On January 24th 2016, during the week of prayer for Christian Unity, Gerald Conyngham (Exeter Meeting) gave a talk entitled Quakers and their Witness in the World at St Matthew's Church as part of Exeter's pulpit exchange.  Here is its text:

What a radical message from St Paul we heard in the passage from Corinthians.  'The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect'

St Paul here is talking about equality.  And his views don't fit at all with our present culture in which celebrities are feted and stereotyped views are propagated about people on low wages, social  benefits or who come from another culture.

Nor do his views fit with the way we reward people for their work.   In fact the UK is the most unequal country in the EU, and it is getting worse.   10% of the population take 40% of the income.

Equality has always been important for Quakers, going back to the 17 century when George Fox founded the Religious Society of Friends (to give the full title).  It was a time of great ferment and unrest,  a world turned upside down. Established traditions and authority were strongly questioned by groups such as the Levellers, the Diggers and  the Quakers. But for the Quakers this questioning came from deep spiritual roots.  They believed that the kingdom of heaven was here and now and so people needed to change their ways.  Fox believed there was that of God in everyone and there was no need for priests or the established churches. He made himself very unpopular by going into church and interrupting the sermon.  Often he was chased out of the church and the village and sometimes ended up sleeping under a hedge!   

In 1662 the Quakers issued a declaration to the new king Charles 2nd, saying that they would not try to overthrow him by force. And this was the start of the peace witness of Quakers which has continued to the present day. Many Quakers have been conscientious objectors and some were imprisoned in the Ist world war at Dartmoor prison. One of their tasks was to build a road leading out into Dartmoor, known as Conchies Way. We walked it two years ago but it peters out after about a mile!

We are proud of our Quaker heritage, for instance the Cadburys who as well as making delicious chocolate, pioneered social housing for their workers, the Barclay family who had strong ethical principles behind the banks they founded, Elizabeth Fry who pushed forward prison reform in the 19th century (her picture is on the £5 note)  and all the Quakers who played a key role in the abolition of slavery.

Quakers are active in campaigning against war and there were lots of Quaker banners at the demonstration againgt the invasion of Iraq.  But we also take part in peace building , especially in areas of conflict. In 2005 I went out to Palestine as an ecumenical accompanier to stand alongside Palestinians and Israel peace activists. and on my  return gave over 30 talks to groups since many people here don't understand what is going on. 

Quakers dont have creeds as such since our beliefs are expressed in the way we live our lives which we call our Testimonies.  We talk about 'letting our lives speak'   As well as peace and equality we have testimonies to  Truth and  Simplicity. And more recently Sustainability has become important for us as we try to change our life styles to reduce our carbon emissions. Many of us are active in the Transition Town movement.  And we were one of the first churches to divest from fossil fuel companies.

At the heart of our life as Quakers is our Meeting for Worship. 

In Exeter our main one is on sundays at 10.30.  We follow the tradition set by the early Quakers of sitting in silence but today it is for 1 hour, not 3 hours!   We describe our worship as 'our response to an awareness of God.  In worship we enter with reverence into communion with God and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.'   People may speak out of the silence if they feel so moved, (we call this ministry)  or they may read something from the Bible or our book on Faith and Practice. However it is short and we expect some silence before anyone else speaks. And we only speak if we are confident that what we have to say is for the worshipping group and not just our own concerns.  We believe that there is a power present which we cannot find so easily on our own.  

Our business meetings are called Meetings for Worship for Business since we are seeking to be guided by the spirit in deciding the best way forward   We do not vote and take minutes as we go along   (That is my job as the Clerk) 

Sometimes the decision we reach may be very different to what any of us expected before the meeting.

We don't have an appointed preacher or leader because we believe that any of us can play a leading role from time to time, as the spirit may lead us. However like other churches we have a plethora of groups and committees and it is not always easy to find people for all the roles.

Seeking our own spiritual path is an important principle but other Quakers are there to help us discern the right way forward. One traditional way of doing this is through what we call a Meeting for Clearness where people can be helped by sensitive questioning to consider their next steps.

Some of us also have links  to other churches or other faiths such as Buddhism. My own background is Anglican and I still find value in attending at Christmas, lent and Easter.

Our approach is more about asking people questions rather than telling them what do to, and this is expressed well in a little booklet called Advices and Queries.

 I shall read out two queries which I particularly find helpful:

1 Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

and 27  Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community?

As Quakers we long to see the world transformed and that people should be able to live their lives without the threat of violence, have enough to eat and respect the environment. 

It is not easy to feel optimistic about the state of the world today but we can still have hope. Just one example. Look at all the volunteers, many of them young people, who have gone to Calais to what is known as the jungle, to be alongside and help the refugees who are fleeing oppressive regimes and seeking a better life, just as the Israelites did when they left Egypt.

George Fox expressed this very well in his journal when he said:

'I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness, and in that I saw the infinite love of God.'

Thank you for inviting me here today.

Gerald Conyngham

Clerk of Exeter Quaker Meeting

[Below is] the latest Research Digest from the Equality Trust, concerning Inequality and Social Mobility. We are often told that equality of opportunity is more important than income equality. The research shows that you don't get one without the other!!
Tim Stock / 27 Feb 12

Today, The Equality Trust released its fourth quarterly Research Digest.
This Digest deals with the relationship between high income inequality and low levels of social mobility.
In brief:

- Social mobility is higher in societies which have smaller income gaps.

- The London School of Economics and the OECD have both demonstrated that social mobility in Britain is worse than in comparable rich countries.

- The Institute for Fiscal Studies commented in a comprehensive review of the academic literature: "[it is] likely to be very hard to increase social mobility without tackling inequality."

If you have friends, family or colleagues who would be interested in the Digest, please do forward this message to them. This series is part of our ongoing commitment to exploring the evidence about the impacts of income inequality on societies. Our next Research Digest is due to be published in the summer.

PS. If you would like to tackle inequality in your area, The Equality Trust may have a local group
Kathryn Busby
Co-director of The Equality Trust
32-36 Loman Street, London SE1 0EH
Visit our website www.equalitytrust.org.uk
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