanied, paradoxically, by a sense of the worth of self and others in a community.  Guiton sees a dynamic of inner and external challenge in early Quakerism which is inherent in organisations and, if managed well, is a source of growth.

Guiton systemises themes in early Quakerism as follows:

v  Faith and worship

Ø  A particular view of prayer

Ø  Silence, waiting and listening

Ø  Obedience to the spirit or Christ

Ø  Confidence and trust in God

Ø  Inward security, donning the mantel of a conflicted person who trusts completely in God

Ø  Apocalyptic hope

Ø  Spiritual renewal

v  Theology and Christology

Ø  Concentration on the light of Christ

Ø  Present and future kingdom

Ø  Salvation, wholeness or perfection or maturity in the spirit

Ø  Repentance and suffering

Ø  Revival of the way of Jesus (see Matt 5-7)

v  Practice within and outside the Movement

Ø  Love of each other and neighbours

Ø  Coherence or agreement

Ø  Righteousness and true justice i.e. salvific or ethical justice

Ø  Equality, inclusiveness and the tradition of wisdom (rejects Calvinist doctrine of the elect)

Ø  Good works as social justice

Ø  Plain speech, simplicity and humility

Ø  Prophetic declarations of the peace testimony as a religious commitment

Ø  The Lamb’s War to deliver Love, a non-violent confrontation with empire

Ø  Staunch refusal to be second best i.e. standing firm

Ø  Rudimentary ecumenism, especially in the case of the second generation of Quakers (Penn and Barclay)

These multifarious themes counter the simplistic portrait of Quakers as following the ways of God rather than those of the ways of the world, a portrait which gives rise to the angry and accusatory tone of the followers of Walter Wink, about whom I have blogged separately.  Rather, Quakers offer a life of faith and practice. A study of their history and of religion generally reveals cultural and social institutions which are the rich output of human creative life and society, of our inner and social lives, not separate 'systems' or ring-fenced areas of absolute righteousness.  Quakers meet to praise, give thanks to God and celebrate (QF&P 6.01; last sentence).  Those who think that Quakers meet merely to point the finger at everyone else should ponder our fine tradition of love and truth.

Karen Armstrong: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014) sees a closer tie than I do between religion and violence.  I hope to blog about her book separately.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

The ways of God and the ways of the world

Stuart Masters has blogged that 'early Friends were very clear that there was a fundamental distinction to be made between the dominant ways of 'the world' and the ways of God's kingdom. Rachel Muers makes much the same point in her important Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics (SCM Press,2015), in which she says that Quaker testimony tends to operate at the point of confrontation between the truth of God and the dominant untruths of a world-opposed-to-God (p.46). Historically, testimony has prompted Quaker to set themselves against any power structure or pattern of life that denies or obscures divine truth (p.118).  I would not disagree with this opinion if it is a purely theological position, and amounts to saying that Quaker testimony can be identified as such when it uses solemn God language, but is not testimony when it uses everday, secular language.  However, if it is an historical or sociological assertion then it is false.  As Stuart has acknowledged, the Quakers have always engaged with governments or 'domination systems' and indeed were actually governors in colonial Pennsylvania.  Similarly, the Foundations of a True Social Order, about which I have blogged separately, is an fine example of testimony which engages with the World and shows how its systems can be improved. To distinguish between the ways of God and the ways of the world is, like talk of structural violence, to depersonalise others with whom you disagree.  Rather, Quakers are counselled to 'walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone'.  In other words, equality of souls means equality of treatment and not succumbing to prideful assertions about Quaker ways as specially the ways of God.  Humility is a Christian virtue - and one I struggle to cultivate.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tom Paine... Quaker famine relief in post-revolutionary Russia

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he authored the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, Common Sense and The American Crisis, and he inspired the rebels in 1776 to declare independence from Britain.

Tom Paine is an important figure for Quakers.  His mother was one and his life and work were characterised by plain speech, a disregard of titles and hierarchy, an utter commitment to equality, a belief that what we say and do matters, and a belief that we are perfectible.  His best-selling pamphlet of 1776, Common Sense, expressed the developing mood in America of the necessity of separation from Britain.  At the time a recent immigrant from England, Paine savagely and directly attacked 'the royal brute' and the whole concept of monarchy, in the process disabusing Americans of the notion that they could look to George III for redress.  The only alternatives, Paine insisted, were submission or independence. 

Paine believed that that the British Constitution was a tyranny that was beyond reform and that the Americans had to become independent. He was an anti-authoritarian libertarian and egalitarian.  The British colonial administration of America was inept but was more liberal than the local Americans, with their grand assertion that 'all men are created equal', in one important respect - slavery. Paine was for abolishing slavery but most American slave-holders were for independence, because they correctly feared the British would interfere with their rights. Simon Schama's Rough Crossing tells the story.

The American Constitution of 1789 silently allowed slavery but enshrined the right to bear arms which is causing so much trouble today. In this light, Paine's opposition to the British Constitution looks wrong. Under that Constitution Britain abolished slavery and peacefully evolved into a Parliamentary democracy, a modern mixed economy with a national health service. The US, by contrast, though it extended the franchise to white male adults far earlier than in Britain, had to fight a civil war over slavery and to this day is held back by an out-dated Constitution which stops the Government from introducing a national welfare service or the most moderate gun safety laws.  Interestingly, the US did not introduce women's suffrage much earlier than in Britain.  Generally, Paine's aspiration for America to be a model of rights, equality and democracy has turned out to be disappointed. 

 Paine helped promote a self-serving American independence movement.  The Founding Fathers were as much interested in their property rights as in the rights of man.  They ignored Paine's socio-economic egalitarianism and acquiesced in the abomination of chattel slavery.  In addition, Paine and the Founding Fathers scotched the prospects for modern social democracy in the US.  They saw no role for the state in social welfare and called for low taxation.  To that extent Paine anticipated the American Tea Party not the British Labour Party.  He believed that society could be improved but only by revolution, not by gradual progress aided by a stable government acting in the general interest. Because the Founding Fathers shared Paine's hatred of tyranny, they made a constitution which dangerously weakened the national government so as to impede laws on public safety and a modern welfare state.  So much for Paine's Common Sense.

Similarly, his Rights of Man sought to promote the French Revolution in opposition to Burke.  History has vindicated Burke and condemned Paine.  Nothing could be more inimical to the rights of man, and a fortiori those of women, than a violent revolution and the loss of peace and plenty.  Quakers themselves know this from their experience of the famine relief work in post-Revolutionary Russia (1921-1929) which is currently the subject of a fascinating but distressing exhibition of rare photographs in Friends House.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Politics and the vices



I have blogged about so-called structural violence and its attraction for Quakers, who need to be warned against the politics of envy.  Such politics springs from a confusion about the difference between socio-economic equality, on the one hand, and equality of souls, or spiritual equality, on the other. There may well be something in the argument that the more unequal a society is, the more dysfunctional it is and the unhappier its people, but there is more to Quakerism than being angry about socio-economic inequality, to take a striking and rather worrying phrase from BYM 2015. Quakers need to beware of the vices of wrath and pride (a vice to which your blogger is prone). For more on this I would refer readers to a recent book by an Anglican clergyman, Fraser Dyer, Who Are We To Judge?: Empathy and Discernment in a Critical Age (SPCK 2015).  Wise words on the same lines come from Thich Nhat Hanh, who says (Living Buddha, Living Christ pp 79-80) that  the rich may suffer as much as the poor, so when we take sides in the class war we misunderstand the will of God, which is that we should love one another. TNH goes on to say that any dualistic response motivated by anger will make the situation worse. Anger not only aggravates conflict, it also blinds us to what is really going on and where suffering is occurring. It hampers action because it leads us into the blame game where we are always looking to see who is responsible for a problem rather than working together to solve it. In the case of socio-economic inequality it leads many Quakers into a state of confusion and frustration, because they cannot understand what socio-economic equality can amount to, or how to go about achieving it, in our complex and ever-changing world.  One starting point would be to consider what historically has been the Quaker attitude to socio-economic inequality, and I have blogged about this separately.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

TTIP and Brexit as concerns for Quakers

On 7 December 2015 the Deputy Recording Clerk e-mailed Area Clerks with a message from Meetings for Sufferings, which felt it is important to speak out urgently on the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) . Friends were encouraged to engage with the issues. Thinking it possible that Quaker Testimonies were being challenged by a major issue, I studied the papers which had been circulated.

At first sight the picture was alarming. In a ‘Story of Witness’ of October 2015 from a Friend who is also a Green Party activist with trade union backing, we are told that TTIP would mean that contracts let by local authorities for waste collection and such like could no longer safeguard the environment or generally be in the best interests of communities, because of a mysterious process called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). Elsewhere in the material circulated by Meetings for Suffering, we are told that tyhe three pillars of TTIP are deregulation, privatisation and corporate courts.  War on Want says that TTIP endangers governments' ability to regulate, and endanger citizens' rightsw to basic services like water, health and energy.

The language of the opponents of TTIP is anti-capitalist and suggests that governments and the official negotiators are tools of international corporations.  Indeed, the view has been expressed that if the European Commission is in favour of TTIP, that is sufficient to damn it. However, once one reads the papers circulated by the Deputy Recording Clerk, including one produced by a joint working group of non-conformist churches http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/TTIP-Briefing-Final.pdf , one learns that the detailed concerns about TTIP, including ISDS, are being addressed in the course of the negotiations. The joint public issues paper concludes that TTIP will benefit international trade but there needs to be more clarity about protection for the environment and for developing countries. I concluded that the concern in the Story of Witness was exaggerated.  I have seen separate material from War on Want's pronouncements that is particularly biassed and inflammatory.

QF&P 8.11 sets out how Quakers should translate their faith into social action, by helping to build a just and peaceful world. That means we should in principle be in favour of international cooperation and free trade and against the protection of special interest groups. The economic and environmental issues underlying the TTIP controversy are complicated both scientifically and politically. For example, there is no simple correlation between international trade and environmental degradation.  The manufacturing and exporting of solar panels ought, other things being equal, help tackle climate change.  Nor is there a simple correlation between human rights and protectionism.  There may be a case for special protection for emerging industries in the developing world but this should not be an absolute rule.  There may come a point where protection for a favoured industry or group of workers becomes anti-competitive, even corrupt. The interests of producers and consumers need to be balanced, and this can be done through agreements like TTIP.  Indeed, if there has to be any skew in the balance it should be towards the consumer, rather than the producer, because we are all consumers but not all of us - those too old to work, for example - are producers.  This means that the principle of equality when applied to the economic sphere should mean equality of consumers i.e. we should all have access to the basics of life and producers should not be exempt from fair competition.

I would say to the opponents of TTIP that they will find there are no simple answers. TTIP is something about which reasonable people of good will, Quakers or not, can disagree.  I would also say to the campaigners that we live in a parliamentary democracy with a lively forum for debate on the internet and in the other media. It is open to the Friend with strong but controversial opinions about TTIP to pursue his concern through secular channels, including the trade union and the political party for which he acts. It is unnecessary for him and other opponents of TTIP also to raise the matter with the Society of Friends.  My own Area Meeting, in being invited to join the campaign against TTIP but wishing to respond in a Quakerly way, has decided to seek more information before proceeding further.

A question in my mind is why Quakers are giving so much attention to TTIP and none whatsoever, as far as I know, to the forthcoming referendum on the EU.  It seems to me that Brexit is something which should concern Friends as much as TTIP, if not more.  Brexit would be at variance with the internationalism which springs from the Quaker testimony of equality of souls and is expressed in the term, the brotherhood of man, to be found in the 1918 Foundations of a True Social Order. In addition, even if Brexit were to be economically neutral to the UK (which I doubt, as it would be much more likely to be disruptive) it would be a victory for the right-wing little Englanders who want to pull up the national drawbridge and for libertarian cranks.  The values of these two groups are different from those of the Society.  I suggest that Brexit is far more of a threat to Quaker values and to the public interest than TTIP.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Quaker Theology: Barclay and Scott

Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1676) may be considered the original statement of faith of Quakers. Robert Barclay (1648-1690), was of the next generation from the Valiant Sixty and a politician as well as theologian.  He worked with William Penn to win Crown rights for Quakers in the colonies of America and used his learning to produce a work of rigorous theology which continues to command respect and attention. There are selected passages in Quaker Faith & Practice but these show Barclay at his best, because admittedly there is much to dislike about the Apology.  In the course of a long and difficult book, Barclay is disputatious, sectarian, dour and puritanical. He condemns apostasy, which means all other Christian religions, for he holds that the surest way to be a Christian is by the Quaker route.  He dismisses the ritual and practices of other Christians, particularly Catholics, as human inventions and imaginings, condemns Islam, and describes the zeal of Jews as the ‘prejudice of education, and the love of self, more than that of God’. He upholds the power and authority of the elder and the right of churches to discipline members in error, by excommunication if necessary. He criticises frivolous pastimes such as the theatre; instead we should spend our spare time gardening or doing mathematical puzzles.  However, once one gets past the antiquated language and the disagreeable tone, Barclay has much to offer.  In a set of fifteen Propositions he makes the intellectual case for Quakerism which is still good today. In particular, in Proposition Two Barclay asserts the possibility of religious knowledge, gives a convincing explanation of what this means and sets out the basis for the Testimonies.
Barclay asserts we know God through Christ by the Spirit or what he calls immediate revelation, which means by experience and without the mediation of church or scripture.  Importantly, he says divine revelation cannot contradict the testimony of scripture or right and sound reason, but at the same time revelation is more certain than scripture and the ordinary reason of man because it forces assent. In other words, we can identify divine truths as those which cannot be denied.  Barclay lays the theological and theoretical basis for discernment, Quakers’ bold claim that through the Light we can know the will of God. 
All religions and sects claim to know God’s truth but in the case of the Quakers we have a basis for our claim which is more than just blind faith or reliance on authority, tradition, and scripture.  Barclay’s point about divine revelation forcing assent means that the fictions he condemns in other religions cannot be true, because they cannot force agreement.  It is inconceivable that God would require us to believe in mere human inventions or to deny the findings of science.  At the same time, divine knowledge cannot be the same as secular reason, which is prone to error, because God can never be wrong.  The spirit and revelation lead us to the fundamental truths of the Testimonies, to agreement about right ends such love and peace, and concomitants such as respect for others and the environment, the principles of which cannot be denied however much we might disagree about means. To put it in non-theistic terms, the Testimonies are a set of irrefutable, moral truths. Barclay tells us that there are absolute truths but that Quakers are more discriminating and so more correct than others in identifying such truths.

Although the early Quakers were opposed to the political role of the Church of England and mocked its sacraments, there were theological similarities. Indeed, theologically the Quakers had greater differences with the Puritans than with the Anglicans.  The difference hinged on the controversy of justification, which Barclay deals with in some of the most impenetrable passages in his Apology. The controversy over the difference between justification by faith and by works was mired in polemics between Catholics and Protestants, the latter rather unfairly attributing to the former opinions and practices which pre-dated the Counter-Reformation.The controversy over justification had more to do with religious politics than theology, as the protagonists asserted that salvation was available only by their special means. The Roman Catholics and hard-line Puritans both asserted extra ecclesia non salus est.  The Anglicans, on the other hand, took a less emphatic position while the Quakers held, with Barclay, that salvation comes from unmediated revelation.  

Janet Scott delivered her Swarthmore Lecture of 1980, What Canst Thou Say: Towards a Quaker Theology, in the context of the then current controversy amongst Quakers between Christocentrics and universalists.  She seems to come down in favour of the latter in that she sees the importance Christians attach to the Christ-event as just an instance of a response to the Light, to God's self-disclosure.  She seems to reject the traditional Christian idea that salvation is available only through Jesus.  Scott wrote in the years before Quakers became tested by the controversy between theists and non-theists and asks what, in the end, we are to make of God.  She answers with a striking phrase.  God 'is utterly to be trusted yet totally unexpected, surprising us with providential grace, teasing us with delightful jokes, opening up the future to possibility, including us in the transcendental laughter.'  This is poetic but speaks of a Presence I cannot recognise.   I do not understand what Scott means by transcendental laughter.  The suggestion that grace is unexpected, even random, or that God is mischievous, demeans our attempts to live a spiritual life of some control over, and understanding of, our own lives, an experience of interbeing with the world which entails a positive and active response to the Presence and Reality we encounter.  Scott is right to point to the importance of creativity, to the possibility of change, but her portrayal of the personal God seems to disallow the deep communication which is the mark of a good relationship, whether it is between one human and another or between a human being and his sense of a wider Presence, of that which is not his ego.  However, I may have taken Scott's one phrase out of context, in which case I apologise.