This month’s Very Short Introduction column comes from Dr. ‘Ben’ Pink Dandelion, an Honorary Reader in Quaker Studies at the University of Birmingham. We have recently published his book The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction, and he has kindly answered a few questions on the subject for OUPblog.
OUP: Has the Quakers’ anti-war stance meant that the movement has seen an increase in interest and/or membership since the beginning of the Iraq War?
PINK DANDELION: Paradoxically, war is always good for recruitment. However, the pacifist stance of Quakerism remains highly counter-cultural and as such there hasn’t been any a massive increase in membership. Many who would oppose the Iraq War would still not feel it wrong to fight in all circumstances. Many Quakers are also pragmatic but the official position is that fighting and war is not a way to solve problems.
OUP: You say in your book that some Quakers practise a kind of evangelical Protestantism, while others are no longer Christian at all. How does the non-theist standpoint fit within Quakerism? How can one be anti-theist and a Quaker?
DANDELION: Most Quakers in the world are Evangelical and the vast majority are Christian. Within ‘Liberal Quakerism’, there is however a vast diversity of belief. This is partly come about because of the sense that belief is not central to faith, that doctrine can never match the depth of experience Quakers find in their worship. As such, belief has become marginal and plural, a private rather than a collective matter. What then holds these Quakers together is their form of worship and doing business (also in worship and without votes) and their testimony for peace and social justice. To some extent, the silence of Quaker worship can accommodate belief including non-theism or anti-theism, although there comes a point when such ideas start to unpick the basis of worship and business. However, Quakers are also united in their belief that faith is about a journey of seeking rather than finding. Thus any position is held provisionally or partially or personally, thus further accommodating any belief which is not held to be final or for all people. Certainty would provide tension, not belief content.
OUP: Many people know that some Quakers worship in silence. Can you briefly explain how this unique method of worship came about?
DANDELION: Quaker worship was based initially on a critique of outward forms seen to be superficial and empty. In some ways, Quakerism can be seen to be fulfilling the desire for a full and radical reformation and as such liturgy itself was fully reformed. All the aspects of standard liturgy are present but experienced inwardly rather than outwardly and through silence. Quaker faith is based on a sense of direct relationship with god and Quakers found this was best done in silence. It was supported by reference to Revelation 8:1 where it talks of half an hour of silence in heaven.
OUP: As a faith with such broad diversity, how do you see it fitting within the wider religious world as a whole?
DANDELION: Quakerism is similar to many other Protestant sects and groups with liberal and evangelical ends. It differs in its emphasis on direct revelation and in the Liberal branch, the primary authority experience is given over any text or any tradition. It may also be more plural than other Liberal groups. Quakers are part of the Historic peace church movement with Mennonites and Brethren. Buddhist and Muslim Quakers start to bridge the gap between historically Christian forms and new hybrid forms of faith.
OUP: Once people have read your Very Short Introduction, which five books would you point them towards next?
DANDELION: There is my longer Introduction to Quakerism, John Punshon’s Portrait in Grey, Harvey Gillman’s A Light that is Shining (available free from the Quaker offices in London), and a whole range of books on Quaker spirituality and discernment on sale at the Quaker Bookshop, Euston Road, London, or over the web.