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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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.