Helen Gould, New South Wales Regional Meeting.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Quakers and Interfaith is that we have been doing it for so long, from the very beginning of our particular expression of faith. Until less than 100 years ago, almost all other forms of Christianity (and we are Christian, or post-Christian) were exclusive: other religious traditions may have some value but there were ways in which We Christians were Right and “They” were Wrong (and might go to Hell).
So Quakers have been distinctive (though only among Christian faiths) in always being inclusive. This is expressed in John 1:9 “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (NRSV) but there is a deeper authority for it. George Fox expressed this well when he preached in Ulverston Church, “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?” (QFP (UK) 19.07).
So, in the 1650’s, a servant, Mary Fisher, was empowered to travel to preach to the Sultan of Turkey, and she later said of this visit, “Now… have I borne my testimony for the Lord before the king unto whom I was sent, and he was very noble unto me… They are more near Truth than many nations..” (QFP (UK) 19.27).
In 1763 in Pennsylvania, John Woolman wrote, “Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life, and the Spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth among them…” (QFP (UK) 27.02).
How are we Quakers doing, here in Australia? During World War 2 Friends were very active in helping the “enemy aliens”, mostly German Jews, who were shipped to Australia on the Dunera. Wahroonga Meeting was largely founded by refugees of German and Jewish descent, and Monika Smith, a child of the Meeting in the early days, is prominent among those who faithfully continue the work on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers. Since they are mostly not Christian, work on their behalf interweaves with Interfaith work, both in Melbourne which has a very lively Interfaith ‘scene’, and elsewhere. Moreover, some of us actively learn from and practice other religious traditions: Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Aboriginal spirituality and more.
As Woolman intimated, inclusiveness is not enough: we must be willing to learn from others and to change, to become different from how we now are in the world. That is painful. Sometimes Quakers have been enabled to do this, individually and corporately, sometimes (being human) we have lagged behind our guide. This may have happened, for example, in the 1930s when Sydney RM rejected Marie Byles’ application for membership because she was Buddhist.
I sometimes attend Catholic, Uniting Church and Anglican events, and I sometimes hear people in those churches yearning for a more mystical, experiential practice, yet uneasy lest it intensify the individualism that might pull community apart. We Quakers are very fortunate. Long before the mainstream churches, we have developed some wonderful practices for discernment and transformation. We have Meeting for Worship and Meetings for Worship for business. Individual practices are tempered by corporate disciplines. We have practices for walking in the Light, ways that teach us so that what and how we speak is inwardly from God.
Our practice of corporately testing matters for discernment in our Meetings for Worship for Business, may slow us down in responding to the light, yet it also ensures that we remain a worshipping community.