Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Show us our Darkness and Bring us to New Life: Reflections and Queries in the Context of Ecological Crisis

This article was first published in the Friends Quarterly, Issue Two, 2017.


As Friends we commit ourselves to a way of worship which allows God to teach and transform us. We have found corporately that the Spirit, if rightly followed, will lead us into truth, unity and love: all our testimonies grow from this leading. (Quaker Faith & Practice – QF&P – 1.01)

Traditional Quaker spiritual insights can help Friends contribute to faith-based responses to the developing ecological crisis, and can prompt further, more focused exploration. In this article, I identify nine traditional themes, offering for each a specific reflection and a query.

Revelation – the promptings of love and truth

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life. (QF&P 1.02, 1)

Our faith as Friends is founded upon the conviction that within each person there is a source of guidance and transformation that, if attended to, reveals darkness and leads to new life. This Inward Teacher has the power to reveal the true order, beauty and harmony of creation and our rightful place within the complex web of life. It can also reveal the ways in which we find ourselves in bondage to a false spirit of greed, selfishness, cruelty, violence and destructiveness that frustrates and corrupts the true order, beauty and harmony of creation.

Reflection – The revelations, or ‘openings’, experienced by early Friends seem to have convinced them that they were being brought into a new and harmonious relationship with the rest of creation. In this process, they felt that the wisdom and order of creation was revealed to them; they were brought into harmony with this wisdom and order and could appreciate the right use of ‘the creatures’ (created things). We affirm that such revelation continues, so this possibility remains available to us today.

Query – Are you willing to allow yourself to be truly open to the guidance of your inward teacher, even when this disturbs and discomforts you by revealing your darkness?

Convincement – guilty but forgiven

Be honest with yourself. What unpalatable truths might you be evading? When you recognise your shortcomings, do not let that discourage you. In worship together we can find the assurance of God’s love and the strength to go on with renewed courage. (QF&P 1.02, 11)

The process of convincement is an experience of being convicted of our darkness and sin and being consoled by divine love and forgiveness.[1] We are convicted of our bondage to the false spirit of greed, selfishness, cruelty, violence and destructiveness that wreaks havoc in the world. At the same time, we are consoled by our awareness of the unbounded love and forgiveness of God. We know that, although we are all limited and flawed creatures, implicated in the destruction and suffering of the creation, at the same time every one of us is a precious and beloved child of God.

Reflection – We are born into a world that is structured in a way that makes it far easier for us to go along with what is destructive and unjust, than to do to what is right and just. This does not make us evil in ourselves, but it does suggest that we are implicated, whether we like it or not, in systems and practices that oppress other people, cause suffering to animals and destroy the very eco-systems that support life itself. Our tradition indicates that, if we face up to this reality and accept our complicity, the healing power of the Spirit will comfort us, and its Light will guide us towards another, more harmonious way.

Query – Are you able to face up to both the reality of your darkness and the fact that you are forgiven as a beloved child of God? Are you willing to accept that you are caught between these two dimensions of your existence?

Confession – telling it like it is

Speaking the unspeakable, admitting the shameful, to someone who can be trusted and who will accept you in love as you are, is enormously helpful. (QF&P 12.01)

Although confession has never been a formalised practice among Friends, the value of a commitment to plain and truthful speaking is well-established. When the Spirit reveals our darkness to us, we need to be willing to express outwardly what we have found to be true inwardly. Public recognition of our personal and collective complicity with systems of violence, injustice, cruelty and destruction, helps us to face up to this predicament or ‘condition’, and to join with others in discerning the most appropriate way to respond. Knowing that we are loved and forgiven might also lead us to express gratitude and joy.

Reflection – Affluent people in Western societies have benefited greatly from the exploitation of other humans, animals and the natural world. These benefits are embedded in our daily lives, for example, through the things we buy, and what we eat and drink. Public recognition of the ways in which we are implicated in these forms of injustice represents a form of confession. It can help us to begin to make a break with destructive patterns of behaviour and seek alternative ways of living based on right relationship.

Query – In response to God’s revelation, love and forgiveness, are you willing to publicly acknowledge your complicity with systems of violence, injustice, cruelty and destruction, and join with others in discerning a healthier and more just way of being?

Repentance – choosing a different path

Yield yourself and all your outward concerns to God’s guidance so that you may find ‘the evil weakening in you and the good raised up’. (QF&P 1.02, 9)

Repentance involves a change of mind and a change of direction. When the Spirit reveals our darkness, we experience a change of mind (a new perception and a new understanding). When we respond to this by making an continuing commitment to following our inward guide, this implies a change in direction, as we begin to walk along a different path. It is not possible to do this in our own power. We all need the empowerment of the Spirit, along with the support and loving challenge of a community of discernment and mutual accountability.

Reflection – In all sorts of ways, humans are not in right relationship with God, with each other or with the rest of creation. Currently, we constitute a disruptive and destructive element within this complex system of interconnected and interdependent parts. Because of this, there is an urgent need for people to experience a change of mind, and to take a different path. The wisdom of the Quaker way suggests that this can be achieved when we turn to the divine Spirit within us and seek its guidance. There are no quick fixes, because the path of right relationship requires patience, persistence and humility. We must turn away from the spirit of greed, violence and power and attend instead to the Spirit of love, peace and truth. We will then understand that all the parts of creation are our neighbours and we should love them as we love ourselves.

Query – Are you willing to submit yourself to the guidance of your Inward Teacher? Are you truly open to the possibility of a change of mind? Are you willing to join with others in discerning the path of love, peace and truth which leads to right relationship?

Salvation – being saved from ourselves

The truth is that we are all hurt and need healing. There is a spiritual poverty among both rich and poor… If we are to be whole, we can no longer ignore the divisions created by idolising wealth, success and power. (QF&P 29.13)

The Quaker way has tended to see salvation more in terms of building the kingdom of God on earth than the promise of heaven as a spiritual dwelling place after death. This involves seeing salvation as a process of being saved from the implications of our own darkness and ignorance. The key dimension of this approach is bondage: we find ourselves in bondage to social, economic and political systems and ideologies that lead us into a destructive relationship with each other, with other animals and with the rest of the natural world. The consequent need therefore is for liberation, to be released from this bondage. The Spirit, acting as our Inward Teacher, has the capacity to break these bonds and release us from our dependence on the powers of death and destruction. This is an experience of liberation.

Reflection – What does salvation mean in the context of ecological crisis? If our vision of salvation is understood in terms of Gospel Order or right relationship, then individual salvation cannot be meaningfully separated from the well-being of the whole creation, understood as a complex system of interconnected and interdependent parts. If humanity currently functions as a disruptive and destructive element within creation, then salvation involves our liberation from systems, ideologies and motivations that lead to violence, hatred, cruelty, injustice, oppression and destructiveness. These fallen ways make life a ‘hell on earth’ for so many humans and other creatures, and destroy the very ecosystems that support life on earth.

Query – Are you aware of the impact that your lifestyle has on the well-being of other humans, other animals and the rest of the natural world? Are you willing to join with others in attending to the Spirit, as inward teacher, which has the power to liberate us from our bondage to systems of violence, injustice and destruction?

Testimony – doing the truth

The choice of the word ‘testimony’ is instructive. The testimonies are ways of behaving but are not ethical rules. They are matters of practice but imply doctrines. They refer to human society but are about God. Though often talked about they lack an authoritative formulation. (QF&P 20.18)

Quaker testimony is a matter of ‘doing the truth’, as we have experienced it while attending to our Inward Teacher. Testimony is a fruit of the Spirit, and the way we feel compelled to act in response to the revelations or ‘openings’ we have received. It involves a commitment to consistency, so that our words and actions are bound seamlessly together.

In her book Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics, Rachel Muers characterises Quaker testimony in a number of ways: “interruption and refusal” – a double-negative because it acts as a denial of a lie; “holy experiments” – in denying a lie, it also opens up space for new positive forms of practice or ‘holy experiments’. Testimony “communicates and provokes” – pursuing change by persuasion rather than coercion, communicating something and seeking to provoke a response in others; and is “risky and uncertain” because, being concerned with faithfulness more than effectiveness, its impact is uncertain and may well be unsuccessful and misunderstood.[2]

Reflection – From an ecological perspective, there are many lies that need to be denied. For example, the idea that humans can own the rest of the creation, the idea that we are somehow separate from it and in control of it and the idea that there should be no limits to our wants and desires. We need to seek the guidance of our Inward Teacher to discern how the Spirit is calling us to respond to these lies. What kinds of ‘holy experiments’ are emerging that might communicate a new and healing relationship with the rest of creation, and provoke others to respond too?

Query – What concerns is the Spirit prompting in you at this time? How might you seek to disengage from unhealthy and destructive ways of living and join with others in exploring ‘holy experiments’ that communicate new possibilities to those around you?

Gathered – a community of discernment

As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God’s love and forgiveness. (QF&P 1.02, 18)

Although convincement has to begin with the individual, it inevitably leads us into community where the Kingdom of Heaven gathers us and catches us all, as in a net. The Quaker community is a community of discernment which aspires to offer a glimpse of Gospel Order and right relationship within the world. Our life together as a discerning community should be, in microcosm, what we envision for the whole creation. Some of the many dimensions of our corporate life together include being: a community of revelation and healing – when we come together in worship and discernment, we seek to be a community of revelation, where the Spirit shows us our darkness and brings healing and new life in a way that goes beyond our individual practice; a community of diversity – when we come together in worship and discernment, we can benefit from a diversity of gifts, insights and experiences, that are not all available to us individually; and a community of experimentation – when we come together in worship and discernment, guided by divine leadings, we can experiment with new ways of living, relating and cooperating. These should move us in the direction of right relationship and Gospel Order.

Reflection – Our experience of living within a dynamic and evolving community can help us to appreciate our interdependence and interconnections. We can come to understand the value of each individual member, what contribution they bring, and how the whole can be something more than a simple sum of its parts. This can act as a helpful ecological model from which to learn. Although there is a danger that community comes to define itself in ways that are divisive and excludes others, at its best a community can offer a specific and situated vision of right relationship in action. This counter-cultural witness can reveal a powerful alternative vision of human life within a society that places excessive emphasis on individualism.

Query – In what ways does your Quaker community model right relationship based on diversity, cooperation and interdependence? How can we expand our conception of community so that it includes all living things?

Suffering – the Way of the Cross
Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? (QF&P 1.02, 4)  
Our responsibilities to God and our neighbour may involve us in taking unpopular stands. (QF&P 1.02, 38)
While the world remains caught between the way things are and the way they could be, and while the spirit of darkness holds sway, following God’s way can have extremely costly consequences. For, when we become morally independent of the dominant powers, systems and ideologies of this world, and offer a different vision, we can become a threat to them. If we stand firm in our witness, like Jesus, we may end up being 'crucified' by the world. This is the “Way of the Cross. Our founding mothers and fathers knew this only too well. It may be a deeply discomforting prospect, but the possibility of suffering could be unavoidable in the context of war, injustice and ecological crisis.

Reflection – There is a great deal of suffering within creation. Much of it seems unavoidable, but some of it is the direct result of human violence and greed. There is therefore no avoiding suffering from an ecological perspective. It may be that, in order to reduce the suffering created by human action, some people may feel called by a strong sense of compassion to suffer for the sake of liberation and right relationship. This is not an easy thing to face up to, and should not imply that suffering is inherently positive. However, the experience of our tradition suggests that costly witness and suffering can be associated with great joy, solidarity and a deep sense of divine accompaniment. The life and writings of James Nyaler provide a powerful example of this.[3] 

Query – Do you seek the guidance of the Spirit and the support of your community in order ‘to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy’ (QF&P 1.02, 10). How can we uphold each other so that we encounter costly witness with joy and steadfastness?

New creation – the Peaceable Kingdom

Friends, we are called into wholeness and into community, women and men alike, sharing the responsibilities God has given us, and assuming the leadership we are called to. We begin where we are, in our homes and meetings or churches, our work and communities, celebrating the realisation of the New Creation. (QF&P 23.40)

The vision of the "Peaceable Kingdom" has always inspired Friends. Bit by bit, this kingdom can become a reality on earth as the domination that darkness and evil has over us loses its power. When the seeds of greed, hatred, cruelty, violence and destruction are rooted out of the human heart, the institutions and ideologies that sustain this darkness and evil begin to lose their power, and the wholeness, well-being and justice of Gospel Order can take their place. We are not in control of this process, but we can play our part. Like physical exercise, we have to start somewhere and build up our stamina. Right relationship and Gospel Order are not static concepts. Instead, they represent dynamic, on-going processes.

Reflection – The vision of the peaceable kingdom is an ecological vision. Shalom or Gospel Order represents a state of harmony based on complex interdependence and right relationship. If all things are interconnected, then all actions based on compassion, healing and justice, however small, will have a positive impact. In the peaceable kingdom we take our place within this web of life; not above it, or in control of it, but as an essential part of it.

Query – Are you able to keep the vision of the peaceable kingdom in mind, even though it seems so different from the way the world currently functions? Can you discern the seeds of the kingdom in your day-to-day life and interactions?

Conclusion

We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life. Rejoice in the splendour of God’s continuing creation. (QF&P 1.02, 42)

The Quaker way points us to an inward source of guidance that can transform our lives and relationships. Inward spiritual growth leads to real change in the world. We are not entirely at the mercy of the systems of darkness that dominate the world as it currently is. This is not the end of the story. Our hope is that the vision of the peaceable kingdom can be realised in our lives and in the world. Creation is good; God loves and cares for it. We are one part of creation, along with other animals and the rest of the natural world. All things are interconnected and interdependent and need to be in right relationship. We can play our part in the process of reconciliation that leads to Gospel Order.


[1] For Quakers in the seventeenth century, the term ‘convincement’ described an experience of being convicted of sin. A key function of the Light was to show a person their darkness. This darkness needed to be dealt with before they could be brought to new life.

[2] Muers, Rachel (2015) Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics (SCM Press)

[3] See Keunning, Licia (2003-2009) The Works of James Nayler, four volumes (Quaker Heritage Press).



Saturday, 23 September 2017

Reflections on Jonah 3:10-4:11 (For Peace Sunday - 24th September 2017)



I wrote this reflection on Jonah as a contribution to the Fellowship of Reconciliation's resources for Peace Sunday 2017.

Jonah 3:10-4:11 (NRSV)


10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

 

Jonah’s Anger

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush,[a] and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’

 

Jonah Is Reproved

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ 10 Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

Reflection

God calls Jonah to give a prophetic message to violent empire – The wickedness of Nineveh, as the capital of the Assyrian Empire, was its violence and injustice. Israel, and therefore Jonah, regarded the Assyrian Empire as an evil and brutal enemy. Violence and injustice brings its own destruction. It does not require God’s intervention (see Matt. 26:52), whereas repentance from violence and injustice leads to an abundant life. God asks Jonah to call the people of Nineveh to repent of their evil ways and, although he tries to avoid such a difficult and dangerous job, in the end he is successful.

God reveals divine Justice as unconditional love and forgiveness – God’s generous love and forgiveness extends to all people, even those we regard as unworthy or evil (see Ps. 145:7-8 and Matt. 20:1-16). This is what makes God perfect (see Matt. 5:43-48). What does this story tell us about God’s justice? Is it characterised by violent condemnation and punishment or by nonviolent mercy and forgiveness? Is God merely a tribal deity, only concerned about ‘us’, or is God the loving and nonviolent parent of all people and all creation?

Jonah shows us that we find God’s merciful justice hard to accept – As humans, we tend to desire revenge and punishment, rather than mercy and forgiveness. We happily accept God’s love and forgiveness for ourselves but recoil when such love and forgiveness is shown to ‘undeserving’ others. If, like Jonah and Israel, we have benefited from God’s mercy and care (see Jonah 1:17, 2:10 and 4:6, Exodus 16:2-15), should we not respond by offering such mercy and care to others, even those we regard as unworthy or evil? Like Jonah, Jesus was called to bring God’s call for repentance to the very heart of a violent and unjust empire. Unlike Jonah, however, Jesus consistently revealed the nature of God’s justice as unconditional love and forgiveness (see Luke 23:34).

In Summary – The book of Jonah characterises human brokenness in terms of violence, hatred and a lack of mercy – justice understood as violent retribution. The solution to this problem is God’s unconditional love and mercy – justice understood as nonviolent and restorative. This kind of justice is revealed most clearly in the way of Jesus. When we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and expect God to forgive and bless ‘us’ while condemning and destroying ‘them’, we perpetuate the very spirit of evil that makes life a hell on earth for so many people. Jonah was spectacularly successful as a prophet, but he simply couldn’t accept the nonviolent and merciful nature of God’s justice.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Book Review - 'Transnational Networks and Cross-Religious Exchange in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds: Sabbatai Sevi and the Lost Tribes of Israel' by Brandon Marriott

This review was first published in Quaker Studies (Volume 21, Issue 2, 2016)


In this detailed and interesting book, Brandon Marriott attempts to trace the transmission of news and rumours across Europe, the Levant and the Americas between 1648 and 1666 in the context of heightened Jewish messianic and Christian apocalyptic expectations. He shows how these stories and rumours were often transformed as they were transmitted and how their reception and interpretation differed in specific geographical locations and religious communities. Marriott notes that ‘historians know a good deal about the global flow of trade, but are just beginning to consider the global circulation of information’ (p.134). His work seeks to contribute to this emerging research and ‘responds to the calls by historians for the study of history from a larger perspective’ (p.8). The book is written in a dense but accessible style and is primarily addressed to an academic audience. It will be of particular interest to scholars of history, religious ideas, interfaith relations and print culture within the early modern period. The book includes an introduction and conclusion, four main chapters, one of which focuses explicitly on a Quaker theme, a concise index, an extensive bibliography of archival, primary and secondary sources, and a helpful parallel timeline covering each of the main regions considered (the Americas, Iberia and Italy, Northern Europe and the Levant). The four central chapters of the book each deal with a specific case study. Chapter one explores claims emerging in the late 1640s that the Lost Tribes of Israel had been discovered hidden in the Jungles of South America. Chapter two focuses on the story which circulated in the late 1650s about the ‘Quaker messiah’ James Nayler. Chapter three considers the rumour that spread widely during the mid-1660s that Mecca had been sacked by the Lost Tribes of Israel. Finally, chapter four addresses the story of Sabbatai Sevi, a Sephardic rabbi living in the Ottoman Empire who claimed to be the Jewish messiah but later converted to Islam.

Marriott’s careful plotting of information transmission during this period reveals a number of important insights. He notes how a vigorous print culture, the emergence of a news industry and the development of global mercantile and scientific networks enabled a major expansion of the production, transmission and circulation of information. Indeed, this seems to have resulted in a bewildering experience of information overload, where a deluge of news and rumours often proved disorientating for its recipients. The circulation of misinformation was particularly pervasive at this time and could link individuals and groups across national, religious and continental divides. This included ‘the intertwining of Jewish, Christian and Islamic eschatological beliefs against the background of an increasingly global exchange of news and rumours’ (p.132). However, direction of travel and influence were not symmetrical. Marriott concludes that, while news from the Ottoman Empire spread across Europe, news from Europe and the Americas was less likely to travel in the other direction. Similarly, he concludes that events in the Jewish world often had a strong impact on Christian communities, whereas Jews appeared to have been relatively unaffected by news coming from the Christian world. In addition, the way news was received and interpreted depended to a large degree on the characteristics of local religious cultures. Amsterdam was a place of religious toleration, and so information could be discussed openly by Jews and Christians and such cross-religious interactions promoted millenarian and messianic ideas. In Italy, on the other hand, such information was interpreted quite differently because Italian Catholicism was not inclined to apocalyptic speculation. In Germany, instead of generating excitement, messianic Jewish rumours provoked great fear, due to the spectre of the ‘Red Jews’ within German culture, who were regarded as an epochal threat to Christendom.

A key benefit of conducting history from a larger perspective is that it enables us to see connections and trends that are not necessarily discernible at the micro-level. However, such a big picture perspective can also mean that the nuances and complexities of a particular situation are neglected. Marriot’s treatment of the James Nayler story reveal this limitation. He helpfully demonstrates how the story spread more widely within Europe and the Americas than had been previously thought. However, he tends to take the version of events that was formulated and circulated by anti-Quaker sources at face value. Indeed, he suggests that the messianic claim made in Bristol in 1656 may well have been prompted by the impact of Rosicrucian and Fifth Monarchist ideas on Nayler and his followers. His justification for this claim is the connection that existed between Martha Symonds, one of Nayler’s followers, and Giles Calvert, who published tracts by these groups. This proposition fails to take account of a number of important factors. Firstly, it under-estimates the fiercely sectarian nature of radical religion in the 1650s. Quakers defined themselves very clearly over and against such groups. Secondly, it disregards the fact that Calvert was the principal publisher of tracts by a whole range of radical religious groups, including those of Friends. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it ignores a crucial feature of early Quaker theology: the belief that Christ had returned in Spirit, was available to all, and would be revealed in anyone who turned to his inward teaching and transformative power. Friends proclaimed that Christ was now appearing in his people and was mobilising them in the Lamb’s War. The idea of an individual messianic claim was therefore inconsistent with the early Quaker witness. That said, such a detailed analysis of one particular event is beyond the scope and purpose of Marriott’s research. For Quaker historians and theologians, this work offers a valuable insight into the complex cultural and religious context in which early Quaker apocalypticism developed. In particular, it should prompt further research into the cross-religious exchange that took place between Quakers and Jews in the seventeenth century.

Brandon Marriott, Transnational Networks and Cross-Religious Exchange in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds: Sabbatai Sevi and the Lost Tribes of Israel (Farham: Ashgate, 2015), pp.xiii +167. ISBN 9781472435842. Hardback, £65.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Book Review - 'Treasury of Blessings: The Servants of Christ the King, 1943-2014' by Brian Bridge

This review was first published in The Friend in 2016.


Brian Bridge, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and an attender at Epping Local Meeting, has written a fascinating history of an Anglican group with strong Quaker connections and affinities. The Servants of Christ the King (SCK) was formed in England during the Second World War, and adopted a practice of waiting on God in silence.

SCK was founded in 1943 as a ‘fellowship of fellowships’ with groups around the English-speaking world. The original vision was of an Anglican lay order with an evangelising focus, acting in obedience to local Anglican churches and living by a strict rule of devotion and fellowship. SCK did not become an Order, and was known instead as a ‘movement’. The primary unit of SCK was a company of between four and twenty people. There were two types of company: parochial, based in local congregations with a focus on the parish; and vocational, based in the world of work.

Bridge argues that “the basis of SCK is, put simply, to wait on God together in whatever situation a group finds itself and to obey the divine imperative if and when that was discerned” (p.viii). A company would find out what it had to do by waiting upon God in silence. In this process, careful discernment was recognised to be an essential discipline, because not every spirit is of God. “By putting the practice of waiting on God at the very centre, SCK recognised that any group which wishes to be obedient to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit must be prepared to let go of its presuppositions and to give its first attention to learning to be people whom God can guide” (p.13). In the SCK movement, small autonomous companies met to wait on God based on a conviction that there is an indivisible bond between contemplation and action. The method involved a cycle of prayer and discussion consisting of silent prayer, controlled discussion, free discussion, further silent prayer, further discussion, the testing of unanimity, the making a record and the offering of the record. Unanimous decisions were to be binding on all members of the company. However, a priest-advisor had the ultimate power of veto, indicating the movement’s obedience to the wider Anglican Church.

The founders of SCK hoped that it would reach people whom the English parish system had been unable to touch. This suggests that SCK was, at least in part, a response to the apparent decline of Christendom; “its purpose would be to recruit a sufficiency of believers for the building of a Christian England” (p.3).  The focus on companies indicated a desire to foster deep fellowship between people within an increasingly individualist culture. As we have already noted, SCK sought to bind together contemplation and action. The SCK approach aimed to encourage the ‘naturally contemplative’ to act after contemplation and the ‘naturally activist’ to practice contemplate before acting. Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, who was the Warden of SCK during the 1970s, argued that “Waiting on God does not exist only for our own spiritual advancement but is designed to explode into action” (p.133).

The SCK movement started out with much hope and enthusiasm. At the founding conference in January 1943, the practice of waiting on God in silence galvanised and gave direction to the group. By 1944, there were forty active SCK companies. In July 1953, founding member Roger Lloyd published An Adventure in Discipleship: The Servants of Christ the King, which was an important and influential exposition of the SCK way. However, although SCK companies flourished in parishes, this was not replicated in other areas, and by 1959 there were still fewer than one hundred and twenty active companies in Britain, with about one thousand members. During the 1960s, the Warden, Olive Parker, urged greater public promotion of SCK, and the movement became more ecumenical in outlook. However, it wasn’t until 1996 that a non-Anglican was appointed as Warden. During the 1970s, Gonville ffrench-Beytach attempted to expand SCK by drawing inspiration from the emerging charismatic movement and renewed interest in the mysticism of the Eastern Church. However, although it had been a youthful movement in the early days, by the 1970s, SCK’s membership was aging. In 2005, SCK appointed its last Warden, Wendy Robinson, and by 2013, the organisation had no treasurer and the average age of its remaining office-holders was over eighty. Robinson arranged for Rowan Williams to speak at the final SCK conference in 2014, but sadly died before this could happen. It is clear that the evangelical objectives of the SCK founders’ vision had not been realised.

Although Bridge asserts that the Quaker influence on SCK was “indirect and had already been filtered and adapted to an Anglican understanding of church and sacraments before SCK began” (p.59), many interesting similarities and interconnections can be observed, the most obvious being that both groups have given a central place to waiting on God in silence as a practice of corporate discernment. This is also linked to a shared conviction that contemplation leads to divine guidance, spiritual empowerment and action in the world, and that no decision should be taken without unity or unanimity. The concept of ‘concern’ has been important to both groups. However, while Friends understand concern as an individual calling, in SCK, it was seen in terms of a whole-company vocation. In addition to the similarities, the involvement of a number of individuals further reveals the connections. Edmund Morgan, who was later Bishop of Southampton and Truro, and one of the founders of SCK, met Quakers at Woodbrooke when he was the Warden of the College of the Ascension in Selly Oak, Birmingham. In 1934 he brought together a small group of college staff to meet for shared worship, discernment and decision-making using the Quaker method. Over the years, a number of SCK Wardens have had Quaker connections. Robin Bennett was appointed as Warden in 1984. He was an Anglican Priest, but became a Quaker during his term of office. Two other Wardens, Brian Bridge (appointed in 1996) and Wendy Robinson (appointed in 2005) had both been Friends and later joined the Russian Orthodox Church.

The SCK story highlights a range of issues which are relevant to Quakers and the wider Christian church. These include the dynamic tension between individual spiritual freedom and accountability to the wider community, between the autonomy of individual groups and loyalty to a larger corporate body, between spiritual openness and pre-determined purposes and between contemplation and activism. In addition, the experience of SCK raises a key question about inclusivity. Can this kind of discipline include everyone or is it only suitable for those with a special vocation? Similarly, is this sort of practice only meaningful within a religious context, or can it be applied within other settings? Finally, this history of SCK makes a valuable contribution to the on-going story of small religious groups who feel called to a dedicated practice of prayer and discipleship. This includes, amongst others, the monastic orders, Anabaptist congregations, Quaker meetings and Methodist classes and bands. I recommend this book which is published as a quality hardback, sold at a paperback price.

Bridge, Brian (2016) Treasury of Blessings: The Servants of Christ the King, 1943-2014 (York Publishing Services), £10.00.