Testimony – because we can do no other

Maud Grainger, our Faith in ActTestimony – because we can do no other Woodbrooke Quaker Conference Centreion programmes coordinator shares her thought on the changing nature of Testimony.

As soon as I hear ‘Quakers have testimonies’ I feel my heart sink a little. It bothers me more than I dare admit, it’s not like its new – it’s how we so often explain Quakerism. I have heard so many variations

We talk about them as values and principles, the 5 testimonies or pillars of Quakerism and then we proudly list them; peace, truth, equality, integrity, simplicity.  What about sustainability? Do we need both truth and integrity? And should community be there and what about and what about and what about?

In a time when we are struggling with religious language and how to explain our faith to ourselves and others in way that is clear and inclusive, have the testimonies been used as a way to bring us under one umbrella.

If we look back in previous versions of our book of discipline, we have talked about testimony in terms of Sunday trading laws, vegetarianism and moderation, so how have we come to be so attached to our current list? It seems to have emerged in the 1960s out of a desire to find clearer ways to explain Quakerism to newcomers but I fear by becoming so set in this way of thinking we are at risk of over simplifying what it means to be a Quaker.

I remember talking about this during a programme at Woodbrooke and a participant really resisted the notion that we could think about testimony in a different way, as if I was accusing other Friends of lying about the meaning of testimony. I don’t feel I am, but equally I am not interested in a tick box exercise of talking about some worthy principles and feeling better about myself without having to make any changes or actually do anything about them.

In his Swarthmore Lecture, Ben Pink Dandelion suggests that ‘we have misunderstood the nature of testimony, seeing it as a set of optional values rather than the life we have no choice but to lead’

This isn’t an intellectual exercise; it’s a spiritual experience isn’t it?

We sit in worship and wait, we sit and wait, listening for leadings of the spirit, if we skip this step thinking “well, we know what worship will teach us – it will lead us to the testimonies of peace, truth, equality, simplicity, sustainability and so forth so let’s cut down on worship because we know what we need do”. I fear this is a danger zone for us as Quakers.

We squeeze worship into one day, into a few minutes at the beginning and end of a day, to just an hour, to less than an hour. Over time worship is no longer the radical provider of change and transformation where the opportunity is created to hear that call from God, it’s a nice quiet hour where we find some peace and stillness.  I have seen this, Friends talking about worship as sitting around doing nothing whilst others in society get on and do something useful.

Are we beginning to lose the powerful connection between our worship and witness?

How can we think of this differently? Can we speak of Testimony in terms of ‘living the life we have no choice to lead?’ That what we learn in worship, we live in the world.

We could still hold the threads of witness, the consistency of the spiritual experience from early Friends to Friends today but we wouldn’t be held down by what appears to be a secular list of principles.

If a new area of witness emerged from our experience in worship, we wouldn’t need to spend time squeezing it into an existing list – we could just live it out in our lives.