Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
There is an old Indian proverb that goes something along the lines of, “he who rides a tiger, can never dismount…” I have recently read Derek Guiton’s book “A Man that looks on Glass: Standing up for God”, and the way he has documented the working out of a liberal belief system, reminded me of the proverb. Once we start down some paths, there is no returning, and so when it is that an institution places its faith in something other than Christ. The title also reminds me of James words, “For anyone who hears the Word but does not carry it out is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, and after observing himself goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like…”
Derek’s book is essentially an examination of the spiritual state of his own Yearly Meeting, Britain Yearly Meeting, of which he has been a member for many years. This book ought to be compulsory reading for those who think that dollops of ‘tolerance and inclusivity’ are the answers to all our spiritual problems, because it is salutary reminder of the what the end product of a too open and undiscerning liberalism can be; confusion, lack of discernment and over-reliance on human wisdom.
Although Derek makes some points that I cannot agree with, I recognise that Derek Guiton’s book is a spirited and passionate defence of what he believes to be essence of Quakerism, a faith in a living God that is both within us and outside of us, a God who calls us to listen to His Voice. In that, I think that Derek’s book is one of the more positive signs of spiritual life in Britain Yearly Meeting and I appreciate his passion and conviction. Derek has acquitted himself well, but I suspect that his defence will be the last of its kind in Britain Yearly Meeting, and I also suspect his book will not have gone down too well in some parts of that institution. Derek’s observations, particularly the one where he reports a recent that belief in God is attributable to only 56% of Britain Yearly Meeting membership, which actually less than that of the general population in the UK, might be 'too close to the bone'.
Derek studiously charts the growth of atheism, which he terms ‘non-theism’, and describes its effect on the Yearly Meeting over the last 20 years or so. He outlines the debate that has taken place between the rapidly growing atheist movement, the Non-Theist Friends Network, and the ‘traditional’ theist side. He very cogently describes how quickly faith has been supplanted by ideology. On occasion, a militant and unrelenting atheism with an entryist agenda. Derek describes how, David Boulton, one of the leading proponents of the Non-Theist Friends Network, described faith in God as “a lie”.
He is forced to posit the question; “No longer having a shared belief in God or any transcendent reality beyond the human, and treating our core beliefs as outmoded constructs without relevance for our future, we are left pondering the question, wherein lies our unity?” That is the central question of this book, and surely, as the New Foundation, our ministry has been to speak to this, to point to the power and presence of Christ in our midst, as the source of that unity.
What I would like to be clear about is that generally, I don’t waste my time or energy in absorbing myself in the wrangling’s of liberal Quaker institutions. I gave up on that over 10 years ago, when it became clear to me that I could not function as a Christian and remain in membership in Britain Yearly Meeting. I simply could not find the eldership and support I needed, and grew tired of being told how ‘outmoded’ and ‘simplistic’ my faith in Christ was.
On this occasion, I feel that the book is useful for us in the New Foundation in terms of reminding us of how far some Quaker groups have gone from the original message proclaimed by George Fox and the Early Friends, also it gives some insight into the liberal mindset, but also to sketch out some of the pitfalls of having a church which does not have Christ, or in this case, even a belief in God at its centre.
It seems Britain Yearly Meeting is going through fundamental change, much of which is propelled by a group of militant atheists, described by Derek who he describes as openly advocating the removal of any references to God from Britain Yearly Meeting’s faith and practice. Derek fears this process which will lead to an accelerated weakening in the understanding of Quaker fundamentals, such as Meeting for Worship, Ministry and Meeting for Worship for Business. His prognosis is not at all a positive one.
Much of the book is dedicated to exploration to the use of language to describe spiritual experience and a refutation of what he terms ‘non-realism’. It is interesting but is of less relevance to our work, but I was struck by some of Derek’s insights. He says of atheism, “There is a string in the psychology of atheism that is afraid to hope, afraid to take risks, afraid to plumb the depths, because of the swirls of uncertainties it might stir up…”
Derek has outlined how the progress of ‘non-theism’ has led to a prevalence of moral relativism in the Yearly Meeting, my truth, your truth, and everybody elses’ truth even if they lead to diametrically opposed faith and action. This sounds sadly familiar. This is in stark contrast the Truth that we learn, when we hear and obey Christ, which is for all people and all times, which we in the NFF made the cornerstone of our message.
This book has relevance to us because it should remind us that we still have work to do, and that our message is still relevant. In many ways, I feel vindicated by Derek’s book.
I lived through an earlier period of revision when Friends who described themselves as ‘Universalists’ aggressively pursued change to Britain Yearly Meeting’s Book of Discipline. They made it clear that they wanted Christian language to disappear, because they felt it ‘excluded’ people. They got their way: ‘Christian Faith and Practice’ became ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’. I well remember Joe Pickvance standing up at a Quaker Conference and shocking the audience merely by asking whether there was actually such a thing as ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’.
The justification for this was, as is now, ‘openness’, ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘tolerance’. But also, “we must not discourage those who cannot use the name, ‘Christ’”. Those of us in the NFF in the UK, including myself, sounded warnings that such changes would bring about a weakening of the spiritual life in the Yearly Meeting, a decline the depth of our worship and ministry.
We were not heard, and thirty years later, Derek describes the end result, and writes what may turn out to be the last spirited defence of a faith that is still in some sense, recognisably ‘Quaker’. Britain Yearly Meeting is about to taken over by atheists, it would seem.
I cannot avoid feeling a sense of irony in that those who were so ready to expunge what they saw as out-dated and outmoded Christian language, are now forced to defend themselves from a similar onslaught from groups who are even more liberal than them. Derek’s quote of G.K. Chesterton, “…those who marry the spirit of this age, will find themselves widows in the next…” is entirely apposite.
One of the things, I like about Derek’s book is that he is relies much on passages from Early Friends to outline what he sees as important aspects of Quaker faith. I think this is significant in that people are still able to recognise the power that comes through such text, and how we can see and explain their relevance for today.
Derek’s book is available from online bookstores;
Published: 20 October 2015