the friend online
02 October 2009

Living the testimonies

Making the world a better place starts in each Quaker’s life, reflects Helen Drewery

A new colleague put his head round my office door late one Friday afternoon. He was not a Quaker and had been hired short-term for particular professional skills, but found himself rather bemused by the Friends House (the base for centrally-managed work of Quakers in Britain) ethos. We somehow manage to have a hierarchy of responsibility alongside basic assumptions that all staff are inherently of equal worth and should be listened to with respect. I admitted it wasn’t always easy, but that’s the way it is – and the way I wanted it to be. He asked whether this Quaker emphasis on equality was a recent development.

I found myself telling him about Thomas Ellwood. In 1659 Thomas met some friends in the street. They bowed and greeted him with the elaborate courtesy that was then expected of rich young men. He found himself replying simply, keeping his hat on and his knee unbowed. After what must have been an uncomfortable few moments, one of his friends said, ‘What Tom, a Quaker?’ to which Tom readily agreed. The story is told in more detail our book of church government and inspiration, Quaker faith & practice 19.16.

I told my colleague the story to show how far back our testimony to equality goes, but also to show that Quakers expect to live what they believe, in their everyday life, as well as in the particular pieces of work done by Quaker Peace & Social Witness, one of the departments of British Quaker work, and by many Meetings and individual Friends. Peace, truth and integrity, simplicity, and equality, run deeply through Quaker lives, becoming visible – when we live up to what we profess – in every relationship. Most of us are rarely if ever given the opportunity to refuse to fight, but we are constantly challenged to live more peaceably. Every visit to the supermarket provides ways to live with greater or lesser degrees of integrity, simplicity, justice.

Each of these testimonies is in reality an aspect of our underlying approach to life, a fruit of the same tree. We want to help to make the world a better place because every individual deserves to live in a better world, and because we feel led to make our own contribution, be it great or small.

I was challenged recently to put into my own words the core of Quaker belief, without using any words that carry religious baggage, such as ‘divine’ or ‘sacramental’. I struggled and eventually came up with something like ‘we believe that every human being has something within them that is capable of touching that which is at the heart of the universe’. Not very far away from some well-loved Quaker phrases, but the best I could do. I gave my questioner the usual warning that she would get a slightly different answer from every Quaker, but I guess most of our answers would amount to much the same thing. It follows from that basic tenet that every person is to be treated with respect and with love. Which, to most Quakers, rules out war, exploitation and greed in a world of hunger.

But to my mind, the general belief is not enough. If we are to do more than live our own lives ethically, if we are to be effectively motivated to improve the world, we need to tackle a small corner, or we will be overwhelmed. That is where a sense of leading comes in. Feeling that the spirit of God – or whatever you call it – can personally and corporately guide us is not just theory. The sense of leading was truly powerful at Yearly Meeting Gathering, the annual Meeting including Quakers from all around Britain, this summer. In my experience, that strong sense of leading is followed by a continuing feeling of rightness about the actions taken, a corporate sense that can be conveyed to others, even if they don’t wholly share our Quaker approach to life.

Helen Drewery is general secretary of Quaker Peace & Social Witness.

Helen Drewery


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A testimony to Love
Judy Kirby, Editor
Circles of silence
Gerard Benson
A view of Quakers
David Wood
Testimony to peace
Helen Steven
Middle East witness
Ann Wright
Peace for all
Stephen Hanvey
Living the testimonies
Helen Drewery
Harvey Gillman
Testimony to Equality
Jonathan Dale
Committed relationships
Phil Lucas
Quaker thought in literature
Marina Lewycka
Quaker thought in poetry
Gerard Benson
Ros Smith
Marian Liebmann
Equality and social justice
Belinda Hopkins
Testimony to Simplicity
Jan Arriens and Marion McNaughton
Laurie Michaelis
Testimony to Truth
Linda Pegler
Integrity in public life
Tony Stoller

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