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3 November 2008

Seeking, not finding

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

By Ben Dandelion

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.

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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