Each one of us is responsible for our own beliefs. No book, no priest, no minister, is going to tell us what we are to believe. As Quakers we each accept the responsibility to be alert to God’s will for us; we accept the responsibility to identify ultimate spiritual reality as we may each understand it. Truth, for each of us, means what we may each have found to be true. My truth is not necessarily yours. And our truth is not fixed for any of us: what is true for me today I may have to re-think tomorrow.
Step inside a Quaker meeting house and look around. Significantly, you won’t see rows of chairs or pews all facing towards the front. The chairs will probably be in a rectangle or a loose circle or C shape, in rows one behind another, and all facing towards the centre, where there will be a table with one or two books on it and maybe some flowers. This arrangement of seating is what we need for the meetings that we hold for worship and for business: it reflects our belief in equality and shared responsibility.
Ask any Friend, ‘What do Quakers believe about such and such?’ and their first words will probably be something like, ‘It seems to me...’ or, ‘Well, in my view...’ One of our most treasured possessions is the understanding that truth is not to be found in a written code. Some would see this approach as a formula for organisational chaos: ‘You’ll never agree to get anything done.’ But the proof of our pudding is in the history books and out there in the world, continuing right up to the present day: a remarkable and unique series of contributions and achievements, of profound social and international benefit. Our unity and our strength come from the understanding that firstly God does not want to impose a rigid set of rules on us all, and secondly at least as important as What shall I believe? is How shall I live? We function as a body because we want to worship together, pursue our spiritual journey together, and join together to do God’s work. For this we look to the Quaker testimonies of peace, equality, truth and simplicity: these are an expression of our spirituality in action and an alternative vision of humanity and society..
We have a book, Quaker Faith and Practice. This is a selection of pieces and extracts written by Quakers and by Quaker meetings or committees, from the beginnings some 360 years ago up to the present. It is revised once in every generation or so. In over 600 pages it offers hundreds of accounts of Quaker spiritual experience, alongside the practicalities of the administration of the Religious Society of Friends. On spiritual matters it offers help, but it makes no formal pronouncements: that is not how Quakerism works.
So various sources offer guidance for our lives. There may be God’s intimations, sensed whether we are on our own or sitting in the silence of the meeting for worship or listening to what someone else feels moved to say during this meeting; we may hear the contributions of other Quakers in a conversation or a formal discussion (remember, on these occasions nobody makes any formal statement of doctrine); we may read records of personal experience, in Quaker Faith and Practice and other books, that strike a chord or shed new light.
Our range of Quaker beliefs tend to be widely shared among our members. (There is more about them in later sections.) But the beliefs are not a test for membership. When someone applies to become a member, what we are basically looking for is some understanding of what they will be taking on, and the expectation that the company of Friends may help them in their spiritual development. (The names Quaker and Friend are used interchangeably.)
The first Quakers were Christians who rejected much of what they were offered by the Christian Church. Today, while the great proportion of Quakers are Christian, other faith backgrounds are also represented among our membership. Britain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, to use the full name, is a part of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.