Review: Quakers

What's a Quaker?

'Quaker' is the nickname for members of The Religious Society of Friends. They were in reaction to the established Church who insisted that the congregation needed a mediator between them and God, someone to interpret the bible and tell them what's what. Quakers discovered that if they just sat together in silence and waited (which they call Meeting for Worship), inspiration would come to them and they would be moved (by Spirit, they supposed) to stand and speak, or minister. When this happened they would often get the shakes. An introverted person standing up to speak in front of a large gathering of people who are listening very intently, will experience terrible stage fright. This tremor, or quaking was often quite observable, hence the name 'Quaker'.

They challenged the status quo in many ways beyond religion. They didn't acknowledge social hierarchy, did not doff their hats to show respect, in a time where hats were expected to be doffed. They protested against violence and injustice, and were imprisoned often. They were courageous. The tradition of activism has not died although the stakes tend to be lower. Some Quakers feel that the Society has gotten complacent.

My Involvement

I was raised as a Quaker and was quite involved with Young Quaker stuff in my teens, but in all the meetings I attended, I never stood to speak, and never understood why others did. Stopped being involved at 18 when I discovered Buddhism which made more sense to me, but due to a deficit in my social care, I've recently (2017) started spending time at a Quaker study centre because it has nice food and is relatively quiet and there's no alcohol. Quakers are, gentler than average. All my experiences are of British Quakers. I can't comment on what Quakers are like in other countries.

While at this Quaker study centre, I got curious about spoken ministry (that's what the standing up thing is called) and so I did some research, and eventually understood, in terms I can understand (mostly from A Course In Miracles and Buddhism). The reason I had never ministered, is because I am 'called' to minister constantly. I had assumed, as I always do, that my version of ministry would look similar to everyone else's. Thanks, autism.

As soon as I realised this, I couldn't block it anymore (because that would be inconsistent), and so, shaking, I stood and spoke. For the rest of the day people came up to me and thanked me for my ministry. Apparently people do that. Since then I've ministered in almost every Meeting for Worship. Unclear if this makes me a proper Quaker, but I'm certainly having Quaker experiences.

However, after my last visit to this study centre, I feel very much an outsider.

Review (note to self: be descriptive instead of evaluative)

The practice of sitting in silence together, waiting to be moved is theoretically accessible to all, and consequently Quakers often advertise themselves as being open to all faiths or none. There are atheist Quakers; Buddhist Quakers (Bakers).

There is however, an unmistakable mark of Christianity, which is not really surprising considering its origins. They use Christian terms like "worship", and there is generally a bible on the table in the middle of the room.

They also have no formal instructions, which means knowledge is largely transferred by osmosis (not super accessible for autistic people). Social pressure is present but very rarely explicit.

Inner transformation is rarely discussed, though it is mentioned by some early Quakers. As a Buddhist or post-Buddhist this feels like a massive omission. But again, for an offshoot of Christianity, it makes sense. In Christianity, Jesus's state is seen as very different than our own, and unattainable. So, they don't seem to investigate their egos much if at all.

There's also no single teacher. They have this book called "Quaker Faith and Practice" which contains a selection of things past Quakers have said, and it gets updated every decade or so with things new Quakers have said. Quakers don't all agree on everything.

Social pressure keeps the boundaries of who becomes a Quaker and who does not. Just like any other social group, except that Quakers seem to pretend that they are above this, that their social pressure is spirituality. For example, after my last ministry, a Friend (i.e. a Quaker) who I already see as a social policeperson or gate-keeper, asked me: "Is that what God told you to say?" - the subtle implication being that she didn't believe God would tell me to say that, and that therefore my ministry was not valid ministry.

I'm an outsider, because what I have to share, is not within the norm, because I have an autistic brain. Quakers make no provision for such differences. This is fairly typical for social groups, and Quakers are friendlier and more inclusive than most, because of their tradition of non-conformity, but they are still dressing up their own form of social conformity as spirituality.

The teachings and learnings of the Quaker Faith seem semi-dualistic (Christianity being almost invariably dualistic, Buddhism being non-dualistic and A Course In Miracles being purely non-dualistic - see The Disappearance of the Universe), it has some ideas like "seeing that of God in everyone" and there's a strong principle of equality. They do not see the universe as illusory, nor the power of the mind absolute and singular, as Buddhism does. Nor do they see God as the only reality (no separation at all) as A Course In Miracles does.


My vision for a version of the The Religious Society of Friends, that I would be part of

  • Replace the Bible with A Course In Miracles (and perhaps Radical Honesty as well for about 20 years until everyone's got it) - this is a non-trivial change, and would need to be accompanied by a lot of education and personal study. Failing that, either remove the Bible, or add every other holy book. Where's the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita?
  • Rename "The Religious Society of Friends" to "The Society of Friends".
  • Rename "Meeting for Worship" to "Meeting for Truth".
  • Abolish most of the unwritten rules of Meeting in favour of comprehension.

I'm convinced that the phenomenon of a Quaker Meeting has great potential and can be reproduced and improved upon by replacing most of the existing unwritten rules with understanding and training. The current unwritten rules say that ministry must:

  • not be more than once per Meeting
  • sound 'spiritual', or at least spiritually inspired, with the definition of spirituality being largely judeo-christian
  • not be more than a few minutes long
  • not follow another ministry by less than a minute or so
  • not interrupt another's ministry

I propose instead:

  • Minister when moved to do so and only when moved - some will need to learn to recognise when they are moved, others will need to learn to recognise when they are just spouting the same lies they always tell. There's a parallel here with something I've learned from Radical Honesty: look for the thing you're most afraid (socially) to say and say it; and look also for the things you're afraid not to say, and don't say them. If you're not ready to tell the truth, you may just sit quietly and wait for the noisy lies in your mind to be still.
  • Your words should address the entire meeting, not one person or group, unless you need the presence of the meeting to have the courage to say something to a specific person or group.
  • If you react to someone's ministry, you can interrupt them by standing and saying "I do not recognise your call for love/call to minister/vulnerability/candor, Friend." which is an admission of deep personal failing and vulnerability, and is itself a form of ministry. It is also potentially helpful feedback that helps the original minister adjust their language, realise they've ended up spouting their usual lies, or take a break to find new words that may be better recognised. Without this mechanism, Friends can happily go on ministering, thinking that they are speaking to everyone, when in fact they are excluding some who are different than them in some ways.
  • Something to meditate on: If you neither try to minister, nor try not to minister, what happens?
  • If overseer and elder functions are needed then all participants of a meeting must receive training for each role. Otherwise there is a power imbalance, a social hierarchy develops.

Mum says Quakers have gone from revolutionary to reactionary

Something something quietist period?


Meta comment

I feel like I haven't forgiven the situation that inspired much of this content, and it shows.
Not a total disaster, as first reviews go, but I intend to come back and clean this up when I have had more practice writing dispassionate reviews.
Also I think the bit about my ideal version of a Quaker Meeting needs it's own separate post.

Freyr LePage

autistic, nonbinary, white, middle class

United Kingdom