What do I make of George Fox? I am reading his Journal, the story of his spiritual search and passionate preaching pilgrimage in the time of the English Civil War and beyond. He is the ‘founder’ of the Quaker movement, which emerged in the religious maelstrom of the 1600s.
He was convinced that the outward forms of religion, Christianity in particular, were a hindrance to a true spirituality. He condemned ‘steeplehouses’ and the ‘professors’ who were paid to minister in them. He believed wholeheartedly that the only spiritual authority was from within, what he often called the ‘inward Christ’. Fox knew the Bible intimately and often entered into disputes with those who had been formally educated for the ministry in Oxford or Cambridge. He was scathing in his criticism of their lack of genuine spiritual experience. He felt able to enter into the spirit of the prophets and apostles and so speak with power and authority. His own spiritual experience led him to be convinced that he was forgiven and so free from sin and guilt. He believed others could live in this same state. This was his message which found a resonance with groups that had already emerged at the time, particularly the Seekers, who worshipped in homes or outdoors, mainly in silence.
I can understand his passion and conviction having been a preacher and pastor for many years, often as a radical, theologically. The Church is not a building but the community of believers. Faith has to be lived not just recited in creeds. Much religious tradition has the effect of trapping people into conformist patterns of life. But this is not so revolutionary. What marks Fox out is his vitriolic criticism of the established church. He is passionate about changing those he meets from the error of their ways.
Is he a mad messiah figure? He certainly had powerful emotional traumas or spiritual experiences. But, he clearly also struck a chord in many people he met. They were convinced by what he said and by the way he lived. Other religious movements withered, but Quakers, Friends of the Truth, grew and have continued and spread, though the movement has evolved and is now very diverse.
Fox would find the Quakers in present day Britain very strange and would probably offer the same condemnation now as he did then to the ‘religious’. Quakers elsewhere in the world who are more evangelically Christian would probably be more akin to his liking.
I find myself, in responding to the Journal, feeling non-religious. I cherish still the effect that following Jesus of Nazareth has had on my life. But I can no longer accept the salvation story that lies at the heart of credal Christianity. I believe we should love each other and all that is. (I loved the stance that Dr Who took in the last episode, when he makes a stand with human beings because above all it is important to ‘be kind’.) The values of honesty, sustainability, mutual respect, which lie a the heart of love are the values we all should embrace.
I find the worship and witness of Quakers to be the best place for me to try to live out my spirituality. The community is not perfect and there are tensions around what we believe. But it still offers a home for ‘seekers’.
I attended an induction last Sunday of a dear friend of mine. It was in the tradition of the United Reformed Church, which is not far off Quakerism. There were oceans of words, a fine building, and professions of faith, all of which I could do without. But at its heart was a friend who feels called to preach a living word and offer kindness to those with spiritual, emotional and physical needs. I am happy to stand with him and all others who cherish the values of love and truth, who work for peace and justice, and who are open to partnership in creating a better world.
A passion for peace and a love of truth – perhaps there is more in common with George Fox than meets the eye.