An approach to life?
The purpose of religion is to help us find meaning in our lives, to reach the underlying reality, the inexpressible truth. Throughout time churches and faiths have tried to help people to recognise the extraordinary in the ordinary, or as many Quakers would put it, to find God in their daily lives. So Quakers recognise all the worlds’ great faiths as ways to spiritual fulfilment and are willing to learn from and work with other faiths and churches. But for Quakers there is something uniquely helpful and inspiring in the “living silence” of a Quaker Meeting.
The Religious Society of Friends is a small group (about 20,000 in Britain, much larger numbers in the Americas and Africa) with a special view of what religion means. The name “Quakers” was originally a nickname but now they are happy to be called either Friends or Quakers.
So what do Friends believe?
Quakers have always questioned anything they are told to believe! It is part of their “seeking for truth”. It is based on the experience that there is a real and direct relationship between each person and God, though individual Quakers will use a variety of words to express this.
Ultimately everyone finds their own way to religious truth, becoming aware of God in their own lives, learning from the wisdom of the past as expressed in a variety of writings and testing their own ideas with others in their Meeting.
Friends talk of an “Inward Light” or “that of God” within every human being. Some would call this “conscience” or “moral sense”. But Friends feel it is something more – a spiritual and religious experience which gives a sense of direction to the search for the right way to live.
It’s no good having a faith if you don’t put it into practice and Quakers have always been active in many areas of social concern. Often this is as individuals working with those from other groups as well as collective action as Quakers. Central to much of Quaker thought and action is a desire to express our traditional testimonies to Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace in our daily lives.
William Penn, the founder of a state that lasted for 75 years without a military force, said that true Godliness shouldn’t turn people out of this world, but should make them more able to live in it and excite their endeavours to amend it. Is this an impossible aim? Quakers believe it is possible – and in today’s world vital.
Meeting for Worship
It’s hard being a “seeker” on your own. In the Meeting for Worship, Friends share with each other what they have found out for themselves, and gain from each other in this way. Quakers find this “communion” can best be experienced if they meet in silence. Meeting for Worship couldn’t be simpler. We enter a room together and settle into a silence, which can become very deep and powerful. After a time, someone may feel impelled to stand up and speak briefly, using everyday words or those of traditional prayer. Or they may read from the Bible or some other book. Quaker weddings and funerals can be especially moving occasions. In the former, the couple stand up together, when they feel the Meeting has settled and the time is right, and make their own simple pledges, in the form prescribed by law, without the intervention of any priest or official. After the Meeting it is customary for everyone present to sign the marriage certificate, a practice that dates from times when Quakers were being persecuted and it was necessary to have as many witnesses as possible.
Each local meeting has its own character. In Britain they all follow this pattern of silent worship in which it is customary for no person present to speak (“minister”) more than once. But in other places, notably East Africa and America, the style of worship may be very different. An early Friend described the effect of Quaker worship: “I felt the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.” Perhaps this is why Quakers are generally tolerant and hopeful.
Background to the Society
The movement began in Britain in the 1650s when George Fox gathered together groups of “seekers” or dissidents. They felt the Churches had led people away from the real aims of Christianity and become bogged down in traditional ritual and power politics. They were trying to renew the church by living their lives more simply and truthfully following, they hoped more closely, the example of Jesus’ life. There is no doubt that the Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity, but today not all Quakers centre their faith on Jesus. Some Quakers find traditional religious language inadequate to describe their inner experiences, and look beyond Christianity for inspiration. So the seeking for spiritual truth, which marked early Quakers, is still very much alive today.
The Society has always appeared very different from other Christian groups, having no priests, or creeds or need for special buildings. Men and women have long been treated as equals and all members share the spiritual and practical tasks necessary to maintain the group.
Quakerism has no creeds, believing that forms of words are inadequate for expressing the great truths of the Spirit, and no sacraments, reasoning that the whole of life is sacred. Most Quakers will also refuse to take the oath in a court of law, considering that to do so implies a double standard of truth – one when under oath and another when not. Fortunately the law in the UK allows for affirmation instead, although Quakers avail themselves of this for a very different reason from unbelievers.