Answering That of God in Everyone?

On the 18th-20th January, around sixty Friends gathered at Woodbrooke for ‘Answering That of God in Everyone’: A Diversity and Inclusion National Gathering. Friends were offered the thought-provoking insights of three non-Quaker keynote speakers – exploring what it means to be white, looking beyond gender binaries, and issues around class and leadership – as well as optional workshops led by Woodbrooke tutors. Rather than offer a detailed account of the gathering, or a summary of the wisdom of the speakers, I’d like to offer three of my own reflections on the gathering.

  1. The challenge of evangelism

Lynne Cullens, a priest in the Church of England, joined us as a keynote speaker. She had spent most of the day with us before speaking on the Saturday evening. At one point in her talk, she said: ‘There’s something that confuses me about Quakers. I don’t know where you stand on evangelism…’ For Lynne, it was perplexing that a faith community that claims to be rooted in Christianity should be so fuzzy on Jesus’ command to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matt 28:19).

British Quakers have largely rejected the word ‘evangelism’ and the idea of ‘mission’, perhaps because these words have associations with oppressive, restricting and damaging expressions of Christianity. We have replaced evangelism with the less threatening word ‘outreach’, accompanied by a reluctance to share the Quaker message for fear of being pushy.

For me, this change in terminology goes to the heart of our dilemma as liberal Quakers, especially in relation to work on diversity and inclusion. When asking ourselves how we unconsciously make different people unwelcome in our community, we have to ask ourselves if we honestly want more Quakers. If we are happy to be with people like us, if we think that different people can happily be accommodated elsewhere, then there’s no rush to go out and make disciples. If we think that Quakerism only appeals to certain types of people, or isn’t for everyone, then there is no imperative to be diverse. Our attitude to outreach may itself be a barrier to being more inclusive.

Perhaps we need to return to evangelism in its truest meaning – bringing good news – which requires us to articulate what the Quaker good news is. Can we agree on what the Quaker good news is, and do we think the truth at the heart of the Quaker tradition is worth sharing with everyone?

  1. An apocalyptic process

For me, the gathering was an apocalyptic event. That might sound like a rather extreme description! Most people associate ‘apocalypse’ with the violent destruction of the world, but the original meaning  of this Greek word is ‘to unveil’ or ‘to reveal’. The spirituality of the first Quakers was apocalyptic. They experienced the Light as revealing their own darkness. They latched on to the Biblical imagery of earthquakes and the threshing floor to describe their experience of having everything false shaken away. An apocalyptic experience is one that draws back the curtain, revealing the true nature of things.

For me, this gathering was apocalyptic in that it attempted to reveal who we are as a Society of Friends, warts and all. Robert Beckford spoke about the invisibility, the ‘normality’, of whiteness, and how its power lies in its invisibility. Edwina Peart spoke about Quaker arms manufacturer Samuel Galton. When the Light shines on our darkness, or on our whiteness, or on shameful aspects of our history, it can make us very uncomfortable.

I’m sure there were Friends at the gathering who saw things within themselves they didn’t like. I’m sure we saw things in our fellow Friends that we didn’t like. The unveiling work of examining our power and privilege, and how they operate in the Society of Friends, is a painful, destabilising process. The imagery of the earthquake is still appropriate. This revealing work stirs things up, but it’s necessary if we are to be shaken free of everything preventing us from answering that of God in everyone.

The ‘Body of Christ’

Apocalyptic work stirs up strong emotions. One of the things clearly unveiled to many Friends at the gathering was the conflict and pain surrounding the inclusion of transgendered Friends. The image that spoke to me through this was the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12). In the New Testament, this image is used to describe a group of diverse people united in their love for one another, and it’s this image of unity in diversity that’s always appealed to me. Lately, I’ve begun to appreciate another aspect of this image. Because it’s the body of Christ, it’s a crucified body. It’s a body that suffers. It hurts to be in a faith community.

In the Body of Christ, when one member suffers, the whole body suffers with it. This gathering clearly showed that there are members of the Quaker body in pain. The way through this conflict is for every Friend in the Yearly Meeting to take on the pain of this conflict as their own. We need to embrace a corporate suffering. We can’t distance ourselves from it and say ‘it’s that Friend’s/that Meeting’s problem’.  The issue of trans-inclusion is an increasingly visible open wound in British Quakerism. For its own health, the whole Yearly Meeting needs to inform itself about this raw subject.

I came away from this gathering with a sense that important work had been done, and I’m both excited and apprehensive as to how this work will continue. My prayer is that we can as a Yearly Meeting become ever more humble and ever more open to the experience of the other, so that we may answer that of God in everyone, and have that of God answered in us too.