What sustains you?

Man must not depend on bread alone to sustain him, but on everything that the Lord says.

Deuteronomy 8:3

There is a power, a force for good – a “higher power”, if you like – which I choose to call God or the Spirit. This is what sustains me.

I encounter this power as the “fire within” or a “still, small voice” during a gathered Quaker meeting for worship, whenever I turn to God in prayer, during a walk in the countryside, whilst circle dancing, or during a deep and “meaningful” conversation with friends.

Two Quaker friends came to visit a few days ago. Neithard gave the annual Richard Cary Lecture at the German Quaker yearly meeting a couple of years ago. I missed hearing the lecture because I wasn’t at the yearly meeting. And I haven’t got around to reading it. I should do so, if I can lay my hands on a copy. Neithard reminded my wife and me of two stories which he told during the lecture.

I have heard one of the stories before. It goes something like this: A native American elder tells his grandson that it sometimes feels to him as if there were two wolves fighting inside him. One wolf is good and loving and the other is evil and hateful. His grandson anxiously asks which wolf wins. The elder tells him that the wolf whom he feeds wins the battle.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.” We can each of us choose to feed the greedy, fearful and hateful wolf within us by dwelling on bitter and resentful thoughts. Or we can let go of those thoughts and feed the loving and caring wolf within us instead.

The other “story” was related to the question as to whether a glass is half-full or half-empty. I believe Neithard actually gave a demonstration during his lecture of what happens when the same amount of water is poured into three glasses: a large glass, a glass half the size and an even smaller glass. When the water is poured into the large glass, the glass is half-full (or half-empty). The same amount of water just about fills the medium sized glass. When poured into the smallest glass, the glass overflows.

It seems to me that our Western consumerist culture (which worships Mammon rather than the God of Abraham) encourages us to focus on what we are lacking, as if our lives were half-empty. I am more inclined to give thanks that my cup overflows!

It is all a question of perspective. People let us down all the time (usually unintentionally, I believe). We can choose to focus on their failure to be as loving towards us as we might have reason to expect. This is likely to lead us to the conclusion that the friends or colleagues who let us down don’t really like us. Or we can accept the human failings of our friends and colleagues without jumping to such conclusions.

I realise that it’s easy for me to say this, having been blessed with loving friends throughout most of my life. In the world of work – even within church organisations – colleagues can indeed be intentionally malicious. So I guess one has to be realistic and not wear rose-tinted spectacles too much of the time.

There is evil in the world. And we need to take up spiritual weapons to overcome it. So we need the sustenance which we gain from every encounter with the loving God, who will rule our hearts, if that is what we choose.

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Open up the cracks!

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

We are living in dark times.

We are reaping the consequences of three-and-a-half decades of neo-liberalism – economic policies which have made a few people extremely rich (in material terms) and many people poorer.

In Britain and many other countries children have been taught little about democracy and the rule of law. They have grown up to be adults who think that “human rights” is a dirty word and who believe that climate change is some sort of con-trick. They are now taking every opportunity to thumb their noses at the elite which has imposed austerity and cut public services to the bone. It is understandable that they should prefer unscrupulous demagogues who promise to help them out of their misery rather than democratic politicians who can only offer more of the same.

So we have Donald Trump soon to be president of the United States of America. I doubt whether he understands the concept of the rule of law. And I fear that he wouldn’t hesitate very long in launching one or two nuclear weapons – at Iran, for example. Just as worrying as the possibility of a conflict going nuclear, is the now more likely prospect of the world’s governments failing to take sufficient action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. This would be a tall order at the best of times.

And we have the United Kingdom heading for a “hard Brexit”. The British people cannot have their cake and eat it, whatever David Davis might think. If Theresa May and her government insist on limiting the free movement of people between the EU and the UK, the UK will have to leave the single market. Most people in Britain are only just beginning to understand the dire economic consequences of leaving the single market. They had better learn quickly. Otherwise they will be in for a rude awakening in a couple of years’ time.

Yesterday I took a Belgian visitor for a walk around Siegburg, the town near Bonn where I live. Our first stop was the Jewish cemetery. Unfortunately the gate was locked, probably to prevent vandalism. But through the gate I could just about read a display board which told the history of the Jewish community in Siegburg. The first documentary evidence of a Jewish presence here dates from the thirteenth century. So far as we know, the first Jewish family settled in Siegburg in 1287. The history of the Jewish community ended with Kristallnacht (“the Night of Broken Glass”) in November 1938, when the synagogue was destroyed by fire, and the deportation of the Jewish population to concentration camps.

This morning in the protestant church around the corner we sang a well-known Advent hymn by Jochen Klepper, a protestant theologian who married a Jew. He composed the hymn, Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen”, in Advent 1937. It is one of my favourite hymns alongside Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben”. Jochen Klepper was inspired by Paul’s words to the Romans: “The night is nearly over, day is almost here. Let us stop doing the things that belong to the dark, and let us take up weapons for fighting in the light.” (Romans 13:12) I should dig out my translation of Jochen Klepper’s hymn. I can only remember a couple of lines: “The night is nearly over. The dawn shines from afar. So let us raise our voices to greet the morning star.”

Those were dark times in the thirties, not only in Germany. The Great Depression was brought to an end by massive public spending – on weapons and military infrastructure.

What we need now in these dark times of today is a major programme of public spending, not on weapons, but on new technology and infrastructure to replace fossil-fuel intensive manufacturing and transport. Germany is at the forefront of the transition to a low-carbon economy. New legislation is paving the way for investment in renewable energy and demand reduction through increased efficiency.

There are cracks letting in the light. One such instance is the success of the Liberal Democrat candidate in the recent bye-election in Richmond Park, overturning a Conservative majority of 24,000. This was helped by the Green Party, led by Caroline Lucas, deciding not to field a candidate and encouraging voters to support the Liberal Democrats. Only a broad progressive alliance, including the Labour Party as well as the Lib Dems and the Greens, can stand up against UKIP and the right-wing Tories who are driving Britain towards a hard Brexit.

There is light on the other side of the Atlantic as well. A US-American friend of mine told me a few days ago that he has a nephew who works for a city in North Carolina. The city has a strong policy on combating climate change. Cities, counties, and states across the USA can do what needs to be done to combat climate change regardless of what is going on (or not going on) at the White House. The local and state jurisdictions just need plenty of support and encouragement from all the citizens whose dream is of a democratic, open, tolerant, and sustainable society.

Advent hymns exhort us to “Open up the gates!”, “Open up your doors!” “Open up wide for the new coming king!”

Leonhard Cohen sang:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

Let us open up all the cracks. And let the light into our hearts, our communities, and our nations.

Thank God for Diversity!

VIELFALT im Augenblick” (“Diversity in a blink of an eye”) is the title of a photography exhibition which my wife, Alexandra Bosbeer, is putting on here in Siegburg, near Bonn, where we live. The exhibition opens on 19 November, so our flat has been a hive of industry with photographs being printed in various sizes and stuck on the wall in the hallway to create a mosaic of pictures of people, trees and other natural “objects”, and views of infrastructure in the modern world in which we live. My wife describes the (carefully selected) assortment of images as a “mosaic of hopes, dreams, experiences, opportunities and disappointments”. It is life as seen through the lens of her camera.

As I left the church after worship this morning, leaves were floating down from the sky, blown over from a large tree in the churchyard. I love the variety of colours in the autumn: yellow, brown, red, green and all shades in between. As a song-writer, I find that autumn (or “fall” as my American friends would say) is as much a source of inspiration as spring. Here are a couple of verses from one of my songs:

In this dark world we rarely see
The beauty of the Earth,
The richly coloured tapestry
Surrounding us from birth.

In these dark times of fear and strife
We need the light to see
The beauty of each human life,
Of all humanity.

Both the natural world and the human race make up a richly coloured tapestry. The rich diversity of living creatures and of human beings is beautiful to behold in every Augenblick, in every present moment. Let us treasure this diversity, not only because it is beautiful, but also because it is essential to our survival on this planet.

Anyone who has any understanding of ecology knows that the more diverse an ecosystem is in terms of the variety of species (biodiversity), the more stable it is. The web of life contains threads of many colours. The greater the diversity, the more resilient the web is. A thread of one colour can be removed without weakening the web significantly. One species may be wiped out by disease, for example, but this does not cause the ecosystem to collapse. On the other hand, an ecological community which has only relatively few species is much more susceptible to collapse, e.g. if one of the species dies out for some reason. A web with threads of only a few different colours is seriously weakened when all the threads of one colour are removed.

Much the same applies to human communities. Multicultural communities in which people respond to change in a variety of ways are more resilient than monocultural communities. When change hits a community, when a harvest fails or a factory closes down, the more diverse the community is in terms of agriculture or industry, the better the community will be able to cope. The resilience of communities and societies in our modern world depends on cultural diversity. We need the wisdom, knowledge, skills and expertise of lots of different groups in order to tackle the complex problems which communities and nations now face in a globalised world.

At the global level, we need the unfettered wisdom, knowledge, skills and expertise of every community and group throughout the world in order to manage climate change. So we need to put our energy into building intercultural and international cooperation in all fields of life: scientific, technological, economic, social, and political.

Nine months have passed since I last posted on this blog. One of the reasons for this – apart from being busy with other things – is that I have been left speechless by the result of the referendum in the UK. The decision to leave the European Union has left me more sad than I can say and more angry than I like to admit. Outside the European Union, especially if there is a “hard Brexit”, the UK will become impoverished both economically and culturally.

What makes me angry is not only the result of the referendum, but also the degree of hostility towards “foreigners” which has become increasingly evident in recent months. I read in the Guardian yesterday about Germans living in the UK who now feel that they are unwelcome. Neighbours are asking when they are going to leave. If a significant number of these German people leave the UK, this will have a negative impact on the NHS, on universities, and on the companies in which they work. The UK will be poorer both economically and socially. And then what about the Poles, the Portuguese, the Romanians, the Latvians, the Greeks, the Italians, and the Spanish…? Are they all going to feel unwelcome and be encouraged to leave? Is our supposedly Christian nation then going to tell all Muslims and Jews to leave? Heaven forbid!

Thank God for the diversity of the natural world and the diversity of the human race.

Loving our Enemies

Have you tried loving your enemies? It isn’t easy. An enemy is someone who hates you, makes you suffer, hurts you callously.

My natural reaction to someone who’s hurting me is to fight back or to run away – fight or flight. And my natural reaction to someone who hates me is to hate them back.

I’m usually – not always – able to curb my tendency to fight back. I am, after all, a pacifist, supposedly committed to nonviolence. It becomes difficult to live with myself, when I hurt someone deliberately. I also believe that when I hurt someone deliberately I do more damage to my own soul than I do to them.

The alternative is to flee, to run away – or walk away, to leave the room, to leave the relationship. But that is invariably also a form of violence.

There is another alternative, another way: to stand one’s ground as lovingly as one possibly can. We can only truly do this, if we are grounded in love. Otherwise, standing one’s ground can easily become another way of fighting back. If we are to stand our ground lovingly, we must love our enemies.

And the first step towards loving an enemy, is to refuse to hate them – even when they hate us – or seem to. In response to hatred we choose to love. We choose to do what seems to be impossible: to love an enemy and to do good to someone who’s hurting us.

Jesus did this, and if we’re serious about following Jesus we should do this too. Never mind how difficult or even impossible it may seem.

Love comes with practice.

Jean Goss had to practise love in a prisoner of war camp near Lübeck during the Second World War. He had killed a great many German soldiers when he and his comrades were holding the German army back whilst allied soldiers were being evacuated from Dunkirk. After he had been fighting non-stop for five days and nights, in the early hours of Easter Day, Jean experienced an epiphany. He saw that all the soldiers, Germans as well as French, had been created by God and were loved by God, and that God just wanted all these human beings to love each other and to be happy. That night Jean learnt that his mission was to pass this message on to all the human beings who were fighting each other.

Soon after this exhilarating encounter with God, Jean – along with many others – was captured. He spent more than three years in the POW camp near Lübeck. There he tried to love not only his fellow prisoners of war but also the German officers who ran the camp. He asked his fellow prisoners to tell him, whenever they observed that he wasn’t being loving. His loving actions in difficult situations got him into serious trouble more than once. In a POW camp, serious trouble meant that you could easily be killed.

In one of these difficult situations, after some discussion with a Marxist fellow prisoner, Jean decided to go to the camp commandant and tell him that he would take the blame for what was going wrong. The commandant cried out, “No, not you! Go away! You can’t do that!” and chose to take the responsibility upon himself. He was taken away by military police two days later.

Seven or eight other prisoners joined Jean in what he was doing – asking others to challenge them, if they weren’t being loving in a certain situation. This transformed the camp to such an extent that prisoners from other camps asked what was going on. Jean’s reply was: “We try to love, as Christ has loved us.”

Just staying out of things and doing nothing to alleviate suffering or put an end to injustice is not loving. Intervention is necessary. Jean took the risk of intervening in a serious conflict and very nearly lost his life. He was beaten, tortured, and sentenced to death. When he was about to be executed, Jean told the camp commandant that he felt joy at the prospect of being united with the God of love, and that this God also loved the camp commandant. As he was speaking to the commandant, Jean was able to love him with all his strength and from the bottom of his heart. The officer clearly sensed this. He laid his revolver aside and refused to carry out the execution.

Many years later, in 1985, Jean wrote to his wife, Hildegard (Goss-Mayr), about this episode:

“You know, before that I had tried to love the Germans, the officers who were running the camp. But it wasn’t until I was being beaten and tortured that I really began to love them. That released within me an incredible, a most extraordinary love. And, look! It was at that moment that I understood that it isn’t me who loves. It is HE, Jesus Christ, who loves in me!

“If this love is so strong that it can convert even a Nazi, an enemy, then, I said to myself, it is the truly revolutionary power which can make people and the world new again.”

Footnote: Jean Goss’ experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war are recounted by Hildegard Goss-Mayr in her book, “Wie Feinde Freunde Werden: Mein Leben mit Jean Goss für Gewaltlosigkeit, Gerechtigkeit und Versöhnung”, published by Verlag Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau, in 1996.

Hadewijch

As we were leaving our flat this morning, my wife and I stopped to admire our marriage certificate which is hanging in a frame just inside the door to the apartment. We were married in a Quaker meeting, so we have a custom-designed marriage certificate which was signed by all those who were present and witnessed our marriage. The certificate was created by Hadewijch Touwen who, from time to time, had sent us cards which she had made herself with colourful collages.

We recently received the very sad news that Hadewijch had died from heart failure. Today we attended a memorial meeting in Deventer in the Netherlands. This was a moving occasion with more than 300 people present. The large room at the crematorium was not big enough to hold us all. Many of us were standing and others had to watch and listen to the worship via a video link in a neighbouring room.

Fortunately the speeches which had been prepared by members of her family and by one of the Dutch Quakers were translated into English. And, although I understood little of what was said during the unprogrammed worship, my wife told me about it afterwards.

One of the Quakers recounted a dream which they had had about Hadewijch. They saw Hadewijch being welcomed at the gates of Heaven. Although she was invited in, she stopped and asked whether she could go to Hell instead, because she would be able to do more to help people there.

Her son, Ide, told us: “Her care and compassion were apparent in everything she did and this is what I admire most in her.”

I first got to know Hadewijch when she was a “student helper” at Woodbrooke Quaker study centre in Selly Oak, Birmingham, during the autumn term of 1980 when I was a student following Woodbrooke courses. I have vague memories of her wielding a paintbrush or working in the kitchen.

Hadewijch spent a whole year at Woodbrooke and became a Quaker by convincement. A few years later she become the first clerk of Europe and Middle East Young Friends (EMEYF). For the first six months of 1987 I served as secretary to EMEYF, which included participating in the spring gathering in Copenhagen. That summer Hadewijch and I shared the experience of a week at Taizé together with a small group of young Quakers from around Europe.

A couple of years later I had the privilege of attending Hadewijch’s and Martin’s wedding in Hamburg, which was, of course, a most joyful occasion.

Somewhere I have a photograph of Hadewijch and Martin which I took when they visited me in Laufdorf (north of Frankfurt-am-Main) fairly soon after I moved there in 1990.

We kept in touch intermittently and I occasionally met Martin at various Quaker gatherings. In 2012 both Martin and I were amongst the participants in the Friends World Conference in Kenya. After the gathering I needed somewhere to stay on my way to Brussels and Martin arranged with Hadewijch for me to stay at their house. Hadewijch made me feel very much at home and allowed me to use a computer to prepare the presentation that I had to give in Brussels.

Some time last year my wife and I were able to enjoy Hadewijch’s (and Martin’s) hospitality once again. And they both attended our wedding in Lancaster.

Little did we know that a year later Hadewijch would no longer be with us. Hadewijch was a good friend to us both and we are grateful that we have the beautiful marriage certificate which she created. As her son, Ide, said, “She will forever live in our memories.”

In an article in this week’s issue of the Friend Terry Hobday writes: “It is in acts of loving kindness and respect that our true colours are really seen.” Light shone through Hadewijch’s life in all the colours of the rainbow.

Ide said: “When she heard about refugees in the Netherlands who could not acquire citizenship because they couldn’t master the language, she started helping them by teaching Dutch to her ‘taalmaatje’. When she heard of an elderly person who, in her younger years, loved to crochet and knit, she provided her with wool and needles. When she heard about prisoners in Iraq who had not received a fair trial, she sent many Amnesty letters to their government until they had.

“When Hadewijch spoke to you, you would always feel her compassion. In a conversation she would always listen attentively to your story and give you the feeling of being heard. This made it very nice to speak to her, not only for me but also, I believe, for everyone else. Nevertheless, Hadewijch did have clear opinions herself. These often differed from my own. For example, my parents and I have very different attitudes to faith and religion. I treasure the kind of mother that Hadewijch was, a mother who did not want to impose her beliefs upon me, but taught me to form and argue my own opinions. I have always been able to have good discussions with her about any kind of subject because we have always respected each other’s opinions and were open to changing our own.”

Hadewijch’s brother, Jeroen, described Hadewijch as a “strong, loving and very stable person”. He said: “There is a sudden emptiness at a spot where we expect someone who is always loving, attentive, friendly, open and interested.”

Jeroen said that Hadewijch felt “safe … in her faith in God”. “She did not believe in an almighty God who determined her fate, but trusted a God of love to take her by the hand and not let go.”

Mon ȃme se repose en paix sur dieu seul.

De lui vien mon salut.

Oui sur dieu seul mon ȃme se repose, se repose en paix.

(from the songs of Taizé)

Wilfried Warneck is my brother!

Early in 1990 I took over from Wilfried Warneck as executive secretary of Church and Peace, the European network of peace churches, communities and groups. For the previous 15 years Wilfried had built up what was the Historic Peace Churches Continuation Committee into a network of more than thirty peace churches, communities, and peace and service agencies such as Eirene (International Christian Service for Peace), and Quaker Peace & Service.

When I took over Wilfried’s post as executive secretary, he took on the role of chairman. This could have been a recipe for disaster. I remember that it took Wilfried several weeks to clear out of his office. But, rather than breathing down my neck, he was able to be helpful and supportive without succumbing to the temptation to engage in micromanagement.

Admittedly there were times when I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the ideas which he had, which were going to mean more work for me when I already had enough work to do. But we enjoyed a good working relationship which was characterised by mutual respect. It surely helped that we prayed and ate together in the Laurentiuskonvent on a daily basis during the working week.

Wilfried and his wife Ruth had established the Laufdorf group of the Laurentiuskonvent about ten years earlier together with Ernst von der Recke. When I arrived in Laufdorf I was keen to join in daily worship and shared meals, although it wasn’t until Wilfried and Ruth left Laufdorf three or four years later that I became a member of the group and eventually joined the Laurentiuskonvent.

Daily worship in the chapel under the roof of the communal house of the Laurentiuskonvent provided the spiritual basis for my work for Church and Peace. Wilfried (and Marie-Noëlle von der Recke) provided the theological basis. I learnt about exegesis and hermeneutics. (I still need to remind myself what the latter means, though!) Wilfried’s sermons at Church and Peace conferences and on other occasions were informative and inspiring. Translating them for the Church and Peace newsletter wasn’t always easy, because of the complex German sentence construction, but it was always rewarding. Wilfried gave me a grounding in the theological basis of the peace church message (i.e. the Gospel of nonviolence), which we, especially Quakers, neglect at our peril.

As I write (on a train to Cologne), it occurs to me that my first visit to Bonn (or perhaps it was the second) was together with Wilfried and Ruth to protest against the first Iraq war. This was before, or soon after, the reunification of Germany, so Bonn was still the capital. It may have been on that occasion that Wilfried took me to the Malteserhof in Königswinter, just across the river (Rhine) from Bonn, where there was a community of the Laurentiuskonvent during the 1960s and 70s. Wilfried and Ruth, who were both founding members of the Laurentiuskonvent, lived there until they moved to Laufdorf in 1977.

After fleeing from East Prussia towards the end of the Second World War, Wilfried passed his Abitur in 1949. He studied Protestant theology in Bethel and Heidelberg and subsequently spent three years with the Brothers of Taizé – in Taizé and in Marseille. One thing that I very much appreciated about Wilfried was his ecumenical orientation, which meant that he was welcomed and respected not only within the Protestant church in Germany, but also in Mennonite congregations, Catholic religious communities, and in radical protestant communities, such as the Basisgemeinde Wulfshagenerhütten. He even embraced an English Quaker as his successor at the helm of Church and Peace!

I had served for about three years as executive secretary of Church and Peace when Wilfried stepped down as chairman. At his last General Assembly as chairman – I forget where it was – we held a small farewell party for him. I remember making a speech in which I asked – and explored various possible answers to – the question, “Who is Wilfried Warneck?” I finally came to the conclusion: “Wilfried Warneck is my brother.”

I didn’t attempt to count, but I should think there were more than a hundred of us who gathered in Wethen in north Hesse for Wilfried’s funeral. Besides all the members and friends of the Laurentiuskonvent in Wethen there was a good number of people from further afield, from Wulfshagenerhütten (near Kiel) in the north of Germany to Bammental (east of Heidelberg) in the south.

From Laufdorf there was Ernst and Marie-Noëlle von der Recke, Theodor von Verschuer, Davorka Lovrekovic, the current general secretary of Church and Peace, and, much to my delight, Ernst and Marie-Noëlle’s oldest daughter, Josepha, with her dark-haired and blue-eyed six-month-old baby, Johanna. From the Hamburg group of the Laurentiuskonvent there was Antje and Martin Heider-Rottwilm. Antje is the current chairperson of Church and Peace.

It was good to see a number of old friends from my time as executive secretary: two members of the Basisgemeinde Wulfshagenerhütten, who served at different times on the administrative committee; and several Mennonites, including Wolfgang Krauß, who was secretary of the German Mennonite Peace Committee, and Brigitte Albrecht, who served for a while as a volunteer in the Church and Peace office during Wilfried’s tenure.

Then there was Ulrich Frey, who was executive secretary of Aktionsgemeinschaft Dienst für den Frieden (AGDF, Action Committee Service for Peace), another of the organisations which Wilfried founded, along with Weltfriedensdienst, Eirene, the Laurentiuskonvent, and Oekumenischer Dienst/Schalomdiakonat – now “gewaltfrei handeln” (“acting without violence”).

Wilfried was a practical visionary. He not only had a vision of what a new organisation could do. He was able to win support for his vision and turn it into reality. This was all in the days of communication by post and telephone – no e-mail, no mobile phones, no Skype… Wilfried worked long hours by all accounts and was often away travelling, sometimes together with his wife, Ruth.

After the funeral, tea and cake were provided by the Laurentiuskonvent and the Oekumenische Gemeinschaft (Ecumenical Community) in Wethen. Quite a number of us took a turn to speak about Wilfried. Ruth reminded us that he was human. I remembered the observation that I made about twenty years ago: Wilfried Warneck is my brother.

Quakers: ego-driven or Spirit-led?

A couple of weeks ago I went along to the Sunday morning “parish eucharist” at the Anglican church where my brother is the church warden. The eucharist nourished me spiritually, as I hoped it might. The homily did not.

The main point that the visiting priest made, without any real theological justification, so far as I could tell, was that a church has to have a hierarchical structure to ensure unity and prevent corruption. Quite how a hierarchical structure would prevent corruption within the church was not clear to me. Indeed, I’m inclined to think that hierarchical structures are more prone to corruption than non-hierarchical ones.

Anyway, I’m thankful that I belong to a church which does not have a hierarchy of clergy. We (Quakers) find unity not in our beliefs, which are multifarious, but in our practice – of listening to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts and being led by the Spirit as individuals and as worshipping communities. At least, this is the ideal to which we aspire.

We don’t always get it right, of course. Too often we are ego-driven rather than Spirit-led. Quaker Meetings and Quaker organisations then become battlegrounds, instead of peaceable and peace-making communities. We each push our own priorities and insist on things being done as we think fit. We can end up tearing each other and the meeting or organisation apart.

This is a long way away from discerning ways forward which are in harmony with the loving purposes of God. We each need to recognise that we may be mistaken in our perceptions or in our analysis. And we each need to submit ourselves to the discernment process of the Meeting as a whole.

This applies especially to the clerk of a Meeting or a committee. The clerk serves as a facilitator, not as a leader or a decision-maker. Decisions need to be arrived at by the Meeting or committee as a whole, through a discernment process involving all those concerned. Our egos need to be set aside. If a clerk cannot set his or her ego aside when a particular issue is under discussion, he/she needs to step aside from the role of clerk during that particular discussion. Serving as the clerk of a Meeting or a committee requires a considerable degree of spiritual maturity.

Local, area, regional, and yearly Quaker Meetings are, ideally, non-hierarchical churches. Quaker organisations, on the other hand, and this may include the administration of a yearly meeting, are necessarily hierarchical, when it comes to day-to-day operations. It just doesn’t work to have day-to-day decisions about the operation of an organisation made either by individuals according to their own whims or by a committee meeting for worship. Whilst overall strategy needs to be discerned by governing bodies according to Quaker practice, the day-to-day management and administrative decision-making needs to be left to an individual who has both an overview and detailed knowledge of the workings of the organisation.

The role of a governing body is not only to discern a broad strategy for the organisation but also to ensure that the head of the organisation has the support that he or she needs to perform the complex task of leading (giving administrative direction to) the organisation. The role of members of a governing body is one of facilitation rather than leadership.

I have found it especially helpful to read Roger C. Wilson’s 1949 Swarthmore Lecture, Authority, Leadership and Concern, in which he draws on his experience in the Friends Relief Service. One paragraph is particularly instructive:

A distinction must be made between moral and administrative responsibility. To determine what shall be done and the quality of spirit in which ends shall be pursued, is a moral responsibility; to determine how that shall be done and to see that it is done, is an administrative responsibility within the moral framework. Moral responsibility is found by Friends through “the sense of the Meeting”. Administrative responsibility in complex matters is taken by individuals given the task of translating the “sense of the Meeting” into action, being guided all along by the moral obligation to remain true to the “sense of the Meeting”.

Within a Quaker organisation we all share moral responsibility. A few individual Friends take on administrative responsibility. They deserve our respect and need our support.