Sermon on 25th January 2015

As Quakers in Lancaster much of our early history in this town, concerns stories of persecution, imprisonment in the castle, followed then by stories of Quakers prospering and developing as a religious community. The particular story in relation to the Priory church is of the founder of our movement George Fox. Fox was a man committed to a deep inner seeking – who challenged the authorities of his day. In 1652 as a part of his spiritual search Fox was travelling in Lancashire and Cumbria and had been staying in Ulverston at Swarthmoor Hall with the Fell family. He visited Lancaster on market day and preached in the market place and supposedly denounced the hypocrisy of the traders. Later that day he came up the hill to the priory church and as was his wont he started preaching and challenging the words of the local clergyman. Fox was not one to stand in the pulpit as I am, but rather started preaching from the pews where you now sit. His words unquestionably caused offence to some and after not too long a time he was hounded out of the church and then according to Quaker tradition hounded and stoned down Church street to Leonardsgate where he was quickly taken in and briefly hidden by John Lawson – a local sympathiser and merchant; who later became a Quaker.

What had Fox said that had so offended? We have no record of his preaching but we do know that earlier that month he had been thrown out of Ulverston parish church – for saying ‘Christ saith this, the apostles saith that, but what can thou say? Art thou a child of light that has walked in the light – and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’

Fox had offended because he believed as Quakers do today that we have no need of an intermediary between us and God. We can each express our own faith, we are the priesthood of all believers and therefore have no need of priests. In a seventeenth century society laden with hierarchical authorities this was both revolutionary and for many blasphemous. It took power away from the clergy and put too much power in the hands of the ordinary people. It meant faith was personal and transformative.

This simple story of Fox encapsulates many of the powerful issues we are grappling with today in our contemporary society – issues of faith and offence. So my questions to you are –

  • what would I be saying about God that could offend you today?
  • Would you ever throw me or someone else out?
  • And what canst thou say in relation to your experience of God?

The God I know, does not need to be defended by violent, paranoid actions. The God I know cannot be threatened by abusive cartoons nor mockery. The God I know does however, inspire in me a respectful delicacy in relation to my own faith and the faith of others. It knows that offence can be inadvertently caused and created by small actions and therefore always tries to minimize these small actions.

Rowan Williams has recently stated:

‘For a sane religious believer, God does not need defending. People of faith may be hurt and offended by mockery of their convictions, especially if they already feel threatened or powerless. Think of the nasty history of anti-Semitic ‘humour’ through so much of the twentieth century, not to mention the resurgent anti-Semitism after recent events in Paris, and the intensified fear it has aroused in Jewish communities throughout Europe. But we need to be clear the problem is ours, not God’s’.

Despite the fact that the problem of taking offence is ours and not God’s – there are still times when we need to speak out. The story of Fox tells us clearly when there is a greater truth at play:

  1. You can speak out and state your truth and this may cause offence
  2. You can challenge authority – religious/political/social/economic
  3. You may be attacked and persecuted for doing so
  4. You may also be given refuge and discover unexpected allies.

Our definition and understanding of memory is currently changing. We now know that memory is not just the storing of stories that can be retrieved at will. But rather, the reality that memory can be influenced by personal trauma and intergenerational trauma as well as by deep joy and connections. Memory is not just a cognitive process but lives in the body and may include physical sensations, behavioural patterns and surges of emotion.

When we or our tribe are attacked the explicit and implicit memories live for generations through the stories we tell and the memory patterns our bodies hold. In the re-telling of these stories it is always the lived experience that brings authority. Early Quakers understood this and established a Meeting for Sufferings in which the suffering of friends was recorded and witnessed by others. Today and throughout all the Holocaust Memorial events we remember the stories of persecution and are witness to the authority of this experience.

But to be witness to this experience is not enough – if our witness does not change our actions nor indeed demand we tell a new story.

‘See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up – do you not perceive it’ says the prophet Isaiah

And so we must do a new thing – we must be telling and retelling the stories of unity, of friendship between faiths, of diverse communities gathering, of love and friendship in the face of difficulties. Sadly we are fear based creatures and so the negative stories may imprint themselves more strongly into our psyche whilst the stories of love, joy, generosity and sharing – may take longer to embed and be harder to remember especially when we are threatened.

Now is the time for us to each work with our memory to embed a story of love. I invite everyone this evening to think of any moment in their lives where the divide of difference has been bridged, and to remember that story but more importantly be willing to retell it and live it. Re-tell it in as many places as you can. Try to write love, respect and generosity into the fabric of your heart. To finish with a quote from young Quaker Friends who met in 1985 from over 35 countries:

‘We have come together from every continent, separated by language, race, culture, ways to worship God and beliefs about God. Our differences are our richness but also our problem. We must let our lives mirror what is written in our hearts – to be so full of love that we can do no other than live out our testimonies to the world of honesty, simplicity, equality and peace, whatever the consequence.’ (Quaker Faith and Practice 29:17)

Written by Ruth Quinn

Ruth is a member of Lancaster Quaker Meeting, studied theology and works now as a Spiritual Care Coordinator in a hospice as well as a therapist.