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.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Are Quakers systemically racist?

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.

Beware the sociologist with an agenda

To say that there is white privilege is a sociological assertion which only works if we are willing to accept the proponent’s own 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).

A further point on the danger of labelling people is that I have a Jewish background.  I could (though I don't) choose to call myself Jewish.  So by the standard of the Kendall school of thought, I could be branded Jewish and privileged, which puts the Kendall proponents a whisker away from anti-semiticism.

What BYM says

The sociology is also contrary to what BYM says. 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 contibution is accepted according to their gifts and resources. All are welcomed and included.

People not sociology

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.  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.

Plain speech not jargon

'System' is an example of sociological jargon which is a departure from Quaker plain speech and is being used to dress up rash generalisations and actual falsehoods in pseudo-scientific language.  More seriously, as I say above, it is being used to turn Quakers against each other.  Before the words of BYM quoted above, Edmund Harvey wrote in 1928:
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)


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.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Caroline Stephen

Caroline Stephen (1834-1909) is known, if at all, as the aunt of Virginia Woolf.   She seems to have been portrayed by the male members of her family as a daft old bat or frustrated spinster, when she in fact she was a model of social engagement, kindness, strength of character, brains and spirituality, not to mention the literary ability that was also manifest in her niece .  One of the intellectual aristocracy of the C19th, she produced a number of writings on a range of Quaker-related topics which could be seen as the last gasp of the quietist tradition.  Given modern Quakers' predilection for public advocacy and radical theology, her life and work are overdue for revival.  A particular case in point is her Quaker Strongholds, which is a neglected classic about which I hope to blog further in future.  Another case in point is her feminism. Stephen opposed violent suffragetism so she was a suffragist rather than a suffragette.  Her The Service of the Poor (1871) is wide-ranging piece on the arguments for and against having religious sisterhoods for charitable purposes, at a time when an increased role for the State in welfare matters was still in contention. She took an anti-statist position, seeing a particular role for female religious orders in providing welfare services, in direct opposition to socialism.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Extra-judicial direct action in a democracy

Meeting for Sufferings has upheld extra-judicial direct action by a Friend from Huddersfield, Ian Bray, against the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

Extra-judicial direct action in a democracy breaches the testament of equality because it is a claim to special treatment.  To cause disruption in a protest against Heathrow expansion is not only counter- productive - as it will generate more nuisance than can ever be saved - but says that the protestor's conscience overrides the freedom of others to go about their lawful occasions.  It is doubly objectionable given that the voters of  the Parliamentary constitutency of Richmond Park, of whom I am one, have had the opportunity to strike a double blow, against Heathrow expansion and against Brexit.

Meeting for Sufferings needs better to test its support for extra-judicial direct action in a democracy.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Is unilateral nuclear disarmament by the UK the whole of the Peace Testimony? A lesson from World War One and the Franco-Dutch War.


Chapter 24 of Quaker Faith & Practice deals with the Peace Testimony.  The introduction points out:
“…in our personal lives we have continually to wrestle with the difficulty of finding ways to reconcile our faith with practical ways of living it out in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have not always all reached the same conclusions when dealing with the daunting complexities and moral dilemmas of society and its government”
The chapter goes on to say that public protest is a practical expression of our peace testimony but it also deals with reconciliation and mediation so it presents a very balanced view of the Peace Testimony.

It is possible for a Quaker to uphold the Peace Testimony while being convinced that nuclear disarmament  by the UK unilaterally, in defiance of its allies and without regard for wider, multilateral arms-control procedures, would be internationally destabilising and not conducive to peace-building.  As Hilary Benn has said, do we want North Korea to be the only country with nuclear weapons?  For my part I think that the quiet processes of reconciliation and mediation do far more for peace in the long run than waving banners about Trident.

The 2016 Swarthmore Lecture prompts me to query whether unilateral nuclear disarmament is consistent with the Quaker peace testimony.  The lecturers told us that the  prerequisite of peace-building is trust between communities, without which there is risk of violence (whether with machetes, as in Rwanda, or nuclear weapons).  I invite Friends who urge the non-renewal of Trident to ponder what such a move by the UK Government  would do to international trust. Our allies would lose trust in the UK; other powers such as Russia and China would be incredulous and would treat the move as a gimmick and a temporary aberration; the Iranians would feel they had been tricked into a non-proliferation deal which the UK would have let them have for free; while the North Koreans would claim the UK had succumbed to its threats.  Unilateral nuclear disarmament by the UK would simply destabilise the international situation. The lesson of the Swarthmore Lecture is that multilateral, not unilateral, disarmament is the secure way - and the truly Quaker way - to build trust and so to build peace.

It is disappointing that there seems to be very little recognition or even acceptance of the multilateralist point of view in the Society.  The CND lobby goes largely unchallenged; indeed, unilateralism is close to that most improper thing, an article of Quaker dogma.  This is in contrast with the openness in the Society a hundred years ago about the quandary in which Friends were placed by the First World War. I would commend the essay 'Quakers and the Great War 1914-15' by David Rubinstein in his Essays in Quaker History (Quack Books, York 2016).  Rubinstein concludes that the mood of many Friends at the time of the Yearly Meeting of 1915 was to support the War but to remain committed to peace as an ideal.  It is interesting that many British Friends, perhaps most, agreed with the Government that the War had been justified by German aggression against Belgium.  (If there is a error in Rubinstein's essay it is that he denies the basic truth in the press reports of German atrocities and brutality in Belgium, a truth which was attested by the Belgian refugees who had arrived in Britain and were being cared for by Quakers, amongst others).  In the face of challenges such as world war or weapons of mass destruction, the only credible Quaker position has to be a nuanced one, which recognises the importance of peace as an ideal but also that democratically elected governments are answerable to a constituency beyond the Society of Friends.  A credible line on Trident would be to urge the British Government to do more to reduce the global nuclear threat but to recognise that retention and, as necessary, renewal of a minimum independent nuclear deterrent, as agreed with the UK's NATO allies, can act as a diplomatic bargaining counter to bring about workable disarmament agreements.  Such a position is not jingoistic but progressive.

Much earlier than the First War World the Quakers were tested by another war on the Continent.  In 1676 Robert Barclay travelled with George Fox and others to Holland and Germany on a mission to a Europe which at the time was torn by a war between France and their allies, on the one hand, and the Dutch.  Barclay published a pamphlet in 1677, An Epistle of Love and Friendly Advice to the Ambassadors of the several Princes of Europe met at Nimeguen, to consult the peace of Christendom so far as they are concerned. This was a  call for peaceable behaviour amongst kings who were Christians with a religious duty to behave accordingly, Jesus being Lord of All.  Barclay includes in his pamphlet the ringing phrase, ‘Magistry is an ordinance of God who bear not the sword in vain’, drawing on Rom 13:1-4.  This means he upholds lawful state violence for internal security.  He calls not for unilateral disarmament or even multilateral arms control but, rather, for peace-making.  The Treaty of Nijmegen of 1679 established a long peace between France and the Dutch Republic, and placed the northern border of France in very nearly its modern position.  This suggests that Barclay’s call for wise and effective peace-making did not go unheeded.



Sunday, 5 February 2017

Rowan Williams (2016) Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (SPCK)

In this little book, designed for study by church groups, Rowan Williams asks what it is that keeps the Christian disciple going.  His answer is not –  as one might expect from any former senior cleric other than Williams –  doctrinal and moral purity, but the qualities of self-awareness, stillness, growth and joy.  This book, which for me expresses in Christian and Biblical terms the basic truths of mindfulness therapy and Buddhist ethics, is an essential guide to spirituality, or faith in practice, for Quaker theist and non-theist alike.


Introduction

Non-Christocentrics should not be put off by the blurb, which proclaims:
The aim of this little book is simple: to help you see more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly the way of Jesus Christ.
For Williams as a Christian, being a disciple means being with Christ but it also means, in non-religious language, questioning our consistency and honesty –  in other words, integrity and truth.  It is also about how Christians as a church go about being a learning community –  in other words, personal growth with others. 

Chapter 1: Being disciples

Taking Jn 1:36-39 as the text for his first chapter, Williams expounds discipleship as about being aware and attentive – living in awareness with mind relaxed but attentive.  Disciples are alert, attentive, watching symbolic acts (something irrelevant for Quakers) and listening for instructive words (very relevant to Quakers) in a quiet state of mind, which to me resembles mindfulness. Williams is careful not to use this term but the question he puts in the mouth of the disciple, echoing Bonhoffer  –  ‘What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?’ –  is the Christocentric equivalent of the principle behind the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Eckhart Tolle. 

Community is also an essential part of discipleship.  Conceiving of Jesus as a living power, Williams says that being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks.  The non-Christocentric Quaker might say that the spiritually minded naturally flock together.  The attitude of mind of the disciple is one of being sufficient free of the preoccupations of the ego to be open to what God in Christ – the true demands of a reality properly understood, one might say –  is giving.  We have all got to grow into a mature stillness, a poise and an openness to others and the world.  

Chapter 2: Faith, hope and love

For the second chapter Williams takes as his text 1 Cor 13:8-13, the famous passage in which St Paul tells us that faith, hope and love abide, the greatest of these being love. Williams says we privilege a consumer mentality when it comes to desire so that we fail to ask the deep questions about the direction of the desire at the root of our being. The most important freedom is the freedom to discover how we should grow, to find the context in which we will grow as God, or Good Orderly Direction, means us to.  Love is an expression of the freedom to receive; is that which drives us to take time and let go of anxiety; is a state of openness and joy.  Love is not simply doing good but is a deep contemplative regard for the world, for humanity in general and for human beings in particular.  As the Buddhists would put it, love is compassion.  Williams admits it is a challenge for his Church to become a place sufficiently still for people to open up to receive the truth the universe wants to give them. (For Quakers  this is perhaps less of a problem.)  Love, together with faith and  hope, are about personal growth or, as Williams puts it, of our learning and growing in Christ.

Chapter 3: Forgiveness

The text for the third chapter, on forgiveness, is Mt 7.7-9. Forgiveness is a crucial feature of personal growth, to use the modern term that Williams is not afraid to do.  Forgiveness is one of the most radical ways in which we are able to nourish one another’s humility. The person who asks for forgiveness has acknowledged her own need for healing.  In one of those creative insights into traditional language and practice which so characterises Williams’ work, he suggests a connection between the prayer for daily bread and that for forgiveness.

Chapter 4: Holiness

The fourth chapter, headed by 2 Cor 3.17-18 and 4.6, is about holiness, which is about being involved, absolutely so, and not separated.   Truly holy people make you feel good about yourself and cast a new light on the landscape of life.  Such people are in love with themselves, not in an egotistic way but because they sense the joy that God takes in them. Williams gives Desmond Tutu as an example. A holy person is imbued with joy in the extraordinariness of God (or, if you like to put it in non-religious terms, the sheer joy at the good luck of being a live human being).  Williams goes on to suggest that holiness entails contemplation, or what he calls looking at Jesus, and exploration, or an open-mindedness about the human world.  (This is closely aligned with gratitude, another healthy state of mind).


Chapter 5: Faith in society

The fifth chapter has a lengthy text, 1 Cor. 12.12-26, and is about faith in society, about Christian social action.  It is a relief to find that Williams does not equate such action with simplistic and na├»ve left-wing politics.  Rather, he takes a philosophical position, saying that we are each of equal value to God –  something Quakers would wholeheartedly embrace –  and that we are all dependent on each other.  Christians and all people of good recognise that which is special about each other, difficult though it may be to pinpoint exactly what that amounts to in any one individual.  At the same time, we are dependent on each other, an idea which in Buddhist philosophy is that of interdependent origination.  That is why we should avoid discriminatory judgements about people based on categories of identity.  (Sadly, the mainstream churches continue to have a serious problem with this.) Williams quietly suggests that Christians should avoid large-scale issues of public prosperity, by which I think he means the often too partisan politics of health provision, welfare and defence, but concentrate on shifting attitudes.  He gives as examples the hospice movement, fairtrade and prison reform.  This is a very important insight for QPSW, who tend to take fixed campaigning positions on very complicated issues and thereby threaten unity.  What Williams suggests to me is that Quakers would do better to concentrate on those issues which they do well - those quiet processes about gender equality and peace-building, for example - and leave divisive questions of public prosperity to the political parties and secular campaigning groups.


Chapter 6: Life in the Spirit

Williams summarises the life in the spirit in his sixth chapter, taking as his text Gal 5.16-22.  What keeps us as disciples is:

  • self-awareness
  • stillness
  • growth 
  • joy   
Williams' list is strikingly similar to the Buddhist Seven Factors of Enlightenment, which are mindfulness, intention, zeal, joy, calm, concentration and equanimity.  It also resembles the Quaker notion of the light which, admittedly, most Quakers would not say was the same as enlightenment.  In any event, for Williams, salvation is not the continuation of the individual consciousness after death in some earth-like paradise but enlightenment here and now in community with like-minded people.

Something I have also discovered since reading this book is that there are traditional values within the Christian Church, the seven graces of the Holy Spirit, and that Williams' exposition is in line with that tradition. Early Christian thinkers, the Fathers of the Church, identified a set of seven values which resemble the Buddhist Seven Factors of Enlightenment and, furthermore, the Eightfold Path.  These  Seven Graces of the Holy Spirit are divided into the intellectual and the theological.  The four intellectual Graces are wisdom, understanding, knowledge and counsel or right judgement; the three theological Graces, which draw us to God, are fortitude or courage, piety and wonder or fear of the Lord.  There is an obvious overlap with the seven cardinal and spiritual virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance; faith, hope and charity) and it is noteworthy that modern secular philosophers have taken an interest in the ethics of the virtues including the intellectual virtues.  There is also a connection with positive psychology.  It is heartening that so many thinkers, past and present, have emphasised the virtues and the moral and intellectual gifts we have, or potentially have, rather than seek to control us through demoralising emphasis on sin and our shortcomings.  The early Quakers, in emphasising the Light and our ability to discern right from wrong by the powers each and everyone of us possess to some degree, took on the controlling and miserable Puritans like Richard Baxter.  Indeed, the scope for, and duty of, personal growth is what Robert Barclay draws attention to in Proposition VIII of his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, concerning perfection.  The founding Quakers accepted the doctrine of original sin but, unlike Baxter and the other Puritans, believed that the salvation through Jesus Christ is available in this world and that perfectability is to be had now in the present kingdom of God. Barclay says of his Proposition that 'this perfection still admit[s] of a growth' in this life.  In other words, redemption from sin and, beyond this, further spritual growth is possible here and now.  Penn in No Cross No Crown talks of Quakers' opponents being themselves 'opponents of perfection'.  Given the Quakers' firm commitment to salvation and perfectability in this life, it is odd some modern Quakers make such free use of the term 'brokenness' even to the extent of referring to the brokenness of God (QF&P 26.50), which strikes me as heterodox.  Barclay is clear that conquest of sin and spiritual growth is possible in this lifetime through Christ Jesus, and there is every reason why modern Quakers should continue to adhere to this proposition, whether or not they choose to put it in Christocentric terms.

What I find most impressive about Williams is that he takes his readers beyond the tired old dichotomies between theism and non-theism, Biblical inerrancy and the Bible as myth, with a message that is both Christocentric and biblical but also universal.  As I have tried to show, it is possible to transform the self by giving his words their full intellectual and emotional meaning.  If I have one complaint about Williams, it is that he is prone to redundant language.  Phrases like ‘quite simply’ pepper the text.  This may be because this book, like his Tokens of Trust, is based on talks which may in turn have been partly extemporised and so the book may have captured his habits of speech.  In addition, at £8.99 for 86 pages Being Disciples is expensive for what is not much more than a pamphlet, though I am glad to see that the publisher has cooperated with the profiteering stateless corporations of global capitalism by providing a Kindle edition at the lesser price of £5.98.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Swarthmore Lecture 2017

I sent this rather tart letter to The Friend, which they have published

Edward Burrough wrote in 1659 that 'We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other' (QF&P 23.11).  It is therefore with some surprise that I have learned that this year's Swarthmore Lecture is to be given by Catherine West, a Labour MP and member of the Corbynite faction, who happens to be a Quaker.

The Swarthmore Lecture has two purposes: firstly to interpret to Quakers their message and mission, and secondly to make the wider public aware of the spirit, the aims and fundamental principles of Quakers.  Ms West’s will focus on addressing inequality, tackling poverty and promoting social justice. As warm words about such issues are on the lips of politicians of all parties, including the Prime Minister, a concern for social justice cannot be the distinguishing mark of a Quaker.  This calls into question whether the Swarthmore Lecture is the proper platform for what sounds like an address to voters.  No doubt what Ms West has to say will be of interest to those, Friends and others, with a secular and civic concern about socio-economic equality (see A&Q 34) but whether it fits within Burrough's rubric and the purposes of the Swarthmore Lecture is less clear.


Friday, 20 January 2017

Quakers, progress and the long pilgrimage

Progress as a theme of the Swarthmore Lectures

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy tells me that a robust sense of confidence in human progress characterises the philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  Be that as it may, it is striking that a hundred years ago the word on the lips, and issuing from the pens, of Quakers was that of progress. A number of Swarthmore Lectures have progress as their theme.  The 1911 Lecture Human progress and the inward light by Thomas Hodgkin was a call to Quakers to embrace Darwinian evolution.  It is remarkable that such a call was necessary fifty years after the publication of The Origin of Species. The 1913 Lecture, Social service : its place in the Society of Friends by Joshua Rowntree was about the value of social service and philanthropy in the life of a Christian community.  The quintessential progressivistic Lecture was that by T.E. Harvey.

Edmund Harvey (1875-1955) sat in Parliament first as a Liberal and later as an Independent Progressive (sic).  He was not in Parliament in 1921, when he gave a Swarthmore Lecture entitled The Long Pilgrimage, which is an exposition of the idea and reality of human progress in the light of Christian hope.  Progress is understood by Harvey as the spiritual growth of the individual rather than the acquisition of material possessions or economic well-being. Harvey’s vision is a grand one, of human progress driven by a Christian idea of the human personality. It contrasts with the impending Swarthmore Lecture by a sitting MP, Catherine West, which, as I have blogged elsewhere, looks like it will be a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party properly belonging to the Quaker Socialist Society’s Salter Lecture not a Swarthmore Lecture.

There may be a number of reasons why a hundred years ago progress had become a keyword of Quaker discourse.  Dating from the Manchester Conference, Quakers had aligned themselves with Darwinian, science and liberal scholarship.  Another influence may have been the progressive movement elsewhere, for example the muscular progressivism espoused in the US by Theodore Roosevelt, and perhaps even what was seen, even after the First World War, as the triumph of European values.

Whatever happened to Quaker progressivism?

It is for consideration why progress has ceased to be a keyword of Quaker discourse.  The explanation cannot be the catastrophe of the First World War, because the admirable Foundations of a True Social Order (1918), about which I have blogged separately and which represents the culmination of the progressive movement in the Society of Friends, was issued in the War's closing stages.  In addition, Edmund Harvey’s optimistic lecture post-dates the War. Perhaps the economic slumps of the inter-war period, the Second World War and then the Cold War made division, rather than progress, the hallmark of the period.  In the theological and theoretical sphere, the pessimism of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) may have been influential.  Be that as it may, what seems to me a key factor in the emergence of Quaker pessimism seems to have been globalisation and the succumbing of British Yearly Meeting to left-wing populism, which seems to date from the 1950’s, when the emergence of CND led to the growing influence in the Society of unilateralists and the political left with its anti-establishment rhetoric.

It is regrettable that Quakers, as internationalists, seem to disregard, even deprecate, the improvements across world in the last thirty years or so.  It is time that Quakers (and others), rather than fixating on inequality, caught up with the revival of optimistic progressivism represented by such books as Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg,

An independent charity has asked what's happening to poverty. (https://fullfact.org/economy/poverty-uk-guide-facts-and-figures/)  It says that looking at the sheer numbers of individuals in poverty (in the UK) can be misleading. As the number of households in the economy grows, (which it is doing as we are all living longer) all else being equal the number of individuals below the poverty line will also tend to grow. Looking at the proportion of the population below the poverty line gives a more accurate idea of how poverty is changing over time. In all of these cases, it's worth noting that poverty has fallen substantially over the longer term.  In fact, despite the popular perception, humanity has never been safer, healthier, more prosperous or less unequal.  Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history. The risk of being caught up in a war, subjected to a dictatorship or of dying in a natural disaster is smaller than ever.  This is the message from Norberg’s book.  

It is true that some communities in the developed world perceive themselves as having been left behind by globalisation, and similarly that young people may seem disadvantaged with respect to property ownership compared with their parents, but this should not blind us to the stupendous progress made across the world in the last thirty years or so in improving life expectancy and reducing absolute poverty.  We are still on Harvey’s Long Pilgrimage.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

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.