On the North-West Quakers web site
Your Guide to Quakers
Who are the Quakers?
'Quakers' started as a nickname - their real name is the Religious Society of Friends - but they are quite happy to be called either Friends or Quakers.
The religious Society of Friends is a small group (about 28,000 members and attenders in Britain, much larger numbers in the Americas and Africa) with a special view of what religion means, and of Christianity in particular.
Anybody can attend the local Quaker Meeting for Worship. After a while, if they find they share Friends' outlook, they can become a member and take a bigger part in the Society's life.
Quakers and Christianity
Quakerism started in England in the 1650s, the time of the Commonwealth, when George Fox gathered groups of 'seekers' or dissidents together. They felt that the Churches over the centuries had led people away from the real aims of Christianity, and got bogged down with traditions and ritual and power politics.
Quakers were trying to lead a renewal - to see how they could live life more simply and truthfully, following Jesus' example more closely. So there's no doubt that Quakerism is rooted in Christianity, and many Quakers centre their faith on Jesus.
On the other hand, some Quakers find that traditional religious language doesn't describe their inner experiences, and they look both within Christianity and beyond. The Society appears very different from any other Christian group, without the usual priests, services or creeds.
Is Quakerism a religion, or an approach to religion?
It is the job of religion to help us find meaning in our lives, to reach the underlying reality, the inexpressible truth, and to bring people together into community. Throughout time, churches and faiths have struggled to help people recognise the extraordinary in the ordinary, or as Quakers would put it, to find something of God in their daily lives. So Quakers recognise all the great faiths as ways to spiritual fulfilment, and they are willing to learn from and work with other faiths and churches. But for Quakers, there is something uniquely helpful and inspiring about the Quaker approach to religion.
What do Friends believe?
Friends have always questioned anything they were told to believe!
This is part of their 'seeking for truth', in the old phrase. It is based on the experience that there is a real and direct relationship between each person and God - though Quakers will use a variety of words and ways to try to do the impossible in describing 'God'. Ultimately, though, all individuals have to find their own way to religious truth, being aware of God in their own lives, learning from the wisdom of the past as expressed in a variety of religious writings, and comparing their experiences with others in their Meeting.
Jesus and the Bible?
You may be thinking, 'Where does Jesus come in?' Quakers don't spend much time discussing theology - for instance, whether or in what sense Jesus was the 'son of God'. They would say the important thing is to learn from Jesus' teaching and way of life - and to get on with it.
In Britain, most Friends regard the Bible as by far the greatest source of inspiration, but not the only one. They read it along with all the other books, old and new, which can guide us in life. But they are not among those who take any 'holy' book as being literally the 'Word of God' - they see too many puzzling contradictions. They find modern scholarship very useful in getting to grips with the Bible and other great books.
Quakers have many beliefs and attitudes in common, but you can't list them in a formula, or use them as a test of membership. Friends like to talk of an 'inward light' within every human being. Some would call this 'conscience' or 'moral sense', but Friends feel it is something more: part of spiritual and religious experience, which gives you a sense of direction in your search for the right way to live.
No communion, no service?
If there is something of God in every person - and every time and place and thing - then there is no need for special feast days, ceremonies and sacraments such as baptism and holy communion. In the same way, the Meeting House is not a consecrated building: it can just as well be used for music, eating, discussion or fun as for worship. Everything, including joy and suffering and the good and bad things that we do, are part of living and growing and learning. But the effect of Quaker worship was described by an early Friend: 'I felt the evil weakening in me and the good raised up'.
Perhaps this is why Quakers are generally very tolerant and hopeful.
The things Friends aim it - and often miss
Because they feel there is 'something of God' in every one, Quakers aim to find that 'something' in all their dealings - with nice people and not-so-nice, with old and young, with black and white, with rich and poor, with men and women, gay and straight. They take this to be the meaning of 'love God and love one another'. They try to live a fairly simple life: not to get too involved with money, or possessions, or status, not to lose sight of what is really important. Quakers get a lot of fun and enjoyment out of life, but don't expect to find them gambling, drinking a lot or trying drugs. They're not into exploitation or power games.
Meeting for Worship
It's hard being a 'seeker' on your own. In the Meeting for Worship, Friends share with each other what they have found out for themselves, and gain from each other in this way. If everyone can have a direct relationship or 'communion' with God, then no priest is needed to act as a go-between, and so Friends have no priests or ministers (though members share out the practical tasks that need doing in any group).
Friends find that this 'communion' can best be experienced if they meet in silence, with nothing pre-planned. Meeting for Worship couldn't be simpler: you go in and sit down in a room and settle in silence, a silence which can become very deep and powerful, a direct relationship between each person and God.
After a time, someone may feel inspired to stand up and speak briefly in their own words, or pray, or read from the Bible or some other book. But silent waiting is the framework of the Meeting for Worship - and the regular Meetings are something no Quaker would want to miss.
The things Friends actually do
Quakers feel that unless you have experienced a belief inwardly, as true and valuable, you won't let it rule your life: and if it doesn't do that, what use is a belief? It's no good having a faith if you don't put it into practice. Quakers have always tried to be honest at work (which for many Quaker businesses has proved to be the best policy). They aim at truthfulness at all times, which is why, for example, a Quaker won't swear an oath in court - it would suggest that the rest of the time you can have different standards of truth.
From the start, Quakers have felt strong concerns to improve social conditions and the environment. Help for slaves, prisoners, mental patients, refugees, old people, war casualties - quite a few charities and campaigns for reform have started as the concern of a Quaker.
Above all, Quakers say that if you follow the teaching and life of Jesus, you must rule out war and violence as a way for solving problems. They try never to give up on getting in touch with that of God in every person. So Friends have always worked for peace, refusing to contribute to war and military action. There are Quaker Centres bringing diplomats into contact in various cities around the world, and international projects that bring young people together.
William Penn, the founder of a state that lasted for 75 years without a military force, said that true godliness shouldn't turn people out of this world, but should make them more able to live in it. Is this an impossible aim? Quakers believe it is possible - and in today's situation, vital.
Don't stop here, find out for yourself
Your public library may have books about the Quakers - or they can get them for you - and they will be able to tell you how to find your nearest Quaker meeting.
You would be welcome at Meeting for Worship. Talk with Friends there and ask them about further activities.
Or, if you write to Quaker Life (YGNW), Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ, or phone the answerphone 020 7663 1025, they will send you free booklets and tell you about Quakers in your area. There is also a Quaker website: www.quaker.org.uk.
The above text is taken from a leaflet published by Outreach Committee, Quaker Life, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, Friends House, 173 Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ, in December 2000. It is reproduced by permission here on the North-West Quakers web site. The leaflets can be purchased through the Quaker Bookshop at a cost of £4.00 for 50, plus postage.
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last updated 2002-01-26