By Joseph Nelson, final year undergraduate in Theology and Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity University. This was submitted originally as an assignment for the module “Religions in Leeds and Bradford”.
The Quakers in Leeds website suggests that you should not expect an easy definition of Quakerism (2018, NP). The website says that ‘Quakers seek religious truth in inner experience and everyday life, rather than authority, ritual and ceremony’ (Quakers in Leeds, 2018, NP). A key issue that was striking during this site visit was the insider-outsider dichotomy in Quakerism. The lack of specificity in Quaker belief is likewise a consideration that is important when doing fieldwork today. This tension is also apparent in the article by Peter Collins and the blog post by Rachel Muers. This portfolio will consider the unspoken, yet felt, insider-outsider distinction within Quakerism and the effect this has on fieldwork.
During any fieldtrip ‘students come as “outsiders”’ (Knott, 2010, p243) to a religious group. In many religious traditions the distinction between those who are insiders, or part of the group, and those who are outsider, not part of the group, is a pronounced and obvious distinction. It could be argued that this is not so with Quakerism. As observed in our site visit, the meeting starts when people enter the room for worship. There is no liturgy or preaching just a still silence that appears to almost envelop all those present with no clear distinction in any way between those who belong to the group and those who are just visiting. As a result of Quaker meetings being ‘open to everyone’ (Quakers today leaflet, ND, NP) and there being very little regulation there is no definite insider- outsider distinction as there are in other places. This was made clear by one of the elders who suggested that she doesn’t believe that there will be membership to Quakerism in the future as there is today thus further blurring the insider/outsider distinction in this case.
Collins points out that what it actually means to be a Quaker isn’t clear (2009, p205). He argues that ‘in order to understand Quakerism it is necessary to understand Quaker faith and practice’ (Collins, 2009, p205). In other words the central aspect of faith for a Quaker, according to Collins, is a deeply personal experience and is essentially about the individual rather than collective faith. Likewise Muers even questions if there is an outside to Quaker worship/practice and that to be an insider is to experience something during time worship (Muers, 2012, NP). These two articles demonstrate how complex the question of the insider/outsider can be when discussing Quakerism. A key theme that was apparent in both articles, in the site visit and in the booklet we were given for the visit- advices and queries- was that Quakerism is more about practice then it is about faith. For example ‘Advices and Queries’ says that what Quakers commit to is ‘a way of worship’ (2010, p3) but that the ‘deeper realities of our faith are beyond… verbal formulation’ (2010, p3). On the site visit one of the elders even spoke of how she is an Atheist but is still a Quaker. This further confuses the insider/ outsider distinction further yet also places the emphasis once again upon practice.
Collins concludes that shared stories make the Quaker identity (2009, p217). Once again, this is echoed during the site visit, ‘it is about experience’ and ‘we have no dogma or creed but we have testimonies.’ This could be the distinguishing marker between the insider and the outsider. Muers suggests that there is no real obvious distinction between someone who is observing and someone who is participating in Quaker worship (2012, NP). Thus it could be suggested that every participant is an observer (Knott, 2010, p250) and every observer is a participant (Knott, 2010, p252). This unique situation presents unique issues that need to be considered when one visits a Quaker meeting. Can an observer truly maintain objectivity in Quaker worship? Or Quaker worship itself is so very individualized that anyone who partakes by default become subjectively involved in the experience (Knot, 2010, p25).
There are many considerations that need to be reflected upon when visiting a Quaker meeting. However, the question of Quaker identity is one that will come up time and again, particularly when discussing the insider/outsider divide. However, as much as questions of identity are beyond this piece, individual experience and stories (Collins, 2009, p217) are key to understanding each individual Quaker and any serious study of Quakerism needs to dwell on the consideration of the place of stories in these groups.
Collins, P. (2009). ‘The Problem of Quaker Identity’. Quaker Studies 13(2). Pp 205-219.
Knott, K. (2010). Insider/Outsider Perspectives. The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. 2nd Edition. Ed: Hinnells, J, R. Routledge Publishers. Abingdon, UK.
Muers, R. (2012). ‘What I’m really thinking: The Subject of Fieldwork’, Knowing Experimentally: Rachel Muers’ Blog. Accessed at: https://rachelmuers.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/what-im-really-thinking-the-subject-of-fieldwork-an-open-letter/ (Accessed 19 Feb 2019)
Quakers in Leeds (2018). Quakers in Leeds Website. Accessed at: http://www.leedsquakers.org.uk/home-page/home (Accessed on 19 Feb 2019).
Quakers Today Leaflet (ND). Quakers: Quaker life outreach. www.quker.org.uk
Quakers (2010). Advices and Queries. The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 1995, 1997 and 2008. London, UK.
 Elder at the Quaker Meeting House that we visited.