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Quakers in Australia

NSW Regional Meeting - Reflections On the Australian Quaker Centre (I Hughes)

An alternative to an Australian Quaker Centre
Ian Hughes 25 April 2010

Although I have been unable to go to Silver Wattle for health reasons, I am glad to hear from written and first-hand reports that the AQC Program has been, on the whole, successful. The experience confirms the value of residential courses and retreats. Participation confirms a hunger for learning and spiritual growth among Australian Quakers.

In their December 2009 ‘epistle’ the Working Group pointed to ‘an urgent need to strengthen the spiritual grounding and faith of Australian Quakers, not only to grow us spiritually and to know who we are in much deeper terms than we are presently able to articulate to others, but also to prepare us for the public witness that will be needed in the years ahead.’ I note that plans have been drawn up to the end of 2012 with a view to establishing a permanent AQC. This frightens me.

I am not aware of evidence to support the assertion of ‘an urgent need to strengthen the spiritual grounding and faith of Australian Quakers’ (my italics). I have not seen evidence that our spiritual grounding weaker or in need more urgent action than at other times. Perhaps I meet different Quakers than do members of the AQC Working Group, but I am impressed by the depth of spirituality among Quakers and its translation into action informed by our Testimonies. I have direct experience of two other Christian denominations, and in comparison I have no hesitation in witnessing to the spiritual depth of Quakers. Action to strengthen spirituality should not be taken with a sense of urgency, but as the Spirit leads.

 I do not question the sincerity or integrity of the AQC Working Group, or the value of improving our opportunities to learn and grow, but I view the prospect of a program to enable us ‘to know who we are in much deeper terms than we are presently able to articulate to others’ with trepidation. I rejoice that when we are asked ‘What do Quakers believe?’  Australian Quakers frequently find it difficult to answer. Quaker faith is mystical rather than doctrinal. Our awareness of our ignorance may be a measure of our openness to the inner light. Unlike many religious communities, Australian Quakers have no creed, no doctrine and we express our spirituality in a variety of ways. This pluralism of belief does not prevent us from uniting in worship and action. I believe that our diversity of belief sets an example of compassion, tolerance and love to faith communities and other organisations in a pluralist and increasingly diverse society.

 This internal diversity grew without a centre of learning. This distributed network of autonomous local meetings is adaptive and well suited to the emerging needs in the 21st Century. I am afraid that establishing an Australian Quaker Centre led by a few eminent Friends in a single location may to lead to the emergence of an Australian ‘school’ of Quakerism with its own orthodoxy which can be articulated to others in an agreed terminology. Such an articulation of the faith of Australian Quakers might come dangerously close to a statement of what Quakers believe, that is, a creed. I am not suggesting that the AQC Working Group aims to do this in an explicit and deliberate way, but that the changes in structure and process associated with establishing an Australian Quaker Centre may tend to move us towards this direction.


In their December 2009 ‘epistle’ the AQC Working Group state that ‘One aim of the AQC residential programs is to bring through Australian Quaker teachers and facilitators who can then travel in the ministry within Australia. The AQC might then be able to hold a series of AQC-on-the-road courses, moving around Australia.’ This conjures in my mind an image of a centre providing an agreed model for Australian Quaker teaching propagated by approved teachers. I do accept that we should train some Quakers to be teachers ministering while others are learners. As Quakers we are all learners seeking the light, and because there is that of God in all, we are all teachers. I fear that over time, centralised teaching will tend to reduce the diversity of Australian Quaker faith and practice. In my opinion, this may in time produce systemic change which could change the culture and spirituality of The Religious Society of Friends in Australia by centralising Quaker teachings. Indeed, change towards this direction seems to be the aim.

 The topic of the Backhouse Lecture at our first Yearly Meeting as The Religious Society of Friends in Australia was ‘The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism’. Evolutionary change does not start at the centre. A new and more successful adaptation can start anywhere. Unlike biological adaptation, cultural change does not spread down through lineages, but across communication networks, like a virus. Cultural centres and lineages tend to be conservative, while networks of autonomous actors are creative. This creativity is a dimension of Australian Quaker spirituality.

 It is widely accepted in management, educational, political and other circles that a successful organisation needs a shared vision and a shared set of meanings to guide effective action. In religious communities these shared meanings are expressed in creeds, catechisms and documents which guide the faithful. I think Quakerism is radically different to this conventional wisdom. Our evolutionary potential lies in our autonomous local meetings and our diversity which promotes creativity and adaptability.

 I support action to improve the quality and range of Quaker learning, but am convinced that the model of a centre of learning is deeply flawed. We are a Religious Society of Friends, not a Church. I think we want to share our spiritual journey and grow with our friends. I think we want a learning culture more than a teaching culture. I believe we need an Australian Quaker Learning Network, not a centre. My vision of a facilitated network of autonomous local and regional meetings, learning opportunities and other activities tends to promote diversity and creativity rather than agreement and conformity. A concept map for such a network is attached. This is not a proposal or formal model, but an initial idea to illustrate a concept.

 I imagine that a group of Quakers might facilitate a network for communication and facilitation (represented by the star in the diagram below). This would not be a group of teachers, but would facilitate communication and access to resources, mainly on-line. The central task of this group would be to facilitate communication around a broad range of Quaker Learning activities. Existing Yearly Meeting, Regional Meeting and Local Meeting arrangements for a range of Quaker learning activities might continue largely unchanged. They would communicate their work, interests, skills, resources and needs through the network, which would assist access to resources, skills and information. I hope this could develop into an active community of interest across Australia, with useful links to other Australian and overseas organisations. Most of this work would be on-line.

 A possibility which might be considered is each Regional Meeting taking responsibility for one Australia-wide Quaker Learning project. Examples may be building on-line access to Australian Quaker libraries and other Quaker study resources; support for Quakers enrolled in Australian Qualifications Framework courses, especially those relevant to Quaker faith and practice (such as peace studies, pastoral care, environmental studies etc.); assisting in the organisation of residential or weekend courses travelling around the country; facilitating support for Quaker research including on-line networking and access to resources such as the Australian Quaker Biography, back issues of Australian Friend etc; facilitating an on-line Quaker Basics course each year. Each of these projects is likely to be within the capability of a Regional Meeting, and taken together, they would significantly enhance our organisational and individual learning capacity, and benefit all Regional Meetings. The aim might be to offer support for a diversity of Quaker learning, not limited by place, approach to learning, method of delivery or content.  Formal responsibility for participation in a Quaker learning Network may lie with Committees for ministry and Care, or equivalents in Local and Regional Meetings. At this point I don’t express an opinion on how it may fit into Yearly Meeting structure and I have not considered the role of Quaker Learning Australia or other Yearly Meeting Committees.

 This networking and coordination would require commitment of human and material resources, including enhanced use of the Internet. It would be more cost-effective, make use of a wider range of skills and capabilities, and have greater potential than the proposed Australian Quaker Centre.

 Concept diagram of Quaker Learning Network


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