Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Quakers in Transition

This week's posting is a Guest Post from Craig Barnett. Craig is involved with Transition Sheffield, and is national co-ordinator of the City of Sanctuary movement. This post is an extract from Craig's entry to The Friends Quarterly essay competition on ‘The Future of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain’. The full essay is available online.

Over coming decades most British Quakers will be forced to come to terms with a long-term decline in our standard of living, social prestige and life choices, which will profoundly alter the context of our daily life. This will also create new spiritual needs and priorities, as Friends struggle to come to terms with drastic reversals in their lives, and in the apparent failure of our society to deliver on its promises of continuous social and technological ‘progress’.

British Quakers are among those groups that will be especially vulnerable to the social changes of the era of ‘energy descent’.  Quakers of working age are disproportionately employed in public sector occupations such as teaching, social work and higher education, that are most vulnerable to cuts in public spending resulting from declining revenues. Relatively few British Quakers are currently employed in areas that are likely to see an increase in numbers and status; such as agriculture, engineering, skilled trades and policing, as the economy is re-geared towards core priorities of food and energy security, economic localisation and domestic security.

There are already signs of a re-ordering of political priorities away from higher education and social welfare, as the main parties have converged on a programme of deep public spending cuts, due to the crippling cost of the recent bank bailouts. As resources available to all governments become ever-more constrained by a shrinking economy, these cuts will affect growing numbers of public service employees.

Prolonged economic recession will also threaten those dependent on retirement pensions, as the value of invested assets is affected by falling share prices and the potential collapse of vulnerable financial institutions.

A loss of faith in the ideal of progress that has provided a dominant narrative for our civilisation for over two centuries, will be a profoundly disorientating experience for many. It will challenge British Friends to seek a basis for ‘hope’ that is not grounded in the prospect of inevitable improvements in social conditions. To what can we turn if it is no longer possible to believe that the future will always be ‘better’ than the present? This crisis may encourage us to explore alternative perspectives on time and history, which have been superseded by the modern narrative of progress.

Christianity drew from its Jewish origins a concept of historical time as a period between the fall from original innocence, and the expected redemption by the historical intervention of God. Early Quakers, however, often claimed that this period of waiting for the final intervention of God was at an end, sinceChrist has come to teach His people Himself. They believed that they participated in the ‘end of history’ when God was gathering the whole world to fulfil the prophecies of scripture, as all people would be united by the immediate guidance of the Spirit.

As Quakers moved from being a prophetic popular movement to a conservative denomination, this view of time proved difficult to sustain. Eventually their hope ceased to be located in the intervention of God in human history, and was removed to the secular future of social progress.

But the ancient perspective of ‘prophetic time’ can perhaps remind us that hope does not need to rely on optimism. There are historical periods when it is foolish or impossible to be ‘optimistic’, but hope is always possible, if it is rooted in faith in a God who is able to act through human lives in any situation to liberate and transform. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman describes the prophetic view of time in this way:
"Ancient Israel’s prophets held to a vision of an alternative world in season and out of season because they understood that the new alternative to come was not to be derived from present circumstances. Their hope was not grounded in their sense that things are going to get better, nor in the notion that things were evolving in a desired direction. Their hope was independent of the present, because the new world would be a gift from God, who acts in unqualified freedom.”   (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978).
Another important aspect of Quakerism that is likely to have a new relevance during a prolonged period of economic decline and diminishing material security, is the benefit of belonging to a community of mutual aid. This was an extremely important aspect of Quaker Meetings (as of other churches and secular societies) in the period before the Welfare State. As many Quakers begin to experience employment insecurity and falling incomes, due to declining public expenditure on social welfare and education, our Meetings will increasingly be needed for mutual support.

There are great benefits to belonging to a community of mutual aid in a period of severe economic insecurity. Belonging to a Quaker Meeting will provide an important 'safety net' for many people experiencing a rapid dislocation in their work and personal lives. Sharing of skills and practical help, benefit funds for those in severe financial hardship and social enterprises to provide employment opportunities, may become widespread priorities.

Other resources of the Quaker tradition will also become increasingly important over this period. A shared vision of the 'good life', which is not based on material prosperity is likely to be a powerful resource in an energy-constrained society. For many in our society, falling incomes, more limited opportunities for travel and energy-intensive consumption will be experienced as a disaster, which consumer culture has provided no resources for making sense of.

Our Quaker testimony to simplicity will take on a new significance in this context. Over the last half century for many British Quakers the testimony to 'simplicity' in lifestyle and possessions has been increasingly difficult to practice in a hectic consumer society. In our new conditions of life, it may help us to see not just the material hardships, but also the possibilities to live slower lifestyles, more connected with our local communities, and more focused on real social and spiritual values than on material consumption.

This perspective will not come easily to any of us whose life experience has been shaped by the consumer society. But the writings and example of earlier Friends such as John Woolman will acquire a new contemporary relevance in an energy-constrained society, providing a rich resource for collective reflection on those goods of life that are not dependent on material living standards.
"My mind, through the power of Truth, was in a good degree weaned from the desire of outward greatness, and I was learning to be content with real conveniences that were not costly; so that a way of life free from much entanglements appeared best for me, though the income was small... I saw that a humble man with the blessing of the Lord, might live on a little; and that where the heart was set on greatness success in business did not satisfy the craving; but that commonly with an increase of wealth, the desire for wealth increased." (John Woolman, Journal 1743)
In this new society, in which material scarcity is becoming a widespread, bitterly resented and disorientating experience, the testimony to simplicity may take the form of an acceptance of scarcity, an equanimity that does not deny the real hardships involved, but also honours the spiritual goods made possible by material simplicity of life. The testimony will not necessarily consist of a different material standard of living to others, but an alternative perspective, which embraces material simplicity as an opportunity to pursue the true goals of the 'good life' – relationship, community, spiritual practice, and useful work for human and ecological flourishing.

The challenges of a society in energy-descent may also highlight a new contemporary significance for other Quaker testimonies. Some of the potential social consequences of falling living standards include the scapegoating of migrants and minorities, fuelled by anger and resentment over competition for increasingly scarce resources. As climate change puts increasing pressure on food and water resources in climate-sensitive areas of poor countries there is also a likelihood of large-scale forced migration  and civil and regional military conflict, leading to growing numbers of refugees seeking sanctuary in relatively ‘stable’ countries in the developed world such as the UK. The British government may also attempt to respond to the economic and political challenges of energy descent by taking a greater role in the management of the economy and society, creating a greater potential for abuse of State power, corruption and militarism.

All of these challenges will highlight the urgent significance of Quaker testimonies to peace, equality and integrity. We will need to renew our commitment to becoming communities of mutual support in responding faithfully to the leadings of God, in peacebuilding, reconciliation, and speaking Truth to power, as this becomes more urgent and costly than ever. Quakerism may once again be led to become a subversive force within British society – offering refuge to persecuted minorities and publicly challenging scapegoating, violence and propaganda.

Other Quaker traditions and practices will also offer powerful resources for negotiating the transition to a low-energy society. Any period of rapid social change involves drastic and unforeseen changes in ways of life, and a re-evaluation of expectations and values. For many people, this is likely to be deeply traumatic, as our culture has provided few resources for this kind of fundamental reflection.

The Quaker tradition of discernment can offer some powerful and well-tested practices which support new ways of seeing and personal and communal transformation. Communal discernment in the Meeting for Worship for Business, Meeting for Clearness and Threshing Meetings provide the Quaker community with powerful tools for negotiating change and conflict, which may become increasingly important to Quakers and others experiencing disorientating personal and social change.

Times of social upheaval tend to cause many people to seek new 'certainties', which appear to offer a source of assurance and stability. For this reason we may expect a growth in dogmatic religious and political groups. But many whose world views and personal expectations have been overturned by 'energy descent' will be stimulated to ask new questions, and seeking support in their process of reflection and questioning rather than a pre-packaged set of 'answers'. For them, Quaker Meetings will have some rich resources to offer.

The 'Transition Quakerism' that emerges in response to the needs of a society in energy descent will also need to place a much greater emphasis on the formation of our children and young people. One of the consequences of rapid and largely unforeseen social change is that young people will be coming to adulthood in a society for which their formal education has left them largely unequipped. The current education system reflects the perceived economic needs and social priorities of a high-technology, service-orientated economy. Few of the skills and aptitudes that will be essential to an energy-constrained society such as food production, small-scale manufacture, or maintenance and repair skills, currently receive much emphasis in the school curriculum.

As Quaker communities struggle to support young people through social changes, we may also be challenged to think more deeply about the other skills, practices and traditions that will help them and the wider society through the process of energy descent. In recent decades all aspects of the education of young people have increasingly been delegated to the school system. As we re-examine the usefulness of State-designed curricula for our young people, we may also recognise that fundamental intellectual, social and spiritual needs have often been neglected by the education system. Quaker families and communities may begin to take a greater responsibility for meeting some of these needs, by sharing and teaching conflict resolution skills, centering practices, group facilitation and decision-making, nonviolent direct action, ecological understanding and our Quaker religious tradition.

As our society gradually learns to adapt to the new era of energy descent it will create new patterns of economic, social and political life that reflect the reality of diminishing energy availability. In the long term, any society must be able to function within its ecological and resource constraints if it is to survive. Our current 'industrial growth' civilisation has failed to do this, has encountered its ecological limits and is beginning the 'long descent'.

No one can know what the new society that emerges at the end of this process will look like. It may well develop by exploiting another non-renewable energy resource (starting from the much-reduced options left to it by our society), until it passes a depletion threshold and enters a further decline.

In the long term, if a sustainable civilisation is ever to emerge it will need to develop a culture that recognises objective limits to levels of production, consumption and waste. In rejecting the goal of endless economic growth, a sustainable society will need to find other goals for human life, not dependent on material 'progress'. Quakerism has much to contribute to this new civilisation, as do other religious traditions that embody understandings of authentic spiritual goods of human life.

As our society enters its long energy descent, Quaker Meetings may come to provide both a refuge for people struggling to adapt to changing social realities, and also a midwife for a gradually emerging culture. British Quakerism could offer long-tested practices of communal support and discernment, and insights into spiritual values for human life that do not rely on material growth. Quakers, in partnership with communities of other faiths and traditions, may help to weave part of the fabric of a new, sustainable civilisation.

Thanks to Craig for this post.


  1. A very powerful essay. I hear that over 100 essays were produced to meet that challenge. If many of them are as good as this, they need to be published and made available.

  2. Hi Jo,
    Thanks for this. I know the judges are looking at ways of publishing entries. I've suggested to them that as well as printing the winning essays, all the entries could be published online, with the facility for readers to post comments and create discussions of the issues raised. It seems a great opportunity to have a wide debate about important issues facing the Quaker community at this time.