Study Session 3: Superfluous Demands

This study session explores the ideas of simplicity, sustainability, and not making ‘superfluous demands’. It draws on sources used by the authors of the Foundations to explore Quaker attitudes to lifestyle decisions.

Resources needed: for exercise 1, a watch or timer and bell or singing bowl; for exercise 2A, a printout for each person of the passage from John Woolman, and either paper and pens or plasticine or play dough; for exercise 2B, paper (both small note-taking paper and large flipchart paper) and pens; for exercise 3A, copies of the Canterbury Commitment, large and small pieces of paper and pens; for exercise 3B, information about action around sustainability which has been taken by your local or area meeting, or the presence of someone who has been working on these issues.

Opening worship – 5 mins

Introduction – 5 mins

You may like to invite members of the group to say their names and share either why they have chosen to attend this study session, or something they are leaving behind to be with the group. It is also often helpful to say something about why you have chosen to offer this study session and what interests you about the content.

1. ‘Superfluous demands’ in the Foundations – 20 mins

Read out point 4 from the Foundations, “We should seek for a way of living that will free us from the bondage of material things and mere conventions, that will raise no barrier between man and man, and will put no excessive burden of labour upon any by reason of our superfluous demands.”

Split the group into pairs and ask each pair to decide which of them will be person A and who person B. They will take turns to respond to a question, for two minutes, and to listen to their partner. Reassure people who are going to speak (group A first and then group B) that they are only asked to respond to, and not to answer, the questions, and that their partner will continue to listen to them even if they stop talking for a while. Ask people who are going to listen (group B first and then group A) to remember that listening does not mean composing their own answers – they’ll get a chance to speak – and that is does mean paying attention to the person who is speaking.

You will need a watch or phone  with a stopwatch function or second hand to time blocks of two minutes – it’s difficult but not impossible to do this while also particating in the exercise, so consider sitting out. You may find it helpful to use a singing bowl or other bell or chime to signal the turn-taking. Depending on the size of the group, it can be good to swap partners between questions (e.g. ask everyone in group A to stand and move clockwise to the next empty seat).

The questions and turn-taking works as follows:

  • Do you feel yourself in ‘the bondage of material things’? (A speaks for 2 minutes; B speaks for 2 minutes)
  • Are there ‘mere conventions’ from which you would like to be freed? (B speaks for 2 minutes; A speaks for 2 minutes)
  • Is there an ‘excessive burden of labour’ on you or people you know? (A speaks for 2 minutes; B speaks for 2 minutes)
  • What are the social and economic effects of ‘superfluous demands’? (B speaks for 2 minutes; A speaks for 2 minutes)

If you have time left, ask the whole group if anyone would like to share something they learned during the course of this exercise.

Either 2A. Exploring John Woolman’s ideas – 30 mins

A key source for these ideas about simplicity in the Foundations was the work of John Woolman. Hand out copies of the passage from page 10 of A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich in which he lays out the connection between wealth and war. (You could either print that scanned version or use the typed copy which appears on our page about John Woolman. If you need a large-print version, copy and paste from our webpage into a word processor and adjust the font size as necessary.)

Read the passage aloud, perhaps by asking volunteers to read one sentence each. Once this has been done, split into groups of three or four people. Ask each group to draw a diagram which show the relationships between key terms from the passage – war and wealth are the obvious ones, but diagrams could also include the relationships of these concepts to desire, power, oppression, God, people, and possessions. Allow each group fifteen to twenty minutes to produce one or more possible diagrams, before returning to the whole group and, if they wish, sharing something about what their diagram shows.

A more tactile version of this exercise could use plasticine or play dough instead of paper and pens. Rather than drawing a diagram in which lines and shapes relate the concepts, make shapes for each concept and relate them in space or with further models. Participants may be reassured to be reminded that this is an abstract and conceptual exercise and need not be artistic (unless they want it to be).

Or 2B. Naming ‘superfluous demands’ in our lives – 30 mins

Begin with a short period of silence, then ask these questions into the silence, leaving a gap of a minute or two between each.

  • What do you want at the moment?
  • Do the things you want meet real needs or are they things you merely desire?
  • Who would lose out if you had everything you want?
  • Does anything in your life at the moment make a superfluous demand on someone else?

Participants may like to make notes of their answers before moving into the next stage – allow a couple of further minutes of silence for this.

In threes, take about ten minutes look at the overall shape of your answers. (It isn’t necessary to share the details if this is uncomfortable.) Are there common themes? Do ordinary lifestyles in the place where you live make superfluous demands on people? On those who live them? On those who provide the money or materials which make them possible? Note important answers on a piece of flipchart paper.

Bring the small groups back into the whole group, and ask each group to share some highlights from their notes. Are there themes which run throughout all the groups?

3A. Committing to action – 20 mins

Read aloud the second and third paragraphs from page 2 of the Canterbury commitment. Are there changes which you as individuals or your community could make? Who has the power to decide to cut down ‘superfluous demands’ in each case?

You might like to write a list as a group, note down individual actions on small pieces of paper to take home, write a letter to your local councillor or MP (or MEP), or write a minute about possible community changes to take to your Meeting for Worship for Business.

3B. Connecting to action – 20 mins

What happens in your meeting to address the Canterbury commitment? If someone present is deeply involved, or has come to this session especially to talk about this, allow them ten-fifteen minutes to share, before inviting questions from the rest of the group. Alternatively, use a go-round to share knowledge and experience from all members of the group, allowing people to ask questions for clarification or more information as you go. Could you be doing more?

Notices and closing worship – 10 mins