Seeking, not finding

Ben Dandelion explains how modern day Quakers celebrate their faith through silence and seeking

No longer a group wearing ‘Quaker grey’ bonnets and broad rimmed hats, Quakers in Britain today embrace a vibrant faith of spiritual exploration. Whilst the very first Quakers of the seventeenth century believed they were the ‘true church’, God’s chosen vanguard at the time of an unfolding second coming, today’s Friends (as Quakers are also called) are far less dogmatic.

Indeed, in terms of beliefs, they are one of the most permissive religious groups around. They worship in silence, without priests or outward sacraments, having always found this the most appropriate medium to approach God: authentic spirituality is to be found inwardly away from the outward. In absence comes a sense of presence, and out of the silence comes rich spiritual experience. This may result in some words to be shared (‘vocal ministry’) or simply the inward affirmation of Quaker values and the lifestyle that accompanies it.

Quakers are renowned for their commitment to peace and justice, and integrity. Belief, however, is not shared in the same way as these moral imperatives. Instead, Quakers interpret their experience individually, revisiting and revising their way of explaining their experience regularly. What is shared is an approach to God, an approach to life, and a very particular approach to belief, one of seeking.

Quakers are far more comfortable with a lack of theological doctrine than they are with trying to pin down experience in words. Seeking rather than having found feels a more appropriate place to be, a more authentic mode of faith. It is as if Quakers are rationally sure of never being able to be certain of theological specifics. This is a very different position from those in other faiths who may from time to time be uncertain of their faith’s certainties, and it means Quakers are cautious about any claims by anyone to have found the final or literal truth.

In the silence of worship, Quakers feel the mystery of the divine, or sense God’s guidance but do not claim they then know God. It is radical and exciting package that places silent worship, direct revelation from God, peace and justice work, and a deliberate emphasis on seeking, not finding, and one which attracts over 20,000 adherents to close to 500 local ‘Meetings’. Quakers are very different from their seventeenth century forbears and are alive and well.

Ben Pink Dandelion works at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and is Professor of Quaker Studies at the University of Birmingham. He has been a Quaker for more than twenty years

Ben Pink Dandelion is an Honorary Professor in Quaker Studies at the University of Birmingham and Programmes Leader at the Centre for Postgraduate Quaker Studies at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. He is the editor of Quaker Studies. He has been a Quaker for over twenty years.
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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.