God, Words and Us (review)

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God, Words and Us:
Quakers in Conversation About Religious Difference
Edited by Helen Rowlands
Reviewed by Rick Ells

Words come easily, but don’t always help build connections among people. Labels like “Christian,” “atheist,” or “nontheist” can actually block understanding. God, Words and Us explores a Quaker approach to getting past “words as obstacles” and a process for building connections.

In 2014, Britain Yearly Meeting began considering a revision of its book of Quaker Faith and Practice (http://qfp.quaker.org.uk). In addition to collecting ideas through other channels, the yearly meeting set up a Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group (RPG) to engage Quakers in Britain “in learning, mutual exploration and growth” to contribute to the revision. The result was this interesting book.

Besides its collection of articulate statements of personal spiritual life, the book describes a method for sharing among members of a group with diverse experiences. It also discusses and offers suggestions of ways that the greater Quaker community could become more inclusive.

The RPG process had two stages, an online forum followed by a weekend retreat. During the retreat, participants were encouraged to tell their own stories in their own words about how they came to Quakerism. The stories varied widely, creating a shared understanding in the group that each individual was following their own unique path to the Light.

Friends recognized that, despite their variety of viewpoints, their practices of worship were quite similar. “British Quakers share a unity of practice in worship (centering down, stilling, expectant waiting) even when we hold different views about the nature of God,” said one. That diversity was recognized as a gift to the Quaker community.

In their sharing, Friends found that conventional characterizations of the Quaker community often fell short. For example, the idea that Quaker community contains a “spectrum of beliefs” suggests that the endpoints in the spectrum are widely separated from each other, which was not Friends’ actual experience.

Rather than attempting to describe Quakerism through fixed images, Friends were more inclined to describe dynamic processes. For example, one Friend said, “Our Quaker practice is not about confirming a hypothesis but [about] walking a Way.” Another stated that a “sincere commitment to personal growth and a respectful attitude to others and the environment were the important principles on which to build my life.” Yet another said, “Where diverse communities have a commitment to love and trust, brave and challenging things can be said to each other.”

Overall, God, Words and Us offers this advice: “We hope that Friends can be enabled to focus on integrity, sincerity and authenticity rather than particular belief claims, and on attitudes and approaches rather than polarizing or binary frameworks.” This book provides a rich collection of ways that Friends can use words to explore their differences without getting at cross-purposes with each other. ~~~

Rick Ells is a member of University Friends Meeting in Seattle, WA (NPYM).