Message from the Pastoral Care and Eldership Team (PaCET) for Sunday Meeting 6th November 2022
Dear Friends, “A traditional Quaker; thou comest to meeting as thou went from it, and goes from it as thou came to it but art no better for thy coming; … Message from the Pastoral Care and Eldership Team (PaCET) for Sunday Meeting 6th November 2022
“A traditional Quaker; thou comest to meeting as thou went from it, and goes from it as thou came to it but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?” (Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.60)
This extraordinary rebuke was delivered at a Meeting for Worship at Brigflatts in 1696. The speaker was a young woman named Anne Wilson. She was addressing Samuel Bownas, a twenty year old apprentice. He was a “traditional” Quaker; that is to say, he had been brought up in the Society rather than finding his way to it by personal conviction. Anne Wilson’s accusation – the justice of which he immediately accepted – was that his religious practice was nothing but a lifeless form.
Anne Wilson’s challenge remains vivid for all of us: when we come to Meeting for Worship, are we really “the better for our coming”? But there is also an apparent paradox here. For Anne Wilson, “traditional” was a negative term. But we know about her words only because they have been handed down to us; that is to say, because they have become part of our tradition. Samuel Bownas recorded them in his Journal, because they made such a profound impression on him. Generations later, those who put together the current version of Quaker Faith and Practice thought that this incident from 1696 was worth remembering, and the Society collectively agreed.
Is tradition something that stifles us? Or is it a source of nourishment?
Jaroslav Pelikan, an American religious scholar, spent much of his working life engaging with this question. He drew a distinction between tradition and traditionalism. He put it like this:
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time …”
It seems to me that Quaker Faith and Practice is a good example of tradition, in Pelikan’s positive sense. It draws on the whole sweep of Quaker history going back to the 17th century, but it tries to address the question, what is there in this history that can speak to us today? Hence it is a book that needs to be rewritten every generation or so.
The current version of Quaker Faith and Practice was adopted in 1994. In 2018, Britain Yearly Meeting decided that it was time for a revision. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what comes out of this.
And I hope that 21st century Quakers will still want to remember Anne Wilson.
On behalf of the Pastoral Care and Eldership Team (Bob Harwood, David Hitchin, Chris Lawson, Tim Pitt-Payne, Theresa Samms, Nancy Wall)