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Telling our stories: exploring the Quaker way

Quaker faith is rooted in personal and communal experience. Alistair Fuller reflects on the freedom and discipline involved in exploring the Quaker way.

Exploring religious difference.
Exploring religious difference.

One of the distinctive marks of Quaker faith is that it is rooted in personal experience and not in creeds or set forms of words. There is no checklist of things that everyone must believe in or agree to but rather an encouragement for each person to listen to and live by their own experience. We sometimes call this our 'inward light'.

For each person this will mean something different and will be shaped by our own stories and journeys, by the traditions and language that shaped us, by our experience of living in the world. This is not to say that ours is an individualistic faith; we listen to and learn from the experience and insights of others and the stories that have shaped our faith community over the centuries.

This is both a profound freedom and a serious discipline. We are freed to explore, experience and express what we believe to be most deeply true. At the same time we are called to listen and attend to others and to be open to the challenges and possibilities that their insights and experiences bring. This can make for great richness in our Quaker communities but it is not always easy to hold such a breadth of views together. It can be hard to express what it means to be a Quaker in a way that others can hear and own. Equally, it can be difficult to hear others express their Quaker faith in ways that might feel jarring or unhelpful. The words we use can offer a key to our deepest truths and experiences; but they can also become a barrier for some who hear them.

So, how might we best talk about our faith and the deep things of our hearts? How can we talk about what it means to be a Quaker in a way that is helpful and enriching without tripping over our words and bumping too hard against the words of others?

Listening to our stories

For me, the answer lies in stories. When we talk about being a Quaker, we aren't describing a thing. It isn't an ism. It's a way of life, a journey, a landscape. I remember hearing someone once say that if fish could speak, they wouldn't describe water as a chemical formula, they would speak of it as a home, a journey and an adventure, which they share with countless others. In fact, they wouldn't talk about it at all, they'd just swim! I find this such a helpful thought. Our faith is the journey we travel and the adventure we live. When we talk about our faith, we need to tell the stories of how we have been moved, challenged, transformed, of how we have discovered delight and encountered struggle.

When we talk about our faith as our story, we are describing something that is intimately our own and yet fundamentally to be shared. The language we use is the language that is most meaningful and truthful to us. Our language is shaped and coloured by our experience, our tradition and culture. And we remember, as we listen to the stories of others, that the same is true of them.

As I get older, I find that I believe in fewer and fewer things, but I believe in them more deeply. One of those is the power and importance of stories. The telling and hearing of stories is a gift to both the teller and the listener; both are changed in the telling and the listening. When we tell our stories we share something precious and true and we are, in some way, by the very act of sharing. Stories are what make sense of our experience and stories are the foundation and the fabric of community.

Creating space

As Quaker communities we need to create the space and time to tell each other stories: the stories of the journeys that brought us here; the stories of how living as a Quaker has changed and transformed us; the stories of what speaks to us most deeply and of what calls us most powerfully. Of course, we need to remember to be tender as well as truthful in the telling, and generous and attentive in the listening. If we are, we might be able to stop speaking of 'religious difference' and instead become communities of fellow travellers and pilgrims, of seekers who find and are found.

Quakers have always been tellers of stories. Quaker faith & practice is, above all else, a collection of stories of the ways in which we have worshipped and witnessed over generations; stories that can be inspiring, challenging, difficult, familiar, strange, hopeful and helpful at different times and in different ways.

This Yearly Meeting, as we consider whether it is time to revise our book of discipline, we, in our generation, are called to tell our stories, too, of what it means to live this life and walk this path today and of the deep truths and spiritual root at the heart of it. I hope we might feel encouraged and inspired to share our own stories with each other, to listen to and learn from each other, to understand the paths that have brought us here and to recognise, cherish and honour the truth that each other brings.

If you would like a simple template with ideas and guidance about creating space and time to share stories and experience, contact qladmin@quaker.org.uk.

Read more in ‘God, words and us: Quakers in conversation about religious difference’