It’s been longer than I had intended for this blog post to emerge. I have been mulling over for quite some time what G might stand for; there is, of course, guilt, but I think it is over-rated; there is gold, there is God, and there is Green (capital G for the politics and activism that is intended not merely the colour – although right now there are such vivid greens all around, even that might have been a pretext for writing).
But this being the Quaker Alphabet, I turned to my first instinct: writing about George Fox.
Now, I am not a George Fox scholar and I’m not about to start down that path. But we do, as friends, often quote well loved passages from his journal and speaking strictly for me, I don’t always know the context in which he said/wrote these things specifically and so it’s sometimes hard to be clear about what they mean for us, today; and indeed, whether they need to mean something for us, today.
The passage which is often quoted and which was in my mind is in Quaker Faith and Practice chapter 19 and reads:
‘As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.’ (QFP, 19.02 – excerpt)
So the questions that came to me when I thought about this (and I think at least in part I was thinking about it because at Pendle Hill, last autumn, we had been talking quite a bit about George Fox and what he said in the context of sustainability and stewardship in the class offered by Doug Gwyn on ‘A Sustainable Life – Quaker Faith & Practice in the Renewal of Creation’) was: what were his questions?
Quakers are good at asking questions. But from my – admittedly limited reading – of George Fox’s writings, the impression I get is anguish and a search for something that will deal with that anguish. But I don’t get anywhere the content of the anguish.
Maybe I am far to rational in my approach to this issue; maybe anguish doesn’t have or doesn’t need content. But I still think it is worth asking the question as to what made George Fox – who was very young at the time – have this immense sense of needing something that answered this anguish.
Some answers may come from the context of the society he was living in; George Fox was born in 1624; in 1625 Charles I comes to the throne and his rule is in part characterised by his dismissal of Parliament. Now, we mustn’t think of this as the kind of democratic parliament we would expect to have with universal suffrage and all that; but it was – nonetheless – a parliament.
By 1647, when George Fox writes the passage in question, civil war is in full swing; the battle is between the aristocracy supporting the King and Parliament’s army; but it is also about the relationship between England and Scotland and between north and south and between different religious denominations. It is between the Establishment and the rest (of course this is a simplification, but you get the drift).
So George Fox is living in a society where there are very established patterns of power, wealth, behaviour, custom, fashion and so on and for all sorts of different reasons these are being questioned. And because the Establishment is also the established church and because there is quite a lot of religious dissent going on, the kind of religious quest; a quest which started maybe with an experience he had when he was only eight years old and which is reflected in this passage:
‘About the time when I was eight years of age, of my natural birth, the Word of the Lord came unto me. ‘I created thee for my glory, an account thou must give to Me for all thy words and actions done in the body’, which word enlightened my heart and opened the book of conscience in me… Then I ceased from my vain conversation … and began to read the Scriptures and books, and mourn and pray to a God I knew not where he was…’ (QFP 19.05 – excerpt)
But in essence, his questions were firmly rooted in the state of society (the inequality, the fighting, the lack of integrity, the following after fashions and engaging in activities he saw as vain, and so on) which he found all around him and which he deemed to be evil.
What strikes me about this context is that the Testimonies do seem to have their roots in this social context. And it seems to me, further, that although the society we live in is different in many ways to the society of the mid-17th century, there are also parallels.
We face a society (on a global level) which
- Is at war
- Has massive inequality
- Is following a celebrity culture which lacks all depth
- Is marred by significant struggles between different faiths
- Has serious issues relating to addiction and the criminality that goes with the trade in prohibited substance
- Lacks integrity among the powerful (in politics, in the economy, and elsewhere).
So what questions does this ask of us? And how might we answer them?
There is, first of all, William Penn:
‘True godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it… Christians should keep the helm and guide the vessel to its port; not meanly steal out at the stern of the world and leave those that are in it without a pilot to be driven by the fury of evil times upon the rock or sand of ruin.’ QFP 23.02
We have work to do in the world, Friends.
And then there’s John Woolman:
‘May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.’ QFP 23.16 (introduction)
We have questions to ask ourselves, Friends.
As we gear ourselves up for Quaker Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath in August where our theme will be: What it means to be a Quaker today I hope that the questions we are being asked by the world we live in and by the faith we profess, will allow us to think about both what we have to do together and what we have to do individually and how we can support each other in addressing some of the really hard stuff.
We live in the world around us; we are not nearly as separate from it as we might think. We accept the privilege that the chance of our birth in the here and now has bestowed on us. We are tied into all sorts of external constraints that limit the room we have for being different.
If we want to be a community that has a message that can be heard, seen and understood by the world around us and that will give us the momentum to bring about positive changes, we have to step it up. We have to nail our colours to some mast and we have to be willing to be at least ridiculed for what we say and do.
I’ll give the last word to Margaret Fell who, in response to Fox saying: ‘You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?’ responds:
‘This opened me so that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong.’ (Both quotes from QFP 19.07 – excerpts).