Of Quakers and deep democracy – is it time to renew the Quaker Book?

The Quaker movement was born out of radicalism. This weekend Quakers assemble to ask themselves, is it time for Quakerism to renew itself in a more participatory way?

Tim Gee
3 May 2018
Quaker Meeting for worship Preston new road 3.jpg

Image: Quaker meeting for worship at Preston New Road fracking site, Credit: BYM, all rights reserved.

This May Bank Holiday weekend, Britain's Quaker community will gather in London to decide whether to revise the book that informs our practice. If the answer is ‘yes’ it will kick-start a decade long process whereby every Quaker in Britain will have a say on how our faith develops.

As a point of comparison, it would be analogous perhaps, to the Church of England embarking on a participatory process to re-write the Book of Common Prayer.

In many ways, work to challenge unjust hierarchies and flatten structures is in our DNA: The Quaker movement was born out of the radical foment of the English Revolution with many of its earliest members having played prominent roles in the Levellers, Diggers, and Parliamentary causes. As the movement spread in the centuries that followed there were Quaker suffragettes, civil rights activists and anti-apartheid campaigners.

In recent more times, elements of the participatory Quaker business method have made the transition to the environmental and social justice movement. When Climate Camps, World Social Forums and Occupy groups have made large and small-scale decisions by consensus, there are strong echoes of the Quaker way of doing things. It’s also a two-way relationship. Many Quakers today are involved in non-hierarchical movements for peace, the environment and equality; a result of which is that Quaker spaces can often mirror the culture of the new social movements.

Depending how you count it there are about 20,000 Quakers in Britain - less than a third of a single parliamentary constituency. Can we model on the small scale the level of participation that advocates of deep democracy suggest could be applied more broadly? To involve everybody in revisiting how we represent what we stand for would be a brave move for any community, perhaps even more so for a non-credal tradition which encompasses a plurality of words to express what we believe. If we go ahead and say yes, we will have to hold faith that we will be held together by the trust and close friendships that emerge through collective action and reflection, whilst simultaneously staying open for transformation by every new person who comes through the door.

Through Young Quaker Magazine among other channels, younger Friends have for some time now been assertively calling for change within Quakerism itself: for a structure that does more to include those with unpredictable life situations, for a membership process more applicable to the internet age, for reserved spaces for under-represented groups on committees and for our community to do more to reflect the ethnic diversity of our global Quaker movement rather than only the narrow demographic of Quakers in Britain today. Could this be a process through which such changes could happen?

I don’t know if we will decide to revise the Quaker book or not – nobody does. The answer will emerge this weekend through quiet contemplation, discernment and listening. But maybe the point is not whether our book needs revising per se, but whether we are willing to revise our vision of how to embody the Quaker values we’ve inherited from our forebears and manifest them in the 21st century. The book (or the wiki, or the podcast, or the film) that results, needs to follow and adapt around that.

Quakers have a saying, that we ‘hold in the light’ those we are acting in solidarity with. This weekend we need those movements we’re part of to hold us in the light. Only when we are working on ourselves can we work with others. This weekend we will ask ourselves how.

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