Rosemary Longhurst, West Australia Regional Meeting
Rosemary has prepared a booklet covering the Quaker Testimonies – the ‘Spices’ – Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Sustainability.
The booklet’s introduction, a short overview of the Testimonies, and the conclusion have been copied into this article. Copies of the whole booklet that include an exploration of each of the Testimonies will be available at Yearly Meeting. It can also be obtained for personal use or by Worshipping Groups or Local Meetings by emailing Rosemary at firstname.lastname@example.org .
There seems to be a gap in Quaker literature about a core aspect of what it means to identify as a Quaker. I’ve looked for accessible writings for Quakers and non-Quakers to find out what we mean by having Testimonies rather than a creed and found little currently available. There is some serious coverage in longer book-length form, yet I haven’t found anything lighter in a shorter stand-alone form. I’ve often thought of writing something about my own lived experience with the Quaker Testimonies to fill this gap, yet the prospect has seemed too daunting. I felt readers would expect spiritual depth and wise words beyond my capacity to provide.
Recently, however, I’ve found that others have enjoyed and responded to some of my short reflective “thought-pieces” which can be as superficial or as deep as the Spirit takes me. This collection of “thought-pieces” is a similar offering, intended to start a process of reflection for you, dear reader. Any spiritual deepening which may arise is your own work!
I offer a brief explanation of what the Testimonies are, then a personal reflection on each of six core Testimonies preceded by relevant extracts from the Australian version of Advices and Queries (published by Australia Yearly Meeting, 2003). I end with a brief Conclusion which recognises that the principles involved rarely apply in isolation for real-life situations so living the Testimonies is always a work in progress.
Necessarily incomplete, these thoughts are lacy, full of holes for you to fill with your own meaning.
What are the Testimonies?
Over more than 350 years of Quaker history, Friends have worried less about beliefs and creeds than about how we live “in the Spirit”. Living the Testimonies is in essence an attempt to bear witness, to see true and communicate the truth that is revealed as best we can in the dusty, compromised complexity of living. They are aids to being and doing, open to the leadings of the Spirit, never a set form of words. We aim to “let our lives speak”, always alive to continuous revelation as our practices evolve and adapt to changing needs,
Testimonies have arisen in many forms as a means of bearing witness to the role of Spirit in everyday life. The language we use and the society in which we have our being has changed significantly over the centuries, and so have the Testimonies acknowledged by Friends. Behaviours which were once rich with meaning have fallen away as social norms have changed and different responses become critical for each new age. An early refusal of “hat honour” is an example: in 17th century Britain it was standard for men to doff their hat to social superiors, but Friends recognised the equality of all so invited censure or worse by keeping their hat firmly in place during all social interactions. It was seen as a questioning of authority which troubled establishment figures considerably, but today it would have no meaning. Hats aren’t worn much and long ago ceased to be a focus of social propriety, so it’s no longer a way we can bear witness to spiritual values. The commitment to Equality remains a key principle, but we express this in different ways which are seen to be meaningful in the 21st century – perhaps we might petition for human rights, support refugees or wave a rainbow flag.
Over time, six key principles have been refined which appear to be commonly accepted in all Quaker traditions. There are others which have particular relevance to specific times and places, yet these six seem to me to form a core guide for living a Spirit-led life in an increasingly globalised society. In the un-programmed tradition where I belong there has long been an acronym in use as a handy reminder – SPICE, representing Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality. Recently we have added a commitment to our planet in the face of environmental destruction, sometimes referred to as a Testimony to the Environment, to Conservation or to Nature. I prefer to use the term Stewardship or better, Sustainability as this seems to me a wider commitment, encompassing today’s pressing environmental concerns and more besides.
The acronym SPICES therefore stands for
These are the contemporary Testimonies which I will consider in my reflections. I‘ll tackle each in turn to consider what they mean for me in my efforts to live a life “in the Spirit”.
Writing about each of the Testimonies separately I’ve become aware of some consistencies in my approach to bearing witness in each of these contexts. I’ve also been uncomfortably aware of inconsistencies.
Some of these inconsistencies arise because I haven’t thought things through, and these can be adjusted easily enough on the whole. Others arise from the sheer complexity of living, and these are harder to deal with.
The Testimonies are not readily separable in everyday life. They overlap, get muddled and may often be in conflict. I suppose that what I’ve been trying to find in my reflections is some sort of underlying approach which might help me to work through the more knotty problems I encounter. There’s certainly no “one size fits all” ready reckoner to be had, and that’s true for every kind of ethical dilemma.
I might make a stand for Integrity, for instance, and find that it can’t be done without challenging my commitment to Community or to Peace. Sometimes an attempt to be fair and assert Equality will prevent any undertaking to resolve things simply. Simplicity may present attractive solutions which are not sustainable, environmentally or otherwise. And so it goes, because being human means being challenged.
I think of these six Testimonies as a kind of handy tool-box. I can reach in and find something which might serve to unlock or ease a tricky situation. Sometimes a single tool will help, more often I’ll need to try a bit of this and a bit of that in order to make headway. That’s fine as long as the tools work together, each building on progress made with another. But sometimes progress in one direction cancels out progress in another, then I’m in trouble.
From these brief reflections I think I can see that it doesn’t matter too much about getting it wrong sometimes, because perfection is impossible. In our Meetings for Worship for Business where we do our best to discern a way forward, it will soon become apparent if our discernment has led us awry and then we can reconsider with new information – it doesn’t mean the original discernment was meaningless, just that we didn’t take something into account and maybe rushed to a decision. A new situation presents itself and we have an opportunity to refine and improve our decision-making. It’s much the same at the individual level, I’d say. Living well is always a work in progress!
Quaker discernment in our business dealings has the huge advantage of working as a group, however. Any tendency to bias is likely to be corrected and assumptions can be challenged. “Group think” can happen, of course, where shared assumptions go unchallenged, and highly original ideas might be quashed by adherence to tradition, but mostly the contribution of many ideas and approaches has served us well through our long history and helped us survive and thrive when other faith groups have come and gone. It’s not just the pooling of information and suggestions – that happens in non-Quaker contexts too – it’s more the shared waiting where we let go of any preconceptions and open ourselves to being led. I suspect that this open waiting for the best way forward is the key factor for coming up with workable solutions to suit all involved. It’s best done collectively, yet I can practise it alone as well.
So often I feel pressured to “DO something” about a difficult situation when I don’t have all the information or emotions act like blinkers. A bit of calm and reverent waiting for alternatives to ‘bubble up’ is bound to be an improvement on rushed action.
What’s more, I can ask others for help. I don’t have to do everything alone – and that’s a revelation for me! Over 350 years Friends have evolved tried and tested processes for helping people with life decisions but they aren’t always apparent to newer Friends and Attenders. (Ask more seasoned Friends about Meetings for Clearness, Meetings for Healing, dispute mediation, support groups and other resources)
Most of all, though, I’ve recognised that bearing witness in small things gradually builds up moral muscle for dealing with bigger situations. The Testimonies help us to bear witness like this, building habitual responses to make each decision easier.
Well, commitment to the Testimonies has helped me, and I’ve every reason to suppose it can help you!
I haven’t reached any ideal moral plane, but I’m on a journey, struggling to be the best me I can be and – I hope – learning from my mistakes as I go.