By Ian Hughes, New South Wales Regional Meeting
The Australian Friend is changing. Is this the movement of the Spirit?
In the December 2010 issue of The Australian Friend, Susan Addison wrote that ’writing from a spiritual base’ was a phrase the editors stumbled over. ‘We couldn’t quite pin down what that meant.’ She went on to wonder how we might define the kind of writing that appears in The Australian Friend, and commented that no specific brief beyond suggested word counts has ever been developed for contributors.
Some contemporary friends have difficulty with our use of the word ‘spirit’, especially if spelled with an upper case ‘S’. In responding to the challenge from
George Fox ‘What canst thou say?’ I present one view of how we might understand the movement of the spirit in The Australian Friend.
Australian Quakers follow liberal unprogrammed Christian tradition inherited from London (now Britain) Yearly Meeting and over recent years increasing numbers have voiced nontheist views and difficulty with ideas of the supernatural.
As Catherine Deveny wrote after she visited Melbourne Friends:
You don’t even have to believe in God to be a Quaker. You don’t even need to be a Quaker to be a Quaker. You can sign up and become a member, or just be an ‘attender’’ (Deveny, 2009).
At the same time we are increasingly experiencing programmed and evangelical
Quaker traditions through migration and closer ties with Quaker churches in Asia
and the Pacific.
Friend Yoland Wadsworth recently published a book about human inquiry for living systems (Wadsworth, 2010). We can think of Australian Quakers as a living system which grows, develops, adapts and changes over time. There is something in every living system, not just at the heart or soul, but in every part of a living system,
which makes it alive; something which is the difference between alive and dead.
Biological scientists tell us that the genetic instruction sets called genomes are
the code for life, and recent experiments successfully built new functioning bacteria, which one scientist described as the first species to have a web site in its genetic code (Biello, 2010). At the same time, the Catholic Encyclopaedia currently states that ‘for the Christian and the Theist … life must in the first instance have been due to the intervention of a living First Cause’ (Maher, 1910).
Like the community as a whole, Quakers have a range of views about what we mean by life. We are able to use the word ‘spirit’ to signify or point to that which gives us life, even though we may understand this in quite divergent ways. For us, the spirit is our life force, the energy which gives us strength and power to act, the living spirit which enlivens us.
In his four-volume masterpiece The Nature of Order architect Christopher Alexander refers to centres in living systems.
‘A center (or node) is a spot of living beauty in the system, a numinous element. When you move around the system as it is today, these things strike you with their life, their energy, which radiates out beyond them, and they beg to be preserved.’ (Alexander, 2002-2005).
Living centres in the landscape are identified by an empirical test: a place within the area is identified as ‘living’ when two or three people agree that to them it seems a spot with exceptional life (Alexander et al, 2006). These centres are not only part of landscapes, but of all systems inhabited by humans, including religious communities.
A Quaker gathered meeting is an example of a living centre, and the same test has been applied, though the source is a little older, ‘for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18:20). Neither Jesus nor Alexander says that this living, gathered experience can only happen in a Quaker Meeting for Worship. We might be gathered to work together, to share a meal, or be gathered in living out our testimonies, and gathered with people who are not Quakers.
When two or three experience a location in a system as a living centre, this indicates the presence of the spirit which gives life. The empirical test is not that everyone should experience the spirit, nor that any individual can assert it. The test is an experience shared by two or three. The living centre, the gathered meeting may be a Local, Regional or Yearly Quaker Meeting, or it may be in informal Quaker communities, or outside of Quakerism. We hope to be open to recognise and nurture the movement of the spirit in these living centres wherever they sprout.
Interaction and communication between living centres is important if they are to flourish, and our media of communication have evolved. From 1656 Epistles were carried, often on foot, between Quaker Meetings to encourage their growth in the spirit. In 1765 Penny Post was introduced to many English towns and cities. The Friend began publication in Britain in 1843 and The Australian Friend in 1887. Before the end of the Twentieth Century it was usual to send email Epistles to nurture distant Quaker Meetings. We are now in a process of transition towards a new way to deliver The Australian Friend. In my mind the purpose, to nurture the growth of the spirit in Quaker Meetings and other centres, has not changed.
Alexander, C. (2002-2005). The Nature of Order: An essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe (4 vols) Berkeley: Center for Environmental Structure.
Alexander, C., Alexander, M. M., Schmidt, R., Littlestone, N., Behrman, B., & Davis, H. (2006). Building Living Neighborhoods. Retrieved 15 May, 2011, from http://www.livingneighborhoods.org/ht-0/bln-exp.htm
Biello, D. (2010, 20 May). Man-made genetic instructions yield living cells for the first time. Scientific American, 28. Retrieved May 15, 2011 from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=synthetic-genome-cell
Deveny, C. (2009, 5 August). Good friends, there’s more spirit in a quake than a shake. The Age. Retrieved May 15, 2011 from: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/good-friends-theres-more-spirit-in-a-quake-than-a-shake-20090804-e8iq.html
Maher, M. (1910). Life. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 15, 2011 from: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09238c.htm
Wadsworth, Y. (2010). Building in Research and Evaluation: Human Inquiry for Living Systems. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.