T is for Tillsammans (Together)
My sister-in-law visited us the other week and during a walk with standard poodle Irma we talked about Quakers and politics. She is not a Quaker, but her mother was and her brother is. I was talking about collective witness, and she said that she had always understood Quakers as a bunch of individuals all doing their own thing, and not as a collective. I was somewhat taken aback, but when I thought more about it, was not all that surprised by her words. We do come across as a bunch of individuals and this is something that we need to address.
After her visit I listened to Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore lecture on the Woodbrooke website: https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/pages/swarthmore-2014.html
In the Lecture, delivered during the Britain YM Gathering in Bath, Ben talks about Quakerism as a Do-It-Together religion, rather than a Do-It-Yourself one. His message is that we are not individuals in our individual meetings and yearly meetings, but a collective body of Friends worldwide that is gathered and caught, as in a net (as Francis Howgill said way back in 1663).
Ben highlights 4 insights into what it means to be a Quaker, which he regards as inherently collective:
- We have a direct encounter with the divine
- We have developed ways of interpreting this experience – discernment
- We have developed forms of worship that nurture the direct encounter with the divine
- We feel called to live a particular kind of life due to this encounter.
He goes on to say that we can’t encounter the divine without being changed – transformed. This transformation makes us see and feel the world in a new way. This can be uncomfortable, but leads us into a more spiritually authentic place. Our lives are transformed both individually and collectively in order to become agents of transformation in the world. That is what it means to be a Quaker.
In his lecture Ben points to areas where we have become fuzzy, more individualistic, more secular and much more permissive – and have been affected by wider societal trends. Our sense of belonging to our Meetings has changed. He suggests that we are no longer accountable to the group as we were earlier, that we can decide what is and is not Quaker and that we have a huge amount of freedom and permissiveness in terms of faith. We present ourselves as an option in the option of faith – attendance at Meetings for Worship is optional, service is optional (we are now more likely to say no to nominations committee) and supporting the Meeting financially is optional. We thus have an optional sense of belonging, which leads to a diffuse, rather than gathered, community.
According to Ben, in developing our own individual versions of Quakerism we have lost our Collective Voice.
What can we do? What Ben suggests is not new. He encourages us to resist the individual, resist the secular and reclaim the spiritual and the joy and passion that go with this. He thinks that we need to inhabit the Quaker tradition, be bold, think radically and live adventurously. And we need to do this together. Tillsammans.