The book of Quaker discipline, ‘the red book’, known as Quaker Faith & Practice, begins with a modern interpretation of words handed to the Religious Society of Friends in the form of an Epistle from the meeting of Elders at Balby, in 1656.
These twenty Advices are guidances for Friends to consider regarding their conduct and condition.
In this blog I plan to look at each Advice closely, interpreting what it means for me personally and what it means in a broader contemporary Quaker context.
But First, a word about Quakerism for the curious and uninitiated:
Quakerism, although rooted in Christianity, has no central scripture or doctrine. Friends believe themselves to be guided by ‘Light’ which informs all aspects of their living. The Quaker faith is experience-based and evolves with every new generation of Friends and with the passing of time and circumstance. We seek to recognise every person’s journey, which may be vastly different from our own and we speak to that diversity, that we can learn together and through one another.
We meet in Silent worship, as friends, to share our experience of the ‘Light’, to wait expectantly and to uphold one another. When ‘led’ or ‘prompted’ to minister a Friend will stand and speak.This prompting comes from within and is a response arising from the worship.Quakers in Britain have no programmed services and no paid ministers, We are the ministers, we speak in our Meetings and through our lives as we live them. This isn’t nearly as strange in practice as it tends to sound in theory.
It can be somewhat confusing for newcomers to understand the corpus that comprises Quakerism as its a thing of diffusive parts.
Having been Quaker for more than a decade I’ve lately discovered a concise way to explain to the confused exactly what Quakerism is.
Take a look at the image heading this blog. This is a panel from the Quaker Tapestry, a history of the Religious Society of Friends made by Friends and on display at Kendal Meeting House. It represents a prism, the Light enters in and travels through the material body producing a spectrum of colour. The Light is changed by passing through the prism.
Every Quaker possesses a personal understanding of ‘God’, of concepts such as ‘Light’. Our experiences of living and the work we do while we’re here are unique to us alone. We work through the light and together become the spectrum of colour.
So while we have no central creed or scripture to inform our faith we do have a common understanding that we are working in the ‘Light’, we also have ‘Quaker ways’ which mark us out and give us away such as plain speech, simple living, a Peace testimony, a Truth testimony and an Equality testimony. Within our Society we have quite specific ways of worshipfully conducting our business in the hope we can stand alongside these ideals bringing all to accord through these principle aims.
The ‘red book’, Quaker Faith & Practice, lays out Quaker business method and procedure as set out by Yearly Meeting, the body undertaking Quaker work on behalf of all Quakers in this country. More than that ‘QF&P’ is a trove of wisdom, the testimony and witness of Friends who have walked this path before us. Committees sit to review and update the ‘red book’ to keep it current with our faith as we know it and relevant to the time we presently live in.
Lastly, Quakers have, over the centuries, developed their own little vocabulary of commonly used words which are uncommonly heard elsewhere. As well as ‘Light’, ‘Truth’ and ‘Simplicity’ you’ll hear words such as ‘discern’, ‘condition’, ‘worship’, ‘leadings’, ‘concern’ and similar terms used in a very specific context.
During the course of this blog project I anticipate further explanation will inevitably arise. If you’re reading this and find yourself desperately confused, or keen for immediate clarity, I am always glad to answer questions of any kind. Ask away.
For this first Advices & Queries blog post I am just going to leave for your consideration the Introduction, which I feel speaks quite neatly for itself.
As Friends we commit ourselves to a way of worship which allows God to teach and transform us. We have found corporately that the Spirit, if rightly followed, will lead us into truth, unity and love: all our testimonies grow from this leading.
Although the corporate use of advices and queries is governed by more flexible regulations (1.05–1.07) than in the past, they should continue to be a challenge and inspiration to Friends in their personal lives and in their life as a religious community which knows the guidance of the universal spirit of Christ, witnessed to in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Advices and queries are not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society. Within the community there is a diversity of gifts. We are all therefore asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies. There will also be diversity of experience, of belief and of language. Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal experience. Some find traditional Christian language full of meaning; some do not. Our understanding of our own religious tradition may sometimes be enhanced by insights of other faiths. The deeper realities of our faith are beyond precise verbal formulation and our way of worship based on silent waiting testifies to this.
Our diversity invites us both to speak what we know to be true in our lives and to learn from others. Friends are encouraged to listen to each other in humility and understanding, trusting in the Spirit that goes beyond our human effort and comprehension. So it is for the comfort and discomfort of Friends that these advices and queries are offered, with the hope that we may all be more faithful and find deeper joy in God’s service.
Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with the measure of light which is pure and holy, may be guided; and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.
Postscript to an epistle to ‘the brethren in the north’ issued by a meeting of elders at Balby, 1656