Quakers have a reputation as peace activists. The Peace Testimony, or as it was originally – the anti-war testimony, has been a cherished part of Quaker witness for over three hundred years. Last century Friends were influential in creating the possibility of conscientious objection when conscription was introduced. But in my reading this week it is clear that Quakers are not good at dealing with conflict within their own circle.
Perhaps conflict always comes as a surprise for Friends. Probably silence is used to hide or avoid conflict which could divide the community. Friends apparently prioritise relationships and unity more than getting to the bottom of the conflict. Friends also prefer not to show strong emotion, a calm stillness is the ideal. This leads one researcher to say that Quakers show aversion to conflict: a deliberate avoidance, a refusal to admit to it, an unwillingness to face it.
But conflict there certainly is. On a recent course for Quaker Trustees there were stories shared, within confidentiality, of severe conflicts. Tensions are around about different beliefs, even though there is supposed to be a ‘celebration of diversity’. I have two books as part of my reading for my essay this term which offer diametrically opposed views on what Quakers should believe. One clearly feels that their position within Quakerism in Britain is under threat, and writes polemically in defence and attack!
In local Meetings there are often conflicts about property issues for which there has to be one agreed view in the end. There is not much experience of conflict transformation processes within many small Meetings. There is however a well tried and tested resource, ‘Turning the Tide’ which has been used here and in other countries to encourage non-violent means to resolve conflict.
Apparently in the Annual Meeting where the decision was made to affirm same-sex marriage there were a number of different processes which helped to ‘thresh’ the issues and enabled the airing of different views and sharing of hopes and fears.
Sometimes the conflict between Quakers has been public and stark. For example in the USA at the time of the Vietnam War some Quakers were strongly in support of President Nixon’s bombing strategy (he was a Quaker). Others were horrified that such a public Quaker figure could be leading the country into committing mass slaughter. The reasons were partly to do with differences between Evangelical and Liberal Quakers, and partly to do with the accommodation of Friends to the prevailing American culture, which led some Quakers to suspect the peace activists to be ‘communist sympathisers’.
Admittedly, facing conflict is not easy. It is tempting to seek a quiet and peaceful life. But in the cause of truth and of creating even better relationships it is best to face it!