the friend online
02 October 2009

Testimony to Equality

The Religious Society of Friends has always had a progressive agenda, but we can’t rest on our laurels, says Jonathan Dale

Our testimony to equality stems from our experience of a divine love for all at the heart of the universe. This love is oblivious to wealth, status and power. It was this conviction that led early Friends to refuse to doff their hats to social ‘superiors’; even today Friends tend not to use titles and many do not accept honours either. But it is this original, underlying religious understanding that we need to hold on to. There is, indeed, that of God in everyone, and so we need to build all our relationships, personal and political, near and far, and all our actions in the world, on the basis of this experience.

If we know and remember this, we will come to accept and value the diversity of all people. In early centuries Friends took what was considered to be a progressive approach to women, to children, to prisoners, to those with psychiatric illnesses and eventually to slaves. More recently we have been challenged to understand how we and society marginalise people affected by unemployment, homelessness, homophobia, racism, and disability.

This continues to be a very significant and binding part of our common spiritual experience. Of course, that adventure in inclusiveness is never finished. For example, many Friends in the late twentieth century believed that full equality between men and women in the Society had long been achieved. In some very significant ways it had; but other aspects of our behaviour reflected society in general and had to be overcome. Our current adherence to inclusive language is one vital result of that struggle.

Similarly Friends feel thankful for the historic part the Society was able to play in the nineteenthcentury movement to abolish the slave trade. But this challenges us to act with equal vigilance today to address the inequalities in our society that are experienced by those of differing ethnic and religious backgrounds. Racism, both personal and institutional, must be constantly addressed.

Inclusiveness and equality have been at the heart of Quaker practice from the very beginning, in the way Friends worship and organise their affairs. Meeting for Worship is based on the vital relationship between each single individual, the gathered Meeting and God, so that spoken ministry can arise in the heart of any, and unspoken ministry is the expectation of all.

The structure of the Quaker Business Meeting, where the clerk’s role is to interpret for the Meeting where God’s leading seems to be pointing, involves a deep listening to each and every one equally. This culture, when it functions as it should, is still resistant to manipulation, power games and dominant individuals. It is an infinitely precious expression of the testimony to equality.

So far, so good – but there is also economics. What are the precise implications of our testimony to equality in relation to wealth, income, consumption? Unsurprisingly, there is no written statement of what the testimony to equality entails. Whether written or not the testimony will not give us a definitive judgement as to whether particular policies on taxation, or benefits or trade justice, embody the testimony or fall outside it. And yet there has been a long standing recognition with Friends that substantial inequality of status, wealth and power prevents people from being treated as if they are indeed equally precious children of God. John Woolman was one of those who expressed this most persuasively; it was also central to Seebohm Rowntree’s pioneering work on poverty in York and to the radical philanthropic work of Joseph Rowntree. The broad thrust of Quaker thinking remains clear: the enormous disparities of life chances and of esteem, between rich and poor in this country, and much more globally, are destructive of us all.

Jonathan Dale


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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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