Thinking Experimentally: Quaker processes and the Foundations

The diversity of views among Quakers on economic and political questions became more visible, and more a focus of concern after 1918 – just because these questions were seen as more important and urgent areas of Quaker activity, on which Quakers wanted, and in some cases were being asked by others, to speak out. Quaker worship and decision-making processes are often highlighted in Yearly Meeting minutes and reports in the 1920s on economic and social issues.

  • Yearly Meeting in 1927 noted “there is not complete unity as to our witness on economic and social questions… Divisions of opinion in the application of principles will probably persist in the process of experiment, and rightly so”; and then suggested “If we set out, under the guidance of God, to seek an answer to [questions about social witness], we may discover something that is quite new… and which will enable us to take a further step forward in the realisation of the Kingdom of God”.
  • Yearly Meeting in 1928 followed this up with the clear statement that “spiritual unity is compatible with wide differences of opinion” about politics – and that Friends might nonetheless be able to undertake “united action”.

Friends wanted action on social issues to be “founded deep on the revelation that has come to us of the purposes of God” (Yearly Meeting 1927). What did this mean?

The Foundations set out clear principles about the social order, which the Committee and the Yearly Meeting suggested were rooted in the “teachings of Jesus”. This might suggest that the main ideas were fixed – derived from known teachings and now set down in an agreed document. However, at the heart of the (liberal Quaker) theology behind Foundations was the belief that every person was guided by the present Light of Christ-  so there was new and ongoing “revelation… of the purposes of God”.

  • This belief isn’t very obvious in the Foundations themselves – but it’s in the background of the reference to “the growth of personality truly related to God and man”.
  • One image for the process of ongoing revelation suggests that we don’t get it simply or all at once; a Quaker business method, of waiting and listening to the Light, allows us to gradually clarify a picture of what the world should be like. Paul Parker described this in an interview as “a gradual removing of the veils from the picture that was there already if only we could have seen it”.

Alongside the statement of principles, the Committee emphasised local and small-scale “experiments” as a key way to advance understanding of a true social order – and perhaps to bridge the gap between gradual reform and full-scale revolution.

  • Garden Cities and various approaches to industrial democracy (workers’ involvement in running industries) were among the experiments discussed by the Committee and supported by its members.
    • Sometimes their “experimental” work was made more difficult by wartime conditions. Malcolm Sparkes, a member of the Committee, was one of the key thinkers behind a scheme for workers’ “guilds” – and also a conscientious objector. In 1918 when the Committee planned a conference on “Democratisation of Industry”, they called on Quaker MP Arnold S. Rowntree to negotiate on their behalf for Sparkes to attend the conference on day release from prison.
  • This is still a core Quaker method. The Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) programme offers small grants, such as through the ‘Sustainability and new economy’ scheme, to meetings and other groups who want to try out changes locally. This has included practical projects, such as creating a grass-free lawn; educational projects, such as explaining the benefits of a local currency system; and arts projects, such as a show about the history and significance of land rights.