Something is bugging me, and has been doing so for a while now. Are we (especially in Britain) elitist? I don't mean intentionally - quite the reverse! - but from what I read, see and hear from other Friends, UK Quakers are predominantly white, middle-aged, middle-class, educated and left-wing. I include myself in this - that describes me absolutely. But Quakerism has so much to offer everyone, and I am concerned that we're not getting the message out beyond our own circle.

We have Quaker Quest, which is excellent, and I would not think to criticise it. My Meeting is running one in the autumn at which I have been invited to speak, so it would be pretty hypocritical of me to pull it down. But are all the people who attend just more people like us? Are we just continuing the status quo by inviting our friends and colleagues? By all means, invite them - but how do we reach out to other people who may not even be aware that we exist?

I live in a small ex-mining village, with on odd mix of inhabitants. We have University lecturers and post-graduate students, because it's only a short commute to Durham, and we have a group of artists and writers. Then the majority of people come from families who have lived here since the village was founded in the 1870s, people who would be described by themselves as working class, often poorly educated and with complex family trees, as families intermarry and relationships can sometimes be of quite a short duration. Their lives usually revolve around the family, their often unskilled jobs, football for the men and shopping for the women, and drinking on a weekend. They expect to be able to buy pirate DVDs and dodgy cigarettes from their neighbours, and to settle arguments with their fists - without involving the police. Green concerns, ethical consumerism, politics of any kind don't engage them at all.

This is difficult to write about without sounding condescending, and I really don't want to. I am describing my neighbours and my carers, and they are good people. But they know nothing about Quakers, and are usually quite turned off from religion in any form. For example, one of my carers describes any churchgoer as 'all Goddy-Goddy' - with a hastily added, 'Not like you, I don't mean!' I think it's meant as a compliment...

I talk about Quakerism and my faith when the opportunity arises, so at least the people who know me know a little about it. But how do we reach out and explain, to people who are so dismissive of any kind of personal faith, that our way is different? Are they even looking for another way? And would they stay if they came to a Meeting, or would they feel out of place and unwanted?

I have no answers to any of these questions. But they worry me very deeply, so I am putting them out here to see whether they worry you too.

Views: 280

Comment by Ian Hughes on 8th mo. 3, 2009 at 7:45pm
What's wrong with being well educated and left-wing? My family of origin has rural and working class background. I am the first Quaker and the first to get a university degree (I have 3). Other members of my family go to Catholic or Protestant churches, or don't attend, and I hope these meet their needs and speak to their condition. We Quakers do not have a monopoly on truth. If another religion both speaks to a person's inner life and helps them to act well, I encourage them to follow their own inner leadings, whether they lead to Meeting House, Church, Mosque, Temple, Synagogue or Public Library.
Comment by Heather Cawte on 8th mo. 4, 2009 at 8:38am
I didn't say there was anything wrong with being left-wing and well-educated - that describes me, after all - and of course people must find the truth wherever it appears for them. However, in a time of declining numbers, I am concerned both that we are fishing in a very small pool, and that we are not reaching millions of people who have not even heard of us, and whose daily lives do not include any kind of spiritual input.
Comment by Alice Yaxley on 8th mo. 5, 2009 at 12:44pm
Heather I am glad you are writing about this. It's such a good point, thanks so much for writing this! For me it's the answer to christian renewal as well. The insider conversations just go round and round, but the people living convicting lives in God's grace are going to draw people into the church, and whoever comes in will help shape the church of the future as they add their knowledge of God to ours. I've been inspired for many years by a phrase from the Vatican II council of the Roman Catholic church (stay with me, please!): that renewal of religious movements comes through "re-appropriating the founding charism".

The founding spiritual energy of Quakers was a radical movement, "primitive christianity revived", as William Penn wrote, cutting away all dead forms, all the dead wood of religious habits, to get connected to the living vine of Christ. It was radical because it included and had a call for all people, regardless of education. It called together people who were having this experience of being transformed when they found Christ Jesus was teaching them personally, and they needed to share that experience with others who were learning in the same way.

I think the Quaker movement still has a call to all people, that same necessary movement of the spirit: cutting back all the dead forms to rediscover the freshness of life in Christ today. All I can say about the elitism question is, I am finding something to say to most of the people I get into conversations with, whether they are begging or wealthy.

I don't know how Jesus's radical inclusiveness works, I guess it's one of those things we have to try to do. I try to make sure I greet anyone I don't recognise when I go to Meeting for Worship, and remember that the people who are most untidy might be the most important ones from God's perspective.

I think it's vital that we who are already hooked into Quakers practice spiritual hospitality at the most basic level - being friendly and inclusive of the people who actually get into the Meeting House! Then there are all kinds of issues about how people are made to feel welcome over a longer time frame, which cut into whether we are committed to being Christ's Body or a friendly society for some particular kind of people, which is a betrayal of Jesus's inclusive message. I think it is really important that we are prepared to invite anyone to live with Jesus like we do.

I know I have to keep trying to keep my language clear, not just choose to talk to folks who read the same books I like. The practice of living a christianity that invites everyone in is a whole community thing right? We are called to live so that the impoverished and desperate and included the same as the wealthy and comfortable. It's a spiritual challenge - we need to know our need of God's help and to ask for it, and to support each other in living up to this invitation, to help get the message to everyone, whether they read or not, whether they are working or not, whether they have a job or not.

I believe that it is particularly urgent at this time. My hope is in God to answer the crisis of climate change and peak oil. We need an order of magnitude change in the number of people who are reached by God to have their lives changed to get levelled across the whole planet so all of us can live the life God wants for us. It's vital that we learn how to get the message of the transforming power of God across to everyone, because our biosphere and the future oif humanity is in danger. So we need to learn to communicate with anyone, more urgently than ever before. We know God can do that! I think we have to be willing to ask for God's help to do what God wants - like all prayers when we can pray together the power of our prayer and the change that happens can really leap up.
Comment by Heather Cawte on 8th mo. 9, 2009 at 12:42pm
Thank you so much for such a thorough and considered response, Alice. I'm sorry not to have replied earlier, but the heat this week has knocked me flat!

I really like that phrase, 're-appropriating the founding charism.' I've been reading Fox's journal, and I have been very struck by his integrity, simple message and indefatigabilty - not to mention his willingness to talk to everyone! I believe you have the right idea when you write about approaching new visitors, and also about believing in Christ's transformative power. You're right - it's a spiritual challenge, and it applies to everyone.

I was so pleased to read something which so deeply speaks to my condition - thank you :)


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