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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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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