One of the joys of creating a website in which you are the subject is that you can tell your own story with complete editorial freedom. I decided back in 2016, when Steve McIntosh, my IT consultant, and I began developing the website, that I would present myself to the world through the different personae that I have found myself displaying in five decades of adulthood. Here is a link to my website and the page that opens up these personae:
You will see there that I have been a scholar and academic, a teacher, a runner, a political activist, and a man with a metaphysical side.
|Being part of the St Ives Salvation Army community - Tuesday evening, 23 July 2019. The coronavirus pandemic was to close the door for me on that kind of joyful togetherness.|
It's that metaphysical dimension I want to explore in this blogpost series I am planning where I will seek to explain my thoughts as a novice Quaker, at the beginning of a journey. My spiritual path - which I share with Louise, my wife - has led us into the world as seen through Quaker eyes. We feel very grounded in this venture.
Louise had already experienced the Quaker way when she attended the meeting house in Beccles in Suffolk - see my webpage, using the link above. As we planned the year ahead, back in December 2021, our medical unease at attending the Anglican church service at St John's, the local church, increased. Before the pandemic, we had very happily become members of the congregation as my battle with prostate cancer played out, although I remained in the cancer closet. The local Salvation Army leaders, Nathan and Helen, were friends with Nick and Claire, our Anglican vicar and his wife, and there was some overlap in the membership of the two churches. I cheerfully attended the Sally Army meal and worship on Tuesday evenings and the Sunday service at St John's. And then came COVID.
The Church of England is an establishment institution at its core. As the rush to lift restrictions was being orchestrated by the man in No.10, we became more aware of the Anglican entrenchment in an establishment system that as a Christian socialist I opposed. We were also anxious about our own health asthe move back to 'normality' was being rushed through. Louise has had her respiratory system weakened through many summers of pollen asthma; I carry the effects of 35 doses of radiotherapy and a drug regime that has saved my life but weakened my defences. A couple of online searches revealed that the Marazion Quakers were meeting every Sunday on Zoom; in part because their building was being refurbished, in part to protect themselves from Covid. Louise attended one session in February, seated in front of my computer screen, and I joined her the following week - and ever since.
|Quaker faith and practice - a book of Christian discipline - a wonderfully liberating framework for thought and action|
The experience of the one-hour of collective Quaker silence, interrupted only by the occasional 'voice of ministry' where a Quaker shares a brief thought with others, has been deeply inspiring and centering. The Quaker belief is that by sharing in this silent act of worship, we open ourselves to the Spirit who will guide us to more understanding - 'discernment' is the Quaker word - about what really matters in life.
I have found myself through that Quaker silence drawn to explore the words of the historical Jesus as recorded in the gospel of Mark, the book that was written down around a generation after the radical Jewish carpenter-turned-preacher and faith healer was executed by the Roman occupation forces in Palestine, after being targeted by the elders of his own faith who were threatened by his unorthodox and subversive teaching. I was already a socialist and I had had, as you can read on the website page, a gentle conversion experience back in the mid-1980s. My identity as a Christian Socialist was established but it was an illuminating experience to return to a seminal text such as Mark's story of the good news that the Jewish people had at last encountered their Saviour, the Christ, the Anointed One. By the time Mark was writing his gospel around 66 to 74 AD, Paul had been a convert for a couple of decades as a member of the group who were calling themselves Christians. It was Paul who began spreading a message that the hope and salvation offered by Jesus was for all, for Jew and Gentile alike, for all humanity. Within a few decades, Christianity had become established as a cult religious faith that was now separated from orthodox Judaism - and subject to sporadic savage persecution from the Roman authorities.
There is a case to be made that this strange religious cult would have remained a footnote in history, its writings and histories subject to loss and perhaps partial recovery over time, in the same manner as other cults. The historical record favours the successful, not the losers. Jesus's death indicated that he had been a loser in his own lifetime but his charisma had been sensational. Shortly after his death, that charisma resurfaced in the resurrection belief that bound his disciples and other followers together. Yet, such movements are subject to the passage of time. I am trained as a historian; it is likely that the cult of Christianity would have eventually disappeared were it not for the conversion of the Roman emperor, Constantine, to the belief in the power of the Christian God in the early 4th century. From persecution to Roman imperial protection; this was the historical twist that has gifted us the survival of the extraordinary thoughts about how best to live life that this mature Jewish man in his thirties had put together in his teachings. Roman imperial power had only around another century of life after Constantine's rule, but it was sufficient for the transformation and preservation of the Christian faith.
I say 'transformed', deliberately. Once the Roman authorities had embraced the teachings, Christianity is reinterpreted in the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Jesus of Nazareth was never anything other than a man of peace. His followers, often subject to persecution, 'turned the other cheek' as their Christ had taught them. They were pacifists, as we say now. Pretty dodgy people, by conventional standards. Time for the powerful to turn to their religious scholars to conjure up a 'just war theory'.
This seems a good point to give a quick overview of the history of the Religious Society of Friends, 'Friends of Truth', a body of Christians also called Quakers who first saw the light of day in the midst of civil war in England in the middle of the 17th century, less than four hundred years ago. We are, of course, pacifists. Christianity is a religion with a history of splits and division which have been the result of devout men (and women, in the case of the Quakers) returning to the origins of the faith in order to rediscover truths that they felt had been distorted over time. The founder of Quakerism, George Fox (1624-91), was a son of a Leicestershire weaver who found his truth in 1646 and began to preach a year later. His message was clear. Truth was to be found in the inner voice of God speaking to the soul. Jesus's words were straightforward. We must not take up arms. Our first loyalty is to that which is of God, not the State. The authorities locked up George Fox several times, but his words spoke to others and the Quaker organization was able to develop, albeit persecuted, until the passing of the Toleration Act of 1689 after which it was no longer illegal to be a Quaker.
|George Fox - the founder of the Quaker church|
I am using The Concise Oxford Dictionary of The Christian Church (1977) for a statement of what Quakers believe:
'The tenets of the Friends were set out by Robert Barclay (1648-90), a Scottish Quaker theologian who followed his father in becoming a Quaker in 1667. His Apology, published in Latin in 1676 and in English in 1678, made an impressive defence of the doctrine of the 'Inner Light' against the supremacy of external authorities, including the Bible. He won the favour of the Duke of York (later James II) and was able to assist a fellow Quaker, William Penn, in the foundation of the north American colony of Pennsylvania. Barclay was appointed governor in 1683 of East New Jersey which was given a constitution on Quaker principles.
'The central doctrine is the Inner Light ... the sense of the Divine ... [understood] through the direct working of Christ in the soul. By which we are freed from sin, united to Christ, and enabled to perform good works. From the paramount importance given to the Inner Light derives the rejection of the sacraments, the ministry, and all set forms of worship.
'The Quakers' devotion to social and educational work (and especially in the 20th century to international relief) has earned them wide respect.'
In Part Two of this blogpost series, next week, I will expand upon my exploration of the words of Jesus as recorded in Mark's Gospel, a research project that I undertook nudged, I believe, by that Inner Light.
I hope you have found this Part One blogpost in the series of six a worthwhile read. You can access the other five posts through my blogspot or my website or on Facebook as I publish them weekly over the next five weeks, on Monday mornings. Feedback, as always, is most welcome.