Almost overwhelmingly, Quakers hold that the Bible is a collection of writings of human beings in ancient times, trying to express in the best way they could their understanding of God, and God’s relationship with them specifically and humanity in general. Few, if any, Quakers see the Bible as the Infallible Holy Word of God – we see far too many inconsistencies in it for that – rather, it is a collection of words about God. For many it is an important and divinely inspired collection, and for some it remains the most important set of writings about God available to us. By and large, Quakers hold to what theologians call ‘continuing revelation’, meaning God didn’t start talking to us with the Book of Genesis and stop talking with the Book of Revelation, but rather God has also spoken, and continues to speak, to us over time through other writings, whether significant religious texts such as the Qu’ran or the Bhagavad Gita, or through other spiritual writings such as Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, or through music, painting, sculpture, poetry, or even mainstream theatre or film.
Almost every single Quaker household and meeting house will have a book called Quaker Faith and Practice (which has the rather formidable subtitle of being the ‘Book of Discipline’). The purpose of this book is twofold: the first part, which many Quakers in Britain nostalgically refer to as Church Government has the position of being the formal constitution of the organisation, detailing procedural matters on such as marriages and funerals, outlining the responsibilities of various roles within a meeting, and informing how the various committees and groups which make up the wider organisation relate to each other and what they do. The second, more substantial part is effectively ‘our story’. It is a collection of inspirational writings of various individual Quakers, and groups of Quakers, through to minutes of meetings, to statements which all of us at our annual main meeting for church affairs and beyond have made on various aspects of what it means to be a Quaker today. Some of the writings included are modern, and some of them date from the earliest years of Quakerism. Topics covered include social justice issues, education, faith and action, bereavement, relationships and sexuality, Quakers and the State, peace, Meeting for Worship, creativity, suffering, simplicity, and just about anything else you can think of and how it relates to spirituality.
It is not a top down set of instructions of how we should behave and what we should believe, rather it is a set of bottom up descriptions by individuals and groups of their own thoughts, which were thought sufficiently inspiring by the committee which compiled the book and then the whole of us who ratified it to include in it and share with others. Since the first edition of the book in 1782 it has been revised roughly every generation, with the most recent major revision in 1995. Consequently, it remains at all times always a fresh and modern explanation of ‘where we think we’re at’. and one big advantage of our relatively small size is for any given Quaker it is quite possible they might have met or even know as a friend at least one other Quaker who is quoted in it – which further helps to bind us together as a community. Throughout the whole Quaker world, most yearly meetings will have a similar document, which can be as small as a pamphlet just containing the main constitutional rules and following the Bible as a whole for spiritual guidance, or have a book as extensive as the British one.
Rather than worrying about what we each individually believe, for Quakers what we feel is most important to unite around is our collective response to our beliefs. Faith in Action is what we live together by, and it is through this we not only unite with each other in Britain, but also unite with Quakers around the world, some of whose beliefs might be starkly different to our own. It is through our Meeting for Worship, the way we make decisions together (our ‘Business Method’), and our testimonies. In the next chapter, I’ll tell you more about Quaker testimonies, what they are, and how they come about.